I have posted this story before on this blog, but it is the most fitting story I have for a Memorial Day post. It speaks to the tremendous sacrifice suffered from a small group of farm families living along the banks of Catching Creek, a small tributary to the Coquille River.
I grew up in Oregon’s Coquille River Valley in the 1940s and 1950s. After a stretch in the US Army from 1965 to 1969, I returned to school and graduated from Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1975. I practiced in the foothills of the Oregon Cascade Mountains for 40 years.
The loss of my close childhood friend, Don Miller, was the driving force for my return to school following my tour in the US Army.
D. E. Larsen, DVM
We hurried across the cow bridge at the upper end of Uncle Dutch’s farm. We were in a hurry because we planned to hunt up to the Bartlett farm this afternoon. This would require us to cross Catching Creek one more time, and that crossing would have no bridge. Don Miller and I were in the fall of our 8th-grade year. Living on neighboring farms out of Myrtle Point, we hunted ducks and anything else along the creek as often as we could.
Don was a little smaller than I, but we were both stout young men and growing as we hurried along. I had on pair of hand-me-down hip boots. Don was in tennis shoes. That meant that I would have to carry Don across the creek piggyback.
As we rushed across the field toward Bartlett’s lower ground, a ruffed grouse sprang from the creek bank. We generally collected several wood ducks on these evening hunts. Occasionally, we would run into a flock of mallards. If we were lucky, a China rooster would cross our path. But this grouse was an unexpected surprise, and he was quickly dispatched.
We had been hunting the creek for a couple of seasons now, and we were crack shots with our shotguns. We knew every riffle in the stream, and we knew where we could expect ducks. Most of the time, we didn’t have enough time to get this far up the creek. We would have to hurry to get back to our fields to shot ducks as they came back down the creek heading to roost in the swamp near town.
When we came to the creek crossing, I pulled my boots up, and Don jumped on my back. With Don holding both shotguns, we crossed the creek with no problems. We had worried about this ford when we were planning to hunt higher in the creek. We hunted along the creek in Bartlett’s lower field, jumping a group of mallards. Don and I both added a large mallard drake to our bag. This was a great addition to our typical hunt.
As we headed back down the creek, I stumbled while carrying Don across the ford. We came close to ending up in the water. I did recover my balance and ran the last few steps to the far bank. We sat and rested and laughed at the near disaster. We knew it would have made the trip down the creek a chilly walk.
We had about a mile to go. We didn’t need to follow the creek going down. We had jumped all the ducks on the way up the creek. We just wanted to get to our field at the base of the Cowhorn (our field was named for its shape, the Cowhorn on our side of the creek, and Horseshoe Bend on Uncle Dutch’s side). The ducks flying down the creek in the evening would cross this field every evening. We seldom hit a duck here. They were high and flying fast, but it gave us a lot of fun shooting, and just maybe we would get one.
As we reached the field, we had to follow the creek a short distance to reach our shooting area. We both stopped at the same time. There were riffles, many of them, in a quiet area of the creek. This had to mean a whole flock of ducks. We spread apart, crouched a little, and snuck along the creek bank. Expecting to see the sky fill with ducks, we burst into an open grassy area of the bank, guns at the ready.
There were no ducks. A cow was floundering in the water. She seemed unable to recover her footing and was struggling to keep her head above water. I laid my shotgun and game bag down, pulled up my boots, and entered the creek to hold her head.
“Don, run over to Lundy’s and call Dad,” I shouted to Don.
He dropped his gear and took off like a shot.
The cow settled down a little with me holding her head. It was going to be 20 or maybe 30 minutes before anybody got here. I was glad I had my hip boots.
The first to arrive was Vern Lundy and Don. They drove in Vern’s old pickup. Dad was on his way with the tractor, an old Ferguson, a small but function tractor. Next to arrive was Uncle Dutch and Grandpa. They stopped and tended the gate while Dad drove the tractor through the gate and up to the creek bank.
Dad came into the water with me, standing on the other side of the cows head. He had a large cotton tow-rope.
“We are going to tie this around her neck and pull her out with the tractor,” he said.
“Won’t that break her neck?” I asked.
“Not if we do it right, now you watch. We are going to tie a bowline with the knot placed under her chin. The rope will be tight against the back of her head,” he said as demonstrated the knot and the placement of the rope.
When he was done, he looked at me and said, “Savvy?”
“Savvy!” I replied
“Now you do it,” he said as he undid his knot and handed me the rope.
With little problem, I wrapped the rope and around her neck, pulled it tight against the back of her head and ears, and tied a bowline that fit under her chin.
“Good,” Dad said, “Now, hold her head until I start pulling her, then you move out of the way, so you are not in the bite of the rope in case it breaks or something.”
With the rope secured to the tractor, Dad started pulling the cow, I moved away, and the tractor pulled the cow up the grassy bank and up to a level spot in the field. The men were quick to untie her and help position her half sitting up. I waded to shore, still thankful that I was dry.
“The vet is on his way, he should be here before too long,” Grandpa said.
“I have to get heading for home, or it will be dark by the time I get there,” Don said as he picked up his shotgun and ducks.
I watched as Don started across the Cowhorn, headed for Felcher Lane, that would lead him to his house. We both knew that we hunted and fished on hallowed ground. Less than 20 years before, this same ground was covered by Phil Bartlett, who was lost when he crashed his Navy fighter plane into a mountain on a night mission in the Pacific. Stan Felcher also covered this same ground, he died in the Batan Death March. Bayoneted by a Japanese soldier while on a detail to gather firewood. Bob Lundy was decorated for his service on a flight crew in the Pacific, and my Uncle Ernie was a bomber pilot. I had several cousins who fought in Korea, a couple of them in the thick of things.
What we did not know was that Don had but 7 years left to live. He would be killed by a 50 caliber round in a friendly fire misadventure in Vietnam. I received that news in a letter from Mom while I was stationed in Korea. This was, indeed, hallowed ground. A tremendous sacrifice of young men from such a small area of close-knit farm families.
Dr. Haug, the veterinarian, arrived shortly. He hurried through a quick exam and started an IV, I guessed he probably had dinner waiting. When Dad asked him what he thought about the cow being in the creek, he was pretty brief. “The creek just got in her way as she was going down, this cow has milk fever,” he said.
Dr. Haug finished the second bottle and put his stuff away. Slapping the cow on her back, she was quick to right herself and get to her feet. Everybody was relieved.
“It probably would be a good idea to put her in the barn tonight, that will help her warm-up. It is unlikely that she will go down again, but if she does, there won’t be any duck hunters to find her tonight,” Dr. Haug said, glancing at me with a smile.
Dad and Uncle Dutch started the cow toward the barn, I knew I would be expected to finish the job. I picked up my shotgun and game bag, and as I passed Dr. Haug, I asked, “Which do you want, the mallard drake or the ruffed grouse.”
He was quick to take the grouse, smiled, and said, “Thanks,” as he got into his truck and headed to the gate. I hurried to catch up to the cow.