Manure


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.