The great bovine penis debate

A couple of weeks ago, my wife took the boys to a free dairy farm event. I didn’t go, because I had to work, and also because when I was a child I got to go to a free dairy farm event every day. It was called chores.

After the event, my wife called me to tell me about it. Big Brother and Big Man had each taken a turn at milking a cow. Buster refused. “Do you know why he wouldn’t milk the cow?” she asked.

I can think of lots of reasons a boy wouldn’t want to milk a cow. When I was Buster’s age, I didn’t want to milk cows either. Unlike me, Buster had a choice.

I started through my litany of reasons: It’s not really that fun; you can get kicked; fresh, warm milk isn’t very enticing, unless you’re a barn cat . . .

Sensing I was going off on the wrong track, my wife stopped me. “He wouldn’t milk the cow because he said the milk was coming out of its penis.”

She tried to explain to him that cows don’t have penises and that the milk came from the teats, but he wouldn’t be persuaded. I’m not sure I blame him. For a six-year-old boy, penis talk is old news, but having your mom discuss teats with you can shut your mind right down.

If he truly believed it was the cow’s penis, I applaud his decision not to tug on it.

Nothing for me, thanks.

“I don’t care what your brother told you, you’re not leaving this pen until you eat your breakfast!”

One morning, about a week later, I’d given the boys some cereal and gone to put some clothes in the washer. I was summoned from the laundry room by a loud argument. In the dining room, Big Man and Buster were hotly debating the origin of milk. Buster was trying to convince his little brother that milk comes from a cow’s penis.

This did not bode well for the continued consumption of their cereal, so I intervened.

“Cows are girls, so they don’t have penises,” I explained. I believe this generalization is still valid in regard to the four-legged world. “And besides that, have you ever known of any animal that had four penises?”

“Yeah,” Buster replied. “A cow.”

“They’re not penises,” I reiterated. “They’re teats. That’s why milk comes out instead of pee.”

“Yeah, they’re teats!” Big Man, the younger but more reasonable brother, backed me up. “Cows have teats!”

I didn’t know if we convinced Buster, but at least I was confident he wouldn’t scare Big Man away from his Cap’n Crunch. I went back to the laundry before the neighbors overheard me shouting anatomical terms at my children.

I heard the patter of little feet follow me. Big Man entered the laundry room. My little font of scientific reasoning gazed up at me, his face bright with sacred knowledge. “And you know what else? Girls don’t poop!”

So there’s that.


“It’s hard to know what to believe anymore.”

*Photos: Ben Shahn/US Farm Security Administration


Hay still smells good, but Daddy’s done with cows

For some strange reason, it smelled like a haymow on the second floor of my building yesterday. It’s not the kind of space that should smell like hay. Maybe somebody was just wearing an extra dose of Barnyard by Calvin Klein. Whatever the reason, it sent my mind reeling back to the 1970s.

The images in my memory were not ones of attempting to lug hay bales as big as myself, or of scratching up my arms on the rough edges of cut hay. They weren’t of getting blisters in the joints of my destined-for-office-work fingers from the friction of baler twine. They weren’t of trying to balance on a moving wagon while keeping out of the way of bigger kids who could actually heft the bales up onto the stack.

My memories were of building forts with bales in the mow; of playing hide and seek and tunneling between the stacks; of the hay smelling fun, not being the odor of sweat and hard work.

haymow diplomacy

Ah, those good old days! Making forts, hiding out, and negotiating international treaties in the wonderland of the haymow. It was good to be a kid. (Image: Ridson Tillery – US Farm Security Administration)

My wife once asked me if I regretted my children not having that kind of upbringing. I said no.

They’ll have much more opportunity in their suburban childhoods than I had in my rural one. They will have schools with more resources, and a wider variety of people with which to interact. They will miss out on some particular brands of fun, but they’ll miss much of that fun merely because it’s not the ‘70s anymore. Even in the country, it’s 2015, with 2015 rules and regulations.

