Oxford dictionary's definition of bucolic: relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life. Which is what a good friend assumed of my childhood as I described it. So it's time to set the record straight. My memories are bucolic as concerns my sense of security, of my being loved. But as introduction to the harder meaner aspects of life on a Depression era farm, we'll look out the window.
Which I was doing in 1983, suffering a Land Rover trip to Lubumbashi in Zaire from Ndola in Zambia. Suffering because the road was mediocre to poor and our driver drove as if his life depended on it. Maybe it did. In a few of the countries I dealt with, chauffeurs refused to slow down while driving through remote villages and cautioned that if they hit an animal, they wouldn't stop. I chose not to ask— what if it were a child?
Two hours into this particular trip, I was dozing. Roads through jungles are as interesting as highways through much of Canada's immediate north; endless jungles and endless pines have my vote for the pit of boredom. But through a break in the greenery and fifty yards in the jungle, I catch a quick glimpse of two adults and three children squatting before a cook pot. It's an open hut, just a canopy, with wisps of smoke from the fire.
As they vanish from sight, I muse...they're family. Their life expectancy may be half ours and they may even have lost a child or sibling to disease. But they're living as did their parents, and social research contends that happiness is always dependent on adequate life resources but especially on a secure communal envelope of friends and beliefs.
Now I'm in no way suggesting my childhood was in any way similar to remote Zaire. But while writing this, it surprised me that I can't recall ever complaining we were the only family without electricity. Or that it might be nice to own a tractor for field work. And in high school, though my classmates had homes with modern conveniences, it never seemed a big deal that I still studied with a Coleman gas lantern or later carried a kerosene lamp upstairs to my bedroom.
For some reason we respected our parents. None of us were rebellious teens. And mostly I recall my parents' frequent reflection that farmers are so blessed to have food and shelter. So as we sat around our cooking pot, it was as it has ever been.
Granted by age twelve, visits to my newly wed sister in a modern household in Niagara gave me a glimpse of Paris and this soldier decided his future was elsewhere. By then the loving mist that had colored farm life was burnt off by the light of these new options. The image in the rear view mirror though cherished was not bucolic.
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My father was one of the best farmers in the township when defined by animal husbandry and stewardship of the land. But we were far from the most prosperous, partly because of the middling quality of our soil. And sadly when technology evolved and increased yields were possible, it compromised what Dad considered best practice. And since his respect for the land did not permit compromise, income suffered.
We were into mixed farming, a term for those who raised cattle and pigs and sold eggs, cream, pork and beef. The meats were normally sold on the hoof. Hay gassed our motors i.e horses. Grain crops were needed for animal feed, particularly swine, and the straw was used for animal bedding. We also grew potatoes, the acreage depending on the faint-hope estimate of a decent market price five months later.
The epicenter for mixed farming was the barn. Dad was justifiably proud of ours, one of the largest in the community. Stables accommodated five or six horses, twenty or so cattle ranging from calves to milking cows, and two or more pig litters.
The lean-to on this side was a supplementary pigsty; raising hogs was my brother's sideline. The long pole suspended horizontally from the eave beam holds the track for the litter carrier used to transport manure from the cattle stalls and pig pens. The mows (rhymes with cows) above the stable were used to store hay and straw in winter.
In the foreground is the pump for our well, thirty feet deep and hand dug,— its water was reserved for humans and horses. The latter were either Clydesdales or Belgians, usually mares but occasionally a gelding, each weighing upwards of eighteen hundred pounds. But by age seven when I was maybe sixty pounds soaking wet, it was no big deal to lead them here twice a day one by one and pump water into the metal tub. Granted one did practice cautious feet leading them from and into their stalls. Ever have a horse step on your foot?
Two pails of the pure drinking and cooking water were carried to the house once or twice daily depending on Mom's needs. They sat on a low cupboard in our kitchen...she was one inch short of five feet tall. And pure should really be in quotes. Occasionally a groundhog would inadvertently dig through the side of the well and drown—so when color or hair appeared, Dad lifted the wooden well lid and hooked out the carcass. But what I remember is how ice cold delicious it was on hot humid summer days when we were working in the fields.
In the late Thirties, Dad finally contracted with a well driller to secure a water supply closer to the stables, with payment to be per vertical foot once an adequate source was reached. No water, no money. At seventy feet there was a mediocre flow. Now I don't know whether my father refused to pay for the poor supply or whether the driller wanted a satisfied customer. Anyhow he continued. Unfortunately at about a hundred and sixty feet, the metal pipe casing that guided the drill bit went off vertical. Goodbye drill bit...he couldn't retrieve it.
His rig then sat abandoned on our property for over a decade until hauled away by a scrap dealer. And for years I feared someone would discover I had poured gunk into the gas tank of the rusting hulk—it served as my tank for my pretend war games. And at that particular time during WWII, my oldest cousin Kenneth was the family hero; as a tank commander he'd survived three tank losses in Europe. Years later he didn't survive dementia.
