A memoir of my father
By Don Sloan
It was three in the morning, a few days before Christmas, and the sky was blue-black and covered in stars.
The air was so sharp it hurt to breathe. My father chipped ice away from the lock on his1952 Chevy and cracked open the door. Light from inside turned the snow under our feet a dull cream color, and I slid in quickly – too quickly – across the vinyl bench seat. A blue spark cracked between my hand and the opposite door.
"I bet that woke you up," my father said with a smile. I grounded myself with a tentative finger on the cold metal dashboard and slid back over beside him. We backed out of the driveway, crunching the frozen snow, and crept quietly down the street, hearing nothing but the whine of the engine on full choke. I yawned and out came a ghost of pale white smoke. I knew the heater wouldn’t be of much use yet, so I huddled against my dad's flannel coat-sleeve and soaked up his warmth as we headed toward the sleeping countryside west of Fort Worth. I was five years old and we were going sampling.
Dad was a dairy inspector for the city of Fort Worth during the 1950s. His job included this odd ritual of getting up very early one morning a week to visit one of the 200 dairies in his district, collecting samples of the raw milk for testing. To him it was just a necessary part of his job to keep the milk supply safe from unsanitary practices and the risk of bacterial infestation.
But to me, a five-year-old boy, it was an adventure of the rarest kind – a chance for me to spend time alone with the kindly, ordinary man who was my father. I struggled hard to stay awake as we cleared the silent city and left the interstate behind. The blacktop farm-to-market roads that ran through Springtown and then Muleshoe gave way to unpaved gravel – although on this particular snowy morning, all was just a smooth, sparkling shade of unbroken white in the starlight. Dad turned the big knob on the radio and it hummed to life. Soon, country music filled the car's toasty interior.
I leaned toward the big front glass of the Chevy and turned my head over to see the Milky Way, an incredible canopy of stars that stretched from just above the fenceposts to the far horizon. To the right of the Milky Way, the Big Dipper leaned at a jaunty angle, and Orion the Hunter with his diamond-studded belt stood guard over the clear, cold night. I leaned back just in time to see a jackrabbit shoot out of the Johnson grass on my right. My father tapped his brakes and the rabbit ran quickly up the road ahead of us, throwing up a thin plume of snow pellets behind him. His enormous ears trailed back over his elastic body as he ran, and he seemed graceful and very alive. We began slowly gaining on him, and he cut suddenly to his right and disappeared through a break in the ice-crusted strands of barbed wire. We passed the spot, and I saw him again, still running, across the open, silent pasture. I wondered aloud if his feet ever got cold. My father laughed and said “Probably not,” and we drove on down the star-lit country lane toward the first dairy of the day.
A row of mailboxes cruised by -- of varying sizes, condition and vintage -- all huddled together as if for warmth, and the names on the sides were strange to me: Schmeling, Hausen, Schenkel. My father had told me once that these families' great-grandfathers had all moved here from across the ocean and fought Indians to win the land for their children and grandchildren.
"Comanches," said my father as we drove up a long, straight drive toward the first dairy of the day. "They were all over out here. Imagine sleeping in a teepee tonight, with just wolf and coyote hides for blankets."
I wrinkled my nose.
"They'd smell bad," I said, meaning the hides – not the Comanches.
"They'd be tanned first and then softened up, and sewn together with long. black strands of Indian hair," he said, "so by the time you got under them, they wouldn't smell anymore. And anyway, you'd be glad you had them to crawl under on a night like this, no matter how they smelled."
I pondered this information and the idea of Indian hair – what other color did it come in besides black, I wondered – holding together skins while I dragged them over me and my sleeping squaw. Maybe a couple of dogs would also lie in there to keep us warm. I shivered and shrugged inside my new Montgomery Ward jacket – bought the night before at the big store on Seventh Street near downtown Fort Worth – and turned my attention to the sound of barking dogs – right-now dogs, vicious-sounding dogs, dancing around our car as we pulled past the farmhouse and into the circular dirt driveway by the box-like milking barn. Light streamed through a crack in the wooden door and from every small window.
My father shut off the engine and opened his door, motioning for me to slide out on his side. I hesitated. "You won't get shocked if you take my hand first," he said. I grasped his big, sausage fingers and made my way tentatively across the long bench seat.
Outside in the chill air, we could hear country music and the drawl of the Midnight Cowboy coming from inside the barn. I shrank next to my father as the farm dogs stopped barking and sniffed me up one side and down another. I put out a hand as I had been taught, and the largest of the three – a big gray and brown German Shepherd -- put his head down and growled.
