Category Archives: Beyond EGOS

Holding the Bag

My memories are of two mansions: the first is like a movie theater; the second is more of a tomb. Memories of the first type are similar to movies, stories played out visually through time. Memories of the second kind are without sight, sound, or time—that is, they are naked, raw feelings.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

A very early memory is the story of the combine. I was perhaps three and a half (maybe four and a half) when I rode with my mother to the oat field where my dad was combining, probably to bring him some drink. I believe I can recall the grasshoppers jumping ahead of my feet, the heat of the midday August sun, and the smell of sweet oat straw tinged with the pungent volatiles of green weeds. I know I can remember climbing onto the combine frame and walking along it, holding onto supports.

It was not an old combine at that time. It was an International with its own engine to drive the machine even though it was towed by the tractor. The engine was that of a smaller tractor, like a Cub, but it managed the machine and was mounted forward on the frame.

Not all memories of my farm boy days are pleasant. It’s just that the pleasant ones are easier to recall.

As I walked along the frame, I grabbed onto things to support me. I remember grabbing hold of the engine breather tube, the straight vertical tube that brought clean filtered air into the engine. I do not remember grabbing the next straight vertical tube, the exhaust pipe.

There is a gap in that movie.

The next thing I recall is sitting on my mother’s lap in the house with my hand completely wrapped in gauze, wondering why.

It is a blessing that our subconscious minds that store our movie memories can be so effectively edited. Some things should be forgotten.

But they are not really forgotten. They are stored in the tomb, that timeless dark and silent place where feelings go to never die.

There are some movies in my library that are not so positive, though. They just are not the painful trauma like grabbing a hot exhaust pipe.

Later, when the season came to get into the fields, I loved the work, the smell of tilled earth, the clarity of the job and the sense of power and accomplishment. But, I was the youngest and often sentenced to serve my time in the barn. My job was the routine of chores rather than the thrill of the till. I didn’t like that.

When we bought these new “automatic” milking machines that required special thorough cleaning that required tedious detail work, it fell to the youngest. I still don’t like doing dishes.

And then there was the oat bin. Once each week we would take ear corn from the crib and oats from the granary to the mill in town to have them ground into meal with some additives, special feed for the milking cows. Once a week somebody had to shovel the oats into a gunny sack. Once a week the youngest got to hold the bag open while somebody older manned the shovel.

And I never seemed to do it quite right. To this day, I take great offense at being told I am doing something wrong when I am really trying to do it right. I do not like being left to hold the bag.

No, this was not traumatic. In fact, it is quite humorous in retrospect, just one inconvenience of being the baby of a farm family; there are many inconveniences, but there are far more blessings being the youngest.

I have a lot of childhood memories, mostly good or great. Yes, I know the mind recalls the good memories in preference to the bad, but still—I have a lot of good memories.

One of the things that bothers me about Vietnam is the nagging feeling that my memory is incomplete, that there is one particular conflict I am forgetting. That leads me to believe that there was something significant about that experience, something that I filed away in the tomb rather than the theater library.

But, as to my farm boy life, my memory is robust and remarkably complete. That tells me that my childhood trauma was limited, indeed.

I was a lucky boy.

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Heart and Soul

The heart of a dairy farm may be in the barn, but the soul is in the soil, and my ego is grounded in both. Status of a farm boy is embodied in chores, and mine included duties inside and outside our barn. Rites of passage became new chores requiring greater skill and more responsibility.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

My dad was a dirt farmer. I say that with pride of the narrow meaning of the term: a man who farms his own soil, land he owns. That was a big deal in our family. Mom and dad only bought that farm a year or so before I was born. Before that, they were share croppers.

I never knew my Grandpa Barnes because he died when Dad was about fifteen. Being one of the younger children of a family of twelve, my dad went to live with older siblings until he was old enough to find a job as a hired man, a young man working on a farm for room and board plus a few dollars. It was many years before a WWII need for farmers provided opportunities for sharecroppers to buy farms with little money down.

Dad never let go of that land. He was still spending summers there and working on the farm when he was seventy-eight. One brother lives in the house and our other brother and I help out a little every summer. There is a spiritual umbilical cord none of us wishes to cut.

We grew up in that barn and on that land—we might as well grow old there, too. We learned to work, to take care of livestock, to till the land, and to care for each other on that farm. One fear I have never had is the thought of being homeless. And, when I think about how I became me, I think about that farm.

It was a proud moment the day I graduated from scraping the barn to sweeping it. Scraping then became the chore of the younger boy my mom cared for during the day while his widowed mother worked. I was no longer the baby. Soon, the two of us could scrape, sweep, and lime the barn. There is real pride in viewing a clean barn aisle you created.

