Nick Holman’s poignant stories recall growing up in a rural La Porte City foster home

Editor’s Note: At just six yyears of age, Richard “Nick” Holman, a member of the La­ Porte City High School Class of 1963, was placed in the state of Iowa foster care system with his large group of siblings. For the next twelve years, he grew up on a farm in rural La Porte City. Following a successful career in the United States Navy and working as a plant manager and long range planning for an international food company, he began writing a book about his experiences. In the Foreword, he writes, “Virtually all foster kids come from dysfunctional family environments and they absorb the bulk of the broken home fallout. The common thread they all share while in foster care is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This uncertainty can cause them to think and act in ways others may not consider or understand. When they eventually leave the foster home, their futures will range from heartening and uplifting to unsettling and tragic. All incidents that unfold [in these stories] actually occurred during the time I and my siblings – three brothers and four sisters – were growing up in a foster home on a farm [near La Porte City in the early 1950s and 1960s]. However, some events have been slightly changed to avoid potential embarrassment for yet-living individuals. All the names [except my own] have been changed, only their ages remain the same. This is the story of a close-knit family of siblings as they struggle to stay together in extended foster care. It’s also a story of life on the farm, but a life and a farm few have ever known or experienced, even those born and raised on a farm. It’s told through my eyes but relates more than just the experiences of me and my siblings. As you’ll see, it all comes to a rapid and unexpected conclusion.”

Herding Cattle

By Nick Holman

Today I’m going to help herd cattle. This is my first time and I’m only seven years old, so I’m quite excited. And why shouldn’t I be? Just think about it. Three or four cowboys out on the prairie, sun-bleached jeans and dusty Stetson, riding horseback with lasso at hand, keeping in check a drove of several hundred cattle constantly moving to find the next clump of grass. The movies certainly promote and romanticize this perception. Toward evening the cattle are brought together and settled down for the night. The cowboys gather around the campfire for supper, have a smoke, listen to a song or two on someone’s harmonica, and then off to sleep using a knapsack or saddle for a pillow. With sunrise, they’re up and about, squatting by the fire for warmth and preparing breakfast in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, a strong cup of coffee in hand. Once the meal is complete and the fire stomped out with their weathered and scuffed leather boots, they saddle their horses and start another day of cattle herding.

That’s the image that pops into my head. But I’m having a hard time understanding how this works on The Farm. As far as I know, there isn’t a range – open or closed – nearby on which the cattle can feed, and there are only two horses on the farm. Neither of them strikes me as ones that know how to keep cattle in check. One is a skinny nag as old as Moses and the other is a fat little pony that couldn’t keep up with a small herd of turtles. I soon find out my day’s chore is a much simpler, and less glamorous, form of cattle herding, and it will not involve horses.

The herding process on The Farm is quite basic. The cattle are herded through the main livestock gate, out to the ditch alongside the road, where they begin grazing on the grass and weeds. Unlike the movies, no horses are involved and there aren’t hundreds of cattle. We’ve never had more than 50 or 60 head of cattle at any one time. Nor are they allowed to roam free. There’s a fence on one side of the ditch that borders the corn field, and the gravel road on the other side of the ditch. We boys, two of my brothers, another boy, Earl, and I are tasked with keeping the cattle off the road, out of the corn fields, and moving slowly forward through the ditch without getting spread out over a long distance. The cattle munch on grass and weeds as they move slowly along. Once they’re established in this routine it’s a pretty easy chore. It can even be blissful. I’m enjoying the sound of the cows tugging on and chewing grass, the flick of their tails as they swish at flies, their grunts and snorts, the caw of a crow in the distance. It’s mesmerizing.

