July 1988

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How the Cows Got Milked


Ben Wolverton, Jr.

When Ann's brother, Billy, invited us to a Fourth of July family reunion 800 miles to the east near Hammondsport, New York, everyone naturally wanted to go. Many are the cousins mama had not seen for over a quarter of a century, and many are the children whom our children had never met. But, if all of us were to go, who would do the milking? (There were also eggs to gather, chickens to feed and water, a calf being weaned, a pig, two cats and three dogs.)

"If you will teach me," I, the noble father, said, "I shall stay home to do the milking and the other chores."

For nine years I had resisted all invitations to learn to milk. However, many an early morning, and many an evening, too, I've walked around the lake half a mile through the pasture to a five-acre "thistle field" (a name that has stuck since the season when Canadian thistles dominated). This was and still is the cows' favorite field for grazing, but when the cows weren't there, I searched for them in the timber along the river, crawling over fallen trees, stepping over and around the spreading poison ivy, skirting temporary pools of rainwater, or wading through the slush of early spring. Except when one of them was in heat, or mysteriously perverse, usually during a weather change, they came in willingly to be milked. All I needed was a limber switch in my hand—a threat that was seldom needed.

Each of our four children has milked one or two cows morning and night, over the years, during school months and summers. But I, who grew up in the city, have steadfastly avoided sitting on the low, three-legged stool to fill the stainless-steel bucket with the foaming milk, although I have enjoyed watching them do it. Some instinct warned me not to learn. Its name is "laziness," my family tells me, and I have no good answering argument.

Ours is a family of six, drinking skimmed milk, and pouring thick cream into hot oatmeal, baked apples and our coffee. We eat large quantities of cottage cheese, as well as hard cheeses, yogurt and freshly churned or frozen butter. Sour cream is always available for baking, for seasoning vegetables and for heaping on baked potatoes.

But now, if Ann and three of the children were to have their much deserved vacation, I had to learn to milk two cows twice a day, so they would continue to produce during the coming months.

One of the children was unable to go. Our eldest daughter, Susan, could be away from her responsibilities in Iowa City for only three days, so she was to join me on the farm. She'd prepare meals and help me milk Saturday night, Sunday and Monday, the Fourth. I had received a few lessons from Mary, 17, Tom 19, and Nan nearly 21. Susan would give me another when she got home Saturday afternoon.

The family departure was scheduled for after milking on Friday night. That should have been about nine. But by the time the milk had been strained and put in gallon jars to cool in buckets of cold water, the supper dishes washed, the Mazda loaded with a new tent, sleeping bags, food for the road and a small bag of clothes for each of them, it was almost three o'clock Saturday morning.

When I awoke at six that same morning, I heard a cow calling me. The temperature was beginning to rise again, ominously, after the brief cooling effect of an early morning storm. I ground the usual pitcher of corn in an electric coffee grinder we have used for years for that purpose, and went down to the dilapidated barn that many years ago was hit a glancing blow by a passing tornado. I poured the cornmeal into the stone dish in the stanchion where the cow sticks her head during milking. After washing off the Guernsey's teats as I'd been taught to do, I squeezed and pulled, first one and then another. Nothing happened! My heart sank, and my self-esteem plunged. The children had always made it look so easy.

I tried different rhythms, different combinations of fingers and thumbs. At last some milk dribbled onto one hand. I grew more determined and squeezed harder. Eventually the bottom of the pail was nearly covered. I poured the warm foam into the dish of the patiently waiting grey and white cat, Timothy. But then I couldn't quite talk myself into sitting down beneath the cow again. Not right away. It wasn't any fun at all.

I took a look at the cow's face to see how she was taking it. Solemnly she was chewing her cud, in no hurry to go anywhere. I went around the corner to see her calf waiting for his breakfast. Stalling, I petted him a minute and told him it would be awhile, I pulled a couple of tasty weeds to hold him, and grimly went back to work.

Half an hour later the calf was drinking a gallon of his mother's milk from his plastic bucket. I was so proud of my achievement I let the Guernsey out of the stanchion with her udder only half empty. No one would know the difference. She'd be happy, I knew, to join her friends in the pasture. I then decided to give the Holstein a break, too, wherever she was, grazing with the other cows. It wouldn't be the first time she'd missed one milking. She'd come in, I knew, when her udder started to ache, and by then Susan would probably be home.

Luckily all of our children are like their mother, hard working and pleasant company. Susan fed me and milked the cows. On the Fourth we phoned Hammondsport and told the other four members of the family to stay as long as they wanted. "Don't hurry back," we said. "Everything is under control. Yes, daddy is learning how to milk."

Tuesday morning arrived, and I was on my own before seven. As I lowered myself onto the stool under the Guernsey, while she contentedly devoured her cornmeal, I was resigned to a long session. I've got to fill the bucket, no matter how long it takes, I told myself. It was about then I noticed I had a throbbing headache. My sinuses seemed to be partially plugged. Apparently there was pollen in the air. It was humid and already very hot. Flies were tickling and biting both me and the cow. I decided to go up to the kitchen to grind another pitcher of corn. The cow undoubtedly deserved it. After giving her the fresh corn, I told her I'd be back shortly.

