BERRY: Scary but true: being chased by a buffalo

A few days before Halloween, my family was talking about scary things like vampires, ghosts, goblins and sasquatch, when suddenly my 9-year-old, Evien, asked, "Dad, what is the scariest thing that ever happened to you?"
Nov 7, 2013

I knew Evien wasn't talking about roller coasters, scary movies or the Haunted Mill of Greenville. She wasn't asking about times that I paid money for prefab frightening entertainment; she wanted to know about a time when I was genuinely, pee-in-your-pants scared.

Without hesitation I said, "Being chased by a buffalo."

After that statement, I had my family's' full attention. Their elbows thudded on the kitchen table and their chins dropped firmly into their hands. Maggie said softly, "You got chased by a real buffalo?"

"Yes," I said. "A real buffalo." 

Then I went on to tell the story, and I can now share this story publicly because I'm sure that the statute of limitations has expired.

It was a summer day. I was 12. Me and the neighborhood boys — Joe, Johnnie, Doug, Mark, Mike, Donnie, Larry, Moe, Curly and Shemp — decided it would be fun to go to the northeast corner of Cloverville, hop the fence and scare the buffalo inside the pen.

Back in the '70s, the owner of the local grocery store also owned a slaughterhouse and raised buffalo. If a buffalo happened to break out of the pen, there would be rumblings among the neighborhood boys for a few days. 

Donnie once told me, in reverent tones, "If you're out walking somewhere and you see a buffalo, climb a tree." That turned out to be necessary advice on a warm, dusty afternoon in mid-July.

It was common knowledge in the community where I grew up that if a buffalo escaped the pen, the store owner would get his gun, assemble a posse, hunt and kill the offender. In a week or two, the buffalo steaks, roasts and burgers would end up in the store's meat counter.

I told my wife and my daughters that a buffalo pen is no ordinary pen. You can confine chickens and cows in small spaces, but buffalo need to roam. The buffalo pen was vast, perhaps 20 or 30 acres. The boys and I snuck over the fence, and started searching for the elusive buffalo like Wild West explorers in 1880.

First we spotted fresh tracks on a well-worn path. There were several rows of pine trees with a dirt path in between each row. The excitement built each time we passed a row of trees in anticipation of spotting the buffalo on the next path. Finally, we rounded a row of pine trees and there they were — six enormous buffalo and one calf.

To this day, spotting that small herd of buffalo on a dirt path between two rows of pine trees in Michigan in 1976 stands as one of the most dramatic moments of my life. The buffalo had dark, matted hair on their huge heads, and a blanket of thick fur covering their steep front shoulders like snow on a mountaintop. The rest of their massive bodies tapered to a small rump, and their flanks were covered in a light brown hair that looked as if it had been recently shorn.

For a brief moment, it was as if a page from a Wyoming history book had come to life in Cloverville, Mich. The western frontier had come to life before my eyes. My heart quickened. I couldn't exhale. 

The beasts spotted us and turned their heads in unison to get a look at bunch of long-haired neighborhood kids wearing bell-bottoms and fringed shirts. I couldn't swallow. I was petrified. 

Then, those boys charged after them buffalo, whooping and hollering like a warpath scene from a black-and-white cowboy and Indian movie.

Those buffalo took off like a frightened flock of wild turkeys. Their hooves sounded like thunder, the ground shook and a cloud of dust rose behind them. 

We chased them until the small herd was out of sight, which didn't take very long. We doubled over with our hands on our knees, sucking large portions of air greedily.

Once we caught our breath, Joe grinned mischievously and said, "Let's do that again."

We found the buffalo again, and we chased them again, but this time we fanned out and chased them to the edge of the fence line. Six of the buffalo turned left and ran harmlessly away, but the last one turned right and headed straight for me.

I'd gotten myself pinned between the hollering boys and the corner of the fence. I turned to run, but I was trapped. There was a branch overhanging the fence, so I shimmied up the fence and grabbed the limb, but I couldn't quite pull myself up. 

I wrapped my arms and legs around the branch and hung there like a sloth. I could see the beast's matted hair, pointy black horns and giant frightened eyes right below me. I gripped that tree with all my might as the buffalo raised up on its haunches and toppled the fence.

I watched the animal run into the woods surrounding my neighborhood before I loosened my grip and dropped to the ground.

I told this story with enough detail and passion that my family didn't doubt a word of it. I have witnesses, although I've never spoken to any of the neighborhood boys about this experience.

I'm sure the buffalo ended up in the meat counter and, if us boys would have been caught in that pen, the local law enforcement would have handcuffed us together and taken us to jail for a few hours to teach us a lesson.

So, I told my kids that Halloween and roller coasters are scary, but none of that  compares to being chased by a buffalo. And I also told them that, if they ever sneak into a buffalo pen and frighten the innocent creatures, I will take them to jail myself.

— By Grant Berry, Tribune community columnist

Comments

SLNativeSince1864

Great story! I know exactly what you went thru, as I did the same thing in a Bull Pen in Crockery Township 20 years ago. At lease you had a tree to grab. I ended up diving underneath an electric fence and took a nice burn across my back! It's scary and all, but it's unfortunate today's kids don't go out and make stories like this to one day tell. Thanks for sharing!

rukidding

Great stories, fun to reminisce about days of yore. Again with the lame choice of photography that goes with the story, you have to know this will ruffle someone's feathers; pardon the pun.

ggravish

Haha! Genius.

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