Updated: Sep 26, 2020
!WARNING!: Mild swears and scatological references!
This old farm is one of the things that I love about Buxton.
I got my first job here around age 11, helping with morning and evening chores. Old Clyde Harmon was not a big man, but he had huge sausage fingers, and a Kung Fu grip that you can only get from forty years of milking cows. The hard way. By hand.
We had milking machines when I was there, but it was still serious work.
I would catch a ride to the farm with Norman Solak, he would pick brother Corey up to go lobstering at about 4:30 every morning. They'd drop me off at the end of the long driveway, and I'd walk up to the farm.
It was magical back then, once Norman pulled off in his old International Scout, there wouldn't be any more traffic. There was one streetlight down the road a bit, and there was a light on the front of the barn, both just a glow through the chilly fog that hung over the fields.
I'd make my way up the driveway enjoying the smell of the farm. The manure smell of course, but sweetened up with an exquisite blend of Summer goodness. The tall grass has a sweet smell, especially when it's covered with dew, in that early fog. You could smell fresh hay, the carcassy smell of new mown grass that gets sweeter as it ages. The fog even has a smell to it. It's hard to pin down, but it just smells different. Foggy.
All of this blended with cow poop smelled pretty good, to me.
Sometimes I could hear the cows stirring, they knew what time it was. They'd slowly be making their way to the barn, coming in from the back fields. A few of them had cowbells, and you could just pick up the faint tinks and tonks, as they moseyed along. They'd hear my feet in the gravel driveway as I got closer, and make a few soft lowing sounds. They were saying good morning to me, and that was a pretty cool feeling.
They were actually saying get this milk out of my udder, and feed me. It's all in how you interpret it.
Clyde would be waiting for me in the milk room, the only other light on the whole spread. He'd have coffee. I don't think I drank coffee, yet. He always had something funny to say, starting off the day with a good laugh. Most of the old farmers had a pretty good sense of humor, and a quick wit. It comes with the territory I think. When they get serious, and they're not smiling, they have the most stoic, genuine, weathered and worn expressions that you will ever see.
It will make your heart hurt seeing them wrestle with Nature, fighting for the only life they know.
I was eleven, so conversation was always pretty light. I wanted to learn everything the first day, like any kid does, but I was reserved at the same time. I had been taught to be respectful. I would think about my questions, trying to ask intelligent ones, to let him know I was serious. He enjoyed having some help. I can only imagine thousands of days that he had done all of the work by himself.
He must have been 80, or pretty near it, he was still plenty sharp and strong. If he ever muckled on to you with those monster hands, you would still remember it.
I've got to say, his driving had suffered a little. Once in a while he'd give me a ride home in the big stake body flat bed truck. It was a hoot. We'd laugh all the way, but he really shouldn't have been driving, and we both knew it. We had some close calls.
We had about 20 cows if I remember right, and they all had their own personalities. You'd think a cow is a cow, but like any creature, they're all a little different. They're all special.
A few had names. Lost to me now, but I remember my first morning, watching them come in. They were waiting, all lined up, at the side door. Clyde would slide the door open, and they'd all come lumbering in, single file. They each had a regular spot, a stanchion, and they knew where they were supposed to go. There would always be a couple stubborn ones that would go the wrong way, or just stop, and bring the whole line to a halt.
Clyde knew which ones would give us trouble, and he'd be right there, with a HAH or a YAH, and maybe a smack on the rump. As I'm watching this parade, he's playing usher, and barking important details to me between cows.
"This one is mean, she'll hurt ya. Give her space."
Okay, eleven year old me thinks, make a mental note. That blackish one will hurt you. Or was it the gray one? Crap.
"This one will kick the milking machine off a few times, gotta keep it real clean, all around her. Don't wanna suck up no sawdust."
I should have brought a little notebook. I'm never going to remember all of this.
"These heifers go off in this side pen, you gotta steer 'em. They're young, and they don't know nothin'."
