Saturday, July 21, 2007

What a Man and Two Boys Really Makes [updated]

[Update, August 22, 2007: Brian improved the content of this post immeasurably today -- you'll see how in the last drawing!]

Brian Fies recently posted a fascinating blog entry about certain aspects of how to draw mammals in cartoon form. Included was this great example of how not to do things, a “table-leg" cow, which I hope Brian will forgive me for filching from him without permission:

When I first saw that, I was reminded of a story from my Dad’s youth that he used to tell frequently (you’ll see why I was reminded of it if you actually read this blog entry all the way to the end!) I forgot about that until yesterday, when I stumbled upon his typewritten account of the incident when sorting through some old papers in my office. I’ve reproduced it below (courtesy of OCR software from HP, which is entirely responsible for any misspellings or typos, and that’s the truth).

But first, some background:

Dad was born in 1915, the seventh of eight children of a machine-gang foreman (and trolley motorman) in Syracuse, New York. He was a teenager during the Depression, and, to help ends meet, he was sent off many summers to work for room and board at a farm owned by friends of the family, Wilbur and Leta Saltsman. The farm was near the hamlet of Stone Arabia in the Canajoharie region of the Mohawk Valley, Upstate New York.

Readying a field for winter, Saltsman Farm, Fall 1946.

Dad treasured his summertime experiences on the farm, and kept in close touch with Wilbur and Leta throughout the rest of their lives (and Wilbur lived to be 100.) Dad passed away in 1999 at 83, and left behind thousands of pages of carefully typewritten reminiscences of his life – and a large fraction of them are of Wilbur and Leta Saltsman’s farm in Stone Arabia. The one below is left unedited [except for an early addition to clarify the dates]. The pictures in this post are from Dad’s collection of photos – equally as dauntingly large as is his body of written work to anyone foolish enough to try to catalog them. (Which reminds me: throughout his life, Dad proudly acknowledged Leta Saltsman’s assessment that he was “the stupidest smart man I ever did see!,” because that meant she thought he actually was smart, no matter what the qualifiers. Late in life, he passed that title along to me. Thanks, Dad.)

The black-and-white photo is from an early album (the caption is written in white ink in Dad’s hand) and the color photos are from a visit to the farm in 1946 to show off his new bride, my mom-to-be. Please click on any image to see a bigger version.


- The Burial of the Cow -

A True and Virtually Unembellished Report

Of an Incident in the History of the Saltsman Farm Participated in, Attested to, and Related By

Lynn Harrington


The episode I have in mind took place nearly 60 years ago [now 76 years ago, in 1931 – SH]. I was 16 at the time, give or take a year, and Bob Ellwood was about a year older. The principal character in the incident was one among some 50 milk cows in Wilbur's herd. She was a big-bodied black-and-white Holstein, a good, productive milker and a valuable animal. It was summertime, and the cows were turned out to pasture after milking each morning and even­ing. Wilbur noticed that this cow's yield of milk was dropping off prematurely, and she seemed to be off her feed. So one evening he decided to keep her in the barn overnight, so he could check on her before bedtime. I went to the barn with him that night. We had left a forkful of nice green hay in front of her, but she hadn't touched it. She was lying down, just not doing anything, and Wilbur said he guessed he would have to call the vet to come take a look at her the next morning.

The Saltsman Farm central area, Fall, 1946. Note the cars (click on any image for a larger, better view.)

When morning came we found the cow wasn't going to need the vet. She had gone on to greener pastures. It was not an occasion for levity, but the thought now runs through my mind that after all those years of literally kicking the bucket, she had finally kicked it figuratively. In the process, she left us with a substantial problem of disposal. In those parts at the time if a farmer had a sick cow, what they called a knacker man would come and haul the poor critter away, to be butchered for dog food (or maybe hamburger). But they didn't want dead animals. There was no rendering plant within a long distance, and the carcasses were hard to handle. So it was up to us to dispose of that big old cow ourselves.

