Chapter 1: A Rough start but Lady Luck met us at the hospital
It was a nasty day with lots of snow, but Mom and Dad made it to the Norfolk hospital where I got off to a rough start. They drove in from a small farm eight miles northwest of Newman Grove, NE, that is approximately 50 miles west of Norfolk. It was March 1, 1937. That’s where I first met “Lady Luck” who has been my frequent companion ever since.
The doctor told my parents I wouldn’t last the day, and they should baptize and name me immediately. Thus I received my dad’s name, Kenneth, with a Jr. added, and I officially became a Lutheran at a very young age. Both mother and I had septicemia, and I also had diphtheria. Nonetheless, thanks to the Lord and Lady Luck we survived—and as they say, “the rest is history.”
The twin disasters of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl made for lots of poor people, but none of us kids knew the difference because we were all poor. My early years were great, and as an only child of loving parents and the only small boy of a neighborhood of loving families, I wasn’t pampered, however, I was “borderline” spoiled and received lots of attention. I loved it. My 20 years of education (elementary through grad school) interspersed with a variety of jobs was the beginning of an exciting and improbable journey.
Our closest neighbor was Dad’s brother and his son, Loren, who is five years older than I, and later his sister, Marlys, who is four years younger. During that time, Marlys sometimes lived with my folks since their mother was in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Loren was the only neighbor kid I had to chum around with, and his main interest was cars and tractors. Mine was dogs, horses and cattle—they were my main companions until I started country school.
My dog, Pooch, loved and protected me, but he disliked the rest of the world and that got us both in trouble. All this “came to a head” one day when mother wanted me to come into the house and I ignored her which was a bad decision for everyone concerned. She started pulling me into the house, the dog bit her and chased her around the house and she “tore up” her knee. I remember telling Pooch, “I think we’re both in a lot of trouble when Dad comes home”—and we were.
I got a whipping and Pooch got shot. That was my first lesson that bad behavior can result in bad consequences. I was sad and mad at the world until we got a new dog. However, I still remember Pooch, my first best friend.
When I was three or four years old, another event I remember vividly was an afternoon rainstorm when mother was sitting near the window sewing. Lightning struck the house, started a fire, and knocked mother off her chair and unconscious for a short time. I remember the lightning streaking across the floor and seeing my mother lying there and thinking my world had changed. Fortunately, she regained consciousness, we got the fire out and life went on.
My favorite horse was named Nig, and I didn’t know why. It seemed everybody with black horses often had one named Nig. In 1942 just after World War II had started, the Army would send people out to pick up any scrap iron we were able to collect. My mother woke me up around 6 a.m/ one summer morning and said “Come quick, I want you to see something.” Two Negro soldiers came to pick up our scrap iron, and they were the first Negroes I had ever seen. I began to figure out why our black horse was called Nig, but I doubt anyone else gave it a thought.
Another memory of this time was Loren and I taking lunch to our folks in the hayfield. Loren was nine years old, and he was driving his dad’s ’35 Chevy. We got it up to 60 mph going across the hay field and I thought, “Wow, I’ll never go this fast again.” I was wrong because around 1950 or 1951 Loren was driving a 1950 Ford and we got it up to 100 mph one night. Years later, if Caroline was driving in the country and was in a hurry 120 mph became the new benchmark.
I start country school
I started grade school at age five in a one-room country school with 8-10 pupils and one teacher. A couple of years later we moved closer to town and moved up to a two-room country school with 16 or 17 pupils. In spite of the fact that most of our teachers were very young and just out of high school or perhaps with a couple of years of training at small college, we had excellent teachers. They made classes interesting.
One thing for sure, they had the backing of the school board and all the parents. If you got into trouble, there was no doubt whose fault it was, it was yours, not the teacher’s. I was busy doing what boys do and got pretty good grades except in conduct which I failed miserably as did most of the boys.
Our spare time in school was spent playing tag, softball or baseball, wrestling, trading odds and ends such as pocket knives, marbles, keys, and so on, and snowball fights in the winter. One of the reasons I enjoyed school was that I had a fast buckskin mare named Bess, and when not racing against other horses, I would race cars or whatever else was handy.
