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Short One Teat


Harry Buschman

Uncle Felix owned half a down and out dirt farm in Upstate New York. He got it by marrying Marty, an elderly single lady whose sister and brother-in-law owned it. They had worked it out and nothing much grew on it anymore.

Uncle Felix was a city man and until he married Marty, he never set foot on a farm. It produced barely enough food to keep the four of them alive.

The farm was up north in the little town of Copake, New York and about Christmas every year he and aunt Marty would come down by train bringing with them a dead turkey in a canvas sack. The turkey was always thin and underfed and looked like it might have died of starvation.

If you've traveled through that grim upstate countryside, you're probably aware of how run down it is – even today. Most of the farms are in shambles, their front yards littered with discarded household appliances, overgrown with ragged weeds and protected by disagreeable dogs. The folks who live on these farms scratch by on state relief and work at whatever odd jobs they can find in nearby towns.

Back in the twenties there were no phones, no electricity and no running water. The people who lived up there were cut off, like marooned sailors, from the rest of the world.

During one of their Christmas visits uncle Felix and Aunt Marty suggested that it would be good if my friend Ernie and me spent a few weeks on their farm the following summer. We'd lose some of our city pallor and learn to live with the animals. Ernie and I panicked, but knowing summer was a long way off we were sure the idea would be forgotten and we could spend our school vacation doing what we liked to do best. Neither of us knew exactly what we liked to do best but we were sure it had nothing to do with living on a farm.

But summer came and before we had finished our first week of vacation my mother broke the news.

"You're goin' up to uncle Felix's farm next week," my mother suddenly stated with firmness. It was already decided; not a "Would you like to" or even a "Guess what?"

"I'm not goin' without Ernie," I countered, I was sure his mother wouldn't let him go, and I knew I wouldn't be sent to a farm alone. It didn't work. Ernie's folks had already been talked into it and they were as eager to get rid of Ernie as my mother was to get rid of me for a couple of weeks.

"We'll put you on the New York Central and the conductor will make sure you get off in Copake" she went on to explain. "Uncle Felix will be waiting there for you."

I was not enthusiastic and my mother could sense it. She knew our newspaper and bottle recycling business would languish and more than likely be muscled in on by our street competition, so she added, "It'll be good for you – we'll get you a new pair of corduroys. You'll have a lot of fun."

So on a stifling Monday morning in late June, Ernie and I found ourselves on a New York Central coach, each of us with a cardboard suitcase on his lap, (we couldn't reach the overhead) both of us wondering how our parents could do such a thing. Every click of the wheels brought us further from the concrete streets of the town we loved.

"Suppose we don't get off?" Ernie suggested uncertainly.

"My mother'll kill us, that's what – we're stuck Ernie, maybe it won't be so bad." I tended to be the more optimistic of the two.

My half hearted optimism faded when we got off at Copake. There was no one there!

The long wooden platform was deserted and there was no one inside the station. We watched the train pull out and disappear northward.

"Well, there you go," Ernie said, "there's nobody home – let's take the next train back." I was half inclined to agree with him, then I spotted uncle Felix rumbling up the road in a horse drawn wagon looking for all the world like the junk man back home.

"Don't come down to town very often kids," he said, "thought I'd pick up some chicken manure in town while I was here, climb in back – there ain't room for the three of us up here, if I can get a little speed out of Charlie, we'll still be home in time for lunch – j'ew boys et yet, have ya?" (Uncle Felix ran a lot of his words together)?

The roads were dirt and deeply rutted and old Charlie was not sure-footed. The wagon had no springs and the sun was hotter here in Copake than it was in Brooklyn. Chicken manure does not have the rich, warm, mothering smell of cow manure. When it's exposed to the summer sun it can bring tears to your eyes. By the time we got to uncle Felix's farm neither of us felt much like having lunch.

It was the biggest house I had ever seen – it would have housed the five tenement families back in Brooklyn with room to spare. It had been painted white many years ago when it was new and prosperous but was turning gray now. Only flakes of white remained. The building resembled pictures we had seen in school books of Thomas Jefferson's house in Monticello. with graceful black lacquered carriages arriving at the front door. We drove right by the front door and continued around to the back where we got our first look at the farm buildings, the barns, the coops and the pens – here the resemblance to Monticello ended. "Everybody out!" shouted uncle Felix. We didn't need a second invitation, by this time the chicken manure was about to explode.

