The dairy I drive for, Eldridge Farm, gave me my route when I returned from Vietnam, five months in-country and unable to twist my head even the smallest bit. Like I could only hold my head at attention, useless as a naked scarecrow.
From a tumble, not a wound. During reconnaissance, not a fire-fight. Trust me, my neck and everything near it was tested more than once, that prodding something like a lie detector. “You get yourself some therapy” is what I was told, the tone giving that advice a double meaning. “You take the meds and keep the heat on it when you can.”
I still use a heating pad, but that’s for helping me get to sleep. The rest is a matter of looking straight ahead more than others do. And a list of little things like wearing loafers to keep from having to bend down to tie shoes; storing those shoes on shelves, never on the floor. Trusting three mirrors when I drive.
“It’s what we can do for you,” Fred Eldridge, the farm owner, said, and I knew what he meant without him going on about the war and the way some come back harmed but worthy. What I didn’t know was whether he included me in their number.
A milkman was an idea by then. Someone remembered or maybe just imagined from pictures or older peoples’ stories. And a local dairy farm where the whole process from cow to bottle occurred, that was a place Eldridge customers imagined the cows were clean and wholesome and milked by hand.
Eldridge made sure there was something to that fantasy, but until yesterday, after a year working part-time, I’d been to the barn just the once when I was hired, and that was like a field trip, watching Eldridge and the youngest of his four boys, the only one at home now, handle those cows. Like being in fifth grade again and excited to be looking.
I’ll bet you’re just like I was–you see those cows in the fields and don’t think twice about them. They look the same every day you drive past, like they live forever, but Eldridge, when I went up there this time, told me they’ve got a dozen productive years in them, the lucky ones maybe a few more. I was surprised to hear that, thinking something as big as a cow should live longer. Like elephants, things that just go on and on. Like people.
“You keep them pregnant is what you do,” he said. “Calves and milk are what they make, and though they get time off in there, you learn what it takes to keep them running because there’s an urgency to their good health.”
The truth is I was up there on his call, and I kept my eyes on Eldridge because I expected him to say my route was so short he needed to ask for my keys. Instead, he kept talking like he’d been wanting to explain himself to me. “They seem to catch everything,” he said, “pneumonia and a whole host of cow problems you likely never heard of.”
He paused until I said, “Likely not.”
“Scowers,” he said. “You have a real mess to deal with when they get the diarrhea so bad it sucks the life from them. Then there’s milk fever, mastitis, Johne’s disease. Trust me, it’s like a war most days.” He stopped again, giving me the boot camp sergeant up-and-down. “You know how that is, right? It’s never over.”
Eldridge looked away as if he’d diagnosed something too serious to say to my face. “There’s accidents, too,” he said, his back to me now, his tone shifted to a shade just short of disgust. “Injuries. They kill their own calves sometimes no matter how careful we are. Step on them. Sit on them. Like that one there off to your right. Hazel is her name. The calf got itself in the stall to get a snack, and Mom picked that time to sit herself down. Hazel weighs over half a ton, and that calf just got swallowed up underneath her.”
Hazel looked at me as if she expected something. The barn seemed crowded, all those half-ton cow’s bodies shuffling in stalls, the smell of manure surrounding me the way the world smelled in Vietnam, the heat and damp making it seem like you weren’t far from shit. Eldridge sighed then. Deep, as if he’d been holding his breath since he’d stopped talking. When he started in with, “You know, sometimes cows can be just like people,” I decided that what he expected was for me to enter Hazel’s stall and lie down behind her.