Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dane's Steer

Author note: Although this story was written as if I were the reporter on the scene, I must confess that I was not; nor did I write about it. Credit  goes to Sherry Coonrod and Liz Bowen, both of whom did such  marvelous jobs reporting the event that I was able to write this story as if I were there--eight years after it happened. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.

It is said that people often show true excellence in the midst of great tragedy. This was certainly true in the story I’m about to tell...

The Siskiyou Golden Fair is the event to top all events in Siskiyou County. Retailers and social clubs begin planning their exhibits and food booths for next year’s fair before Christmas. The fair happens during the hottest time of the year—early August—when air conditioners run non-stop and a sedative quiet emanates from deserted streets.

It’s during this time when activity begins to stir at the southern edge of town. At first, it’s so subtle that most travelers passing by the fairgrounds on Interstate 5 take no notice. But the locals know because their 10-year-old daughter has been raising a rabbit all year in 4-H, or because they’ve taste-tested those chocolate chip butterscotch cookies their mother is entering for the coveted blue ribbon.

The newspaper staff has a love/hate relationship with the fair. They hate it because of the events they’re expected to cover and showcase daily on double spread pages for the entire week. They love it because, despite all their whining and complaining, the fair is actually a nice break. They get to venture out of the office every day and snap pictures of people enjoying themselves.

But it wasn’t just because of this that I loved the fair. I enjoyed the smells, a mixture of cotton candy, caramel corn, and hotdogs. I loved walking through the exhibits in cool air-conditioned buildings and discovering a true work of genius from an unknown amateur. I even loved listening to the slick salesman demonstrating the wonders of a new blender while tossing whole eggs—shell and all—into a healthy juice concoction. But what I loved most was strolling through the animal pens—cows, steers, chickens, rabbits of all colors and varieties, and sheep with their sweet lamb offspring. And I was always amazed by the 4-H kids who live with their animals during the week of the fair, grooming them, feeding them, watering them, and even sleeping with them. I wondered how it was possible for them to part with their animals when they came up for auction.

But I never imagined how a steer could set the stage in altering an entire community for over a year. Actually, it wasn’t the steer at all. He was just a prop in a much more important drama about to unfold.

The fair had been going strong all week, but the most important part for the agricultural community was just beginning. Each animal took their turn on the auction block. For those handling the auctions, it was another routine day, with a hired auctioneer spewing forth his incredible babble to crowds filled with ranchers and town merchants. I was at the cattle auction, more out of curiosity than to cover it for the paper. Normally we didn’t cover the actual auctions because we received the results from the fair office the next day. But I happened to be walking through the animal pens when I heard the auctioneer and decided to check it out.

I watched as a high school girl in a spotless white dress shirt and green neck scarf guided her steer through a maze of isles into a wide open arena with stands on each side. The auctioneer calmly introduced the 4-H member and her animal before launching into the bidding. Dollar amounts began flying off his tongue in record time. The steer in question was golden brown and brushed to perfection, his physique perfectly shaped. I wasn’t surprised when the gavel finally hit and the words, “Sold to the gentleman in the red shirt for $6,500.”

This same routine was repeated as two more high school boys took their turns with their animals. Then suddenly a mummer started rising from the stands as the next youngster headed in with his steer. Many in the audience stood to watch a tall youth with short blond hair guide his black steer in by a rope.

“And next up is Dane Johnson with his 950 pound steer,” the auctioneer said loudly over the microphone. As if hooked to the same string, the entire crowd flew to their feet and began cheering. I gave a questioning look to a lady cheering next to me and asked: “What’s all the excitement about?”

“That’s Dane Johnson,” she said. “It’s amazing he’s even here. He was diagnosed with bone cancer three weeks ago.”

I looked at the boy again; he didn’t look sick.

“Is that one of the Johnsons from the Green Meadows Ranch?” I asked.

She nodded.

Everyone knew of the Johnsons. They had ranching roots in Siskiyou County that went back for over 100 years. Their family was still ranching the same acreage of land that their ancestors had settled during the gold rush era. Their ranch was easiest the most picturesque in Shasta Valley. A lump formed in my throat while watching the boy stand next to his animal, smiling shyly as the crowd cheered. When the auctioneer opened up the bidding, hands flew up all over the arena.

As bids sped past $7,000, the audience cheered. More hands went up and the auction continued. $8,000, $8,500, $9,000. They were just getting started. When the amount hit $15,000 a cheer rose up again. The boy in the center of it all stood with his eyes glazed over. He was looking into the stands now, at his parents, I guessed. And the bids kept coming. I was amazed when the figure hit $30,000.

For one bull? No, for one boy.

By now the active bidders had dwindled to two. Both men stood side by side. With each raise of the hand, they would smile at the other as the figure went up and up. It became obvious that this wasn’t a friendly rivalry, but a joyful partnership in giving. When the final bid came in at $65,000, the man on the left nodded to the man with the winning bid and they shook hands. The audience in the stands stood and roared in celebration. The boy’s parents rushed across the arena to their son and all three came over to the two bidders, embracing them in an overwhelming display of gratitude.

I didn’t wait for the next day to write the story. I went to the office immediately and set my fingers to the keyboard. I wanted it to come from my heart.

There were many other opportunities to help the Johnson family as they raced around the state for over a year trying to save the life of their firstborn son. But for those who witnessed the auction that afternoon, it was an event that they will never forget.

Yrekans read newspaper stories about Dane in the following months as needs came up. They prayed for the family when Dane went in for his operation to replace his leg bone, sent them encouragement as Dane weakened through chemotherapy, held more fundraisers to help with additional expenses, and wept with them as Dane passed away. Two years later, when Dane’s class graduated from high school without him, the entire class and spectators stood and clapped as his brother accepted his honorary diploma. There was not a dry eye in the audience.