One evening, not long after my wife and I had returned to the United States from Ecuador, we were having dinner with some old friends who live in the mountains behind Santa Cruz, and my wife was describing the petrifying experience of walking into an American supermarket for the first time in three years. What was by then old hat to every housewife from Maine to California was pretty staggering to a recent arrival, even one who had kept abreast of Nixonomics through Time magazine and Armed Forces radio. The startling fact that no one could afford to buy anything on the supermarket shelf was compounded in my wife's mind by the incredible abundance of things being offered, so that she found herself in the confusing situation of not being able to make up her mind among all of the items that she was not going to be able to buy anyway. I suppose this is called culture shock.
For my part, I was lamenting a number of changes in the life and life-style that I have associated with Santa Cruz, California, since I first began to frequent its beaches back in the early 1950s. It has always been a place for me where simple pleasures and inexpensive living were available to anyone who wanted them. Three years ago the downtown section was a nice, funky, run-down collection of crummy shops owned by Portuguese and Italians who had been around forever. Now it is all gussied up with a mall, and redwood benches that are too low for the old people to sit on, and a mini Ghiradelli Square where you can buy embroidered blouses from Guatemala or French cookware or creative playthings of one kind and another, and where you can walk around in a funny hat with all the other freaks in funny hats and hope that someone notices.
"What ever happened to the United Cigar Store?" I asked Eamon Barrett, my host. "Where are our institutions? What happened to the fun club? What became of living off the land? Why has all the style gone out of our lives?"
"No meat," grunted Eamon. "Man not live by bread alone. No meat, no style. Mysterious forces at work." Eamon is an Irish Indian.
At this moment his wife produced from the oven a roast beef so large and succulent that I began to fidget. Meat was certainly one of the institutions that had died during my absence in South America. Half the people I knew in town had become vegetarians or, at best, Beef Plus casserolarians. "Have no illusions about my affluence," Eamon told me as we sat down to his roast. "This meat is homegrown."
"You grew it?" I said.
"Living off the land," he answered.
"Seriously! You raised a steer?'
"You, too, can raise a steer." Eamon twinkles when he talks. You are never quite sure when he is putting you on.
"Tell me how, man," I said. "Quickly. Spare me the details."
"All you do," he replied, "is you go to the auction in Salinas on a Saturday, you buy yourself a calf for around forty or fifty dollars, bring him back and put him on my pasture until he weighs about a thousand pounds, and you eat him."
"How much land do you have?" I asked.
"It would take us two years to eat a whole cow," my wife said. She could see what was coming.
"I'll go halves with you," Eamon offered. "Or you get a couple guys and we'll buy two calves and split the work four ways."
"Just a little fence-mending."
"Fantastic," I said. "The cattle business. Saddle tramps and riding the range and, all that. Singing songs around the campfire with your buddies. Bringing back the style. Living off the land."
"There's nothing to it," Eamon said.
And that is how it all began. I told Jim Houston and Jim told Forrest Robinson. We had a little meeting, and drank a lot of bourbon, and formed the As Is Cattlemen's Association of Santa Cruz County. Two middle-aged writers, a professor of Renaissance Literature, and an Irish mathematician with thirty-eight acres in. his backyard. We were not completely foolish and irresponsible. We did set ourselves a limit. Thirty bucks apiece, or sixty for a cow. "That's my top dollar," Houston said. "How do you think we can do for sixty dollars, Eamon?"
"We go Saturday," Eamon said. "For sixty bucks we buy herd of buffalo."
That is how it all begins.
E amon's truck is a disgraceful old wreck. The horn doesn't work and the taillights are out; So are the brakes. It's mostly rust and wire, and one fender flaps like a broken wing, but fortunately on Saturday morning the fog is so thick all the way from the coast to the Salinas valley that we don't have to worry about the highway patrol. A good thing too. Once I got a speeding ticket on the way hone from gathering mussels up near Davenport, and the fine ran the price of dinner that night to about five bucks a mussel. You can't live very well off the land, or sea, that way.
