As a youngster, I couldn’t even imagine what other people did in summer without Mobile Bay to entertain them. I assumed they were all in a holding pattern somewhere boring until they could visit me. Since I lived in Point Clear year-round, I was the default playmate for many of Mom’s friends’ children when they came over from the city. I was also on standby to entertain the children on Dad’s side of the family when they dropped in from Texas. My typical impression of most out-of-towners was tennis shoes that needed to be immediately discarded, a brand new bathing suit that needed to be cured in muddy Bay water, and a tiresome fear of catfish and crabs. It seemed I had to teach them everything.
When I was 10 years old, Dad felt I needed to expand my horizons.
“Texas?” I said. “But what’s there to do in Texas?”
“Get to know your cousins. Experience life on the ranch.”
Dad gave me a refresher course on my Key cousins and told me again of spending his childhood summers with Uncle Dave, a cattle farmer in East Texas. I wasn’t listening. All I could think about was the fishing and swimming I’d be missing. I pictured hot, breezeless cow pastures thrumming with cicadas and scum-covered watering holes.
Uncle Dave met me at the airport. He drove a dusty pickup truck and dressed like a cowboy. He chauffeured me to the ranch where I’d stay at Cousin Swan’s house. She had two sons that were just about my age.
Luke and his younger brother, Michael, were both standing in their driveway waiting for me. They were dressed in cowboy boots and Western wear. Luke is my age and, like me, was on the small side. I vaguely recalled him visiting Point Clear once.
We faced off in what really felt like a showdown. “What you wanna do?” he finally asked.
“I don’t know, ” I said.
“Well, he can ride in the football, ” Michael suggested. “You wanna ride in the football?”
“In it?” I asked.
Luke’s eyes shimmered with victory. “Come on, ” he said. “I’ll show you.”
I followed them inside the house and upstairs to what they called the play loft. In the center of the room was a giant plastic football. Luke sat on the floor and began kicking and beating on the top of it until he finally got it loose. Then he turned it over and poured out a pile of miscellaneous toys. Michael rolled it upright again and both of them stood back and looked at me.
“Get in, ” Luke said.
“So we can roll you down the stairs.”
“Serious?” I asked.
“Yeah, ” he said. “Michael, show him.”
Michael eagerly climbed inside. Luke pounded the top on again, rolled him to the staircase and pushed him over the edge. The football bounced like a pingpong ball, hit the bottom and slammed into a wall. Luke ran after it, pried the lid off and Michael crawled out smiling.
“See?” Luke said. “We do it all the time.”
At this point I was convinced that my cousins weren’t challenging me. They were offering their best entertainment, Texas-style. It took a few minutes to get me crammed in and balled up with my face between my knees. Then I felt their fists and feet on the top of my head as they banged and stomped the lid tight. Then everything went dark and stuffy.
“Ready!” came Luke’s muffled yell.
“Yeah, ” I muttered.
At first it wasn’t so bad. Just gentle rolling. Then it felt like I’d been dropped off a cliff. Twenty times. The football was thinner than it looked, and I felt the edge of every stair tread hammer me in the ribs … shoulder … head … rear end … kneecap. “I don’t know how I’ll survive, ” I thought.
Just when I thought it was over, I slammed into the wall below and almost puked. I heard them run down the stairs, and I waited while they rolled me around and worked the lid off. Finally, I felt a whoosh of cool air on the top of my head. I could see glints of light beside me. Luke pulled on my neck until my head popped out of the hole.
“You like that?”
I took a deep breath and looked at him. “Sure, ” I lied. “What else do you have?”
“Let’s ride the calf!” Michael said.
“Ride a calf?”
Luke was already out the front door with Michael behind him. “Yeah!” he called out. “We got some new ones!”
I caught up with them at the pasture gate. Luke had a bucket of what looked like giant dog food in one hand and a stick in the other. He started banging on the metal gate with the stick. Before long, cows were lumbering toward us. Michael climbed over the gate and stood in the pasture. Luke followed. “Come on, ” Michael said.
Luke dumped the food pellets on the ground, and the cows clustered around them. Then suddenly, he took off running. After a second, I saw he was headed for a calf standing a little outside the herd. He jumped on its back and laid down with his feet around its stomach and his arms around its neck. The calf took off like a racehorse and made straight for the trees. Luke was gone.
I looked at Michael, speechless. He kept his eyes on the pasture and pointed for me to watch. I did. A second later the calf tore out of the trees again, flying Luke from its neck like a scarf. When the calf passed close, Luke let go, rolled across the ground, stood and brushed off.
“Try it!” he exclaimed.
I started running. I leapt onto the back of the calf and clutched it like a wet cat. For a few seconds, everything was a bucking blur with the wind roaring in my face. Then I realized the calf was no longer under me. When I hit the ground, it felt like I’d been slapped on the rear with a board. Then my face rolled through something soft and slimy. Finally I came to rest, staring up at the clear Texas sky.
In a moment Luke and Michael were standing over me.
“You like that?”
Again, I was speechless. They helped me up and Luke began brushing me off. “We can go swimming, ” he said. “Get you cleaned up.”
“Swim?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know how to swim, don’t you?”
text by and photo courtesy of Watt Key