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author:  Margie Culbertson

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Tim Coles

My Uncle Elwood was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, most everyone could agree on that. But he was a hard working son of a gun and maybe the toughest man I ever met. I once saw a hay elevator come loose from the top of the barn, hit him and break his arm. He continued to work with the crew for the rest of the day and didn't go to the Doctor until his wife insisted that night. Then he came back the next day and put up hay all day long with a cast on one arm. No one ever claimed he was smart and some even hinted that he might even be stupid. I heard comments like "Old El he ain't any smarter than a sandhill crane" and "El's got to be retrained after every bathroom break." But the truth is that Uncle Elwood farmed for fifty years and then passed that farm on to his son free and clear, while some of those same neighbors who didn't think much of him lost their places and are ended up working down at the local Food Mart.

El's biggest problem was Murphy's Law. Captain Murphy should have named his law after Elwood. I'm sure in my own mind that Murphy must have stopped by El's place and watched him work for a few hours and that's how he formulated his law. If there was any possible way for things to go wrong, and Elwood was there, they would go wrong and not just wrong but as wrong as they could possibly go.

I remember helping him fix his truck one day. Some wires had shaken loose on top of the engine. We had to pull loose some vacuum hoses, unbolt some clamps and we took the oil dipstick out to facilitate the process. We completed reconnecting the wires and were beginning to reassemble everything when El picked up one of the small bolts and had it slip out of his hand. He made a grab for it and sort of juggled it from one hand to the other, never quite getting a grip on it. The bolt was getting away from him so he made one last desperate lunge. He caught it with the tip of one finger, the bolt rocketed up, ricocheted off the hood and struck El right between the eyes, just like the rock that slew Goliath. After bouncing off of El's forehead the bolt made a slow lazy arc down toward the engine and through pure serendipity and the action of Murphy's Law, landed right in the open dipstick tube rattled once then disappeared into the bowels of the engine. Thus El had managed to turn a simple fifteen–minute car repair into an all day job of trying to fish the bolt out of the oil pan.

That just the way it went with Uncle El. He was handy and could do most every thing. He could fix a car, weld a pipe, repair just about any piece of farm equipment but he was also a walking disaster area.One day Uncle Elwood called me up and asked me if I would come over and help him fix up the place for a private sale. A few years before El had bought himself a pure bred Hereford bull; cost him four thousand dollars and he hoped to recoup that cost by selling the bull's offspring at a higher price than he could get at the local auction. So he had arranged for a few private buyers to come out, inspect the cattle, and hopefully buy the calves. The buyers were due the next day so he wanted me to help him spiff up the place and present a good image in hopes of putting the buyers in a mood to buy.When I arrived we began by shoveling out the stalls. El was shoveling like a madman, as he started his third stall he slipped on some residual waste, banged his face against the gate, and ripped open a gash from his eyebrow to his ear. It didn't even slow him down.

When we had finished cleaning the stalls El decided that we should paint them too. He had a five gallon bucket of white paint but the only smaller container he had was one of those trays that you usually use with a paint roller. I finished painting the stall doors and then I thought that it would look good if I painted the bare rafters in each stall too. So I got a ten–foot stepladder and started in. I had just filled up the paint tray and set it on top of the ladder when El yelled for me to go help Aunt Evelyn unload the new lumber.

I unloaded the lumber and walked back into the barn just as El grabbed a hold of the ladder to move it. I started to yell but it was too late the container tipped and deposited a quart of white paint on El's poor old baldhead and when he looked up the tray smacked him right in the middle of the forehead.Aunt Evelyn took him to town to be sewed up; the paint tray left a three–inch gash in the middle of his forehead. While they were there the Doctor sewed up the other side of his face and then gave him a tetanus shot even though his last shot hadn't run out yet. I guess the Doc figured with El it might be a good idea to be a little ahead.

While he was gone I finished up the painting and started getting ready to move the stock into the pens. When El got back from the Doctor's he was even more anxious, because of all the time he lost. He ran around everywhere cleaning out the hayricks and slopping paint around anywhere he though it looked like it might be needed. At some point he go the idea that we might need more light in the barn itself, so he started stringing up lights over the stalls.It had gotten pretty dark by this time and the outside temperature had dropped so El decided to start up the old propane space heater to keep the barn warm enough and help the paint dry. Now that old heater worked pretty good once it was going but you usually had to watch it close right after you started it because some times the flame would blow out and you'd have to relight it. Well that's apparently what happened and El didn't notice.

I was out rounding up the calves that would be put up for sale and El was hanging one last light right over the top of the space heater. He said he could smell the gas but didn't think it meant anything, as he nailing in the last light he missed with his hammer and smashed the light bulb the resulting electrical spark was sufficient to set off the gas. I heard a tremendous bang, when I ran into the barn there was El lying spread–eagled on his back in the middle of the barn, his clothes were still smoldering. I thought he was dead. Aunt Evelyn spread some kind of unguent over his face and hands and got him off to bed. I finished moving the stock and we were as ready as we could be for the sale.

The next day bright and early El was up walking around making sure everything was in place. He looked like he'd been in a train wreck. His face was the color of a fire truck and had an oily gleam due to Aunt Evelyn's burn remedy. The stitching on his forehead and the right side of his face made him look a little incomplete like someone was repairing a doll but hadn't quite finished. He had bandages on his hands, from the propane burns and because he'd been sort of inside the explosion he could hardly hear anything, but he was happy. The barn was fixed up, the bull and the cows were in their stalls, and the calves were in their pens. Everything was ready and the buyers were on their way.

Aunt Evelyn and I were handling the sale because El couldn't hear well enough, so she and I walked the buyers around while El stood in the empty stall next to the bull. Well that bull was usually pretty good–natured but being roused out of his usual routine and being curried and cleaned and locked in a stall had made him kind of proddy. El stood there with a handling stick absentmindedly twitching that bulls nose while he watch Aunt Evelyn and the buyers talk price. The bull was getting madder and madder by the minute. I saw what was happening and walked over to tell Elwood to leave the damned bull alone, but I was too late. The bull had finally had enough. He let out a bellow, hooked his horns and just smashed through the side of the stall like it was tissue paper. Elwood was taken completely by surprise and the bull had him down and was trying to tear him apart. I grabbed a 2x4 and took a mighty swing at the bull to drive him off long enough to get Elwood out of the stall. But sometime between the start of the swing and the contact Elwood managed struggle up far enough to get that 2x4 right in the back of the head, knocked him colder than a mackerel.

The sale ended up pretty good Aunt Evelyn sold all the calves at a good price while I took El to the Emergency Room. When we got back Aunt Evelyn told me she had apologized to the buyers for all the ruckus, they told her not to worry about it one guy said that it was by far the most interesting sale he had ever been to and he looked forward to the next one just to see what would happen. I never did tell Uncle Elwood about the 2x4 so to this day he thinks the bull is responsible for knocking him out.

© Tim Coles

About the author: 
Age:  52 going on 18
Day Job:  Engineering Technician Supervisor
Live:  Deer Park, WA

I was raised in the city, mostly but I spent a good part of my summers on my grandmother's ranch. So I ended up half and half, half city/half country.

I have worked as a logger, in mining, as a forest fire fighter, and even as a security guard. I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember—some of them were even true. Some friends convinced me to write some of the better ones down. After a few were written down I sent them out to various markets and to my surprise several of them have been published. Once or twice somebody even paid me.

I am married with three children; all of them are now old enough to vote. I live on thirty acres of forested land that we like to call The Emerald Forest Ranch. This is a "working ranch" but the only animals we currently raise are cats.

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©Margie Culbertson

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