Mark Dodge Medlin

Sheep man

Near Salem, Oregon

(Reader advisory: A very bad word appears once in this story.)

One Sunday morning in the winter of early 1994, I’m driving around Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley, looking for photo opportunities. I find more than I expected.

I pull off the road across from a small barnyard between Independence and Buena Vista near Salem. It isn’t an especially good pasture. The grass is pretty short, far from lush, and in some places it’s just bare dirt. It holds about a half dozen sheep and a half dozen lambs, some with their tails banded so they’ll fall off.

Two bleached logs sit near the center of the yard. Some of the animals use them for shelter, kneeling next to them, lowering the front end first. Sheeps’ knees bend forward, which looks awkward. The gate to the barn is broken; sheep wander inside to eat hay.

No house is in sight, so I figure the owner isn’t around. But here he comes, out of a clearing in some bushes to the right. He has a good-sized pot belly, a scraggly beard, shoulder-length brownish hair. Looks like he hasn’t had a bath in a while. His eyes are a bit wild. He wears a dirty-white baseball cap, a flannel shirt with a big tear under the right arm, jeans, and suspenders made out of orange rope. He carries a walking stick, a debarked tree branch, about an inch and a half thick and 5 feet long. I later learn that his name is Gene.

“Whaddaya need?” he says. He has a bit of an accent. I can’t quite place it. He sounds kind of Southern, although I later learn he’s lived here for decades, maybe since the ’40s.

“Just wanted to take some pictures of your sheep, if that’s OK.”

“Whatsa matter with ’em?”

“Not a thing. I was just driving by and thought I’d stop and take some pictures. If it’s a problem, I’ll be on my way.”

Gene tells me to go ahead, but before I can raise my camera to my eye, he starts yelling: “Fuckers took all my cows away, said I was mistreatin’ ’em.” He says the Humane Society claimed he was keeping the cows too confined. For the next 20 minutes or so, he talks, a rambling monologue. My involvement consists mostly of sympathetic responses. After a couple of minutes, I feel comfortable enough to shoot some photos of the sheep.

He turns from the Humane Society to how his neighbor’s dogs keep attacking his sheep. Apparently, one ewe had its eye mutilated, and he told his nephew to take care of the animal. When the nephew went out to see about the ewe, it scratched at the injured eye, which fell out. The nephew didn’t want anything to do with that — “He thought it was gross.” The ewe is still in the barnyard. It’s hard to see a problem, except that the right eye socket, the one with no eye, looks squinty. By now, Gene is mostly not yelling anymore. (“I’m not yelling at you, fella, but …” he says twice during our conversation.)

Another topic: the falling price of wool. You can’t raise sheep on what you get for wool these days, he says.

At some point, Gene stops and says, “Where you from?” Astoria, I tell him.

“You a mortician?” This comes out of nowhere. No, I say, I work for the paper. (As I edit this story a few years later, it occurs to me that this might not have been the smartest admission to make to this potentially unbalanced man.)

Apparently my red hair prompted his question. “There’s a gal over there, got red hair like you, runs a mortuary and a bed and nook …” (He means bed and breakfast, but I like his term better.) There is indeed a family like this in Astoria, and apparently one of them knows Gene. They and I are unconnected.

I wind up feeling really bad for the guy — he says the Humane Society took away his livelihood and that he can’t even afford a coat. He says something about having had a stroke. Life has not been kind to Gene.

The first time he stops talking for more than two seconds, I tell him I need to get going, that my wife will wonder what happened to me. This is mostly true. I back across the road, thanking him for letting me take pictures of his sheep.

“Well, I hope they don’t get me in any trouble,” he says. At first, I think he was afraid I was with the Humane Society or was some other kind of troublemaker.

“They won’t, sir, I promise,” I say. He asks if the paper I work for is a daily or a weekly. Daily, I say, then explain I’m not shooting for the paper, just for myself. I get back in my car and drive away.

Gene's sheep