"No, Rascal," said my father, and the dog stopped growling.
Dad moved to the trunk of the Chevy, and Rascal and I went with him. The other two dogs lost interest and held back. At the sound of a slamming screen door, all three raced back to the farmhouse and I let go the breath I'd been holding. It floated on the cold air like a ghost. Dad opened the trunk and began carefully pulling out a large metal dipper and a pint-size glass bottle from the wooden rack next to the spare tire. The bottle had been labeled the night before with the date and the dairyman's name: Schmeling. Dad closed the trunk quietly – never with a bang -- and we headed toward one of two adjoining doors on the milking barn.
The strong smell of disinfectant hit my nose as we stepped inside.
It was mingled with the sweet, subtle odor of raw milk and the pungent scent of cow manure. I stepped away from my father and looked around the room. It was brightly lit by a single, unshaded bulb in the low, tongue-in-groove ceiling. Two of the walls were bare, except for small windows that looked out on the night. The wall to the right of the door through which we had entered was covered in rickety wooden shelving that leaned and tilted at odd angles, putting its cargo of cans and bottles in some danger. The last wall, which adjoined the milking barn, had a series of pipes coming through it. They bent at right angles to crawl up and across the green ceiling, finally turning down to enter a huge, gleaming aluminum tank that squatted squarely in the center of the room. The tank seemed as big as a submarine. The label on the side read: DeLaval.
Dad propped up the aluminum lid and invited me to look inside. I dragged an old stool over and climbed up beside him. Huge paddles turned slowly in a clockwise direction, keeping the rich new milk constantly agitated and forestalling the growth of bacteria inside the refrigerated vessel. Dad handed the dipper to me.
"Fill 'er up," he said. I reached down as far as I could, extending my short arm to its full length. Then, after waiting for the paddle to pass, I plunged the dipper into the frothy liquid and brought up a brimming cupful. Dad held the pint glass bottle under it and helped me pour. A bit remained after the bottle was filled.
"You can drink the rest," he said, placing a rubber stopper in the neck of the short bottle. "I'll clean the dipper when we get back to the car."
So I tilted my head back and slurped the raw milk down. Much more fat resulted in a heavier, creamier liquid than the pasteurized milk Mom bought at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket back home. Not quite buttermilk consistency – that required more clabbering – this milk nevertheless had a way of painting the inside of your throat on the way down and adding an odd feeling of ballast in your stomach.
"Got your helper with you today?"
A man had come into the tank room, dressed in bib overalls and a ragged, quilted jacket. A shapeless felt hat that might once have been a Stetson sat on top of a large, heavy, slab-sided head with ears the size of pork chops. Even his eyes were piggy and close together, but as he asked the question, he smiled and extended a meaty hand to my father, who shook it with warm enthusiasm.
"He's staying awake pretty good today – getting older, I guess," said Dad. "Say hello to Mr. Schmeling, and thanks for the milk."
I mumbled something inaudible, but put out my hand to him, which he clasped solemnly.
"You are very welcome," he said in an accent still rich with old country overtones. "When you are older, maybe you come live with me and my boys – get up early and milk the cows too, eh?"
I smiled and shook my head, causing them both to chuckle.
"He'll be a city boy, Tom," my father said. "There's no dairyman in this one."
"But I do like getting up early," I put in suddenly.
The old farmer studied me carefully. "Well, maybe you just come visit some summer, eh? We see whether you are city or country." He turned to Dad. "You want breakfast? Mrs. Schmeling says it will be ready in about thirty minutes."
I hoped Dad would say yes to this big friendly man, although I knew we had a schedule to keep. The thought of a hot country breakfast with more fresh, cold milk made my mouth water. But Dad shook his head.
"Not today. Still got two stops to make, and we have to get there before the milk truck. You know how it is."
"Ya, I know. But this boy, I'm thinking he looks mighty hungry already. Just leave him here. We give him a shovel, let him scoop up some cow shit for a while, and then feed him. You pick him up later."
They were watching for a horrified look on my face and promptly got it, which sent both of them off into the milking barn roaring with laughter. I followed sheepishly, still filled with desire for the big breakfast, but with absolutely no interest in getting any closer to cow shit than I had to.
The music was much louder in here, where the cows stood in a long, steaming row, shuffling, twitching and munching a carefully formulated grain mixture. Dad said the wrong mix made them bloat and pass gas – or worse, not pass gas, in which case, they just swelled up and died. It was the youngest Schmeling's job to keep the trough full during milking time, and he brushed past me with a galvanized bucket, a boy of about ten, but already built like a small upright freezer.
