When my children were small I would tell them stories to help them go to sleep. Sometimes I would make up fantastic stories about princes and princesses and unicorns and all sorts of strange creatures. Other times I would tell them true stories based on my experiences living and working on farms when I was a child.
These farm stories were, by far, my children’s favorites. They came to call them “Funny Farm Stories.” Some were funny. Some were more serious with important lessons I wanted to teach my children. I lived most of these stories. A few were passed down to me through the storytelling traditions of the mountain people of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee.
There were actually three farms where I worked and lived and where these stories were etched into my mind. First, there was a 215-acre family farm in Southwest Virginia. The second farm was where my family moved after my father took a job at a plant in northeast Tennessee. This farm was smaller, just eight acres, but this is where most of the stories took place. A few of the stories come from my great grandfather’s orange grove in Davenport, Florida. For most of my childhood we lived on the small farm in east Tennessee but we spent a great deal of time on the farm in Virginia and, every summer, we went to pick oranges and take vacations in Florida.
I’ve organized these stories beginning with simple stories and gradually moving to more complex stories and more mature themes. It is my fondest hope that you will read these stories to your own children as they grow up. You will know when they can handle the more complicated stories and mature issues.
Most of these stories are funny or amusing. Some of the stories are sad because they deal with life and death. All of the stories are true.
My First Horse Ride
For the first year of my life I lived with my Mom and Dad in a small house on my grandparents farm just outside Nickelsville, Virginia. It was a simple, one-story house with just two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room. There was a wide front porch that faced the valley where Moccasin Creek ran deep, true, and green in the shadows of the Clinch Mountains.
There was no air conditioning in the house so, on really hot days, my mother would leave a window open in my bedroom while I was taking a nap. One hot summer day, when I was just a few months old, my grandfather was plowing a field next to our house while I was napping. He had a plow horse named “Buck.” He was a kind of horse that people called a draft horse which meant he was a very large horse, tall and very muscular. Buck’s feet were enormous and had long hair on them. I know now that he was a Belgian. Buck was very, very strong and he could pull a plow through the earth like a child pulling a sled over ice.
On this hot afternoon, my grandfather stopped to rest and to let Buck stand in the shade of a tree near our house. He sat down under the tree and took off his hat. That’s when he heard me cooing and gurgling through the open window to my bedroom. He unhitched Buck from the plow and went quietly down to the house. My grandfather leaned in the window, pulled my baby bed over and lifted me up and out the window.
My Papaw had decided it was time to give me my first ride on a horse. I didn’t know how to walk yet but I could sit up by myself. So, Papaw sat me up on Buck’s back and off we went. Papaw walked right beside the horse and kept his hand on me so I wouldn’t fall off.
I was so young that I don’t remember that ride. But I have heard that story so many times that I seem to remember it. What I remember best of all, and most pleasantly, is my mother encouraging my grandfather to tell that story at family gatherings and my father laughing and enjoying the retelling of the story.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I am riding that horse even today. I can feel the rough skin of my grandfather’s hand on the small of my back. I can hear the muffled thump of Buck’s feet plodding across the field. I can see the blue-green mountains in the distance, reflected in the still pools of the creek in the valley. Riding that horse was a good first adventure for a baby and a pleasant memory for an old man to recount at family reunions.
The Frozen Pig
We used to raise pigs on our small farm in East Tennessee. When the mother pigs had babies they were called a “litter.” There would be anywhere from 10 to 12 pigs in a litter. But sometimes, there could be more.
One cold spring night, one of the mother pigs gave birth to 21 baby pigs. When baby pigs are born they come around to the mother’s belly looking for something to eat. The mother pig has nipples that the little pigs suck on to get milk. This mother didn’t have enough nipples for all her babies. So, the little pigs started walking around in the pig barn looking for something to eat.
When I came to the barn the next morning I opened the door and, to my surprise, there were little pigs everywhere. And they were hungry. I ran up the hill to our house to tell my brother and sister to come and help me catch all the pigs. We went back to the barn, caught all the little pigs and put them in the pen with their mother. We helped each pig get something to eat and we thought everything was fine. We counted all the little pigs and we found that there were 20.
