Not even in Norman Rockwell's wildest conjurings has there been a more pastorally American scene: a barefoot farmer, stick of straw between her milk-strengthened teeth, whiff of freshly cut hay swirling through the thick summer air.
“Welcome to Walpole,” grinned the Princess Buttercup lookalike (from the early part of Robin Wright’s breakout film, when she was a farmer) as my son Luke and I trundled through the squeaking front door.
“Happy to be here,” we bleated, a bit run down after a traffic impaired jaunt from Boston.
As she showed us to our cabin, accompanied by a chorus of whippoorwills, both the youngster and I began pestering the poor lass with one inquisition after another.
“How many pigs do you have?”
“What’s the cat’s name?”
“When do the roosters wake up?”
Standard city folk line of questioning, I expect. But she handled it with good humor and pretended she was hearing these rookie queries for the first time.
And then, the moneymaker. What we had driven two hours and forty seven minutes to see, being the wild eyed dairy enthusiasts that we are: “Where are the cows???”
Skeptical of our excessive bovine affection, she directed us to circle to the other side of the barn, where we would find no shortage of gently mooing creatures mashing tufts of wet emerald grass between their choppers, arrayed in a rather large field.
My sense of direction is rudimentary, even on my best days, although that overstates my ability to find, well, anything, no matter how obvious it might be to the average traveler. To put some definition around it, the words I fear most in the English language are “you can’t miss it.”
I can. And I have. And I will continue to do so.
One would think that finding a thirty-six acre field with a herd of stench-coated living creatures would be a simple exercise: follow the delicious aroma of cow excrement to the source. Oh no, dear friends. There was a barn in the way. A barn I tells ya! At least four walls by my count, cloaked in forty year old chipped red Benjamin Moore. Roof. Tin, I believe, although my metallurgy skills never went past the introductory level.
In the first pass, I turned away from the barn after a mere quarter-turn, wandering off onto a country road. The honeysuckles were delightful, but nowhere near the cows. By a stroke of luck and twelve years of parenthood, I had a child-guide in my vicinity.
“This doesn’t look right, dad.”
“Why would you say that, son?”
“Well, it’s right if the cows drive an F150, but otherwise…”
The rapidly approaching dust cloud was like the open maw of hell descending upon us to spirit our souls to the nether world.
“Lord Jesus!” I wailed, leaping like a gazelle into a tangle of brambles. A blind, unathletic gazelle, but still.
“You’re a moron,” Luke informed me with a mix of sadness and superiority that can only be expressed adequately in the pre-teen voice.
Thoroughly perforated in parts of my anatomy that had ceased functioning long ago, I extracted myself from my vegetative chains to face my deeply disappointed offspring.
“I coulda sworn that truck was about to flatten me.”
“Dad, it’s a two lane road.” Then, with all the tenderness of a boy ashamed of his parent, Luke gently yanked a nettle as thick as a Louisville Slugger out of my neck, sending a cascade of blood onto my collar that would make a Tarantino film look like an episode of Sesame Street.
“Son of a….!” I squealed like a wounded four year old.
“It’s this way, dad,” Luke instructed calmly. Limping, wounded, woozy from blood loss, I followed obediently.
And there, a mere 6,012 inches from where I had targeted, was The Field. A glistening, glowing, golden expanse of…..
Actually it was just a field. Grass, trees, etc.
At first glance it appeared the cows had engagements elsewhere – mani-pedi or running errands in town. Luke and I trudged down a ravine, through a gulley, over some other topological features.
And then in the distance we caught our first glimpse: the creatures! Life-giving eruptions of deliciousness! Sour cream. Cheese. The splash in my coffee that masks the whiff of Johnny Walker.
Nearly giddy, I began to skip through the field like a Von Trapp child, rapidly forgetting my flayed skin and the grit that was still coating my Tommy Hilfiger polo. And my gums.
As we drew closer, the features on their delightful, gentle, milky-chocolatey faces came into focus. And it was clear why we had not been able to single out any individual cow in the process. They were clumped under the shade of a willow. For some reason they were heaving as if they had just finished a decathlon. A few steps closer, and we could see trails of slime hanging from their snouts. And a suspicious glint in the deep black of their eyes as if we were representatives from a wallet factory.
“Yes, my son?”
“Aren’t cows supposed to have udders?”
First thought: these are very young cows, in the spring of their maidenhood. Any minute now their udders will drop and they’ll be showering cheddar and mozzarella and…..
