For Fun

The Scope of His Cow

First time I met Mollie, I wrote this about her dad.  That was 20-some years ago.

The idea of a giant cow had occupied a corner of Jerry Braun's imagination for the better part of two years.  Many times, he'd admired the king-size fiberglass bull that pops up occasionally in supermarket parking lots and decided he'd like something like that himself.

 On summer evenings, he'd sit on his back porch at the Braun homestead on Pleasant Ridge Road outside Grant's Lick with his wife, Linda.  He'd look out across his 60 acres and beyond, across the green valley that forms a deep, two-mile-wide bowl.  It was during one of those twilight sessions that he settled on a spot down by the pond, where anyone who drives by could see it.

For the longest time, Linda thought it was just Jerry talking.  She'd known Jerry since grade school, when they first admitted to having a crush on each other, so she knew Jerry was capable of doing some talking.  Then one day last October, he came home with his pickup packed with bags of sand and cement. 

Even now, Jerry can't say what compelled him to build a giant cow.  It was a calling, he guesses.  He had no specific picture in his mind of how his cow would look.  He thought he'd get started and see what happened. 

It took eight days to build. He'd get up at 4:30 a.m. and work on it a few hours before heading off to his job as a maintenance man for Campbell County schools. He'd work on it in the evenings, as long as the light held out.  He built a skeleton of two-by-fours and four-by-fours, cementing its hooves into the ground. Over this, he laid a layer of wire lath. On top of that, he laid a skin of cement.

The 18 head of cattle grazing his pastures are Herefords and black whitefaces, but he wanted something with bolder markings.  So he built a Holstein.

From Jerry's back porch, she looks like a normal-size Holstein, immobilized in mid-stride, heading in a northerly direction, past the purple martin house, to take a drink from the pond.  But on the ride down the hill in Jerry's reconditioned 1947, '48 and '49 Willys, you get a better idea of her scope. 

One ear is cocked forward; the other lists to the rear, as if she's picking up sounds fore and aft.  Down below and to the south are the merest suggestions of udders.  She's 10 feet tall and 16 feet long, which Jerry believes is sufficiently grand for his purposes.

One day last week, Krista Moreland brought her class from Grant's Lick Elementary to the Braun homestead for their third annual end-of-the-school-year blowout.

Jerry had used his jigsaw and a board to build a toy sailboat for each child. He’d painted each hull red or yellow and attached a mast with a pink sail.  When the boats were launched, the breeze pushed them in a pretty pattern of pink triangles to the pond's far end.

Then he set about to stringing bobbers, tying hooks on lines and baiting them with red worms.  He handed a cane pole to each kid, who immediately flung a line into the water and quickly began landing sunfish, hybrid bluegill and an occasional bass or channel cat.

Behind this scene of children playing and laughing, Jerry's giant Holstein presided in Sphinx-like grandeur.  And there was Jerry, grinning like a third-grader.  It was the kind of scene he had in mind when, 28 years ago at the age of 19, he put everything he had into buying this land – and again, 15 years ago, when he built the pond.

“I don't know why I built the cow,” he says.

“I just felt like I needed to.”

Is a thumb a finger?  Or is it just a thumb?

Is a thumb a finger?  Or is it just a thumb?

I hadn’t really considered the question prior to one morning this week when Garrison, a boy in my son Ollie’s fourth-grade class, held up both hands and asked, “Mrs. Bentley, how many fingers do you see?” 

My father tormented me with word games as a child.  We once spent a week over family dinner musing over a hypothetical plane crashing on the U.S.-Canada border and where survivors ought to be buried.  So as a seasoned fielder of this sort of query, I coolly responded by saying, “It depends. Do you consider thumbs fingers?” 

Garrison was disappointed that I hadn’t fallen for his “trick” question.  But it spurred a conversation.  The class erupted with questions, opinions and general observations about thumbs.  In an attempt to resolve the question, I pulled out my phone and Googled, “Is a thumb a finger?” The entire class hushed and waited for the answer. 

The take on what constitutes a finger is this: “Each of the four slender jointed parts attached to either hand (or five, if the thumb is included).”  So even the Oxford Dictionary was conflicted on the thumb/finger question.

I drew two columns on a white board – “Thumbs Yes” and “Thumbs No” -- and asked the kids to vote by raising their hands. We got 21 votes cast and only 17 students in the room. 

James suggested we draw a Venn diagram incorporating the idea of digits into the area where the circles intersected. I’ve never shied away from a Venn diagram.  But I had no sooner drawn the circles on the whiteboard when Mrs. Guidugli entered to reclaim the chaos her classroom had degenerated into.

I explained we hadn’t completed the morning work assignment because we were distracted in a scholarly pursuit of the Great St. Mary School Thumb Debate of 2019, which I offered as an assurance to Mrs. Guidugli that our time had not been wasted. 

 I further promised Mrs. Guidugli that I’d find a resolution.  Which is why I set up a few Internet polls and asked everyone’s opinion I encountered the rest of the day.

The Facebook and Twitter poll results the next day were inconclusive.  Everybody I talked to went off on tangents about phalanges and digits, but no one was willing to commit. 

I’d really like my son to pass 4th grade and so I need to turn my report into Mrs. Guidugli by tomorrow morning. Do you know? Is a thumb a finger?  Or is it just a thumb?

You Clamored for More...Well, Here it is

A recent blog entry mentioning Horatio Alger drew such an overwhelming response, more than we’ve ever had, with so many of you clamoring for additional details, that I’m obliged to explore Horatio’s story in greater depth.  It’s also a chance to shed light on an oft-ignored storytelling principle, that being:

Stories usually leave behind a trail of loose strings, like dangling participles.  When you tug any one of those strings, you’re liable to find stories more intriguing or, in this case, more unsettling than the original.  In the case of Horatio Alger, one such loose string leads us to conclude he was the Michael Jackson of his day.

Warning: You ought to avoid sharing the rest of this bit to children or the faint of heart.

(Horatio on his graduation from Harvard in 1852)

 Kids gone?  OK, here’s the poop on Horatio, according to Wikipedia.  You probably already know he became famous writing about hard-luck kids, mostly boys making good through hard work and perseverance. His first novel, “Marie Bertrand: The Felon's Daughter,” was serialized in New York Weekly in 1864, and his first boys' book, “Frank's Campaign,” was published the same year.

Also that year, Horatio became a pastor with the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts.There, he organized various games and amusements for the parish boys.  He also preached against the evils of smoking and drinking while serving as president of the local chapter of the Cadets for Temperance. He submitted stories to Student and Schoolmate, a boys' monthly magazine of moral writings. In 1865, he published a second book, “Paul Prescott’s Charge,” which received favorable reviews. 

Here’s the shocker.  Early in 1866, a church committee of men was formed to investigate reports that Horatio, like Jacko, had been molesting boys. He was charged, according to church officials, with "the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.” 

Unlike Jacko, Horatio denied nothing.  He admitted he’d been imprudent, considered his association with the church dissolved and left town, but not before sending Unitarian officials in Boston a letter of remorse.  His former Unitarian pals were satisfied and decided not to tar and feather Horatio or take any further action. 

Horatio relocated to NYC and, by the 1880s, was enjoying critical praise for his writing from the lies of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  He died in 1899.  Not quite half a century later, someone formed the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which hands out a bunch of Horatio Alger Awards each year.  Recipients include Bob Hope, Tom Brokaw, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, Leonard DiCaprio, Harlan Sanders, Art Linkletter, Quincy Jones and Waylon Jennings.

Bet you didn’t know any of that.