THE DAY THE COWS DIDNíT COME HOME

By: Leif Charles Hamrick in 2004

 

††††††††††† The summer of í86 must have been one of the hottest on record.You could tell by the way the young corn rolled up its leaves, trying to make use of the morning dew.Thirsty corn was not what Daddy wanted to see today.What happened to those thundershowers yesterday afternoon, he wondered out loud, as if talking to someone other than me.ďThey hit Peteís place over Ďcross the river,Ē his voice trails off.Then he lights another cigarette, and acknowledges that Pete must be living right.

††††††††††† It seemed to me that we were living right.We went to church.Daddy took up the offering, and Mama was involved in more things than any sane woman would attempt to be.It was just last Sunday Mama got the Buick sideways again in the bad curve before you get to the stop sign, just to get us to Sunday School on time.She hated to be late, but always was.We loved being late, because Mama would drive like a bat out hell.It wasnít her fault, she had five boys, well, four boys and Daddy to try to get the manure cleaned off of, so Mrs. Flackett wouldnít smell us in church.Mrs. Flackett felt the need to inform Mama she needed to dress us better for church.Seems our clothes were out of style or something, but Mama said Jesus didnít care what we wore.

††††††††††† Back in the cornfield, I mimic Daddy.I take out my pocketknife, the one Papa gave me.I walk up near the base of a young corn plant, dig my knife down into the baked red clay, and prise up a piece of the earth.It feels good as it crumbles between my fingers, even if it is drier than what I imagine a desert to be.It hasnít rained since I donít know when.I pull some Bermuda grass away from several plants.It always creeps in, and that only makes Daddy madder.I glance at him, not really wanting to catch his eye.I wondered if he was still mad at me.His eyes squint, the lines on his face representing the wrinkles in his life. (I heard that in a country song today.)†† He gazes out over the field; smoke swirling around his orange Dekalb hat.Itís as if heís deciding what to do next.The next minute, the next day.As long as heís been standing there, he might be deciding what to do next year.I donít know, Iím only 10.

††††††††††† I smell the manure on my boots.Man, am I glad the milking is done for this morning.I hate that part of being me.Iíll be glad next Saturday when itís Jasonís turn to milk.I missed my cartoons this morning, and I know everybody at school on Monday will ask if I watched Transformers.I hate not being able to say yes.Itís bad enough that everybody knows weíre poor.They probably think we donít even have a TV.Word got out that we had only one bathroom, with a bathtub, no shower, and I like to never heard the end of it.Honestly though, I wish we had a shower.Thatís one of the treats of going to Grandmaís.I could stand under the water for hours, as if it were a warm summer rain.

††††††††††† I feel my big toe sticking through my sock.That was so funny this morning.I laid my sock down on the oven door where I was warming up, and l laid it to close to the element.It caught on fire, but I blew it out.Daddy was mad for second, and then he laughed.Since it was summer, we didnít have a fire in the heater.He didnít want me to even turn the oven on, but I had grown used to putting on warm socks year Ďround.We loved sitting on the wood heater.The top was concave in shape, where we boys had piled on it in an attempt to warm our butts.Jason said if you got that part of you hot enough, it would last long enough for you to go to sleep.You wouldnít even know it was cold in our room.We hated winter in our house.

††††††††††† Jason should know how to survive, he was the oldest.He had been helping Daddy longer than I had.He had plowed his first field when he was eight years old; I was nine before I plowed one.I did get to run the combine before he did though, over at the Elliott place, where the terraces werenít so bad.I also got to drive the 5020 back from Grassy Pond first.Crossing the river bridge scared me to death, but Iíd never tell Jason that.I could picture one of Turnerís trucks barreling down the other side of river hill, meeting me in the middle of the bridge, and pushing me off the side.I made it though.Daddy used to follow behind me the whole way; now he only follows for a couple of miles.

††††††††††† Daddy begins walking towards the truck; so I put up my knife, quit daydreaming, and fall in line behind him.I have just enough courage to ask if I can drive.He says yes, so I know heís not as mad anymore. Boy, was he mad.It was weird though, he wasnít whipping mad that morning.I was thankful for that.He was a different kind of mad.I knew it was my fault, I had messed up.I knew we had treated #44 for mastitis, thatís something cows get, and I just wasnít paying attention when she came through that morning.I had milked her into the tank, with all the good milk.If Daddy had been there, he wouldnít have done that.He did everything right, and I mean that.

