The Grapes of
On Burr Road, Part 3
Summer came, the summer of my sixth birthday, and of learning on the land. It was gentler and safer than the summers in Arkansas, so that we could splash in the creek right beside our yard, hide in the creek bank grass and brush, or just stretch out in the sun without fear of poisonous snakes or ticks. No scorpions, tarantulas, or Black Widow spiders, either. Freedom from fear meant freedom to explore and expand our knowledge of nature and the nature of many things. I learned to recognize thistle plants and blackberry canes fast enough to avoid them when capering about in bare feet. I discovered the sweet flavor of dandelion and clover flowers, as well as the acidic tang of the ants which frequented them. And the crayfish in the creek had to be picked up behind their big pincers or else you got pinched for your curiosity.
We learned what happens when you play too long with a frog. After Rachel released the naked, bug-eyed little creature on a creek side rock, it just sat there. The next day when I looked for the frog, it was still there, stiff and dry in the hot sun. Ugly emotions bombarded me: guilt, confusion, fear, and pity, all mixed up and drawing me back to stare at the scene even though I hated it, forcing me to ponder it even while I tried to escape it. I wondered whether it would be appropriate to talk to Mom about it—she could answer some of my "whys," but she might be displeased and suspect that we were cruel to the frog.
Mom and Rebecca started work at Dunkirk Ice Cream, accepting the night shift because that was what the company had to offer. It was just a part of life as we knew it then—you took whatever opportunity handed you.
"Take good care of Susan and Nathan," Mom instructed Lydia before she left. As soon as she got home, about 7:30 each morning, we younger ones ran to meet her in the yard, and she fussed over us, hesitating to leave us to go upstairs for the daytime sleep she needed.
Nathan was beginning to construct sentences, and did his best to convey to Mom the inadequacy of his replacement caretakers. "Lydia smack, pinch, kick me, and...and..." he searched for more impressive words of accusation.
I wondered why Nathan didn't have to speak the truth like the rest of us. It irked me sometimes when he ran to the window and shouted, "Dat ist da heim!" (Dad came home) when it wasn't true at all. But once when I confronted him about it, Mom hushed me and said he's too little to know better.
We had a tame pigeon which would come inside the house at times, and station himself on the very top of our tall book case, up by the ceiling. "Birdie," we would tell Nathan, pointing to the pigeon. "Can you say 'Birdie' ?"
Nathan had other thoughts. He had overheard somebody say the bird was a man, or male, pigeon. He had tried out the name "man" for the bird, and noticed how impressed the adults were at his invention. Thereafter, "Birdie" became "Man," and any attempt to make Nathan say "Birdie" turned into a battle of wills. Drusilla tried singing it to him:"Bird-e-e-e, Bird-e-e-e, Bird-ee-ee-ee!" to which Nathan retorted, "Na-man, na-man, na-ma-a-an!"
I tried to win the contest once by offering Nathan a piece of candy if he said "Birdie." He was sitting on Dad's lap, watching me with spunky blue eyes as I offered my bribe. "Man," he answered coolly, then wrapped his arms around Dad's neck, whining for the candy. I thought he didn't deserve to have it, but Dad said I'd better not tease him, and made me give Nathan the candy anyway. I could tell Nathan was getting spoiled.
For that matter, Susan acted spoiled sometimes too. We weren't supposed to bother Mom when she was sleeping, but Susan thought she had to go talk to her at times, even though she was four years old already, and the big sisters took good care of us. Once in awhile Susan managed to slip past Lydia's watchful eye, to glide up the stairs and stand at Mom's bedside. Mom, who found it hard to sleep in the daytime anyway, hated to send her away. So Susan would get just what she wanted—an intimate talk with tender, protective Mom.
Work at the ice cream factory began to take its toll on Mom. Not only was the job more demanding and the managers more severe than any other place she'd worked, but she simply could not adjust to sleeping in the daytime instead of at night. Seeing Lydia exhausted and burdened with housework didn't make it any easier. Next season, everyone agreed, Mom would stay home and Drusilla would take her place.
At age 16, Drusilla was spunky and hard-driving, with quick brains to go with her physical strength. Since 11-year-old Chris was the oldest man at home besides Dad, Drusilla had long since learned to do a man's work, and to relish challenges. Drusilla was also intensely loyal to her parents and did not hesitate to offer herself as a breadwinner in Mom's stead.
