I started milking our family cowS at age thirteen. Around country kids, I would’ve heard, Ooh! That’s girls’ work. You must be a girl! On lots of farms, young women do the milking. But I got bused to a junior high school filled with suburban kids who thought milk just magically appeared in Darigold cartons. If I’d admitted to milking a cow, I would’ve heard …
Ooh! You touch a cow’s boobs!
You want to marry your cow. Admit it!
You suck! Just like a baby cow sucks a mother cow!
So I kept silent about my cow milking, except when I was doing it. Then I got loud. Something about the squish-squish percussion of the fluid splashing in the bucket and the acoustics of our barn made me raise my voice in song. Some people sing in their showers, I sang in a barn while my fingers danced on bovine nipples.
OK, that sounds icky, even to me.
My first milk cow, a brown Swiss-Guernsey mix that Mom named Swiss Miss, twitched a lot while I sang. I liked to think she was shaking her hips in rhythm to my dulcet notes, except my singing is best described as enthusiastic. Translation: loud and tuneless.
Poor Swiss Miss. Morning and night, she had to endure a grubby kid howling like a gutted hog while massaging her milk handles. That can’t be comforting, especially when you consider the soundtrack. Washington Post music critic Tim Page has called 1974, the year I started milking, the worst year ever for popular music. That was the year of “(You’re) Having My Baby,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” and “The Streak.”
I rarely sang those songs, but I often howled “Rock The Boat,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “Seasons in the Sun,” and “Takin’ Care of Business.” Bad songs, maybe, but they sure were catchy. When other people sang them.
The author at fifteen, milking Beauty.
I should’ve crooned country tunes, seeing as my milk cow related more to green pastures and cheatin’ lovers — i.e., bulls — than bubblegum pop songs. In 1974, Dolly Parton had country hits with “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” and Merle Haggard climbed the charts with “If We Make It Through December,” one of his finest recordings. It was a decent year for the Nashville sound.
Only problem: My mom and dad liked country music. No self-respecting kid should like the same songs as his parents. My thirteen-year-old daughter makes gagging noises when she hears my favorite songs, and I salute her for that.
Somehow, Swiss Miss survived my Top-40 caterwauling, as did a second cow named Fern. Then came Beauty, a no-nonsense Guernsey I started milking at age fifteen in 1976. Beauty put her foot down over my singing, and when that didn’t work — I held the milk pail between my knees where she couldn’t step in it – she unleashed the most vicious, disgusting, and accurate scourge of all time.
Ooh, that tail! Freakishly long, it dragged in the mud and manure all day long, making it damp, foul, and deadly.
At first, I took no notice of Beauty’s back-end lash. I was too happy with the ease of milking her. With some cows the milk ejects grudgingly, resulting in aching human hands and an under-filled bucket. With Beauty, though, the slightest of squeezes brought forth thick streams of rich white liquid.
As my pail filled with milk, my heart filled with song. I started to croon a tune that would rank twenty-fifth on Billboard’s Year-End, Hot 100 singles of 1976 — The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit.”
Something thick and wet exploded on my left cheek. It stung! And it was dung! I felt muck and mud on my mouth and chin and dripping off my face. I spit out the awful offal and started to yell …
“Beauty! You —”
I stopped. Beauty had coiled up her tail for what looked like another strike. You never want to make a milk cow mad, especially one with a pitiless weapon dangling from her backside
“Don’t do that again,” I said in a voice dialed down to a ragged whisper. “Please?”
I milked silently after that. Beauty’s tail flickered a few times, which kept me on guard. It seemed to be sending a “do not disturb” signal, much like an angry cat’s twitching tail. I’m not the type to defy such signs, especially when a lack of compliance brings about a stinging, sloppy, pie-in-the face penalty.
I should’ve learned my lesson but I forgot myself one day and launched into “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Maybe Beauty liked Elvin Bishop; she didn’t smack me right away. But when my singing got louder, I got another thwap!
“Sorry, Beauty. I’ll be quiet.”
I was awed by her accuracy. Beauty never looked back and rarely stopped munching the oats and hay in her stanchion, yet she never missed. You’d think she’d sometimes land a slightly high or low blow, but no, she always blasted my left cheek.
She must’ve had radar back there.
It took awhile to break my singing-while-milking habit. Lifting my voice in shrieking glee had become a habit, like breathing and picking at that one perpetual nose pimple. I couldn’t just shut it off because one cranky cow thought she was the 1976 bovine version of Simon Cowell. The mean judge from the first seasons of “American Idol,” Cowell told lots of people that their singing stunk, but he didn’t make them stink by smacking them with poo. Only Beauty did that.
After a couple of months of milking Beauty, I discovered I could tuck the tip of her tail under my left knee. With my legs in a squatting position, like a baseball catcher, the thigh and upper calf made a vise that kept the tail in place. If I sang, I could feel her try to yank that weapon free.
Ha! She couldn’t do it! I’d won!
Except it wasn’t fair, and I knew it. Cows need their tails to swat flies as well as to smack off-key kids like me. Disabling Beauty’s tail was as cruel as snatching the comb from Todd G. a conceited classmate who raked his stiff black mane 600 times a day. So I compromised with my cow. On days when the tail dripped with slop and feces, I’d pin it under my leg. I didn’t want the goop to splatter my face or splash into the milk bucket. The rest of the time, I let the tail be free.
While a bit more hygienic, a cow’s tail can harden in the sun like an unwashed paintbrush, resulting in a smack that feels more like a bare-knuckle punch than a wet, open-handed slap. So the threat was far from gone when Beauty’s back-end cudgel turned from mushy oatmeal to stiff cement. I endured more than one dry thump that all but knocked me off my stool.
Still, I found that I could live with that and Beauty could live with my singing, as long as I kept it quiet and steered clear of Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” and Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” 1976 songs that bring out the ear-piercing lounge singer in the best of us. Yet even with the smoothest of tunes, I knew that it only took one overly shrill note and
Beauty’s tail would do some singing of its own.