About nine o'clock we pull. into the auction grounds and coast to a stop, peer through the mist at the parking lot and the holding pens, both empty and without a sign of life, peer at Eamon, our resident expert, peer at each other. Eamon climbs out of the pickup and shrugs. "Maybe the auction's Sundays," he says.
"We thought you'd been here before," we say.
"On what day were you here before?" we ask.
"I think it was Saturday." He goes into his twinkle routine. "Hey, I remember a coffee shop around the side of that barn. I think. We get some eats, maybe?"
There is, in fact, a coffee shop. And there is, in fact, an auction, only it starts at noon. Eamon reminds us that he did not specify a time, and that, in any case, a self-respecting ranch hand gets up at the crack of dawn. So we should be pleased with ourselves and kindly get the hell off his back. There is no alternative, and we settle down to a glazed doughnut and a cup of coffee.
Cattle trucks start to roll in and unload sometime around ten, and the four of us mosey over to the pens, where a crowd of authentic-looking farmers has gathered to look over today's bill of fare. You really have to see this scene to believe it. Here we are all dressed up in our cowboy hats and boots, talking out of the sides of our mouths and standing around with our thumbs hooked in our Levi pockets, and our thighs sort of thrust forward and out, like we're not too familiar with this thing called walking. I mean, we really look pretty good. In fact, I look a lot like Clint Eastwood. We look as if we know what's happening, as if we do this kind of thing all the time—buying cows, selling cows; we're cattlemen, right? and we're ust out here hanging around the chutes swapping lies before the big action starts inside and we get down to the squint-eyed business of heavy-duty dealing. Houston makes a pretty passable Lee Van Cleef, does he not? Eamon looks like Man Mountain Dean. Robinson . . . well, Robinson has on these, ah . . . tennis shoes. White tennis shoes, with blue stripes down the sides. The rest of us keep moving away.
We're feeling a bit foolish anyway, standing there in our Charlie Tweedle Stetsons and our $24.95 Acme boots with the stitching on the toes and the red, white, and blue plastic eagle inlaid up the side. We don't know one cow from another, and by now it is clear that our leader doesn't either. True, he's done this once before, but obviously on dumb luck. I hear a lot of talk going on around us about drop calves, weaners, Holsteins, Herefords, and heifers, Angus and white face, Angus crosses. One fellow points to a group of four calves and says, "Them's gonna make it." His companion nods emphatically and points to another group near by. "Them sure ain't." I look from the one bunch to the other about fifteen times, but for the life of me I cannot see the slightest difference between them.
After a while I give up on the calves and sneak over by a chute where some large, very fat steers are being unloaded and prodded down an alley into pens. A cowboy standing next to me watches them go by, then shakes his' head and says, more or less in my direction, "Sheetisakes. Looka' that." For a moment I think he's referring to me, something so obvious that no reply is expected. He hooks a toe between the rails of the fence and contemplates the disgraceful arrivals. "Must of kep' 'em dry three, four days," he says.
I nod. "Must of."
"Some asshoe buys one a them's gonna get sixty pounds a water along with his beef."
"For sure," I tell him. I haven't the slightest idea what this conversation is all about, but I keep my cover intact. Right now I'm just worried about how to tell a Holstein from a Hereford-Angus cross, since they're both black and white, have four legs and a tail, and go moo.
"What difference does it make?" Robinson asks.
"One is for eating and one is for milking," I tell him. I know that much, at least.
Robinson chews the skin on his lip while he thinks that one over. "Aha. I see." Different cow, different function. Another complication.