We both jumped out bag and baggage and in circling around the wagon I guess I got closer to Charlie than I should have. He stepped on my foot. It was my fault I suppose, I didn't know Charlie was blind – I didn't know a horse could be blind. It was the first of many encounters with farm animals that made me avoid country life ever after. "Stomp on her boy, stomp hard – that'll bring the circulation back." Whatever was wrong would be cured by making it hurt worse – "c'mon in and see your aunt Marty, I think we're havin' corn soup for lunch."

Ernie was always revived by food, and so long as he had food in front of him he was never truly depressed. He went through two bowls of corn soup and three slices of home made bread. He finally lifted his head out of his soup and admitted that it wasn't as bad as he thought it was going to be. My foot was still throbbing and I was not in a very happy mood.

It was our first look at aunt Minty and her husband Lars. These were the people who had run the farm into the ground. Lars, a moon faced man with no hair, insisted on saying Grace before eating anything, even corn soup. He was stone deaf and he assumed God must be deaf too. His Grace would get God's attention wherever He was.

"Back to work," said uncle Felix. He suggested it would be a good idea if we just trailed him around and watched a farmer work. "Just stay out of the way and don't do nothin' without askin' – hit the head first," he added. The "head" was the outhouse – there was another striking difference between home and the Copake farm. There are few hotter places on earth than an outhouse in the middle of a field in summer.

"Where does the you know what go?" Ernie asked me.

"I guess it just stays there until they dig another one."

Uncle Felix walked us out to the barn. Rebecca, his only sow had recently had a litter and he wanted to be there to help her with the nursing. She was coping fine but was short one teat for the number of pigs in the litter. My uncle had to make sure the odd pig out got his share. You don't give up an extra pig – the winters are long and the pork chops can be few and far between.

The afternoon dragged by slowly, and there was a sultriness in the air that warned of a coming summer storm. Flies, sensing the change in the weather, took refuge inside our shirts. With nothing to do but keep out of the way and watch, both Ernie and me grew bored and edgy. We had been on the go since early morning and each adventure had been a greater disappointment than the one before.

The animals were unfriendly and didn't trust small boys – they didn't take kindly to us, and just as we would with a new kid on the block, they pushed us around. A goat cornered Ernie in the barn and wouldn't let him out. We tried to walk down to the duck pond but the geese wouldn't let us near it. The two dogs, a collie and a spotted mongrel followed us suspiciously and sniffed our crotches at regular intervals.

We were fed up. With scarcely one afternoon under our belts, we already had enough of farm life. We wandered back to the main house where the people lived. Both of us had to do something or go crazy so aunt Marty told us to haul water up to the house from the pump.

"Can't she get it from the sink?" Ernie asked me, and while I was fumbling for an answer it occurred to both of us from what we'd learned in history books that back in the old days people didn't have running water. It had to pumped up out of the ground.

"Water outta the dirt! – Holy Smokes! – how do they clean it?" Both of us had a pail and took turns working the pump handle in vain. Nothing came out. In the late afternoon sun both of us worked up a sweat until old uncle Lars with his feet up on the porch railing took the pipe out of his mouth and bellowed down to us – "Gotta prime her first – glory be to God, aint chew learned nothin in that city school?" With great reluctance he got up and shuffled over to us, "She's like an unwillin' woman see – y'gotta coax her a little, give her a little and she'll give you back, with the help of the good Lord."

He took a cup that hung from the side of the pump, dipped it in a pail of water that stood nearby and poured it into the top of the pump. "She got the message – now she 's got the message, start pumpin, sonny." Well I did and sure enough a stream of ice cold clear water gushed out, clearer and colder than Ernie and I had ever seen. Proud of ourselves, we filled our pails and trudged back to the house.

The dogs had returned, both were in the kitchen with aunt Marty and Minty. They stood between us and the two women and gave us their usual icy stare. "Don't mind them," said aunt Marty, "they're buggered by the fleas this time of year and they don't take to strangers, specially at the feedin time of day." As if by the power of suggestion, they commenced to scratch – each of them in his own rhythm. The spotted one with a nervous staccato and the collie with a slow steady thumping on the kitchen floor. Like two deaf drummers the performance went on until aunt Minty put down a wooden bowl filled with what looked like the sow had been eating earlier out in the barnyard.

Supper was on the wood stove and it looked as though we might be eating soon. Not wanting to get in the way here either, I asked aunt Marty where we were going to sleep. "You're gonna sleep upstairs, same as us, the two of you will have my Ma's old room. Mindy'll show you." It was the first time we'd been upstairs, it was every bit as big as downstairs was.

"This was our mama's room – she passed away in here," Mindy opened the door and pointed to the bed ... "she breathed her last breath right there in that bed, dear old soul. Spent the better part of two years in it. See out the window here, just past the cow barn, that's her headstone stickin out – oh my!" she added, "sure is beginnin' to clobber up fer rain."

