I blame my Great Aunt Lucille. When given enough encouragement at family gatherings, she’ll yodel. And not just the party trick, see-what-I-can-do yodel, she’ll get the full-on scalar fluctuation replete with posturing and a few dance steps. She may even encourage you to join in. So when Mom let it slip that she was on her way to Switzerland and Italy this past autumn to judge some AQHA shows, Lucille’s daughter Marcia decided that this was a great chance to go with her and find some long-lost cousins. Aunt Lucille still has quite a bit of family in the old country. Her letters home about the idylls of ranching on the Powder River weren’t quite enough to get them to leave their Alpine meadows.
Upon return, Mom’s luggage was so full of cowbells upon return that her luggage clanked. Loudly. It’s rumored that she had to tip the bellboy an extra twenty just to get her stuff to the airport. Mom claims that we tell bald-faced lies, but I’ve noticed that is only when Dad is in the room, wondering why Switzerland is so expensive. Christian, one of the unearthed Swiss cousins, was responsible for the extra weight. He’s famous for his Swiss cows and has the championship bells to prove it. Long before Marcia and Mom met up with the old family, they had been scouring the Swiss antique stores for just these bells. Christian was more than happy to part with a few as they had been doing nothing but collecting dust in his barn. He wanted only one thing in return: a picture of one of his prize Swiss cowbells on one of Mom’s Longhorns.
Funny how she only told us about this after she got the bells home.
By anyone’s standards, none of our Longhorns are nice cattle. This goes double for the one that happened to get in the trailer. She’s ungrateful, spiteful, mean-spirited, and thinks the best use of her rack is make a shish-ka-bob out of you. “But the Longhorns look so picturesque out in the pasture,” says Mom, though neither my dad nor brother, Matt, consider that breed trait important enough to explain their necessity. So when Mom decided that Christmas Day was a GREAT time to bell the Longhorn Swiss because we were all home to help, her proclamation was not met with overwhelming enthusiasm.
You see, squeeze chutes and homo sapien humor are not native territory to Longhorns, so it took quite a bit of encouragement, that is, cussing by my father and brother, to get her down the alley. They had long since decided that in light of the task at hand, the hotshot should be avoided at all costs. Looking through the viewfinder of my grandfather’s camera (conveniently swiped for this ordeal), I could tell that this was not this old gal’s idea of a good time. For her to even make it into the squeeze chute, she had to turn her head sideways, giving Matt ample opportunity to observe her eyeball rolls and snot flinging. (She was rather theatrical.) But she did make it, much to Matt’s chagrin.
Belling a Longhorn involves some trial and even more error. For the first try, Matt teased a loop around her horns and tied her head back to one side of the chute. Now, to get a bell on from this angle means that you have to reach around the side of her head, all the while trying to avoid having her stuff one of her horns in you ear. Your other option is to kneel down in front of her, pretending to propose while reaching up to buckle the bell around her neck. Matt decided that he wasn’t a romantic after all. Something about kneeling in front of a drooling, wild-eyed Longhorn didn’t make him want to croon sweet nothings and admit his undying affection. What an edelweiss. About then, Dad remembered that the side bars of the squeeze chute could be opened. (Colorado State didn’t give him that DVM for nothin’!) What a fantastic idea—reach in from the side and bell the cow, all without her poking you in the belly. And that’s just what they did.
As you can see, we did get the necessary photo. It took me a few tries to get a good shot off through the pipe fence separating me from her. But, Cousin Christian now has the necessary proof that such a cow exists. I also think that he was a bit suspicious that Mom would back out of her end of the deal.
The Swiss Miss was not happy to learn that the odd, tinkling sound seemed to follow her wherever she went, but other than that, she seemed no worse for the wear. Matt managed to get most of the drool off by the time dinner was served, and Dad seemed to think that there were worse things that could have been accomplished with the day. Mom promises no more Christmas cow-bellings. As for me, I’m just glad that I didn’t have to help. Much.
Once I had the photo, Matt and Dad did remove the bell, an act infinitely easier than getting it there in the first place. We didn’t want the other cattle to laugh at her. As it just so happens, most of our family is still laughing at us. We can hear them all the way from Switzerland.
Author’s note: I originally published this article in the Winter 2007 issue of Range magazine. It has long since entered family lore, however, and was too funny a story to not share. Enjoy!