Eamon, who has been wandering around inside the auction barn and apparently asking questions, comes trotting over with a look of confidence on his face and informs us that things are once again under control. "Here's the deal," he says. "What we're after is an Angus or a Hereford or an Angus-Hereford cross. A bull calf. Don't go bidding on heifers. Now, we don't want anything under three hundred pounds because that way we're pretty sure that whatever we buy isn't going to up and die on us, and we want to hang back on the bidding because all the amateurs get a wild hair the first eight or ten calves that come out, and after that things simmer down a bit. There's nothing to it."
"Oh, yeah? Well, tell me this, Mr. County Extension Agent, these bulls and heifers . . . how do you tell them apart?" The poser of this question shall remain anonymous.
The other members of the As Is Cattlemen's Association, however, are convulsed. "Haw haw haw. Har har harrrrrrr. Well you simple ass, one has teats and one has testicles."
"Is that so? The reason I asked is that I'm standing here looking over about two dozen calves, and as far as I can see none of them has either of the items you mention."
Pause and silence. He. appears to be right.
A uction time is getting closer, and unless we are willing to go home skunked, we're going to have to get some answers fast. Eamon Barrett's ten-year-old son, Aaron, whom I haven't mentioned before because I didn't think he'd come in handy, suddenly strikes my imagination as a possible solution to a lot of problems. There is nothing shameful about a small boy asking questions of his elders, especially if we move off to the side and explain that he doesn't belong to us. No sir, he's none of our business, the dumb kid, running around asking people how you tell the ladies from the gents. "Lookit, Aaron," I say, "you see that guy over there that looks like Marshall Dillon? I want you to go over there and ask him . . ."
"OK," Aaron says, and trots off. Robinson and I light up a Marlboro.
In ten minutes he's back. "Holstein heifers are going around fifty-eight to sixty-five; bulls around fifty-two. Guernseys about the same. Hereford and Angus bulls from fifty-eight to sixty-eight, if they're under four hundred pounds. Heifers less. Drop calves by the head and ranging from thirty-seven to forty-five depending on . . ."
"Hold it, Aaron, HOLD IT. Thirty-seven to forty-five what? What are we talking about here? Dollars? Cents per pound? Gestation period?"
"How should I know?" Aaron says. "I'm just telling you what the guy told me."
"OK, never mind," I tell him. "Did you find out how to tell the males from the females?"
Aaron snorts. "When were you born?"
In the auction arena we take seats and sit quietly while the bidding begins on the goats. They are paraded out one by one and whipped into a frantic little dance by the auctioneer's assistants in the ring, two adolescent morons in undersized hats and oversized pimples who chew gum, smoke, and look bored. The effort is obviously a strain. They are repeatedly reminded by their puppeteer to get the animals out of the ring once they have been sold. It seems like a lot to remember.
Sometime between the sale of pigs and horsemeat, Jim leans over and regards me with a cold and clammy eye. "There has been a new dimension added to this caper," he says. "I've been doing a little figuring, and a four-hundred-pound calf times sixty cents a pound, assuming we can get one for that, comes to two hundred and forty dollars. Now, two hundred and forty dollars is somewhat in excess of our top figure . . . a hundred and eighty in excess, as a matter of fact, and I'm beginning to wonder about this whole setup. It's not exactly the giveaway you advertised."
"Well, let's hang in there," I whisper. "Let's see if we can get one at around two hundred pounds. That should be safe enough, and it would only be sixty bucks apiece."
Jim thinks this over for a few minutes. "OK," he says, "but sixty's my limit."
In addition to the previously mentioned items that we do not know about the cattle business, add the following. We have absolutely no conception of the size or age of a two-hundred-pound cow. When the goats and pigs and sheep have all been sold, when we finally get down to the main event, beef on the hoof, we discover to our horror that the smallest calf, still wobbling on its pins and wet from—birth?—weighs in at around one-fifty.
"We've got a problem," I murmur in Jim's ear.
"Yet another dimension," he says sadly. "If we're going to get anything old enough to be sure of its survival, we're going to have to go higher."
"What do you think?"
"Oh, man, I dunno. Maybe two-fifty?"
