Grow up, young man, grow up

One of the best parts about growing up is you never know you’re doing it. It just happens, whether you like it or not. And that’s a good thing. Unless you really, really don’t like it, but that’s a different story and a whole ‘nother issue.

Growing up happens in a lot of ways. Take social situations. When you’re a kid, you often say some very immature, really stupid things during them. You can’t help it, you’re just a kid. But, without doing anything but living, you grow up. You gain experience, knowledge even. Just by living your life, day by day. With your eyes open. And your brain functioning. Most of the time.

And then over time, something changes in you. You find confidence. You gain maturity. You become an adult. And you find yourself, while mingling among other adults at  social gatherings, uttering some very mature … but really stupid things.

Oops, seems I may have gone a little on the high side in the “Guess How Much I Weigh” contest.

This is called growing up.

And that’s just one example. You gather up lots of them during the course of your life. So many that you eventually create a big, steaming pile of them. And they’re all crammed inside your full-grown, adult mind.

And before you know it, you’ve grown up so much, and for so long … that you overload your circuits. You contract Alzheimer’s, forget whether your pants’ zipper goes in the front or the back, your right from your wrong, even how to chew with your mouth closed. And you end up sitting on a park bench all day, yelling at every poor fool that walks by, “Who the hell are you, … and dammit it all, that’s KING Charles when you’re addressing me! Off with your freaking head!”

But I’m getting ahead of my point. Let’s get back to the growing-up part. Let’s find a good part about growing up. Let’s go back to the summer of 1973. My summer of 1973, to be more specific.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And that’s MISTER Dickens when you’re addressing me, dammit.

I was 15 at that time. A really lousy age to be. Especially when you live in a rural area, far from the center of town and most of your friends. You’re not old enough to drive a car to hang out with them, which pisses you off. Yet you’re too old to be seen having your mother drive you to them, which pisses you off.

So, as you can imagine, you spend most of your days of 15 being pissed off. Especially during the summer when you have a lot of time on your hands and nothing to do with it. So what’s a pissed-off, not-full-grown man to do?

You work. For your grandfather. On his dairy farm. As I’ve mentioned before, dairy farms consist of a lot of cows. Can’t make milk without them. And cows can’t make milk without a lot of … hay.

Hay is a very interesting thing, actually. It’s made out of grass, which is very supple, very light and grows up very high and fast in large fields during the summer. When it gets to that point, dairy farmers come along, cut it down, let it dry out in the hot sun and then bundle it up in large lumps, called bales.

Reader, meet hay bale. Hay bale … reader. Great, we’re all acquainted now.

Here’s the interesting part. What once was light and supple, is now very stick-like, scratchy and heavy. Which is good for cows, because that’s the way they like to eat it. So much so, they eat lots of it. Which is good for the farmer, because the cows are happy, full and make lots of milk.

But … in order for all of this to work, all of this hay has to be brought to the farm and be put away in barns. Hay can’t get wet, don’t you know. Well, now you know.

And this is where the pissed-off 15-year-old comes in. Along with his only-slightly-less-pissed-off 14-year-old brother.

“Son, this is how it works. You go in the barn. Your brother here, he gets up in the hay wagon. He picks up a bale of hay, passes it to you, and you take it and stack it in the barn. But here’s the fun part. When you get them stacked up really high, all the way to the roof, then you two get to use this nice conveyor belt and the bales will come right up to you. Nice and neat, nice and easy.”

A photographer’s rendition of the “fun, nice and easy” part.

“How much do those things weigh?”

“About 75 pounds.”

“My brother weighs 75 pounds.”

“Good, then just imagine your brother has pissed you off, so much so you pick him up and throw him in the barn. Ought to be easy for a constantly-pissed-off 15-year-old boy like you. Okay, I’m going to get another wagon full of hay. Let’s see if you two can empty this one before I get back.”

I threw my brother in the barn a hell of lot of times that summer. Over and over. And my grandfather was wrong. It wasn’t easy. After more than a dozen of brothers, I mean bales, everything from my fingertips to my cell membranes hurt. Ached. Screamed at me, enough already!

But fortunately, my grandfather was right about one thing. I was 15 and constantly pissed off. And that meant I wasn’t fully grown up yet. Which also was good for him and the cows that summer.

Because the more it hurt, the more it pissed me off. And the more brothers I threw in the barn. Right up to the roof. And on to the next wagon, and the next barn. After a while, it didn’t hurt as much. But by then it was too late.

