“My Father’s Not Afraid of Bulls” [from A Fish in the Moonlight]

[1948: When I was ten my family had gone to a field just outside the small town of Embryville, west of Philadelphia, for a day of picnicking and blackberry picking.  This was the very rural area where my father had grown up.  We spied a prized clump of raspberries at the far end of a field that also housed a bull, but Dad insisted that as a “country boy” he knew there was nothing to fear.  This is an abbreviated version of the original story.]

Dad insisted all you had to do was walk straight across the field, calmly, and “show that bull who’s boss.”  With a “watch me,” and despite all our protests, Dad climbed over the fence, careful not to catch himself on the barbed wire at the top.  Slowly, deliberately, calmly, he started across the field.  The bull watched him.  The bull did not move.

I had always thought of Dad as a quiet man, not especially bold.  Still, there was one time when the 1938 Dodge overheated right in the middle of a one-lane bridge across the Delaware.  As the drivers stuck behind us honked and cursed, Dad sat quietly waiting for the engine to cool down.  It always did, if you just waited; if you were patient, the car would start again as if nothing had happened.  The drivers became angrier, louder.  Suddenly Dad got out of the car, turned towards those honking horns, and, in a very stern voice we had never, ever heard before, yelled, “Quiet, all of you!  Keep your damn pants on!  The car will start when it’s good and ready!”  The honking stopped.  Dad got back behind the wheel.  My mother looked at my dad in a new way.  I felt so proud of him at that moment.  I knew my brother felt the same.  In a few minutes Dad started the car.  John tapped him on the shoulder; when he turned around, he joked, “As you say, Dad, each turn of the wheel gets us closer and closer.”

This time, though, we weren’t laughing, because the bull, its nostrils flaring, was now furiously pounding the ground.  I called out, “Dad!” but Dad continued in a straight line towards those raspberries, slowly, deliberately, just the way he drove the Dodge.  Just as slowly the bull began moving toward him, making a lazy right angle with Dad.  “Dad!  Dad!  Dad, the bull’s coming!”

Glancing to the right, towards us, but not seeing the bull on his left, Dad shouted back, “Nothing to worry about boys.  I’m a country boy.  I know all about bulls.”  Now the bull was charging at full speed.  “Dad!  Dad!” we cried out together.  Turning around to see the bull coming at him, in an instant Dad was off, racing towards our side of the fence, but only a few steps ahead of the bull.

“Lift up the barbed wire!” I ordered John who, like a dummy, grabbed the wire on the top.  “The bottom, you idiot!  The bottom!” I screamed, half out of fear, half from knowing just how dumb my brother could be, especially in emergencies.  Dad was now about ten feet from us; the bull, about twelve.  “Dive, Dad!  Dive!”

The bull came to a screeching halt in front of the fence as Dad dove underneath the wire.  Its bloodshot eyes bulging, the bull glared at us.  As Dad slid under the wire, the seat of his pants caught, and when we dragged him towards our side, a big slit tore from his belt all the way down to the cuffs.  We could see his underwear.

When he caught his breath, Dad admitted, “I guess I don’t know everything about bulls, do I boys?”

On the way home, Dad drove even slower than usual.  Horns blared.  Fists shook.  Dad commented, “Boys, it’s all a body can do to keep his eyes on the road ahead.”  Her head buried in the map, mother didn’t say a word.