We went to the farm auction on a whim. I parked our battered Jeep Cherokee in a yard among 40 or 50 supersized pickups, many with cattle trailers. I picked through some of the box lots of miscellaneous items and ate a hot dog. My husband, John, went straight for the tractors. He listened to them run, he prodded their rust spots. I watched him from a perch near the cow barn.
The auction started right on time. John had confiscated my checkbook before we'd parked. He had the bidding paddle, but I still wanted to see what was up for grabs.
Before I knew it, my husband - who had lectured me on the perils of bidding too much at auctions - had bid and won two wheelbarrows still crusted with manure, a box of what I can only describe as a "car-related apparatus," and a pile of fencing equipment.
"Now you just need some cows," a guy behind us said.
"That's later," John replied. I whipped my head around. "I'm kidding," he said.
We loaded everything into the wheelbarrows and jammed them into the back of the Jeep.
"Shouldn't we just go?" John said.
"No," I said. "I want to see the cows."
But first we had to follow the auctioneers around the barnyard as item after item was sold. I was pretty confident we were done until I saw my husband right in front of the auctioneer.
"This old pickup doesn't start well," the auctioneer said, "but it's running. What'll you bid? $500? $200?"
"Ten dollars!" yelled someone in back.
"Who'll give me $15? Anyone?"
Before I could stop him, I heard my husband say, "Fifteen!"
And then - I'll never forget this - the other guy backed out.
"Sold to Number 90 for $15!"
The crowd moved on to the next item I stood there, gazing at our new truck.
"Why?" I asked.
"It'll be a good 'project' car."
"It doesn't have a driver's side door."
And then the cows came out. Cows are expensive - I had no idea. I wasn't in the market for a cow, but I was shocked to see the numbers fly. Guys who looked as though they didn't have a dime bought thousands of dollars worth of cows.
Then they pushed out a wee calf. Born a week before, this little bull was scared to death, and no one wanted him. The bidding went down to $20.
"Buy him," I said, poking John with my elbow.
"What?" he said. The man who'd just bought a pickup truck without a door for $15 looked at me as though I were crazy.
"You said you wanted to raise a calf for beef," I said. "Come on, it'll be cool - and they said we couldn't take him for two weeks, so we have time to prepare."
"Oh fine," he said, and his paddle hand went up. The little red and white bull calf was ours.
"Let's get out of here," John said.
We headed out - the proud owners of two wheelbarrows covered in manure and a manure producer.
We went home, and I began to read everything I could on the Internet about raising a calf. In two hours, I felt I was an expert. I priced out milk replacers, calf starters, and bedding options.
That night, John stopped by Button's Feed Store to pick up some dog food.
"So, how's your calf?" Mr. Button asked. It goes without saying in our town that he knew about it.
"We haven't picked him up yet," John said. Not for two weeks.
"Uh, nope," Mr. Button said, "they ain't doin' chores up there anymore. You've gotta get him now."
My husband drove up the driveway an hour later, frantically honking the horn. In our family, honking the horn in this manner means "Get your boots on, and get your bottom out here."
I ran out to find John - and the calf.
"I thought we had...?"
"We didn't," John said. The frightened calf had already relieved himself all over the back of the Jeep. "I don't care about that," John commented, "as much as I have no idea where to put him."
We finally settled on the old chicken coop, which is enclosed and draft-free. So while our daughter held the calf by a rope, we hastily prepared the coop.
After the calf was settled, I sped down to the feed store and confessed my ignorance. This was particularly difficult for me because, by this time, everyone milling around the store knew that we hadn't known we were supposed to get the calf today. Our cover as semicompetent Vermonters was completely blown.
All the men looked at me as I asked, quite sheepishly, for things a calf needs.
"How old is he?" Mr. Button asked.
"Eight days," I replied confidently. At least I knew this much.
He got us a bottle, a bag of milk replacer, and the dog food my husband had forgotten. He put them in my car for me. As I shut the tailgate, I saw that the throng inside the store had followed me.
"Now, you'll want to feed him slowly at first," one man said.
"OK," I said.
"You can get him some grain in a few days, but just show him what it is, and try and get him to eat out of your hand."
"Are you fixing to eat him?"
"Yes?" I said, a little uncertainly.
"Don't let him have too much pasture as he gets older, or the meat'll be tough."
One of the men opened my car door for me. In two hours of Internet research, I had not gained as much information as I had in this 10-minute exchange. Even with all the teasing, it had been worth it.
I wonder if they'd have any tips about a pickup with no door.