"I aint sleepin in here," Ernie whispered to me, "not in the same bed where the old lady died. I aint sleepin till I get home." But it didn't keep him from eating, he wolfed down a heaping plateful of what aunt Marty called chicken fricassee. Uncle Lars thundered out his Grace, begging the mercy of God to protect us from the coming storm and to bless the chicken fricassee.

There isn't much to do on a farm after dark. Ernie and me helped with the dishes, uncle Felix went out to put the animals to bed and checked on the runt in the pig litter and uncle Lars just sat there.

"Well, I think you kids have had a long day," aunt Marty said. It sounded like she wanted us to go upstairs to bed – that bed, the one her mother died in. It was the last thing Ernie and me wanted to do. Both of us planned on sitting up all night every night so long as we were there. As we started upstairs the thunder began, the wind rose and the old house started to creak. Just as we entered the room there was a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder. The house shook like a frightened animal and the rain pelted down on the roof just above our heads. We both felt we'd never see the light of day again.

Ernie ventured a look out the window…"I can see your uncle," he said, "he's comin' back to the house carryin' a pig under his arm." Just as I looked out there was a blinding flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a ripping crash of thunder that threatened to tear the old house apart.

"This is it, Ernie – we never got a chance to grow up, we're gonna die here in this haunted house. If my mother knew it was gonna be like this she never would'a sent us up here." I was convinced we would never ride out the storm; positive the end was near. We still refused to get in the old lady's bed so we crawled under it hoping it would protect us from the terrible forces of nature outside. We couldn't endure the storm alone; neither of us could comfort the other. Back home we'd have run to our parents for protection. Uncle Felix and Aunt Marty were the closest authority figures within a hundred miles. they weren't much, but they were all we had.

Still dressed, we crawled out from under the bed and made our way to Uncle Felix's bedroom. We shared the same need for adult assurance. We were so rattled from the endless thunder and lightning, the wind and the rain we would have welcomed the company of the devil himself. It never occurred to us to knock.

The room was dark and the bed unslept in. Uncle Felix and Aunt Marty were not there! "We're alone! – all alone!!" Ernie wailed, "They've gone and left us in this awful house alone!"

Just then something brushed my leg and squealed shrilly. Tied to the leg of the dresser was the tiny piglet my uncle carried up from the barn and it was as frightened of the storm as we were. It offered us no consolation, but instead looked to Ernie and me for assurance.

At the same time Ernie, looking over his shoulder, his eyes bugged out shouted in horror, "A GHOST, A GHOST!!!"

"What are you young'uns up to?" It was Aunt Mindy in her nightgown and cap, holding a flickering candle which gave a weak smoky light and smelled of pork fat.

With Uncle Felix and Marty gone, and only the piglet for company, Aunt Mindy would have to be the authority figure we sought.

"Are we gonna die, Aunt Mindy?" I sobbed.

"Ain't no one ever yet who didn't," she answered.

That wasn't reassuring, my question was based on the present situation, we weren't in the mood for cracker barrel philosophy. These people were childless, they knew far less about children than they did their barnyard animals. When danger lurked, the animals came first, that's why the runt piglet was in the bedroom. It might have drowned out there.

The storm eventually ground itself out, and a quiet morning finally arrived. We had weathered one of the most violent cloudbursts in Copake history. Except for Lars, who slept through it, everyone, including the animals, had been up all night.

The excitement of the first night on the farm was followed by two weeks of pointless boredom. We felt like cud chewing ruminants. We fed chickens, slopped hogs and picked corn with hardly a word to each other. There is really nothing to say on a farm, nothing happens worth talking about. There was a bit of tension when the health inspector dropped in to look at the cows, but in the main a stupefying calm prevailed. We almost wished for another storm.

In spite of the monotony and the dulling of our wits the trip back home to the city was bittersweet. Ernie and I felt we had left a way of life few city kids ever get to see. We got back on a Saturday and our mothers met us at Grand Central Station. We were brown, mosquito bitten and goggle eyed. The city seemed bedraggled and somehow much smaller than it was when we left.

That Sunday morning I was awakened by the bells of St. Theresa and the stench of my father's first cigar of the day. I realized I missed the crowing of the barnyard rooster and the smell of wet grass.

It's been nearly eighty years, but sounds and smells are things you never forget. I miss the rooster and yes, I miss the bells too; and much as I hate to admit it, I miss the foul cigar more than I can say.

©Harry Buschman 1996

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