††††††††††† Anyways, he was outside running the silage in the troughs.Our pastures were also covered in Bermuda grass, not the best for grazing.I was wondering when I would be old enough to run the silage in.I had eight milkers going, and had milked two whole groups before he came back in.I was so proud of my hard work.I even had time to make me a cup of instant coffee, and put the freshest milk on earth in it for creamer.Straight, and I mean straight, from the source.That always grossed people out when Daddy and I did that.

††††††††††† I knew as soon as Daddy asked me about #44 that I had made a mistake.His face lost expression as he went outside to check.Sure enough, I had put her milk in with all the rest.I felt about 3 feet tall around Daddy anyway, and comparatively I was.But I felt even smaller now.I knew what was coming next, and I dreaded it more than anything.

††††††††††† ďDamn near 800 gallons,Ē Daddy said, as we watched the milk pour down the drain.That was the last thing he said to me before he said I could drive the truck.Daddy seldom cussed, unless he was away from us boys, with a bunch of other farmers, and the joke required a cuss word.I stood there, waiting on what would happen next.But nothing did.After all the milk was gone, he told me to put the cap back in the tank, and be sure and use the wrench to get it nice and tight, but not too tight as to mess up the threads.He then left to make him some coffee.I was surprised he trusted me to do the task he had assigned me.I made sure not to screw up this job.

††††††††††† As I drive the truck towards our house, I know Mama will be organizing her coupons, getting ready to go to Ingles.G.T.ís doesnít take coupons, so she drives to Shelby.I think I might go with her today, if Daddy doesnít need me to do anything.Heíll probably take a nap, and wonít mind as long as Iím back to help with the afternoon milking.I have decided if I have to milk, I sure like the afternoons better than the mornings.

††††††††††† Sure enough, Mama is sitting at the table, surrounded by coupons.She asks us boys if we like Cocoa Puffs or Sugar Smacks better.Of course, a wrestling match takes place to decide what we will get.Spencer and Miles have been home all day and have plenty of energy.I wish they had to work some of the time, but Daddy says they just arenít old enough yet, theyíre coming along though.†† I wish they would hurry and grow up.Heck, I wish I would too for that matter.I get Spencer in the figure four, and he submits to my demand for Cocoa Puffs.Mama barely notices, as she watches Daddy walk towards to living room.She looks back at me, and Iím sure she knew what had happened.She could figure out stuff about all of us by the look on our face.She is so smart.I was sure my look told of my mistake.

††††††††††† After she goes to the bedroom to tell Daddy bye, she asks who wants to go to Ingles.Jason isnít home. Since he didnít have to milk he got to spend the night with friends.Spencer and Miles were still in pajamas, and wanted to stay to watch the Smurfs.I had already missed my favorite cartoons, so I decided to go with Mama.She made the boys promise to behave and not wake up Daddy.That was so funny, they couldnít behave.They were just kids.They werenít adults like me and Jason, and Mama and Daddy.But they needed their childhood, I thought. I had heard Mama say that one time to one of her friends.I figured I had already had mine.

††††††††††† I knew if I went to Ingles with Mama, she might buy me a big jar of peanut butter, if she had a coupon.As we went up and down the aisles, I got to push the buggy.We came to the peanut butter first, and without a word, Mama picked up the biggest jar of Jif I had ever seen.I couldnít believe it, and she said she didnít even have a coupon!This was great; I could not wait to show Jason and them what she had bought me.I was so happy, and Mama seemed to be too.

That was big change from yesterday.I had gotten off the school bus, and I was one of the first ones off.Daddy liked that because it meant Iíd get to the barn sooner.When I walked in the house, there was Mama, surrounded by coupons, I thought, but she was crying.I wondered if she couldnít find her dollar coupons, because I knew that would be a big deal.I realized the papers were receipts and checkbook stubs.We were alone in the kitchen.Jason was off with friends, as I said, this was my week to work.Spencer and Miles were in the living room watching He-Man.Daddy was already at the barn.As I stood there, I kicked the leg of the wood heater nervously.Mama said she loved me, and that I needed to know something.

††††††††††† The government took our money she said.Everything that had Mama and Daddyís name on it at the bank was gone.Even Mamaís $800 of rebate money she was going to use for a window air conditioning unit for the kitchen.The only thing left were the two accounts Jason and I had, that Grandma put money in for us to go to college. She said she was sorry, but she and Daddy would need that money.I didnít care.I couldnít spend it anyway, college was forever away, if I even went.I just didnít want Mama to cry anymore.She never did that much and I hated it.I think Daddy did too.

