And I lived to tell the story
A former colleague of mine asked me a simple question after hearing this story and, to this day, his question baffles me more than the story itself.
It all started uncharacteristically early for me one morning in the Latvian countryside. The town was called Rēzekne. There were two train stops – my stop was Rēzekne II. Must have been a sizable countryside town to deserve two train stops, you would think. But back to the story. I got up the day after we arrived. Everybody was still soundly asleep. The time was about 4:30 am. It was important to avoid the lady of the house who took care of her livestock by herself starting around 5 am or so. Nobody knew what I was about to do. To give you a tiny preview, neither did I. And so out of the house I went unwavering in my boneheadedness to turn my thoroughly brainless idea into reality.
We are talking here about me being if memory serves around 7 or 8 years of age. I was always an introspective boy, shy, introverted, finding comfort and endless hours of entertainment in things that immediately surrounded me, and clinging to the few people I was familiar with. I was also a city boy. It was the first time in my life I went to the countryside. And the only few times I saw any animals up close was at the city zoo. Maybe, it was the narrow life experience that suddenly pushed this cautious boy to be brave and go explore new things.
I started to walk towards the cow, metal bucket in hand. Yes, I was going to milk it. I was going to milk it coming straight out of the city, having no prior experience, being sleep deprived, and likely too young for the job. I was going to do it if it killed me.
”Wow, this thing is scary,” I thought.
Despite the mounting fear, I stupidly continued. As I was approaching the visibly uncomfortable cow, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about milking. It did not occur to me at any point prior to stop and check if I knew what I was doing. For example, how exactly do I pull on those swollen teats to make the milk come out? Also, I started to become increasingly aware of the fact that had I known what to do, I still had no idea why I was so hell-bent on doing it. There were so many other opportunities for brave exploration – the giant frogs near the pond, the knee-high mud, cow cakes.
There I was pursuing the matter for the sake of pursuing it, my brain in some sort of free-fall mode unable to stop and reverse the course of stupidity. Initially, I may have thought I would be very helpful, and everyone would thank me later. The lady of the house would get up and see the full bucket, and she would have the best morning of her life when she could relax, dance in the kitchen, sing, and drink milk. Stubbornly, I proceeded while simultaneously trying to convince myself that there was nothing to fear but fear itself as an American President once said. In reality, the saying did not apply to the situation at hand. This cow disaster was unfolding in The Former Soviet Union – I didn’t even know about the American President at the time, it’s just something I am throwing in now. Unfortunately, I was sufficiently dumb back then to forge ahead. Suddenly, and, perhaps, wisely, the cow took off!
That was my brain panicking. I had to do something. The day before, I heard how livestock was the livelihood for the country folk. Losing a cow, I thought, might result in my suffering. With my bare hands, I grabbed the chain that was quickly unwinding in front of my eyes as the cow ran away. I guess I must have decided to stay with the cow until it was safely returned. Or, I may have been trying to go wherever the cow took me for fear of dying at the hands of irate people if I were to stay and tell them what happened. There we were – the pissed-off cow on the run with a young numbskull attached to its chain. Remember that knee-high mud I mentioned earlier? Well, the numbskull was getting lapped up in it. We were crossing rained-on landscape knocking down heads of cabbage left and right, stomping salad leaves, and causing various other vegetation damage. Before long, a small posse of angry village people with scary implements in hand were chasing after us undoubtedly intent on putting a hurt on me. And then something else happened in the midst of all of this that fascinated me even as I was busy fearing for my life – the lady of the house, in her 70s, was running faster than anybody else with a bucket full of special cow food.
“Wow, she can run!” I thought…
“Back to fearing for our life!” My brain commanded…
As the lady of the house caught up with us, she shoved the special food into the cow’s snout and immediately proceeded to milk it. The village people were yelling and demanding to know who I was and whether I was to die then or later. In retrospect, I am not sure my death was a real possibility, but I probably was afraid at the time that it might have been. Those destroyed cabbages and salad leaves did cost them money. I was just standing there covered in inches of thick mud waiting for the ax to fall. The ax didn’t fall. I was being walked back to the house unharmed. I was stunned by my non-death to such a degree that life seemed a sun-lit, happy, flower-filled meadow where I was floating through the air like a carefree butterfly. Shortly afterward, I was ”deported” from the village. Rumor has it, the local newspaper (more of a flyer, really) published a front-page story about the incident.
And that’s how I tried to milk a cow. You can’t make this stuff up. Fast forward about 30 years to when my former colleague asked me that question.
Colleague: ”So, why did you grab on to the chain?” Me: ”What do you mean? I was trying not to lose the animal.” Colleague: “Did you think you could stop a cow that weighs like a ton?” Me: ”Oh yeah, I guess you are right…”
It was the first time that I thought about the absurdity of a seven-year-old boy trying to stop a ton of weight. I was stunned that the thought never occurred to me – not then, not up until now… I guess as I grew up and retold the story I was more interested in the hilariousness of the whole event and not the logical conclusions.
So, what the heck did I think I was going to accomplish by grabbing onto the cow’s chain?… Oh, that’s right – I wasn’t thinking.