It was very cold on this morning and there was frost on the grass. I had to walk over to another barn to feed some calves we had there. One my way to the barn I saw something in the frosty grass. It was a little pig. It had gotten out of the barn in the middle of the night while it was looking for something to eat. I picked the little pig up. It was stiff as a board. I thought it had frozen to death. I pulled off my gloves and held the pig in both hands. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. As I thought about what to do I thought I felt something in my fingers. I stood very still and I held the little pig close to my body and held my own breath. I felt it again. It was a heartbeat.
I took off running back to the house with the little pig. I went into the house with that little pink pig and told my mother what had happened. She took the pig from me and said, “This poor thing. Let’s see what we can do.” She got a big fluffy towel and wrapped the pig in it. Then she surprised me by opening up the door of the oven and putting the pig inside. She left the door of the oven open and turned on the heat very, very low.
We waited. We could feel the heat from the oven coming out into the kitchen. I could not take my eyes off the little pink pig, wrapped in a towel and lying on a rack in the oven. All I could see was the tip of the pig’s nose.
First, I thought I saw the pig move under the towel. Then I saw the nose move. Then I heard a little muffled grunt coming out of the towel. My mother reached into the oven and picked up the pig and it grunted and squealed and began to squirm in her arms. The pig was alive.
We became very attached to that little pig. We kept it in a small building near the house for a few days. We fed it milk from a bottle like a baby. We kept it in a cardboard box with a towel in it. After it got a little bigger, we kept it in a dog pen in the side yard. When the pig was big enough to eat solid food, we took it down to the pen to be with the rest of the pigs.
I thought that pig would be happy to be reunited with its mother, brothers and sisters. But that pig was so mad that we put it in that pen. I think that pig believed it was a human being or, at least, that it belonged at the house and not in that pig pen. It stood at the gate of that pen and squealed to be let out.
That pig never did act like a regular pig. It wouldn’t eat with the other pigs. It wouldn’t pile up in the shade and sleep with the other pigs. That pig was a loner who acted like he was too good to be with the other pigs. Even up until the day we took the pig to market to sell, it never acted like the rest of the pigs. I also suspect it never forgave us for making it stay in the pig pen.
I’ve often thought how lucky that pig was that I took that particular path through the field that day and I’ve never forgotten how my mother’s country common sense saved that pig’s life.
Learning to Drive
Nowadays, kids learn to drive when they are old enough. Most young people take a course and learn how to drive with a teacher.
When I was growing up on the farm, you learned to drive when you got big enough.
One day when I was about five or six years old I got my first driving lesson.
My grandfather had an old three quarter ton Ford Truck that was about the biggest moving thing I had ever seen. It was black with big rust spots on it and double tires on the back so that it could handle big loads.
We used that truck for everything from hauling cattle to hauling hay.
One hot June day we were in a big field and all the men were out there picking up bales of hay and throwing them up on the bed of that truck.
I was too little to do anything to be helpful so I was just riding along in the truck or running around and playing in the field. I would climb up on bales of hay and jump off. I would run like a maniac through the field until I got tired then climb up in the cab of the truck and drink water out of the cooler we kept in the floorboard.
After a couple of hours of that my Dad came and saw me standing up in the front seat of the truck and said he had a job for me.
I was so excited to have a job. It was an important rite of passage on the farm to be trusted to do a job of any kind. I was even more excited when I realized he intended for me to drive the truck to free up one of the men to help with the hay.
There were some problems to overcome. When I sat down in the seat of the truck I couldn’t reach the pedals and when I sat down I couldn’t see out the front window of the truck. So, my Dad jumped in, pressed the clutch, and put the truck in the lowest gear which was a gear they called the “Bulldog gear” or “Granny gear.” When the truck was in that gear it would go very, very slow and you didn’t even need to touch the gas pedal. Then, my Dad pulled the choke of the engine out to rev up the motor, let out the clutch and then, to my horror, he got out of the truck and slammed the door with a big bang.
