Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
Who We Eating Tonight?
David Tippetts has published memoir essays in Montana Magazine, Permafrost, Rosebud and Memoir, as well as fiction in Sling and Stone and the Whitefish Review. He won honorable mention in the 2004 New Millennium Fiction Competition. He chairs the Writer’s Critique Group in the Salt Lake City Library system and is on the advisory board of Writers@Work. He lives in American Fork, Utah.
It was a family secret that my step-dad named his cows after the women in our church congregation. Phyllis Newman the Sunday-school chorister had a prominent nose; when a Holstein calf was born that had a long, humped nose, she became Phyllis and grew into a large cow with a timid disposition. They didn’t have to possess a physical resemblance. Katy Martin attended our church for a couple of years, then moved away; Katy the cow was a Durham breed with a red roan coat and, characteristic of the breed, was patient and tractable, a pet.
There were exceptions. He lost the opportunity of naming the cows already on the place when we bought it in 1957. Lulu couldn’t possibly have had any other name, an older Jersey with a deer-brown coat, whose milk was super-rich in butterfat, our cream cow, the boss of the herd. She wielded a deformed horn, the result of an incomplete dehorning, to keep the other cows in line.
My step-dad thought his little joke was uproariously funny. My mother and sisters rolled their eyes, but the names stuck and became part of the ongoing family conversation at mealtimes when we aired problems concerning the farm. They became points of reference in our lives.
My step-dad stood six foot eight, big boned, a giant. He found it hard to bend down against a cow’s flank, so I became the dairy manager at the age of 15. For the next five years my life revolved around the eight cows I milked every morning and evening.
The milk-house stood about twenty feet from the bank of the Milk River in Eastern Montana and forty feet from the house, a small concrete block building with two main rooms. The east end held the milking parlor with stanchions for four cows. The smaller room on the west held the cream separator, the stainless sink, a tin stove and an old Coke cooler, the kind with the cold-water circulating system and a bisected lid that folded aside for access. In summer, an occasional watermelon floated in the icy water among the chilled bottles of milk and cream. This was my domain.
A family of 11 can consume a lot of milk. My mother made butter with a churn I later inherited—cottage cheese and whipped cream. We traded a goodly amount to friends and relatives in exchange for summer labor. The remainder we sold for fifty-cents a gallon directly off the farm. We had regulars who took their milk from the Coke cooler, leaving the money in a tin can on the corner of the sink-drainboard. We traded butter to the cooks at the school cafeteria for gallon mayonnaise jars for the milk.
I had my set routine. I flipped the switch for the milking compressor just inside the milk-house door, assembled the machines with their rubber inserts and tubing, dumped a scoop of rolled barley laced with molasses at each stanchion, slid open the big door and let in the first four cows. I attached the machines to the first three cows and milked the fourth by hand while the machines did their work. Then I repeated the whole procedure. If everything went well I finished in an hour, leaving only the straining and bottling. But things could go very wrong. A cow stepping in a full bucket of milk as I leaned against her flank or a flailing tail catching me in the eye could ruin the whole operation.
I arose at 6 a.m. winter and summer. The cows knew the time. Their internal clocks defied weather, season and an occasional lapse by unreliable humans. In the summer I found them lined up at the milk-house door in order precisely at 6 a.m.; in the winter I had to open the door to the log barn a hundred feet from the milk-house and always found them waiting inside, lined up in order. They marched in rank to the milk-house and waited for me to start up the parlor.
One day in the dead of the winter, my step-dad misread the clock and woke me at four instead of six. It was always dark that time of year so I didn’t see anything different. But when I opened the door to the barn, warmed by the heat of the cows’ bodies, I was surprised; no line of cows. They slumbered randomly around the barn floor. My flashlight glared into sleepy cow-eyes. They looked at me as if I was an apparition, a bovine nightmare in human form filling the doorway, invading their deserved rest. I strode in and began pushing cows onto their feet. They groaned and sulked, but finally lined up and stumbled out into the bitter cold. I was about half-way through milking when my step-dad burst through the door, all apologies. He let me go back to bed and finished the milking himself. The cows had to stay and see it through.