We hitched one of the horses to the stone boat, drew it up close to her, and the three of us, with a lot of grunting and straining, managed to get her loaded upon it. Then we let the horse drag the load out to a back corner of the day pasture, behind the barn. We had to get on with the milking, so Wilbur said we should dump her off the stone boat and leave her there. Bob and I were to bury her later. As it turned out, we didn't get to the job that day. We had the makings of several loads of hay all cut and drying fast in one of the meadows, and the forecast was for rain the coming night. Putting first things first, we spent the day hard at getting that good hay into the barn before the rain came. We didn't finish until about dark. Wilbur said that Bob and I should bury the cow first thing after morning chores the next day.

We were in the midst of a typical summer heat-wave just then, and by the time we boys got out behind the barn with our pick and shovels, we found a much larger cow than we had left there the previous morning. She was so bloated that her legs stuck right straight out as she lay there on her side. I sure didn't relish the idea of digging a hole big enough to accommodate such a carcass in that heat. Bob stood there for a few minutes, studying the situation. Then he said we didn't have to dig so big a hole. He took the pick and, working back of the cow, dug the sod out of what you could call a mirror image outline of the cuss. I just leaned on my shovel and watched him, wondering what he was up to. When he had finished that outlining, he explained. We could dig the dirt out of the figure he had marked out, going down deep enough to accommodate the cow's body. Her head and neck and legs would go into the exca­vations he had marked out for them, and he had even marked out a little trench for her tail. Once we had done the digging, all we would have to do would be to take her by the hoofs, flip her over, and she would drop right into her custom-made grave. Then we could cover her up, and the job would be done, with a minimum of digging.

That sounded like a pretty good idea to me, even though I felt a sort of uneasiness nagging at me, arising from what I had seen of the outcome of previous good ideas Bob had tried. For instance, there was the time we had what we fig­ured would be three loads of hay ready to get into the barn. Wilbur was away that day, so Bob sort of elected himself fore­man. He decided that we could make just two loads of it, by building them bigger than usual.

A load of hay on a wagon at the Saltsman farm in the Fall of 1946, about 15 years after this story took place. The woman is my mother; I was born the following June, so I may or may not be in this picture.
Notice the two-wire fence in the background: it's an electric fence, high-tech for '46.

That would mean one less trip to and from the meadow, and by leaving the second jumbo load on the barn floor for unloading the next day, we would only have to unload and mow away what amounted to a normal load-and-a­-half that afternoon. So off we went, I driving the team and tromping down the hay as he spread it out as it poured off the trailing pitcher. He built a whopping load, all right. It bulged out way over the top of the rack at the front of the rig and stuck out pretty far on both sides. After Bob slid down off the load to unhook the pitcher, he decided that he wouldn't try to climb up the rack onto the load for the ride back to the barn. "You take it on down," he said, "and I'll walk back." The team really had to lug to get that load out of the field and up to the summit of the lane before beginning the descent to the barn. Unloading of the wagons was done from the second level of the barn, which was reached by a pair of built-up driveways and short, roofed-over little plank bridges. The usual practice, as we approached with a load was to stir the horses to a faster pace, to give them a start for the incline of the driveway. This time was different. I could see right away that the load would never fit through the doorway, and even if it did, I was going to be swept right off the top of the load, even if I lay down flat. So I stopped the team. Bob was coming right behind, and yelled, "What did you stop for? They needed a start and you know it!" I slid down from the load and told him, "You built that load. You get it into the barn."

Bob fumed for a minute, then went to the horses' heads and took a short hold on the lines from their bridles. He tugged a t them, hollering for them to "Giddap!" The team knuckled down to the job, which was going to be a tough one. Bob, pulling on their lines, led the way up. Digging hard, the team got through the door and I heard the thunder of their hoofs pounding on the planks of the bridge.

And then, very suddenly, there was silence.