He winked at me, right when I figured out the friendly jab. He was always grinning.
I liked him, right away.
"Watch out for this one. She'll shit on ya."
Ok, I'm just a kid, but I'm no dummy. I pay attention, and I've seen cows poop before. I can't picture her pooping on me, unless I'm trying to get pooped on. Now, he's just messing with me. I must have been smirking in disbelief, because he topped that off with, "You'll see."
His smile warmed up, a couple degrees. He was enjoying all of this, as much as I was.
I guess farmers didn't lead very exciting lives. We laughed a lot.
It would take me a few days to get the milking down, but he was very patient. He knew what mistakes I would make, and he made sure I learned from them.
My biggest chore was shoveling manure, and cleaning up pee with lots of sawdust. There was a nifty little trench, cut square in the floor, just wide enough for a big aluminum barn shovel to slide down. Most of the cow's business landed in the trench, the rest could be shoveled into it easily, so the floor under the cow was always clean. The poop chute had square plugs about every ten feet that you had to pull up. You needed to hook the edge of it with a hoe, and flip it up, making sure it landed off to the dirty side. This left a big square hole, that I'd shovel the mess into. It dropped down below into one of several giant mounds of manure, crunchy around the bottom, but goopy and gross on top.
I have to say, even though I admitted to liking the smell of cow manure, popping that first plug out early in the morning was one of the nastiest things I have ever smelled. Top five.
It wasn't the manure, so much as the pee. Aging down in Manure Hell overnight brought out a nose burning ammonia smell that no crazy cat lady can even come close to. Old ammonia, in your grandmother's cupboard, that's gone bad. It was like running pee through a still, and spraying the squeezin's right up your nose. It would clear up your stuffy sinuses in a hurry. When you start the day off gagging and retching, it can only get better. Hold your breath and shovel faster. It's all you can do.
Clyde showed me how to flip them up without letting the plug fall down through the hole. We both understood the consequences. He had an extra special smile, while he shared these important rules, because he knew exactly how it would play out. I was clever and pretty handy, for a kid, but he knew I would have to learn all of these lessons the same way that he undoubtedly had. The hard way.
I was leery of the big cows. I was shorter than most of my class, front row in all of the pictures. My first time up close with big critters. Hands on.
You had to be real gentle grabbing those udders, cleaning them up, even a nice cow would give you a jab kick with the back leg sometimes. The mean ones, every time. Like anything else, it was watch and learn. That old farmer wasn't a big talker when there was work at hand.
I would watch him closely, I had no idea what I was doing. I watched enough to see that he handled each cow differently, he knew what they needed. He'd be slow and smooth, so gentle with the timid ones that he'd hardly ever get kicked at.
The ones that needed a heavy hand, he would tune right up. They would never push him around. He would talk to some, maybe give a little scratch here or there. It was really an incredible relationship that had developed between that old man and a bunch of cows.
We had to do a lot of sterile work in the milkroom, after milking and feeding the cows, and sending them back out to pasture. We washed everything in special sinks, with super hot water. You couldn't put your hand in it. Steamy hot. There was some piece of the machine that we would accidentally drop in the hot water. I remember holding my hand under cold running water until it was all numbed up. Plunging my arm into the hot sink, only long enough to grab the part, then going right back to the cold water. Quick, like grabbing a snake.
Tricks of the trade.
We'd finish the morning chores. If it was Summer, I'd probably spend the day haying. If not I'd go home, and later ride my bicycle back down for afternoon milking. We'd do it all over again. Once school started, I think I was limited to afternoon chores.
All of the warnings turned into lessons learned.
One cow would kick that machine off every day, no matter what you did.
You had to stay close, so you could put it right back on.
I was really careful with the mean cow, it didn't take long to figure out which one she was. She was just ugly all the time. Trying to hurt you. She'd push you into a wall on her way in, or kick at you as she walked by. I always stayed clear of her, and kept a weary eye until she was locked in her stanchion. Safe.
