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Chapter 28 – 2010–2012: Only three years but it seemed like forever
I hope you won’t find this chapter too depressing—and it’s not a plea for sympathy on my part. Rather, I want to cover details of my depression following Caroline’s death in hopes my experiences may help others deal with similar problems.
The beginning of 2010 started about the same as previous years. I was in the mood to buy a Nebraska ranch, and Caroline, who hated cold weather, was trying to discourage me. We looked at two ranches, one near Broken Bow and the other on the Niobrara.
Beginning in March, it became obvious that there was a subtle change in Caroline’s energy level. She was normally a 24/7 type of person, and only occasionally would treat herself to long mornings in bed. She also had some unusual pains in her muscles and joints.
I knew something was wrong, so I called our family doctor who immediately sent her to the cardiac ward. We spent a day there, and when they were through, she received a clean bill of health. They concluded there were no problems, and she was in incredible shape for a woman approaching 70. I could have told them that.
We went to Nebraska consulting nutritionist Dave McClellan’s annual client get-together in June, which is always fun. Dave and Judy have put on a great meeting each year for the past 25 years and have great clients. We also went to Bryan-College Station, TX, several times to visit Caroline’s family. We spent more time with her mother who was 92 years old and in a nursing home. I’m thankful that in the weeks preceding Caroline’s death that she and her mother had several good visits.
Fortunately I had more patience than usual, and told Caroline not to worry about work because it would get done. We relaxed more, talked a lot, and she said several things I had never heard before. Caroline did not like to talk about death, funerals, cemeteries, or the like, but she said several times she was glad she found a spot for me in their family plot at Shiloh cemetery.
About a week before Caroline’s accident, we were sitting in the living room one night sipping wine when she said, “We should repaint this room.” Then she added, “I don’t think I’ll do it because if you die, I couldn’t live in this house without you.” I asked her what made her think that I would die first. She said, “I don’t know, but whoever dies first will be the lucky one.” She sure got that right.
A week later in late June, she walked by my desk one evening and said, “I feel so tired. I think I’ll get in the swimming pool.” The next time I looked up, she was floating face down. I jumped in, pulled her out, gave her CPR and mouth-to-mouth and called EMS. They got there quickly, and I had gotten a slight pulse back. However, within a day, it was obvious she had permanent brain damage.
I began to worry she might survive in an invalid state, and would never forgive me for saving her. The doctors asked if we had a Living Will, and I said, “Yes, but I don’t know where it is.” The girls went back to the office, and found it on top of her desk. Go figure!
How Caroline and I met
Looking back, Caroline and I had met briefly, and casually around 1970. When we parted, she said, “Kenneth, someday I’m going to marry you.” I knew it wouldn’t be anytime soon, and like John Wayne, I thought “that’ll be the day.” We were too similar—both reckless, a bit on the wild side, headstrong and impulsive. I figured that together, we would have done a lot of damage to each other.
Out of the blue, 18 years later, she called to ask what I was doing, and as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” I was unattached and had mellowed, and she had, too. We each loved travel, ranches, and cattle and worked and played hard. Ours was not a “sugar and spice and everything nice” relationship.
I suppose you could describe it as a “lusty all-in” relationship between two, strong-willed, somewhat selfish, but generous personalities. It would not have been a relationship for most people as we probably averaged at least one good argument a day (usually about business). At times, we would yell and shout, but we seldom went to bed mad. We each had a lot of flaws, and we weren’t perfect, but we were a perfect pair. During our last 20 years, we were apart only two nights.
The official verdict for Caroline’s cause of death was drowning because they found water in her lungs. However, the coroners are extra busy on weekends in San Antonio, and I suspect that, had they looked closer, they might have found other problems. Caroline was a good swimmer and I personally suspect she suffered a stroke while she was in the pool. Dead is dead, so it really doesn’t make any difference.
I discovered that the sudden death of someone extremely close is far different than a death that has been delayed, overdue or a long time coming. My father suffered from terminal cancer in all parts of his body his last several years, and my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s her last four years. In both instances, I was relieved when they passed because their suffering was over, and they had to be going to a better place.
