[This post is part of the series 50 to 50, started last year to mark my 50th birthday. One post per year, y’see. The series ground to a halt due to a combination of work and personal pressures, as well as finding that such intense reminiscences of my own past were emotionally draining. Last night there was a conversation that triggered this attempt to resurrect the series.]
I’ve already written how we lived on the Mount Compass dairy farm for a decade, essentially through the 1960s. I’ve already written about its continual financial struggles and the joys of growing up as a free range kid. Today, to get this series back on track, some childhood memories that I’m sure have shaped my adult personality.
A dairy farm is a seven-day business, and a family farm is a family business. Everyone is expected to contribute. From the age of eight or nine I had my share of chores, and was given plenty of lessons in taking responsibility. I can remember simple tasks like feeding the dogs, helping clean the milking shed and lots of fetch-and-carry. But there were other chores that to a 21st century urban ear sound like a lot for an unsupervised young kid.
At the easier end of things was taking the two cattle dogs out to round up the cows for milking. Actually, the dogs did all the work. They’d see dad heading to the milking shed to start setting up and they’d kick off the round-up themselves, circling back to herd me and my brother if we fell behind. I’d also cycle the four or five kilometres into Mount Compass village to buy milk or bread or whatever. Easy stuff.
But there was more.
I learned to drive the tractor when I was about nine, so that I could steer it while dad hopped onto the trailer full of hay and, as we slowly drove across the paddock, pitchforked the fodder out to the lumbering herd of waiting cows. One time I was too busy paying attention to what dad was doing to realise where I was going. We drifted slowly to the right and into a fence. Dad explained in a rather detailed way why he was upset that a good 20 metres of fence was flattened, and I learned several new words.
Then there was learning to kill chickens. I was probably eight years old the first time I chopped off a chicken’s head. I didn’t want to do it, but dad insisted I do my chores. I wasn’t exactly skilled with a tomahawk. It was very messy indeed. But we still had chicken that night.
Chores had to be done.
Probably the biggest lesson in responsibility came one midwinter night during a thunderstorm. A cow was “down”, as we said — fallen ill and unable to stand. She needed medical attention to make it through the night. Since vets don’t drive out to farms in the middle of the night without being paid a small fortune, farms generally kept their own small stock of emergency supplies. It was our job to administer the drugs.
And so dad and I donned warm clothing and raincoats — not that the latter did much good — and strode out into the night. Presumably mum stayed in to mind my younger brother.
Once we reached the cow, half a kilometre across the farm, I had two jobs.
One was to hold the torch so dad could see what he was doing. I’m reminded at this point that city-dwellers don’t carry torches when they go out at night. They expect someone else to provide lighting, and sue them if they trip over something in the dark.
My second job was more difficult. The cow had to be injected with the drugs using a brass syringe and a rather sturdy needle. Once dad had filled the syringe, he had to hold it in his closed fist and pretty much stab the cow. Hey, cows are made of leather, and it’s tough stuff! That was fine. The problem was that the cow needed two syringes-full of the drugs, and dad didn’t want to do the stabbing thing twice. So he unscrewed the syringe from its needle to refill it, and it was my job to hold the needle in the cow while he did that.
The needle had to be held so that fluids — OK, blood — would drain out of the cow to prevent air bubbles getting in. Held just so.
So there I was. In the middle of the night. Dark. Cold. Wet. Uncomfortable. Shivering. Trying to hold the syringe steady, exactly in the position I’d been told. Because cows are expensive. And because chores have to be done.
[Photo: Part of our Mount Compass dairy farm, photographed in 2004. If you click through to the embiggened version, you can just make out some kangaroos in that dark patch of bracken extending from the left-hand side of the frame.]