I hurried across the bridge over the Wapsie River and up the street to the Dugaru, where I knew several men would be drinking coffee and talking. The Dugaru Kitchen and Bar is owned and run by Doug and Ruby, who live only a block away. Coffee is ready at six, five mornings a week. You put a dime in a dish and pour yourself a cup. I drank one quickly, stated my situation, and hinted I'd pay well for some help. Then I went back to the cow and hoped someone would come.

Soon two of the most generous and helpful of neighbors pulled into our barnyard in a pickup. Ray milked the Guernsey and Dick the Holstein. Neither would take a gallon of milk home to their wives, nor would they accept money. "That's what neighbors are for," they said, and went off to work.

That night I sat under each cow for over an hour, determined not to ask for help unless I really had to. The next morning their udders were full and hard. This time I went to the DX station across from the Dugaru. Luck was with me. There sat Burdette, the retired school custodian, smoking a cigarette. I'd watched him butcher more than one steer for us, and help us grind many pounds of hamburger in his meat grinder. I knew he was skillful at any job connected with farming, including milking. Sure enough, he soon drove over in his pickup and milked both cows dry.

At noon, thinking ahead, I went to the Dugaru again to see if Willard was there eating dinner. Willard is a 74-year-old widower, always on the lookout for widows who need to have a little repair work done. At least that's what his friends say, and he smilingly enjoys his reputation. His parked white van is rumored to have been seen far and wide. Spotting it, or pretending to, is a game his friends like to play.

I had heard that Willard would be willing to help me with the milking, if it weren't that I still owed him a cup of coffee. Last March, when I ran out of hay, he took me in his van to get three bales from a barn south of the cemetery on the Walker road to tide me over until the next day, a Saturday, when the owner of the hay would bring me a full load. I had thanked Willard, but had forgotten my promise of a cup of coffee.

Now I was ready to buy him a hot roast beef dinner for $2.75 or a ham dinner for $3. He wasn't there, and I didn't have my glasses for looking up his phone number, so I went across the street again to Keith and Betty's DX Service. Accommodating as always, Betty looked up the number and I phoned Willard. Well, his son is also named Willard, although he's known as Gene, because his middle name is Eugene. So I phoned the wrong number and left the message with a little girl whom I thought to be a visiting granddaughter.

Back at the Dugaru a conversation with Ruby revealed my mistake. I phoned the correct number and Willard agreed to come about seven that night. I was pleased when he arrived before seven. One of Ann's several gardens is adjacent to the milking place, and, while Willard leaned over a concrete wall admiring several rows of sweet corn, I went out around the lake to bring in the Guernsey.

She came ambling in the gate ahead of me as usual, picking up speed in anticipation of her corn. Then she saw Willard, turned right around and headed back toward the pasture. I had to ask him to hide before going after her to bring her in all over again

Once the Guernsey was in the stanchion, all went well. Willard reappeared, and, while he filled the bucket with the creamiest milk he'd seen in a long time, I went back to find the Holstein known, by the way, as "Tom's cow." (The Guernsey is "Mary's cow.") After she, too, had contributed a brimming bucket, Willard had to be helped to his feet. One of his legs was stiff from an old injury, and it had been a good many years since he'd milked a cow. The next day he got his ham dinner.

Thursday morning I knew my ordeal would be over either that day or the next. I went back to the Dugaru looking for help, although my hands were getting stronger, and I was developing the knack of slowly squeezing milk down through a teat. The oil man, who delivers fuel oil and gasoline to customers from Troy Mills to Prairieburg, was just finishing his breakfast.

"Give me a call this evening, if you need help," Carl said over the last of his bacon and eggs. I had the impression that he'd actually enjoy milking again, that it would take him back to a happy childhood.

But now there was this morning's milking to be done. Tom's cow put her foot in the bucket twice. But it didn't really matter. I had almost from the beginning taken the shortcut of giving the milk straight from the bucket to the pig who lives next to the milking area. She was supposed to get only whey, but why carry the whole milk up to the kitchen to be strained, cooled and skimmed? I didn't want it. I'm too old to digest milk anymore. I only wanted to keep the production up, until the regular milkers returned.

That evening it was hot again and humid, and annoying flies were landing on my naked back. Tom's cow barged in first. As she stood in the stanchion licking up her cornmeal, milk trickled from her three teats onto the concrete floor. (She's known as a three-quarter cow.) I quickly put the bucket under her udder and watched for several minutes, moving the bucket around, as first one, then two, then all three let down a thin stream of milk. That was better than nothing, but it was too slow. To speed things up I squeezed the teat that hung from the fullest looking quarter. It promptly shut off. That was the signal to get off the stool and go to the telephone. "Some of us are milkers and some are not," I said to myself. The invitation of the oil man to phone him was like a beacon in the night.

He lives about three miles out of town. He had some chores to do before he could come, he told me. But within an hour two strong streams of milk were singing into the bucket, and, as it steadily filled, he told me how, as a boy, he'd milked twelve cows twice a day, before and after school. His brother had milked another twelve. He was glad to take two gallons home for his large family. When I next saw him, I learned they had used it to make ice cream.

Friday morning the four travelers had not returned. But I knew I almost had it made now, so I worked hard, making beieve I was an old-fashioned farmer, and got through the cows, assuring them the regulars would be there for the next milking. The family adventurers drove into the barnyard in the middle of the afternoon, hot and exhausted after a full week of highway traffic and getting to know their relatives.

"How did the milking go?" they asked.

"Fine," I answered. "Just fine."

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