Special for The Armenian Weekly
I met a cowboy recently. A rodeo cowboy. He’s a small-town North Dakotan boy who lived in Los Angeles for years and then repatriated to our home state some years ago. Anyone reading this column space knows how hard repatriation is—whether you’re from L.A. or Lebanon—so you can imagine my appreciation for his journey.
He’s articulate in a way that’s different from most people I meet. He doesn’t fall into the typical speech patterns of, well, anyone I’ve ever met. He uses metaphors only a rodeo cowboy would use. That every experience in life is as different as every bronco you ride, and you learn as you go. That people are like wine: They take on the environment they come from. That when you’re beyond a problem, you can describe it from the top of the mountain looking into the valley—or from a butte, a more fitting landscape for a cowboy—but you no longer need to drag it back up with you.
Sometimes I listen to him and wonder if I’ve dropped some kind of country acid or suffered a rodeo concussion, as he has some 10 times in his life. I mean, I don’t ride broncos, but I once had a pony named Little Joe who wouldn’t have bucked off a fly. I drink foreign wine to a fault, but I know that the Dakota soil where my ancestors are buried is somehow part of my being. And walking up mountains for no reason has never appealed to me, so I rarely view the world from that height unless I’m in an airplane.
How is it that the rodeo cowboy ended up in Los Angeles? I have no more answer for that than I have for how I ended up in Armenia for years. Both places are densely populated with Armenians, yet somehow my acculturation to Armenian village and city life in dresses and heels seems to me much easier than his acculturation to L.A. in a cowboy hat and boots.
When I meet people, I look for ways to connect our experiences. So when I met a rodeo cowboy who used to wrestle steers—yes, that’s a thing—I couldn’t help but think of a steer story. A girl doesn’t have many steer stories, but I’ve got one and no one can take it away from me.
I was about 13 years old, I think. Something had gone awry during the castration of about 15 bulls that week. That may be awkward for males to read, but it’s a fact of life for those who raise beef cattle. That phrase—beef cattle—may seem strange, too, since Armenians don’t generally differentiate between milk cattle and beef cattle as we do in the Midwest, but that’s how it is. On the whole, we raise cows for either milk or meat, not both.
The bulls, now steers thanks to a visit from an area veterinarian, were not faring well. They were bloating for no apparent reason and struggling to stay on all fours. Some laid down in the dirt of the corral, exhausted from the discomfort, I imagine, and exactly what I would have done in their stead.
My parents went to attend a funeral in another part of the state. Dad asked me to go out to the corral three times that day to walk the steers around. I accepted the responsibility, which in my mind was to keep them all alive until my parents’ return.
I didn’t know then that there were things I would have zero control over, that sometimes the world is just shitty (bullshit pun intended). So when I went out to walk the steers and found several of them lying on the ground, I was committed to getting them up. That was my responsibility, after all—to keep the steers walking and alive.
It was mayhem almost immediately. I had walked the short distance from the house to the corral, only to find that they were bloated to the point of hopelessness. I used my firmest voice to walk those still upright around the corral, somehow under the impression that walking would alleviate their tender situation.
The others, though, were another matter. I remember only one who lay in a corner of the corral, eyes rolled back in its head, tongue hanging into the dry, brown dirt. I tried prying him up with a 2×4 plank to no avail. I tried pouring water into his mouth, but he couldn’t drink. Tears streamed down my face because I could not save this living being from dying on my watch.
Some eight steers died that day.
Dad didn’t file a lawsuit against the veterinarian responsible for the losses. Neither my family nor North Dakota has a litigious culture.
My friend Melanie, author of the book Prairie Silence: A Memoir, would agree: Our dads have different narratives on the experience of a farmer’s daughter. One is that of a girl protected from the harshness of the land and life. The other is that of a girl altogether aware of the fragility of it all, from one day to the next.
I had no idea what eight steers meant in terms of protein converted into energy, but I had some idea of what it meant in terms of meat converted into tuition dollars.
My dismay was not, of course, the result of a lesser balance in the Certificate of Deposit account my parents had opened in my name, but of loss in general.
It was a traumatic day in my youth, but the rodeo cowboy might tell me that I am who I am in part because of the day in the corral, that my view is clearer from the top. He might tell me that we can work as hard as possible—in fact, that we must—but that loss is inevitable, and that to accept it graciously is the most dignified response.
And I would have to agree. For as many figurative broncos have bucked me off in life, at least as many have carried me to a new place of understanding and being.
And that’s not bullshit.