No one ever said the word
in the house. We never said
damn or hell or bastard or
son-of-a-bitch or fuck or asshole
or cocksucker or goddamn or
any of the other forbidden words
that were the common language
of the barn on risk of absolute
and total excommunication
from family. Manure? Manure
was an alien concept, as alien
as the word urine. We all said
shit or piss in the house, as in
my six year old brother's comment
when confronted with his first
artichoke: "What the shit is this
shit," and my mother's response:
"Piss on you if you don't try it."
I hasten to mention, lest you think
my family barbaric, that compound
words of shit and piss were forbidden.
If you said bullshit or cowshit, you'd get
cuffed alongside the head, and if you ever
said obscene words like pigshit or horsepiss
or called someone a chickenshit, you'd get
really clocked - even my sisters were not
immune from this linguistic hairsplitting.
Once, in a wiseass experimental moment,
I told my older sister she was full of
Protozoa shit, but even though no one knew
what I was talking about, I got whacked
and sent up to bed without supper.
I suppose this liberality with the words
came about because of the ubiquity of shit
and piss all around us. Look out the kitchen
bay window and you would see, just across
the road in the pasture, about two hundred
cows, at least fifty of them shitting or pissing
at any given instant. Go into the back huck,
and there you'd find barn shoes and overalls
caked in shit and dried piss, and two hundred
yards out the back door, a barnyard two feet
thick in squishy shit and piss, and in the barn
itself, one hundred and fifty cows and four pens
of fifty or so calves pissing and shitting night
and morning, and all hours in between.
I forgot to mention calfshit, perhaps the most
disgusting slimy slippery smelly shit of all
because the milk you had to feed them was pure
cholesterol. That was my first job when I was eight.
No one else wanted to do it. My father would wake me
at five-thirty, wait for me downstairs, stuff me with
bacon, eggs, and toast, and then send me to the barn.
I had to mix this supplement designed to mimic a fresh
cow's initial milk with water in a nipple pail and then
feed it to the younger calves. For the calves newly
weaned, I had to wait for old man Kuperus or Floyd
to milk the mother and bring me the pail of "yvisk,"
Frisian for first milk, and then teach the calf to drink
by having it suck on my fingers and then holding its
head down in the pail. Quite often, the calf, unsatisfied
with this new mode of suckling, would revert to its
new born instinct, a fierce buck against the mother's
imagined udder, except this time the udder was the pail,
and the lunge would send me toppling, the pail of
mother's milk all over me. I would go off to school
smelling of sickly-sweet mother's milk and calfshit,
no matter how long I showered. That first calf shit
was always yellow. My job was to keep the shit
firm and turn it brown. If the calf got the shits,
it was a goner.
I won't bore you with any more calfshit tales, except
to mention that it was my job, of course, to shovel
the calfshit into the barn cleaner, a task that neither
the Frisians nor the locals would tolerate. I got the calf
job because the last person who had it, a dim-witted
local with a floating eyeball named Ikey Kent, got fired
in a legendary manner after my father discovered him
one morning doing something unspeakable to the calf
of Number 80, the best cow in the herd. Apparently,
my father got so pissed off, he tore off all of Ike's
clothes, smeared him in calfshit, forced it down his
throat, tossed him in the gutter, and yelled to Jake
to start the barn cleaner. Apparently, Ike got carried
all the way to the manure pit and dropped into the shit
spreader below before he escaped and disappeared.
When older calves grew too large for the calf pen, Jake
showed up with the cattle truck and hauled them away.
Female calves went to a shed with a fenced yard
behind the barn, but bull calves disappeared on the truck,
and I would never see them again. I had turned
all the calves into pets, had given all of them names,
but finally I understood what happened to males.
I grew pensive.
Floyd and old man Kuperus milked the front side,
Yon and Bootsma milked the back side. I helped out,
carried milk, washed udders, worked milking machines.
Floyd was a local who had followed my father around
for years; old man Kuperus, his sixteen year old son Yon,
and Bootsma were Frisians from the old country.
Floyd called me "Hey, Kid," and the Frisians called me
"littze eigenviestic strunt," a Frisian phrase I thought
laudatory. Years later I discovered the words meant
"little stuck-up piece of shit," but those were the days
I had to be American, not Frisian, not foreign. I refused
to learn Frisian. My father was sponsoring new Frisian
immigrant families every month, building a church,
renting more farms for Frisians to fill; my fourth grade class
already had five Frisians kids who couldn't speak a word
of English, and the locals were getting hostile. I had to be
more American than any American.
A year later Hans Bootsma got a great deal on a farm
going bankrupt, my father loaned him some money,
and he was gone. The next Frisian family in the pipeline
wouldn't arrive for six months, so I volunteered
to milk the back side. My father said I was too young.
Two weeks later, after going through two locals
and having nine cows come up with mastitis,
I got the call. I was ecstatic, like a promotion
from JV squad up to varsity. Nine years
old, a fourth grader, I was milking a string
of seventy-five pure-bred Guernseys with three
DeLaval milking machines (never Surge).
I got up every morning at three-thirty,
milked cows until six-thirty,
finished feeding calves by seven-thirty,
ran back to the house to shower
and caught the school bus at eight-thirty.
I'd get home at three-thirty and rush
back to the barn to complete the circle.
I was a man, not a boy.
