Monday, August 24, 2009

On the Farm - personal essay

My carpenter father had hired my older brother for the summer because he could saw and drive nails straight. I couldn't. But, I had to work. If Dad bought my school clothes in the fall, it would be overalls and brogans again -- not cool for high school. I had to find a job.

I rode out of town on my bicycle, cobbled together from old discards, stopping at each farmhouse to ask for work. Five miles brought me to the end of a long dirt lane and the Bill Daniels dairy farm. Bill had purchased the farm as a retirement project. He could hardly afford to pay the 75 cents an hour minimum wage.

He hired me and gave me the first of his simple rules. "Don't come to work until you get a dollar watch and a jack knife. I'm not a gonna be tellin' ya the time or loanin' ya my knife." A dollar watch had climbed to $2.50 by 1956, and a passable pocket knife cost a couple of bucks. For less than a day's wages I was in business.

The Daniels's farm rested on the edge of fertile Ohop Valley, near Tacoma, Washington. The old farm-house sat on the hillside, fifty yards above the farm buildings on the valley floor. The lane ended in the barnyard, with the huge barn and silo on the valley side and the milk house on the other side. The tall silo butted against the right front side of the barn as you faced them.

The barn, topped with an English gambrel roof and cavernous hay mow, served as a central gathering place for chickens, dogs, cats, health inspectors, farmhands, and salesman. The barn had concrete floors and interior walls of aluminum for easy cleaning. A row of stanchions stretched the entire length. A gutter ran directly beneath the cows' tails. We could train them to go to the same stanchion at the same time each day, but housebreaking them seemed impossible.

I found the barn smelly at first. In time, however, the sweet blossomy smell of alfalfa hay, the sour smell of silage, the pungent smell of manure, and the malty smell of grain all mingled to become a special fragrance. Even now, forty years later, while bicycling along country roads, I will catch a sniff of this fragrance and experience a replay of faded dreams.

Our lives revolved around the cows. The milk sloshing and swaying in full round udders between their hind legs provided our only income. We pampered them, and gently took this treasure twice a day so they would not become uncomfortable and dry up. We laced the hay and silage with black-strap molasses if it got stale.

Milking, though always a chore, created fond winter memories. The barn door opened on the front right side of the barn. My eye could scan its entire length, ridge after ridge of high, square hips and tail bones. From each ridge hung long tails like ropes switching back and forth. Steam rose in misty pillars from each back.

Starting at the end nearest the door, I would squeeze in beside Marabel, the petit Jersey, and Mae West, the buxom Holstein, with my bucket of hot water. I cleaned and soothed their bags, so when I put on the milking cups, they willingly gave to the chunk-a-chunk of the milking machine. I carried the milk from the barn to the milk house in five gallon cans, dumping it in a large stainless steel cooling tank. A creamery truck picked it up every couple of days.

That first summer, however, my main job was to help Bill put up the hay and the grass silage. Unlike hay, grass for silage is put up green and preserved through fermentation. Bill's worn out machinery complicated the job. With modern machinery he could have done the job alone, but he couldn't afford it. Hardly a day passed without some cantankerous machine breaking down.

We would pull the broken down machine to the barnyard amidst dirt and dust, squawking fluttering guinea hens, barking dogs, bemused cats, and afternoon shade, to make repairs. Always, there were hundreds of rusty bolts to break loose, replace, and tighten. "Swear at it," Bill would say. "Swearing makes it work." But with Papa being a preacher, I knew better than to develop that habit, besides there weren't enough curses to help his old junk. After I'd get the shiny new bolts in place, he'd tell me to "piss on 'em so they'll rust tight."

While we worked on the machinery, cut grass would be drying in the field. When too dry, instead of fermenting in the silo, it would just mildew. The next winter, it would take more molasses to induce the cows to eat it.

We worked on through the summer with Bill adding more rules: "Every time you leave a tool in the field, I'll dock an hour's pay." He did to, but only once. He said it was disrespectful to call my dad "my old man." Afraid he'd deduct for that too, I quit doing it. "Never spend your own money on whiskey," he advised, having accepted a drink from a peddler the previous day, " but never turn down one that someone else is paying for."

The long summer hours, machinery problems, and an egg size hernia in his groin wore Bill down, and he would often doze between bites as we ate lunch, waking just before his face fell in his plate. Once I awakened him by buttering this nose with my table knife, a slight revenge for the time he told me to walk behind the manure spreader to make sure it worked properly. He knew I had never seen a spreader work. I assumed the stuff just dropped off the back. I had my face three feet away, watching the conveyor, when he engaged the beaters, hurling stink and corruption in every direction. Never again did he catch me with one of his city boy versus country boy pranks.

