The night air was crisp and clear. In the gathering dark, Don surveyed the milk cans that stood like sentries by the door. Satisfied that they were ready for the morning pickup, he turned out the barn light and headed for the house.
Rolling Prairie was a typical farming community. Agriculture was king – grain, dairy, cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, mint, sod, vegetables, and orchards. Nearly anything grown in Indiana was raised in LaPorte County. As the Vocational Agriculture teacher, Don struggled to cover every crop for his students. It was exciting and rewarding, but it paid poorly, and he had a growing family. So, to supplement his teacher’s salary, he leased a dairy herd.
Now a dairy farm is hard work, what with the feeding, the doctoring, and the milking. Of course, the milking is the most difficult part. Every day Don woke before five, grabbed a cup of leftover coffee, and headed to the barn. He could hear the cattle softly call as he approached. If he was ever late, the cattle bawling was deafening; a full udder is a terrible thing.
Single-handedly, Don moved each cow to a milking stall. There he gave them some feed, cleaned their udders, and attached the milking machine. His dad still milked by hand, but this was 1957, and Don had a machine that could milk two cows at once. While the machine worked its magic, he inspected each cow for injuries or disease, cleaned the stalls and distributed the feed – all before breakfast. Chores over, Don gulped down his breakfast and then rushed to school.
After school, when Don returned home, it was time to milk again. The evening milking mimicked the morning one. By the time he finished, it was late. In the fading sunlight, he trudged to the house. There waited supper and papers to grade. Later, when his head hit the pillow, he fell asleep knowing that he had to do it all again in the morning.
Milking is a daily chore, no exceptions, no vacations – one day blurring into the next.
However, today it was different. Everyone at school buzzed with the news – overhead a small metallic sphere circled the earth. The object flew at an incomprehensible 18,000 mph. It transmitted an ominous beep that could be picked up on shortwave radio. Some folks said you could see it pass overhead. So tonight, Don searched for it as he walked, but couldn’t see it.
The lump of metal had a name. It was called Sputnik, and it scared the pants off America. Out of nowhere the Russians had launched a satellite, proving that they led the space race. To drive the point home, they soon orbited another one.
That two hundred pound chunk of Russian metal changed everything. The news threw Washington into a panicked frenzy. How were we going to catch-up? Fear spiraled out of control; rumors multiplied – If the Russians put nuclear bombs in orbit, they could simply drop them as they passed overhead. Spurred to action, Congress allocated funds to prod the space effort and to improve scientific research and education.
Flush with money, the National Science Foundation rolled out a new program – grants to encourage advanced degrees in the sciences. Don applied for one, and by 1960 he was enrolled at the University of South Dakota. He requested a year’s sabbatical to work on his masters; however, the township trustee would not guarantee that his job would be waiting for him.
Undaunted, Don packed up his family and moved to Vermillion. Since his degree in natural sciences required fieldwork, he collected numerous samples of the local flora and fauna, including the prickly pear (Opuntia). Although common in South Dakota, the cactus is rare in Indiana. So he collected several specimens, planting them in old coffee cans, and decorated his porch. In the spring they produced bright yellow blooms, quickly becoming a family favorite.
With his degree in hand, Don landed a teaching job in Crawfordsville, IN. Packed with the family’s belongings was a cactus specimen. The first year it lived on the porch, then the family moved to a larger house with a spacious yard, and it found a home under some shrubs. Soon new interests claimed the family’s attention. The cactus was all but forgotten, but not completely. Occasionally a child searching for a ball, or trimming the grass, or playing hide-and-seek, would be reminded of its existence. Its spines were as sharp as ever.
Time passed, the family grew, and the rusting coffee can crumbled; yet under its shrub, the prickly pear quietly thrived.
In time, the family moved to New Market. On moving day the children, now in high school, suddenly remembered the cactus. They couldn’t abandon him, so he was carefully transplanted to a new home – a small tractor tire. There he flourished for many more years, a reminder of South Dakota, a novelty to the grandchildren. From time to time, the cactus would produce a spring bloom.
Inevitably, things change, and the time came for Don and his wife to move back to town. Again, they could not leave the cactus behind, so he found home next to their little brick cottage.
Don passed away in 2006, and his wife in 2010. The house was sold; furnishings lovingly moved, and mementos carefully archived. But after all these years what would happen to the cactus? Quickly empty pots were located, and the cactus once again moved. This time to Washington, IN where he took up residence – part in an old cast-iron feed trough and part in a sunny spot next to the house. Every spring a new yellow bloom appears.
Following in Don’s footsteps, his granddaughter became a teacher – third grade. Preparing for her first class, she sought an unusual plant to put in her room, one that would spark her student’s interest and would be new to her students. The prickly pear cactus fit perfectly with her biomes project, so the specimen in the feed trough found a new home. Dubbed “Feed Trough Bob” the fifty-seven-year-old specimen continues to fascinate youngsters as they learn about desert life.
Sixty years after that chunk of Russian metal streaked through the sky, Feed Trough Bob is still promoting science education.
Long live the cactus named Bob.
David L Dahl.
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