Follow the Call
Chapter II — Disillusionment
When the first of my heifers came in, work and worry commenced, as far as I was concerned. I had a nice new ledger, all ruled off, being determined to run the place on strict business lines, and I devoted a page to each cow. I entered the first as Bella. Bella seemed a very appropriate name for that heifer, because she hung about the house and shed for a week, answering her calf, every time it called to her.
I had the calf shut up in a shed close to the house, and the two of them would keep inquiring about each other all night long, at the rate of a call every thirty seconds. They nearly drove me silly before the week was up.page 20
Then three more heifers calved on the same day, and one of them put me through a thin place in a barberry hedge, just because I went over to admire her calf. This delayed the work quite a while, and I had to go home and change my clothes, because when I'd slipped through that hedge I'd been careless enough not to notice three barbed wires that were buried in the barberry. It took me two hours, with a looking glass and a needle, extracting thorns from different parts of my anatomy, before I was fit to take the field again. That experience taught me a lesson, and before going to examine any more calves, I took care to pick out a thin place in a near-by hedge as a getaway, in case of necessity. Some of the heifers took no notice of me whatever, and seemed actually to be relieved, when I took possession of their offspring, but none of them were to be trusted, and it was always advisable to play safe.
My farm had been eaten out pretty bare before I took it over, and I began to look forward anxiously to the spring growth. The heifers were averaging about ten pounds of milk a day, with a 4 lb. of butter per hundred pounds of milk-fat content, and it didn't require much of a brain to work out the fact that they were short of feed. In my calculations I had estimated each cow to start off with twenty pound of milk a day, at the least, but I had to readjust a good many of my ideas, before that first season was over.
By the middle of September all my eighteen heifers were in milk, and I was rushing about from 4.30 a.m., until after dark every night. Being only a poor milker, it used to take me quite three hours, morning and evening, to put my herd through, and a three-mile drive to the nearest factory didn't improve things for me. By the time I got back from the factory every morning, my appetite had worn off. Sometimes I would cook a breakfast, but more often than not I would have a slice of bread and butter, and a mug of milk, and then go out and carry on with the work.page 21
The first year of farming was to me a perfect nightmare. I know too much to let work get me bustled now—easy and calm does the job best, I've found—but I was green in those days. Most of the time I was racing against time, and if there's anything in life more wearing than that, I've yet to find it. If I slept in five minutes in the morning, that five minutes haunted me all day long. The more I hustled, trying to make it up, the further behind I seemed to get. If I'm half-an-hour behind now, I just amble along easily and finish up half-an-hour later. That's one wholesome lesson farming has taught me—never try and beat the clock.
It's a funny thing how some days start off on oiled wheels and roll smoothly along, until, before a man realises it, he finds himself inside frying his steak or sausages over a nice fire. Then look at other days that ought to be the same.
I recollect one morning in particular. I arose as cheerful and happy as a bird. After a nice cold water sluice, to get the sleep out of my eyes, I went whistling over to the cowshed, and found that one of my new milk-cans had sprung a leak during the night, and all my night before's milk had run away. I looked at it with emotion for awhile, and then said to myself: “Never mind, Mark, old boy, these things are sent to try you.” I still whistled, as I mustered the cows into the yard, determined not to let a little thing like a leaky milk can put me out. As I milked each cow in the shed, I used to pour the milk into two kerosene tins I kept up in a corner, and when they were full I would tote them out and empty them into the milk can. It saved making a trip for every cow.
This morning I had just got one tin full when I went out to bail up my quietest cow. She came in chewing her cud, then fixed her eye on that tin of milk with a thoughtful, puzzled expression. A sudden recollection of happy, calfhood days must have struck her, I suppose, because instead of going into the bail, page 22 as she should have done, she made for the corner, dipped her nose into the tin, and drank deeply and noisily.
When I took up farming for my living I adopted as a motto “Coolly and calmly does it.” That was the first time I forgot to live up to it. I hit the peacefully drinking Sarah with the shed shovel, and she came back to earth with a jolt. The shovel handle broke, and Sarah turned round, with her head still in the kerosene tin, knocked me down, and trampled over the top. Then she rushed out into the yard and tore round and round, bumping the empty tin against the rest of my timid herd, until the excitement became so intense that one of them fell through the fence and almost tore a leg off.
After things had quietened down a little I took a fresh grip on the situation and thought of my motto. I milked some more cows, and filled the remaining tin —the one Sarah had gone nosing about was out in the yard, all flattened out. Then, when I had my pail full of milk as well, I went outside to empty them both into the milk can. As I climbed up on to the milk stand the stains of the last night's milk met my eye, and I remember thinking what a grand thing it was to be a philosopher, and able to view small troubles with quiet fortitude. “Many a man,” I thought, “would have a nasty liver over a thing like that, and here am I as cool as an iceberg.”
Just as I got to that part of the ruminations I trod on the slimy, milk-soaked planks of the can-stand, and my feet shot from under me.
I sailed gracefully through the air, a bucket of milk in each hand, and landed with a sickening thud on a patch of broken stone I had spalled up a week before, for metalling in front of the stand. After that I gave up trying to live up to the motto for the rest of that day. I couldn't do a single thing right the whole day long, and when night-time arrived I was just about fit for an asylum. I lit my fire, put some page 23 lard in the frying pan, and started to fry a pan full of juicy rump steak.
“Aha!” thought I, “I've finished with bad luck for to-day, anyhow!”
