My Uncle Arlo

September 11, 2006

My uncle Arlo Van Veldhuizen was a complicated man. He graduated valedictorian from his high school in rural Iowa but was excruciatingly shy. My grandfather Van Veldhuizen, Arlo’s father, was an over-bearing man; this combined with Arlo’s introversion and social awkwardness–along with a dose of bad decisions–kept Arlo on our family dairy farm for the rest of his life. He never married, had no close friends, and rarely traveled outside of Sioux county.

But I loved my uncle. He was witty and surprisingly well-read. He loved to tell stories of the old days when all the old Hollanders would gather together and help each other with their farms. He was nostalgic for the past in a way that was very appealing to me as a boy, though I was afraid of how bitter and angry he sometimes got if his memories turned to my grandfather, the Vietnam war, or the changes in farming culture in the area.

In 1987, the year of the government’s dairy buy-out, my uncle made the national news. In order to curb milk surpluses, the government spent billions of dollars to buy out dairy farmers’ herds. To make the deal with the government, farmers had to agree to destroy or export their entire herds, no exceptions. But my uncle had an old pet, a 15-year-old cow named “Old Mama.” She hadn’t given milk for years, but he never culled her because of his emotional attachment to her. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he got Old Mama exempted from the buy-out; she was the one and only pet cow saved from slaughter in the entire program. My sensitive and sad uncle found a way to save a decrepit cow from an early end. For this act, Arlo soon found himself in the national press including the New York Times, Time magazine, and a snarky piece in the New Republic. I lifted the following picture from the New York Times archive:

Arlo received thousands of letters from supporters–mostly animal lovers and other old farmers whose hearts had been hurt by sending away old cows. The other 26 cows in my uncle’s herd of 27 were sent away, but Mama stayed on for a few more years until she had to be put down.

Arlo died in the fall of 2002, fifteen years after he saved Old Mama. My father called in the middle of the night and told me that Arlo had died alone in the farmhouse of a heart attack. He was not discovered for several days, not until a neighbor realized he had not seen him puttering around the yard. We prayed for him in church that Sunday, and then again on All Saints’ Day, for his witness and for his memory.

This Wednesday, my mother will have been dead 11 years of lung cancer. I suppose that’s why I started thinking about Arlo today; grief leads to grief. I wish he had been spared the indignity of dying alone.

3 Responses to “My Uncle Arlo”

  1. Dave Says:

    A moving story. One anecdote like that can really illuminate a person’s character. Thanks.

  2. Brett Says:

    Thanks, Dave. This has been a melancholy week–I appreciate your comment.

  3. Liz Says:

    Dear Brett,

    I think of the loss of your mother so often. You know I felt her presence so strongly on the day you were ordaid and the laying on of hands. She is, I know, so proud of you and all you have accomplished. She loves your beautiful family and your precious children. I do too.

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