I learned lots of lessons in the barn. You remember things you learn in a barn. Sometimes I wish my boys could live on a farm so they could learn stuff in the barn, because those lessons would stick with them. But that would make me a farmer, and I’ve grown far too soft for that life.
A few subjects I studied in the barn:
When I was four, I got promoted from my entry level position of cow caller. As cow caller, I sat on a rock and called the cows down from the pasture at milking time. It was a cushy job, and proportionally unnecessary: the cows generally came down on their own.
My new, important job was tail holder. The tail holder holds cows’ tails while an older sibling attaches the milking machine to the appropriate utter appendages, because getting swatting in the face by a cow’s tail can be painful and disgusting.
Holding a cow’s tail can have its own ick factor. I would try to ignore the particularly filthy tails, or I would hold a single strand of tail hair between my thumb and forefinger, effectively holding nothing.
When my sister slid between two cows to perform her utter manipulations, I often pretended that the cow behind her was no threat. She tended to disagree, as this was the tail perfectly positioned to wrap itself around her face.
This inspired her to give my first mathematics lecture: “Where there are two cows, there are two tails.” At first, she gave the lesson verbally. Eventually, it came with a dose of punishment the likes of which only a tail-smacked teenaged girl can dish out.
The cows aren’t trying to kill you, little boy. No matter how many times they kick you in the head, which they do often when you’re four feet tall, they aren’t determined to see you dead.
Cows kick you because you annoy them. Stop annoying them and they will stop kicking you. They would much rather be chewing on something they spit out yesterday than troubling themselves to fling a hind hoof in your direction.
You people are always plucking at their lady berries. Maybe their lady berries don’t feel like it right now. Also, they don’t always want somebody hindering the free movement of their tails, and sometimes they aren’t comfortable with you standing behind them at all.
They almost never chase you down to kick you in the head. If a cow really wanted you dead, she’d crush you with her head.
Caveat: Bulls do want you dead. They hate children most of all, and they will kill you any chance they get.
A 50-pound boy is never really in charge of an 80-pound calf.
Calves are so cute and cuddly – unless you are the 1st grader whose job it is to water a vicious pack of them.
Calves gain weight quickly. When they still look cute and cuddly they outweigh the skinny kid watering them. Calves are fiends for water, if the water is meant for the next calf. Three of them at once can fit their crazed heads into a standard steel pail, so long as all the water has been splashed out on the skinny kid. None of them can get their heads out.
If a calf wants his head in there, all that can stop him is the three calf heads already stuck in the pail. The skinny kid they just push out of the way, until they get tall enough to kick him in the head.
My kids won’t have the benefit of these lessons. I guess they’ll just have to study harder than I did in school.
–Images by Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and John Vachon for the US Farm Security Administration.