Saturday, November 27, 2010

Coming Home

Jerry and I went on a cruise in mid-November.  We had a good time, but were stunned and heartbroken by the news of our colleague Jim's death.  I knew this would hit the Ranchers like a ton of bricks and longed to be with them at such a sad time.  However, Phil assured me I could trust our staff, and what's more, I could trust the Ranchers to see one another through it. He said that in effect, Jerry and I were there because of the community we had helped create.

And so it was.  As things turned out, I was the one sobbing all alone at an internet terminal on a huge ship in the middle of the ocean.  Fellow passengers brought me tissues and someone patted my shoulder warmly in passing, which was much appreciated, but how I could have used some of those Rancher hugs at a time like that.

We are having our own service Tuesday afternoon to honor this good, much-loved man.  Rebekah's dad Fr. John Williams will lead the service.

And needless to say we were quickly swept back up into Ranch life.  Two new calves were born on Monday and are doing fine.  Our little Dude, born three weeks too early and still being bottle fed in the barn, got sick and Jerry, Crystal and I loaded him into an old delivery van and drove him to Taylor to see Dr. Graef.

The Dude felt awful, and I thought it was his ear.  My grandmother always told us kids when we were trying hard to look pitiful, "You look like a dying calf in a hail storm!"  I finally got the picture, too, as the Dude lay sprawled over Crystal and me, twisting his neck around to gaze at us with his huge, inky-black eyes.

Shortly before reaching Taylor, he scrambled up to his feet and promptly peed all over me.  Oh well, just another adventure along the road...

Actually, it was a good sign, or so said the doc.

After the Dude was shot up with painkillers and antibiotics (indeed it was an ear infection), we headed home, where he downed a half gallon of milk and skipped about feeling no pain, at least for a while.

Though bigger than his little cousins, he is at about the same stage of development.  We will put him out with them in a few more weeks, though we'll need to continue to bottle feed for another few months.

Then it was Tuesday, and we had our community Thanksgiving.  It was fun (and delicious), and the Ranchers began heading for home right away.

On Thanksgiving Day, the weather was warm and humid.  About 1:00 PM I stood in front of the house with Jerry and was complaining about the sticky weather when woosh! Out of the north came a mighty wind, cold and dry, blasting the oak leaves off the trees and picking up the fallen leaves from the ground, swooping them up high in the sky 30 or 40 feet, spiraling all around us. The thermometer dived from 80 to 45 over the next few hours.

Julia, Terry, and Natalie were still at home with Sandy on Thanksgiving Day, and of course Kelly is with Jerry and me, so we all had a fine time at Benedict House.  I put on the full feast of turkey, dressing, gravy, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, Challah bread, chocolate pie, pumpkin pie, whipped cream, cranberry sauce.  Jerry made the deep-dish enchilada, the stuffed celery, and the deviled eggs.

Weight Watchers, where art thou?

Anyway, we don't have to cook for a while.  After dinner we settled in to watch the Aggies and the Longhorns go at it.  Jerry grumped off to be when it was clear the Ags would win, but Kelly and I stayed til the satisfying end.

I'd have been an Aggie myself, but I was gender-challenged for that particular assignment in those ancient times.  I plan to ask Gov. Perry to do something about this situation.

Today the Ranchers are trickling back in.  Kelly will soon load up her bike and head up to Martha House.  In the weeks ahead we'll be packing poinsettias like crazy, going on deliveries, getting into the Christmas spirit.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Memory of Jim

Jerry and I just learned of the death of Jim Hooyboer, who has worked at the Ranch for the past few years.

Jim was an esteemed and valued colleague and friend.  More important, he was, at all times and in all circumstances, a true friend to each and every one of our Ranchers.  They and their welfare were top priority to Jim.  He was unfailingly kind and fair, and he taught them to do their work well and take pride in it.

We are truly heartbroken, and wish more than anything that we could be at the Ranch with our community at this time.

We send our condolences to Jim's family, of whom he was so proud, and whom he loved so much.  Indeed, our hearts are joined with theirs in deepest sorrow.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Dude, Bambi, and Things You Might Not Know About

Travis and Kyle walk the Dude back to the barn
The Dude continues to do well.  On Monday he was standing up when I came into the barn and voluntarily nursed from the bottle for the first time.  Once he figured that out he began to gain strength quickly and Tuesday took a walk with me to see the office staff across the parking lot. 

