Articles

Git Aloft, Little Dogie

When our champion critters hit the long trail to South America nowadays, the cowhands grab some fodder and saddle up their DC-4

PIERRE BERTON March 1 1949
Articles

Git Aloft, Little Dogie

When our champion critters hit the long trail to South America nowadays, the cowhands grab some fodder and saddle up their DC-4

PIERRE BERTON March 1 1949

Git Aloft, Little Dogie

When our champion critters hit the long trail to South America nowadays, the cowhands grab some fodder and saddle up their DC-4

PIERRE BERTON

ON THE parched brown desert of northern Chile, in the shadow of the gaunt, purple Andes, a big four-motored Douglas transport set its wheels down briefly on a blazing day in January.

A native of the seacoast town of Antofagasta ran out onto the air strip, looked up at the big plane, rubbed his eyes and vowed he’d touch no more of the pale Chilean cervasa which is the only really damp item on the Antofagastan desert.

For a moment he thought he’d seen a cow gazing at him from one of the windows.

He had seen a cow. She bore the pedigreed title of Glenafton Laurel Heather, she had won the all-Canadian championship for dairy cattle at the 1948 Royal Winter Fair, and just 84 hours before she had been munching hay in a barn at Alliston, Ont.

She was one of 24 bovine passengers on a cattle plane—modern successor to the old cattle boat— and she was already a seasoned traveler. In the past three days she had gazed out of that same window onto the ice-sheathed runway of Toronto’s Malton Airport, onto the tall Royal Palms of Miami Beach, onto the fetid jungles that crawl southward from the Colombian coast, onto the spaghettilike rivers of Ecuador and the red, wrinkled hide of Peru.

This prize Canadian cow and I were fellow passengers on a 6,000-mile flight from Toronto to Montevideo, Uruguay. Strictly speaking the cow was a passenger and I was her servant, booked on the crew list as “cattle attendant,” which means I was assistant nursemaid to 23 Holstein-Friesian cows and one Red Poll bull. Luckily I had help in the persons of Lucio Susaeta, a Chilean university graduate, and Bob Cooper, a retired Ontario cattle breeder. Both Lucio and Bob can milk. I can’t.

These particular cows were milked at 8,000 feet and fed hay at 12,000. They visited seven foreign countries. They are among the most valuable cattle in the world (they’re pedigreed breeding stock) and most of them will spend their days grazing on the green chess-table farmland outside of Montevideo. It cost $12,600 to ship them from their Ontario homes, but their combined value is $53,000. South American farmers, who think that Canadian Holsteins are the best dairy cattle in the world, don’t balk at paying as much as $4,500 for one cow. (Canadian cattle hold 28 out of 32 world dairy awards.) For South America, which produces the best beef in the world, badly needs good dairy stock to interbreed with its own scrawny strain. For three years, planeloads of cattle such as this one have been winging their way south each winter to the land of the Andes and the pampas.

Snow was blowing in horizontal lines across the airport at Malton, outside of Toronto, on the Thurs-

day morning we were scheduled to leave. Smoky Lee, the black-browed Texas-born pilot, whose home is now in Miami, came into the agent s office in the hangar, shivering and beating his hands together, a day’s stubble on his face. He’d just brought the big DC-4 in from sunny Havana, where he’d delivered another load of Canadian cattle, and as usual he’d had no sleep. He didn’t expect to get much on the trip south.

Outside the cattle were being rolled onto the tarmac in big trucks owned by Hays Ltd. of Oakville, Ont. Jack Hays, the burly ruddy-faced Calgary-born breeder and exporter who thought up the idea of sending cattle by plane instead of by boat, was along to supervise the loading. Hays told me that he’d got the idea during the war talking to an RCAF pilot on a transcontinental train trip, lie and this pilot, whose name was Jerry Goodwin, teamed up after the war and sent a DC-3 loadful of caille to Cuba just three years ago. It was the first time that Canadian cattle had ever been shipped by plane and it came within a few hours of being the first cattle flight in history. A Pennsylvania outfit, on a flight to Colombia, had beaten Hays by a few hours.

