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Bilingual cows


Joe 1My uncle had one arm. In my 1960’s world view, this single difference — not intellect, not physical strength, not beauty — propelled my uncle into a mystical category. He moved within the realm of the giants of those days, Tarzan, Robin Hood and Davy Crockett. He was a man amongst men as he strode the earth with one sleeve pinned up. And now, at this late date, I discovered an even more amazing tidbit: He talked Latin to cows — and they listened.

Clem Smith lost his arm in a carnival accident before I was born. It had something to do with a Ferris wheel he was working on at the Pocahontas County Fair. Uncle Clem began working for carnivals around 1936. By the 1960s, he was an owner and booking county fairs across Iowa. Of course, since this is Iowa, he was also a farmer. He operated the carnival for part of the year, and he farmed the remainder. Both careers were too dependent on the weather to allow complacency to ever get a toe-hold in his psyche. He would frequently forecast the financial ruin that was right around the corner. Then he would scowl with concern and worry his stump with his good arm — a wringing of the hands.

Yes, Uncle Clem farmed with one arm. Not a trick today, but quite the sight on the exposed cab of the old Farmall tractor. There were just too many levers for one hand. He used the crook of his elbow to maximum advantage, and it all worked.

He also had cattle in those years — Black Angus. His sons and I would move them out of the barns and across the road to the harvested corn fields to graze on the missed ears of corn. Then, as night fell, we’d move them back into the barns. Uncle Clem would have a staff gripped between his truncated arm and his chest and yell for the cattle to come home. We all yelled the chant he taught us. “Ca bos.” “Caaa booos.” “CAAA BOOOS.” And the cows understood our words and came home.

A small memory from an earlier time.

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There is an amazing poet, Tom Hennen, in a poem called “Country Latin,” who refers to “Ka Bas, Ka Bas” as the “only Latin my father taught me.” What’s this? Is it possible that “ca bos” actually has a meaning?

John F. Finamore, a professor at the University of Iowa and the Chair of the Department of Classics, is a Latin pro. He told me that “bos” is Latin for cow. That makes sense. Next time your partner calls you a little “bossy,” she’s not calling you a delicate flower, is she? As for “ca,” Professor Finamore says it is definitely not Latin. He speculates that “ca” may come from “ca’ing,” which is to drive a herd or to “call” the herd. In other words, “ca bos” may be literally “calling cows.”

Wow. The implications are staggering. Right? Who would have guessed? We have bilingual cows in Iowa. They not only know Iowan, they know Latin. Amazing.

This required a test case. So out on the Chichaqua Bike Trail, east of Bondurant, I called to a herd of young cattle. “Ca bos.” “Caaa boos.” “CAAA BOOOS.”

And they lined the fence, listening with rapt attention. There you go. Bilingual cows. End of story.

My uncle? He is long gone, as is most of his generation. But I clearly see him, with one sleeve empty, striding through the cut cornstalks, speaking Latin to those soft-eyed cows, as he safely shepherds them home for the night. And the cows? They listen patiently to my uncle, while lowing back to him their pleasure. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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