He headed toward a closet from which spilled a broken feed sack's aromatic contents. With one gesture he scooped the bucket full and returned to an empty stall near my father and Mr. Schmeling, who stood talking about the most recent Texas Aggie game.
My father was an Aggie, still fiercely proud of the school and its traditions. He had studied dairy farming in College Station, but a withered bicep muscle in his right arm, brought on by childhood polio, had killed that ambition and turned him into a city sanitarian – a bureaucrat who only supervised the collection of milk, not the production. He understood that even though the arm possessed more strength than it appeared, he still could not carry the load of day-to-day farm operations. So, he opted for the next best thing – a job that daily kept him out of his City Hall office and in contact with these raw-boned men and boys who kept Fort Worth awash in fresh milk.
"John, not so much feed," said the farmer to the youngest son, who stood patiently by the trough as the next Guernsey was herded and shoved into place. Her head went through a framed opening in the wooden trough's side and John quickly moved a hinged board over against her neck and pinned it. Her head was too big to slip back out the now narrower opening, but she didn't seem to notice and simply went about the business of filling the first of her four stomachs -- beginning again the awesome production process that results in milk.
One of John's brothers had thrown a leather strap over the cow's back and quickly secured it. Then he leaned in next to her swollen bag and swung from the strap a two-gallon aluminum receptacle that served as holding tank and suction source for the job at hand. This boy – about fourteen and topped with red hair – methodically washed the cow's teats with a disinfectant/water solution and then slipped onto each one a slender cup, attached to the receptacle by a short black rubber hose. Immediately, a sucking noise began and the aluminum can that swung beneath the cow pumped the white fluid up a long black hose and over the cow's back to a three-inch diameter glass pipe that ran the length of the feeding trough.
I watched in fascination as the milk spurted rhythmically into the glass pipe – like blood in an artery – and comingled with milk from this cow's seven bovine companions before moving along to the opening in the wall and then on to the DeLaval tank in the next room. It was an incredibly efficient operation that relieved these cows of their twice-daily burden of milk and put food on the table of the Schmeling family.
But I also knew even at my age that the cooperative arrangement was one of necessity, not love, for I had seen the way the cows sometimes behaved. Each had her own personality, ranging from downright stupid to downright mean. At the least, you had to carefully watch your feet as they filed in, for a 1200-pound animal gives little thought to where it is stepping. And at the other end of the spectrum were the ones who didn't much like having their teats handled by a human and would do their best to kick a man unconscious as he bent down to attach the milk can. My father said that a forward kick from a cow's hind leg had more force than a Joe Louis punch, or a steam-driven cylinder. The Schmeling boys knew their cows, however, and gave due respect to the ones who were prone to this inclination, sometimes bowing to them and sometimes kicking them in the ass after safely securing their heads.
"Dirk, I think you should marry this one – she'll be dropping any day now, I'm thinking," shouted one of the older boys to a brother down the way. The cow to which he was attending was very pregnant. Laughter and catcalls rang through the room, mixed with the warbling of yet another country singer and the mechanical whoosh of the suction pumps. I looked around and saw that my father and Mr. Schmeling had left at some point. A particularly big cow two stalls down lifted her tail and erupted a gush of fragrant manure, resulting in a steaming pile on the concrete floor. John, still moving mechanically, dropped his zinc bucket and grabbed a short-handled, wide-mouthed shovel. As he scooped the cow shit up in one efficient motion and headed for the feedlot door, I noticed a faraway look on his face, and figured that in him also there was no dairyman, and that one day Mr. Schmeling would have one less unpaid helper on his farm.
The loud music continued amid the sounds of slurping, chewing and escalating catcalls. I stepped back into the tank room to avoid any ruckus and found my father and Mr. Schmeling saying goodbyes near the open door. I looked through and saw that it had begun snowing again, and was glad.
"Let's go, partner," said Dad. "So long, Tom. Tell Mrs. Schmeling we'll come another time."
"That will be fine. And you – " he bent down to poke a meaty finger in my chicken chest " – don't forget to come stay with me and my boys this summer. Okay?"
"Okay," I said with a smile. But I knew I would not.
The snow now fell in great heavy hunks from the lead-colored sky onto the Chevy's front window. We followed our headlights slowly down a narrow lane, and every few seconds my father would coax the wipers to life. A cotton-like cocoon enveloped us as the snow fell harder and mixed with ground fog, blocking out the tall, silver spears of grass and frosty grapevines only five feet away on either side. Instead of cursing the poor visibility, however, my father whistled a tuneless melody that was more a dry whisper than a song.
"Dad?" I said.
