In the late 1960s, I met a fellow UT student who was an animal-husbandry major, specializing in beef cattle. He was a bit of a character, fancying himself a rancher. He was partial to cowboy boots and blue jeans and claimed to be an expert horseman.
His cowboy getup, he assured me, was not just a necessity in the barnyard—women found it attractive. He also claimed expert knowledge of shorthorn cattle. And, I soon learned, the last assertion was not bull.
At fair time, he talked me into going out to the livestock barns at Chilhowee Park, where he had a bull entered in competition. When we got to the stall housing his entry, he proudly pointed out the blue ribbon with his name on it.
Then, as we walked around the pens, he spotted someone he knew. “Come on,” he said, “there’s another prize-winner you need to meet.” Soon, he was in the clutches of a tall female with a gorgeous head of red hair.
“This is Big Red,” he said.
Big Red, it turned out, was also an animal-husbandry major, and she, too, knew her way around beef cattle. Plus (and more importantly to us at the time), she knew how to get a cooler full of beer into the fairgrounds. Soon, we were sitting on bales of hay in the back of her livestock trailer having a cold brew as the two of them caught up.
Later, as my friend and I made our way back to Fort Sanders, he told me all about Big Red, how the pair of them had enjoyed a torrid fling several months earlier until he had ditched her.
It was obvious that he regretted the break-up and that he would like to re-kindle the relationship.
“Women like that—good-looking, interesting, and knowledgeable about cattle—are hard to come by,” he allowed.
I could only agree.
The next time I saw my friend, he was returning from a date with Big Red. “Yep,” he said. “Going great, me and her. I don’t know why I let her get away.”
“You told me the break-up was your idea,” I reminded him.
“Well, technically that’s true,” he admitted. I pushed him on the reason they had split, but he hemmed and hawed. Most I could get out of him was it had to do with a barroom argument over a shorthorn-breeding arrangement.
I didn’t see him for a while, so I assumed things were going well at the ranch.
Then he showed up at my door one night, drunk.
“It’s over with Big Red,” he said. “She sold her stock and left town. No forwarding address. I can’t find out where she went.”
We continued the conversation at the Yardarm, and then I managed, with difficulty, to get him home.
A couple of weeks later, he was back at my door.
“I still can’t find Big Red,” he said. “I’ve been to all her hangouts: Bill’s Barn, Brownie’s, the Yardarm, all the Ag campus spots. No one seems to know what happened to her. I even went over to the apartment of her ex-boyfriend. He hadn’t seen her, either.”
The next time I saw him, I asked after Big Red. He gave me a long look.
“She went to Minnesota and died,” he finally said. His demeanor told me he wasn’t kidding.
Finally, he explained, he had run into one of her best friends, and she had given him the bad news.
I pushed him for details, but he said that was all he had been told.
“Mysterious,” he said. “Happened suddenly. I called her sister in Minnesota and she said that the doctors couldn’t figure out what she was sick from, and then she just died.”
Another month went by before I saw him again. “Remember Big Red?” he asked. Sure, I said. “Well, she did go to Minnesota, but she’s alive and well.”
What about the rumor of her death, I wanted to know.
“She spread that story so I wouldn’t bother her,” he said.
Is it going to work?
“I think so—I told you she was smart. I reckon she’s way too smart for me.”
Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.
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