Milk and Honey

Exodus 3:8

The summer after my sophomore year in high school, my family moved across the state to start over. It had been four years since Daddy died, and we had survived numerous catastrophic events. Now it was time for a fresh start in a new place. Sulphur Springs wasn’t totally new, but it was to me. My parents moved there early in their marriage because Mamaw and Papaw lived there, and Papaw, at 52 years old, had died suddenly of a massive brain hemorrhage caused by a stroke. Daddy figured Mamaw was going to need some help, so he quit his job and moved his young family to be near her. Soon after we moved there, however, Mamaw moved to Odessa to be near other family members. My folks were financially broke from relocating and didn’t have the money to go back to West Texas. We lived there for two years, I’m told, and David was born there. At any rate, my mom remembered Sulphur Springs, so she had some familiarity with the area. She was offered a teaching job there, and we moved. It was a new life for me.

By that time I was already accustomed to having a job, so I began to look for work. Sulphur Springs is the county seat for Hopkins County, “The dairy capital of the nation.” I don’t know if that’s true, but they claimed it and I didn’t argue. In Hartley, there were several farmers who passed me around to each other as a farm-hand. Sulphur Springs was no different. I worked mostly for Harlan Harred but also for Billy Walker and a couple of times for Robert Newsom. These men were all very good to me. I easily learned how to get the cows in the barn, lock the stanchions on their neck while they were feeding, wash their udders (carefully checking for signs of mastitis), and hook the milkers to their teets. I already knew how to scrape the manure out the barn door. I learned how to wash and sanitize the milkers.  The hardest thing for me was getting up at 3:30 am, in order to be prepped for the 4:30 milking.

There are two main breeds of dairy cattle, Jersey and Holstein. For the uninitiated, Jerseys are the shorter brown cows and Holsteins are the big black-and-white spotted cows.  Harlan milked Holsteins.  There was one cow he told me to watch out for because she had a particularly bad habit. She was fine coming into the barn, and she was fine with the milkers. When you started to take them off, however, she would swing her backside against you. If there wasn’t another cow or the wall on that side of her, she would smash you against the pen. Trying to push back against a 1,500 pound beast is futile; you lose every time. The solution was two-fold: 1. We painted her tail with red spray paint, so I could quickly recognize her. (Harlan knew each of his cows on sight, but I was still new.) 2. We always milked her first, so there would always be another cow to hold her in place and because she always stalled in the barn door on the way out. Another cow behind her would move her along.

holstein

One day I was milking, and I noticed she didn’t come into the barn.  I didn’t have time to worry about it until I was finished.  About the time I was cleaning up, Harlan showed up. “Where’s old red-tail?” I asked. Harlan just shook his head. He told me how, over the weekend, he was in a hurry and not paying attention. He had milked her last. He managed to get the milkers off without consequence.  True to her custom, she stalled in the door. He was scraping the floor, and she was just standing there. He told me how he  “goosed her” with the shovel blade to try motivating her. At that point, she kicked back against the blade, and it severed her Achilles’ tendon. Down she went. He then led me to the freezer and opened the door.  It was full of  a few hundred pounds of Holstein hamburger. “Here. Take some of this home.” I never liked that cow until that moment.

I remember the pay for dairy work was nominal, but I also got to take home as much fresh whole milk as I wanted. That, coupled with the peach tree in the back yard of our house, made this new land as near Canaan as I shall ever feel. This truly was a land flowing with milk. And what about the honey? Well, the hamburger and home-made peach ice cream more than made up for honey.

Published in: on August 23, 2018 at 12:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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