I carried a soup can with kerosene through the garden, one of my earliest memories. My job was picking the potato bugs off our potato plants and dropping them into the can. Killing is a part of gardening, a part of farming, and I gave no thought to it. It was my job.

Planting was more fun. Mom would hoe a small fresh hole in the soil Dad had tilled, and I would drop in the seeds. We planted a lot of garden that way and I never tired of it. Many years later I did the same with my daughters. Once when they were teenagers, I kept them both busy at the same time running the hoe—a two row planter.

To this day soil calls me. I hurry home to our land in the north woods to plant garden in spring. It isn’t for the harvest, because we frequently leave before the season, but for the planting. It’s funny how those childhood things remain so important so long.

But, they were important. We lived on the products of that barn and garden. It was survival, but it was so much more. It was security and comfort and reality. When I was young, it was all I knew. When we wanted popcorn, we went to the back room and got some ears of popcorn, shelled them into a pan, winnowed them in the breeze on our porch, and then went to the stove. And before we could get that popcorn from the back room, we had to till the soil, plant the seeds, hoe the weeds, pick the corn, and dry, husk, and store it.

It was the same with almost everything we ate. Even the apples and peaches we bought were canned or pickled for winter. Maybe it seems like such a life is tenuous or even dangerous, depending upon your own hands to grow your own food, but I see the opposite. It is freedom: freedom from want, freedom from fear of scarcity, and freedom from dependence upon uncertain times.

Yes, I think that has a lot to do with my view of the world. “A country boy can survive.”

If he has land. And family. That is security.

I find no wonder that people without land and family get scared and angry, get mean and crazy. Especially when they cannot work to earn money to buy food they cannot hunt or grow. My heart and soul have never had to live that fear. I was a lucky boy.

Cows Come Home

Kids and cows are subject to the charms of soft summer days, the seduction of lush green pastures, the hypnosis of eternal rhythms, and the freedom of room to roam. It grieves me to know that few men remember this and fewer boys ever learn it; and it grieves me that we eat cheese from cows never privileged to share the experiences with barefoot boys.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

Cows are creatures of herd habit, products of millions of years of evolution that cannot be erased by thousands of years of genetic modification of domestication. But, domesticated they are, and milking cows have the need to be milked routinely, which means that by late afternoon, it is time for the cows to come home.

On hot, dry summer days, they may come home early for water. Cows cannot make milk without lots of water. Our pasture was the part of the farm unsuitable to plow, the hill too steep and the marsh too soft, but it contained no stream or pond of water, so they had to come home to the barnyard tank.

On the soft summer days, though, when the grass was lush with moisture, the sun not too hot, and the air not too dry, time slipped away from us. The rhythms of the day were conducted by the buzzing of working bees, the frequency of butterfly wings, and the stirring of leaves in gentle breezes. Only the fences kept us from getting lost in time. Funny how fences can grant us the mental freedom to roam within reason.

And so it was that one of my earliest responsibilities as a boy was to go get the cows on days such as this, on days when the herd got lost in the natural rhythms. I miss the feel of bare feet on soft dust of well trod cow paths passing flat cow pies raisining in the sun. I miss the adventure of stalking a Tiger Swallowtail or evading bad guys hiding behind rocks and trees. I miss the freedom of time and space within protective fences. I miss the relevance of having an important job, a job I understood even at the age of four years.

It wasn’t that hard. Rawhide and Rowdy Yates notwithstanding, all that is necessary to get cows to head to a barn is to circle around behind them. A lead cow will head for home and the others will follow. Then I really had the freedom to wander in my mind because all I had to do was follow them and we all knew where we were going.

Most days it was even easier than that. When the lead cows saw me coming, they knew what to do and started for the barn. I didn’t even have to work my way behind them. My very presence commanded the herd to move as one. What a palpable feeling of power for a small boy. Yes, I looked forward to the days when the cows failed to come home in time for milking.

Sometimes adventure came my way when the cows came home on their own. We let them into the barn for milking and one was missing, one that had not been milking for a couple of months. Dad would say, go find her. I loved it, perhaps because of the uncertainty and element of danger—but mostly because it meant there was a new calf and another of my jobs as I got a bit older was to teach the calves how to drink from a pail.

When cows had their calves in the summer pasture, they often went a bit feral and stayed with them at the far reaches of the domain where the calf could be hidden. It was a hunt, and I have always loved a good hunt.

