While my dad was raised on a farm, I was not. But I developed a romantic view of farm life, fueled mainly by my dad’s stories of growing up the son of a sharecropper. He could entertain the family endlessly with his tales of farm life.
My real life exposure to farm life was courtesy of my Aunt Mayme (my mama’s sister) and Uncle Glidden. Most every summer of my young childhood I would get to spend a week or two with them on their farm outside of Tompkinsville, KY. It was the perfect playground for a kid not raised on a farm.
Mayme was a stunning looking lady with dark skin, full lips, and the Stephens’ family gap between her two front teeth. I mention her full lips because they were usually coated with bright red lipstick. The kind that leaves big red lip prints on the cheek of an embarrassed nephew.
Mayme had a quick and easy laugh. She also had a look about her that offered no room for back talking when she meant business.
Glidden had bright blue eyes that twinkled when he laughed. His rosy cheeks and white hair would have made him a perfect Santa, if he’d let his beard grow out. For Glidden, work was all about work, which meant there was tolerance for foolishness. If you were given a job, you’d best be getting busy about doing it.
In the morning it was up for milking before the sun gave blush to the eastern sky.
I learned from Glidden how to call the cows in, or at least that’s what I believed. My young boyish voice would echo his “Hear calf, sook, sook, sook! Hear calf!”
Once they arrived at the barn, the jersey cows, with their large eyes and flicking ears, would come lumbering into the hall of the barn two at a time. They knew exactly where they were supposed to go and what was expected of them. I did not.
My job was to put a scoop of feed in their trough, wait for them to stick their heads in and then close the gate against their neck to prevent them from backing out.
This was the days of milking by hand. No automated milkers were to be found. That, plus building houses, gave Glidden “Popeye” forearms.
If the barn cats were lucky, Glidden would squirt a stream of milk straight from the teat into their face. They would rub their faces and lick the milk off their paws.
The best part of my stays with Mayme and Glidden involved their horse, Broady. Broady was a rare horse. It would be easy for me to believe that she was the inspiration for the expression “gentle as a mare.”
There are many photographs floating among the members of our clan of as many as four young cousins at a time sitting on her bareback. She would walk slowly around the front yard and driveway, waiting patiently to have her cargo replaced by another round of cousins.
But when I road Broady by myself in the pasture, I was Roy Rogers, Billy the Kid, The Rifleman, Wyatt Earp, Sitting Bull, or anyone else my imagination could conjure. Broady could run like the wind, so it seemed to me.
One summer Glidden was breaking some young calves to be led by a rope and halter, all in preparation for the county fair. A blue ribbon and bragging rights were at stake.
I watched bug-eyed from outside the fence while Glidden dealt with the bucking, bawling, balking calves one at a time. He talked to them, laughed at them, and fussed at them, all the while never letting go of the rope.
After a while of my watching him, he suddenly said to me, “You come try.”
On my side of the fence Glidden’s work with the calves was entertaining. But to think about stepping on the other side of the fence and engaging in the activity was daunting, to say the least.
Smiling, I said, “No thanks. You go ahead.” That sounded much better than saying what I was thinking, which was, “Are you crazy?! Those animals will kill me!”
Glidden laughed. “Oh come on in here. You just have to let them know who’s in charge. I’ll let you walk beside me to see what it’s like.”
Okay, so walking beside him while he lead the calf in a circle didn’t seem so terrifying. And if I refused to do that, I ran the risk of feeling like a chicken. (That’s the worst thing a boy could be called when I was growing up.)
I opened the gate slowly and walked through, being sure to close the gate behind me. (That’s a mantra you learned on the farm, “Close that gate behind you.”)
As I approached Glidden, the calf started bucking. Glidden’s vise-like grip on the rope prevented the calf from going anywhere.
Glidden laughed at the calf. “So where do you think you’re going? I’ve got you. You just as well give up.”
The words seemed to register on the calf as it stopped its gyrations, though its labored breathing continued.
Speaking to me, Glidden said, “Now just walk beside me and watch what I do.”
In just a few steps the calf seemed to suddenly realize that following docilely was much easier than fighting the irresistible pull of my uncle. It looked as easy as leading a dog on a leash.
After we made a circle or two, Glidden said, “Okay, now you take him,” and offered me the rope.
As I hesitated, Glidden put the rope in my hand. “Oh come on. You can do it.” And he walked away a few steps.
I’m not sure whose eyes were larger at that point, mine or the calf’s. But I’m confident my heart was beating faster than his.
Gripping the rope as tightly as I could, determined to “show the calf who’s in charge,” I stepped forward.
Amazingly, the calf followed perfectly beside me. We continued around the pen, performing flawlessly.
I beamed proudly at Glidden, who smiled back.
What no one was paying attention to was the farm dog (I think his name was Rowdy) slipping into the pen. Seeing an opportunity to create some excitement, the dog flashed in barking and nipping at the calf.
The calf bolted like a spring uncoiling.
Terrified, I did all I knew to do. I squeezed the rope with all my might.
My adrenalin enhanced strength was no match for the bounding calf. And my soft “city boy” hands were no match for the coarse grassrope. The twelve foot coil of rope zipped through my grip, taking skin and underlying tissue as it went and leaving searing pain in its place.
As the last foot of rope escaped my grasp I fell to my knees in pain from my hands and from embarrassment at letting the calf escape.
I turned my hands over to inspect the damage. Where callouses would have been on the hands of a true farm boy, I saw only bright red.
As I stood up, Glidden came up along side of me. “Let me see your hands.”
I offered my hands, palms up.
Never one to caudle, Glidden said, “You’ll be alright. You know, you’d have been better off if you’d let go of that rope.”
I’m not sure, but I think I saw a twinkle in his eye when he said it.
Nonetheless, another lesson learned on the farm, “You’re better off sometimes just letting go of the rope.”