I spent my elementary school days in Veneta, Oregon. I started school at Central Elementary in second grade and gave ”Æ”’¹…”em hell until we moved away from there in fifth grade. I would’ve been around seven years old and then ten when we had to move. Now it seems odd that it was only three years. It felt like half of my life but then at seven or eight, I guess it was.
What a great place to have been raised, Veneta. It’s a small town about 30 minutes west of Eugene and very rural. Our house was just a bike ride from Fern Ridge lake. My oldest sister used to take us there on our bikes every day during summer while my parents were working. We all loved going the lake.
We lived on at least three acres as my young mind remembers it but then, everything seems bigger when you’re little. Three acres is very spacious when you are seven years old but this three of mine was only the beginning of the seemingly endless universe that cradled my adventures and I through grade school.
Ours was just a small chunk of a huge amount of land owned by Grandma and Grandpa Mobley (no relation). They lived maybe a half mile down the street. The Mobley’s owned our property, their property and everything in between. If the width of their land was the half mile stretch that separated us along the street, the depth was at least double or triple that. From the street, looking past my house toward the backyard, their property rolled along for a mile or better, behind my house. Different sections of the land were established by miles and miles of barbed wire fencing that I could go over, under and through as I pleased. Lucky for me, Grandma and Grandpa Mobley understood that there is nothing quite as harmless as the little neighbor girl wandering around in the back forty (eighty, even) filling up buckets with blackberries and stomping around on dried up cow patties. Yes, these were cow pastures – vast, amazing cow pastures. I knew every twig and gopher hole from one corner to the other.
Between our house and the Mobley’s was our next door neighbor. It was Grandma and Grandpa Mobley’s son, his wife and their two kids, Jason and Dena. Dena, my middle sister and I went to school together. Those two were in the same grade a couple years ahead of me. We all caught the school bus every morning at the end of Dena’s driveway. Jason went to the high school in Elmira and at just 15 or 16 years old was at least six feet tall and well over 300 pounds. He dwarfed my dad. His dad wasn’t but could’ve been a coke machine.
It’s fair to say that the whole Mobley family had it pretty good. They weren’t wealthy by any stretch but it just seemed like Jason and Dena had some really cool things that most kids (meaning, us) didn’t have. They had Quarter horses and Shetland ponies, video games, motorcycles and great big waterbeds. I don’t remember being jealous or feeling hateful at all over any of that. I mostly just thought how neat a great big waterbed must be. I also somehow understood the closest I was ever gonna get to brand new go-kart was over at Dena Mobley’s. Of course, Dena was a little spoiled, busy showing her ponies and wasn’t always very nice.
Of all the neat and fun things I saw across the fence for those few years, there was only one thing Dena Mobley had that I wanted. There was only one thing that Jason Mobley had that I wanted. My sister and my cousins, Vikki and Becky – a mile away, had it too and I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything in the whole world. Once a week/month, however often it was, they all got to go to 4-H and learn about animals. I wanted to go learn about animals too. I wanted to go so bad that I nearly drove my Momma half-crazy. Here was the thing – to be in 4-H you have to have an animal to, well, study.
“But Momma, what about Smokey Joe,” I’d beg.
“They don’t have 4-H for kitty cats, darling. I’m so sorry,” she told me.
I just didn’t understand why a handsome fluffy guy like Smokey Joe couldn’t be in 4-H but my sisters stinky-ass Guinea Pig could. I hated that Guinea Pig. I hated my sister. I hated the neighbor kids. I hated my cousins. I hated their pets and I especially hated every last molecule of knowledge they all got to learn at 4-H without me.
I would plead with Mom for something – anything. I just wanted a pet. We had the same conversation over and over every time my sister got to go to another installment of this fascinating 4-H club.
“What about a little pig, Momma? Couldn’t I have a little pig? It could sleep inside with me until it gets bigger. Then Daddy can dig it a mud hole out back.”
“Salinda Kay, you cannot keep a pig in this house!”
“Well, what about a lil baby sheep then? It could stay in the play house at night and it would be warm in there. I’ll take good care of it. I promise!”
She would remind me that baby animals need a lot of attention; that they have to be fed every few hours. Who would feed it while I was at school? And in the middle of the night? I would have sworn to her my little lamb would stay fat and full at all times but I knew, even at seven years old, that she had me on the ”Æ”’¹…”while I was at school’ part.
