Page 72 of Overload


A knife blade flashed. Blood spurted. Watching the procedure of castration, Nim felt slightly sick.

Beside him, Mr. Justice Yale chuckled, "Be thankful you were destined to be a man, not a steer."

The two were on a narrow catwalk above an animal pen, part of a cattle feedlot in California's agricultural heartland-the San Joaquin Valley.

The feedlot was one of the properties of the Yale Family Trust.

“The thought of any male being cut off from sex depresses me," Nim said.

He had flown here early this morning, his purpose to brief Paul Yale on electric power as it related to agriculture. California farmers were enormous users of electricity; agriculture and associated industry consumed a tenth of everything GSP & L generated. Without electricity, farming-indispensable to the state's well-being-would wither.

Later today the ex-Supreme Court justice would appear as GSP & L's spokesman at a regional hearing on the utility's plans for Tunipah. It was one of an Energy Commission series-some called it a traveling road show at which local leaders and citizens were invited to testify about power needs in their areas. The San Joaquin Valley farmers, who saw their livelihood threatened by power shortages, were already among Tunipah's staunch advocates.

Inevitably, there would be opposition too.

Still watching the activity below them, Yale told Nim, "I know what you mean about eliminating manhood-even in animals. In a way it's a pity; it's also necessary. When you're a farmer you don't even think about those things."

"Are you enjoying being one?"

"A part-time farmer? I'm not sure." the old man frowned. "Mostly I've been looking at balance sheets, trying to find out why this operation and others in that family trust of ours won't show a profit."

"What's happening right now," Nim said, "seems to be efficient."

"Efficient but damned costly."

They were observing the "check in" process in which calves, born on a grazing range and raised for six months there, were brought to the feedlot to be fattened for market.

Five cowboys-middle-aged men garbed in denims-kept the operation moving.

It began with herding a half-dozen calves into a circular pen. Inside, the animals were prodded, by electric cattle prods, into a narrow cement corridor, the walls extending above their heads but open at the top. A grubicide solution, to kill grubs and insects, was poured generously over each animal.

The corridor led-with an awful inevitability, Nim thought-to a hydraulic squeeze. This was a metal cage. As each calf entered, the cage contracted so the creature was held tightly with its head protruding and body lifted from the ground. The frightened animal bellowed lustilywith good reason, as the next few minutes proved.

First procedure was the discharge into each ear of a syringe containing motor oil. It would remove ticks. Next a huge hypodermic was shoved into the bellowing mouth and a worming solution injected. After that, the sharp extremities of both horns were clipped off with a heavy shear, leaving the soft and bloody insides exposed. Simultaneously came a strong, sickening smell of burning hair and flesh as a red-hot electric branding iron was pressed into the creature's side.

Then, at the touch of a lever, and with a hiss of air, the cattle squeeze rotated ninety degrees onto its side. In what had been the bottom, a small "gate" was exposed, which a cowboy opened. Inserting an aerosol can containing disinfectant, the man sprayed the calf's genitals, then put the can down and picked up a knife. Reaching inside, he slit the scrotum, probed with fingers, then pulled out and cut the testicles, which he tossed into a container beside him. Another application of the aerosol spray on the now bleeding, gaping wound, and the operation was complete.

The steer, having been deprived of all desires other than to eat would fatten nicely.

The hydraulic squeeze was opened. Still bellowing, the animal ran out into a further holding pen.

From beginning to end it had taken less than four minutes.

"It's faster and simpler than it used to be," Yale told Nim. "In my grandfather's day, and even recently, the calves would have to be lassoed and roped up before the things you're watching could be done.

“Nowadays our cowboys rarely ride horses; some of them don't even know how."

Nim. asked, "Is the modem way cheaper?"

"It ought to be, but isn't. It's the inflated cost of everything that does us in-labor, materials, feed, electricity-especially electricity.

This operation runs on it. We use electric power for the mill which mixes feed for forty thousand cattle. And did you know that in the pens there are bright lights on all night?"

"As I understand it," Nim said, "it's so the cattle can see to cat."

"Right. They sleep less, feed more, and fatten faster. But our power bills are astronomical."

Nim hummed "It seems to me I've heard that song before," and Yale laughed.

"Sound like a bellyaching consumer, don't I? Well, today I am. I've told the trust manager, Ian Norris, to cut down, economize, search out waste, conserve. We have to."

Nim had met Norris briefly, earlier this morning. He was a dour, humorless man in his late fifties who had an office in the city and managed other estates as well as the Yale Family Trust. Nim guessed that Norris had preferred it when Paul Sherman Yale was in Washington and unintervened in trust business.

"What I'd like to do," Yale said, "is sell off this property and some of the others my grandfather left. But right now is a had time."

While they talked, Nim had continued watching the procession below them.

Something puzzled him.

"That last calf," he said. "And the one before it. They weren't castrated. Why?"

A cowboy nearby, overhearing Nim's question, turned. He had a swarthy Mexican face and was grinning broadly. So was Mr. Justice Yale.

"Nim, my boy," the old man said. He leaned nearer, speaking confidentially. “There's something I should tell you. nose last two were girls."

* * *

They had lunch in Fresno, in the Windsor Room of the Hilton Hotel. During the meal Nim continued the briefing be had come for. It proved an easy task. As soon as any fact or statistic was presented, Mr. Justice Yale appeared to have it memorized. He rarely asked for repetition and his sharp, probing questions showed a quickness of mind, plus a grasp of the big picture. Nim hoped that when he was eighty his mental powers would be as good.

Much of their talk was about water. Ninety percent of electric power used by farmers in the lush San Joaquin Valley, Nim reported, was to pump water from wells for irrigation. Therefore, interruptions in power supply could be disastrous.

"I remember this valley when it was mostly desert" Paul Yale reminisced.

"There was a time when nobody believed anything would grow here. The Indians called it 'Empty Valley.' "

“They hadn't heard of rural electrification."

"Yes, it wrought miracles. What's that line from Isaiah?-'the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose."' Yale chuckled. "Maybe I can slip that into my testimony. A line or two from the Bible adds a touch of class, don't you think?"

Before Nim could answer, the maitre d' came to their table. He announced, "Mr. Yale, there's a telephone call for you. You may take it at the hostess' desk if you wish."

The older man was gone several minutes. Nim could see him across the room, writing in a notebook as be listened intently to whatever was being said on the telephone. When he returned to the table, he was beaming and had the notebook open.

"Some good news from Sacramento, Nim. Excellent news, I think. An aide to the Governor will be at the bearing here this afternoon; he'll read a statement that the Governor now strongly supports the plans for Tunipah. A confirming press release is going out now from the Governor's office." Yale glanced at his notes. "It speaks of 'a personal conviction, after study, that the Tunipah development is essential to the growth and prosperity of California."'

"Well," Nim said, "you really pulled it off. Congratulations!"

"I'll admit I'm pleased." Pocketing the notebook, Yale glanced at his watch. "What do you say we get some exercise and walk over to that hearing?"

"I'll walk with you, but I won't come in." Nim grinned. "You may remember-at the Energy Commission I'm still persona non grata."

* * *

Their destination was the State Building, some ten minutes away.