“Good morning, sir” I say as cheerfully as I can this early in the morning to the old man in front of me. We are standing in the cow barn, in the cross aisle that separates the old part of the barn from the really old part. Fifty Holsteins in two parallel rows stand to either side of us eating their haylege as they wait to be milked. Their chomping sounds like a brigade of soldiers marching by in stocking feet.
“Huh? Whad you say?” “Morning? Morning you say?” the old man replies as he notices me at his side and turns to see who I am.
“Yes, morning, morning it is, looks like morning, yup, its morning.” I reply a tad louder and a tad too eager, a smile plastered across my face.
“Is it?” he says staring up at me.
“Well, yes it is, yes it was, at least I think it is, it was when I got here, morning that is. Yup, morning all right. Morning it is.” I answer, realizing I am making no sense. At least I am doing so loudly and with a smile, I think to myself, taking little solace in either.
The man looks at me closer now, leaning in a bit, staring up at me and I get a very clear sense that he is marveling at the first babbling idiot he has ever seen in his barn. A jet of urine rockets from a nearby cow and splashes across our feet.
“Huh” he says with finality and with authority, spits on the floor.
I’m at a loss now. ‘Huh’ is pretty much of a conversation stopper especially when followed by a definitive spit. I fidget but I say nothing. A pause starts to grow between us. My smile begins to slip off my lips. Silence. I fidget some more.
I can’t really argue with the man, it is his barn and his cows and I am standing in….God knows what I am standing in actually. And it is very obvious that he has seen far more mornings than I have. But I do have a pretty clear idea of what morning is, or I thought I did before this moment. Apparently, morning is the time of day not after dawn to this old farmer.
It was my intention to make a good impression on my first visit to the farm or at least not make a bad one. I knew very little about farming and had never worked on a farm so the chance of me doing or saying something stupid was pretty high, perhaps even inevitable. I just didn’t want it to happen right away. It was now obvious to me and certainly this old gentleman and all the cows within hearing distance (which was all the cows) that at this I was failing and failing miserably.
I had gotten to the barn at what I thought was the right time in the morning and had met Roger as he walked up to the barn from his house.
“Are you going to take pictures this morning?”
“No, not this morning,” I say. “I thought I would see if I could give you a hand, maybe help you out a little bit this morning.”
“Well, come on in. The old man is in here somewhere I imagine. I’m sure we can find something for you to do.” Roger says this with a wink. It is his typical mixture of mischief and understatement that I find irresistible to this day.
I follow Roger through the milkroom and into the barn. Its dark inside, no lights are on, only the soft light of the growing dawn illuminates the cows. The ‘old man’ is standing Yoda-like, leaning on an old broom, keeping watch in the gloom.
“This is Hugh” Roger says to me keeping his introduction brief.
“This is David Middleton,” he says to the ‘old man.’ “He’s a photographer. He’s here to help us this morning.” With that said, Roger heads for the cows, flipping on switches and grabbing an armful of milking equipment on his way. Roger is not much for small talk when there are cows to be milked. I am left with Hugh.
I try another approach, determined to stand there long enough with Hugh until I begin to make some sense and say something intelligent.
“So, these are the cows.” I say with full volume, realizing, as I say it that I will have to stand here a bit longer.
“Some cows.” I say, practically yelling
“COWS!” I am yelling now. This is in part because the vacuum pump, immediately above our heads, is now running and noisy and in part because I can’t think of anything else to do. Another pause germinates.
Hugh is Roger’s father, 90 years old and still coming to the barn every day and doing what chores he can. He is a squat, solid man, mostly steady on his feet and mostly clear in his mind. A stroke some years ago, an artificial knee, bad feet and nine decades of hard work have taken their toll but his eyes are still bright and his grip is still strong and I adore him.
I had been told about Hugh, warned actually. To the people of Danby, Hugh is known as either that old bastard up on the hill or just that old bastard. But to me Hugh has always been friendly, even charming at times, and always patient. His patience started on this first morning.
“Who are you? What are you going to do?” Hugh asks me, mercifully breaking the silence.
“My name is David Middleton. I am here to help you Hugh.”
“Milton? Milton you say?”
“I’m here to help”
“Milltown,” Hugh repeats and lobs another blob of spit towards the floor.
He says it again, “Milltown, I’ll be god damned, Milltown”
He is smiling now. It occurs to me that either he is having some fun with me or he hasn’t understood a thing that I have said.
As I ponder this Roger comes round the corner, heading to the milkroom to grab another armful of milking stuff, his face covered in a huge smile. As I have struggled, I have seen him over Hugh’s shoulder peeping over the cows at us, shaking his head and quietly laughing.
He has been listening to the entire conversation as he has been doing his pre-milking chores and enjoying every bit of the theater. As he passes me, he puts an old long handled metal scrapper in my hand and says, “Here try this” and nods to the piles of shit behind each cow. “It all goes in the gutter. You’ll figure it out.” He then puts a hand on my shoulder and says in a quiet, chuckling voice, “Welcome to the farm.”