"I guess. That would be another fifteen bucks apiece."
We sit and watch while the drop calves are auctioned off, calculating in our heads, trying to remember the last figure in the checkbook, anticipating the howl that is going to go up at home when the truth comes out. Just about this time a fine-looking Hereford calf trots in weighing about two hundred and seventy pounds (weights are flashed on a scale behind the auctioneer), and Eamon says, "Hot damn, I'm gonna get that one." The bidding starts low and climbs grudgingly to around fifty-one cents a pound.
"Pretty cheap," I remark offhandedly to the guy on my right;
He flicks me a glance and says something that I translate at "Noah's snot."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Snot cheap for a heifer."
Eamon's bid of fifty-two has just been topped by a half when I lean over and Jab him in the ribs "Heifer," I croak.
"A lady. A milk cow. No nads."
Eamon's salvation, however, is briefly enjoyed. A few minutes later, thinking he is buying an Angus steer, he outbids the field on a Holstein bull, and comes in a winner at ten cents a pound higher than the going rate. But we don't find this out until after the auction, and so for the moment Eamon is happy.
Houston and I are cleverly hanging back, waiting for the right breed, gender, and weight. After about half an hour a good-looking calf comes out, strong and sleek, a healthy Black Angus with the filet mignon just hanging off it in chunks, and the auctioneer starts in his mile-a-minute patter. FiftyfivefivefivefivejiveFIVEwho'llgimmesixsixsixsixsixSIX I got six who'llmakeitsevensevenseven . . . I take a fast glance at the scale markings before they disappear, and am amazed to see that only two hundred and seventy-five pounds is registered. A little more than we agreed on during our fifth recalculation, but such a gorgeous piece of meat, and he seems a lot bigger . . . Jim and I nod to each other, and up goes my finger. Fifty-seven. Somebody makes it fifty-eight. I go to fifty-nine. The opposition says sixty, and at this point I begin to get cold feet. Pausing to think, I put my thumb in my nose and . . . oops, sixty and a half. It's enough, it turns out, to win us a cow.
Shaking hands, we pick up our tag and, head up the alley where you pay your money and get a pink slip that lets you take your animal home. It' a little more money than we'd agreed on, but what the hell. We're jubilant. We did it. We bought a freezer full of beef. I feel like Ernest Hemingway in that picture where he's standing there with his fishing pole and a shit-eating grin and a twelve-foot marlin hanging from the hoist. But then I notice that Jim, who has just taken the bill from the lady behind the counter, bas gone a little pale and is looking vaguely around him for a place to sit. His hat has slid down so that it's bending out the tops of his ears, and he has a bruised look around he eyes. He's developed a list to starboard. "What is it?" I say, and he hands me the bill. It appears I read the scales wrong. Our cow weighs four hundred and seventy-five big ones. $287.38.
We are no longer speaking. We slog out to the pickup, help push it around the parking lot until it starts, and follow it down to the loading chute. It's raining, of course, and my twenty-nine-dollar Charlie Tweedle cowboy hat is beginning to melt. Gone are the snappy phrases from the wild, wild West. Gone is the esprit de corps, the "atta pepper, hum it around the infield" spirit with which we began this miserable venture. Gone is my bank account. The kid who helps with the animals brings Eamon's Holstein, and it goes quietly enough into the truck. Our behemoth, however, wants no part of that broken-down Chevy. He is finally persuaded by an electric cattle prod to give it a try, but once he discovers he's trapped, he begins to bust everything in sight. He butts the rear window and cracks it, kicks a piece out of the side rail, jams his leg through a rotten board in the truck bed, and falls down. "You want to watch that sumbitch," the kid says. "Pretty feisty."
"What are you gonna call him?" Robinson wants to know.
Houston stares at him in disbelief. "Humbert Humbert," he says after a while.
"Tie his head down low," the kid says. "That way he can't climb out."
"Eamon's gonna call his Holstein As Is."