One day I was out in the middle of the barn, in front of the cows, talking to Clyde. I rested my hand on the big wooden beam that ran the length of the barn, waist high.
Old Meanie had just enough stretch in those rusty stanchion chains to ram my hand, by smashing her face against the beam. That's how mean she was. A shot to the head, just to hurt my hand.
She hurt it bad. I tried to hide it, but she got me pretty good. Shaking it like a fan, I had to take a short break. A moment to myself.
The plug to the stink hole, over Manure Land? Of course, I eventually dropped one. I knew, mid flip, that it had gone horribly wrong. Not flinging up and out, but spinning in place, trying to angle it's way down the hole. It was slow motion. A corner dropped, it was as good as gone. I dove, a last ditch effort. It was nasty, and heavy. Turned out to be slippery, too. I got poop on my hand, a nasty splinter of pee wood in my finger, and it almost took me down the hole with it.
Clyde had heard the commotion, and he was trying not to smile. My face must have gone white. And sad. I took my medicine. I walked down behind the barn, and underneath, to Stinkville. It was just about like you can imagine, at the end of a hot Summer day. Deeper than I expected. I had to do some scrambling. I didn't see him, but I guarantee that old farmer was watching me, down through that hole. Chuckling to himself. I was able to hose myself off, and dried out by the time I bicycled home.
I'm sure we were a treat at the dinner table every night. Me smelling manurish, and Corey reeking of gurry. I remember taking some ribbing. I worked there for a while and have many great memories, it is a beautiful place.
A kid could get lost in the hayloft. Huge, hot and dusty. Giant stacks of hay bales all around. Barn swallows fluttering in and out. The perfect place to play. A castle, in the sky.
I never got the chance to play up there, only work. Life lessons. Growing up early.
Wrestling with bales that pretty near outweighed me. Building character.
That loft still shows up in my dreams, every once in a while.
I'm playing, every time.
There was one more lesson. The shitter. It was a long time later, but this would be the most painful of all. I was shoveling the chute for the fourth time that day. It was at the end of second round chores. Tired and hungry. I'd long ago written off the poop story.
I had noticed nothing unusual about her bathroom habits, she was pretty regular. Normal.
I never saw it coming. I was directly behind her, when she made a really odd huffing noise, that I hadn't heard before. It got my attention. When I turned to look at her, it was already over. I just didn't know it, yet. Her tail was way up in the air, out of the way. The huffing sound was the giant breath of air that she had just sucked in, and she looked all swollen up.
Back arched up, sides puffed out, round.
It was an explosion. BALLOOOOOSH!!!
I was able to close my eyes, but that would be my only defense. It painted the wall, six feet behind me. All but a clean spot, shaped like a little boy. Clyde had to be right there on the scene. He knew what that huffing noise meant. I couldn't see him, I didn't have a clean hand to wipe my eyes with. She had timed it perfectly for maximum contact and coverage.
The viscosity was in the Taco Bell neighborhood, and I'll leave it at that. I remember how hot it was, and how that had grossed me out more than anything else.
Clyde had been exactly right, once again.
She'll shit on ya.
I learned a lot. More than I realize, right on that farm as a wide-eyed kid. I learned about work, life, nature, science, and sense. You have to pay attention to the elders, they've been places that you'll never go. They've seen some stuff.
I loved that old farmer, and a few others like him over the years. Our small town life, our heritage, was built by those old timers. Hard workers. Survivors.
They all had stories, and most of them never get told.
I love driving by the farm every day, especially during the Summer months, in her full glory. There's been no cows for many years, but someone still hays the fields.
I'll roll down my window and get a big whiff of that farm air. Hay that just got turned over. Maybe rained on last night, just a sprinkle. It smells green.
It takes me right back, a lifetime. I can hear the crunching gravel, breaking the morning silence, as I walked up that long, dark driveway. I can even smell those old cows.
It's funny what we keep forever.
This was a random story, thrown together while I really should be sleeping.
Thanks for reading.