CJ, Annette, Kristin, and Sharon all came running out.  We'd figured he had less than a 50-50 chance of making it, and here he was toddling about, clumsy as all get out trying to figure out what to do with those four long knobby legs.

He's probably added eight pounds of body weight in the past three days and is noticeably stronger every day.  Watching him this morning  I got to thinking of all the Disney movies depicting young animals trying to get their land legs--Bambi and lambs came to mind most immediately.

These days of course they just film live creatures with sensors attached all over them and the animation is done via computers.  But way back when the Disney artists were drawing those frames one by one. 

I grew up in town and seldom saw baby farm animals.  I learned what they look like and how they act just after being born from Disney movies, and I can only imagine how many hours of footage of baby animals those artists watched before they set to work.

They did in their brains and with their hands what we now do with technology, and they nailed it dead on.  I see that in all the Dude's little awkward stumbles and falls, the way he lowers his neck and angles his head up and pitifully cries "Moo!" when he's hungry.

Jennifer and I were laughing yesterday about the "letdown bump," which our male Ranchers quickly learned to watch out for.  While feeding, calves periodically whack their mother's milk bag with a fast, strong upward bump of the nose to cause more milk to let down into the udders. 

This reflex continues when they're hungry even when they're bottle-fed.  Since the action takes place pretty close to an adult person's--shall we say--"nether regions" a guy in particular can get a rather painful surprise! Now the guys' hands immediately fly to protect themselves whenever the Dude approaches them. 

My guess is that in each case it was one-trial learning!

Bambi image from

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mildred Sheldon, a Friend Remembered

About 20 years ago  I attended a women's retreat at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest

We had just bought the land that would become Down Home Ranch.  I was understandably nervous about our impending move and all that implied--moving away from our daughters in Austin, selling our home, quitting our jobs, and setting out on an adventure that some gave a snowball's chance in hell of success.

I was not the only person in transition there.   Mildred Sheldon had recently moved from Copperas Cove to Rockdale with her husband the Rev. Joseph Sheldon, newly assigned Vicar of St. Thomas Episcopal Church there.

It's no exaggeration to say that Mildred was in a grieving stage.  She and Joe were a team, and they loved building a congregation from among the young, working-class military families in Copperas Cove that were their parishioners during Operation Desert Storm.  They felt desperately needed as their families confronted separation, danger, lonliness, and financial insecurity. 

Mildred had been in Rockdale for about a month, and anger was giving way--on some days anyway--to acceptance.  During a sharing meeting she told how she had been standing at the ironing board one day scorching not only the clothes but God's ears as she railed against their new assignment. 

"Then God broke through to me," she said with a wry smile.  "He said, 'Mildred! You left Copperas Cove.  I didn't!"

A few months later Jerry, Kelly and I moved out onto the Ranch, moving into a tiny mobile home and sharing our yard with about 30 cows finishing off the last of their owners' grazing lease for 1991.  It was one of the rainiest years on record, and after Jerry left for work in Austin and I took Kelly to school each day I returned to the trailer to sit at our little Apple Mac and ponder our circumstances, while it poured rain outside hour, after hour, after hour.

One day I dropped Kelly off in Thrall and thought, I cannot go back to the land!  I just can't!

I recalled the priest's wife from the conference and decided to keep on heading east on Hwy 79 to Rockdale to see if I could find her. 

Finding the church was no problem, but nobody was there.  I asked around and was sent to the vicarage, but nobody was home.  I returned sadly home through the driving rain and called the Diocese offices in Houston.  They gave me Joe and Mildred's number.  She answered, remembered me well, and invited us over the next evening for dessert and coffee.

Thus was born a relationship that ended only with Joe's death several years ago and with Mildred's a few weeks ago.

Mildred and Joe became members of our fledgling board, and brought two lifetimes of wisdom to the job.  In early '95 during a board meeting Joe declared, "We've got to get some programs going on out here!"  So then and there we resolved to start Ranch Camp, which blossomed from a few dozen folks in tents to a full-fledged camping program attended by hundreds each summer.

St. Thomas parishioners became involved, too, helping out with camp and special events, serving on the board, guiding us along the way.