I rode two miles each way to school and back which wasn’t bad except in the winter. I usually rode bareback because my saddle wasn’t very good, and the horse helped keep me warm in the winter. Several of us who owned horses would spend weekends riding around the countryside, pastures and creeks. Occasionally a few girls would join us and that was extra fun, especially when riding double.
We went to Newman Grove every Saturday night so the men and women could socialize, buy groceries, sell produce, and the kids could do whatever. We would usually go to Norfolk once a month on Saturdays and that often caused a family argument. Dad wanted to take me to the horse sale that was held Saturday afternoons at the Norfolk Livestock Auction, and mother wanted to take me shopping. I hated shopping because we didn’t have much money to buy anything but I had to “try on” something in every clothing store. At that time Norfolk had six clothing stores.
However, there came a time when I did need more than my share of new clothes and shoes or boots because I started growing like a weed. When I was 13, I was 5 ft., 10 in., and if you could believe it, had size 13 shoes. I’m still 5 ft., 10 in., and fortunately my feet quit growing. For a couple of years, a good portion of our family budget went to replace clothing and footwear I had outgrown.
Most of my spare time was spent riding horses, playing either baseball or football or hunting and sometimes trapping. My uncle gave me a .22 Remington pump (1912 model), and my dad gave me his old .16 gauge Iver Johnson shotgun when I was 10. My mother was a great cook and we always had plenty of rabbits and pheasants and occasional squirrels—it’s hard to have many squirrels without trees.
My trapping project didn’t amount to much. I bought several traps plus “how-to-trap” books, but about all I could catch were skunks and raccoons that weren’t worth much. The more valuable foxes and coyotes proved to be a lot smarter than me. I started hunting when I was 10 and have never quit.
I began high school at age 13, and there were 28 pupils in our freshman class. I didn’t ride my horse to high school because the school was in town and didn’t have a horse barn; however, you could get a learner’s permit to drive a car. Even though I wasn’t the greatest student, I truly enjoyed the next four years. Most of the teachers were pretty good—especially considering how aggravating and mischievous the boys were. I loved football and baseball, sort of enjoyed track and later, really enjoyed boxing. Like most boys, I also discovered girls, and 90% of our interests and conversations centered around sports, hunting, girls, cars and sometimes horses.
Most of the boys in my class worked hard either before or after school and we had some type of summer work. As long as we worked, most of the parents, the city marshal, other adults and teachers were pretty forgiving of what was sometimes semi-wild behavior.
When I was about 12 years old dad got the idea that we should milk cows. From that time until I left for college, we milked about 15 cows a day by hand. The only thing modern about our barn was a radio. It was damn cold milking on winter mornings. Dad sold the milk cows shortly after I left for college, but my dislike for milk cows lives on. My motto was “selling milk from a cow is stealing from a baby calf.”
When I tuned 13, and for the next several years, I worked summers for a neighbor who did custom hay baling with an old Case hand tie baler. I tied bales for 2¢ per bale. After dark or when the dew was heavy, we would load bales on a flatbed and stack them for either feeding later or shipping—mostly to Texas. The drought in the early ’50s made Texans good hay customers just as 2010 and 2011 did.
Between the 2¢ per bale for tying and 50¢ per hour for loading and stacking bales, I sometimes made $20 to $25 a day, which I thought was all the money in the world. In fact, I was thinking of making it a career, but technology raised its ugly head. A few years later most people went to Heston Stacks and hauling stacks in on “low boys.” Also, farmers started irrigating land that took hay out of production and turned pasture land into corn and soybean fields. The cold winter milking and the drought in the mid-’50s made me consider college for the first time. Frankly, we were having so much fun in high school I didn’t have time to think about much else, however, most kids were excited about getting out and seeing the world.
Between studies, work and sports, we still found time for a lot of simple entertainment. We also had a lot of luck. A Texan named Jerry Carpenter moved in to teach Veterans Ag, and he started a Junior Legion baseball team for us. We ended up with a four-year record of over 100 wins and less than 10 losses. We won several district tournaments and beat much larger teams such as Norfolk, Columbus, and others. Most of our games were on Saturdays and Sundays, but we somehow still had plenty of time to party on the weekends.