….wait a minute, they do have something dangling down there. Maybe a kind of proto-udder….?
At the edge of the pack, one of the now obviously he-cows began scraping his hoof on the dirt. In my mind I was transported to a Hemingway novel, except without the hairy chest and high powered rifles. Visions of a bullfighter’s gold embroidered, skin tight sequins and a life-preserving sprint to the gate swirled through my tiny mind. Until I glanced at the gate, more than a quarter of a mile away, and I remembered to my horror that I had not sprinted that sort of distance since my junior high school physical fitness test. Which I failed.
Meanwhile, my lithe twelve year old put his hand gently on my shoulder. Not for reassurance. But to steady himself as he stretched, teleporting himself to Pamplona as he prepared to outrun his overfed father.
But, dear readers, humans evolved to the top of the food chain through guile rather than animalian exceptionalism! When Luke accidentally leaned closer to step into his hammy warm up, I whispered, “Keep smiling….keeeeeeep smiling….”
With all the grace of a funeral celebrant who forgets the name of the dearly departed, an awkward smile-grimace etched into my cheeks, revealing my pearly grays to the herd of bulls. For some reason they had not yet charged, for all their chuffing and hoof pounding.
“Don’t run,” I instructed paternally, “because that will trigger their charge reflex. And they’re a whole heap faster than the both of us. We’re a-gonna back up nice and slow like, so’s we don’t start a ruckus.”
To this day I am unclear why I began speaking like Slim Pickens. I even adopted his affectation of sniffling to punctuate the end of each sentence. Much to my amusement, which was quickly supplanted by abject horror, bulls interpret the human sniffle as an aggressive, even challenging sort of gesture. Generally, they do not respond with kindness.
The first of the bulls began its charge in an explosion of dust and snorting, a shower of bullish snot in its trail. For a moment, a tiny rainbow appeared in the moist haze.
Before admiring the aesthetics excessively, I screeched to my newly-endangered child: “Run!”
Little known fact that is now known, at least to me: bulls can behave like pack animals under appropriate circumstances. Such behaviors can manifest themselves as, say, just for example, totally hypothetically, murderous rampages. A moment after the first bull had shot toward us, a cloud of roughly four thousand like-mindedly demented bulls bolted in our direction. Not like shrieking teenage girls chasing their favorite British pop musicians. Oh no. More like an army of slasher movie antagonists chasing the lost tourists, chainsaws at the ready. Except an entire colony of them instead of a lone psychopath.
Few motivations are as motivational as impending death. The boy raced across the field like a Lamborghini at Le Mans, deftly leaping over hillocks of granite, excrement, ant hills and other horrors of the natural world. For my part, I raced as quickly as a fifty-three year old diabetic with a recent triple bypass is permitted by the laws of God and physics.
The Almighty was with us that day, dear friends. For against all of my detailed calculations, the electrified fence was within our grasp before a single horn could meet my spinal column. In a leap better depicted in a Marvel comic than a silly blog, the youngster was over the fence and benignly into an agricultural safe space.
His father (i.e., me), panting, exhausted, deeply humiliated by lack of conditioning and cardiac-exploding dread, had the same patch of Eden in sight. It was there, glistening, majestic, as beautiful as a plate of crispy bacon on an autumn Sunday morning…..
However, fences with twelve million volts pulsing through them are not the gateway to nirvana, as I soon discovered. A shudder through my vertebrae, into my pelvic bone, clear to the metatarsals. “Son of a mother!” I shouted after instinctively shaking my hands free of the fence. In hindsight, perhaps I should have expected the bulls’ reaction to the sight of a hominid shaking uncontrollably, drooling on himself, as if inside a magic 8-ball when someone really, really wants an answer.
Not just one and then the others, in a natural sort of herd-mentality sequence. It was as if they were part of a single organism, drawn by the same string, whatever mixed metaphors you can conjure to describe several dozen independent creatures who are struck at once with the same thought. Their hooves carved into the dirt, turned up tufts of lumpy black New Hampshire soil.
For my part, wiping my mouth, checking my unmentionables for evidence of any unseemliness (and finding them more or less clean), I opened the gate and calmly walked through it. Although I was exceptionally careful to make sure it was locked behind me.
Hanging in that summer air, I was sure I could hear the sarcastic cackle of Princess Buttercup, “As you wish….”