Milking on the Fly

THE COWS were* herded one af. a time from the rear of the truck up a long gangplank and info the body of the plane, big cows first, then the little calves and finally the bull. They weighed a total of 17,000 pounds and bore the white feet, white tail switches, the solid black saddle markings, and in most cases the white forehead stars that are the mark of good purebred Holsteins in this country. Hays’ men, tapping them on the flanks continually with yellow canes, arranged them in five rows facing forward, blocking each row off with a horizontal wooden stanchion to which each cow was tethered. The interior of the plane was rapidly taking on the appearance of a cramped and serviceable barn.

Three of the smallestcalves in the rear were going along as a sort of bonus. They had been born after their South American owners had purchased the mother cows. There have been times when calves have been born in mid-air without difficulty. Happily, this was not tobe one of them.

Take-off time had been set at 10 a.m. but the cattle weren’t loaded completely until 1. By 2.30 the blizzard had increased, the ceiling was dropping and the Uruguayan consul hadn’t arrived to visa the necessary papers. By 3 p.m. the airport was declared closed because of weather. Everybody went home except. Bob and Lucio, who stayed behind to feed, milk and guard the cattle. There were five cows to be milked and each cow was a heavy

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Git Aloft, Little Dogie

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producer. Laurel Heather, the champion, produced 20,000 pounds of milk last year. (The world’s record, held by her grandmother, is 29,000.) Silver Hall Reta Netherland, another passenger, was runner-up to Heather at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto and she can fill 34 quart bottles a day— more than double the output of a cow in the average dairy herd.

The change of scene during the flight was to reduce each cow’s milk production but Bob still had plenty on his hands. He fed some T the calves and the rest right back f «J he cows. Then he anil Lucio went to ;.l:*ep on a bench in the office. The cows stayed on the plane, which they were not to leave until they reached Uruguay. Although the temperature outside was well below freezing, the heat of their bodies kept the plane’s interior warm and humid.

It was colder next morning, but the snow had ceased and visibility was good. While Buzz Renneker, the big, sandy-haired young flight engineer, worked at warming up the frozen motors, Smoky Lee began to worry about the bull, Mistleigh Liveryman 11, who weighed close* to a ton and kept the tail heavy. “You hang on to that mean old bull when we take oft,” Smoky told Bob Cooper. “If he was to shift his weñght a little bit, he could throw mv steering right off.”

Some pilots who freight bulls and race horse's carry a loaded pistol in the cockpit in case of trouble. Race horses have been known to kick themselves to death in the air and Boh told me that our bull was quite, capable of charging right through the* metal wall of the plant*.

We got off finally at 2 p.m. after the

cows had been given a clean bill of health by the veterinary and an official blessing from the Uruguayan consul (fee: $342). Because of the hull in the tail, everybody except Bob jammed into the forward cabin to keep the nose down so Smoky could steer the aircraft on the runway. A few moments later we were heading south.

Cows are phlegmatic travelers. If they knew that they were 5,000 feet above the land, heading for an unknown country 6,000 miles away, they gave no hint. Most of them stared stolidly ahead, the inquisitive ones in the front row nosing open the door to the crew’s quarters and peering into it. Some lay down on the bed of shavings and began to munch their cuds methodically.

In Chilly Miami

As the weather grew warmer over the southern U. S., Lucio and I took off our overcoats, rolled up our sleeves and began the first of a score of journeys to the rear of the aircraft. To get there we had to climb over the backs of the tightly packed animals or squeeze between their flanks, cuffing them on the backside to force them to move over. As we passed by, each cow in turn rolled out her tongue and licked the sweat off our arms and faces.

Lucio is a graduate in agricultural engineering from the University of Santiago, Chile, and had just spent a year gaining experience at Carnation Farms, Seattle. Now he was going home on a cattle plane in much the same way that college students from foreign countries used to go home on cattle boats. The son of a cattle breeder, he plans to raise cattle in the south of Chile. He took me to the back of the plane, set his suitcase on a bale of hay anil produced a complicated gadget of glass and t ransparent plastic.

“This,” he said proudly, “is for the

artificial insemination of queen bees. I myself invented it.” He added that he hoped to perfect the device and test it out on real bees when he got home.