I learned early not to crowd a cow with a new calf. They can get very protective, even mean, so the method was to get behind them, talk to them, and persuade movement. Sometimes I failed and had to get my big brother with more persuasive skills.

I also loved finding the new calves. There is something about the miracle of birth, of new life where there had not been life, that still fascinates me. I wouldn’t doubt but this kind of experience contributed to my interest in Biology.

And I loved teaching them to drink by allowing them to suck milk off my fingers, gently lowering their noses into the pail of milk and slowly removing my fingers. There is great accomplishment in teaching and I still thrill at my hand in the learning. We can lead the calf to water but we can’t make her drink. Ah, but I can entice her to learn. Yes, some learn much quicker than others, some are more stubborn than others, but sooner or later they all learn to drink.

Sometimes there was a medical reason a cow was missing. On one occasion, I found the new mother lying flat on her side, holding her head up as though looking back at her udder. The veterinarian came and gave her a bottle of intravenous calcium solution after which she stood up and walked home as though nothing was wrong. “Milk Fever” he called it, a sudden drain of calcium from the body to make milk which resulted in a life threatening condition. I saved her life by finding her. Yay for me.

The University of Wisconsin did not have a Veterinary School in my time or I very likely would have gone. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like. Mostly, now, I am comfortable with my place in time and the life I have experienced. I guess I am glad UW did not get the vet school in time for me or I might not have been a teacher. I was a lucky boy.

King and Porky

Who am I, really? Introspection is but one feeble method for seeking an answer. Tracing of tracks on the ground known as personal history is another. I shall attempt to combine the two with a spirit of the Quest to generate some answers. Join me if and when you may be so inclined.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

My mind is a mosaic of memories, snapshots of experiences—or, more honestly, homemade records of perceived experiences. Early memories and memories of traumatic times are especially suspect of fidelity; but they are all the memories I have of these times.

I remember my fourth birthday party. Well, specifically, I remember that there was a party, that it was a celebration of my becoming four years old, and that I got some small red trucks as presents.

One particular toy tractor is a clearer memory, a plastic scale model of a Farmall H with real rubber tires and a rubber steering wheel. It was one of my favorite toys of all time. I cannot remember receiving it but I remember it being taken away once.

It seems I got angry at my sister and threw a fork at her. My dad didn’t seem to think that was appropriate behavior and took my tractor away and set it up high, on the cook stove I believe, where I couldn’t reach it. I learned early that I had a volatile temper.

My older brother had a metal scale model of an Allis Chalmers C, but it was not to the same scale as my H. So, even though a Farmall H is bigger than an Allis C, his toy was bigger than mine. Even so, I played with both. I liked my H best.

In the 1970s, I owned a real H for awhile. My brother has owned lots of tractors on the farm including about a hundred accurate scale models, some in original boxes. I never have, although I gave a true scale model of an Allis Chalmers 190XT to my oldest daughter.

I learned to drive our real Farmall H when I was about four. More specifically, I learned how to start it in low gear and steer it straight while somebody loaded a wagon behind, then kick the switch off to stop.

Our neighbor’s Ford 8N or 9Nwas more fun for me to drive. I could use the clutch because it was horizontal so I could step on it. This one I could really drive like the big boys. I now own a Ford 9N which I use on our land and road in Wisconsin.

I never owned working horses or even learned how to drive them the way my dad did. He farmed with horses until I was about four. That’s when he bought the Farmall H and, I expect, my toy model of it.

Not all important memories are primary, meaning some were told to me. One story is how my dad got started farming with horses after being a hired hand. The only team he could afford was one so rank that nobody wanted them. He had very specific training methods that, in his words, would not break a horse’s spirit. To convince these horses that he was boss without beating them, he threw them each to the ground with a rope (a technique I never learned) and sat on their heads. Horses cannot get up without throwing their head up first. It is basically the same thing as the puppy submission training hold.

I can still remember our two working horses, draft horses we called them, King and Porky. They were huge, filling their stalls near the front of our barn, but I do not remember ever being afraid of them. I’ll have to check with my brothers to see how accurate my memory might be.

King being appropriately regal was a tall and lean golden chestnut with a blaze of some sort on his forehead. Porky was darker, bay I believe, with dark mane, tail and feet. In my mind, the memory created when I was three to four years old, King was sort of the boss, the serious one, but Porky was the steady muscle with a sense of humor.

I do not know who I was before these memories, but I am certain such early experiences contributed to the person I have become. I still have a powerful connection to the land, love animals, and would often rather drive tractor or garden than fish. Perhaps more importantly, I still admire my dad. I was a lucky boy.