A farm life would be good to teach them the value of hard work. It might teach them that you can smell bad and still walk tall, as long as you smell bad for a good reason, and only when necessary. It could teach them humility, as it did me when my job was to hold cows’ tails. Cows’ tails can get to be very – let’s call it grimy – and having to hold them tight can make a young dandy have to swallow a good portion of his pride.

All the cows are doin it

Even with a friend along to help talk to the cow into it, I still don’t want to do any more milking. (Image: John Vachon – US Farm Security Administration)

There can be many character benefits to a farm life, but I don’t want it for my boys. The selfish truth of the matter is I don’t want it for me, because if they lived on a farm, I’d have to live there too, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to start work at 4 a.m. and knock off after dark. I don’t want to carry blisters on my still perfect-office-worker fingers all through haying season. I don’t want to coerce milk from an animal who doesn’t feel like giving it up, or even one who does. I don’t want my livelihood held hostage by the weather or a far-away commodities market. And I never want to have to grab hold of another cow’s stinky, sticky, wet tail again.

I’ve decided the second floor of my building smelled more like a silo. Silos were always dark and damp inside. I never had any fun in a silo.

Lessons from the great heifer attack of 1974

It was probably 1974, that day when my little brother and I were playing in the pasture behind the barn. I was skipping pebbles across the creek (pronounced: crick, in this story). My little brother was shooting pebbles at the backside of a Holstein heifer.

I wasn’t paying attention to my brother. I considered neither he nor the heifer to be any of my concern. It was a childish presumption.

The heifer bellowed at him, but that wasn’t any of my business. I had stones to skip. They could work out their disagreements on their own.

I didn’t notice my brother go under the barbed wire fence and up into the barn. I was alone with the heifer, and she was still nursing a grudge against human children and their pebbles.

In a better world

One day, we might have been friends, if not for the pebble incident.

Somehow, the heifer imagined that pebbles were still hitting her. And since there was a nearby human child with pebbles in hand, she concluded that I was the culprit and should be chastised.

When I looked up from my experiments, I discovered her bearing down upon me.

A heifer is not large for a cow, but she is plenty large for a little boy. I ran toward the fence. If I could slide beneath the bottom row of wire before she caught me, I’d be safe.

I almost made it.

Dairyland thugs

A gang of young toughs, on the lookout for a fresh victim. (Image: Marion Post Wolcott/US Farm Security Administration)

I was within arm’s reach of the fence when she knocked me on my back. Before I could shimmy under the wire, she pinned me, her head planted firmly upon my chest.

I still don’t know if she intended to kill me or merely teach me a lesson. She was still a young’un too, so maybe she hadn’t figured that out for herself yet. At the time, I felt doomed.

I tried to scream my fool head off, but it wasn’t easy with her squishing me like a bug. It was hard to breath, let alone scream. My whole life passed before my eyes. I was seven; it was a short film.

I remember seeing the sky, which was where I supposed Heaven was, so at least I’d get a good look at where I was headed. My little brother would get to stay here and play in the creek. Life was so unfair.

Just when it seemed like Heaven was the only exit, I slid beneath the fence. I didn’t do this under my own power, as I was completely powerless. I was dragged under the fence by an arm or leg and carried away by my father. I don’t know how he got there, but I am older and wiser because he did.

The heifer was, no doubt, disappointed at being robbed of her kill. I probably got spanked for antagonizing the livestock, but when you’ve cheated death, a spanking is practically a treat.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that my client could not be guilty of the attempted murder of that boy as she is neither a Holstein nor a heifer."

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that my client could not be guilty of the attempted murder of that boy as she is neither a Holstein nor a heifer.”

One day I will tell my boys this story. They don’t live on a farm, but they can still take a valuable lesson from it: Whether it’s with bovines or the girls at school, you can always count on a brother to leave you in an awkward situation.

You’re an extremely lucky lad if your dad can get you out of it.