That’s when the panic set in.
He reached in through the open window and pulled me over behind the steering wheel and told me to grab it with both hands. The roar of that engine was the loudest sound I had ever heard. He shouted over the roar and sternly said, “Don’t hit anything” and went back to help his brothers put hay bales on the back of the truck.
I was on my own. The bales of hay in the field now looked like a mine field and I was under orders not to hit anything.
As far as I know, power steering is a completely modern invention. It certainly hadn’t come to Moccasin Valley in the mid 1960’s. Turning the wheel of the truck just a few degrees either direction took all of the boyish power I could muster. Because the truck was moving at such a slow pace, it would take a long time for the truck to change direction when I turned the steering wheel. When a bale of hay was in my path I would go to one side of the wheel or the other and pull down as hard as I could and then wait for the truck to turn like a big black battleship in a sea of grass.
I got the hang of it pretty quickly and settled into a good rhythm. Then disaster struck but because the truck was moving so slow it was disaster in slow motion.
I was so busy dodging bales of hay that I hadn’t noticed that I was coming to the end of the field. When I did notice the honeysuckle draped fence ahead of me it was way too late for me to make enough of a turn to miss the fence.
I heard my father’s voice in my head, “Don’t hit anything” so I started doing what any six-year-old might do while trying to steer about 1,500 pounds of steel away from what looked like certain disaster … I started shouting for help at the top of my lungs.
It wasn’t a deep manly roar. It was a high-pitched scream not unlike the scream of a six-year-old girl and it had the desired result. My Dad came charging up to the truck, opened the door, knocked me out of the way and stopped the truck just a few feet from the fence. Judging from the big grin on his face, I figured he knew all along I wouldn’t be able to turn that truck at the end of the field and he and his brothers were having a laugh at my expense.
He backed the truck up, turned it, pulled the choke, put it back in Bulldog gear and jumped out of the truck. As he slammed the door I heard him say through a good natured laugh, “Don’t hit anything.”
There are a lot of hot jobs on the farm in the summer. The hottest job was bailing hay. You always ended up cutting down and bailing the hay during the hottest part of the summer. Hay is nothing but tall grass. You cut it down when it is strong and tall in the middle of the summer. You let it lay in the field for a few days to dry out then you run around with a special piece of machinery behind a tractor called a bailing machine that gathers up the grass, smashes it into a square block about 5 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. One bail of hay could weigh between 50 and 70 pounds.
When hay bailing time came around on the big farm, everybody worked from early in the morning until the sun went down and sometimes we turned on truck lights and worked for a while in the dark. There’s an old saying that farmers have about working on hay. “You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.” If it rains on hay when it is drying or after it is bailed it can damage or ruin it so that the cows and horses won’t eat it. So, we didn’t even take time for lunch during hay bailing season. My mother, grandmother and aunts would bring us sandwiches and ice water into the field at lunch time and we’d eat sitting in the shade of the tractor or the shade of the bails of hay on the truck. We would all be there eating, resting, telling stories and getting full of good country food so we could work all afternoon.
My grandfather’s name was George Bailey Fletcher but we had all kinds of names for him. We called him “Paw Paw” or “Pap” or “Papaw.” Some of the grownups called him “Bailey” but we never did because we didn’t want to be disrespectful. He had five sons. Winfred was the oldest. Then there was G.B. (which was short for George Bailey), Eugene, Burke (who was my Dad) and Darrell who was the youngest. Our Aunt Cat (short for Catherine) didn’t work in the fields as much as the boys but she helped out with the cooking and other farm chores during hay season.
Sometimes it would be close to 100 degrees in the field. We would be walking along behind the truck, grabbing big bails of hay and throwing them up on the truck to be stacked.
