Tag Archives: boy

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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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.