I was never a big fan of cows. They were my least favorite animal on my See ’n Say, and I didn’t like the Fisher-Price farm my grandparents bought me because Pop Pop had tried to make it a realistic farm. He’d purchased over a dozen cows, a flock’s worth of chickens, and only one pig. I liked pigs, so he got it backwards. What was I supposed to do with a bunch of plastic cows?
Photo by Flickr user JelleSMy feelings for cows were cemented in the muddy fields of Ohio after a first grade field trip to a farm outside Columbus. We filed neatly past milking Holsteins as we were lectured on the finer points of dairy production by a mustachioed and nervous farmer. Far from being lovable, the cows were a smelly, cacophonous herd surrounded by shrieking machinery and huge amounts of manure, which they spewed nonchalantly onto conveyor belts as if no one were watching. They were enormous — their massive heads easily the size of my best friend Jennifer’s entire body — and would bray their moos at random. They were nothing like the See ‘n Say, just loud and disgusting.
One such cow mistook our teacher for a salt lick and wrapped its tongue around the sleeve of her jacket. Mrs. Morgan attempted to take it in stride, trying to soothe her startled class with a hearty laugh and a pat on the cow’s anvil-like head, but she began to gag from the sight of the anaconda-like tongue slathering her with bovine saliva, and eventually she tried to pull away from it. When the deterred cow mooed in frustration, inches from her face, she dropped her purse in the hay and ran out, throwing her arms up in disgust. Our class ran out with her, squawking around her legs like barnyard geese as the farmer stood aside, letting us exit and pulling his mustache in perplexed amusement.
I’d never wanted to be a farmer, never understood the boys that claimed they would be when they grew up. But the tongue incident sealed my resolve. We got ice cream that day, and as I licked my vanilla cone clean, I vowed I would stay as far from cows as possible for the remainder of my life. So, I’m sure, did Mrs. Morgan.
Of course I had not planned on my parents moving our family to Morrisville, Vermont — a mecca of sorts for cows — less than a year later. I didn’t much like Morrisville, but overall I was more concerned with my mother’s new obsession with farm living. A farm would be the end of me, I was sure. I lived in a constant state of anxiety as my parents dreamed out loud of refurbishing one of the area’s many abandoned homesteads. I was elated every time they discovered we could not afford one, and I made sure to express my disdain for each one we visited. “That barn looks dangerous,” I’d say, or I’d pretend I had just seen a rat and would shriek like my mother did when she had seen them in Ohio. My parents stopped bringing me along, apparently wanting to fantasize in peace, but I kept up my lobbying for a house in town. It was the clear rational choice: As far from cows as possible, even if you could still occasionally smell them, and about as civilized as Vermont got.
I admitted my fears to my cousin Jody, who responded by regaling me with a tale about his best friend Cory, who had been chased by a bull near his house and was lucky to be alive. “He was almost smashed to smithereens!” my cousin said, a curious gleam in his eye. I shivered and looked behind me in case one was coming. How long would I be safe?
Luckily for me, the hunt for a fixer-upper farm was soon superseded by the harsh realities of trying to raise a family in other peoples’ basements or cheap motels. Mom and Dad were persuaded by their real estate agent to buy a ramshackle Victorian home in town and give up. I was relieved and celebrated quietly with my stuffed animals, forbidding any of them to become farmers.
Towards the end of spring that year, as Mud Season began to dry up, the back roads were finally passable enough for us to take our giant orange Chevelle station wagon out for a Sunday drive without fear of it getting stuck. That year a series of unseasonably warm weather days had hit the state, and thus one fine Sunday afternoon after church, my aunt and uncle, cousins, and family stuffed ourselves into the Chevelle and headed out to a local lake to take in some fresh spring air and have a tailgate picnic by the receding ice. It was a beautiful day, and my cousins, my brother, and I played in the back of the car while my parents and aunt and uncle talked and laughed in the seats. It is truly amazing what a sunny day and balmy 50 degrees can do to a Vermonter. We found ourselves emerging from winter’s icy grasp like so many chattering Narnian squirrels; we had on short sleeves and rolled all the windows down like it was the middle of July.
Suddenly my mother, perched on the front bench seat like an anxious kid and still in her green flower-print church dress, yelled, “JOHN! STOP THE CAR!!!”
Dad slammed on the brakes.
“Look!” Mom pointed to a dark shape in the middle of the road. “It’s a turtle! John, go get it out of the road so it doesn’t get run over.”
“Now Judy, the turtle will be fine.” Dad rolled his eyes and put his forehead briefly on the steering wheel in mock protest. He was used to these flights of fancy by my mother and would tolerate them for the most part, but she had dragged him away from a perfectly useful afternoon of stacking wood in order to drive two families to a lake in his church clothes, and he was hoping for as short a trip as possible. I didn’t give him a chance to continue his protest. Turtles were not something one came across in suburban Columbus very often, and I knew they were safe, unlike cows. I was very excited.
“I’ll get it!” I yelled and vaulted out of the cargo area into the back seat. I piled over my aunt to get out of the car. “I’ll take him into the field!”
Before anyone could stop me, I had flung the door open and was out of the car and on the dirt road. I went around to front of the rumbling wagon to save the turtle. My dad put the transmission in park, and the engine jumped to a smoother, higher note with nothing to strain against.
“Now don’t take too long, son! We don’t have all day!” he bellowed from the car window.