It was now quite warm in the body of the plane and Bob, in his shirt sleeves, was down on his haunches, milking away. Lucio took the full pails and fed the little calves, then filled a Thermos bottle and took some of the warm fresh milk up to the crew ahead.

We reached Miami just before dusk. It was about 60 degrees above but the newspaper headlines read: “Chilled

Thousands Watch Parade.” Smoky Lee, who’d spent Christmas flying between New York and Miami, went off home for a few hours to spend New Year’s Eve with his family. Bob, Lucio and I got a long hose from the hangar and watered the cattle. Bob also took on five more bales of hay, in addition to the five he was carrying. He had orders to buy no more feed south of Miami. In tropical countries the hay is liable to contain a tick which can give the cows malaria. In addition to the hay, he had three or four sacks of meal aboard.

We took off at 2 o’clock that morning across the black Caribbean. Smoky Lee and Buzz Renneker snatched a few hours of sleep on the two little bunks in the crew quarters directly behind the cabin. Lucio and Bob slept on one of the bales of hay in the rear, directly behind Mistleigh Liveryman II. Johnny Horne, co-pilot, an ex-Navy flier in the South Pacific, was at the controls. Arch Randolph, who runs a flying school in Miami but came along on this flight for experience on a DC-4, took the co-pilot’s seat.

Nationwide Air Transport of Miami, a new charter company which owns the DC-4 on which we traveled, pays its pilots by the flying hour to transport such varied items as shrimps from the Mexican coast, black labor from the

Caribbean islands to the bean fields of Minnesota, yellow gladioli from Palm Beach to New York, and cattle from Canada to Uruguay. In this way Paul Weesner, an ex-Navy pilot who founded Nationwide, has parlayed his original plane into 13 big aircraft in just three years.

We landed in Barranquilla, on the coast of Colombia, at 9 a.m. New Year’s Day. Barranquilla lies at the very northern tip of the South American continent, directly across the Caribbean from Miami. Our route was to take us down the west coast of the continent, then across the high Andes to Uruguay on the east coast. This is about 1,000 miles shorter than following the east coast of Brazil.

Into the Manana Belt

Smoky climbed out of the plane, with Lucio as interpreter, and began the inevitable and lengthy discussion with white-uniformed officials which was to mark each of our landings in the various Latin-American countries. Then, again through Lucio, Bob Cooper began a second lengthy discussion about the disembarkation of the bull which was destined for Bogota, Colombia’s capital. No bull that size had ever disembarked at this airport before and the little knot of swarthy white - trousered workmen seemed aghast at the whole project. The conversation, in tumbling Spanish, was well-peppered with the words toro (bull) and “manana ’ (tomorrow).

“In these countries,” said Buzz Renneker, who once spent a year in Mexico shrimp fishing, “they are manana happy. Maybe it’s the heat.

The problem was finally solved when somebody produced a hydraulic freight lift. It was agreed to build a rope balustrade around this on the optimistic assumption that the rope would somehow prevent Mistleigh Liveryman II from leaping off the lift and maiming himself. Bob Cooper was apprehensive about the whole operation, but the bull, docile as a lamb, walked majestically onto the contrivance and allowed himself to be lowered slowly to the ground.

This done, Bob produced two packages of American cigarettes and an American dollar, both of which are passports in South America, and another workman appeared with a portable water carrier and a length of hose. He pumped the water up to Bob in the rear of the plane. Bob and Lucio and I filled the buckets and attempted to water the cattle, who stubbornly refused to drink.

“It’s a different kind of water and they don’t like the taste of it,” Bob said. “We’ll have to wait until they get good and thirsty. By then we’ll probably find we have to pack the stuff ourselves across an entire airfield.

We breakfasted on jamón y huevos (ham and eggs) and were in the air again by noon. Below us the winding silver ribbon of the Rio Magdalena stretched indolently through the hot giccn jungle. It was pleasant to think that down there, somewhere, our bull would soon be grazing and siring other bulls—or perhaps putting it off until manana.

