Getting Milk

I had morning milking duty at my Hershey, PA boarding school. But when I went back to see the cows, they were gone.

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Bored and agitated one summer day some years ago, I jumped in my car and drove 90 miles through a mostly green Pennsylvania to see some cows. But not just any cows. In the late sixties, I lived at the Milton Hershey School, an all-boys boarding school for orphans and semi-orphans founded by the inventor of modern chocolate manufacturing. My father died when I was 11, and that was my dubious ticket into Milton Hershey. Daily barn chores were part of our high school responsibilities, and it was to the barn I had worked in for four years that I made my impromptu dash. To do what when I arrived there I could not say.

In less than two hours, I left the highway, some of it cut through Devonian-era rock nearly a half billion years old, and wound my way toward the still quaint town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. A sense of deja vu prickled my scalp. Here were the same bucolic landscapes I had known as a boy and the familiar odors of new hay, wild flowers, and cow dung, all overlaid with the aroma of cocoa that issued from the totemic factory smokestacks at the town’s center.

I soon came upon Hershey Park and its immense parking lots, where thousands of cars reflected the sun-like mirrors in a solar energy complex. Droves of eager and bright-faced young people, anticipating the amusements to come, headed toward the park’s entrance, parents among them like afterthoughts. The park had been in town when I lived there, but in a much reduced state. Back then, I shuffled through the park’s dusty penny arcades and ramshackle fun houses — when I think of them they are sepia-tinted — and rode a rickety rollercoaster made of wood that seemed to have been built by armies of slave children driven by salivating Morlocks. I ate bouffants of pastel cotton candy and, sometimes with a girl, fed popcorn to the muscular carp that cruised in the stream running through the park and the neglected zoo nearly. The zoo at that time included little else beyond a forlorn black bear, a yak, and a weepy, moth-eaten bison two sluggish heartbeats from the taxidermist. A few ornery and uncaged peacocks dragged around their collapsed plumage like senile queens.

A few years after I graduated, the park expanded and modernized and now sprawled in outrageous gaudiness on land where farm houses and barns and great oaks had once stood, surrounded by emerald pastures and open fields alive with the ticking of insects and the cries of judgmental crows. The park now seemed like a hallucination — all garish color and glitz, rides designed by brilliant engineers, stage shows comprised of singers and dancers, cackling dolphins performing for a herring snack.

I turned away from the park and found the road that led to Glenview, the “unit” of sixteen boys and two houseparents where I lived during high school. Barely wide enough for two compact cars, the road passed through a meadow and soon ran along the base of a tree-covered hill, atop which sat the high school like the Acropolis. Shortly, I glimpsed the Swatara Creek, a ribbon of lacquered slate widening to my left. The terrain seemed untouched from when I was a boy, which at that time seemed as untouched as when the Susquehanna Indians lived in the area. I had crossed this meadow many times back then, sometimes at night through near absolute and unnerving darkness. I climbed the hill, and when it was covered with snow, tobogganed down. I swam in the creek in the summer and skated upon it in the winter. I startled deer in the woods who then leapt and bounded to their own laws of physics. I threw rocks at groundhogs and snakes. I captured crickets from beneath rotting logs and used them as bait for the fish in the Swatara Creek. I lived in the city before I went to Hershey and I’ve lived in it since, so those years in that small rural town — the landscape as foreign to me as Borneo — seem more and more like the childhood of someone else’s life, and someone from literature, to boot. Huck Finn, say. Tarzan.

When I reached Glenview some minutes later, I quickly realized that boys no longer lived in the large farm house and that the barn was vacant, empty of cows and likely the hay tossed down from the hay loft and fed to them, and surely the straw too on which they slept. There was no manure smell, and this alone told me that the cows were long gone. No tractor sat idle in the feed lot. Weeds grew tall in the cracks of the concrete. A padlock hung from the door of the silent brick milk house, once deafening as the air compressor drew raw milk through the overhead Plexiglass tubing toward a stainless steel tank as big as Fat Boy, the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The scene may as well have been post-apocalyptic.

Disappointed, I crossed the thin country road to look in the pasture, bordered on its far side by the Swatara, but the pasture was vacant, and profoundly so, as if the cows had been beamed aboard hovering space ships during the night. In my mind, I could clearly see the cows chomping at the grass in their unhurried, witless manner, or sitting grouped in the shade of the trees that thrived along the banks of the creek. I could hear them huffing up their chewing cuds and the plaintive bellow of the cow too far advanced in her pregnancy to be let out of the barn.

