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Uncle Walter grew tired of running a service station and decided to take up the cattle business.
He wasn’t content to just raise a few head on his Highway 903 spread, either.
Uncle Walter was really into it; the two concrete silos you rode by going to the beach were proof. They were his.
Uncle Walter even hauled cows to the sales in Columbia and Mineral Springs on a regular basis.
That was no easy task. Uncle Walter’s cows didn’t take kindly to being loaded and unloaded on a big stake-bodied truck with the help of his oak walking stick.
Now Uncle Walter was one of four brothers who had an interest in the cow business. Each one of them – including Daddy – had herds to constantly buy, sell and fret over.
Now, this quartet of cattle barons was privy to the S.C. Farmer’s Market Bulletin.
It wasn’t a Sears & Roebuck catalog, but it wasn’t bad. The market bulletin was chocked full of ads pertaining to farming, tractors, hay, cows, horses, nanny goats and such.
One issue contained a big lettered ad about some beef cattle being shipped to the stockyard in Bristol, which borders the Virginia/Tennessee state line.
Seems the winter was so harsh across the Midwest states that cattlemen shipped their herds across the Mississippi to sell.
Daddy and Uncle Walter spied that ad as soon as the market bulletin arrived in the front porch mailbox.
Christmas was about a week away and it was cold as the dickens. With school being out for vacation, it was a good time for me to ride shotgun on a “Bristol cattle drive” with Uncle Walter.
As a father of three girls, I think Uncle Walter found it sorta unusual to be in the company of his favorite nephew.
To his credit, he was trying to show me a good time along the way.
As we began to navigate those steep, narrow roads I could see lights way off into the distance.
Stopping for gas, the cold mountain air cut right through the heavy coat I was wearing. It was clear and really cold when we finally pulled into Bristol. He found us a motel near the stockyard.
It wasn’t fancy, but us modern-day cowpokes didn’t expect bells and whistles on a honest-to-goodness cattle drive, anyway.
We ventured down to the auction barn and the outlying cattle pens where big trucks were continually unloading cattle.
We located the holding pens for those Herefords coming in from out west.
Uncle Walter was giving them a good once-over. He was trying to figure in his mind how much they’d bring at auction.
To me, it was getting colder by the minute. Tough hombre I was, I just didn’t have the mettle to stand there staring at a bunch of cows. Get along, little doggies.
Just up from the auction barn, on the top of a very high hill, was a cafe. I figured it was a cafe since there was a flashing sign in front which proclaimed “Good ats.” I reckon the “E” was burned out.
As I made my way up a flight of rickety wooden steps leading to the cafe, the music got louder and louder. When I got close to the door, I realized this cafe was a tavern with a jukebox blaring out real hillbilly songs.
Not to make sport of the music, it was just a little different than what I was accustomed to hearing on the “Colossus of the South” (WBT Radio).
It was fairly loud to say the least. I managed to get up to the counter and get up enough courage to order a hamburger and Pepsi.
From the looks of things, I don’t believe the man behind the counter was used to many customers asking for a soft drink. I looked over my shoulder to see a tipsy fella shoving quarters into a pinball machine.
Given the expression on his face, he wasn’t feeling very much pain. However, he was getting kindly addled by the woman standing beside him.
You could hear her over the strains of the jukebox. She was ready to go and he wasn’t.
Finally, he grabbed her arm and out the door they flew. I watched in horror as the man pushed the woman down those steep steps. I told the man at the counter what was happening and suggested he should call the law.
He glared back at me, shaking his head.
Another patron spoke up, saying “Don’t fret none, sonny; he throws her down them steps about this same time most every night.”
I had just learned what frontier justice meant and it put me in high gear.
I gobbled down my burger, washed it down with the Pepsi, paid the bill and lighted out of there to find my uncle.
Now in the short time I was gone, Uncle Walter bought 25 white-faced Herefords and was in the process of collecting the delivery paperwork we would need the next day.
I told him what happened up at the hilltop juke joint.
“Son, I believe it’s best for you to steer clear of that place,” he said. I told him not to worry. I had no intention of going back.
After a good night’s sleep and hearty breakfast at a really good restaurant, we headed back to the stockyard to pick up our cattle.
Loading the cattle went smoother than how Uncle Walter did it since the stockyard had plenty of folks to help.
In short order, we were loaded and headed out on our cattle drive back home.
That’s not all that was on. The fella on the truck radio mentioned snow flurries and icy roads in the highlands. Sure enough, the white flakes began to fall. The windshield wipers on the truck were doing their best to keep up, but it was pretty dark outside. Ice was forming on the mountain road and we could feel the back of the truck slide every once in a while. The cows sensed the change in weather as they huddle together in their cramped quarters.
This was long before the NASCAR boys raced Bristol, but I tell you some fellas in those big coal trucks were stock car drivers in training.
Bless Pete, some of ’em were rounding mountain curves with two wheels hanging off the road.
I was glad to see the snow stop and roads level off. I was feeling a little easier about the situation.
“Boy, what do you think of the cattle business?” asked Uncle Walter.
“I like it, yes sir,” I replied.
I was sorta fibbing.
My part of the cattle business would start after the cows were unloaded in the cattle sheds down at our Bell Town farm.
Uncle Walter made his share of cow trips throughout the years. With the exception of this one serious scrape where some of his stock got hurt, my cattle baron uncle always made it home safe and sound.
As for me, my first cattle drive was my last. That was enough for me.
A jukebox, steep steps and snowfall brought the cowpoke days of this “town-raised boy” to an end.