Dad, meanwhile, had taken a 5-day course in artificial insemination (A.I.) in cattle, and was enlisted as a technician for American Breeders Service. His position meant he had to be available almost everyday of the year to respond to the calls of area farmers when they had a cow in heat.
A.I., the practice of manually depositing a bull's semen into the uterus of a cow in heat, was gaining fans rapidly in the 1970s, as it had in the previous decade also. Dad became a believer in its viability after speaking to neighbors involved in dairy farming. One reason the idea appealed to him was because Dad knew the danger of owning a bull to run with the cow herd. The bull might be ever so manageable and even a pet to his owner, but deep within his nature dwelt a virulent aggression, which, if triggered, could mean sudden death to a human bystander.
Bulls of the Holstein breed, the breed of the world's highest producing milk cows, were particularly predisposed to such behaviour. That's why when Dad was growing up, as well as when I was growing up, the gory drama of a bull attack kept reenacting itself every year in the world of livestock farming, leaving in its path the crushed bodies of farmers or their children. Word of the incidents would get around to neighbors, to communities, and even to the nation...but still many a farmer would let his Holstein bull run loose with his cows, assuring himself that "mine's a nice tame one."
Dad looked at this practice as folly, and taught us never to trust a grown bull. The bull, when we owned one, was kept confined in a tight pen, his door opened only to take cows in and out when they came in heat. This required the herdsman to spend a half hour or so each day in watching the cows for signs of heat. Heat was indicated when a cow chased after other cows to mount them, and stood solidly when mounted by another cow.
We accumulated a small group of young heifers which would be bred and raised as our future milking herd. They were black-and-white, typical Holsteins, although they lacked registration papers to prove it. Buying registered Holsteins would have cost at least a hundred dollars more per animal, and Dad initially didn't see the need in registration papers.
As the heifers reached breeding size, 700 to 800 pounds, Dad and the big sisters observed them for heat every day, so that they could be serviced, either by artificial insemination, or by our old Holstein bull which neighbors Jay and Gladys Noble kept in their barn. A.I. was preferred when we could afford to buy semen, for it allowed us to tap into the Holstein breed's best pedigree lines without owning the prestigious animals themselves. The direct financial benefits of these genetics would be seen after our heifers calved, and the calves grew into cows which hopefully would yield more milk and butter-fat than their contemporaries.
Then one day when Dad and Lavina were at the herd dispersal of another farmer, the opportunity to own a registered cow seemed to march right up to them in the form of a lovely, good-pedigreed heifer. Bell, as the heifer was named, commanded attention from the moment she entered the sale ring. She carried herself almost as tall as a grown cow, with a straight topline, correct legs, and a powerful frame from shoulders to tailhead. But when Bell turned in the ring, the hopeful buyers seated in a circle around her faltered in their bidding. For glancing underneath her flanks, where the beginnings of an udder should be showing, they saw no evidence of bagging. Quite possibly there was a fertility problem that was keeping Bell from breeding.
Dad snapped to attention as the bidding lagged and the auctioneer's urgent voice boomed above the murmurs of the crowd: "Boys, you ever wanted to own a good, young registered cow for just 390 dollars.. .anybody has a bull to turn her in with.. .you pass up this bargain and you'll kick yourself when you get home!"
"Could be true," Dad mused, and he offered the nod of his head and slight movement of his hand that meant Bell would come home to Burr Road that day.
Dad tried A.I. with Bell at first, followed by trips to Sylvester the bull, which became tiresomely regular—spaced every three weeks almost to the day. Jay and Gladys, who housed our heifers, became progressively more irritated with each of Bell's cycles. She'd start in with anxious bawling and picking fights with the other heifers, who were all smaller and trimmer than herself. Then she would be seized with the relentless urge to mount, and she'd hurl herself ruthlessly upon the rumps of her distraught pen mates, pausing only now and then to offer them her own rump.
She'll break the pen down before she's through!" Gladys fumed. But Bell would calm down in a day or two, and there'd be three more weeks of anxious hoping that this time she had "settled," until Bell's "heat tune" began to toll again, announcing unmistakably that such hope had been in vain.
The heifer grew bigger, sleeker and plumper with the passing of each of her carefree days. The big girls adored her, and she had become friendly and tame from their caresses. But finally we had to ship her off for beef. Her registration papers and even her existence had become unprofitable, for the cow that never carries a calf also never develops an udder bag, and never gives milk.
© 1993, Hannah Lapp