Wednesday on the Wing

Auction Song

Despite sinking weather we got into Lamoni, IA. The forecast fifteen hundred foot ceiling and five miles of visibility had sunk to eight hundred scattered to broken, a little low for my speed and mass that morning. Fortunately, the layer turned more scattered then broken, revealing lush green pastures, tree-lined creek beds and a small north-south airstrip. The tan Seneca landed neatly with room to spare, but filled most of the “ramp.” The auction owner and his wife suggested that I come along with them to the sale barn and wait there. Since I couldn’t see anything that looked like a line shed or other terminal-sort of thing besides some hangars, I agreed and piled self and stuff into their waiting pick-up.

I’ve always been sort of curious about what a real auction looks like, but had never stopped into the Williamstown sale barn. The auctioneer who runs Lamoni also runs Williamstown, thus the trip. However, I thought about how crowded it might be, and the odds of my accidentally buying something, and instead settled down in the ladies’ lounge to read and rest up from the morning’s nerves. The trip had been planned for a VFR only plane, something that seems to pre-dispose Murphy to tinker with the weather. He did so in the form of a slow-moving cold front that spread low clouds and mist over the southern half of Iowa, rendering VFR scarce as hens’ teeth. Fortunately, Mr. Mitchell is a former frequent flyer and was most agreeable to switching to an all-weather plane. We stayed over the clouds for most of the flight, only descending into the grey fluff to land. A great load had rolled off my shoulders when Mr. Mitchell agreed on a twin, but I still needed some down time to recover from the morning’s nerves.

The morning passed quickly. From the worn lounge couch I could hear the clang of gates opening and closing, followed by moos and hisses. Then Mr. Mitchell’s voice began its rise and fall, words blurred by the walls and doors between the arena and offices. His chant lasted for about a minute or so before falling with a bang of his gavel. Then more clangs of gates. As time passed, the cow smell began drifting out of the arena, not unpleasant but there. I drifted in and out of my books, lost in the history of Constantinople.

Around 11:30 I wandered over to the café across the hall from the barn offices. Drawings and photos of farming and ranch life hung from the veneer paneling, looking down through plants in macramé hangars onto speckled white linoleum-topped tables. A good-sized crowd of farmers, ranchers and a few banker-looking sorts filled the place already, so I took an empty seat and cruised the menu. Lots of home-style food, and about eight different kinds of fruit pie to tempt the hungry, of which there seemed to be a good number. I settled on roast beef with potato salad, peaches and cherry pie. I chickened out on the gooseberry. After ordering, I scanned hats. Several straw “cowboy” hats sat at the end of my long table, outnumbered by feed-store caps. A couple of John Deere logos, two or three auction house gimmies, and assorted feed brands perched on heads here and there. The empty seats beside me filled in with a trio of farmers up to look at some feeder cattle, so I just kept quiet with open ears. The fork-tender roast beef with potatoes and fresh peaches was excellent, but disappeared awful fast! Since more people had come in and stood waiting for a chair I didn’t linger, but left as soon as I finished to open the seat.

After eating, I picked up my own Stetson and wandered towards town. I’d been reading about the house built here by Joseph Smith III, son of the founder of the Mormon church. He separated from Brigham Young shortly before the main branch of the Mormons headed for Utah, and founded the Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints with headquarters in Lamoni. The passing cool front made for a very comfortable afternoon, and I sauntered up the hill towards down town. Like a lot of small towns, for rent signs hung in several buildings. Antique shops lined the north-south street, and I looked at an old Coke bottle for a friend, then decided against. A slight westerly breeze trickled between the buildings, cooling my meander back to the airport. I didn’t find Smith’s house, but didn’t look very hard, either. I did chuckle at the sign advertising fresh tomatoes and night crawlers. One stop shopping?

The lot at the sale barn was emptying a little from the morning’s crush. A few horses and buggies waited at the end of the rows, signifying the attendance of several Amish at the bidding. I went back in, hung my hat on the edge of the table in the lounge, then succumbed to the call of the sale. I crept up the stairs to the top of the arena, pushing open the door as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb anyone. I need not have worried. Men milled around the top of the seats, exchanging notes, or just leaning on the back rail of the top row. An Amish gentleman in straw hat, dark blue shirt and navy pants sat with his sons beside a buyer armed with three phones. People filled about half the seats, all of which looked down into a rectangular pen. Opposite the door I entered, the auctioneer and his staff sat in an open office about ten feet above the arena floor, facing the audience. A banging from my left and the doors at the end of the pen opened, letting in thirty head of Angus. The steers looked around in puzzlement at the buyers as Mr. Mitchell described the feeding and vaccination history of the herd. Then the gate at the other end of the pen opened and the cattle trotted out. He repeated the information and the Angus re-entered the arena floor. Then with an announcement of the minimum price, the auctioneer began his call.

His tenor voice swung up and down, numbers alternating with words and sounds in a non-stop flow. As he chanted, he held the microphone in his left hand as the right pointed and flickered back and forth across the buyers. The number and position of his fingers changed as bids came down, until at last he rapped his gavel and called “sold!” The end gate opened, black steers trotted out and the next batch trompled in. A man stood at each end of the pen, armed with a long, flexible stick. If the batch of cattle tried to double back or didn’t want to exit, the men hissed and prodded the offending animals. Again the chant rose and fell, singing a language I only partly understood. Mr. Mitchell’s call had a hypnotic element to it, with only the numbers ringing clear in my novice ears. To his right, another man in a straw hat seemed to mimic the auctioneer’s hand movements with the same graceful flow. Beside them, a lady sat by a computer, entering sale results and taking phoned-in bids. Two other people milled behind the trio, answering the phone and taking notes from the herders.

One bunch of spooked black white-faces couldn’t seem to find the open pen door, causing the “spare” person behind the auctioneer to hurry and brace the door to keep them out of the auctioneer’s box. “They’re been on a long trailer trip, all the way from” bang clang! The antsy animals rumbled into the pen, driving one of the prodders up the side and out of their way. The auctioneer put a hand over the mike and leaned towards his shadow, saying something under their hat brims. I listened for a few more batches, then slipped out again.

Business wrapped up around three thirty. I collected my stuff, then waited while Mr. Mitchell talked with some other gentlemen. He’s from the South, and is more of a talker then most northerners I’ve met. His wife and I just waited ‘till they finished their “cussin’ and discussin.” She now had a fair-sized cardboard box, with brisket, mesquite-smoked something and giant mushrooms. We discussed differences in food between Lamoni and Williamstown, particularly the absence of brisket. Lamoni is almost on the Missouri border, which probably explains the more southern foods available.

As the day progressed, the clouds had lifted out of the way, allowing for a much less exciting departure. Mrs. Mitchell admitted that she’s not at all fond of flying, so I tried to reassure her that I didn’t want anything to happen to the plane, either! We climbed up to eight thousand feet to try to find smooth air above the clouds, and settled in for an uneventful hour and a quarter. The landing turned out to be one of my smoothest, and the Mitchells seemed very happy with how the day turned out. I tended to agree with them.