"When we die, will it be like this?"
He turned down the radio and looked at me. "Will it be like what?" he asked.
"Will it be just white and quiet and soft?" I said. The snowflakes spiraled toward our car, and their delicate, lacy arms flung themselves out as they hit the windshield, as if to get a better grip on the glass. They looked a lot like my grandmother's crocheted doilies, which were lying everywhere around our house – under lamps, on dresser tops, on the backs of chairs and sofas. They smelled of camphor ice and rose water – like all the old people I’d ever met.
Dad interlocked his thumbs at the top of the big steering wheel and deep grooves appeared in his forehead, right up to the wavy widow's peak that my mother so adored. "I don't recollect ever thinking about it," he said finally, and tilted his head at an odd angle to look at me through the bottom half of his rimless bifocals. Clearly, the question puzzled him, and he was stuck for any kind of suitable answer.
"That's okay," I said. "I was just wondering." And we drove on down the lane, never quite catching up to the Chevy's powerful beams of light.
My grandmother's funeral took place on October 5, 1949, the day after I was born -- one soul checking out as the other was checking in, as my uncle later observed. And in 1949, women who had babies stayed in the hospital at least three days, preventing my mother from giving her mother a final goodbye on that cold autumn day.
Instead, she and I were in a ponderous old hospital in Fort Worth, 200 miles north of the sharecropper's shack in which she had grown up. The cause of my grandmother’s death, I found out later, was a most aggressive cancer that ate away a good deal of her cheekbone in the final days, unabated and undeterred by her country doctor who, afraid he would not be paid, had rationed the morphine that could have eased the excruciating pain. And, though she had no lack of kinfolk around her that day, her eldest daughter was not there, because of me.
"Not that I blame you," Mom said to me many times later. "God knows you were a surprise, and your father and I are glad you're here. But your timing could have been better."
I shrugged again and shivered inside my new coat and wondered whether my grandmother hadn't finally just seen something as beautiful and still as this country lane and floated on out the narrow-pane window to be part of it. My eyes rimmed with tears and I turned completely around on the bench seat, seeking answers from the silent night.
Fourteen years later the snow fell outside the same hospital in which I had been born. Fort Worth's Christmas lights glimmered in the pre-dawn chill, and I knew that the cold blanket that covered all the streets and lawns around the hospital also lay like a shroud on the cow-cropped fields of Mr. Schmeling's dairy twenty miles to the west.
Dad was dying. He was 57, and I was 19, a junior at the local college. Over the intervening years, my interest in spending time with him had lessened in concert with my growing interest in all things adolescent, and then in all things that were opposed to his views. It was, after all, 1970, and the war in Vietnam raged on. I had discovered beer and pizza and girls and pot, and he was still working as a sanitarian – just about the dullest profession I could think of in the free world at that time. And to think that he actually enjoyed his work, I had sneered to a friend earlier in the year. It was a time of elitist self-righteousness for me and deathly fear that I too would only have mediocre ambitions – that I would one day wake up to find I was only average.
I turned from the window to look at him, alone and quiet on the white-sheeted bed. Over the past two weeks, the cancer had spread unchecked through every part of his body and the result was acute pneumonia – the inevitable last stage of every cancer patient’s battle. His skin had taken on the translucency of fine china, as though he was becoming invisible a layer at a time. His veins were standing out in horrible relief against the backs of his hands and he had lost 30 pounds in the last two months. His bony, World War II holocaust fingers were not the same ones that had reached out reassuringly to me across a vinyl bench seat all those years ago. Oxygen tubes ran into his nose, and an IV drip carefully measured the morphine trance from which there would now be no escape. The black mass that had seemed so small on a routine chest x-ray six months earlier was now taking my father away a single, relentless breath at a time.
My tears fell unchecked, and the words of love and fear that rose in my throat in the light of that cold December dawn are still there to this day, unheard by the man who needed to hear them the most.
Looking back, I wish I had spent that summer on the Schmeling farm, shoveling cow manure and learning the trade that Dad could never practice on a daily basis. Sometimes, especially in the spring and summer, when the smell of new-cut alfalfa lies thick as honey bees in the rolling fields west of Fort Worth, and blossoming plum trees strew their white flowers in drifts and eddies along the country lanes, I drive by the dairies we used to visit together, and think of him.
And every so often, late in the year, I'll drive out in the country just before dawn all alone, and roll down the window to listen for his gentle voice on the cold night wind, whispering about jackrabbits on frosty moonlit nights, and fresh cold milk with hot biscuits, and the things that matter most in this short life.
I might not be a city boy forever.