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Putting the Cow Back in the Can

My mom told only one lie that I can remember. She’d say, “I talk until I’m blue in the face, and you kids just don’t listen!”

She lived to be almost 90, and we never did see her turn blue. She just wouldn’t have done a thing like that. I regret the aggravation we caused her, but she was avenged by her grandkids.

Mom was usually talking sternly to my brother Dean and me; our sister Wanda came along years later. Dean shows up in a lot of my stories, and he doesn’t argue when his memories don’t agree with mine.

He doesn’t dare complain too much. He has written many good songs and stories about Arizona, but not all of them would stand up under a Congressional investigation.

Dean and I taught each other to expand the truth to our benefit, and that has been invaluable to us both. It began when Mom and Dad wanted to know which of us had broken something, or who had started the current squabble. Dean claims he was blamed for my sins because I had seniority; I remember it the other way around.

Dean helped me most just by being there. As the older brother, I had to keep him from getting the upper hand. We spent much of our childhood in a remote cabin on the Mogollon Rim. It was almost impossible to get fresh groceries. We lived on canned food, including canned milk.

When we moved to the Rim each summer, we’d switch to Pet evaporated milk, cut half and half with water from the spring. It took a while to convince ourselves that it tasted like milk. (The transition back to fresh milk in the fall was just as jarring.)

The label on the Pet Milk can had a picture of an open can of Pet Milk with a Holstein cow sticking her head out of the can. The label on THAT can showed a smaller cow in a smaller can, and so on.

If memory serves, I could actually see the fourth cow-in-the-can, a tiny dot in the center of the larger label; it may have been only three.

However many I could see, I claimed to see one more than that. Dean was a sharp kid, and he was 99 percent sure I was lying. But I instilled the shadow of a doubt, and that was a critical step in my development as a recreational prevaricator.

There also was the matter of “butter.” A powerful dairy lobby had pushed through protective legislation that made it illegal to sell yellow margarine.

Margarine manufacturers sold a pallid substance the color of lard. They included a packet of orange coloring that would eventually turn the butter pale yellow, given enough mixing. Mom assigned Dean and me to color the butter, using a fork and a mixing bowl. It was a pain in the neck.

That was our situation at the time of this true story, which I set to verse a few years ago:

Was back in the summer of forty-two–
Unless it was forty-three–
Frank Goddard brought over his loaner cow
To rescue my brother and me.

She wasn’t a Jersey or Holstein cow,
But a Hereford-idiot mix,
Born to roam free and make beefsteak
Someplace way out in the sticks.

In the wintertime we lived in town
And drank fresh milk from the store.
In spring we moved to the top of the Rim–
Town was eighty miles or more.

So then we’d switch to canned milk
Cut with water from the spring.
It tasted pretty bland at first–
It lacked that sweet milk zing.

The Goddards were our neighbors.
They lived eight miles down the ridge
In a cabin plain as ours was,
Without plumbing, wires or fridge.

Frank was an old-time rancher,
A rough-cut western man.
He thought it was plumb unnatural
For boys to get milk from a can.

He had a range cow he’d loan us.
She’d been milked one summer before.
We’d have fresh milk that summer,
Though eighty miles from a store.

He and his daughter rode up one day,
Herding a whiteface, dodging and ducking,
And bellowing close behind her
Was a half-grown calf, still sucking.

That was the year of the long rodeo
For my parents, my brother and me,
Keeping the cow out of the bucket
And the calf from climbing a tree.

We learned new words aplenty
As Dad chased that wild bovine.
Frank didn’t loan us a horse,
So each milking was roundup time.

They’d both get wall-eyed and winded
When Dad chased Bossy pell-mell
To the corner of our huge pasture
And a small barbed wire corral.

Dean and I were to haze her
While Mom held open the gate.
But Dad was never happy–
We hazed early, or Boss turned late.

Mom helped Dad snub Bossy to a tree
While dodging deadly hooves.
Then one would crouch to milk her,
Trying to outguess her moves.

She’d step into the bucket
Or bump Dad with her fanny
Or stomp on someone’s instep
With an aim that was uncanny.

We knew better than to snicker
While our father griped and cursed.
The cow would switch her tail at him,
Then wet her pants–or worse.

And all the while she’d bellow
And her calf would bellow too.
We kept him at weaning distance–
Not an easy thing to do.

He lived outside the pasture fence.
Tied to a long, long rope
Or anchored by a length of log
To slow him to a lope.

Well, we had fresh milk that summer.
Mom made cottage cheese and butter.
We didn’t have to die the oleo
With a packet of orangey color.

It was finally time to move to town
And put the rodeo behind us.
Frank came and took his loaner cow
And we thanked him for his kindness.

But it put a crimp in the Tom Mix dreams
Of my kid brother and me–
Keeping that old cow out of the bucket,
And her calf from climbing a tree.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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