Felix Carroll: What do cows think about their farmer? 'Well ... probably ... about food, is my guess'
TYRINGHAM — What do all these cows think of this man? In short, choppy, Charlie Chaplin strides, he moves this way and that, all day, nearly all the night, stopping every 12 hours to feel for their unmentionables. They turn away as a stainless steel bucket fills with the miracle of milk.
What do they think of him as they spend these cold days and nights out of the weather, tethered in their tie stalls, heads bowed, quiet as nuns in adoration?
With their front lips, they pull upon the heaps of sweet hay he places before them. They chew, swallow, regurgitate, chew some more and swallow again. They blink their long, pretty eyelashes and watch him move about.
Their tails twitch, tasked with shooing away flies that have managed to find this haven, this barn, kept toasty warm by bovine body heat alone.
Under bare lightbulbs hung from the rafters, this man cleans their muck, lays down sawdust and makes things tidy again. Day in, day out, repeat, repeat, repeat.
What do all these cows think of this man? Compressed into a body that stands no more than 5 feet 8 inches tall, he carries their scent with him to the bank twice a month, to the barbershop twice a year. He would carry their scent to choir practice.
One evening he said nothing when a young lady, a choir member, inquired as to why the room smelled like a horse barn. Why would he say anything? He doesn't have a horse barn. He has a cow barn, an island of light at night, tucked in the willow-frilly folds of Tyringham Valley.
Can these cows understand malice — how this man, a former farmhand who decided to throw off all restraints and set off on his own, was told by his peers some 40 years ago that he'd never make it as a dairy farmer, that he was too "stupid?"
That's what they said. Some 40 years later, Frederick G. Havill, the "Hav" of Hav's Dairy Farm on Jerusalem Road, has survived colon and rectal cancer. He survived so much chemo that the callouses on his hands peeled off like wax. He survived a freakish bulldozer accident. It landed on top of him, crushing bones and filling his lungs with blood.
There was a hip replacement along the way, too, after he got himself flattened between a cow and a steel I-beam. He survived a house fire — and the rising costs of everything other than the price of milk itself.
He's still here, 76 years old. Half a ton of milk from 50-plus cows fills that refrigerated tank every day. And where are the doubters? Where'd they all go? Every other day, a huge tanker comes and hauls this milk away to be eventually bottled under the Ronny Brook Farm label. Twice a month he receives a check, and of course, it's never enough. If he were still 50 years old, maybe he'd weep. But he's not 50. He's 76, thankful to be working, graced with the ability to get happily lost in all that's familiar.
The cows hear him talking. They hear him declare, "We'll all be even someday, I suppose."
What do these cows think of this man who sleeps only three to five hours each night, sometimes less, sometimes in the house, sometimes in the hay?
These cows — can they understand temperance? While they conspicuously consume 100 pounds of food a day each, this man chooses to eat lunch and dinner simultaneously, at 5 p.m., to save money and time.
And he doesn't drink alcohol either. He worked with a dairy crew when he was in his 20s. They'd spend their evenings at the tavern and their mornings not remembering what they did the night before. Havill decided he wouldn't touch the bottle because he wanted to remember what he did the night before. He drinks milk, half a gallon a day.
They chew, these cows, transfixed by nothing or everything, as the man tells of going with a friend to Suffolk Downs years ago and correctly picking the winners of the first six races. On the seventh race, Havill placed his first bet. His horse won. He collected $22 and never won another red penny in his life because he never bet another red penny in his life.
What do these cows think of this man who lives with the heavy heart of having not visited sick friends before they died? Could these cows understand remorse?
Remorse is what explains what made Havill finally subscribe to the newspaper. His power had gone out in his barn one evening, during a storm. Cows needed to be milked. So he made an emergency, odd-hour phone call to the home of his electrician, George Comalli. George's wife answered. She had to inform Havill that George had died a few months previous. Because Havill never again wants to make that same shameful mistake, he decided it best to devote a few minutes each day scanning the obituaries.
When the waterlines break, the cows watch the man in his one-piece jumpsuit hauling hoses and buckets and scurrying this way and that. When they push down a fence and take a stroll down the valley, they stop in their tracks at the sound of him calling, "Come-in-girls!" Redirected, clop-clopping across pavement, they follow him home.
And why wouldn't they? It's him, their guy, the man who lets the barn cats use his leg for a scratch post; the man who shuts his eyes when he smiles; the man who makes sure the country music station plays 24/7 from a radio buried in spiderwebs. The radio keeps the cows company. Those disjointed voices inoculate them from getting spooked when strangers walk into the barn.
And when strangers walk into the barn, there's that man, crouched amid a canyon of cows, the bill of his hat pressed against quivering hide. He's feeling his way for teats, the spigots that have allowed he and his wife, Dawn, on land they lease, to raise seven children, none of whom are interested in running a dairy, but he loves them anyway.
These contented cows, napping amid the hum of the wall fans and the prattle of the country music station while two Guinea fowl roost in the rafters.
Two calves were born the evening before while their man busied himself in the barn, listening for sounds that would warrant him intervening. He wrapped them in warm red sweaters, then went to bed.
These cows, they hear him saying things — farmer-wisdom-type things, like, "I'll tell you why I do this: Because God put these animals on the Earth and asked me to take care of them, and I'm not going to let him or them down."
They hear him speculate about what cows might be thinking.
"Oh," he says, "well, they're probably thinking about food, is my guess."
Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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