The truck bed was about four feet off the ground so you really had to lift hard and throw the bail up to get it on the truck. Sometimes the bails would have briars or sticker bushes bailed up with the long, dried grass. Those stickers would prick your hands and arms and chest and make you bleed a little. It was so hot and dry and dusty that it could have been a miserable job but somebody was always laughing and joking and telling big tales so it wasn’t so bad even though it was very, very hard work.
Most everybody worked very hard although we knew that some people had favorite jobs they liked to do and others had jobs they didn’t like to do. Most of the time we would work things out so everybody was happy and nobody had the hardest jobs for too long. Sometimes there would be arguments or at least it would be pointed out that somebody was trying to take the easy jobs. Even though my Papaw Fletcher had heart problems and was sick sometimes he worked as hard as anyone.
That’s why it was surprising on one very hot afternoon when I looked up and noticed that he was gone from the hay field. I didn’t say anything and neither did anybody else but we all noticed it. I had a little pang of fear in my heart. I thought maybe he was sick and had gone home to lay down and put one of his pills under his tongue and drink a glass of iced tea like he sometimes did. We kept working. Throwing the bails of hay up. Fighting the sun. Ignoring the little specks of blood on our bare chests and arms. Then, the truck stopped. And one of my uncles, I think it was G.B., said, “We’ll I’ll be.” I looked where he was looking and coming up through the field was my Papaw Fletcher. He was carrying two of the biggest watermelons I had ever seen. He had one watermelon under each arm. He came walking up with a big grin on his face and everybody was laughing and cheering and happy to stop for a few minutes. It was the absolute hottest part of the day and I was exhausted. I guess I was about 12 or 13 and I was expected to work like one of the men instead of taking the easy jobs that the young boys got. I didn’t get to drive the truck or stack the hay on the truck. I had to pick up the bails of hay and throw them up on the truck.
Papaw pulled a huge butcher knife out of the cab of the truck and sliced big thick slices of the watermelon for us. I will never forget the sweet, icy taste of that watermelon. I was so hot and dirty and tired that I just let the juice run down my chin and chest without even trying to wipe it off. My Dad laughed about that and said, “Well, if it’s good to eat then it’s good to rub on.”
I asked Papaw why the watermelon was so cold because I hadn’t seen any watermelon in the refrigerator up at the farmhouse which was full of food for the hay crew’s big meal at the end of the day after the sun went down. He told us that the night before he thought it would be really hot the next day and that a cold watermelon might be good for the hay crew. So he took two big watermelons from his garden and carried them down to a cold spring that fed into the creek. Those watermelons lay in that cold water all night and now that cold juice was in my mouth, down my throat and running down my forearms and chest as I ate it.
My Pap Paw Fletcher was a great farmer. He thought ahead. He thought about other people. The night before he was just as tired as everybody else but he went and got those watermelons and put them in the spring and then slipped off to get them for us without saying a word to anybody. He didn’t do it for himself or to get praise from us. He just thought it would be nice for everybody to have a cold slice of watermelon on a hot day in a hay field. Today, some 40 years after that day, I can still see him walking with those watermelons across that field. I can still taste that cold watermelon in my mouth. I can still feel that cold juice running down my chest.
Snake In the Barn
Our family lived on a small farm in East Tennessee. We had a garden where we grew vegetables and we always raised a few calves to sell at the market and a cow for fresh milk.
My father built an electric fence around our property to keep the livestock from getting out. He put the controls for the electric fence in the top of the barn far enough up to keep kids and cows from getting tangled up in them. We also kept calves in the barn.
One day, a tree fell onto the electric fence. My father told me to go to the barn and turn off the electric fence so he could remove the tree and fix the fence.
I ran to the barn. Instead of going to get a ladder I decided to climb up the wall of the barn. I did this by putting my fingers in the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the barn and pulling myself up until I could stand on the wooden cross pieces.
There were three small calves in the stall of the barn where the electric fence controls were located. They had made quite a mess in the floor of the barn. The dirt floor of the stall was a delightful combination of mud, cow manure, urine and hay. On a hot day the smell of ammonia would knock you down. The calves stood placidly in the muck watching me curiously as I climbed up the wall of the barn.
