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The Pledge: Carla Had a Little 4-H Lamb

You’ll learn by doing, the man said. But what was the lesson? Last in a series.

Carla Funk 8 Sep

Carla Funk, raised in Vanderhoof, was Victoria’s poet laureate, has written five books of poetry and is writing a memoir about childhood in a town full of logging trucks and God. Her website is here.

[Editor’s note: Read a Tyee interview with Carla Funk, the decorated poet who was raised Mennonite in Vanderhoof and is now writing a memoir, from which this is drawn.]

My HEAD to clearer thinking,
My HEART to greater loyalty,
My HANDS to larger service,
My HEALTH to better living,
For my club, my community, and my country.
—The 4-H Pledge

“The whole thing reminds me of the Moonies,” said my mother on the drive home from my first 4-H Club meeting.

She still shook her head over the day a young, long-haired woman wormed her way into our house and sold us a huge decorative candle. “I’m raising funds that will build our church,” she told my mother, who eyed her warily from across the living room. The candle woman talked softly about the Unification Church and the Reverend Moon, the man she called True Father, the one who who’d lead them into abundant love and life after death. The experience of the Moonie woman sitting in our house for two hours talking about unity and the four-position foundation and humanity’s liberation from sin, together with the monstrous ten-dollar candle she’d been coerced into buying, had left my mother suspicious that cult activity was going on all around us and in unsuspecting places. The candle, whorled and swirled in shades of brown with ornamental cut-outs in the wav, was still displayed on a doily atop one of our living room end tables, and every Friday afternoon, when my mother ran her dusting cloth over the furniture, she picked up the candle and wondered aloud why she hadn’t thrown it away. Pffft, those Moonies, she’d say, then set the candle back down, and move along to the coffee table.

“I don’t like the way you have to put your hand on your heart when you pledge,” my mother said, gripping the steering wheel, shaking her head. “That’s weird.”

We bumped along the rutted gravel roads of the rural farming district way beyond the town limits, heading home from my first 4-H meeting. In the cold and drafty Community Hall, I’d sat for an hour on a wooden chair with rows of kids who all wanted to raise livestock. We listened to a man in denim overalls talk about the importance of good citizenship, what it meant to be a young leader in today’s world, and how, like the Club motto preached, “to make the better best.” In 4-H, said the man, you’ll learn to do by doing. You’ll raise an animal. You’ll groom it. You’ll practice good stewardship. And if you work hard, you’ll even make some money.

Most of the club members came from true farming families. They already knew how to brand a steer, rope a calf, sheer a sheep, saddle a horse, and slash a knife into a cow’s belly to let out the bloat. But I was a new-comer, there because the two neighbour girls had decided to join, and when I heard they’d be raising lambs as their 4-H project, I wanted a lamb, too.

“I’ll do all the work,” I promised my parents. “I’ll clean up after it. Feed it. You won’t have to do a thing.”

After a week of daily begging, pleading my 4-H case at the breakfast table, the dinner table, spouting off facts about lambs and the gentleness of the Suffolk cross breed — good for its wool and its meat! — pointing out that while we had pigs and chickens, a dog and a cat, and a hamster running frantically in its wire wheel, we most certainly did not have a lamb, had never had a lamb, and that seemed wrong. My dad was the one who caved first. A sucker for any animal, he liked the idea of a lamb.

“Fried chop with some mint and garlic,” he said. “I like that.”

I helped him clear out the old red shed, hauling rusty truck parts and lumber scraps away to make room for a stall. While my dad sawed and hammered, I handed him nails, the level, the measuring tape, doing what he asked without complaint, a rare state of peace between us as we worked. Like the Lamb Raising Handbook instructed, I raked sawdust over the floorboards, and spread bales of fresh straw at one end for a bed. I set out the salt lick, the water bucket, and a trough for the grain and hay.

