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There was one old man who used to stop in at the café every day for coffee and a piece of pie. His name was Mike Licastri, but I just called him Mr. Mike after the guy who owned the candy store back in my grandmother’s neighborhood in Detroit. He drove an old beat-up truck and always had something in his pockets to show us kids—sometimes old coins or interesting rocks, sometimes even Tootsie Rolls. He’d been a ranch hand and a farmer all his life, knew every ranch and farm in the valley, and had a neat dog named Shep. He asked my dad one Saturday if he could take us boys to see something on a nearby ranch.

“Sure thing, Mike. Okay if I tag along, too? Just to keep the boys out of trouble.”

“Absolutely, Sam,” said Mike. “A city fella like you will probably get a kick out of it. You boys get your hats.”

Rick, Wayne, and I all piled into the bed of Mr. Mike’s old pickup with Shep, and Dad rode in the cab. (No seatbelts OR car seats!) “You guys stay sitting down back there and no fooling around.”

“Sure, Dad, we know.”

Most of the roads to the ranches were dirt and not that well maintained, which made them very bumpy and fun to ride on in the back of a pickup. In short order, we were bouncing and screaming and laughing, and Shep was barking.

When we reached the ranch where Mr. Mike worked, we stopped at the main house, jumped out, and waited expectantly for whatever surprise Mr. Mike had in store for us. The ranch owner, whose name was Slim, came out and shook hands with Dad and Mr. Mike, then with the three of us. We’d all learned how to say, “howdy” by now.

Slim was tall in his cowboy boots and wore Levis and a red and white checkered shirt. Beneath his broad-brimmed Stetson was a tanned and leathery face with squinty blue eyes that smiled when his face did.

“I’d like to show the boys here what’s in the barn, Slim.”

“Sure, Mike, I’ll walk down there with ya.”

At the barn, Slim led the way through big double doors, and we city boys got our first look at an actual, functioning farm barn. It looked just like the movies, with stalls on each side, straw on the floor, and a real hayloft.

“Come on back here, boys. This is what I wanted to show you,” said Mr. Mike, leaning against a rail by one of the stalls.

When we looked in, we saw just a big cow at first. That was neat, but we had seen cows before. Then we saw what Mr. Mike brought us to see—a newborn calf.

“He was just born this morning,” said Mr. Mike.

“Wow, he’s standing up already!”


“Look how long his legs are!”

Well, that novelty lasted all of about two minutes. Then we looked at each other, wondering what came next.

“How would you boys like to ride one of the calves?” Slim asked.

“You mean one of these little baby ones?”

Slim laughed. “No, I’ve got some that are a little bigger for boys to ride.”


“Oh, boy!”

Slim and Mr. Mike took us to a corral nearby, where the three of us climbed the wooden fence slats and saw several calves, all bigger—but not that much bigger—than the baby in the barn. Slim held the corral gate open and said, “Come on in, boys. Pick out the one you like; they’re all friendly.”

I spotted one calf that looked real friendly. He jumped around, trying to play, butting the others with his big square calf nose. “I’ll take that one, Slim,” I said. The one that’s jumping and playing with the other calves.”

“Okay. Cut that one out, willya, Mike.”

With a length of rope in his hand, Mike waded into the herd of little calves, tied a knot in his rope, and looped it over my calf’s head. He led the calf over to where we stood and handed me the end of the rope.

“Here ya go. Hang onto that, and I’ll give you a boost up.”

I knew how to do that. I’d watched Saturday morning Westerns for years and knew how to mount a horse (calf, in this case). I stepped up and put my left foot in Mike’s cupped hands, then swung my right leg over the calf’s back. There I was, sitting on a real calf, just like Hoot Gibson or Johnny Mack Brown.