"You get him castrated," the kid says, "and he'll calm down."
The conclusions to be drawn from our day at the auction are so obvious that they hardly need examination. But the fact is, we could have done much worse than Humbert Humbert and As Is, and if we paid a few cents more a pound than we shoulda have, or made ourselves look a little silly, no serious damage was done. Come to think of it, we had fun. And we will each wind up with nearly three hundred pounds of meat for which we will have paid about a hundred and fifty dollars. That comes to around fifty cents a pound. Not bad. Nothing to it.
Except . . . ah, there are a few hidden expenses that should be mentioned. On the return trip to Santa Cruz, Eamon decides he'll ride in the back of the truck with the cattle, just in case Humbert decides to commit suicide on the Interstate and deprive us of the pleasure of nipping him in the bud. As it were. Castration is mild in comparison to the fantasies that lurk in the depths of our collective consciousness. We are traveling at thirty miles an hour along a ten-mile stretch of two-lane road that leads to the freeway, and although Robinson, who is driving, is unaware of it (there being no rear-view mirror), about 300 cars are stacked up behind us, and they are definitely being . . . impeded.
That's the word the highway patrolman uses when he pulls us over to the side and starts writing out the ticket. "Impeding traffic," he says, and launches into a boring recitation on the perils of poking. "You guys got cars stuck behind you all the way back to Monterey."
"Izzat so?" Robinson says.
"Yeah. And I'm the guy who picks up the pieces after people like, you—" The cop stops in mid-sentence and begins to look at the Chevy, like he's seeing it for the first time. "Say, what is this . . . vehicle?"
"Cattle truck," Robinson tells him.
"Cattle truck, huh. OK, wise guy, let's try the lights there and just make sure they work." Robinson pulls the switch. "Now hit the dimmers." Robinson hits the dimmers, and the cop pulls out his ticket book. "Horn?" Broken. "Side mirrors?" No glass. "Brake lights?" Out.
The inspection proves too much for Humbert, and he decides to climb up in the cab with the rest of us. There is a shower of glass as his head goes through the rear window, a wet muzzle smacks me in the ear, and there is a general competition to see who can bellow the loudest.
"This vehicle's got no back window," the patrolman says. "Gotta ticket you on that. You gotta have a window."
So when he is all finished, and gone off down the road in his 400-horsepower economy special, and we're sitting there in the wreckage, we total up the citations and figure out that the price of beef has just gone up 25 cents a pound.
In the cattle business it's the hidden expenses that kill you. You get nickeled and dimed to death. A bale of alfalfa here, a salt lick there, a roll of barbed wire to mend the fence where your cows tore it up, a box of bandages to mend the skin where the barbed wire tore it up, sacks of corn at $8.50 a hundredweight. You discover that in order to get good meat, you have to grain your animals, at least during the last three hundred pounds of gain. You discover that it takes eight pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, and if you're paying eight cents a pound for grain, you can just add sixty-four cents to the final per-pound cost of your hamburger. And then, of course, you have your medical expenses. These can vary tremendously, depending on the health and vigor of your cows and cowboys. Let me explain.
O n the Saturday after the auction, early in the morning, we meet at the As Is Cattle Ranch for what our jester, Forrest Robinson, keeps referring to as "the roundup." Time has mellowed us. We are no longer in a rage with Humbert Humbert; we just hate him with a dull frontal ache, and we are mildly hysterical at the prospect of his mutilation.
"Eamon, how big is that pasture?"
Eamon informs us again that it is thirty-eight acres. Our strategy is to drive the animals down into one corner, and then all we do is lay a rope over them.
"Have you done this before?"
"Lots of times."
"Man, I'm telling you," Robinson says, "if five men and two boys can't catch one lousy calf before it's time for the champagne brunch, then we ought to hang up our spurs and take to raising sheep.