Since Caroline died, I’ve had many people call with good advice. Also, people called telling me they are suffering from chronic depression, and asked what I would recommend. Some of the people calling really surprised me as I had no idea of the problems they were dealing with. The best piece of advice I got was two days after Caroline died when my neighbor Charlie called to ask if we could visit when I had time. I said, “No time like the present,” and we talked.
He said “Kenneth, one of the things that will help you get through this is you’ll find people who want to relate a personal tragedy of their own. While you won’t feel better because they’ve suffered a tragedy, you’ll feel better because you’ll know they survived.”
I asked Charlie what his tragedy was and he related a story that chilled me to the bone. It involved the murder of his 20-year-old son. He said for five years thereafter, he considered killing someone or committing suicide every day. Charlie is like the Rock of Gibraltar, and his story and advice really helped. Less than an hour after Charlie left, Bob Josserand called to relay his family’s sympathies.
I said. “Bob, you had a similar drowning incident with a son didn’t you?” He went on to recount the drowning of their son at Lake Meredith where it took them four days to recover the body. He said each day they hoped and prayed they would find him clinging to a rock or a small island, but it wasn’t meant to be. He said it was the worst four days of his life, but Bob and his family survived. That gave me a glimmer of hope.
For the next year, I didn’t just think of Caroline every day or every hour of the day, I thought of her every waking minute of each day. Had it not been for frequent calls and visits from friends, I doubt I would have made it. I tell those who ask that what helped me survive were numerous friends, plenty of wine and work. Also, I found that I began to sleep more than I ever had. If not busy, it was not unusual for me to sleep 12-14 hours a day, which I suppose is a form of escape.
I’m improving, but it’s strange the things that still bother me and bring back memories. I had to sell a couple of ranches where we were especially close. Also, there are certain places I can’t go without her, including Las Vegas and New York City, because Caroline was built for the bright lights and Big Apple. However, I’ve stayed busy—mostly trading land and cattle—since she died, and fortunately this has gone well. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel guilty about it because she’s not here to share my good luck.
Perhaps what helped the most is that I started the Dr. Kenneth and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation, mostly to fund beef cattle research at Texas A&M University (TAMU), Oklahoma State and the University of Nebraska. Also, I’ve help fund building projects at Wayne State College, and given out several scholarships in my hometown area. We also fund the PNC poster session.
Money as such has never meant much to me, and it seems I have more than I need. I’ve donated $2 million dollars to the foundation, and may add more later. Giving back can be therapeutic. Much of the research funding is on improved beef cow efficiency, and we began holding annual symposiums on that topic beginning in September 2013. We plan to rotate the meetings. The first one was held at University of Nebraska in fall 2013. The second symposium will be hosted by TAMU in San Antonio, Sept. 18-19, with faculty from all three universities presenting research summaries.
For whatever it’s worth, my advice to those suffering from chronic depression is to spend lots of time with friends, work, drink wine if you’re so inclined, and sleep a lot. There’s also a big place for religion, and I’m working on this. Psychiatrists and pills haven’t helped me, but I suppose each person is different.
One last piece of advice, don’t try to forget your departed loved one. I frequently get calls from people who want to relate how they miss Caroline, or Caroline and I together. Originally, it bothered me. I now find I’m much happier when I remember Caroline and the good times.
I’ve read some “how to cope” books that say the least desirable and most painful relationship to deal with losing is one which is extremely close and both people are dependent on each other. Inevitably, the survivor will be extremely sad and depressed. This is possibly true, but I wouldn’t trade our 20+ years together for all the gold in Fort Knox, and, I’d trade everything I own to have her back.
A new century's second decade
Now back to our industry basics. The years 2011 and 2012 were more of the same insofar as cow liquidation and land value were concerned, but there was one very important new dimension. We had:
1. Continued beef cow liquidation
2. Continued land value increases
3. A severe drought in the Southern Plains in 2011 and in the Central Plains in 2012.
October 2010 through October 2011 was the hottest and driest 12 consecutive months on record in several areas of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. I put together another cowherd in April and May 2011 in the San Angelo to Sweetwater, TX, area. I went through the normal progression of those enduring a drought from, “It’s got to rain soon,” to “It’s got to rain someday,” and finally, “It isn’t ever going to rain.” Wes Bonner managed my Texas confinement cows. An unexpected problem was coyotes that were also hungry because of the drought. They killed an average of one coyote per day for 60 days.
