The back door opened and the chore crew came in for supper. Mom asked me to get the milk out of the refrigerator and place it on the table as she removed the roast from the oven that had been making the house smell so delicious. I swung the refrigerator door open and reached for the one gallon plastic pitcher that was off white in color from use and many trips to the barn. Expecting the pitcher to be full I lifted it only to find it was nearly empty. The sip of milk that was left wasn’t even worth putting the pitcher back into the refrigerator.

There was a system in place with regard to who was supposed to keep the milk pitcher full. It was simple. If you were on chore duty you were to check the pitcher before you went to the barn to see if milk was needed. If the pitcher was emptied at a meal it was washed and placed on the end of the counter near the hallway ready for the trip to the barn. If you emptied it between meals then you needed to wash it and set it on that counter. The other trick to getting the milk to the house was remembering to grab it after the chores were done. My sisters and I failed at every level of keeping the milk pitcher full. Arguments would erupt as to whose turn it was to get the milk. Mom, while putting the meal on the table, would have to sort out which daughter would have to run to the barn and fill the pitcher.

If you were the one with boots on when the empty pitcher was discovered you would be the one to go. By the time I realized that the pitcher was empty the chore crew had already made it to the bathroom and they were washing up. Even without looking at my mom I could feel her pleading gaze. I didn’t make eye contact but exhaled deeply, let my shoulders drop and headed straight to the back door. As I bent over the lowest end of the bulk tank and opened the gate valve to fill the pitcher another milk memory popped into my head.

Our bulk tank attracted others including our minister, Reverend Brown, who made the trip to our farm each Sunday evening to pick up milk for his family. With ten children, Reverend Brown and his wife lived in Earl Wisconsin fifteen miles to the northeast. They had a van the size of a bus to hold a family of twelve and that van doubled as transportation for picking up Sunday school participants. I don’t think that my parents charged for the milk. It was something that they could do to support the pastor and his family serving our little country church.

We were just finishing chores when their van pulled into the U shaped driveway and parked next to the milkhouse. As I was sweeping the feed into the cows one last time, I peeked out the window and saw that it was just the pastor and four of his children including the youngest one still in diapers. He unloaded his containers as the children ran into the barn. Milking was finished and mom was in the milkhouse washing the milkers so she was able to fill Reverend Brown’s containers with fresh milk. Of course my sisters and I always loved it when we had visitors and could show them around the barn.

The cows stood in two rows of stanchion stalls that faced either the rising or setting sun with a large walkway running between them and down the middle of the barn. A gutter with the barn cleaner chain skirted the walkway on all four sides and lay directly below the cow’s tail. Hours were spent on that cemented surface as we slowly leap frogged our way down the two rows with six Delaval milking machines both morning and night. The walkway was scraped and limed at the end of the day in hopes that it would be semi-clean at dawn. The gutter filled with manure was emptied via the barn cleaner chain in the morning.

We were showing our friends the new kittens we had just found when questions arose of how to milk a cow. What do you mean you don’t know how to get milk out of a cow? We just assumed that everyone knew how to milk a cow. To help solve the mystery we decided to demonstrate on a real cow. And that’s when it happened.

My sisters and I knew from experience which cow would be the best one to milk. Her name was Bobbie and she had a nice tight udder with teats that were the perfect size. If the teats were too small you couldn’t get enough fingers around them to easily milk and if they were too long you didn’t have enough fingers to work your way to the end of the teat.

The lesson was like a church service that evening, with the cow as the pulpit and one of my sisters emulating the Reverend. She was working on her prelude massaging the udder, in hopes of mustering up enough milk to make the sermon worth waiting for. Bobbie was as patient as a saint eating her hay and glancing back at us to see what was going on. As the parishioners gathered around her tail to watch one of God’s miracles, the youngest parishioner backed up. His eyes were wide open and his little hands covered his mouth not knowing whether to laugh or scream. As the first stream of milk left the pulpit the youngest parishioner landed in the gutter on the other side of the walkway. Yes a gutter nearly full of manure.

We had a baptism and a sermon all at the same time. He was swept away by his siblings into the milkhouse for his second baptism, this time with water. The poor kid was stripped down to his diaper and washed. His clothes were placed in a plastic bag to help contain some of the smell. Shortly thereafter the van was loaded and they were on their way. Mom was concerned that we had done something to provoke the situation. She knew that we were not angels all the time. Once the memory of that smell disappeared our families laughed about the baptisms for years.

Smiling to myself I finished filling the milk pitcher and turned the gate valve off. I left the milkhouse with a full pitcher of milk. On my way up the hill to the house I did, however, make a mental note of date and time that I had made that special trip to the barn for milk as a “get out of jail free card” to be played at a later time.