"Everybody relax," Eamon assures us. "The whole thing is very simple. There's nothing to it"
Yes, patient reader, we have heard that line before. I am going to spare you the details of the chase, the forty man-hour/sixteen boy-hour chase, up and down the mountainsides of coastal California, over fences and under fences, through tangled brush and swollen creek, through the gumbo mud of hillside winter pastures, to fail and fail and fail once more. There is only one image worth recording. Picture a small, very black cow, a muddy white face, and two beady eyes that peer at you sullenly from behind a thicket of coyote brush. The eyes, the ears, the top of the head—nothing more really visible. A bovine Kilroy peeking over the barricade from a wary distance of fifty feet. Because that is as close as we ever got. Five men and two boys. A regiment of guile, cunning, and stealth. Humbert simply ran through us, away from us, over us, and around us. We never laid a glove on him. The little Holstein, As Is, gave up without a struggle. The vet did the job, and As Is was back grazing in the meadow before the sun was warm. But not Humbert. Humbert was not interested. All day long Humbert was not interested. Come on, Humbert. It's just a little vasectomy.
About five o'clock we straggle out of the canyon and back up to the house. The vet, who has come to see if we have had any luck, shakes his head. "Only way we're going to get him is with a sedative gun. Cost you seventeen dollars more, but would sure save you fellas a lot of wear and tear" What gives him the idea we're worn and torn? We always lie face down in the gravel at the end of a lazy day.
"It will have to be next weekend," the vet says. "I'll have to borrow the gun."
"We'll all be here," I tell him. "We don't care what it costs."
As it turned out, we weren't all there. I developed a cold from running around that day in the damp and drizzle, and by Thursday I was thinking of calling the vet to ask him to come by my house with his sedative gun. I called Robinson instead, to tell him I wouldn't be able to make it. His wife answered. "Forrest can't come to the phone," she said. "He has poison oak so bad he can't walk." She kind of giggled and added, "It's got him right where he lives. I think he's going to be sterile." Humbert's revenge.
Later that day I called Houston to see if he was going to witness the great event. "Listen man, I'm not going to be able to go out there Saturday. I've got poison oak like you wouldn't believe. My scalp, under my hair, between my toes, and worse even than that. I think I'm going to be sterile."
"You too," I tell him sadly.
"You better believe it," he says. "It's cost me twenty-five bucks already in cortisone shots. Add that to the soaring cost of homegrown meat."
But Humbert's real revenge comes on Saturday, with only Eamon there to testify. The vet makes his twenty-dollar house call. He brings his ten-dollar sedative and his seven-dollar sedative gun, and together they go down in the lower pasture where Hum is peacefully grazing. There is a little peekaboo-I-see-you maneuvering, with H. being careful to keep a clump of coyote brush between himself and this Eamon. What he doesn't notice is the vet sneaking up on him from behind, and before he knows what has happened this flanker has pulled out his piece and zapped him in the arse from a distance of about fifty feet. Eamon joins the vet, they wait for Humbert to keel over, which, after a suitable length of time, he does, and they rush upon his prostrate form. The vet prepares his equipment. A titter runs through the crowd. In the wings forty bands and a brace of cannon. The tension is eye-popping as Eamon slowly lifts Humbert's tail. The high priest, his knife glittering, sinks to his knees.
The vet turns and looks at Eamon. "This here critter's been cut already."
The ending? Well, there isn't any, and there won't be for about a year and a half. But for those Safeway-haters who are going into the cattle business, we offer the following statistics.
Cost of cow
Estimated cost of feed for cow
Cost of veterinary service for cow
Cost of medical service for cowboys
Estimated cost of slaughtering and butchering
Fines, penalties, and vehicle repairs
Total number of man hours (250): Cost estimated at minimum wage
It works out to only about $4.00 a pound for meat, and you get a story to tell, you cure your supermarket schizophrenia and save on a shrink's fee, and you gets lots of exercise. Really, living off the land is easy. There's nothing to it at all.