It’s been over forty years, but I still sometimes dream about my cows—nightmares in which the cows are hungry or thirsty, closed in a corral somewhere and I can’t find them or get to them. I’m responsible; it’s my job to relieve their suffering. The dynamics of the nightmares with their impossible dilemma and wrenching turmoil says something about the experience of owning and dealing intimately with farm animals. The cows and I were locked in a benign mutual imprisonment. There are few jobs that have as much sheer determinism as its basis. I simply had to be there at six each morning and six each evening for the hour or so it took to get the job done. Someone else could do it occasionally, but the cows were used to me. They knew me and trusted me. My step-dad or my step-brother sometimes subbed for me, but invariably, Lady would panic and tear half the parlor down or something else would go wrong.
Any change in the routine resulted in mass bovine anxiety, confusion and rebellion. Changes had to be introduced gradually, and then we always went through a troubled period until the routine smoothed out and they learned their places, the milking times, their right order.
I had a troubled relationship with Lady, a typically twitchy Ayrshire we bought with the farm. She had the first stanchion just inside the barn door because she couldn’t be persuaded any further. She was the last in line; I didn’t want another cow behind her in case she panicked, which she sometimes did. She would approach the door, jerking her head, her eyes walled to the whites and lunge into the stanchion as if saying, "Let’s just get this over with." Afterward she would back out in a rush and trot into the corral wagging her head in cowy relief.
Years later I sat for a job interview. The interviewer asked me one of those confounding questions, "What job in your past has given you the most satisfaction?" He encouraged me to enlarge on the idea of work to include family tasks. I thought only for a moment before I named my dairying experience. I’d been given an important role in the family structure, a partnership with my step-dad. I had complete control of my domain. I took pride in its order and cleanliness, and in my ability to accomplish the milking efficiently.
I didn’t say that I also became a bit of a dictator, the unappeasable, ridiculous teenage expert who possessed opinions. Officious, I posed as a junior adult. Once my step-brother, Fred, failed to clean the rubber inserts for the milking machines to my specs. I marched into the house with the evidence in my hands and tattled to my parents like a teacher’s pet in front of a visitor on a social call. That memory fills me with well-deserved shame.
Our cows were an economic asset, expected to pay for themselves. They had an economic life expectancy. When they depreciated to the point of loss, we loaded them on a truck and drove them to the local slaughter-house; they came back home as packages of hamburger. It wasn’t unusual for my step-dad to ask, "Who we eating tonight, Sal?"
My mother looked on the package. "Looks like we’re eating Audrey."
"Well, she was a good ole girl," he’d reply.
And we’d enjoy our hamburgers.
But the cows also had personalities, quirks and habits. I always knew Lulu would be the first in line. I couldn’t put her next to Phyllis in the stanchions because she would reach over and try to steal Phyllis’ barley. Then, the timid Phyllis would get antsy trying to back away, kicking me or the milk bucket, switching me in the face with her wiry tail. Several times a year Lady stood placidly on my foot while I frantically tried to push her off. I limped to school for a few days, favoring the bruised foot. It was hard not to see malevolence in some of these incidents. It also explains why dairymen are naturally profane. Sometimes only the most transgressive words will do for a cow.
In spite of all the complications, my step-dad loved his cows. He loved owning them, making plans for breeding and pasturing. He talked about them incessantly, deciding when we were to start them milking or take them out of the line-up, calving or veterinary issues. He fed them a double portion of grain at Christmas and brought day-old doughnuts to give them an occasional treat. They followed him when he came out to check on them. He made pets of them.
