Fence lines: Branding brings back Uncle Fritz
April opens the door to the season’s biggest chores – irrigating and branding. Irrigation will run all spring, summer and, hopefully, fall. Branding brings back Great Uncle Fritz.
We brand by the middle of this month, when the calves are still at a size where we can handle them, but not so small the stress of the procedure will set them back. The majority of our calves are about two months old, although they may only stand a little over 2 feet and some weigh about 200 pounds. Tough little buggers. I can no longer catch them on foot and I never could catch them on horseback. I have no roping skills. I didn’t grown up anywhere near cattle roping stuff. I never touched a real saddle until I came out here. Because of my lack of horsemanship and the friends who help us, we don’t use an open fire or rope our calves to brand. We use a calf table that swings up level while holding the animal and a propane tank that keeps the iron red-hot.
Branding is a legal method ranchers use for identifying their cattle. The animal’s hair is quickly singed as the brand is pressed down on the hide and a permanent mark made. It’s like touching your curling iron or a hot burner, quick and you pull away. Yes, some pain is involved, but it doesn’t impair the animal. Their hides are thick and tough as leather.
A by-product of a branding procedure is what some delicately call mountain oysters. Bull calves are cut so they will not haphazardly breed females in the herd. Once cut, a bull calf becomes a steer and we place their testicles in a clean, clear glass, gallon pickle jar. I don’t cook them, so I gave them to my husband’s great uncle, Uncle Fritz.
Uncle Fritz used to run with a group of fellows who called themselves “The Outdoor Boys of the Golden West” and, among other things, they had oyster feeds up in the mountains. A bachelor and self-admitted “a bit wild,” Uncle Fritz was in his 70s by the time I delivered my first pickle jar full of oysters to him. He would invite me into his little house down on Gilman Street and we would visit the past. Diabetes was taking his health, so Fritz moved slowly, but his wit was still quick and he used it when telling about escapades certain community members performed while young men. He talked about his family history, now mine, too. He often dismissed comments I would make about the trials and triumphs of the family by replying, “That’s just what you did back them.” People rarely contemplate they are living history.
One afternoon, with my two small boys in tow, I stopped at Fritz’s house. He had returned home from a short stay in the hospital caused by complications of his disease. While talking, he tried to hand me something, asking me to give it to my husband. “He might appreciate this,” he said.
Seeing what he had, I said,”I can’t take that. If you want him to have it, you need to come out to the house and give it to him yourself. I’d be glad to make dinner if you do.”
Uncle Fritz’s eyes were milky from the advance of his disease, so the kind neighbor lady who was also his sports fan companion drove him out a couple days later. We had grilled steaks in the same kitchen Fritz had remodeled in his younger days, as a carpenter, for his older brother’s bride, my husband’s grandmother. Before the meal, he unceremoniously handed over a heavy gold pocket watch and said, “This was my Dad’s. Thought you might like it.”
Uncle Fritz died in 1996. I bought a glass case to hold the watch. Looking at it and where we live, we understand we own nothing of real value. Everything you hold dear you are just keeping in trust for someone else you think might like it.
n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 9, and Bradley, 6. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.