by Richard Krause
Penn State University would periodically send down these studies on dairy cows. The farmers would have to implement them whether they liked it or not, but it was always the cause of ridicule, of mockery, that the scientists at Penn State hadn’t gotten close to the udders of a single cow, had never been kicked by one, never saw the mastitis their directives were meant to clear up, never knew the intimate workings of the Holsteins as we the workers did who had to huddle close to them on the coldest winter mornings to keep warm. Our hands sometimes cracked like the teats from being washed every day. Did they know how to adjust our milking machines to the cow’s respiration, so despite the wooden contraptions they sent down to screw onto the cow’s haunches, we wouldn’t be kicked? No, they didn’t, because as we said they were always sitting up in their cozy offices at Penn State watching their graphs, concocting fancy theories like instructing us to play music while milking, but only the classical music we suspected they liked. It enhanced productivity, they claimed. But for us the thirty pounds of milk we lugged seemed not to change. For we knew intimately that book learning was one thing, but doing—while not breathing down anyone’s neck—was quite another.
And did they have a directive for Gil? Did all their charts and graphs accommodate the multiple personalities of the workers? Children forced to work with cows, adolescents who were there in the barn unwillingly. There were those of us who tried to get away by being assigned to the silo, steeped in the juicy, acrid fumes that warmed us in winter after we dug through the crust of snow that came in through the small high window. Those who wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the houseparents. And some of us tried to avoid the animals altogether, and be assigned only to housework, while others named the cows after their girlfriends in town and couldn’t get close enough to them on cold mornings. But there were those who didn’t try to distance themselves or cozy up, those the Penn State or any other study never took into account. Those like Gil. Maybe it was to show off, it being May and we all finishing our chores one Saturday morning just before the start of summer vacation. The milking was done while the bedding remained. The cows were not to be turned out yet. Gil was hosing the walkways, the drop, spraying us, and the animals. Maybe it was the fact that they were females, maybe it was their immodesty with the high outlines of their sex so pink and distinct whenever their tails moved. Who knows what drew him on? The broken home that he was trying to repair?
Was it that that drove him to the one female cow? Was she an example of what went wrong in his own life? The dry dismissal that sent him to work in the barn, that put him in the orphanage. Was it that that motivated him, or our being there that egged him on? Though we were all busily going about our chores, cleaning the drop, sweeping, feeding hay and breaking open fresh bales of straw for bedding, distributing silage from the cart with a pitchfork. No, it was as if we weren’t there, that had him fold his tongue in two and bite on it when no one was looking as he brought the hose up to the cow’s rectum. It was as if he were seeking a more intimate contact with the animal than was possible only milking. With one smooth stroke he was already inside the cow with the nozzle, holding the hose tightly as water squirted till the cow twisted and heaved and the hose was jerked free. Gil promptly picked it up as we ran over.
“What did you do that for, Gil?” we yelled.
“Go ask them at Penn State,” he answered, as he walked away shrugging his shoulders.
It wasn’t the stone dust that he put into their feed that finally got Gil moved out of the barn, but his exasperation one afternoon feeding a calf. The steel bucket he killed the animal with when it accidentally kicked him; that too couldn’t be explained by Penn State.
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