It nearly killed me.
The human mind at thirteen years is uniquely impressionable. I proved it while working on a dairy farm for one year in northern Vermont. Getting kicked, bulled over, swished in the face with nasty brown tails, and sandwiched between heavy cow bodies became normal. Milking another species’ mammary glands went from weird to conventional. Throwing hay bale after hay bale turned so routine I didn’t need gloves to cover my calloused hands.
The unfathomable idea that I could learn a hundred cows’ names, that I could distinguish in a herd between the short and tall, broad and skinny, all those black and white flanks, became fathomable. Their physical markings took shape, and so did their personalities.
There was Claire, a proud registered Holstein from Canada who never kicked. There was Bertha, a bulldozing behemoth respected by the herd (and the farmers) for her penchant for careening through bodies and buildings in a dash to feed. There was Babe, sweetest cow in the barn who always turned in the stanchion to lick at your shoulder and ask for a head scratch.
Only when I look back do I recognize how different this life was, how I became accustomed to a mode of existence worlds apart from where my path would lead. A thirsty teen mind had me following the farmers around pastures and through barns as if they would eventually reveal the big secret and guide me to Shangri-La.
Now, I did learn some handy things. How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. The signs of an infected udder. How to pump a zerk full of grease. Painting. Animal husbandry. Foretelling rain. Investing: I bought a pretty little golden Jersey cow and a piglet to be sold off later at a profit.
They taught me a lot, those tough hick farmers of the northcountry. Dillon, the foreman, showed me how to bob a cow’s tail using a strong rubber ring, and he warned me with a grin to behave myself with his daughter, my girlfriend at the time, or I’d find myself getting the rubber band squeeze. He said it with a smile, but it was only half jest.
Meanwhile, as we milked the cows, Dillon’s eighteen-year-old son regaled me with tales of adventure in the nightclubs of Quebec, where he would pick fights and head-butt people. He proudly instructed me how to grab a man by the lapels and use the peak of one’s forehead, hardest part of the skull, to crack him right in the face, to break open his nose. Even at thirteen, I wasn’t comfortable subscribing to a head-butting lifestyle. But I nodded along and took it as fair warning like his father’s.
Patrick, gentle vegetarian owner of the farm, taught me death was part of farming. When calves would perish inexplicably or were stillborn into the gutter as sometimes happened, he told me to drag their lifeless little bodies to the woods where hungry coyotes waited on margins of human society. While walking the fence lines far out in the summer pasture one afternoon, we found a dead heifer. How had she died? Patrick didn’t know, but he said it was statistically normal.
I also learned how dangerous a farm can be.
I plummeted through a trapdoor while running through the loft. A pipe clamp in the milk room went through my palm. An electric fence powerful enough to cover forty miles of wire dropped me to my knees.
Other dangers were easy to avoid. Every farmer can tell stories of a tractor’s PTO (power-takeoff, a spinning drive shaft used to charge mowers and balers) tearing off limbs and scalps, killing people. It was one of those obvious hazards like the cancer hidden inside the cigarettes Dillon smoked, easily avoided.
One thing, however, I discovered alone. Thankfully I managed to do it without dying: one of the most dangerous things in the world is a human being.
Dillon and I had gone out to collect the herd from pasture for dawn milking. The cool fields were heavy with dew not yet burned off by the rising sun. “I’ll go around back and push them,” Dillon said. He set off across the neighboring paddock. As always, I slipped through the gap and shooed the herd, asked them for a bit of room to unlatch the wooden gate.
Then it happened. A sound like a gunshot rang out from behind the herd. As a joke, Dillon had thrown a long-lost piece of cordwood high overhead onto the steel roof of the lumber shack. The sound broke through still morning air. Bang!
The herd moved as one. They surged away from the sound and directly at me. Suddenly I was pinned against a gate that bent under their collective weight. My feet off the ground, my breath gone, I tried to beat them back. All that kept me from being trampled to death under four hundred hooves was a brittle old piece of chain looped around a fencepost.
And over their heads I saw Dillon. His smile disappeared and his hands went to rest on top of his hat as if he were witness to calamity. Then he took off running, trying to get around to help, to push them back.
By the time Dillon reached me, the cows’ panic had eased. I had squeezed out the gap and stood on wobbly legs, gasping for breath. Dillon grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I– I think so.”
“It was an accident,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hit the roof. Damn it, I’m sorry.”
I knew he was lying. He’d intended to spook them, maybe not quite so bad. But I hadn’t died. “It’s alright,” I said.
Today I remember my time on the farm – hundreds of days of shoveling crap and stacking hay and milking cows and feeding pigs – as an ad hoc study of the breadth of human experience. That year was the first to truly grab me and thrust me into a new world. Since then, I’ve won my fair share of weird and wonderful adventures thanks to one peculiar piece of luck. I carry it with me everywhere, in my heart. It’s a lovely length of rusted chain that saved me from becoming a statistical casualty in a life as unpredictable as yours.