But however important Mildred was to the Ranch, it was her ministry to me in those early days that are the enduring legacy as far as I'm concerned.  I don't know if I would have made it if not for her friendship.  

She and Joe joined us for Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings with our family.  We laughed at our spiritual foibles and shared our struggles as women who had come of age in a challenging time, when roles were changing and one's duty nearest to hand was not so clear as it once had been.  Mildred had an early, failed marriage with children, as did I.  We both married exceptional men who accepted our children as their own.  We shared so much and so delighted in one another's company.

After Mildred and Joe retired, eventually moving to San Angelo, we seldom saw each other, but she and I talked frequently on the phone.  In one of our last conversations before Joe died, she said, "Judy, this is truly the happiest time of my life.  Joe and I have so much fun.  I think people walking by us must think we're lunatics."

And that's how I remember of Mildred, and her Joe, now joined with all the company of heaven.

Happy Birthday Dude, One Week Old!

Dude is acting like a regular calf!
Hurray!  Came in the barn this morning and the Dude is standing up.

Mornin', little Dude," I said.

"Mooooo," said the Dude.

He's up and acting like a calf!  Bumping, and following, and happily taking the bottle instead of having to have it forced down him.  He's getting this walking thing down pretty good and knows that we two-legged critters are where the food comes from.

He's a happy little Dude.

Dude's hungry!  Here he's sucking on Kyle's pants
Travis and Kyle love the Dude

Rebekah prepares a bottle

Aaah...lunch at last!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cool Friday

Dell Volunteer Mary Berg Gets Acquainted with the Dude
This morning it was cold--about 34 degrees.  I was snuggled under the warm down comforter and vaguely aware that Jerry was getting up and dressing to go to the gym and work out.  I can't  claim to have given that noble plan any thought whatever.  I quickly dived back under the covers and went back to sleep.

Woke up ten minutes before staff meeting was to start at 8:00,  took the world's fastest shower and got there at 5 after.  Biggest news on the agenda was the impending opening of our first off-campus house in Taylor and the arrival this weekend of a new resident at the Ranch.

Mary puts up trellis for snow peas in the garden
It was a short meeting because we were anticipating 120 or so Dell volunteers this morning and  had to get to our stations to be ready for this huge pool of labor for the time they'd be here.  This is how big things get done at Down Home Ranch.

Sandit Works Priming Joseph House
On today's plan were painting an office, priming the walls of Joseph House, excavating collapsed culvert, constructing beds and prepping the community garden, general brush clearing and removal, and the really big project: moving several hundred ceramic molds and two kilns from the warehouse to the Spur barn, where we will set up our ceramics workshop. 

Cataloging and moving ceramic molds
Not to mention feeding our 5-day old preemie calf, Dude.

Restoring a Culvert
We love Dell volunteers because they come out in teams, and they're used to working together as a team.  They're smart and motivated, and they enjoy the chance to do something physical.

Dell also donated a new server to us, which we just got installed, joining up with Mr. PC of Austin to handle the switch, and my, what a difference.  We've about got the bugs out and are just now understanding what a huge difference this will make.

I overheard Michael and Alan talking as they cleaned the barn hallway just outside my office.  Alan asked Michael if "all those people" were getting paid.  Michael said no, they just came to help out.

"We might get in trouble," Alan said.  "You can't make people work and not pay them."

"It's different for them," said Michael.  "They don't have to do it so we don't have to pay them to do it."

I was amazed that Michael and Alan knew this much about labor law!  And even more that they were concerned about its implications for the Ranch's use of volunteer labor.

But most of all, I loved hearing that "we." 

Michael and Alan have taken full ownership of their Ranch.

Bully Boy, aka "The Dude"

Our little guy is doing better, walking around some and getting stronger.  He's willingly taking the bottle, and what with all the attention he's getting should soon turn into quite a spoiled brat.  We're hoping anyway.

So far so good.

Here's Rebekah and the Dude yesterday.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bully Boy Update Nov. 2 11:35 AM

Jennifer talked with Elgin Vet's bovine head.  He said at this point we'd probably just go ahead and bring the calf over to the main barn and work on him here.

Mama is perturbed but gets confused when she approaches the calf because he isn't able to do his part.  He still can't stand on his own for more than a few seconds.

Jennifer says she hears gut rumbles after feeding, though, and she thinks that's a good sign.