And by then, the summer was over. I was back at school, back in town, back among my friends. And back standing in front of my locker, when one of them came up to say … hey. Sort of.

“Holy crap, what the hell happened to you?!”

“Whatdaya mean, what happened to me.”

“I mean, wow, you’re really different.”

“And you’re really retarded.”

“No, I mean it, look at yourself. You don’t notice it?”

So I did. I went to the boy’s room and looked in the mirror. Really looked in the mirror. That’s when I realized that all those bales, the aches, all that pain … had paid off.

Me, circa May 1973.

Me, circa September 1973. Well, sort of. I wasn’t wearing a hat.

I went back to my locker.

“Oh my God, what happened to you?”

“Why, hello there Sally. How was your summer?”

“Not as good as my fall …”

That’s when I realized the second time my grandfather was wrong about lifting and throwing all of those bales of hay, all summer long.

This was the fun part.

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Rise of the Planet of the Cows?

Cows and me … we go way back.

When I was a kid, some of my best friends were cows. I’m sure at some points in my young life, the only friends I had were cows.

For nearly all of my formative years, I lived around them. My family’s home was next door to my grandfather’s house and he had a diary farm which, coincidentally, came outfitted with a bunch of cows as standard equipment. My father grew up with them too, since he, coincidentally, happened to live in the same house with my grandfather.

Funny how life works out sometimes, isn’t it.

Evidently what wasn’t funny back then was the first time they brought me into my grandfather’s big, ol’ dairy barn. I was petrified.

It might have had something to do with the decor. A long straight corridor. A narrow raised concrete path running down the middle of it. And framing both sides, lines of cow butt after cow butt after cow butt, some equipped with swinging tails. Which now and then, would rise up to warn you that about 17 pounds of steaming cow flop would be dropping any second now.

Cow House Beautiful, it wasn’t. But it soon would turn out to be for me, I’m told. For at that moment, my father and grandfather left. It was just me … and the cows.

I can only imagine how things went in there, since I don’t remember it. They say I was pretty upset at first, but then things got real quiet.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!”

“Hey kid, what the hell are you screaming for, you’re loud enough to curdle milk.”

“Because all of you are going to whip me with your tails, stomp on me with your hooves and then eat me … and bury what’s left under a pile of steaming cow crap!”

“Bessie, can you believe this kid? Listen, and listen good – we may chew our cuds, but we don’t chew kids, kid.”

“You mean, you aren’t going to eat me?”

“You go to that silo over there and if you find it stuffed full of kids, then me and the rest of the girls here will squirt sarsaparilla soda at milking time. Now, go grab a hunk of that hay, and bring me a snack.”

And that was possibly how it went, how my life-long kinship with cows began. Oh, it might seem like a rather odd parenting method. But it worked. I’ve never been afraid of cows, or almost any animal. But of all of them, I think cows are the coolest.

Of course, had this happened today, my father and grandfather would be doing time and I’d be appearing on the “Today Show,” promoting my new book, “Holstein Horror: How I Faced down the Backside of a Cow and Survived” … soon to be a full-length feature film, starring George Clooney.

But while I’ve never met a cow I didn’t like, I’ve noticed a couple small news items lately that have me a tad worried, to be honest. I know cows to be quiet, gentle creatures, or at least they used to be.

In Boxford, Mass., six bovines came out of the darkness and crashed a backyard party. They didn’t bring potato salad, but they did arrive thirsty. According to the police report, the pack proceeded to push aside party-goers in their way and went “right for the beer.” They even knocked over glasses to spill themselves some more. “They enjoyed it, no doubt about it,” said one police official.

Bessie? Slurping the suds? These aren’t the friendly, cuddling cows that I know and love! But wait, there’s more.

Also in Massachusetts, outside the small Berkshire County town of Richmond, emergency personnel received a call to come to the aid of a man who had been knocked out by a cow along on a rural road. Medical staff arrived at Swamp Road to find the unidentified man unconscious, but breathing. The cow had fled the scene.

What’s happening? Cows make milk, not war!

I’m afraid this could be just the beginning. They could be taking over. If they do, listen carefully to me – I know cows. Don’t scream. Speak quietly. If they ask for it, bring them some hay.

But if their tails suddenly go up, as if reaching up to heaven itself … run.

Give me a beer … now … or I’ll punch your lights out.