As I surveyed the clean, still empty stall, I believed the true and perfect version of the story, in which I rose every morning to greet and feed my lamb, brush the dirt from its fleece, lead it around the yard in wide circles to simulate the judging ring, and teach it to stand in proper position, all four feet squared and rear legs slightly back, as outlined in the Market Lamb Showmanship Guide. In this version of the story, we won grand champion, and I ended up with money in my hand, a lamb beside me, and a fat blue ribbon that drew the praise and envy of the other 4-H-ers who sulked around me.

Number 47

On a spring Saturday when the world was in full-thaw, the snow in scraps and the ice running into puddles, I stood around the perimeter of the livestock barn with a group of kids, kicking at the packed sawdust and manure. We waited like team captains, ready to choose draft picks. A bleating flock of black-faced, white-wooled lambs huddled together, calling for their mothers. Each Suffolk-Cross had a number spray-painted in red on its fleece. The 4-H leader, holding his clipboard and pen, read off our names, and each of us, in turn, stepped forward to select a lamb.

My dad stood on the other side of the barn gate, and when my turn came to choose, he called out to me. “That one,” he said, pointing. “Number 47. He’s a big guy.”

Number 47 was the loudest in the flock, too, and, as it turned out, hard to catch, but finally, after slipping my grip, and a brief chase and gambol, a team of three teenagers corralled the lamb in a corner and slipped a collar around his neck. I clipped on a rope leash, and Number 47 was mine.

I rode home in the back of the pickup box, cold wind in my face and hair, rattling over the gravel road and clutching the lamb that struggled to get away from me, to slip its collar, to choke me with the rope. With every mile, my grip on the kicking creature tightened. My heart cinched, too. The sweet-faced lamb’s whimpering bleat had deepened to a crackly baa that sounded like my gout-struck great-grandfather’s chronic cough. After all the pleading I’d done, the begging, the vowing and pleading — I’ll take care it, I’ll be responsible, sheep are my favourite animal ever! — I couldn’t admit my gut-sick dread. It was the same feeling I had whenever I held a baby and its mother left the room. Come back, I pleaded with my eyes, don’t leave me here alone, in charge.

Once home, my dad popped the tailgate, and hauled down the lamb, which was, by this point, bellowing.

“He wants his mom,” my dad said.

I wanted my mom, too. I wanted her to swoop in and tell me she’d take over from here, that I should just head inside and watch cartoons. But instead, she headed for the house, leaving my dad and me alone with Number 47.

My dad leaned on the stall fence, puffing on a cigarette, looking in. I sat down in the corner of the stall on a clean pile of hay, and waited for 47 to come lie down beside. Instead, he stood at the gate, bawling his gout sound, staring at my dad.

“What’re you gonna call him?” my dad said. “Can’t be Number 47 forever.”

The lamb bleated louder. I tried out names on him — Bubba, Bob, Marvin — calling to see which one he answered to.

“Nope,” said my dad.

Rocky. The lamb stopped hollering and nosed the grain in the wooden trough, then peed a steaming stream into the sawdust. That was sign enough for me.

“Rocky,” my dad said, “come here.” He shifted his cigarette to his mouth, and held out his hand through a slat in the fence.

Rocky blinked his long black eyelashes, and nosed my dad’s fingers. From where I sat in the stall, the fresh straw smell had already begun to shift toward stench.

960px version of Carla Funk and her lamb
‘Sold to the man in the blue hat.’ Rocky before auction. Photo: Funk family.

Those first few weeks, I wanted him gone. I wanted to rewind my life and put Rocky back in the flock as Number 47, to let someone else choose him. I wanted to undo the thing I’d done, to be the girl who visited the 4-H lambs next door, but who didn’t have one of her own. The neighbour girls adored their lambs, Josie and Amy, and cooed about the way they nuzzled their necks and nibbled the cuffs of their jeans.

Daily, I collared and led Rocky to the grass to graze, tethering him to a picket line so he could cruise in a circle in the back yard. I brushed the sawdust, bugs and dirt from his wool. I followed the rules of 4-H animal husbandry, checking his hooves and eyes and rump and teeth for any signs of illness. Like the lamb-raising handbook suggested, I spent quality time with my livestock, trying to form a bond and earn my animal’s trust and affection. I sat inside the stall on the salt lick with a stack of Archie comics, waiting for Rocky to nuzzle me, but instead, he head-butted my knee, and when I pushed him away, tried to mount my back, his hooves scraping when he reared.