I put my feet on a board that ran sideways about halfway up the wall of the barn. I didn’t realize how far from the wall of the barn my father had put the electric fence control. To reach it, I had to put my left hand on top of the barn wall and lean way, way, way back. The first time I leaned back I couldn’t reach the control. So, I leaned back close to the barn wall, moved my left hand a little and leaned back out again. I had almost reached the switch for the electric fence when I felt something move by my left hand.
I pulled myself toward the barn wall and came face to face with the head of a large black snake. I had put my hand right by a snake that was making himself comfortable near the warm tin of the barn roof. The snake’s tongue flicked out near my nose. I was very afraid of snakes so I let go with my left hand and, before I knew it, I was lying on my back on the muddy barn floor with three calves looking down at me.
Those calves had seen a lot in their lives but they had never seen a boy come diving down from the roof. Those calves started running and bawling and bucking and kicking all around that stall. When I went outside the barn my dad and my brother and my sister saw that I was covered with mud and cow manure from the floor of the barn. They laughed and laughed and laughed. Years later a friend of mine said something that made me remember that day. It would have a taken me a little longer to go get a ladder and climb up there and flip that switch on the electric fence. I tried to save a few steps by climbing up the barn wall. My friend said, “A lazy man will work himself to death.”
A Sick Calf
Cold on the farm, in the mountains, in the dead of winter, with the wind blowing, and no sun was really, really, really cold. It’s the kind of cold that you just can’t get away from no matter what you do. Pile on the clothes. Add layers. Put on extra underwear. Two pairs of socks. Thick gloves. A toboggan. A scarf. It wouldn’t matter. You would still be cold.
On this day it was cold. Very, very cold.
Milking cows is the hardest kind of farming is because you have to milk the cows twice a day, every day, no matter what. It doesn’t matter if it is 100 degrees in the shade, 15 below zero, wind blowing, your birthday, Christmas, Easter. Every day, twice a day, year in and year out, when you are a dairy farmer you have to milk the cows twice a day.
Another reality of the dairy business is calves. Milk cows have calves. Farmers let the calves drink their mother’s milk for a little while but then they put the calves in a separate pasture or in a barn and raise them separately and take the milk from the milk cow and sell it. That’s how they make money.
I remember one bitterly cold winter day when I was staying with my Uncle Darrell on the farm in Virginia. I was about 15 years old. I got up with him very early usually at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. We had a little breakfast and then headed out to the barn to start milking. I remember walking from the house on this particular day and down to the barn and worrying that the skin on my face was going to freeze. Every breath I took felt like a knife being jabbed down my throat. I would alternate breathing in and out through my nose and my mouth to spread the pain around.
It was cold. Very, very cold.
The milk cows were all gathered up around the milk house and we started letting them in and milking them. The cows would file into the milk house in single file and we would hook them up to the electric milking machines that would take the milk from the cows and deliver it through the glass tubes over our heads to the cold tank at the end of the building. We had two lines in the milk house and milking each cow would take a few minutes. Once we got into a rhythm, we would take turns during little chores and other work around the milk house and the barn.
On this morning, Darrell told me to go over to the barn and feed the cattle with calves we had in the stalls there. There were several stalls in the barn and each held a cow with a calf. I went over through the barnyard which was normally muddy and wet but on this cold morning it was all frozen as hard as a rock. I opened the big barn doors and slipped in out of the wind. I went into the feed room and filled up a big bucket with sweet feed. It was a mixture of corn and grain and molasses and other things that cows liked to eat. The molasses made it kind of sweet and sticky.
I started moving from stall to stall, putting the feed in the manger for the cows and taking an iron bar and breaking the ice up in their water buckets so they could get to the water. The cows would immediately start eating the sweet feed and, normally, the calves would put their heads under their mothers and gather one of the teats on their mother’s udders into their mouths and start noisily sucking out the warm, thick milk. Everybody was happy and getting fed even on this cold, cold morning.