††††††††††† So, you know I was surprised to get the peanut butter.Mama even bought a 3-liter Coke.She knew it would last about 6.2 seconds at home, but she bought it anyway.As we left the store, Mama drove towards Hardeeís.This was in fact unbelievable.If she took us anywhere often, it was the library, even if we hated it.Hardeeís was a treat, mainly because of the huge playground.I must have played for what seemed like hours.But it was probably only five minutes.Everything happened with Mama in about five minutes.As Mama sat at the table and watched me, she smiled.I was glad the IRS was not on her mind anymore.

††††††††††† Today, that day at Hardeeís seems like a year ago, but itís only been a week.It is so unfair that I have to work two Saturdays in a row.But Daddy said he needed me today.He told me and Jason to hook up the cattle trailer to the dually.I ran as fast as I could to the driverís door, and beat Jason by six feet.I drove with ease in reverse, using my mirrors like Daddy showed me.I never once had to look over my shoulder.We got the trailer hooked up, and then I backed both of them perfectly up to the barn.

††††††††††† Daddy had the brander already getting hot.It was a new electric one, and worked very quickly he said.We had never branded our cows before, and I wondered why we would start now.They were all caught in the stanchions, so they couldnít back out.Daddy said we had to brand each of them with an ďxĒ on their cheek.That was crazy I thought.When I asked him why, he said the government said to, that was part of the deal.So the folks down there where we bought our meat from would know they were our cows.Then I knew we would be taking some cows down to the meat place.I knew the deep freeze was full, last time I checked, but I didnít say anything.I just kept the extension cord out of the manure, like Daddy said.I wished the government would quit being so involved in our lives.We were living right, after all.

††††††††††† Hey!!We didnít milk this morning!What was wrong with Daddy?Everybody knows cows canít go longer than 36 hours without being milked, least not dairy cows.Maybe weíll do it this afternoon.I dared not point out this HUGE mistake to him.He would figure it out.He must have just gotten busy with all this branding and forgot.Before I forget, this branding stuff stinks.People think manure smells, but this smells worse than de-horning the calves.And I must say the cows hate branding as much as the calves hate dehorning.Daddy must think it stinks too, he hasnít said a word all day.He is really concentrating on his work.

††††††††††† We finally get a bunch of them loaded up.As we head up the road, we pass Mama out walking.She just found out her cholesterol is sky high.She doesnít cook or eat like she used to, and says she doesnít know how Daddyís cholesterol can only be 90 the way he eats eggs and bacon everyday.But itís hereditary.She says I inherited Daddyís genes, and mine is fine.Thatís funny because some people say I look like Mama, some say I look like Daddy.I guess I got some of both of them, and I have decided I like that about being me.

††††††††††† Mama doesnít ask where we are going.Sheís smart, like I said.She probably already knows.She smiles, and I see a tear in her eye.She says something to Daddy about it being a bittersweet day, and that the sun will rise again.I knew that.She didnít have to say that.Sometimes what Mama said I didnít think was very smart.But it made Daddy smile.They must have forgotten about all that IRS stuff.I wonder if they really took our money, because far as I could tell, we didnít go without anything.

††††††††††† That day, we must have made 6 trips to the meat place. We were taking all our cows Daddy said, like the government said to.He told me and Jason we wouldnít have to get up early anymore, unless we really wanted to anyway.Then he smiled, a small grin, but it was as broad as the horizon to me.When we were through, and had hauled all the cows that day, Mama and Daddy decided to take us out to Quincyís that night.We all ate steak, and I asked Daddy if they got their meat from where we took our cows, and he smiled, rubbed my head, and just said no.That day changed all of our lives forever.

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As I stand here today, the mid-summer sun beats down on me, and I love it.I love the sweat, and Iím daydreaming about the shower Iíll take tonight to wash it all away.The complex I have built is larger than any at a comparable university.I won the government contract to install all of these Bermuda grass athletic fields, and install irrigation, and they paid me more money than it was really worth.Irrigation.I can make it rain, when and where I want to.I silently thank God for that.As I walk towards my truck, that cost more than the house I grew up in, I stop and dig Papaís pocketknife into the moist, fertile soil below the carpet of Bermuda.Nearby, an irrigation head slowly rotates towards me, and Iím covered with a fine mist that takes my breath away as my mind drowns in the irony of it all.

They say two lasting gifts parents can give their children are roots and wings, and that I believe.I also know the cows provided my roots with much needed fertilizer, and gave my wings the confidence for flight.To be sure, my life may be more financially stable because the cows didnít come home, but Iíll never be richer for their presence in my life, and in my best childhood vernacular, I sure do miss Ďem.

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