“He’s lonely,” said my mother.“He’s frisky,” said my dad. “Let him go for a run.”

“He’ll run away,” I said, panicked, and then the bright side of those words flickered. He’ll run away, I thought, and started to imagine how I could blame my dad, say it was his fault—he was the one who opened the stall, he let Rocky go free, and now my lamb was gone, and I had no lamb, and I’m sorry, but I’m not part of 4-H anymore. I already saw myself crying like a true victim. I loved that lamb.

My dad unlatched the stall door and let it swing wide. Before I could grab Rocky, he bolted out the gate and frisked up the driveway, across the yard, trotting for the front lawn and through my mother’s flowerbeds, trampling the marigolds and pansies, kicking his hooves full-frolic as he went. I ran to the grass with my rope, calling his name, heart rate rising, expecting a chase and failure, but at my voice, Rocky lifted his head, turned and trotted back to me. He stopped in front of me, nudged my hand with his nose, then plucked a mouthful of clover and started chewing, his lower jaw working circles to break down the cud. I sat on the lawn and let him sniff me, nibble at my hair with his velvet-bristled lips, his breath like sweetgrass in my face.

Rally Day

Everything we did in 4-H program, the projects and pledging, demonstration days and educational workshops, was building toward the Fall Fair, our town’s annual agricultural exhibition. There, we’d all show our animals in the judging ring, and on the final day, lead them into the arena for the 4-H auction. I knew in theory what this meant—that Rocky, like every lamb, steer and hog, would end, but my head knowledge remained abstract and distant, a paragraph in the club handbook, a far-off date on the calendar.

At Rally Day, our final club event before the Fair, I stood in gumboots in an outdoor pen with my fellow members, holding my tiny pencil and judging card. We were there to learn how to assess lambs for market value. The judging card labeled the parts of the sheep’s body with words I’d seen stamped on packages of meat in our deep freeze.

The leader of Rally Day was a man with a thin, drooping mustache and a huge brass belt buckle holding up his blue jeans. He wore a black cowboy hat cocked to shadow his eyes, and when he spoke, he left long pauses in the middle of sentences, making us lean forward to hear what next he’d say.

“The ideal lamb.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, kicked the manure with his boots, coughed. “Is deep and wide.” He walked over to one of the demonstration animals tethered to the fence. “Low-set.” He grabbed the lamb around the mid-section and squeezed. “Not excessively fat. The lamb made a sound like a toy with broken squeaker. “But roomy. The ribs well-sprung.”

A ram, he explained, needs to show ruggedness, and a ewe should be refined in her features.

None of it meant anything to me. The lambs all looked the same — black faces and legs, dirty white bodies. I liked the ones that stood chewing their cud, quiet and unfazed by the buzzing flies. On the card I’ve been handed, bold letters at the top spelled “Cuts of a Market Lamb.” Below the title, an ink drawing showed the lamb’s body sectioned into six main parts, each part divided by a dotted line. My task was to first to label the cuts — leg, loin, rib, shoulder, breast, foreshank — and then to rank the four lambs in order of highest market value.

The other kids appeared to understand what he meant, and set to work scrutinizing the animals, squeezing ribcages, digging their fingers into fleece, peeling back lips, inspecting teeth, palpating rumps. I walked behind and mimicked their actions, but to me, the ideal sheep was the one without any dried manure clumped around its tail. When the leader announced the true ranking, my lowest lamb—the clumpy-butted one with eye gunk and thick loins—was at the top, and the one I’d chosen as the champion was second from the bottom, sub-standard, lacking in form and frame. Rocky, it seemed, was somewhere in the middle, not ideal, but good enough, said the Rally Day leader, to garner a fair price for his poundage.