In a stall on the north side of the barn I entered one of he stalls and immediately knew something was wrong. There was a strong, foul odor in the air when I stepped in. It smelled like sulfur. I put the feed in the manger and the cow came over to eat but she kept looking back over her shoulder into the corner of the darkened stall. I broke the ice out of the water bucket, put down my feed bucket, and walked around behind the cow to see what she was looking at.
Her calf was down in the corner of the stall. His legs were folded up under him and his head was down on the ground. He looked dead. He was sick. Really sick. The smell was from the diarrhea he had from whatever had made him sick. He was cold and dehydrated and weak. I took off my gloves and shoved them into my pockets and tried to get the calf to stand up.
Usually if you just got close to a calf or touched them they would jump up and run to their mothers. Sometimes you couldn’t get near a calf or even catch them they would be so fast and frisky. This calf didn’t move and didn’t respond as I prodded it with my hands. I knew I needed to get him up and try to get him to feed off of his mother but the calf wouldn’t budge for me. I bent down and tried to pick him up but he was just limp. He wouldn’t stand up. He made a weak sound like he was trying to moo and his mother let out a really low bawling moo that made me jump. “Moooooooo,” she said. “Mooooooo.” It was about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. She thought her calf was going to die and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Then all the other cows in the barn started bawling and mooing and making lots of noise as their calves joined in the chorus.
I put my gloves back on, quickly fed the rest of the cattle in the barn and ran back over to the milk house. I told Uncle Darrell what was happening with the calf. Darrell almost always had a twinkle in his eye and loved having fun and having a good laugh. But as I told him about this calf he became very serious.
“Did you get him up?”
“I tried but he was too weak.”
“So, he didn’t eat.”
Darrell looked around and assessed the milking situation. There were just two or three cows left.
“Can you finish this?”
I assured him I could and drew myself up a little taller and stood a little straighter knowing I was being given a big responsibility. Each of these cows was a big investment and the tank was full of milk to be sold. At this point, if I let dirt get in the line or got the cows upset a lot of bad things could happen. I stepped up and took over confidently and Darrell watched me for a couple of minutes then put on his coat and gloves and hat and took off for the barn.
I finished the milking, carefully cleaned the equipment and then went over to the barn stall where I had found the sick calf.
Darrell had the calf up and standing near the cow. He had one arm under the little calf’s chest holding him up and his other hand under the calf’s jaw trying to get him to take hold of one of his mother’s teats to get some warm milk. The calf wouldn’t eat. Darrell took one of the teats and squirted some milk onto the calf’s face and mouth hoping that the taste of it would interest the calf but it didn’t respond. Darrell straightened up and walked the calf over to the side of the stall and tried to get the calf to walk. He held it up, rubbed its legs, rubbed its side and back but the minute he let go of the calf it lay back down in a weak, sick way and sighed. The calf seemed resigned to die on that cold barn floor.
Uncle Darrell sighed deeply and pulled on his gloves. I followed him out into the cold morning air. We walked out into the barnyard. The sun was up a little more but it was still really cold and windy.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“What the calf needs is summertime,” Darrell said. “It needs to be out here in these fields in the tall grass with the sun shining down on it.”
I looked around the bleak landscape. We were a long way from summer. A long way.
Then Darrell seemed to make some sort of decision and went back into the barn. He went into the feed room and came back out with one of the bottles we used to feed the calves. I held about two quarts of milk and had a big red rubber nipple. It was dusty and dirty because we hadn’t used it in a while.
He took off in a fast walk toward the house without saying anything else and I trailed behind him, looking back over my shoulder at the cold barn wishing there was something I could do for that calf.
When we got back to the big farmhouse, Darrell’s wife Janette was up. She was beautiful with long hair. She had on her housecoat and was cooking up a big country breakfast for us. Biscuits. Eggs. Sausage. Gravy. It was going to be a good meal for a cold day but we weren’t going to eat right away.
