by: Wes Ishmael

Hosting a bull sale was a whole lot like going to the biggest show of the year and drawing a bronc that had only been ridden a couple of times.

At least that's how it seemed to Hooter, based on the pals he'd helped over the years as they hosted annual or semi-annual sales.

The potential success fueled the type of excitement that begets optimism, rational and otherwise.

The potential failure made the stoutest-hearted queasier than a hung-over roller-coaster rider.

Some of those folks were preternaturally calm: “It's not like we're going to lose the place if it's not a bell-ringer,” one friend told him between alternating draws on bottles of Pearl and packs of Camels.

“It's the end of the line if these bulls don't average at least $2,123.78,” another friend informed him, while wiping the Pepto Bismo moustache from his lip.

The only person Hooter had ever seen host a sale without emotion was Uncas Bingelmeyer. At the last periodic and rare Bingelmeyer Sale of the Century, Uncas asked Hooter the night before, “Do you think it would seem rude if I left after making the pre-sale comments? There's an antique tractor auction two counties away that I'd really like to see.”

Anything Happens

There were so many opportunities for failure, real and perceived, that most rational folks couldn't help but worry.

There was the weather. Hooter had seen hail stop a sale in the south after the first 20 lots sold for record prices. By the time the sale resumed, half the folks had left and the other half was more interested in talking about the holes in the sale tent than bidding.

On the other hand, one of the best sales Hooter ever attended was in South Dakota. Near-blizzard conditions prevented all but seven folks from attending, but those hearty souls, along with orders, windrowed every bull on hand for record prices.

There were mechanical failures, of course. Faulty sound systems, gates and pens had interrupted too many sales to remember, always it seemed just as buyers were pushing prices higher. Now, videos and on-line bids added to sellers' lists of worry potential.

Then, there was the unforeseen, ‘who'd a thunk it in a million years' kind of things.

There was the pioneering outfit that decided to show only videos of the bulls in the sale ring, rather than run the bulls through, in an effort to prevent some of those aforementioned mechanical failures. The system was tested, re-tested and tested again. In the wee hours of the morning, one of the sales top volume buyers for years arrived in an RV and parked beside the sale barn. Amid plugging in the RV, that buyer unwittingly unplugged the video system---all the videos were lost; the sale was delayed for two hours the next day while folks scrambled to ready bulls for the ring like they always had.

There was one sale Hooter had been at, one of those fast-paced, plumb good events. About a third of the way through the offering, the auctioneer froze up mid-chant and fell out of his chair. Apparently, it was dehydration rather than anything fatal, that delayed the sale and de-railed the outcome. “Is he dead? If he isn't dead, I'm going to kill him,” was what the owner told anyone who would listen as folks tried to revive the Colonel.

There was another festive affair Hooter had been at where the wine and other libations flowed freely before and during the sale. It was hotter than Hell's oven. Sitting in the bleachers, looking at the auction block, not too far away, just high enough up to be seen over the top of the block committee's heads, were the porta-potties. Apparently, one male visitor had too much to drink and forgot to lock the door. He lost his balance, fell backward out of the outhouse and provided the sale with a picturesque, albeit unexpected fountain that distracted buyers for the rest of the day.

Come to think of it, Uncas Bingelmeyer may have had a point.

Homework Limitations

Clement Smith was as sharp as they came, spawned by good folks and a top commercial cattle operation. He was one of the up and coming reproductive physiologists in the nation, a nascent bright light employed by a Land Grant University. Clem appreciated seedstock and sales but had no experience or interest in selling breeding stock. As sometimes happens when university and extension shuffle things, though, Clem was pressed into service as director of the institution's annual bull sale, just a couple of months ahead of the event.

The sale committee, comprised of leading seedstock producers and marketers in the region, regaled young Clem with all kinds of stories and advice.

“Sale order is everything, the difference between success and failure,” one shared with him in a private conversation.

“Sale order has to be the most over-rated aspect of a sale, don't even worry about it,” said another in a confidential chat.

“Good Lord, I hope you don't plan on some kind of pre-sale educational seminar,” confided another. “That's the death knell, guaranteed.”

Yet another said, “The pre-sale seminar is always our biggest draw, don't know where our sale would be without it.”

And on and on and on…

Clem studied the pedigrees, as if his life depended on it. He combed the breed journal for relatives that had made a name for themselves, no matter how obscure. He ran regression equations on past sales, searching for anything quantitative to inform what seemed like otherwise capricious and emotional decisions to him. He called past buyers to find out what they liked most and least about previous sales and offerings. He accepted the offer of free sale management from an alum with lots of miles and respect in the industry. Come sale day, Clem felt he was ready to answer any question a potential buyer would throw his way.

The crowd continued to pour in for the event; it was the biggest anyone could remember. The weather was post-card perfect. Spirits were high. Sale management reportedly was weighed down with orders. Clem was feeling almost optimistic. Someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Clem, I thought you should know, the soap is about out in the men's room,” said Harley Winchester, without emotion.

“Ummm. O.K. Thanks, I'll take care of it,” Clem said. Harley was part of the sales committee, a long-time commercial cattle operator cum seedstock producer who everyone admired. Clem appreciated him especially because heading into the sale Harley was the lone committee member who never told him anything privately or publicly, other than, “You'll do fine. If there's anything I can do, just holler.” Harley was always so friendly, but here he was with a cryptic message about hand soap.

Lunch came. Despite the over-flow crowd, everyone was served quickly with the best meal anyone could remember at such a function. As Clem was leaving the restaurant, he felt another poke on his shoulder. It was Harley.

With neither smile nor frown, Harley said, “The meal was fine. Just so you know, though, my roll was kind of hard.” And he walked off.

Next, Clem was helping a potential customer sort the advantages between three different bulls. There was that poke again.

“If you believe the EPDs, is there really any reason to consider the actual birth weight?” Harley asked. He wandered on before Clem could respond.

Just about the time Clem would forget about Harley's last comment, here he would be again with another that Clem thought was equally frivolous and ill-timed.

Clem was just ready to climb up on the block when there was yet another tap.

“Just in case,” Harley said, “Is there a ring-side phone I can use?”

By now, what Clem wanted to say was, “Why don't you just use the one sticking out of your front pocket and leave me alone?” Instead, he managed to point and smile: “Yep, there's several right up there.”

Clem could make neither heads nor tails of Harley's questions and comments, especially the last one, since Harley had bought and sold cattle through this sale barn for years.

The sale came and went. Record prices were paid for what everyone agreed was the stoutest offering ever conjured by the university.

“And, the sale itself, well done!” shouted a jubilant sale committee member, patting Clem on the back. “You said you didn't have any experience. This was a stellar event from end to end.”

“Yes it was!” shouted an equally jubilant Harley Winchester, edging his way through the crowd to congratulate Clem, acting like the Harley that Clem knew.

“But what was with the questions and comments earlier?” Clem wondered.

“Oh, that,” Harley said with a grin. “I figured this was supposed to be a learning experience. I was just asking you the same questions and telling you the same things my customers tell me on a sale day.”

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