The deal

Late August, the fairgrounds on the outskirts of the town — normally a scattering of vacant outbuildings and empty riding rings — came to life. In the exhibition hall, long tables held the various offerings of participants. Quilters hung their hand-stitched quilts. Bakers brought their best baked bread, pies, cookies, cakes. Glass jars gleamed with jellies and jams in every flavour — chokecherry, gooseberry, strawberry, mince. Pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage — every vegetable vied for the blue ribbon in garden produce. Kids entered creatures made out of vegetables, hand-drawn portraits of indiscernible family members, hand-sewn doll clothes for their Cabbage Patch Kids. Beyond the exhibition hall, every shed, barn and stall held a horse or steer, a cage of rabbits or clutch of hens, a snorting fat hog.

After three days on the fairgrounds, with Rocky in his own stall inside the sheep barn, a participation ribbon tacked on above him, I knelt in the dirt and sawdust of the auction arena with my one arm around Rocky’s neck and the other over his back, facing the bleachers full of bidders. Behind me on a small stage, the auctioneer, an older man in a hat and bolo tie, let loose a string of syllables that sounded less like dollar amounts and more like a foreign tongue. In the stands, a cowboy nodded his head, to which the auctioneer responded by pointing, then climbing a notch in pitch and price: I have a dollar ten, wouldyougoadollartwenty, dollartwenty, bidonadollartwenty, I wannadollartwenty.

My dad, behind the arena fence and at the top of the bleachers, sat hunched with his arms crossed and elbows on his knees. Every time another cowboy or trucker or 4-H father bid on Rocky, he answered with a bid of his own, leap-frogging the winning bidder, then falling behind, then raising the bid again.

As I held on to Rocky in the auction arena and watched my father tip his ball cap, lift his raised thumb as a signal to take up the bid a notch, and as I heard the price per pound rise in ten-cent increments, then five-cent increments, I felt the truth come on hard. Rocky was stepping into the pattern of every 4-H lamb that came before him. He was a living, bleating version of the pen-and-ink illustration on the Rally Day judging card. I saw in mind’s eye the stark outline overlaid on him, superimposed in dotted lines marking the loin, the shoulder, the choice cuts of a market lamb.

“Sold to the man in the blue hat,” the auctioneer announced, and pointed at my dad in his top row bleacher seat.

My world blurred — kneeling beside Rocky in the ring, the winning bid, my dad making his way down the stairs toward me, wallet in hand, ready to fill in the dollars and sign his name on a cheque. He was proud, happy to have won the bid. A faint hope flickered in me — the brief thought that he bought Rocky so that I might keep him as a pet. I saw it — the ride home from the Fair, the return to the empty stall, the hanging up of the rope leash and collar, the grain spilled out into the trough, and Rocky weathering through autumn, winter, spring, summer, and set free to frolic in the green world.

“Got you a better price,” said my dad.

I couldn’t look him in the eye. I knew the story’s end. I’d read it in the plain type of the club handbook. My hands had worked that checklist to code, mucking out the stalls, pitchforking new straw, grooming, pledging myself to clearer thinking, greater loyalty, larger service, better living. All along, my head was telling my heart to keep the gate latched, but ritual had turned somehow to allegiance, to affection, to a vague, shaky version of love.

It was as if my dad had been planning it all along, standing at both ends of the story, choosing my lamb as a future freezer full of meat wrapped in brown butcher paper and portioned into stewing cubes, chops, racks and roasts. What my dad intended for my good — a profit on the price per pound — felt like a a hot slap on the cheek.

I made my way out of the arena, across the trail of sawdust and back to the sheep barn. I climbed into the stall with Rocky and buried my face in his neck. He smelled like a hot wool blanket left out on a bed of wet grass and manure, a scent that, those first weeks, had turned my stomach. Now, I cried fat tears over what felt like a bad joke with a sorry punchline. I’d join the sad parade of 4-H kids, all of us leading our lambs out of the barn’s back entrance and making our way to where the big white truck idled with the ramp down, waiting to haul away the flock. On the other side of the fairground fence, my dad would be watching, lifting his cigarette in a half-wave at me, smiling over how it all turned out.

View all the stories in the series, Growing Up in BC’s Heart, and an interview with Carla Funk here.  [Tyee]

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