This episode concluded our alternate water search until decades later when disillusioned with this drilling nonsense, Dad and Austin hand dug a forty-five foot well near the house. About that time, we'd also contracted for installation of electric power, which finally ended Mom's long long wait for running water in the house...and an indoor bathroom. Having purchased the farm in 1920, it's now 1956. A very patient woman...
Goodbye outhouse. But before we chop it up for kindling and while we're still into bucolic, it was my chore to regularly empty the outhouse wastes once I was strong enough to carry a pail of slop. Our dual-seat model (large and medium) had a pail under each hole; depositors were asked to be selective to fill each receptacle. Now carting human excrement may seem distasteful to you but for me manure disposal was routine duty. Just another shit job.
But where to dump it? Down the groundhog burrows in the field adjacent to the house! After night soil sluiced into their front hall, dwellers would overnight vacate the premises. And since work horses could be maimed if they stepped in a hole, farmers strongly supported rodent dispatch. After buying my first rifle a single shot 22 at age eleven using money earned picking harvest potatoes, Dad paid me me a dime for every tail I harvested.
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Cattle drank from the pond in the barnyard, about sixty foot in diameter when full of water and located just beyond the pump in the image. It was fed sparingly by a spring but was mostly replenished by snow melt in the spring and rainfall in the summer —which usually sufficed unless there was a very severe winter. No doubt it shared the same groundwater source as our well.
So during months when cattle could graze in the field, they'd wander back to this pond once or twice a day. Designated pastures changed every year because crop rotation was Dad's preference—he never used chemical fertilizers. So for nitrogen fixation, clover seed was added to the seed grain, and after the grain harvest it grows and spreads across the fields. These then serve as hay or pasture for a few years as the clover continues to store nitrogen in the roots. Once plowed under, it fertilizes a subsequent potato or grain crop. It's the natural replenishment process that successfully fed mankind for millennia.
Most calves were born in late winter or spring. The number of cows milked by hand varied between seven and fourteen, and I began about age nine with the easier ones—older cows need less hand strength and are less likely to kick. Milk was processed in a cream separator located in the stable and cranked by hand. Usually my hand, once I was old enough.
Calves immediately after birth were taught to drink a portion of the separated milk from a pail. The surplus milk was mixed with milled grain to a gruel-like consistency called chop chop and fed to the pigs. The cream was taken to the house where Mom stored it in metal canisters in the cellar—the creamery truck driver collected them weekly and left fresh cans. Like so many farm wives, she used the cream and egg sale money for groceries and clothes and incidentals.
All of us except Mom drank milk most every day. This is the same milk that came from that cream separator that I'd cranked. And that introduced somewhat of a complication because when Dad wasn't looking, I'd snatch flies...the stable was always black with them before DDT...and pop them into the intake. From this fly-dunking fun came a habit that took years to break—I'd always leave a little milk in the very bottom of every glass. Because there you'd often see a wee medley of insect wings and legs...
Once grass arrived in the spring, calves were penned in the orchard beside our house, about an acre of grass with a few very old apple trees. Calves were too young to graze sufficiently so twice a day we'd hand-carry pails of milk to them from the barn. There was also a water tub, again my chore to check and fill. Why not let them run with the other cattle in the field or in the barnyard in winter? Because they'd suckle their mothers and there goes our milk for pig feed and cream!
In the winter, the steers and milk cows were loosed from the stable to drink at the pond after my brother or I had chopped water holes through the ice. In an earlier chapter, I described cows as dumber than stumps but will give them a little credit here. Because after we'd cleaned out the stable manure and added fresh bedding, they'd reenter the barn and each usually returned to their proper stalls to be secured there with a light chain around the neck.
And the steers would return to their proper pen. What's a steer? That's a male that's neutered when a few months old, allowed to fatten the following year, then sold to the slaughter house. How neutered? Think of a bull's pendulum anatomy. Envisage aptly designed tools appropriately named pincers. And hear my Dad say, "Stanley, hold the calf, it's time he was pinched". He'd also burn out the horn roots with caustic because if allowed to grow they can injure other animals.
To neuter pigs, we used a knife. My job was to spot the males in the litter,then grab them by the hind legs and hold them up for Dad. Dogs were appreciative of the collateral.
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Remember we're still talking bucolic. So let's move on to the occasional severe winters when the pond dried up. In those years the groundwater table would also be low so our well water had to be saved for domestic household needs. That meant there'd be nothing for it but haul water for the animals from the Humber River about a mile down the road in the swamp. And since our rural roads were not snowplowed in those years, they were often impassable for motor vehicles for several months.
Let's just say our labors to alleviate this dry pond crisis were significant factors in my weighing alternate career choices. We hitch the team to the sleigh and load maybe five fifty gallon wooden barrels, each with wooden lids. At the river, we park on the bridge because the faster current beneath was usually ice free...and for the next hour or more we drop pails by rope and haul up water to fill the barrels. Now comes the really fun part.
On the way home, Dad is seated in the front driving the horses. I'm standing in the sleigh bed in a niche between two barrels and the side board, and my task is to steady the now floating lids to minimize water slopping out. That's because there will be frequent lurches—it's a heavy load for the horses and the snow-clogged road is uneven.
