Column – Time softens udder contempt for childhood nemesis
Published 5:50 pm Thursday, July 28, 2022
Two percent milk. There have to be more insipid things to drink, but I’m not sure what they are. One percent, no doubt. Actually, I’ve gotten used to the stuff, but I’ll never quite arrive at the point of considering it “real” milk.
Real milk is what you get when you coax it from a cow’s udder while she chews on a scoop full of feed. You work for it, and it pays off in richness and flavor that you’ll never find in a homogenized, pasteurized plastic bottle on a supermarket shelf.
We had an old Jersey whose daily milking was one of my chores when I was about 10. At the time, I hated that cow, but I look back on her now with understanding and perhaps even a degree of fondness. My dislike was probably rooted in the fact that we were so similar. She was undoubtedly the most bullheaded animal I’ve ever known — and I’ve occasionally been accused of having similar traits.
My father bought her from his brother, a dairy farmer, who willingly got rid of her because she would routinely kick a milking machine from here to eternity. She could, as was often said back then, kick the soda out of a biscuit without cracking the crust. I’m not sure whether my father knew that when he brought her home, but we learned shortly thereafter. It wasn’t the machine she disliked. It was the milking.
Armed with an empty wooden shotgun shell case that we used for a stool, an enameled bucket and a clean, wet towel to wipe her udder, I would venture into her stall early each morning and begin the daily ritual.
I’d get down to business and our family cat would curl up inside the box and wait for me to squirt a bit of milk into her mouth. And the cow would chew away at her feed, seemingly oblivious to the milking. The milk would patter into the bucket and on cold mornings, its warmth would send steam rising. It was downright idyllic — at least for a few minutes.
The cow would usually wait until the bucket, tucked between my knees, was about half full, and then slam it — and me — with her right hind leg. The milk would go flying, I’d go sailing off the box and the cat would take flight, all in a split second.
There were defensive techniques against such cows. Supposedly, if you pressed your head just so in front of their leg, it would prevent them from kicking. Either that’s not true, I didn’t learn the technique well, or that Jersey just didn’t care, because it never seemed to slow her down.
I tried sweet talking her, cussin’ her and slapping her with my hat. Nothing worked. And each new day brought increasing foreboding as I headed toward the barn, fresh bruises on my leg, bucket and towel in my hand. The Jersey would look around as I entered the stall, and I began to see contempt in those big brown eyes. “Come on and try, kid,” they seemed to say.
And every day I’d return to the house with only a partial pail of milk. My pride was taking a lickin’, and my mother wasn’t very happy either.
In desperation, I devised a plan. I went as usual to do the milking, fed my nemesis and set the milk bucket down. Then I found a piece of baling twine and tied it securely to her tail, then tied her tail tightly to her lower leg. That accomplished, I began milking.
About a half pail later, she snapped her leg forward, intending to slam me once again across the stall. Instead, she nearly pulled her tail out its socket, settled down on her hind legs and let out the most mournful lowing you’ve ever heard.
I was sure my parents could hear it, but was relieved when the cow finally fell silent and no one came rushing into the barn.
She gave up the kicking habit for the most part after that and we reached an uneasy truce. She’d raise her leg occasionally like she wanted to slam me, then set it back down. The milk flowed, my mother was happy, the cat was happy, and the cow and I kept our truce.
Mornings and seasons came and went until eventually, the Jersey went the way of most farm animals — into the freezer.
Years later, my mother told me she had a present for me. It was the old cow bell that the Jersey and other cows had worn on our farm.
“I remember how you hated that cow, and thought you would appreciate this,” she said, smiling, as she handed it to me.
Indeed I did hate the cow, and I now cherish her memory — as well as the bell.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.