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The Milk House: Born to be broke

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2017

What was the first thing the farmer did with his lottery winnings?
Farm until it was gone.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that joke, I could buy a pocketful of lottery tickets myself.

Farming is rife with jest about all the money one doesn’t make doing it. It becomes part of a shrug-of-the-shoulders anthem passed among farmers that suggests if you can laugh at it, it makes it a little better. Growing up on a farm, one gets familiar with the idea that getting ahead is probably a myth and that farming and profit are suited like water and gasoline.

What I never expected, however, is that this sort of curse would stick with a person and follow him off the farm, too.

We were on our way to the 4-H dairy judging contest at the New York State Fair. I was 12 and nervous because I was on the “A” team for the first time. I did my best to stay focused and think of nothing but cattle. We stopped at a McDonald’s for breakfast on the way there.

I ordered an Egg McMuffin sandwich – my favorite. I had eaten half of it when I suddenly stopped chewing.

“What’s wrong?” a friend asked.

I pulled something out of my mouth. It was a human molar.

“Is that a tooth?” the friend asked.

“That’s a tooth,” I said. I checked with my tongue. It wasn’t mine.

I went to the counter and stood there, holding it up. It eventually caught the attention of the manager, who squinted at it to see what it was and then came over.

“I found this in my Egg McMuffin sandwich,” I said. “It’s a tooth.”

“Let me see,” she said. When I held it closer to her, she snatched it from me. “We’ll have our chemist look at it. Thank you,” she said, walking away.

I quietly sat back down and said nothing. Around that time, someone would sue McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on themselves. That person would receive a large settlement. I, for finding a human body part in my meal, was not even offered a free sandwich.

It appears that age doesn’t necessarily make one wiser. The Galway Races is one of the largest – and in some ways – one of the most absurd events in western Ireland. Irish from all over the island come in suits and fancy dress, the women wearing large, embellished hats.

The town is packed for the week in August that it occurs, and most locals stay at home to avoid the madness. Once, however, I went with a few friends to see what the fuss was about.

While the stands themselves were a mirage of formal elegance, to actually bet on any of the horses one had to go behind the stadium, where the bookies were lined up with their suitcases of cash. They had sunglasses, cigars and three-day stubble.

They shifted on their feet and rubbed their hands, looking like a cookie sheet of cheap de Niros. Men with machine guns stood around them, allowing them to swagger next to their exuberant piles of money with confidence.

I was a little nervous walking up to one of them the first time with a small bet, as if I was doing something my mother probably warned me about as a child. Nonetheless, the transaction was quick and impersonal, and he was already looking to the next person in line before handing me my slip.

On the fifth race, a horse that I had placed a 1-euro bet on had scratched. I went to the appropriate bookie to get my euro back. After I handed him my slip, he quickly counted out 24 euros and held it out. He thought I had the winning horse.

It is very difficult to evaluate your worldview and apply it to the nature of morality in a split second. It is problematic to reason out how one’s principles may or may not be in play when ethics face a real-life situation in real time.

It’s hard to repress the simple Sunday school lessons that can be latent and deeply embedded and rear their ideological heads when there is no time to react.

I didn’t take the money.

“It’s just the scratch,” I told the bookie.

The man froze. If he had a cigar in his mouth, it would have fallen out. The stadium was loud and chaotic around us, but all that fell into the background as he stared at me in utter disbelief. It became apparent this was not something that happened often.

Back in the stands, my friends made my mistake apparent. “What’s wrong with you? Those bookies are the scum of the earth.” “He wasn’t going to miss 24 euros.” “He wouldn’t have hesitated to cheat you out of 24 euros.” “If you felt bad, you could have bought us something with it.”

“What can I say?” I told them as my best defense. “I’m just not made to have money.”

I would like to think I caused a bookie to reform his life for the price of only 24 euros, but I probably didn’t. Instead, it becomes another affirmation of what I had already known to be true: I was meant to never be rich.

The farm must have imprinted its hard luck on me when I was young, and the nature of farming follows after me since. I quit bending down for $5 bills, knowing there’s probably a string attached to them. Luckily, in the place of material wealth, the farm also instills one with a sense of humor.

The ability to laugh at yourself might very well be worth its weight in gold. One might as well keep farming until that’s gone too.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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