Once upon a time there was a cow named Popeye
who had a huge head and thick horns that grew
horizontal, not vertical and curved,
straight out of the sides of her head. Her neck
was as thick as a bull's, and there was no way
you could close her in an ordinary cow stanchion.
Legend had it that her blind right eye,
milky and foreboding and always open
because her eyelid had been torn off,
had been lost in a battle with a bull
whose attentions she had not appreciated,
and that, in retaliation, she had ripped
one of her horns across the bull's underbelly,
gutting him instantly. Whatever the cause,
Popeye's evil eye had the desired effect.
No cow in her right bovine mind would not bow
down to Popeye.
Popeye always got the sweetest spot in pasture,
got the warmest and biggest box stall in the barn,
got the first drink at the watering trough,
got the best spot at the alfalfa wagon.
She was the ugliest cow in the herd.
She was the nastiest cow in the herd.
She was the orneriest cow in the herd.
She was the criminal mind of the herd.
If you looked out one day and discovered
the whole herd knee deep in alfalfa,
corn, clover, or timothy, you just knew that
Popeye had knocked down the fence.
She was impossible to milk with machine
because she always held up her milk.
You could leave the machine on her for an hour,
and all you'd get would be a few quarts. Then
you'd have to strip her for another hour.
She was impossible to milk by hand. Not only
did she have small teats; the teat tube was tiny.
You could squeeze as powerfully as you could,
and just a tiny stream of milk would flow. No one
in memory ever got a head of foam in the milk pail.
Milking seventy-five head of cows with three machines
took an hour and a half. Milking Popeye took an hour
at the very least, and if she didn't like you or thought
you were disrespectful, she'd kick over the hard won
pail of milk and then kick you in the balls. She had this
uncanny ability to know exactly where your balls were.
She seemed as slow as molasses until she nailed you.
The reason my father kept her
instead of slicing her into steaks
Popeye lived in those glorious dairy days
before cholesterol, before the heart attack craze,
before 1% milk fat and margarine, before prime
marbled beef became poisonous.
Her milk tested 50% butterfat.
When you milked Popeye, you were drawing cream.
Add her milk to the milk tank for a week,
and you've got an extra 1% herd butterfat average,
which translated into an extra 500 dollars a week.
Popeye was worth her weight in gold. In Jager's
Livestock Market she grew famous; in saloons
frequented by Frisians, she became legendary.
and yet... and yet...
so debilitating was the thought of milking Popeye that
milkers on the back side started as far away from
her as possible, at the far west corner, the most distant
possible point from the milk house where all the milk
had to be carried in tall DeLaval milking pails.
So many generations of backside milkers
complained, threatened to quit, or schemed
to poison her, slit her throat, or simply blow her head off
that my father thought of hiring a designated
Popeye milker. He finally gave in when a farmer
up in New York State offered him $1500 for Popeye,
an unheard of sum for a cow in those days. Jake popped
Popeye into the cattle truck and drove her fifty miles
into New York State, and that was the end of Popeye.
...or so everybody thought....
Two days later my father got a call from the guy
in New York State. They couldn't find Popeye, and
the farmer was pissed. Something about Jake and theft.
Something about a lawsuit. The farmer showed up at
the home farm four days later, prancing and raging about
like a headless rooster. Checked every farm, every field,
every cow, then left with a huff and a puff.
Two weeks later Popeye showed up in the barnyard.
She had deep barbed wire cuts on all four legs,
a deep gash in her left flank and deep claw cuts along
both sides of her stomach. She looked as if she had
lost a hundred pounds of body weight, but she still had
the strength to muscle her way into the barn, stagger down
the back side, reach her box stall #1, force the gate open
with those furious horns, and chase out the interloper.
My father rushed back to the house, called the guy in
New York State, told him he'd refund the money, and
went back to the barn. He stayed with Popeye for
the rest of the night, nursing her while he shamelessly
wept, and slept in the box stall for the next week and
a half, gently feeding and crooning and milking her
back to health. He wouldn't let anyone near her.
When the news got out, a reporter for the New Jersey
Herald decided to retrace Popeye's epic journey. He
actually went up to the New York farmer, wandered
his fields, and decided to make the trip himself. He
called the newspaper, told them what he was going
to do, went to a local hardware store, bought camping
gear and provisions, and started out in a straight line.
It took him seven days, following the easiest route.
He had to climb up and down four heavily wooded
steep ridges, cross five creeks and two rather large
rivers, get through twenty-eight barbed wire fences,
cross three major highways and twelve secondary
roads, and then climb up High Point Mountain, and then
come down the mountain. While he was camping on
the Jersey side of High Point, he caught a whiff of
horrible stench and went to investigate. Down
in a hollow near some mangled barbed wire fence, he
discovered the decomposing corpse of a black bear, not
a mark on its body except for a massive hole where
its right eye should have been, as if something or
somebody had rammed a pole or a thick horn through
its skull. His story was published in 1962, the same
week Jack Kennedy got gunned down. I think he won
some kind of prize because the story went national, but
I guess the story got lost.
Popeye lived three more years and then died,
peacefully, of natural causes, in box stall #1.
My father died shortly thereafter.