When I was a kid, my best friend was a boy named Buck. Buck’s family owned a farm. Not a hugely prosperous farm, more of the break-even variety. They owned a beater Chevy pick-up that they used for work, and a beater Fairlane station wagon that they used for going to town. Buck had two little brothers and an older sister. They all lived with their parents in a singlewide trailer house, and when they started to outgrow their space, Buck’s dad tore out a wall on one end and built an extra room. The trailer had a closed-in porch built around the front door – a place to hang coats, and shed muddy boots – and in summer Buck’s mom kept a pair of purple geraniums in matching pots on either side of the entrance. Buck’s parents got their own room, and his sister, but Buck and his brothers had to share. Because Buck was the oldest, he got a separate bed, while his brothers had to sleep in bunk beds. Their room – what they called the bunkhouse – was just big enough for the beds, and when I spent the night, Buck, being a good host, would give me his bed. He slept underneath the bed with a blanket, on the floor.
What Buck’s family lacked in cash, they made up for in dignity. When I think of all the people I’ve encountered over my life, I realize that Buck and his family are among the ones I’ve respected the most. They worked hard on their farm, and, at least in my presence, without complaint. Somehow they managed to give one the impression that they were privileged people. Who wouldn’t want to own a farm and tend it with their own hands? Who wouldn’t want the Biblical satisfaction of planting and harvesting with the seasons, and of raising animals from calves and piglets to an age when they were old enough for slaughter? There was always more work than could be done, and so, in the summers, when I was eleven and twelve, Buck’s family hired me to help them out. They lived about two miles away, and I would get up as soon as it was light and ride my bike to their farm.
By the time I arrived, Buck and his brothers were usually just finishing their morning chores. They slopped the pigs, gathered eggs from the hen house, and fueled the tractor. Buck was in charge of milking their six milk cows, and I would help him pour grain into the bins in the headstalls and wash the cows’ teats before we hooked up the milking machines. These machines were the single modern convenience on their farm – all black rubber tubes and suction and stainless steel – and they were slung like sadistic torture devices under the cows’ bellies. The cows took it all in stride. In fact, they even seemed to enjoy it. They chewed their grain with sublime expressions while the machines went ka-choog, ka-choog, ka-choog at their nether regions.
After milking, we’d eat a quick breakfast and head for the fields. Most of the things we did would be in violation of some child labor law now. We drove a John Deere tractor – what was called a Johnny Popper because of the way it puffed blue smoke rings out its smoke stack – pulling all kinds of implements with swinging arms and whirling blades and chopping hoppers. We cut hay and bailed it and hauled it to the barn. We dug ditches under the hot sun. We stretched barbed wire for fences and trapped gophers. We castrated calves with a pliers-like gizmo called an Elastrator, one of us sitting atop the animal to hold him down while the other worked the brutal tool between his legs. Buck’s dad was around sometimes, but more often than not, he was busy elsewhere, and we were left to do this work on our own. If anything broke down out in the field, we’d tow it back to the shop and weld it back together. The members of Buck’s family were, if anything, self-sufficient.
It wasn’t all hard labor. We were boys, after all. Sometimes if it got too hot, we’d strip off our clothes and jump in the canal to cool off. Sometimes we’d go to check irrigation on our bikes and we’d take the long way because it was fun to ride down a certain hill, or because we wanted to pick a few blackberries along the way. Still, we got a lot done.
But every day at four thirty, no matter what corner of the farm we were working, Buck and I would drop whatever we were doing and head to the house.
A poplar tree stood behind Buck’s house next to a little spring that bubbled up into a trough. We’d wash up and lounge on the grass in the tree’s shade before a stump upon which was perched the family’s television. Buck’s mom didn’t want us in the house with our dirty clothes, and besides, it was too hot inside because she and Buck’s sister were always busy at some heated task like canning peaches, or making raspberry jam. An extension cord snaked out the window to the set, and we’d drink Cherry Kool-Aid while we waited for the commercials to finish before our show. Buck’s brothers would usually join us. And sometimes his sister would come out and sit in a lawn chair to watch.
It’s funny when I think about it now, almost quaint. We could have been hooked on Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, or any number of fancifully premised television programs popular in the day. But the one show we absolutely could not miss was The Brady Bunch.
In this program, a man and his wife live in a large modernist house with their six kids – three boys with curly black hair, and three pretty girls “with hair of gold.” Their house is kept spotless by their housekeeper – a woman with disarming wit and a Hollywood version of down-to-earth wisdom. It is always temperate in their world. It never rains. It is a world without soil. Music plays every time a character walks into a room, and this music is either light and happy, or somber, cueing us to the appropriate mood of the scene playing out before us as we were sprawled on the grass before the television.
I think what was most enthralling about this program for us was that this was supposed to represent reality. And yet, these people never once had cow shit on their shoes. Their living room was so big it would have held four trailer houses the size of Buck’s. And the problems the Brady kids endured were so bizarre – having to decide between joining karate club or scuba club, being traumatized by a bad haircut, having to share responsibility for the family dog – that we watched with a mix of fascination and disdain. Of course, the Bradys represented an idyll. They were held before us as how a family should cooperate while in the throes of diversity and disparate needs. Sure, we secretly wanted to be them. And yet, it was almost impossible not to think – Wow, these people are a bunch of pansies!
Buck and I sniggered at the show’s jokes, endured the family’s dramas, and waited for the scenes featuring our favorite character – Marcia.
Marcia was the oldest daughter. Tall, slim, long blond hair, and a coy smile. Honestly, she was slightly dumb, and generally shallow. But these traits only endeared her to us. We could live with her faults because they came so beautifully packaged. We could see ourselves showing her what life was really all about, maybe even take her swimming in the canal, or just sit holding her hand while watching the sun set over the cornfield. Those, at least, were my own adolescent thoughts. I can’t speak for Buck. But I couldn’t help but notice a certain reverence in his manner whenever Marcia came on the show. He liked her. I could tell.
One day, after the Brady Bunch was over, Buck and I went out to milk the cows before supper. We walked to the barn without speaking. Both of us were still thinking about the program we had just watched, and now it was like stepping through a door from an alternate reality and back into our world. We passed jarringly from clean pretty girls in tight polyester sweaters to a world that smelled of cattle and sweat and dirt.
We herded the cows to their stalls like automatons.
We washed their teats.
We hooked them up to their sucking machines – shluck – shluck – ka-choog, ka-choog, ka-choog.
Buck finally said, “You can go on home, if you want. I can finish up.”
I shrugged, but didn’t leave. It was a matter of honor to see the day to its end.
We stood with the cows. Buck ran his hand along one cow’s black and white hip, and its hide shivered under his palm as if it had felt a biting fly.
Buck’s dad drove by in his pick-up, and we both stepped to the doorway to watch. We waved as the man passed, but Buck’s dad didn’t see, and he disappeared over the hill on his way to change the water in one of his fields.
Buck nodded. “That Marcia sure is a pretty girl.”
“Yeah,” I said. I stood silent for a moment, but then took a chance to say what was on my mind. “I think it’d be fun to really know her, and to show her stuff.”
Buck snorted, and chewed on a little stick of hay. The early evening sun turned his face ruddy. “Yeah. That’d be fun. She sure ain’t like none of the girls around here,” he said. “She’s a real angel.”
We stood for a moment. A haze of dust was settling over the fields and swallows were swooping and looping to catch bugs. With a sigh, Buck turned back to the cows.
After we finished up with the milking, I said, “See you tomorrow,” and rode home on my bike.