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The Milk House: The walk of shame

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 October 2021

My parents probably thought they had raised me better. They had tried to give me the decision-making abilities that would prevent such disgrace. For it to happen once or twice is one thing – but after too many times, they knew I would get a reputation.

Still, I took the walk of shame over and over again.

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How far away the field stood from the barn was how long I had to think about my mistake. I should have avoided the wet spot. I shouldn’t have turned the plow so sharply. I should have unhooked the wagon on level ground so it didn’t end up halfway in the gulley. Sometimes I could have driven the tractor or attached equipment home to save the walk, and sometimes I couldn’t have. Sometimes I just needed the time to prepare my defense.

There’s a lot of pressure on a kid when he or she learns to operate a new piece of machinery. I was always nervous going around the field with the haybine, planter or chopper for the first time, and even after I got a hang of it I would still drive cautious and slow. I knew the price of equipment I was using and was very conscious of how costly a mistake could be. I carefully watched the ground before the windshield for any danger, as well as the machinery behind me for any signs of something awry.

Still, everything always seemed to break when it was me in the tractor seat.

Having thought about it through the years – usually while trudging along the side of the road with my head down – there seems to be two logical reasons for this tendency toward misfortune. The first is: Because I’m not mechanically minded, I can’t fix small problems on the fly. While my father can make a handy adjustment or rig something together to keep the dirt turning, I can’t. I can stare under the hood of a haybine all day and not get any bright ideas. Therefore, in the end, although I can run machinery just fine, it seems I’m breaking more implements because I’m better with books than wrenches.

The second explanation, however, is more likely: I’m cursed.

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The walk of shame always culminated to an uncomfortable climax: explaining the situation to my father. I’d have to search the barn to find him, and he’d be tinkering with a water fountain or have his hand inside a cow that was freshening. Without looking up, he’d deliver the usual refrains.

“Is the field done already?”

“I didn’t hear the tractor pull in.”

“Must have plowed up pretty easy then.”

And then, as soon as he would have said one of the above, a look of realization would settle over his face and he’d start walking toward the truck.

This year, I came back to the parents’ farm to visit and, ostensibly, to help with the hay. Part of me was worried about the curse – a stretch of wet weather already put the first cutting behind, and I didn’t want to add any more delay in getting it wrapped up. However, I told myself, I’m an adult now. I’m a wise and changed person and one who doesn’t break machinery anymore. I wasn’t going to do the walk of shame again.

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One of the consequences of transitioning from a 200-cow dairy operation to a 40-head beef herd was: Our machinery needs were less. So much so, apparently, that the pull-type haybine my father now uses was made in the same year he graduated from high school. It is old and weathered, but my father assured me it would get the job done if I treated it kindly. And so I did all that and more, going in a painfully slow gear and taking wide gentle turns on the headlands. It would take me longer to finish the field, I knew, but if it saved me from walking, that was fine with me.

And then a hydraulic hose blew.

I was halfway down a windrow and didn’t know why it ripped a hole in the middle to spray oil over the grass. All I knew was that now I couldn’t lift the haybine. I cussed and kicked a tire, but it didn’t change anything. The only thing left to do was tighten the laces on my work boots.

I could have taken comfort in the fact that some things never change, despite the years that pass. I could have looked upon the walk with nostalgia and used it to bring up other childhood memories of being on the farm. I could have chuckled to myself the whole way, savoring the moment with a nod toward the ironic. Nonetheless, it turned out there wasn’t much pressure to do all of that on my trek toward the barn because I would get the chance to take that walk all over again … and again.

After replacing the burst hose with one off the brush hog, I got back on the tractor and took it a few passes around the field – only to have the haybine stop lifting again. I checked all the hoses, the connections and even sat under the sun for an hour reading through the manual. Obviously it lifted perfectly, without explanation, once I retrieved my father. And then, once I was alone again, the second hose blew.

Eventually, I could see my footprints in the field of second cutting I had to traipse through to get to the road. The landscape on that part of the farm started to become annoyingly familiar. There seemed to be a lot of hawks this summer, and I couldn’t help but think that the sounds they made as they went from one tree to the next sounded like laughing.

In the end, it appeared an O-ring had been sucked into the hydraulic system and caused havoc. The fact that the problem was incidental and no fault of my own didn’t do anything to make me feel any better. Instead, it confirmed the hard truth I had always known: Some people were born for the walk of shame.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.

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