Also remember the temperature is well below freezing. So when we finally arrive at our barnyard, observe an iced-over robot slowly lower himself from the sleigh. Complain to Dad? Not on your life. Countless times I'd seen him suffer far worse circumstances and grin. I'd probably have grinned back if he'd smiled and asked if I was a bit wet. But it was never ever suffering for sufferings sake—there were no martyrs on this sleigh. It was a job that had to be done so you did it.
Another winter sporting event occurred almost weekly. Remember the litter carrier used to trolley manure from the stables? Winter or summer, we'd park a wagon or sleigh under it and when it was filled, Austin and I harnessed the horses and hauled it off to the field to a manure pile always on top of a hill...located to allow the valuable leachate fertilizer to seep out over a wider area.
Now observe the two of us...in lighter stable-adequate clothes and leather gloves...forking off the manure to the beat of a winter wind. Why not wear a heavier coat? Neither of us would ever admit we were freezing our butts off. By the way, in the spring, about that manure pile? We'd fork the manure by hand back into a horse drawn manure spreader and distribute it over the field.
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Now before you nip out for a hot drink, let's conclude by talking bull. Ferdinand the bull, that is. He was a Durham Shorthorn as were his sweethearts, a breed favored by those who want adequate milk but also reasonably weighty steers. Ferd's not massive like a Brahma but not a lad to be trifled with.
Few farmers owned a bull so ours was much in demand—for a fee. His lovers were usually transported but occasionally arrived on hoof from nearby neighbors. One of the few times I recall my mother being flustered was when I innocently asked, 'Mommy, why do all these people bring their cows to visit?' Eventually I caught on. Probably about the same time I realized why Dad occasionally escorted our sows elsewhere—we didn't have a boar.
You'll recall an earlier chapter when Mom first asked me to grab a hatchet and get a hen for dinner..the day I felt I had finally arrived in her eyes. With Dad came a similar situation but when I was older when he said, "Stanley, water the bull". But Ferdinand was no chicken.
Our bull was tethered with a light chain but in a stouter than normal stall. He wasn't allowed to run with the cows, because their love lives were controlled to calve in spring or early summer. Besides, a bull running free in a pasture is not without personal risk. But early precautions were taken by threading a large metal ring through his nose when he was a teenager. Now you know the origin of the expression...
The cistern beside the barn collected rainwater from the roof and it flowed by pipe to a water tub in the stable. So a bull being confined to the stable had to be led there to drink. Why not place a pail of water in front of him in the manger? Because that was a very stout design with bars just a few inches apart that he could pull hay through. If you saw his aggression when a nearby cow was in estrus, you'd appreciate these stabling precautions.
So watering protocol consisted of snapping a rope onto the nose ring, then reaching over and unhooking his chain. He knew then to back out of his stall and allow someone to lead him by the nose to the water. So it was possibly an eighty pound boy who snapped the rope to the nose ring of a fifteen hundred pound beast, undid the chain, and led him to the tub.
Granted during this my solo run, one snort from that bull and I'd probably have set a standing high jump record over the gate beside the water tub. And I can guarantee that Dad though he probably pretended to be busy was never more than ten feet away with a pitchfork. But the next day the same routine and within a week it was just another chore.
But routine doesn't mean I relaxed. I knew better. And if a cow was in estrus, Dad controlled the bull, ever enthusiastic despite nose ring with rope attached. I'd sometimes assist and particularly recall one liaison between a small young bull and a large old cow. Innovation ensued. Use your imagination.
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While editing these reflections on Dad's farming protocol, I also realized this also tracks my coming of age in a man's world. And what bugged me for weeks was a vague sense of some commonality as to how my parents had shaped my experiences to spur my maturity. It finally came to me.
Whether it was chickens or bulls or first harnessing a horse, not once do I recall my parents' requests being prefaced by lectures of possible dangers. In fact I don't recall ever being told to be careful...or that they ever specifically demonstrated how it was done. Their assumption was that I'd often seen how to perform the task and it was time to trust my courage and skill.
And as I think through all the more significant events of my young life, this is a consistent theme. Using good judgement in assessing my ability, they knew that confidence can only be built on accomplishment and that may mean risk and that means facing down fear. We can debate the degree of risk but I will forever contend an overly protective home is one of the greater disservices one can visit on a child.
A final related anecdote. Our youngest son graduated at age fifteen from high school. And a few days after graduation he loaded his backpack and boarded a plane for Europe, alone and with no defined itinerary. You can imagine the reaction of some of our friends and neighbors.
Andrew had earned this opportunity...he was committed to it and had saved for it from age twelve. Were we concerned for his safety? You know better than to ask; our fear was likely orders of magnitude beyond his—that years later he did confess was considerable. But we tried very hard not to voice it.
But recall earlier my Dad pretending to be busy the first time I watered the bull but not more than ten feet away holding a pitchfork? A few days before Andrew's flight, we gave him a credit card that he could use in emergencies. He never abused it.
The credit card? That was our pitchfork.
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