One crisp morning when I was young, a rank Hereford calf kicked a piece of steel pipe smack into my dad's face.
It was the first time I'd ever seen my dad really injured. It frightened me as much as the branding process was scaring that wild calf.
We were pretty handy out on the Woster Brothers farm, if not terribly sophisticated. The cattle pens had thick railroad ties for posts and sturdy planks for rails. The branding chute was made of the same material. It was maybe 3 feet wide and 12 or so feet long. When someone pushed a calf into the chute and up to the front, my dad slid a steel pipe through the slats to keep the animal from backing out. Then my uncle applied the branding iron, one of us kids opened the chute gate and the calf scampered madly away across the corral. Simple, efficient and effective.
Except that time when my dad didn't get the pipe slid all the way across the chute before an especially large, strong and frightened calf kicked it away. When the pipe flew out of the chute, one end caught my dad square in the mouth. He sat down in the dirt of the corral, groaning, with both hands clamped over his lower jaw. I wasn't in the corral when it happened, but that's the way the older guys described it later. They said they thought maybe he'd sliced his hands, there was so much blood leaking between his fingers.''
Obviously, he recovered from the injury, but it was a serious thing, and it seems to me he lost some teeth and had a lot of pain for quite a while. I'll admit, I didn't pay a lot of attention to his recovery. Once I figured out that he wasn't going to die just then, I went back to being a mostly self-centered kid.
To this day, though, I remember how shocked I was to think that a calf and a piece of pipe could put my dad on his fanny in the corral dirt. Up to that time, I'd always considered him pretty much invulnerable. He was taller, broader and stronger than any of the other dads at the grain elevator or the co-op in Reliance, and most of them looked like they knew it, too.
Recalling that long-ago branding incident as Father's Day nears, I think about the time my younger son remarked about having never seen me "debilitated,'' as he put it. That was 10 years ago, when he came home for a visit while I was in the late stages of trying to figure out why my shoulder, hip and knee joints wouldn't move and my doctor was about to tell me I had a really sudden onset of rheumatoid arthritis. During my kid's visit, I mostly sat in the recliner in the family room. I'd struggle up and down the stairs to bed, but mostly I just sat.
The kid was pretty worried, and he said to his mother, "I think this is the first time I've ever seen Dad debilitated.'' He paused and then added, "Well, physically, I mean. I've seen him debilitated socially lots of times.'' This was true, but not something he needed to add.
I've been wondering lately if every kid grows up thinking their dad is too tough to get hurt by anything in the known world. I sure did. Apparently, at least that one son of mine did. When he saw me standing at the bottom of the stairs trying to decide if I could climb even the first step, it shook something in him. It shook me that way when I pictured my dad bleeding in the dust of the corral.
By the time my dad was lying in a hospital bed, his once-massive body withered by cancer, I knew he wasn't invulnerable. No matter how he struggled and hoped and prayed, he couldn't beat cancer. He beat everything else, though.
On Father's Day, my kids usually phone home. I love it. I always wish I could pick up the phone and call home to my own dad.