It’s hard for non-farm people to understand that attitude—the affection combined with ruthless economics. It was part of the culture I grew up in; animals were functional, economic assets that we interacted with in affectionate ways as a normal part of our day. We found them admirable, funny and interesting, but economics trumped our fondness. In these days of pet diabetes treatments and cat kidney transplants, of granting pets child-status in the family, my life on that farm now seems distant and unreal.
Bloat is a condition in which the rumen—the cow’s first, large stomach—becomes distended with gas and foam that prevents the belching that keeps the rumen at normal size. The rumen swells with methane and presses on the arterial system. If not treated it causes a fatal heart attack. It often happens in the spring when the grass is young and tender, or on a stormy day when the cows graze too fast.
A triangular area on the left side, forward of the hip-bone and just aft of the last rib, bulges out when bloat occurs. Whenever I saw that bulge I had to corral the suffering animal, rush to call the vet and hope he got there in time. Meanwhile the only thing we could do was keep the animal moving. If it lay down it might never get up. After several close calls, our vet told us to slash the rumen open through the skin to relieve the animal and he’d come out and sew it up later.
The first year on the farm, Katy had a beautiful calf. She looked just like her mother, the red and white speckled coat, and acted like her too, with her mother’s accommodating disposition. Because she was such a nice-looking animal, my dad kept her as a replacement milk-cow.
She was about eighteen months old in the spring of 1959, almost ready for her first calf. I was seventeen that year. Katy’s calf was one of about 15 head of cattle that weren’t part of the dairy herd. Some, like her, were too young to milk; there was also the herd bull and some steers we raised for beef. I usually didn’t pay much attention to them. I was in the pasture one day and noticed her standing funny. Cattlemen get used to the way an animal stands, holds its head or interacts with the others in the herd. When you see an animal that doesn’t seem to be acting normal, or is off alone, it’s time to pay attention.
I walked up behind her and gave a shout. She moved off ahead of me, but stiffly, as if in pain. I checked her left side and saw the red coat bulging in front of the hip-bone. I drove her to the corral by the milk-house, anxious over the passing minutes. When I got close enough to the house I shouted for my mother. When she came to the door, I hollered, "Bring me a sharp knife!"
I corralled the heifer and started walking behind her, keeping her moving. My mother came out a few minutes later with my hunting knife. It had a six-inch blade and a leather handle. I remember the knife only because it relates to this incident; otherwise, it would be as forgotten as a thousand other possessions I’ve owned. The blade looked a little tarnished, but it was very sharp.
Just as my mother came up beside me in the corral, the heifer started to stagger. Then she fell and lay on her right side, her eye bulging, her neck stretched out, groaning in pain. My mother shouted, "Cut her open!," and shoved the knife at me. I stood over the heifer with the knife in my hand, my mother standing beside me, both of us transfixed by the struggling cow.
This is the moment I have replayed in my mind a thousand times. A thousand times I have done in my imagination what I should have done in life. But that one time, when it counted, I hesitated. For some reason—fear, some desperate hope that it was going to be alright—I simply could not cut into that living flesh. The heifer struggled, and I watched her eye bulge out. Then the eye became fixed. I saw the life actually go out. Her breathing stopped and she lay still.
I looked at my mother. She was weeping. She put her hand on my shoulder. "I couldn’t do it either."
I stood over the dead animal, desperate to turn back time.
It was not my first experience with death. I had hunted and killed any number of animals. But this experience was somehow my own, maybe because she was one of our animals, or because it was so avoidable and I was an actor, or non-actor, in the outcome.
When my step-dad came home later that afternoon, the dead heifer lay in the corral. I went out with him, both of us grim. He took my knife and cut the rumen exactly where I should have. A foamy green mass blasted out at least fifteen feet. We both jumped aside, astonished.
"Aw, hell." He adjusted his hat and looked at the sky. "Couldn’t be helped, I guess." But I could hear the regret, the grief under the fatalism.
He called a mink farmer who could use the meat. The next day they loaded Katy’s calf onto a truck and hauled her away. The green foamy streak stayed in the corral by one of the far posts, drying in the sun for days and days.