Swearing at things all day long had made me as hungry as a hunter, and when the steak was just about cooked I left it a moment in order to hunt up the pepper canister. My back was hardly turned when I heard a noise like a powder explosion, and I whipped around to find the whole fireplace enveloped in flames. The fat in the pan had caught alight, and the fierce flame had set fire to the chimney as well. I had an anxious half-hour running from the tank to the fireplace with buckets of water. The side of the house began to smoke and curl before I got the fire subdued—my chimney was made of tin—and after the show was over I went in and investigated the frying pan. Anyone could have had a hundred guesses without guessing correctly what the blotch in the bottom of the frying pan was meant to represent. The whole room was smothered in soot and ashes, and full of smoke, and the floor was an inch deep in dirty water. I had to set to work and do some spring cleaning before I found the knife, fork, and plate I had set out on the table, and then I dusted the ashes off the loaf and made a meal of bread and butter.
A day like that has its uses. It shows a man how well off he is when things are running smoothly. A week on end of that kind of thing would finish up with suicide. It's all very well for people to say “keep calm,” no matter what happens. One cold, blustery morning I was reaching up to put the blinkers on the horse, and the dog chose that particular moment to take a nip at the animal's heels. It took me two solid hours to run the horse down after that, besides getting nearly killed at the time. I defy anyone to keep cool, calm, and collected, when that sort of thing happens to him.page 24
The best part of farm life is the rest after tea. Stick a big log on the fire, fill the pipe, and sit back and fight over the battles of the day. It doesn't require an armchair for comfort, an old box will do if you've been working all day. It doesn't require an armchair for comfort, an old box will do if you've been working all day. And it's surprising how hopeful and cheery a man will feel if he works hard and doesn't worry. Every month my milk cheque would come to hand, perhaps less than half what I had estimated at the beginning of the season, and yet I kept on looking ahead and hoping something would turn up and even things for me. Nothing ever did, but that didn't prevent me from continuing to hope on.
I've noticed the same tendency in other folks. There's old Andy Brown, for instance. He has a farm down the road a bit from my place, and a family of about ten to keep. Every year he's behind in his interest, and the holders of the mortgage postpone so much, and have it added to the principal, and there it is, growing bigger and bigger every year. The only reason they do it is because Andy is a toiler, and puts in solid permanent improvements, in the way of stumping and draining. Andy's trouble is that the place is too small to support his large family, but he refuses to see it. He jogs along, optimistic, and full of plans for the future, and even talks of paying off the mortgage as soon as he has the place properly knocked into shape. What will probably happen is that as soon as he has the place fully developed, the mortgagee will sell him up, in order to get the direct benefit of Andy's years of toil and privation, and Andy will go out without a bean. But it's no use trying to tell that to Andy, he'd refuse to believe it; the only thing to do is to listen to the old chap expounding his hopes and plans, and hope he has luck and weathers the storm.
When I sat, of an evening, planning and dreaming, I pinned my hopes of bigger milk cheques on the spring growth, for a start. Once the grass really started page 25 to grow, I had an idea that my eighteen cows would never be able to cope with it.
My farm was poor, the pasture thin and run out. It never even looked like spring, on my place, and as soon as I had digested that fact, I switched my hopes from spring growth and pinned them on to the summer flush of grass. Even the poorest farm should have an abundance of feed, during the summer months.
It was a shock to find that my heifers commenced to go down in milk, in the summer, in spite of the “summer flush,” but after a day or two of worry I took heart again. I had put in three acres of soft turnips for autumn feed, and I pinned my faith on the turnips. I relied on them to pull me up and make my herd milk well through the autumn months. By the end of February the grass began to disappear off the section as if melted away by magic, and if it hadn't been for the three acres of turnips, my cows would have starved to death. Instead of making them milk, it simply kept them alive, and every morning, down at the factory, I used to take the lids off the milk cans, before drawing under the hoist, in order to let some of the turnipy smell away. About every other morning the factory manager would hop down into my cart, with a do or die air, and stick his nose into the cans and sniff discontentedly.
I admit myself the smell was enough to knock a man down—it was far more pronounced than the actual turnips—but I used to put on a surprised expression and say, “Turnipy smell! That's queer! Can't understand it.”
Sometimes I got away with the bluff, but once or twice I had to cart my milk home again, and it came down to this, in the end. Either I didn't feed out turnips, and my cows starved to death, or I fed out, and the factory refused to take the milk. I was glad when that first season was over. But I guess I'm getting along a bit too fast with the yarn—lots of water ran under the bridge before I got to my autumn turnips.page 26
As I have said, the people about were friendly, and I often used to drop in on one or another of them, for tea and a quiet evening's entertainment. And that was how I first met Alice Arnold.
I made up my mind, when I was at the War, that if I got back safe I would settle down on a farm, marry, and then live happily ever after.
Well, I soon got the farm, but before I'd been on it six months it began to dawn on me that I'd better postpone the marrying for a few years, until I could see my way clear to support a wife. The farm as it was would hardly support me, so I resolved to buckle to for a year or two until I had it knocked into shape. After that was accomplished would be the time to think of going courting. Never having experienced the grand passion, I disposed of the subject quite offhandedly, but I was to learn my little lesson later on.
Some men pick their wife as they would pick a horse. They sum up all the different qualities—temper, style, efficiency, personality, weigh them against any faults they know of, and then make their decision. I'm not so sure, on thinking the matter over, that that isn't as good a way as any, but it's not my way. My ideas on the subject were very different. I always felt that if a man bided his time and refused to flirt with every pretty face that came along and smiled on him, some day the ideal girl would arrive on the scene, and of course, then was the time to get moving.
In Alice Arnold I thought I saw my ideal; I decided to “get moving,” but the very things I counted as in my favour were to go against me. My inexperience with the fair sex proved the greatest drawback of all. I couldn't flirt; I was too shy to talk with ease; I couldn't even snatch a kiss if the light went out suddenly. Gee! When I think back, I was a greenhorn!