I’m not sure how or why, but we got in the habit of drinking a lot of cheap beer and wine, which we thought added to the excitement. The beer of choice was Schlitz or Storz and the wine was Mogen David. Their prices fit our pocketbook. Our favorite hangout was a high hill west of Newman Grove where we could drink beer and park with the girls. We called it Poker Hill, only no one played cards there.
The later I stayed out at night, the earlier Dad would get me up the next morning. One night I didn’t get in until 3:00 a.m. and Dad got me up at 4 a.m. He told me later that afternoon that we needed to quit this or it was going to kill both of us.
I often marvel at the fact that during my life, the most troublesome and negative events ended up creating a great opportunity. For instance, without the drought in the mid-’50s I might not have left the country and attended college.
The drought brought grasshoppers and rainmakers and I’m not certain which was the biggest pest. The rainmakers were going to seed the clouds either by cannon or by airplane, although planes were few and far between. Their pitch was that they needed every farmer and merchant in the area to participate so they could get widespread coverage and they charged per acre for their efforts.
When they came to our place, Dad declined to participate. They commented that he just wanted all his neighbors to pay but he would still get the benefits. He said, “No that wouldn’t be fair; if they are good enough to make it rain, they are smart enough to cut it off at my fence lines, and I’ll show them where they are.” Dad had a sly sense of humor—often at my mother’s expense. One of his favorite stories was that “women did knitting and needlepoint so they would have something to think about while they were talking.”
Shortly before high school graduation some of us qualified for the state track meet at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. We did pretty well. I placed in the 220-yard dash and we actually held the state mile relay record for about 10 minutes. In the final heat, another town broke our record and we ended placing fourth. The highlight of the event, however, was that the University of Nebraska and Kansas were competing in a college meet at the same time. Many are unaware that basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain also competed in track in college and, at that meet, he threw the shot put and ran the 440. I don’t recall if he won the 440-yard dash, but watching a 7-ft. giant run the 440 was a sight to behold.
Shortly thereafter, several of us went back to Lincoln for an ag judging contest that ended in a semi-disaster. We had to take two cars and I along with three other fellows stopped in Humphrey, NE, and bought two quarts of cheap whiskey. The four of us were staying in the same motel room. On the last night, we decided to party. A group of students from another town asked for a drink and we refused them. A fight ensued and long story short, we pretty much wrecked the motel room.
Rather than confessing and taking our lumps before we left, we headed back to Newman Grove early the next morning. Of course the motel owners told our ag teacher, J. Paul McIntosh. He paid the damages and when he got back to Newman Grove he gathered all of us and read us the riot act. He said he should turn us in to the school board and our parents, but if we came up with the money for damages he would not. Had he not remained silent, we probably wouldn’t have graduated.
J. Paul was an extremely smart and a good teacher. He has become a very successful entrepreneur and philanthropist living in Norfolk, NE. For his 60th wedding anniversary, I bought their dinner at Prengers restaurant in Norfolk. J. Paul said, “Kenneth, you didn’t have to do that.” I said, “Yes, I do because I still owe you one.”
J. Paul was just named Nebraska Man of the Year in 2013, and I am proud of him. I called him as soon as I heard and told him I always liked to associate with smart successful people. It is a well-deserved award. I mentioned our Lincoln, NE motel fight and fiasco and he said, “Yeah, I remember and I also remember the first time the ag class castrated sheep.”
We would cut off the bottom of the scrotum, bite and pull the testicles out with our teeth. I don’t know where J. Paul found the sheep because none of the students had ever raised any. He reminded me that I went first on the “biting” castration procedure and then others followed. What I remember about that incident was that word got back to the girls in our class and none of us fellows got kissed for at least a week.
Although it didn’t seem so at the time, the severe drought and leaving for college was a blessing. It ended an intense relationship with a girl who I really liked even though we didn’t have much in common except hormones. We both dodged a bullet. From a boy’s standpoint, the decade of the ‘50s was a great time to grow up. I’m not sure what the girls thought because we were sometimes crude but we sure enjoyed their company.
I stayed on the farm the summer after high school graduation and came back again the next summer. However, with the severe drought there was no way to make a living; so I subsequently spent the next three summers working at dude ranches back east. That was another example of bad luck (the drought) turning into good luck because it exposed me to a world I had never known.