“I won’t!” I grabbed the ovoid, legless and headless shape and walked off the road and nervously into a deserted cow pasture. Fresh from church and a long sermon, I was certain I knew what God wanted me to do: It was my job to brave the cow field and save the turtle. It was rather obvious, I thought. I followed the paths that the cows had made towards some woods that bordered a small creek.
The turtle was like a heavy, Bible-sized book with stumpy, scaly legs. I carried it away from my body with its head pointed to the sky. It was not used to being carried, and once it had lost its initial fear and had come out of its shell, it began stretching its neck out and trying to scrabble its feet onto something hard. I whispered to the turtle that God had brought me to save its life and not to worry because I was bringing it to its new home by the water.
Seven people sat in the car waiting for my rescue mission to end as I rounded a small hill, struggling creature in hand, and dropped out of sight. Dad whistled through his fingers, and then began honking the horn and yelling out the window. “Let’s go, son! Put that damn thing down and let’s go! Don’t make me come out there!”
“Coming!” I lied. I was resolute. I would place the turtle in the best possible spot next to the creek. My father did not understand the full importance of caring for God’s creatures as I did. He was far too busy and possibly not as Christian as I. I was becoming a very good Christian in Vermont, and I knew that Jesus would approve of a mild lie to my father if it were designed to help creatures not as powerful. I had learned so much since we moved, and I was sure this incident was just the beginning of my new, noble life of saving nature. So I continued. And I looked up at God to let him know I was thinking about Him too, and closed my eyes as I had seen our earnest young pastor do so many times in church.
When I looked down, my face frozen in mimicry of reverence and the piety of being certain I was close to God, I realized that I was also near enough to the shore. What I had failed to notice was a small herd of cows lounging in a glade, slightly upstream. They’d found some brand new sprouts of grass and emerging dandelions in their field and were apparently enjoying lunch when I interrupted them.
I searched frantically for the perfect spot to let the turtle go so I could escape. But it was too late. A few cows began walking out of the glade towards me. They were probably only responding to the car horn or Dad’s whistle when they got up to investigate, but I froze in fear. Should I play dead? How did one defend oneself against a merciless cow? My mind raced as they ambled awkwardly, tails swishing and bells clanging, on the paths they had worn into the fields next to the stream. They were coming right for me.
As they tossed their heads and groaned out random moos, it was quite clear to me I was about to be attacked. I shrieked madly, stood in my tracks for a split second longer, then I used the only weapon I had at my disposal to ward them off: I heaved the turtle directly at them with both hands and turned and ran as fast as I could.
I never looked back; I just kept screaming and running, certain the cows were now chasing after me and about to butt me to death. How could God betray me like this? Was this a test? I didn’t understand. I had been very clear with Him about my needs regarding bulls and cows. Had I been betrayed by an angry God? Perhaps I should have heeded my father. Maybe I should stop sneaking to the TV on Saturday mornings to watch verboten cartoons. I breathed remorse through my desperate gasps as I ran.
Around the hill, the car was only 100 feet away, with two startled families staring out the windows at the screaming child running towards them. I was going to make it! Perhaps it was not my time to go. But 10 feet from the car I ran face first into another Vermont hazard nearly as common as cows: An electric fence. The jolt sent me flying backwards, along with the spring action of the wire, and I landed hard on the ground several feet away. I didn’t realize I had been electrocuted; I thought the cows had managed to catch me.
I rolled on the ground shrieking and writhing in pain, imaginary cows with giant horns butting me and trying to stomp on my head. I got up and tried to escape my attackers, but my muscles wouldn’t cooperate. I stumbled right back into the fence and was shocked again by a jolt of electricity designed to contain a creature 200 times heavier than I and was hurled right back into the mud. A mangled scream escaped me, but my body seemed to be held in a seizure and I lay on the ground shrieking and convulsing, sure that I was being killed.
By this time, my behavior had frightened my mother into action and she jumped out of the car, purple scarf fluttering, and ran over to me. Even at a svelte 5-foot-5-inches, she had real Mom Power. She reached right over the fence, grabbed me, and hauled me back over it in one motion to carry me to the car.
“Honey, are you okay?” she asked, shooing my uncle into the front seat with my Dad with a wave of her hand. “What were you screaming about?”
“The. Cows. Were. Gonna. Get. Me!” I blubbered. “They butted me!” I kept crying and was shaking uncontrollably from a strong mix of fear and electricity. Dad watched me for a second, then put the car back into gear, set his jaw, and ferried us silently towards the lake.
“Oh, honey,” Mom said, “you ran into the electric fence. There weren’t any cows out there. See? Look.” She pointed at the field as we drove away and patted down my hair, which was standing on end. A few cows were milling over by the hill near the creek where I had thrown the turtle at them, but none were anywhere near the fence. I was confused. My cousins Tim and Jody were staring at me, wide-eyed.
“Was there a bull like what happened to Cory?” I blurted at them, my voice hoarse and snot running out of my nose.
Jody and Tim looked at me like they might just catch whatever insanity they had just witnessed. Finally Jody spoke. “Seriously? No, dude. You hit the fence and went flying backwards.”
“Mom, is he okay to touch?” Tim asked my aunt.
My Aunt Marsha regarded me for a moment through her Jackie O. glasses, then took them off to address her concerned child with a bemused smile. “Of course he is, sweetie. You can’t get electrocuted from a person. But why don’t we leave him alone for awhile, okay?”
They would go on to heed that advice for many months.