Bob hustled around and came out through the other door to look the situation over. It was plain to see what had happened. The first couple feet of that overload had wedged through the doorway, but that was as far as it was going. It was plugged in there, tight as a cork in a bottle. We had to unhook the team and lead them out to stand in the shade while we labored with might and main to fork off enough hay to get the load down to a size that would squeeze through. We forked some of it off the top, then tugged wads loose from the sides, sweating and straining to get things righted before Wilbur got home. We made it at last, but that was all the hay we got in that afternoon. We didn't bother to explain to Wilbur why we hadn't finished getting in all the dry hay, and he didn't ask. He just put it down to time wasted at some kind of tomfoolery he would just as soon not know about.

But to get back to the cow. We dug as Bob pro­posed, with the bulk of the dirt coming from the hole we were preparing for the main part of her body. Then we used the pick to clear out the trenches for the head and neck, legs, and tail. It was hot work, and as you might imagine, the flies were gath­ering around us pretty thick by that time. What they call olfac­tory exhaustion set in before long, and we were spared the annoyance of the odor that accompanied our work.

At last we had finished all the digging we figured would be necessary. Then we went to the side where the cow's legs stuck out. Stooping down and using both hands, each of us on the shank of one of the legs extending closer to the ground, we were set to flip her over and let her drop neatly into the excavation. "I'll count 1, 2, 3, HEAVE," Bob said. We both knew she was going to be heavy, but we really didn't realize how heavy until Bob's "HEAVE" sounded. We knew right then that there wasn't going to be any flipping. We were in for a real job just to roll her over. But roll her we did. We never got to the point of rolling her all the way over, however. By the time we had her with her legs sticking straight up, the dirt at the edge of our dig gave way, and down she slid into the hole, with enough dirt sliding down under her so that she came to rest with her body just barely below ground level and those cussed legs aiming at the sky.

There was just no way we were going to move that cow any farther. We decided to make the best of a bad job, and set to work moving her neck and head down into the place we had prepared for them, but at an angle quite different from the one we planned. The only thing that remained to do was to cover her up as thoroughly as we could. When we had finished there was a considerable mound of dirt on top of the gravesite, and sticking up through it were the cow's vertical shanks and hoofs. We could have buried the tail, but Bob thought it would look a little more as if we had planned it that way if we left the tuft at the end of the tail sticking up above ground, to make a set with the legs.

And so we had buried the cow. By that time we were content to live with the unorthodoxy of the burial, and as a matter of fact thought we had done rather a special job. Wilbur thought so, too, when he saw what we had done, but from his viewpoint "special" had a somewhat different con­notation than it had for us.

All in all, the episode reminded me of a tart observation I had heard a neighbor make when he called on Wilbur one day. The two of us were working together on some­thing when this old time farmer showed up. He looked me over with what seemed a jaundiced eye, and said, "This young-feller gain' to be one of your hands this summer?" When Wilbur said I was, the man said, "Well, I guess you know your business, but you know the old sayin', 'A man and a boy makes a man and a half; a man and two boys makes just a man. '" I winced at the time, but the old fellow was pretty close to the mark.

===============================================Lynn Harrington, 1980.


Brian Fies said...

Terrific story! I'm glad you put my cow to better use than I did.

My attorney will be contacting you early next week.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Brian -

My attorney will be contacting you early next week.

Cool! Will they need an autograph?

What I'm really hoping he or she contacts me with is a cartoon of four cow feet and a tail tassle stickin' up out of the ground...

Hint, hint, hint, grovel...

Your fan,

Mike said...

I spent the summer of my 16th year working at a summer camp. There were a half dozen of us doing various manual chores and waiting tables, and we came to despise the owner and began to find inventive ways to undermine his intentions. However, I realize, in reading your father's account, that when it comes to boys of that age, it really doesn't matter what their intentions are ... the quality of the work remains much the same.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

This is hilarious! I'd love a Fies picture as you hint about --and i can also picture the haywagon incident as Corey Pandolph would illustrate that.

Brian Fies said...

Oh, man. There's nothing I'd rather do than draw cow feet and tail sticking out of the ground, Sherwood, but it's a terrible week, what with trying to cram in a week's worth of work before I leave for San Diego in a couple of days. I need to beg off with apologies.

Never autograph anything an attorney puts in front of you.