Although the interior of our flying barn had been hot and fetid on the ground it rapidly cooled off in the air. Bob had removed the emergency doors, allowing a draught to cool the interior in flight. A 30-day boat trip to South America at this time of year—summer below the equator—is very hard on cattle. But a four-day trip by air at the fairly constant temperatures of 12,000 feet is much easier. The cattle escape the tropical diseases by flying over them and arrive sleek and fat. The cost

is slightly more, but the buyers figure it’s worth it.

We reached Guayaquil on che coast of Ecuador at 6 p.m. that evening. By this time the cattle were thirsty and, as Bob had predicted, there was no pump cart and the water had to be hauled in buckets from a slow faucet several hundred yards distant. It took us an hour to bring the water, a bucket at a time, up the plane’s ladder and feed it to the cattle. It took Smoky Lee just as long to complete his business with the ubiquitous customs officials.

Because airports on the west coast of South America do not have landing lights, we stayed overnight in sultry Guayaquil, a gloomy city where the buildings are built of a kind of reed for coolness and where the locusts are sometimes so thick that they can eat a man’s suit down to the buttons overnight and have to be shoveled from the streets in carloads. We arrived on the fringe of the locust season and there were only several million of them on hand to greet us. We got about four hours’ sleep at the hotel—leaving the cattle locked up in the plane at the airport—and departed the sleeping city at dawn. The shops were shuttered tight and many of the people lay out on benches and in doorways as if dead, giving the town a ghostly atmosphere in the dusk of early morning.

We had had breakfast in Guayaquil. We were to have lunch in Lima, Peru, 700 miles away, dinner in Antofagasta, Chile, another 1,000 miles farther on. This did not appear to be particularly extraordinary to any of the four crew members, each of whom have led varied and interesting lives. Arch Randolph once worked briefly for the Chinese Government in its pre-World War II war with Japan. Smoky Lee, who served with the RAF’s ferry command during the war, has recently been flying airplanes to Switzerland and Czechoslovakia for the Zionists.

Milk in the Desert

Below us the Ecuadorian jungle, veined with innumerable spidery rivers, swelled up like a great wet green sponge. Soon the jungle gave way to the withered brown flanks of the Peruvian desert, where from 10,000 feet the mountains seemed to be barely able to peek up above the smothering blanket of burned sand. The plane began to lunge in the downdraughts but Lucio and Bob stood their ground and pitch -forked hay forward to the hungry cattle.

They served us steaks in Lima, smothered with ham and eggs—a dish which we got almost everywhere we went. We were never able to find out whether this is a South American dish or a South American idea of an American dish. At Antofagasta, on the Chilean coast, in the little airport casino, we got an identical meal.

At dusk we reached Antofagasta, where the residents told us, rather defiantly, that it hadn’t rained for 60 years. Nothing grows here unless it is hand-irrigated at frightful expense, and some of the people had never seen a cow or tasted fresh milk.

Half a dozen people formed a willing bucket line at the airport and we watered the cows in short order. As a reward Bob milked the cattle then and there and distributed the milk to our helpers, who had been using the powdered variety.

In the casino at the airport Lucio pointed out three swarthy men in working clothes drinking beer. “They are copper miners,” he said, “and, gosh, are they tough! When they run out of money they blow off their fingers with dynamite and collect compensation.” I asked one of the airport officials about

thus and he denied it. “It is much simpler to smash the finger with a steel anvil,” he said. Antofagasta is the centre of the copper and nitrate mining which are Chile’s two main industries.

It was too late to go into the town, which was 20 miles away. Instead we curled up on benches in the airport waiting room and got off at 5 Monday morning, flying low over the sea with the mountains of nitrate and copper on the horizon.

The desert gave way to farmland and a series of long fertile valleys crisscrossed by Lombardy poplars, acacias and the occasional palm. In one of these valleys we suddenly came upon the city of Santiago for which Smoky had been searching for some time. It lay sprawled out in the heart of the valley, with its two distinctive hills jutting from its centre like inverted ice-cream cones.

Threat of Jail

We were to deliver two cows to a buyer at Santiago—Summit View Thoughtful Daisy and OHA Labonheure Pietje Lennox (“Peachy” to her friends). But before we could do this there was one hurdle to cross: the inevitable officials appeared and announced that we should be put in jail, the crew list was improperly visaed. It took several hours of wild gesticulation and the combined efforts of Lucio’s uncle and the man who bought the cattle before the authorities consented to allow us into town for a hot bath.