I won't bore you with elaborate descriptions about
gently washing udders so cows let down milk,
gently applying suction cups to delicate teats, or
gently talking first calf heifers out of kicking me to death.
I got so good that almost none of the cows held up milk,
except for Popeye, of course, who always, always,
no matter what anyone did, occupied box stall #1, the
warmest and roomiest place in the whole barn, and who
always, always held up her milk.
A year later the Kuperus crew was gone, and I was
milking with a Frisian baker who hated cows and
loathed cowshit. Vietze Valkema, my father's old
boyhood friend from Sneek, a Dutch underground
commando who reputedly had killed seven Nazis
while rescuing three Jewish families. A lumbering
bear of a man with huge bulbous eyes and a monster
nose, he was baking black rye break and almond letters
out of his garage. Every Frisian family descended on him,
hungry for a taste of home. I was a jaded ten year old,
teaching this war hero how to strip a cow, and we still
had three cows come down with mastitis. I had to go
back and re-strip some of the cows while Vietz carried
milk to the milkhouse.
What made matters worse, though, so much worse,
was my father's introduction of brewery grains topped
off with molasses. It was like giving the cows a Molotov
cocktail. Floyd was the guy who would take the feed cart
down the center of the barn, measuring out the exact
scoops of high protein feed for each cow according to her
milk production. Then Jake would arrive a bit later with
a heaping cart of brewery grains, two huge shovels for
each cow. Then Gary Elsinga, a clumsy pigeon-toed six
foot nine goofy giant newly arrived from Friesland would
roll the molasses tank down the center aisle, pumping a
thick sweet stream all over the sundae of ensilage, feed,
and brewery grains like chocolate syrup. True to my
father's theory, the cows ate ravenously, erupting more
milk than he could possibly imagine. Trouble was, they
also erupted shit. Liquid shit.
To make matters even worse, this was the coldest
winter of the fifties, so many days and nights of sub-zero
temperatures that we could only let the cows out into the
barn yard for an hour. Shit built up in the gutters.
We kept packing straw under the cows and in the gutters
to absorb the liquid shit, but nothing worked, and then
the barn cleaner broke. So we had to scoop the shit out
of the gutters onto the walk in order to find the break
and still keep on milking.
As long as I'm here, now, all the way back, I might as well
mention the composition of a cow's tail, a curious but
effective invention of nature to allow the cow some form
of defense against flies, mosquitoes, and those despicable
"grongen" that dig into a cow's back and lay their eggs to
feed off cow blood in huge boils and then hatch as worms.
The sting from a clean cow's tail, if it catches you in the eye
when you're sweating on a hot summer day, can be fierce,
but nothing can beat the ferocious whack of a cow's tail
across the face when the end hairs of that tail have been
dragged through the liquid shit in the drop while the cow
was curled up asleep and when the end hairs have been
allowed to dry and cake and harden into the consistency
of concrete. The cow's tail turns into a lethal weapon.
I had just put the suction cups on Number 32, the best
cow in the back string. Jake and Gary and my father
were down the back walk a ways, replacing one of the
broken scrapers in the barn cleaner. The walk was piled
with loose shit. I bent down in the wash bucket for the rag,
turned, and thirty-two was slowly raising her tail to shit
when suddenly she let out an enormous belch, and liquid
shit shot out of her like a rocket, catching me full in the face
and exploding me backward so I fell against the back wall
and tripped ass and hands down in loose shit. As if that
wasn't bad enough, as I leaned forward to get my balance
and get back to my feet, Number 32 chose this perfect
moment to swing her shit-caked tail like a battle-ax across
my nose, whacking me so hard I fell face forward into
the liquid shit drop. For a moment there, I was swimming
underwater in shit and blood.
I came up screaming goddam cocksucking mother-fucker
shithead son-of-a-bitch bastard and took the flat of my hand
and whacked down so hard on her back that the four
suction cups fell off and she kicked me smack in the balls
and sent me flying back against the wall and the loose shit.
I howled tears of pain and rage, trying to get my breath,
watching as my father stroked Number 32, picked up
the suction cups, soothed the cow, and then gently put
each suction cup back on her teats. He turned to me,
grinning and impish. Never hit a cow, he said. Never.
Fuck the cows, I screamed. Fuck this fucking shit.
I hate these mother-fucking cows. I hate this shit.
He grabbed me by both arms, helped me to my feet,
reached out, and touched my nose. Not broken, he
said, pulling back a ways, but you sure look like shit.
Fucking shit, I grumbled, lousy fucking shit. Hey,
he said, bending down in front of me. He reached
down, came up with two heaping handfuls of hot shit.
This stuff's gold, he grinned. We put it on the fields,
plants eat it, cows eat the plants, make milk, we drink
the milk, eat the plants, eat the cows. We're all shit,
he said, and then he took his left handful of shit, held
it up against his face, and then smacked it against his
forehead and pushed it down his whole face and neck,
and then he took his right handful of shit of did the
same thing to me. Now we're both full of shit. And
then he began to laugh, and Vietze laughed, and Jake
was howling, even Floyd came over from the other side.
I bent down, picked up a huge glob of shit, and caught
Jake smack in the face. And then the shit battle
erupted. Lasted for two minutes. As Dylan would sing
years later, Shit was flying everywhere. I left without
my hat. And I did lose my hat. Got taken out with the shit.
When I came back from school later that afternoon,
my father gave me this blue stocking cap.
I've worn it ever since.