Having survived a rough start and high school, I subsequently hit the ground running and I’ve been told I’ve been in a hurry ever since.
Chapter 2 - I Guess I'll Try College
The summer of 1954 I was offered a scholarship to play football at Wayne State College, which was a state college about 80 miles away. I said I would enroll, but I would prefer to box rather than play football. At that time, they had an outstanding boxing team and coach. The football coach said I could do both, but he was lying.
I think they had already decided to disband the boxing team because they had a few boxers that after a lot of fights had apparently suffered a little brain damage. That was not a good advertisement for the college. It has always interested me how some fighters can absorb a lot of punishment and never show any ill effects while others can encounter the same or less punishment and suffer minimal or obvious brain damage.
At any rate, we boxed quite a bit during the noon hours in high school and I started boxing in the Golden Gloves in 1954 when it was a big deal in our area. We also fought at local carnivals which I really enjoyed. But to make a long story a little longer, I wasn’t a very good college football player and suffered a back injury that permanently slowed me down. As a result, I had more time to concentrate on studies and found to my surprise I enjoyed it.
My best piece of serendipitous good luck was meeting a local Wayne girl who was going to be a sophomore. She said, “Kenneth why don’t you sign up for chemistry, and we can be lab partners.” I said, “Why not,” and even though we didn’t have chemistry at my high school and I didn’t know a Bunsen burner from a Erlenmeyer flask, I signed up for Chemistry and several other science courses. Another piece of good luck was that the football coach got the football players signed up for what we referred to as the “bonehead” English classes that were usually taught by speech teachers. Thus, my English classes basically were composed of speeches and story writing that helped me later in life. I wasn’t a great student and I don’t think I’m especially smart, but if I found something interesting I would do well in the class.
This was an era when there were always jobs available for any kids who wanted to work. At Wayne State, I had a job on campus with the State where they paid 75¢ an hour. Then at night I helped out on a farm north of town, and they paid a $1 per hour plus a good evening meal. Sometimes I’d work in the fields all night and get back to the dorm just in time to shower and make it to my first class. The result was that I had all the money I needed for living expenses if I didn’t party too much.
Working on campus was fun because you usually had either a classmate or teammate as a partner. One winter day while sanding icy streets, my co-worker driving the pickup decided we should park on the hill by the men’s dorm and go inside to warm up. Unfortunately, he didn’t set the brakes on the pickup and it rolled down hill through Professor Fred Dale’s yard where it stopped just in front of his house. I was taking an 8:00 a.m. mteorology class from Fred Dale, and the next morning the first thing in class he said, “I’ll pay $50 to anyone who will identify who ruined my yard.” It really didn’t do any damage, but he didn’t like jocks and assumed it was someone on the football or basketball team. I could have used the $50 and thought about turning myself in except I needed the class credit.
During the summer of 1956 it was still so dry Dad didn’t need my help on the farm. Even the alfalfa and prairie hay wasn’t growing so I couldn’t get my usual work in the hay fields. I decided to get out of Nebraska and try the Eastern dude ranch circuit.
I loved my first two years at Wayne State and doubt if I would have made it anywhere else. I call it my personal “head start program.” Starting my third year in college I transferred to the University of Nebraska and enrolled in what was called Technical Science Agriculture. It was basically an even split between science classes and general ag classes. At first I thought I might major in plant pathology or horticulture and I worked in the Horticulture Department and Forestry for two years. Even though they were nice enough, I found those professors a little strange. I later decided that if it didn’t grow “hide or hair,” I wasn’t very interested.
Next week: Dude Ranch Days & Graduate School
Kenneth Eng is the benefactor of the Dr. Kenneth & Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation, which Eng established in memory and as a legacy to his late wife Caroline. The $2 million foundation funds research cow-calf efficiency research at Texas A&M University (TAMU), the University of Nebraska and Oklahoma State University.
Each year, research funded by the foundation is presented in a public symposium, which this year will be hosted by TAMU on Sept. 18-19 at Embassy Suites – San Antonio Riverwalk, in San Antonio, TX. To order a book or learn more about the symposium that will focus on improvements of beef cow efficiency and profitability by intensive and semi-confined production systems, click here.
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