Darrell kissed her and asked her if he could use a big pot. She looked a little confused because Darrell never did any cooking but she rummaged around and found him really big pot that she used to make soup. Darrell set the pot on the stove and went to the refrigerator and got a big plastic jug of whole milk out and poured about a quart of it in the pot. He turned the electric eye on and then started looking around the kitchen. First he broke a couple of eggs into the heating milk. Then he saw some molasses sitting on the table and poured about a cup of the thick, dark sweet molasses into his pot.
He went back into the refrigerator and looked around but didn’t see anything else for his mixture. The he went out on the back porch and flipped on a light and after a minute or two came back in with a jar of home canned tomato juice. He was grinning like he had found a pot of gold. He opened the jar and poured about half the jar of tomato juice into his now steaming pot then he got a big fork out of the drawer and used it to whip the mixture up and make sure the eggs were broken. He stirred the thick liquid for a couple of minutes and then asked Janette for a funnel. She found him one and held it over the milk bottle she had cleaned up for him while he held up the pot and poured the milk and tomato and egg and molasses mix into the bottle. He forced the big red nipple down over the mouth of the bottle and looked over at me and said, “Let’s go.”
We went back out into the bitter cold and leaned into the wind on our way to the barn. It was a little brighter now but, if anything, it was even colder. It was pushing nine o’clock in the morning and we hadn’t had anything to eat in hours but I could tell Darrell was on a mission so those hot biscuits and gravy would just have to wait.
We went into the stall and the calf hadn’t moved. We took off our gloves and Darrell handed me the bottle. It was very warm in my hands and I could see the bits of tomato floating in the milk that was dark and syrupy because of the eggs and molasses.
Darrell stood the calf up and held it up with one strong arm around its back and under its chest and told me to bring the bottle over. He put his hand under the calf’s lower jaw and raised his head up and motioned for me to put the nipple in the calf’s mouth. We waited for the calf to suck the nipple but nothing happened. Darrell told me to take the nipple off and pour some of the milk mixture down the calf’s throat.
“He can drink it or drown,” Darrell said.
So I took off the nipple and put it in my pocket and poured some of the hot mix into the calf’s mouth. Some of it spilled out and ran down his front legs but Darrell forced the calf’s mouth open with one powerful hand and then rubbed the calf’s throat until it took a big gulp, and then another, and then another.
We put the nipple back on and put it in the calf’s mouth and he started to suck the milk and juice out of the bottle while Darrell continued to hold him up with one hand and rub his throat with the other. After a while, almost all of the milk was out of the bottle and the thin calf’s stomach was noticeably full and round. Darrell then started taking his hand and rubbing the calf’s skin. He told me to come over and help and we both rubbed our hands all over that calf.
After a few minutes, the calf started struggling against us just a bit so Darrell moved him over near its mother and let it go. The calf was still weak but it was standing. It let out a little weak cry that didn’t even sound like a calf but it showed a little spirit. Darrell pushed the calf’s head under the cow’s belly and the calf’s pink tongue ran out of its mouth and gathered in one of the pink teats hanging down from her udder and started eating on his own. He sucked for a few minutes and then we left the barn to go have our own breakfast.
What that calf needed was summer. What he got was the memory of summer in a bottle and the promise of summer from Darrell.
The milk was taken from a cow that had eaten grass that grew in the hot summer sun. The molasses made from sugar cane that stood 10 feet tall and soaked up months of hot summer sun. The eggs came from chickens that ate corn that stood in the rich bottom land of the farm with broad leaves taking the sun into its marrow. The tomato juice came from big red tomatoes that grew fat and sweet in the hot spring and summer on the farm. Darrell took all of that concentrated sunshine and boiled it into a magical potion and put it in that calf’s belly.
I’m not saying it was a miracle. I’m just saying that calf was going to die. I’m saying that the sun found its way into the calf’s belly because a man named Darrell just didn’t know when to quit. I’m saying that sweet and syrupy mixture made a promise to that calf.
That milk was a promise that if that calf would just eat it would one day enjoy a hot green field that would be a foot deep in grass and clover.
That’s the power of the promise of summer on a cold winter’s day.