The Time I Was a Country Boy

(Memoir)

As much as I tried, I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept tossing and turning in my bed. At 3am I started getting ready for work — I had to show up at the Griffin Memorial Hospital barn at 4am for my new job. I was careful not to wake anyone in the Norman, Oklahoma, rooming house where I was staying. I brushed my teeth, combed my hair, and put on casual clothes, deciding to skip my usual morning shower.

I didn’t have to be super clean to work in a barn.

One week earlier, I had riden to the hospital on my bicycle. It was 1965 and I was in my second year of graduate school at Oklahoma University. My friend Balan was already working there and had recommended that I visit the personnel department to see if they had any openings. The lady there told me that there was an opening in the hospital dairy and if I was interested she could set up an appointment to speak with the manager. I said yes without knowing what the job entailed. I thought it would likely be general help in organizing goods and equipment, packing containers, or some type of clean up. The appointment was made for two days later.

“Are you a city boy or a country boy?” was the first question the manager asked. His name was Floyd. He was a gruff man but not intimidating.

I didn’t know what a country boy was. Did country boys wear jeans and cowboy boots? Did they have rough, weather-beaten features and speak with a twang? I didn’t have a clue. This was my second year in Norman, but my interactions had been limited to students on campus. I had seen a picture on the sleeve of the Oklahoma musical LP in London when I was on my way to the United States. It was of a cowboy wearing a brown suit and a white hat sitting in a horse-drawn carriage with a cover on the top. Was that how country boys were supposed to look?

“You can say I am a city boy, sir,” I replied. I wondered if it was going to disqualify me for the job.

“You look like one,” he said. “Have you ever worked in a barn before?”

“No, sir. But I am willing to learn.”

“Ok,” he said nonchalantly. “When can you start?”

“As soon as possible,” I said.

“Can you start work early in the morning?”

I wasn’t sure what “early” meant for him, but I really didn’t have a choice. I needed to earn some money. In fact, early was better for me because I could get finish before classes started.

“I don’t mind.”

“Ok. Come back to the barn at 4am next Monday and ask for Logan. He will tell you what to do.”

He must have noticed my grim face.

“We have to finish milking by five to supply milk to the hospital,” he said.

I didn’t understand what milking cows had to do with my job. I guessed that I would have to provide assistance in storing milk in cartons or do other chores.

The following Monday morning the roads were empty except an occasional car passing by as I rode my bicycle to the hospital in the dark at 3.30am. Logan was at the barn waiting for me. He was about six feet tall and wore tight-fitting blue jeans, a plaid sports shirt, and work boots. His hair was in a crew cut. He appeared to be in his early thirties. He looked at me from head to toe but didn’t smile. At five feet, four inches and weighing 100 pounds I must have looked like a kid in front of him.

“Ready for work?” he said in a stern voice.

“Yes,” I answered.

He asked me to follow him. We walked a few feet to the cow shed. There were many cows inside —so many that I couldn’t count them all.

“Here’s what we do,” he said and proceeded to wash the udder of a cow with a towel soaked in, I presumed, an antiseptic solution. He removed three to four streams of milk by hand-stripping the teats. Then he pushed one vacuum tube in each of them. The milking was automatic. It seemed simple enough.

milking cow

I had never been close to an animal before. I was afraid the cow would kick me or move away.

I had seen Bagayya the milkman in Hyderabad come to our house every morning and milk the cow in front of us to provide us with our quota of milk for the day. In the early 1960s, in India, there were no stores that sold milk. Bagayya lived a couple of blocks away from our house in Nallakunta. He owned five cows that he took to clients’ homes. I had seen him crouched on the floor in front of our house holding a metal pot between his knees as he squeezed milk out of the cow with his bare hands, both pinkies extended.

I managed to clean the udder of the cow I was assigned to milk. The teats felt like soft rubber hoses. I sat on a stool near the cow and tried to attach each of the four vacuum tubes on the four teats. The first one wouldn’t stay on. Meanwhile, I was holding the other tree tubes in my lap. One of the teats was so pink that I wasn’t sure if it was the natural color or if it was bleeding. I looked around to see if Logan was around, but he had disappeared. At least that spared me the embarrassment.

The cow was calm, busy munching grass in the bin in front of her. That was the only sound I heard in the silence of the dawn. She moved her hind legs a few times, making me nervous each time. I managed to place the tubes on all the teats and waited for three minutes for the milking to be finished. Logan came back and asked me to move on to another cow.

After an hour of milking, I helped with some clean up and was done for the day. I felt good that I had done something different and earned money.

That afternoon when I returned to my room after classes, Mrs. English, the house owner, said the hospital had called and wanted me to call them back. I figured they were going to compliment me for doing a good job in the morning. After all, I’d done well for a first-timer and I would surely improve my milking technique with more practice.

Instead, I was informed that I was not to return the next day and that I would be paid for the hours worked.

I guess I wasn’t enough of a country boy.

Author’s notes:

  1. Bagayya owned buffaloes, but the story says cows to keep uniformity.
  2. Names of the men at the hospital barn were made up to keep continuity.
  3. The picture of the cow was taken from Internet.
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