My early sex education took place on the farm, where I learned the biology of things long before I learned of romance. When a cow's time came around, we would arrange a tryst with a scrub bull, unless we wanted to add her calf to our herd, in which case we used an artificial inseminator and the sperm of a purebred. Either way, there were questions to be asked and answered.

Bill taught me to use my thumb to "thump" the cow in her belly, just below her hip bones, to feel for the calf. I could track its development, until nine months later a wobbly legged critter would emerge.

It didn't always end this way, however. I walked into the barn one day to see Bill with his shirt off and the entire length of his arm inserted in the cow, from the tail end. "What's wrong," I asked.

"Calf's laying wrong," he grumbled. "Its front feet have to come out first."

He got the calf turned around, but that was only half the problem. It had a freakishly large head and the laboring cow could only force out the front feet. Tying a rope to the feet, we tugged on the calf until it finally popped out, dying within minutes. It was several hours before the cow got on her feet.

At age sixty-seven, Bill no longer had the energy to run the farm. He sold it, and I sold my labor to Oggie Enwall, a Danish immigrant who, for many years, had run the largest dairy in the area. He paid me $200.00 a month, plus board and room.

My first ten seconds on that job are deeply etched in my memory. I walked into the creamery where Oggie bottled milk. As with Bill, thin profits forced him to make do with worn our equipment. His bottle capper was missing every third bottle. He couldn't seem to solve the problem, and his chronic, out of adjustment, temper had just pushed past the pressure release zone.

I cheerfully bounced in just as the capper missed again and said, "Good morning Oggie, what would you like me to do this morning." He grabbed a capped bottle of milk, smashed it on to the concrete floor, and bellowed in his barely understandable accent, "Get out, that's all. Just get out of here!" I left, trying again in about ten minutes, this time a bit more subdued and with good results. But many times, while working in the fields a half mile from the yard, I could hear him hollering at farm hands. At least six quit or were fired that summer.

I hired on as a field hand, but when a milking job opened, Oggie let me have it. The work was divided into two shifts, the first starting at 2:30 a.m. and the second at 2:30 p.m. I also slept in two shifts. It took a Big Ben alarm clock with a loud mechanical bell, placed across the room on an upside down metal dishpan, to awaken me for the morning shift.

Two of us milked 150 cows in a milking parlor, instead of a barn. The cows stood in stalls, nose to tail, and were elevated to our waists. We herded them into a holding pen, moving them in and out of the parlor with factory precision. Number fifty-eight got two cranks of grain, while higher producing number sixty-five got three cranks. The milk went straight from the udder to the cooling tank and on to the bottle in complete sterility.

Occasionally a cow resisted the system. Number 134 had learned to lunge against the gate after eating her grain, popping it open. Off she would run, half milked, leaving the milk machine cups dangling from four rubber tubes like half an octopus. Number seventy-six learned to slip her head through the bars of the stall,, and with a contortionistic twist, give herself more grain. No longer profitable, both were sent to the rendering plant, and their numbers given to more profitable cows.

Fortunately, Oggie never measured my production to food ration in quite the same way. After securing the cows in the holding pen for the morning shift, I grabbed a quart of milk from the cooler. Mid-way through the milking, I drank another quart. At breakfast I had two or three large glasses of milk, biscuits, ham, eggs, and cereal.

At lunch, Oggie's wife served meat, potatoes, homemade bread, at least two kinds of vegetables, and fresh pie. I ate firsts of everything, seconds of some things, and always two or three glasses of milk. during the afternoon milking, I generally drank another two quarts of milk, unless it was Christmas time, in which case I swapped one for a quart of eggnog. Supper was a repeat of lunch.

After supper, I generally retired to the bunk house, which I shared with a wino who cured hangovers by drinking six spoons of instant coffee stirred into a cup of hot tap water; an elderly psychic who, from the dark, talked out loud to his dead uncle, and 24-year-old Fritz. Fritz had been working in the creamery since graduating from the eighth grade at age eighteen.

I worked other dairies during those teen years, relieving farmers for a weekend or for a vacation. Always the work was physically hard but emotionally satisfying. I dreamed of someday owning my own herd.

But high school graduation soon came, along with the threat of being drafted into the Army. To avoid it, I enlisted into the Air Force for four years. By the end of my enlistment, my dream had begun to fade. Now all that remains are fond memories and a Dairyman of the Year award given to me by my Future Farmers of America chapter. The farmers I worked for are now dead or worn out. Still, I walked away with the best part of their farms -- memories I can enjoy without sweat or stink. I wonder if my carpenter brother feels the same way about the nails he's hammered?

Copyright 1995

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