Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Love Thy Neighbor

Brad and Phylis before milking
Perched on a hill alongside their barn on a road named after the family, Chad’s parents, Brad and Phylis sit in the grass before milking time, soaking in the summer shade.  So peaceful, I think, but when I comment so they inform me they're just waiting for the fumes to clear from the fly spray so that the poisonous air doesn't burn their lungs quite so bad.  It's how they've spent every afternoon and morning for the better part of their lives, milking cows together-for better and for worse.  Chad and I dream of such a romantic life, but thus far his parents have staunchly refused our requests to take over the job of milking when they retire, claiming it to be a miserable and grueling existence.   So cynical, these two.  We are determined to win them over someday, but in the meantime are quite content to help ourselves to gallons of delicious fresh milk and buy their bull calves to raise in a few calf hutches put up in our backyard which is just across the road from their farm. 

The family farm is nestled in the rolling hills of northern Boone County, one of the most serene places I’ve seen in my life.  The only downside to living in this beautiful farmland is that other people-namely real estate developers- have also discovered this secret oasis.  Several years ago, long before I came around here, the sunset views to the west became slightly clouded as a subdivision of sprawling McMansions popped up.  And the road directly to the north is now peppered with enviable country homes, a smattering of acne across what was once clear, porcelain skin.  Many neighbors to the north are friends who have farming in their families.  But several of the homes are occupied by suburbanites who were searching for a life in the country but have no understanding- or desire to understand- farm life.   They love the views, but have disdain for the manure smell and lack the patience to wait in their cars as the cows cross the road each afternoon heading from the pasture to the barn for milking.

This summer, we’ve decided to expand from being small-time beef farmers to medium-time and are in the process of having a small barn of our own put up.  We’ve also had an influx of bull calves welcomed into our world.  Our calf hutches are full, Brad and Phylis’s barn is full and having no more room, the latest little calf has had to spend a few days tied to the grain elevator outside of the barn while awaiting a hutch of his own.  He’s a little red and white Holstein whom Aiden has appropriately named ‘Cute’.  The kids have really taken to the little guy and now that they're on summer break from school spend their spare moments feeding and checking on him throughout the day.  Someone else took notice of him, too.  Our neighbor, who lives on the road just to the north of us.   I met this particular neighbor shortly after moving to my new home when he called my cellphone while I was out at an appointment with my children.   

“Hello?”

“Hello.  I believe I’ve found your dog.  Your number is listed on the dog’s tag.  Spencer?”

“Yes, that’s my dog…is he okay?”

“Well, he’s here outside at a house”.  He read off the address.

“Oh.  That’s my house.  He’s at home.  We just moved in.”

“Well, it’s way too cold for your dog to be outside.”

I paused.  “Oh.  Well, he let himself outside.  The garage door should be cracked for him and if you like, you can put him inside.”

This time he paused. “Well, it’s way too cold for a dog to be in a garage.  I tried to put him in my car, but he ran away from me.”

“That’s because he’s at home.  He has a heated bed in the garage and a heated water dish in there.  He really should be fine, he actually likes it outside.”

“What time will you be home?  I suppose he’ll be okay for another hour or so.  But, this is my phone number so please call me when you get home so that I know he is safe inside?”

Now, there is nothing that riles up a mom more than someone insinuating that one of their own is not being cared for properly.   Especially when they are being properly cared for.  But my freakishly ingrained social graces prevented me from responding as I should have. And yes, I even called him when I got home to let him know Spencer was safe and warm, kicking myself for doing so.  I wish I could say this was our only encounter over my old Spencer dog.    It wasn’t, but this was the conversation that replayed in my head as I saw Neighbor going for a walk by the barn one day, turning his head to study the little calf tied to the barn.  And later, that evening as he rode by the farm on his bike.  And again the next day, as he drove his car down our road.  His thoughts were visible across his face. 

Sure enough, he stopped by to pay a neighborly visit with my in-laws. 

“Did you know that you have a calf out?” he asked, peering into the screen door of the kitchen, where Phylis sat eating her lunch.  Luckily for Neighbor, Brad was resting on the couch and decided to stay there as he listened to the exchange going on in the other room.

“Where?  Across the road?”

“No.  Just outside here, tied up to the barn.” 

“Oh...yeah we know he’s there.  We tied him up there.”

“Well, I think his rope is too short.”  Phylis, who my dad describes as the salt of the earth, explained in a patient-but not meek, apologetic way as I would have done-why the calf was outside, why he was okay there, and why he needed a short tie rather than a long rope to tangle and choke himself on.   After his questions were sufficiently answered, he lingered on making idle chit-chat while Phylis attempted to finish eating her chicken.

Neighbor would have been wise to have left the issue alone after speaking with Phylis and taken his cause up in other places, such as finding suitable shelter for the wild turkeys or trying to cage up all of the rabbits running rampant across the country roads.  Instead he persisted and the next day as I saw him driving south past our house I had a troubling feeling.  I didn’t hear Brad’s shouts from inside my house, but Phylis did from hers and quickly moved out of sight so as not to get caught in the middle of an argument.   Because, there’s not much that riles up a farmer more than calling into question the care put into his animals.  And considering that Brad has worked seven days a week since he last took a day off in 1990, he’s got a pretty short fuse for such nonsense.  I saw Neighbor’s car hastily retreat back home shortly after it initially passed by.  A minute later I heard the four-wheeler start up and a very angry looking Brad peeled into our driveway with a large bull calf across his lap.  He drove around the house to the backyard, and as he stopped the calf tumbled onto the ground.  Brad promptly tied him up to our deck.  Our problem now.   He heatedly recounted the story of Neighbor’s insinuating visit,  

“I mean, do I go to his house and question why his dogs are locked in a kennel all day?!” he fumed."I should have gotten my gun,”  Now...just a second Brad.  This seemed a little extreme.  I know Neighbor had crossed the line with his nosiness, but... “and shot the calf right there.  Then asked him if that was better, if the calf seemed happier now.  What would he have said to that?”  His light blue eyes squinted as he and Chad laughed and laughed and my stomach turned.  Worried that this internal response to a joke swayed me more into Neighbor’s category of person, I went ahead and forced a little chuckle.  Not that jokes about shooting baby animals are all that funny, and not that Brad would ever do such a thing (at least I'd really like to believe this), but my instinctual response left me wondering if I was more like Neighbor than I wanted to admit.  And No.  Because, while I clearly lack the grit required to be a real farmer, I am well aware that farming is only idyllic on the surface.  It's idyllic exactly up until the moment you get a tail full of manure flicked in your face or an unprovoked kick to the head from a pretentious cow.  I know that I can not make the difficult decisions that go along with farming.  I can barely make a decision about what to eat for breakfast.  But, I am able to make peace when these decisions are made by those who know better even when they don't initially sit well with me.

Cute has his cozy straw filled home now and the excitement has slowed on the farm for a bit.  Now, if I could just convince my dog to come inside we could fly under the neighborhood watch's radar for a minute.   

"Spencer, come here!  Come here, boy!  Come inside!" And no. 


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