It was over. I was defeated. I would never have a little piglet named Wilbur to sleep with until he got too big for my bed and I would never get to tuck a little lamb under my jacket before I got on the school bus so that I could feed him a bottle of milk at both morning and afternoon recess. Every time my sister went to 4-H the night ended the same. I would beg for animals. Mom would patiently point out the impossibilities and I wound up face down on my bed, soaking my pillowcase. She wasn’t denying me a pet. She just knew the magnitude of the care involved with the pets I was asking for. I could have had my own Guinea Pig, too but I didn’t want a dumb ‘ol stinkin Guinea Pig like my sister. I wanted a real pig that I could feed with a bottle, put doll dresses and fancy-pants on.
I never did get to go to 4-H but I eventually learned to live with that, among a million other things.
It turns out that I had a pet after all. I couldn’t take him to 4-H or dress him up in doll clothes but he was my pet nevertheless. I believe I had the best pet of all. I called him Chester.
Our backyard was pretty big. Daddy kept it mowed nicely and the grass was a soft, thick green carpet. Remember, behind my house was more cow pasture that went on farther than I could see. Between the edge of my back yard and the big pasture was another smaller pasture defined by more barbed wire fencing. It was the length of our yard and double the depth. Within it dwelt my very best friend.
So, 99% of Grandma and Grandpa Mobley’s cows, calves and sheep roamed their land freely, except Chester. He had his own bachelor pad, if you will. Chester was the Mobley’s bull — well, their one and only stud. He lived mostly alone – in my backyard. A couple times a year they let him out of his small yard to go do his thing with the ladies in the big yard but that was it. The rest of his time was spent lounging around by himself – bored senseless, I’m sure.
I had two options for getting myself to where the sweetest blackberries on earth jumped right into my bucket and dried up cow turds waited to be stomped on by little rubber boots. I could either go out to the street, walk past Dena’s house a ways, climb down a deep ditch, up the other side and through more barbed wire OR I could take my chances and make a mad dash across Chester’s yard. This was the easiest option of course, but way more scary. I was seven. He was a very big bull that weighed at least a ton. I was a little nervous.
Chester was a white bull that didn’t care much for bath tubs and rubber duckies. Would you squirt a big bull with a water hose then waltz right up to him with a scrub brush in one hand and a bucket of suds in the other? I think not. So Chester was more ‘off white’ than white. His muzzle and ears were light pink and his big forehead boasted a mop of blond curls that licked his ears and very.large.horns. He had a massive head and a very long pinkish-blue tongue. Poor Chester. He always had a crusty bottom. I guess years and years of swishing his tail back and forth across lingering dingle-berries like a windshield wiper does that. I didn’t care if he had a crusty butt. I loved him anyway.
One day mid-summer I noticed all Chester’s grass was either eaten up or trampled down and he was over in the corner trying to twist his 11 inch tongue around the thorniest thistle you ever did see. It was across the fence and hard for him to reach but he finally got it! A thistle?! Poor guy must be so hungry! I had all the good grass on my side of the fence and he didn’t have any good grass. Then I had the best idea ever. I was gonna be his bartender! Although, I doubt I even knew the word ‘bartender’ just yet.
I went inside and got a little tablet, put a pen behind my ear and one of Mom’s nicest hand towels across my forearm then went back outside to take his order. He was standing at the fence waiting for me when I marched right up and said something similar to, “Alright, Chester. What’s it gonna be buddy?” We talked about appetizers and the special of the day but it was pretty clear that he really wanted some grass. I found a Frisbee and picked enough juicy green grass to overflow it. I trimmed it with clovers and put a dandelion in the middle before I slid it under the bottom wire. He ate it all up! Then he licked his big bovine lips, pattered his long eyelashes and smiled at me.
I must have filled that Frisbee ten thousand more times between second and fifth grade. I would be squatted around in my back yard somewhere, filling up the Frisbee and telling him stories. His eyes would follow my every move. He patiently hung on every word I ever had to say then would swish his tail in applause.
I was seven years old with nothing between me and 2500 lbs of certain death yet I always felt completely safe out back with Chester. It wasn’t the three wires tied to a couple big sticks that was keeping me from ever getting hurt out there with him. It was his love for this little girl who never shut up and whatever kept coming under that fence on the Frisbee.