teachable moment

Tolerance of Cow Manure Between Your Toes

When I promote my stories on social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest – I know that I will get a good handful of followers to click on my story if I use this picture of Mom and Dad’s barn: People love it.

I look at the photo and think about 48 years of stories that could be written about this barn.  Now, having 9- and 11-year-old sons and living in the city, I have stories bubbling in my head with a common theme: tolerance.  Of fresh cow manure between your toes.  Of picking up eggs from underneath a mean setting hen.  Of keeping two paces ahead of a mean, nasty, spurred rooster.

When I take the boys to Iowa, my senses keenly pop open looking for experiences that get close to these.

Lately when I shamelessly post the picture of this beautiful barn, I have a flashback to a winter when I was around the same age as my sons.  And the setting was near the barn, specifically at the hydrant.

The base of the hydrant is surrounded by straw insulation to keep the pipes from freezing.  When the temperature drops and stays below freezing, the insulation can fail.  Back then there was no water heater in the tank.  A  pipe with a little basin at one end hooked over the hydrant and a long tube ran through the gate to the water tank.  The pipe was shaped the same as the one my grandpa used to smoke.  If water froze in the base of the hydrant, it needed to be manually thawed so the cattle could get water.

The etching on my mind: I was standing on the south side of the hydrant facing the barn.  Dad stood on the north side of the hydrant with his back to the barn.  It was late afternoon and Dad was using a blow torch to thaw the hydrant.  The sun was sinking, the temperature was too cold, and the wind chill was spectacular.  And I stood there helping.

However, I have absolutely no recollection of how I was helping.  After the sun sank, then perhaps, I held a flashlight.  The memory is so visceral I want a winter coat to protect me from that crazy cold.  We were out there for well over an hour.  Me standing, watching.  Dad silently, stoicly working.  I can’t imagine I was much help.  The cold ate at me as I hoped Dad would give up and call it a night.  He didn’t.  I remember thinking, “I’m not helping at all.  Why can't I go in the house?”  But I couldn’t move.  My feet stood firm next to my Dad.  How could I walk away and leave him out here by himself?

Last week, an Iowa opportunity arose in Massachusetts.  After a loud squabble in the back of the van on the drive home from school, I confiscated the iPods.  I sent Will into the house to do homework, and I took Liam outside with me to take down dead evergreen boughs and unwrap the 10 strings of 100 lights from them.  I was so hot that I didn’t ask, I didn’t use manners, I told:  “You are coming outside to help me.”

Our twinkle lights looked awesome in our 100 inches of snow this winter.  I had put a whole afternoon into putting them up.  Now, the transformation away from winter was more laborious.  I gave Liam a bough to unwrap.  “How do I do this?!?”  Start at one end.  “I’m never going to finish this!”  Keep going.  “OK, I’m done.”  No you are not; we’ll work on this one together.  “Look, now we’re done!”  No we are not; now we move to the front.  “More?”  Yes.

The boughs in front came down much easier.  As I freed each set of lights, I sent it with Liam to put it on the deck at the back of the house.  With only two sets left to untangle, Liam said, “Am I done now?  Can I go in?”  No, hold this string of lights.  It was a bundle of lights that really didn’t need to be held.  I needed his feet held to the ground to see the end of this project.  Liam held it, not knowing why he needed to hold it.

Scraps of needles scattered all over the steps.  I swept with a big barn broom and told Liam to pick up the little clusters of needles on the ground.  I watched as he scuffed them into the snow.  “Whatever you don’t pick up now, you will be picking up after the snow melts.”  He uncovered them and picked them up.  I pulled the dead wreath off the door.

We carried the wire cutters, broom, lights, boughs, and wreath away from the front.  “OK, I’m done!” No, not yet.  Wisps of steam escaped from his ears.  In the garage, I found the spring wreath.  I gave it to Liam to carry to the front door.  I told him it was a crown, and he put it on his head.  “OK,” I said, "turn it any way you like and hang it on the nail.”  He did.

“Now, every time we come home and you see our front door, that wreath will remind you how much you helped today.”

Liam comments on the wreath every day.

 (There will be some aspects of growing up in Iowa that my kids will never know, no matter how often they visit.  The whole "chicken experience" is one chasm between my farm experience and theirs.  The Fowl Story is not for the faint of heart.  If you ever helped your family butcher chickens, it might give you a chuckle!)