I bought 1,000 head of either heavy-bred cows or cows with small calves. Most of the cow-calf pairs weighed around 900-950 lbs., and had they been in good shape, they could have weighed 1300-1400 lbs. It never rained, and we ended up keeping the cows in confinement for approximately 60 days.
When ration prices went up significantly, I put wheels under those cattle, and moved them to Nebraska. I also moved most of my Oklahoma cows to Nebraska. We didn’t have much extra grass up there, but the by-products were relatively cheap, so we could maintain them in drylot for approximately $1/head/ day less than in Texas.
I also bought several Nebraska cows. As a result of a good calf market in the fall of 2011, and a good packer cow market in the winter of 2012, it worked out well. Unfortunately, the drought hit Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming and other areas in the summer and fall of 2012. Conditions obviously changed for the drylot ration costs in Nebraska. It proves the old adage that “if you keep trying different places at different times, you will always be in trouble somewhere.”
It has been a continual learning process, but over the years semi-confinement cow programs have treated me well. One advantage of a confined cow operation is that you can blend the diet on a least cost basis, and program-feed it to the required levels. This reduces feed requirements. Also, calf weaning and preconditioning is a piece of cake because the calves will be eating with cows prior to weaning. Finally, it’s much easier to apply all types of technology in confinement, whereas, it’s nearly impossible in places like my New Mexico forest lease with five cows/section.
In March 2012, “pink slime” received widespread coverage in the media, especially on ABC News, and also so-called “reality shows.” It blindsided us in the market place. Pink slime is, in reality, lean finely textured beef (LFTB), a category of beef products produced by using high-tech equipment to separate lean meat from fat; doing it by hand would be impossible, and LFTB products prevent the waste of tons of valuable, nutritious and safe beef. This separation process and the product it produces was approved by the FSIS and USDA for use in ground beef products in 1994.
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Obviously, pink slime was a bad descriptive term. The media jumped on it and slammed the producers of LFTB for putting pink slime in America’s food supply. The bogus misleading reports resulted in the removal of these products from the marketplace and the loss was equivalent to losing 1.2 million head of cattle. The market for these products is slowly coming back, but the damage has been done. It remains to be seen if the manufacturers will be able to collect their billion-dollar lawsuit against ABC.
The pink slime, or more correctly, LFTB episode is another illustration of how vulnerable and ill prepared our industry is for misleading and shameful media coverage. It seems ironic and unfair that the beef industry is often targeted by these problems whereas the pork and poultry industry is not. Perhaps it is the price we pay for producing a high-dollar preferred product from animals that most of us love. Most of us and many consumers love cattle, and I doubt the same can be said for chickens and swine.
Regarding business, most of my time the past two years was occupied by land trades and cow trading. Some of this was for entertainment as I get easily bored if I’m not busy or sleeping. I sold the remainder of the California ranch plus the Oklahoma outfit. I hated to part with the California ranch, but it got very pricey. California bureaucracy is also aggravating; more importantly, I would see Caroline behind every rock and cow; 1,500 miles is too far to travel to be melancholy and depressed.
In 2011, I bought a couple of irrigated farms in Nebraska. I thought they were expensive when I bought them in the spring of 2011, but the price kept going up. Beginning in 2012, I’ve bought ranch-timber properties about 90 miles north of New Orleans in South Mississippi. I sold Nebraska farms to pay for the Mississippi property.
We’ve harvested some timber, planted it to rye grass and converted it to cattle. I’ve got a lot to learn about the timber, but what I like is you always know where the timber is, and usually there’s a saw mill asking to buy. That beats my experience in the cattle business.
We’ve got 18+ miles of Pearl River frontage, six lakes and 54 inches of rain this year. For a fellow who’s been in a drought all of his life, that’s appealing. Another Mississippi attraction is our neighbors, the Harold, Ted and Roger Parker families. If you can’t get excited with the Parkers around, you’d better check your pulse because you may be dead.
