Copyright Tami Blake 2015
I still cringe every time I think of the day I got my Old Mom Card.
I was 31 years old. I had a 2-year-old and a baby. The crew was branding calves at the Hayes Place, and my mom was taking lunch out to the crew. The kids and I rode along. After bouncing over gravel and dirt roads for an hour, we arrived at the branding. It was a warm June day.
Right away I noticed the branding was moving slow. The calves were lean and wiry, shiny and slick — at that stage right before they turn big and soggy. The age where they can outrun a horse. The size that’s tough to pull down and tough to hold down for branding, because they never stop resisting.
Ranches these days hold calves for branding in a multitude ways. Some use the nordfork or deadman apparatuses. Others the calf table. Still others — the punchiest outfits around — head and heel every single calf they brand. But here at the PV we still do it the way it’s been done here for decades: heeling with a horse and dragging to a team of two calf wrestlers.
Used to be the ranch could get a few high school boys out from town to wrestle calves. These days willing and able high school boys are hard to come by. On this particular branding day of my shame, the single high school boy who’d managed to show up for a day of work was leaning against the fence holding a Gatorade. “I’m not cowboy enough for these calves,” he told me as I watched from outside the corral, jiggling the baby on my hip.
A side note important in the telling of this story is that I used to be a world champion calf wrestler. I grew up on a big outfit. I didn’t learn how to rope until I was married and I can’t be trusted with a vaccine gun. You could say I’ve wrestled a lot of calves in my day, and took a lot of pride in being pretty tough about it.
* I offer here three photos (all taken circa 2002) as proof of my world champion calf wrestler status. You will know me by the Holstein-print cap I am wearing. That cap was world famous in the same way that I was a world champion, which is to say not in real life. *
Fast forward to that day in 2013. I could hardly stand to watch a branding that was clearly in need of a good calf wrestler. Working with a short crew, the ropers were dragging calves to a single wrestler who held the front end while the roper and horse held the back legs. It was slow work. I was itching to help. And anxious to prove to this high school boy that he was a total loser.
My dad, foreman of the crew, wandered by the fence where I was standing. “Moving slow today,” I commented. He grunted agreement.
“I thought I might let Mom hold the baby and help wrestle a few,” I ventured.
He never took his eyes off the branding. “Better not, Tam,” he replied. “You don’t want to hurt your back.”
Excuse me? Hurt my back? Evidently my own father didn’t recall my perfectly natural ability. My sheer athleticism, my timing, my agility. Disgusted, I turned away in feigned disinterest. I waited until Dad headed back to his work, then handed the baby to my mom and snuck through the fence. Da-da-da-da-da! I thought to myself. Here comes Tam to save the day!
You should know that when I was a full-time wrestler, I hated it when bystanders pitched in to help me with a calf I was struggling to get down or hold down. I figured if you weren’t “in the zone,” you were just going to get in my way and/or embarrass yourself.
Nonetheless, I proceeded on this fateful day, past my prime and having given birth just a few short months before.
A big one on the line, the roper started toward the fire, pulling the calf by its back feet. I sidled in to place thinking I would pull the rope to help trip the calf.
Jake, the young cowboy who assumed he would be wrestling this calf on his own just as he had the ones before, was going for the tail and didn’t even know I was there to make his day. The roper must have seen me, though, and slowed his horse momentarily. There’s a bit of a slope to the pen we were in, and the calf had a downhill advantage. When the roper’s horse slowed for a moment, the rope became slack enough for that lanky black calf to take the notion he might yet get away. I’ve seen it happen lots of times: the calf gets a little leverage, turns attacker rather than attacked, and starts working desperately to turn itself away from what it fears — which in this case was my (unassuming) wrestling partner.
What I didn’t see, because it happened too fast, was this particular calf gaining enough momentum on the rope to clothesline me. Before I knew it, I was surrounded on three sides by a rope with a horse on one end and a mean calf on the other. There were the muffled sounds of my soft body hitting the ground, my arms moving up to protect my head, the zzzzt! of the rope slithering out from underneath me, and Vergal hollering “Look out!” to the crew at large.
Too mortified to feel any pain and amazed that I wasn’t tangled up in that rope, I scrambled to my feet to watch the calf windmill on toward the branding pot and the propane tank used to fuel the fire. In painfully slow motion, both the pot and the tank crashed to the ground. We all held our breaths waiting for our sure demise by means of propane explosion.
Miraculously, the propane tank didn’t explode.
My humiliation complete, I crept back to the fence… and there I stayed for the remainder of the branding. The cowboys — many of whom have known me since I was a girl — picked up the wreckage and resumed their slow but steady pace. Come lunchtime, they were all very nonchalant about the fallen star in their midst.
I think the day you get your Old Mom Card is the day you realize your life has changed permanently… that having a child is no temporary condition. You’re not unique or invincible; your body is changed and aging; there were good calf wrestlers before you and there will be good calf wrestlers after you. It’s the day you fully understand that, though some are slow to admit it, you can’t be a mom and still be everything else too.