If we can pull him through, we will.  We've done it before.

Pulling for Bully Boy

Last evening I was just leaving my office when Mr. Pat drove by.

"Bad news. Calf born, maybe last night," he yelled.  "Not doing so good, can't stand up.  Jennifer's gone to town for supplies."
Jennifer holds Bully Boy's head up

Bad news indeed.

We've been anxiously monitoring our four bred Angus, due to calve between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  They've looked the picture of health--black, fat, glossy, and clear-eyed, bred to a black Japanese Wagyu.

But first birth for any new mother can be risky.  We hurried over to the pasture where our little guy lay in the straw as Mama looked on worriedly.

He was clean as a whistle, which means she'd tended him, so it wasn't a case of maternal neglect.  But he just had no vigor.  Jennifer thought he might be about a month early.

He was beautiful.

We got him to stand and Mama tried to get close to him.  We took that as a good sign and backed off. 

He collapsed.

Jennifer got back with the milk, bottles, and colostrum paste.  When Jer came back to the house he said she'd managed to get about a third of a bottle into him, but that he wouldn't latch on and suck properly.  She thought he was just too weak.

Jennifer had to head home to get her own baby and everyone decided just to let the calf rest for a while.  He looked plumb tuckered out, and as I reminded everyone, he was a newborn, even if he did weigh 45 pounds, and needed his rest.

After supper Jerry hurried down to check on him.  Sterling went out to help, and they tried to feed some more.  The calf still couldn't suck, though he did seem somewhat interested.

Finally Jerry called me to find Jennifer and get her back.

She'd just picked up the baby, so I said, "That one I know what to do with. I'll take care of Kenya."  Jennifer headed back to the Ranch.

By now lightning was dancing on the horizon with thunderstorms predicted by midnight.  I groped my way in the dark to where Jerry and Sterling continued to work to get some milk into the calf.

I helped until Jennifer showed up, and then went to take baby Kenya from her.  An hour later she'd managed to get another half bottle and the colostrum into him, and they'd settled him into a stall.  He looked a little better.

This morning I checked on him and Sam the mule and a little sidekick were in the stall with the baby.  Jennifer showed up with the office staff.  Mama decided the hubub was too much and came to investigate, running CJ out the other side of the stall.   We made ourselves scarce.

"What's his name?" someone asked.

"No name!" I said, quoting the party line.

"Breakfast, some day," Jennifer said.  Then we both leaned low and whispered in his ear, "Only kidding, Bully Boy."

Stay tuned, and say a little prayer, if you would.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Servant Hearts

Kelly, Kyle, and Sandy figuring out the baking thing
 Yesterday students from St. Mary's Catholic Student Center at Texas A and M came out, a whole slew of them!  They'd wanted to do a service project, and we said, "Hey, why don't you do a Halloween thing with our residents?  They'd love that."

Everyone was game, so we worked a bit from both ends to set up and afternoon of fun and fellowship, and it was a doozie!

Kyle rides his broom like the cowboy he is
The thing is, there's just something special about Aggies.  We do have a few straggling Longhorns at the Ranch (and one real one), but the Aggies far outnumber them.  One reason is that we've had a close relationship with St. Mary's since the late 90s, so much so that many of our campers and Ranchers either come from that area or have very close ties to the University.

Not Quiddich--it's just a broom race
 I guess it figures that Aggies would be attracted to Ranch life.  Whatever the reason, by now the ties are so strong that the Ranch can deck itself out in maroon for any occasion.

The day began with everyone getting to know one another, moved on to cookie-backing, continued with the great scarecrow-stuffing-broomstick-racing-pumpkin-rolling event, and ended up by carving faces on the surviving pumpkins.  In the middle of all that were hamburgers for lunch.
The St. Mary's students were easy and natural with the residents, and asked over and over how they could get more involved.

Alan gets down and dirty with his pumpkin carving
 I told them that kids and adults with intellectual disabilities spend a whole lot of time with people who are paid to be with them and precious little with anybody (excluding family) who just wants to be around them because they like them. 

Therefore the St. Mary's visit was pure gold for us.  Just give our people a chance and they'll steal your heart.

Soon they'll be on Facebook tagging their new friends, enjoying the chance to be like everyone else.  The students will become hooked on the fascinating news from Down Home Ranch as disseminated by the Ranchers themselves.