Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Great 70 Hi Cattle Round-Up

I am genuinely fond of Bill Bryson - as a writer of course, though I imagine him to be a very entertaining person in real life. And, he's a neighbour of mine. He lives, now-a-days, in Wymondham, Norfolk – about 20 miles from here. Being a successful writer he can live fairly well where he likes. The boy from Des Moines must like England because he chooses to live here instead of Iowa. Not a difficult choice if you've ever been to Iowa. In any event I had the good fortune to re-read his account of hiking along the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, recently and it was as entertaining as it was years ago. I particularly liked his account of a visit to Waynesboro. He and his walking companion, Katz, managed to make it as far as this outpost of civilisation and Bill went off to find a K-Mart – in order to replenish their meagre hiking supplies. No car. They had only just left the trail. So, there's Bill merrily dodging cars, climbing fences, dragging himself through undergrowth and sloshing through streams in order to reach the promised land of cheap consumer shopping. It's very funny. Being Bill Bryson of course, he's really trying to make a point about the Great American Shopper, and he does it very well and very entertainingly. Get the book and read it – you'll laugh a lot and learn some interesting things about America at the same time.

What really struck a chord with me was his description of rampaging through the undergrowth quite close to a major highway and not being noticed by all and sundry. I've been there. And, I'll tell you how and when.

More than 40 years ago I went to work. I became the greatest hamburger cook in America - which, for all intents and purposes, is the world when it comes to cooking hamburgers. When I say cooking hamburgers, I mean really cooking hamburgers – not the ubiquitous Big Mac way – but the old-fashioned, really-cooking way. 70 Hi Drive-In restaurant was a great place. At the age of 16 you really felt that you were responsible for something. Even hamburgers are something.

During the slower months of October, November, December and January the work rota was one night on and one night off. When I was off, Ronnie was on. Out front was Betty – taking the orders, making the drinks, etc. In charge was the owner, Sam – but he usually went home about 6 leaving Betty in charge, ably assisted by Ronnie or me. It might be a bit busy from 5 til 8 – but then fairly quiet until closing at 11. Some evenings when I had nothing much to do except homework, I might check out 70 Hi and have a chat with Ronnie or a free hamburger and Dr Pepper.

One fine evening in early October I propitiously decided to walk up to 70 Hi and see how the workers were getting on. Up the road, almost as if they were following me, came two very large, very healthy and very stupid steers. Aberdeen Angus steers. I ran on to 70 Hi and told Betty and Ronnie what was going on outside. Betty was marginally impressed. Ronnie was ecstatic. Like a man possessed. There were no customers at 70 Hi at that precise moment. While we were speculating on how these valuable animals happened to be slowly meandering up a fairly busy road in the gathering dusk, a man in a battered pick-up truck swung into the car park and enlisted our support in catching the beasts. At first I thought he was the owner of these cows, but no. He merely wanted to catch them and a) claim a substantial reward from the grateful farmer; or b) sell them for beaucoup bucks! Would we help for a share? Do lions eat meat? I said yes. Ronnie said yes.

Wait a minute,” says I. “Ronnie you are supposed to be working at 70 Hi – you better get back in there before any orders for hamburgers come in and Betty comes looking for you!”

Naw,naw - come on! We can catch the cows in a minute and she'll never miss me.”

I was not convinced – but I was also not my fellow worker's keeper. Off we three prospective cattle drovers went. Lacking experience in herding cattle all we succeeded in doing was scaring the steers into a mini-stampede into the undergrowth. We followed. Ronnie should have returned to work. He didn't.

South of 70 Hi for at least a mile there was nothing except a primitive building site that would one day be Interstate 70. At that early stage in construction it consisted of some heavy machinery strewn about and some stakes and tape in the wilderness. I remembered that there was a small creek at the bottom of the hill. It got dark. Very dark, very quickly. We followed the cows, mostly we followed the sound of them crashing through the undergrowth. Ronnie ran full pelt into a barbed wire fence. Good thing he had a thick jacket on or it would have cut him to pieces. Ronnie fell in the creek. I got my feet wet. Our companion swore a lot. Eventually we cornered the offending critters near Wild Woody's. Wild Woody's was the original bargain basement – sort of a poor man's K-Mart.

With no rope to tie them up we were somewhat scuppered. To our rescue came a friendly Wild Woody's security guard who allowed us to corral the steers in a part of their car park - surrounded by a high chain link fence. We were profoundly happy. Ronnie suddenly remembered 70 Hi.

We walked back. I wanted to see what would happen. Like a moth to a flame I couldn't resist, even though I was in the clear, I somehow felt responsible. I should have stopped Ronnie from being so irresponsible. Anyway, I wanted to see Betty kill him in case I was called upon to give evidence at her trial. I was fairly sure she would get off – justifiable homicide.

We must have been gone for at least an hour, maybe more. It was unlikely that there had been no customers during that time. Unlikely, but possible. Clutching at straws. Ronnie was good at that. I'll never forget the look on Betty's face when we sloped in the back door. I don't think that I have ever seen anyone so angry. Customers were seemingly everywhere. Things were cooking (loosely) on the grill, Betty was running between the back and the front, french fries were merrily burning in the deep fat fryer, half prepared burgers of all sizes, shapes and descriptions lay everywhere: it was painful to watch. She did not say a thing. I pitched in to help Ronnie make some order from the chaos. I was sure Ronnie would be fired, possibly me as well. In the circumstances Betty must have called Sam and we expected him to walk in at any moment. He never turned up. Betty had (somehow) kept stumm. It was (and still is) inexplicable. After half an hour, Ronnie tried talking to her, but she just glared at him so he shut up. I went home.

Next day must have been a Saturday for I met Ronnie in the morning and we raced to Wild Woody's to inspect our livestock. They were gone. No sign of them. Too late we remembered that we were just fairly stupid kids. We had forgotten to take the name of the friendly, foul-mouthed pick-up driver. We neglected to ask the security guard his name. Needless to say, we did not get a receipt for two items of expensive lost fauna. Everyone we asked at Woody's looked at us like we were demented.

We went home. No-body got fired. Thanks Betty – you deserved better.

I hope somebody choked on those steaks. Hopefully it was a security guard and a pick-up driver. Don't think there was mad cow disease then, but one can hope.

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