During the tenderest of my childhood years, my mom milked cows at a local dairy. The small herd of Holstein heifers were milked twice daily, once at four in the morning, and again at four in the afternoon. This was only one of her three jobs, in addition to a paper route, and so very often when her alarm screeched at three in the morning, though it shook the house, and though it rested on the coffee table next to the couch where she slept, she did not hear it. I, an ethereal sleeper until I discovered alcohol much later in life, would ascend the concrete stairs from the basement where I slept, turn off the hateful alarm, and whisper Mom, whereupon she would wake up with a start and ask me what was wrong.
It pleased us both that she would occasionally take me with her to work, where my chief duty was to bring the milch cows in from the barn and fields where it seemed like they did nothing but eat and wait to be milked. The ladies knew the routine and enjoyed the relief that milking brings so that usually just the appearance of a shouting five year old boy in the four o'clock dark was enough to set them into lines along well-worn paths to the milk barn where my mom was waiting in a wet concrete pit surrounded by twenty gallon glass milking jars. Sometimes one of the heifers needed to rebel, and I had to chase her around the barn, shouting, waving my stick, and trying to anticipate her next move until she gave up and trotted up late to the barn. I also bottle fed the calves, but found this to be difficult, sticky work. A calf is a terribly irrational creature that refuses to hold still and will lick anything, including and perhaps especially five year old boys.
At the end of the shift, the dairyman would come down to the milking barn and ask me how my girlfriends were, a question that I found both condescending and uncouth. Condescending because I was one of those precocious children who found in nearly every question an exasperating denial of my truth worth and abilities, and uncouth because it seemed like all you had to do was climb an apple tree with a neighbor girl and suddenly she thought she was engaged, and lost interest in the higher branches. Then the dairyman would fill up a five gallon glass jar of fresh milk for us to take home, give us a wheel of cheddar cheese wrapped in red wax, and sometimes frozen paper packets of ground beef. I watched the cream rise into a soft crust at the top of the jar as it sat in my lap on the ride home. If the milking went quickly enough, there would be time to pour out a glass of milk, my arms shaking to control the jar, and spoon out thick dollops of cream before the bus picked me up for school, where nothing of any interest ever happened to me.
And so, when Scott and I pulled into the driveway of Stuart and and Emily Rowe, owners of a famous herd of Milking Shorthorns near Dixon, I was wary with memory. I had not been to a dairy since I was ten years old.