TOM DUFFY, the best neighbor I've ever had, is going back to Montana to raise Red Angus cattle, and I'm very sorry to see him go. Also puzzled.
He leaves a very good job with the CIA (analysis side, as he is quick to point out) to go into a business that flies in the face of the farm crisis. But he is an honest and resourceful person, and if I had to bet, I'd put a little on him.
As neighbors do, he and his family leave a lot of memories of the nine years we've lived side by side in Loudoun County. One of the best is the time he suggested we go into the cattle business. "Get a few animals on the place," as he put it. "The place" is 17 acres for him and 13 for me.
An intriguing idea -- adventuresome, even. I had two things going for me -- ignorance, and the knowledge that Tom grew up on a farm in Montana. So we fired up Tom's circa-1960 pickup to transport the cattle and headed off over the mountain to Winchester.
On the way over the mountain, I asked Tom what characteristics we should look for in the steer calves we were wanting to buy.
"Well," he said, "one thing you want to watch out for is that there aren't any blue spots in their eyes. That means they've got pinkeye, which is very contagious and could make them partially blind." He thought some, and then said: "Oh yeah. The head should be in proportion to the rest of the body."
I waited for some great truths about cattle -- lumpy hip joints mean this, cocked ears mean that, a deep cleft in the hoof indicates majesty, shallow girth bespeaks good blood lines, things like that. Silence.
"That it?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's about it," he said.
The Winchester Livestock Exchange is an amalgam of noise and smells, a lively junction of big business and small dirt farmer. The center is the auction pit, a square of dirt bounded on one side by the auctioneer's podium and on the other three by rising tiers of seats. They are for those who come to buy, and those who watch while the dimensions of their livelihood are described by the prices the auctioneer can coax for their stock.
Outside -- but also under roof -- is the maze of shutes, pens and gates where the pickup trucks disgorge the animals to be auctioned. There is constant movement as the handlers go about, closing gates, opening others, creating and dissolving holding pens, passages and corridors and moving the animals ever nearer the pit.
There is a raucous din as the nervous animals groan and bellow, scattering across the pens, reforming and crowding into the corners, reacting to the movements of the handlers and the pack instinct of trapped animals. The light is scant and tinged with gloom, the air a rich, fetid mixture of manure, dirt, sawdust and sweat.
We were interested in beef calves, and steers -- neutered males -- at that. Bulls are much too hard to handle, Tom told me, and heifers do not bulk up like steers. Each of the animals had a sticker with a number on its hip so as to track the animal you wished to bid on.
We spotted some likely calves from the walkway over the pens and noted their numbers. Then we went down to the pens for a closer look. The footing at ground level can be a little treacherous, and I found loafers not suited to the task.
We returned to the auction ring, and there confusion began to seep in around the edges. Above the auctioneer was a device resembling a scoreboard. It flashed the hip number of the animal or animals, and the weight. Here is where the trouble started. The animals probably spent between 20 and 30 seconds in the pit, and the auctioneer, microphone in hand, started going like a freight train as soon as they came in. He sounded like somebody shouting gibberish down a well, and the effect was bewildering.
I had estimated how much money I wanted to spend on this venture, and I quickly found that my head could not process the instant calculations needed. By the time the steer was sold, I was generally still working out what the initial bid price totaled. For instance, the weight flashed on the scoreboard is 358 pounds. The bid starts at $31.50 a hundredweight and progresses rapidly. I have a $120 limit. Where am I when the bid reaches $34.75 a hundredweight? Try it. You have maybe three, four seconds.
Duffy was not doing much better than I was. In truth, the auctioneer wasn't much interested in us, and he certainly wasn't interested in waiting around for us to multiply seven by five and carry the two. Uh, three. He would look at certain people in the audience, and they would make these little gestures and nods, just like you see in the movies. The auctioneer paid attention to these guys -- they were the boys from the packing houses -- and they made the difference in the success of the auction.
Finally, two Black Angus calves came into the pit. Tom said, "What do you say we go after these together?"
"Fine," * LM! The auctioneer has slammed the microphone down on the desk. He half rises from his chair, glaring at us.
"You bidding at me?" he shouts at us.
"$37.50," shouts Tom.
"SOLD," shouts the auctioneer, jumping on the sudden dollar increase in price.
The auction moved on and we left, loading the calves in the pickup truck and heading home. We stopped for a six-pack at the Dewdrop Inn outside of Winchester, and took a closer look at what we had bought. One of them was blind in one eye. The other was a bull.
"What the hell," I said to Tom as we started home again, "I bet that's the way the King Ranch started."
So now Tom Duffy is heading to Montana to start a cattle business. I have been thinking about why he would want to go. There is only one conclusion. He figures I have taught him as much as I can about cattle.
Tom Wilkinson is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post.