Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Story that Launched Stories

Legacies: An Introduction to “The Calf’s First Drinking Lesson”

I am a writer today, perhaps because of red shoes and Little Golden Books, but mostly because of the story about the accompanying story.
My father did not go to college, despite evident talent – circumstances of war, class, family, region. But his love of literature was demonstrated to me regularly by his impromptu recitations from Shakespeare or the poems students used to memorize in grammar school: “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” or “Casabianca,” which I knew only as “The boy stood on the burning deck.”
I used to hear, as well, about his prize-winning school essay on teaching the calf to drink. At some time when I was in my late teens and gained a manual typewriter, I retyped the original. My father was a better typist, still is, but I made a fair copy that went into a three-hole binder. I asked my mother to find the essay and she sent it – the paper turned the color of brown eggs, the red-penciled “A” still clear at the top of the first page – along with my forgotten typed copy.
My father was born in 1931 in the farming region of western New York, worked hard as a child for his own family and others, plowing and planting, milking cows and putting up hay. As a teenager, he dreamed of being a baseball player, walking miles to and from sports practice at the school in Little Valley. His graduating class was tiny, college an option for only a couple of them. When drafted during the Korean War (I cannot call it a “conflict”), he volunteered for the Marines. After being wounded, captured, and held as a prisoner of war, he returned to home ground on the Allegheny Plateau.
After a few years, he started a family. That was me. I know that times were tough. My father suffered both the aftereffects of war and the paranoia that pegged returning POWs as possible saboteurs, victims of Communist brainwashing. He got a job in a factory and worked his way from sweeper to machinist to, eventually, foreman – blocked from further rising by the lack of a college degree. He never wrote another essay, until in recent years he put down a brief account of his military service.
It’s the way of things that memories shift. I truly remember nothing of early childhood, but I am told that I loved red shoes. And books. I grew up with enough of both. Most of all, I had a story about the following story that would someday lead me toward my own writing.
Happy Father's Day, Dad.
Valerie Nieman

The Calf’s First Drinking Lesson

From Life on Our Farm

By Warner E. Nieman

Our little farm nestled back in the hills always had a little excitement and a touch of humor when a newborn calf received its first lesson in drinking. While Dad wrestled with the calf to place its head in the pail, the rest of the family would gather around for a good laugh or two. Once, while shaking with laughter at his futile struggles, Dad handed me the pail and commanded me to teach the calf how to drink. I then realized Dad’s viewpoint in stating that the whole affair was entirely lacking in amusement.
I picked up the pail of milk gingerly and carefully stalked towards the frisky fellow. We circled each other for a couple of minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Tiring of this procedure, I set the pail down and make a flying tackle for the calf only to find myself in a peculiar position on the floor. I arose with anxiety as to whether I had any fractures but after careful inspection I found none. Meanwhile, the calf had discovered a fly on the wall, and was deeply engrossed in its proceedings.
The next incident brought gales of laughter from the onlookers, who had now gathered around the stall. I had managed to corner the critter and started to force its head into the bucket, when a new idea suddenly popped into his head and he made a quick bolt to gain his freedom. The surprise charge was successful and he was once more dashing around the pen.
It was then I decided to tie the calf to the wall so he couldn’t get away. I acquired a piece of rope, and was again chasing the stubborn creature into a corner where I could tie him. I finally caught him and slipped the rope around his neck. Now came the fun. Finding he could not release himself, he planted his legs and refused to be led to the ring on the opposite wall. I tugged and pulled to no avail. With a quick jerk, I managed to move him and pull him to the farther wall and knot the rope in the ring attached to the side of the building. Now, I thought, I would get somewhere.
But my thoughts and his didn’t coincide. I picked up the pail and approached the calf with a gleam in my eye. After a few attempts to place his head in the pail, with no cooperation whatsoever from the calf, I gave up that idea and tried a new method of teaching.
First I put my fingers into the milk, which was cold by now, and inserted them in his mouth. He licked the milk off from my fingers and then began to chew on them. With a yelp, I hastily removed my hand and gazed at the indentations on the fingers.
But this trivial matter did not phase me and I started the tedious process all over again. A few bitten fingers later, the calf had tamed down and began to lick the milk from my fingers in earnest. Soon I started to ease his head down into the pail and succeeded in getting his nose into the milk.
This was something different than before and he jerked his head from the bucket. I again lowered his head down and he was soon drinking the milk.
With a boastful smile of success and satisfaction, I raised my face and looked at the spectators. Then it happened! Evidently the calf had drunk all the milk he was going to because he unexpectedly raised his nose from the milk. His head caught the handle of the pail from my hand sending milk all over me and the wall. I wiped the milk from my eyes and profile, with the back of my hand, and used a language not found in any dictionary.
After the howls of laughter had subsided, Dad informed me that the calf had been taught enough for one day. I released the wild animal, and stepped out of the pen with the empty pail. Maybe the calf learned something from this lesson, but personally, I think that I learned more than he did.

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