We decide to invent a game to pass the time. We’ll see who can first identify the model and year of an approaching car on the road. Is that a ’51 or ’52 Chevy Belair? From the front they looked quite similar. Is that a ’50 or ’51 Mercury Monterey? We’re surprisingly accurate at recognizing almost every car that drives by.
As an aside, ditch cattle herding in Iowa is an uncommon sight. It’s done on The Farm for three reasons. First, it’s free forage for the livestock. Yes, there are two pastures for the cattle to graze. But if the herd gets a bit too large, or the weather’s been hot and dry and affected grass growth, the pastures can’t support all the grazing.
Second, the ditches can easily get weeded up and overgrown. Cattle herding keeps that in check.
Third, there are quite a number of kids on the farm. Here’s a way to keep three or four of us boys busy, and out of potential mischief, for several hours every day during summer. It’s actually very uncommon to come upon this scene when driving through rural Iowa. Most farmers don’t have the labor force to support it. Economically, the cost of hiring someone to do it wouldn’t be supported by the limited benefit. But if the labor is free, it makes good farming sense. There is plenty of free labor on The Farm.

I’ve been warned that the serene mood of the herd can be abruptly disrupted at any moment, with pandemonium breaking out. This is brought about by either a horse fly or a passing car. The passing car might unknowingly honk its horn just to let us know it’s approaching. It is a thoughtful gesture, but all too often is an unusual and startling sound to the cows. One or two freaked out cows is all it takes to get the whole herd riled up. The same can be said for the horse fly, but it’s a much more dreaded menace to us boys.

The horse fly is about the size of a large bumble bee. The female likes to feed off the flesh of livestock, primarily horses and cows, while the male only consumes plant pollen. The female lands on a cow’s back, plants its feet solidly, and uses its mandibles to slash the flesh of the poor animal causing blood to flow. The cow has no idea what’s happening beyond feeling this intense, sharp pain in its back. It will instantly bellow, bolt, prance and buck, trying to dislodge the horse fly. It might take the fly 10 seconds or so to lap up all the blood it wants before releasing its grip from the animal and lumbers off with its meal. By this time the damage is done. As with the honking car, one riled-up cow is all it takes. One cow excites another, which excites another and so forth.

I first hear, and then see, a horse fly buzzing the herd. I try to ward it away without upsetting the cattle. I shout a warning to the others. It’s too late. The horse fly has found a victim and made its landing. I stand there frozen, waiting for the first sign of trouble. It only takes a couple seconds. The unsuspecting victim senses something on its back and tries to swish it off with its tail. Unsuccessful, and feeling the pain of a sharp slash to its back, the cow lets out a bellow, bucks and kicks, and then bolts. This gets all the cows around it excited and the melee begins. The cattle head in every direction – bolting across the road, bursting through the crop-field fence, running in opposite directions up and down the ditch. Each of us four boys start running in different directions, trying to get in front of the lead cows. I’m running east on the gravel road in bare feet, trying to at least get cows off the road.

Too late. Here comes a car. Before I can even wish it won’t happen, it does. The impatient driver honks the car horn to get cows out of its way. This causes more mayhem. Now cows are in ditches on both sides of the road, still running.

I finally get in front of the lead cows and turn them back toward the farmstead. The other boys are having similar success. It takes 20 minutes to get the cattle rounded up and back into a herd. We’re sweating, exhausted and panting heavily from all the running. The herd is too worked up to expect them to go back to feeding in the ditch. It would be pointless to try. We move them back to the feed lot, from whence they came. They’ll spend the rest of the day in the pasture. I close and secure the gate and head for the nearest water hose to get a drink of cold water.

If nothing unusual had happened, the cattle would be in the ditch feeding by eight in the morning and back to their fenced lot by noon. No horses, no lassos, no Stetson hats. Just three or four boys in bib overalls and bare feet keeping them in check. Iowa cowboys, er…. farmboys.

Prologue: Several years later, as an assignment for a high school career planning class, we students are asked to plan for and write a paper on a potential career after high school. I reflect on the romanticized life of a cowboy. Admittedly, the urge is strong. But somewhere in the back of my mind is the memory of dreaded horse flies and a herd of cattle in full panic, heading in many directions. I think better of that and plot a different course. That path will be divulged later.

Next Week: While life on The Farm comes with many responsibilities, school has its challenges too. Read about them in Nick Holman’s next installments, “Protector” and “Track.”