Thursday, November 5, 2015
A VISIT TO THE LIVESTOCK AUCTION
I drove past the Orland Auction Yards the other day. The place looked the same as it did fifty-five years ago when, as a goofy, freckled eight-year-old, I, with the family, dropped in to watch the proceedings. We’d recently moved from the suburbs of a smoggy LA basin to a five-acre plot fronted by a creek near Chico. We were gonna be country.
Dad wheeled our ’54 Ford Ranchwagon (that’s what FoMoCo called station wagons in those days) onto an acres-large gravel parking area, disappearing it amongst cattle trucks and stock trailers. A maze of pens and chutes ran next to the parking area. The place smelled of manure and hay and dust. Breaking away from Mom and Dad, I climbed on a fence rail. I was looking for a donkey and wondered if one might be in a pen readied for sale. The neighbor’s pony had died a month or so before and his carcass hauled off to the rendering plant south of town. Maybe we could get a donkey to use on backpacking trips and keep him where the neighbor’s pony had been. Peering over the top of the weather beaten rail fence, I could see the humps of cattle backs squeezed tightly together. The animals didn’t look at all comfortable. They jostled one another, shifting and groaning, the fence boards rending and creaking in concert with their movement.
A firm grip fell upon my shoulder and I was pulled down from the fence summarily receiving a smart slap across the chops. “Don’t you run off around this place! You could fall in and get trampled and then what?” It was Mom. “And when we get inside, sit on your hands.”
We entered the building with my ear firmly in my mother’s grasp. The foyer was dark, compared to the parking area outdoors. There were a couple of plywood partitions each masking the entrance to a non-doored restroom. I think there was also a small office, but what caught my attention was the concession area. There were bottles of soda, packages of Wrigley’s gum and a selection of candy bars and it was staffed by a blue gingham-clad gal who looked a lot like Dorothy Gale, if Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s niece had somehow aged to be a little older than Mom. I couldn’t find the words to ask Dad for fifteen cents so I could buy a Coca Cola – no, a Nehi orange. Nehis came in a bigger bottle – and a Payday, before I was pulled into the darker confines of the auction arena.
Along with the shadowy darkness there was a thunderous mix of sounds. Some fast talking fellow with a big, chrome microphone roared numbers or words my ears were too slow to make out. Added to this was a clunking syncopation of boot heels on wooden bleachers, the murmur of attendees evaluating the stock and the occasional bawl of a bummer calf. The route into the arena led through a dim channel between two sets of those bleachers occupied by denim-clad cowboys with those hi-heeled boots, which because of the clunky sound they made, I immediately coveted.
“Remember to sit on your hands,” my mother repeated above the din.
We had to approach a big enclosure with a dusty dirt floor encircled with metal pipes in order find seats anywhere. This middle part of the room was brightly lit. Inside the corral, some cowboys herded about a few head of cattle. We walked around the dusty ring past where the man with the microphone, dressed in a clean plaid shirt and nice straw cowboy hat, was rattling on too rapidly.
“That’s the auctioneer,” Dad explained, pointing. I think the auctioneer might have winked at me as I passed so I winked back using both eyes.
Dad pointed to an open space of seating far up the bleachers. “Over there,” he said.
We climbed through spectators clad in weary snap pocketed plaids and faded jeans – and those boots. The further we climbed from the auction ring, the darker things became and the harder it was to see where to put my feet. I hoped I wouldn’t step on a cowboy and end up getting drilled by slug from his six-shooter. Soon we reached the spot to settle.
“Remember to sit on your hands!”
I did as commanded.
In time my eyes adjusted and I began to see the entertainment that was unfolding before me. The livestock – cattle, mostly – was shuttled onto the auction floor through an entry opposite where we’d come in. Wranglers hooted and whistled and rapped the flanks of the beasts with coiled ropes until the gate behind them was closed.
The man with the microphone, the auctioneer, momentarily spoke in a manner I could understand: “Now raise your sights, folks. This here represents a herd of Herefords from the Vina Plain’s Somethingerother Ranch out there toward Gerber…” I could make out the words but not their meaning. He ambled on with a singsongy drawl, making me think that crossing the Sacramento River to get to Orland, California we somehow ended up deep in the heart of Texas. His narrative ended with: “Now what am I bid?” followed by: “Hey gimme fi’dollah, fi’dollah, fi’dollah, ten. Hey, fi’dollah, fi’dollah, fi’dollah. HUP! Now gimme ten dollah, ten dollah, ten dollah, twenty. HUP! Gimme twenty, twenty, twenty…”
It took a while for my ears to catch up with what was going on and a while longer to figure out what “HUP!” meant. But pretty soon, his rapid banter stopped, a sprinkling of applause ran through the crowd and the animals were herded back out through the chute to be replaced by another group. I finally got the drift of the auctioneer’s chatter and began to link the “HUP!” with some movement in the crowd caught by one of three or four cowboys in better blue jeans, with plaid shirts and crisp straw hats matching those of the auctioneer.
Mom wasn’t sitting on her hands, nor was Dad, but both of my hands were planted underneath my butt as a third, a fourth and a fifth group of animals came in and departed. It didn’t seem fair. Then the inevitable occurred: A piece of lint or dust or maybe a horsefly settled inside my nose. I reached up to excavate it.
“Sit on your hands!” Mom said, her voice trembling in panic while the auctioneer rattled, “Fitty, fitty, fitty, fitty.”
I quickly slipped my hand under the seat of my pants but it was too late. “HUP!” The auctioneer was pointing right at me. Somehow, he must have known we’d arrived in a Ranchwagon. “Sold!” he bellowed into the big, chrome microphone. My stomach felt like a rock had dropped into it. I’d just bought a herd of Holsteins. I looked at Mom, mortified. The smattering of applause rippled through the arena and I was about to cry when the skinny, older gentleman seated behind us stood up and took a bow.
Dad laughed and put his arm around me. I felt Mom’s glare bore through both of us.
So this was how it worked. Sellers brought livestock: cattle, horses, pigs, sheep – sheep entering the ring were met with a collective groan – the auctioneer gave a little description and then burst into his call. Spotters pointed out buyers and over the course of a few minutes, a deal was done. Meanwhile, my hands numbed as I sat on them for about three hours watching all this trade take place, taking in the sights, the sounds and the smells of the Orland Livestock Auction. There were no donkeys offered this day.
On the way out, Dad asked if I wanted a Coca Cola or a Nehi. I picked the Nehi because it was bigger. Dad gave the Dorothy Gale look-alike a dime and placed the wet, slippery bottle in my still-tingly, numbed, asleep hand, from which it fell to the floor rolling under the counter leaving an orange trail in its path. For the second time, I almost cried but Dorothy offered up another saying, “On the house, buckaroo.”
Before long, we were in the old Ford heading home.
For the next couple of weeks, Dad gently – until she’d had enough – chided Mom for thinking a seasoned auctioneer would be dumb enough to sell a herd of dairy cattle to an eight-year-old kid who happened to be picking his nose up near the back row of the auction house. Meanwhile, I scoured poultry and livestock section of our local paper’s want ads looking for a donkey to pen up in the neighbor’s back forty and carry my stuff on hikes. One never came up.
Pretty soon, I got interested in go-carts.
Church of the Open Road Press