The Good Son

When his father became too sick to farm, Bobby Stiles knew what had to be done. so did his hometown

October 09, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

On the day he was supposed to leave the farm and go to college, Bobby's mother came into his room at 4 a.m. and turned on the light.

Bobby knew what the white glare meant. It was a bugle call, his mother's way of saying something bad had happened, she needed help, time for the new man of the house to get up.

He didn't wash his face or mess with his hair or even look at himself in the mirror. Bobby Stiles wasn't that kind of teen-ager. He kept his hair stubble-short, and he owned only one nice pair of tennis shoes for the nights he drove into town to hang out with friends. He saved his money for a gleaming Dodge Ram and for college.

Bobby found his work shoes by the door, where he left them when he came in from the milking parlor. They were big shoes, bigger than his father's, and like all the pairs parked around the door mat, they smelled of manure. He stepped into them without a second thought.

The sky overhead was black, and there was only the familiar light of a halogen moon above the barn to guide him across the carport toward the field. If his father had not been so sick, Bobby would have still been in bed.

Bobby's mother had seen the calves on her way to the morning milking, when she'd stopped at the fence and searched with a flashlight. She'd come back inside and told Bobby, but he'd been so groggy that only a piece of what she said had stayed with him: " ... we got a cow calf having troubles."

He was a toddler the first time he helped birth a calf, and over the years he had helped birth so many that the details swam together into a pool of knowledge uncommon for a boy of 17.

Twins, he knew, were a problem.

Carrying two and delivering two were hard on the mother cow, and the calves were often deformed. Some might appear OK, but inside they lacked necessary parts, or the parts they had did not work. Other farmers might put them out of their misery with the broad end of a shovel, but Bobby could never do that.

His parents taught him to value life, any life, and above all, to treat the cows with respect, as if they were kindly aunts. His mother Janet often said: "We're cow people. Cows are about the second most important thing around here."

Family, of course, was the first.

In the field, when the flashlight found the twins a second time, Bobby could see one was upright and standing, but the other lay flat on the ground.

He had raised enough hogs for the 4-H auctions that he knew how a healthy animal should look. He had seen enough of life and death to understand that one sometimes looked like the other.

Bobby thought one calf was dead.

From the look of them - their mother had not yet licked off the pearly sheen that glistened in the flashlight's glare - he knew they were no more than a few hours old.

One calf moved, but not the other.

Up close, Bobby studied the animal. Then he saw it, life rising and falling in its chest, steady and unmistakable.

Bobby helped his mother load the twins into the six-wheel Ranger they had bought after his father became too weak to climb onto the old four-wheeler. In Bobby's arms the sick calf felt as limp as cloth. Back across the field they drove, over the gravel driveway, into the barn.

Soon, the healthy calf would be taken to the stockyard and sold. A part of Bobby wanted to set the other calf out with a sign around its neck: "Free if you'll take me." Or: "Free if you'll put up with me until I die." For now, he left it in the barn.

Like most of the farm's buildings, the barn was old. To compete with the big commercial milking operations, Bobby's family needed to renovate, and they talked about ceiling fans, overhead sprinklers and a new pond for manure. They had many plans until May 1998, when the corner of his father's jaw froze.

The doctor said it wasn't Bell's Palsy as they suspected. It was worse than that. Tracy Stiles had colon cancer, and it had spread to his brain.

Somewhere along the way to the hospital, or coming back, all their visions of a better-ventilated barn and a grooved cement floor to prevent the cows from slipping were set aside.

The choice was Bobby's.

Even after his dad needed surgery and a year of chemotherapy and radiation, even after the treatments made him so tired he didn't get up for the morning milking, Bobby's parents said he could go. They would hire someone to do the work.

The plan had been for Bobby to go to Hagerstown Community College. Then he would transfer to Virginia Tech's dairy science program and come home to the farm in Boonsboro with a bachelor's degree.

If he chose to stay, the education would prepare him for whatever lies ahead: genetically engineered cows, faster milking machines, fickle consumers, stricter waste regulations, encroaching development, the fluctuating price of milk.

If he chose to leave, the diploma would be his passport into the other world.

The world Bobby knew was bordered by a distant tree-line, a loping ridge, a stalwart fence, a narrow road. He could see a part of it from any window in the house.

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