The two cows were taken off— dragged off is a better word—the following morning at 7 a.m. “They didn’t want to get on—now they like it so much they don’t want to leave,” Bob said as he struggled with the cows. He led them down a boxed-in gangplank and onto a truck. Not far away a group of human passengers was alighting in an identical manner from a big Pan-American clipper.

Smoky cautioned Bob to give the cattle no more water. “We can’t afford to take on any more weight going over the mountains,” he said. “We’ve taken on so much water that the plane weighs as much now as it did before the bull got off.” Bob suggested that the water had all evaporated, but Smoky pointed to the foot-thick layer of manure in the plane. “That stuff’s heavy,” he said. Because of health regulations neither manure nor cattle could be removed en route.

We were off shortly before noon and began to climb quickly in the long narrow valley. We flew south along the edge of the mountains for almost an hour before we had gained sufficient altitude to breast the Andes, then headed into the high pass between Chile and Argentina which most commercial passenger planes use. The altitude gauge read 13,000. We had no oxygen and our breath came in short, exhausting gasps. I looked in the mirror in the crew quarters and noticed that my lips and forehead were slightly blue. Up in the cockpit Johnny Horne was laughing and talking. “Horne’s drunk with the altitude,” Buzz Renneker said. On the return trip when we hit 17,000 feet without oxygen somebody turned to Johnny, who was cheerfully dipping the aircraft’s wings, and shouted: “Take it easy, Johnny—you’ll run into a mountain.” Said Johnny, happily: “Right now, I couldn’t care less.”

This sudden change in pressure and density failed to bother our bovine passengers. Most of them simply sat down and went to sleep. It took about an hour to fly through the pass, and nobody was too unhappy when we broke out over the cloud-shrouded farmland of Argentina. “I don’t mind

looking down on mountains when I’m flyin’,” said Arch Randolph, “but I sure don’t like to look up at ’em.”

Lucio had been the most interested member of the crew. Over on the horizon he had seen the high, snowtopped plume of Tupengato (22,300 feet). “In these very boots I have personally climbed that mountain,” Lucio shouted, pointing at his heavily eleated, well-manured footgear.

The cattle were awake again and hungry. Bob Cooper had saved an entire sack of meal for them so that they would arrive looking sleek and well-fed. He busied himself feeding them, brushing down their coats, combing out their tails and cleaning off their hooves. But he didn’t milk them. “That’s so there’ll be an extra large supply of milk when the owner gets them,” Bob said. Boh learned most of these tricks on five previous cattle flights to South America and the Caribbean. A former cattle breeder, he sold his farm after his wife died and takes these trips periodically as a diversion. Next time he intends to take his 17-year-old daughter along.

Soft warm rain was falling when we reached Montevideo. It was Tuesday evening and we had left Toronto, in heavy snow, on Friday noon. A large welcoming party made up of the buyers and their families was waiting to swarm aboard the plane and view their purchases. Two big trucks rolled up to the plane, and the cows, lowing moodily, were run down the gangplank and wheeled off to the quarantine barns where they were required by law to spend the next 30 days.

“It isn’t every day you see cows come by plane,” a woman bystander said to me in perfect English. A moment later her husband, L. V. Dutra, the man who had visited Canada to purchase the cattle on behalf of the half-dozen farmers and breeders, packed us into a station wagon and drove us into town. Here he laid on a munificent spread of giant charcoal - broiled Uruguayan steaks—the best in the world—and red Uruguayan wine. (Steak in Uruguay sells for 25 cents a pound.) It was this mellow atmosphere that led Arch Randolph, who once flew passenger planes for Eastern Airlines, to make a significant comment:

“Cows,” said Arch, “make better passengers than people. They never want to get off the plane to phone their 110 relatives during a 10-minute gas stop. They never hold you up by being late. They never ask silly questions. They never get lost in the air terminal. They never get sick. They never ask for chewing gum, coffee, ham sandwiches or Hershey bars. They are perfect passengers. I figure I’d just as soon fly cows as anything going.”