They were Guernseys, the cows I milked, smaller than the black and white Holsteins housed in other school barns on the outside of town. When I first met the cows at the end of my 8th grade year, I was not yet 100 pounds or five feet tall, so the Guernseys were still more massive to me than any living creature I had ever been asked to touch. My experience with animals then went no further than dogs and cats and, occasionally, the broken down horses that pulled the huckster’s wagon through the housing project where I lived until the age of 15. The Guernseys may as well have been mastodons.

But I soon got used to the cows, and it became automatic, at six in the morning and at four in the afternoon, to wash their variously-shaped udders, test for mastitis, and attach the four suction tubes of the milker to the teats. Then I stood idly by and waited for the milker to do its work, often leaning against them in the cold mornings to take their mammalian warmth. Sometimes my thoughts drifted and I allowed myself to become cinched between the cow I was milking and her neighbor. This caused me some alarm as the air was squeezed from my lungs. I slapped rumps and punched ribs as unyielding as two by fours, but I seemed no more a presence to the cows than the flies they swished with their tails. The cows released me in their own good time, as though they were having some droll fun with me.

They had their peculiarities. One of our cows habitually escaped the pasture by wading into the Swatara when the creek had gotten low for lack of rain and exiting at the farthest end of the picket fence where it nearly reached the water. Discovering that she was missing, we’d hunt the countryside as though for an escaped con, and often found her in the surrounding woods taking in the scenery, as if some wire had fritzed in her brain and she believed herself a fawn. Sometimes she only strayed to the baseball field and ate the clover near third base, the mud on her legs from the creek resembling knee socks.

Then there was Nutsy, a cow who seemed to detest all humans and me in particular. Whenever anyone drew within six feet of her, she shook her head as if bees buzzed within her skull. An 800-pound animal on the verge of apoplexy is a forbidding sight, especially if it was your duty to place an uncomfortable contraption on it to take milk from its body, so I always saved Nutsy for last when I was on milk detail. While I milked the cow beside her, Nutsy twitched, rocked, jerked against her collar chain, and glared at me with her Charles Manson eyes. I was convinced that, if she could, she would bite, although, having only upper teeth, this was the least of my worries. I was more concerned about getting knocked down and trampled beneath her murderous hooves.

In order to bring Nutsy under some degree of control, it was necessary first to lean into her and pin her against the far stanchion, a feat perhaps more manageable by a defensive lineman than a small kid like me. Then her udder needed to be washed, but as soon as you touched that sack taut with milk she began to kick. These were not the kicks that resulted from the milker’s irritation, which some cows occasionally protested against, but kicks from some deep seated psychological torment. Often, Nutsy flailed away at the milker and knocked it off even before I completely attached it. When I did manage to attach the milker, it wasn’t long before Nutsy removed it. You had no recourse but to put it back on, provided Nutsy was not standing on it, in which case you had to drive your shoulder into her haunch and hope that she moved. An extra large straight jacket would have been useful. Or a massive dose of Phenobarbital.

But the large majority of the cows were docile and yielded to our ministrations without complaint. Gazing into the empty pasture that day, I began to think that cows as I knew them embody a certain measure of serenity like Zen masters. They seem to exist completely in the moment. It may not be a good moment, considering their plight, but they’re too dumb to know the difference.

I found myself greatly let down that I had gone to Hershey to see the cows but had only been met by ghosts, or at least incongruities. Which is the trouble with returning to a place that has claimed so much of you and fixed itself so sharply in the mind: it remains there even in the face of a new reality, and often more powerfully so.

I rode back to Philadelphia in a somber mood. I felt no more cheerful at night, but I began to think about the brutal three straight days in July when we Hershey boys had to fill the barn lofts with hay and straw, the six A.M. walk to the barn in the paralyzing cold of February mornings, the dizzying ammoniac stink of birthing cribs that we had to clean out after a cow had lived in them for the last week or so of its pregnancy — and, of course, the terrifying Nutsy. I might dream of her that night back in the city, but I was glad that I did not have to face Nutsy at dawn.

I didn’t miss the cows at all. • 17 December 2014

Albert DiBartolomeo is the author of two novels, several short stories, numerous commentaries for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications, and has written for Readers Digest, Philadelphia Magazine, Woodwork and Salon. He teaches English and writing at Drexel University.

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