When Harold is not busy with cattle, he’s hunting, usually with his hounds. I believe he said he has 69 treeing walker hounds. Whoever said you can’t have too many hound dogs has never met Harold. About 30 years ago, I first met Harold in New Orleans and he, Dawn and Billie and I went to see a new cattle receiving operation that Oscar Black had built. I’d never met Oscar before and I believe he wore a silk shirt plus four or five gold chains around his neck. After we left, Harold asked if I thought I might do some business with Oscar and I said, “I doubt it. I’ve never had much luck doing business with a fellow who wears a gold chain and Oscar’s got four of them.”
Oscar was a good cattle trader—maybe too good—and he’s spent some time in jail. Years ago, Harold and I were dove hunting with Ed Bricker in Arizona when Harold got a call telling him he had better get back to Mississippi. They had found Oscar Black dead in a ditch. A Mississippi timber man didn’t like how Oscar treated him on some cattle trades, and he hired a hit man to get even. Unfortunately, the hit man was an undercover agent and they put out a news report on television that Oscar was dead. Harold said he was glad Oscar wasn’t dead, but it sure ruined a good dove hunt.
I’ve said I never wanted to be dry again, and with the irrigated land in Nebraska and the Mississippi place with a 54-inch annual rainfall average, I am covered. I suppose the next thing will be hurricanes, but at least I’ll be wet.
The persistent trends of 2010, ’11 and ’12 were the relentless decrease in cow numbers and increase in land values. Also drought was the problem in many areas of the country, feed prices reached all-time highs and feedlot profits were illusive or non-existent. Cow and calf prices were strong and combined with accelerating land prices resulted in the largest transfer of wealth the cattle industry has ever experienced. It’s not surprising that some ranchers and cattlemen elected to take the money and run, resulting in more cow liquidation than one would have expected in profitable times.
Although profits were great for the land and cow owner, it was obvious that profitability needed to return to the feedlot industry if the industry as we know it was to survive. Another reason for purchasing the Mississippi properties is I’ve always held the theory that if you have a chance to buy productive land vs. pretty land, buy the pretty stuff. If you buy productive country, someone may come along and make other land even more productive, but pretty land will always be pretty. Someday, someone may come along and want to pay more for it because of its beauty.
The California and New Mexico ranches were in the pretty category. The Nebraska land was in the productive category, and I was just fortunate to buy those farms on the way up and rode the rising land price tide to some pretty high levels. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I suppose that will always be true. To me, the Mississippi places are flat-out beautiful. They’re not what you would call extremely productive, but with the combination of timber, grazing, hunting leases, and so forth, the cash flow is pretty good.
The Mississippi properties have far more improvements than I need but you can’t buy someone’s land and timber and ask them to keep the improvements. Among other items, there are eight houses, a lodge with a large kitchen that will seat and serve approximately 250 people, plus lakes and Pearl River frontage. The main house is approximately 10,000 square feet, and for me it’s an embarrassment of riches.
It’s not something a 77-year-old widower needs. Annie and the girls believe they can keep the facilities occupied with seminars, banquets, weddings, parties, and more. I hope so, because the overhead is pretty steep. Bottom line: I’ve got the land, water and timber of my dreams, and I guess I’ll have to live with the overhead.
My new South Mississippi place is a Southern version of “God’s country,” and with people to match. At my age, this is probably my last stop. Maybe I’ll leave the kids and grandkids places that are both pretty and profitable.
When Life Doesn't Go As Planned
(Things I learned from Mother after her mind was gone)
By K. S. Eng
I learned a mind is precious
And doesn’t always work as planned
I learned there is a God
But He’s not easy to understand
I learned the values of old friends
Who would visit her each day
And the goodness of a country minister
Who would hold her hand and pray
I learned of dedicated caregivers
Who cared for her every need
Who had Patience and dedication
And would follow her or lead
I learned to cherish the good times
It’s one of nature’s healing ways
For if we dwelled on the bad
There’d be no more good days
I learned to enjoy my friends
Because life is built on shifting sand
And remember to say “I love you”
In case life doesn’t go as planned.
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