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The day I discovered my dad was on his deathbed, I was giving a teacher training course on classroom discipline. Someone politely interrupted my brilliance and told me I had an emergency call from Australia. EMERGENCY CALL. I picked up the phone with trepidation and my brother, Paul, was on the line. “Dad’s dying Dan. He wants to talk with you.”

I expressed what I could to dad; we were friends. I wanted him to know that I admired him, that I hoped I’d made him as proud of me as I was to have him as a dad and to thank him. There was no requirement to tell him I loved him. We were way beyond that. My brother would tell me later that it only sunk in for him when I got off the phone that every moment now was precious.

I made a call to Jimmy, my wife, to book a ticket and went back and finished my presentation on autopilot.

The flight was an interlude of overwhelming banality filled with so many inappropriate travel thoughts, and immature fantasy, which steal my mind every time I step aboard an airplane.

When I arrived at dad’s bedside, he was surrounded by my eight brothers and sisters, his own brother, and my mom. The morphine was being generously plied, thankfully. Someone said softly, “Dan’s here.”

He made the effort to sit up. He wanted to talk, perhaps to chat, definitely to connect but it wasn’t there; he didn’t have the energy to do it even for a son. I didn’t care. I was so glad I’d simply made it.

Leo, to his ever-loving credit, asked a question that must have flowed seamlessly from their previous conversation. “Do you remember dad that cockatoo—the one that could talk? It just showed up on the farm one day and followed you around riding on your shoulder and on the truck. It must have been a lost pet? Do you remember that dad?

And dad, ready to make the best of any situation to give just that last bit of himself, to raise a smile, to let me know he was with it, answered, “I do. I do…”

The last words he ever spoke.


Dad died a little over ten years ago. I’ll be forever grateful that I made it there that day. He wasn’t a bloke plagued with a lot of regrets except he once told me he’d wasted way too much of his life getting angry about stuff. He didn’t have an especially hot temper but he did have nine kids and a farm to run. Dogs alone can be frustrating enough and there are simply very few laughs to be garnered from a paddock full of boxed sheep that you’ve got to dedicate an afternoon to drafting.

Though he’d find plenty to laugh about in the aftermath of any such disaster—like the time we were dehorning some bullocks he’d bought. Any beasts bred on our farm were fairly placid, quite used to being manhandled, but these cattle hailed from some outback station. Their entire experience of man constituted thudding chopper blades, Aboriginal stockmen, branding irons, a road-train, death by smothering of a few of their buddies, the cattle yards on our farm, my dad, and my brothers Guy, Bernard, Leo, and Paul, and myself. Dad’s plan was to water and feed them in the yards and cut their meter long motherxxxxing horns off before releasing them into a holding paddock.

They were skittish, flighty, snorting, and shitting scours of terror. Each was probably fifteen hands high at the shoulder and they were rangy so that the massive horns looked all the more impressive carried against their hollowed out bodies.

We had a cattle race with a large metal crush at the end. This is a kind of purpose built gate that probably weighed half a ton. It was used to trap a beast’s head whilst you did whatever. Today’s whatever was to drench them, inject them, and cut their horns off. One of the biggest difficulties was just manipulating their heads down the race and into the crush. Guy and I had to put our arms very dangerously through metal gates to try and grasp a horn and hold it just so to tilt the head whilst Paul would taser the bullock with a cattle prod in the ass so that it’d hopefully leap forward into the crush and Leo could pull down on a massive handle that operated a locking mechanism to trap a monster. Once trapped it would throw its head around, thrashing against the constrains of the gate, crazed with fiery eyes leaping out of its skull.

It wasn’t an environment where anyone kept their temper though you couldn’t really afford to totally lose your head. My brothers and I would most likely have been laughing a lot at the danger and there would be a lot of “Whohahs, watchouts, xxxxits, and closeones” these we treated like any other teenagers as just all part of the thrill, but for dad, he at least, understood that it was a deadly dangerous business and would have been blaring instructions like an NCO in the Tet offensive.

The crush was attached to a larger metal frame by hinges. These hinges were secured by wire threaded through a specially designed hole. Our next job was for two of us to grab the horns whilst dad drenched him and injected him and Bernard started dehorning him with a massive tree pruner. It was far from easy holding the bull by the horns. The danger was that Bernard would cut the horn so short that he’d hit the sweet spot and send blood spouting and pain an already belligerent beast. The dilemma was that as soon as he cut the horn off you’d lost your purchase and whoever was holding the other horn had to let go quick or be maimed. The first few must have loosened the wire holding the hinge. Wire is so malleable that it soon gets hot and can break readily and this monster was especially riled. Bernie hit the sweet spot, Guy let go of his horn just in time to have a hole ripped in his t-shirt, and momentarily witness this beast lift a half ton metal gate right off its hinges before driving into his chest and knocking him flat on his back. The rest was left for us to witness as Guy was pinned under half a ton of rusted pink metal, a geared locking mechanism that had to have hurt, and a full ton of somersaulting outofmotherxxxingcontrol rage.

There is a reason they call it deathly silence though it’s not really silence at all. The bullock was now flailing around wildly in the yard still attached to its albatross. My dad was yelling, “He’s dead. He’s dead. We’ve killed him.” And he certainly looked dead. The silence is a synaptic void, a brain strain; there is nothing there because it is the unimaginable thing.

And then Guy smiled and you felt like punching him in the arm for putting you there, but for dad it must have been a horrible weight of responsibility so I could always forgive him his temper, mostly because he’d see the lighter side of things later. There is nothing funnier than dodging a bullet. Nothing.

I was so glad Leo asked that question to dad about the cockatoo. It would have been such a dream like, whimsical memory, his favorite kind I’m sure and something he’d have loved to have remembered. It came without explanation, followed him for a week or two like a pirate’s parrot and left.

** moderators note: While we understand that the language in the stockyard (or any male dominated workplace) is colourful, we encourage this to be a family site and therefore prefer that you not use expletives.
The story was too good to just delete the lot.

Posted : 11/01/2009 11:31 pm
Posts: 1619
Noble Member

thanks for the insight dan.  a wonderful read.  so glad you arrived hom in time.  (i missed that oppottunity myself)

how' they go after that ordeal?  did they eventually settle in to life on your farm?

Posted : 12/01/2009 5:31 am