Sunday, October 19, 2008

Norwegian Farmers and their (nearly) Famous Barn Cats

My relatives on my father’s side are all Norwegians, and when I was a kid we had cousins that still lived on the farm. Some who were in my grandparents’ generation still spoke with a Norwegian accent and used some Norwegian expressions. Our cousins who were my grandparents’ or parents’ age were all addressed as “Aunt” and “Uncle”. Aunt Boletta and Uncle Omar had a dairy farm on which they kept about 30 cows (pronounced “caus”); they were the second generation in the family to work that farm. (Aunt Boletta and Uncle Omar may have been my only Norwegian relatives on my grandfather Lund’s side with a sense of humor, although that’s perhaps another story.) As a very young boy I was occasionally brought to visit them on their farm.

A dairy barn is a magic place to a city kid. The size of the barn alone was nearly overwhelming—it was built to last, entirely out of oak with beams still bearing the marks of the saw cuts made 70 years before I walked inside it. Ten-inch oak boards covered the sides and made up the expansive roof, which was covered on the outside by cedar shingles. It was an enchanting place, the smell of the hay and the old oak, the sounds of the animals, and all the tools carefully arranged on the walls. The hay loft was even larger than the lower portion of the barn. Climbing up over the stacked bales of hay that nearly filled the high vault was like climbing a mountain. There was always a litter of kittens hidden somewhere in the hay loft, but even here they couldn’t be safe. On a narrow ledge near the peak of that vast space sat a huge barn owl on her nest, silently watching anything below that moved.

Only after being strictly instructed that I must stick close and do exactly as he said, was I allowed to follow Uncle Omar around the barn as he milked the cows. Being around large animals like cows was dangerous and required caution and good sense. It was winter, and the cows positively steamed, giving off a thick, heavy, sweet odor I’d never smelled before. The lower part of the barn that housed the cows and dairy machinery was remarkably clean and had recently been painted white, adding the smell of linseed oil to the other layers in the air. Uncle Omar ‘introduced’ me to the cows tethered in their stalls; each one in the herd had her own name and of course personality. They were the biggest animals I’d yet seen up close. He carefully told me how to avoid getting stepped on or kicked. The cows looked neither friendly nor mean; just absolutely huge. As I stood nearby, each cow seemed to take in my appearance with apprising eyes the size of saucers. He let me try to milk a cow by hand, first showing me how he did it, as he filled a tin cup in less than a minute for me to drink. I’d never had fresh milk still warm from a cow. Then I tried milking the cow. It was Impossible; no matter how hard I squeezed nothing happened. He smiled at me, and we both laughed.

I watched Uncle Omar methodically hook the cows up to the milking machine, one cow at a time (hardly anyone milked cows by hand any more by the mid-fifties). He was a large, powerful man who worked with a grace and gentleness you wouldn’t expect from such a big man. The individual tubes from the cows’ udders joined into a single line that drained into a large vat. An electric motor drove the machine, which was basically a sophisticated suction device. Aside from the steaming cows, it was the only source of warmth in the cold barn. The electric motor was connected to the drive shaft on the milking machine with a large, circular leather belt. This is where the term “belting leather” comes from—heavy duty stuff. When the milking machine was running, that belt turned over fast.

Now, every barn has cats—it’s an ideal set-up. The cats get food and shelter, and the farmer is relieved of the rats and mice that would otherwise infest the barn; sort of its own little ecosystem. I’m standing there watching Uncle Omar, and I look up at the top of the milking machine and see the biggest, bad-assed orange cat I’d yet seen in my young sweet life glaring down at me. If that cat could have talked, when he caught me looking up at him he would have said something like,

“What’chu lookin’ at, city kid? I’m a barn cat, see—and I do as I please. Piss off, candy-ass!”

As startled as I was, I couldn’t help but notice something unusual about him. As he lay on the edge of the milking machine, I saw that he had a little nub on his butt in the place where his tail should be. This nub was twitching like an orange button that had somewhere to go. As I turned back towards my Uncle, I saw another cat standing near the wall—also without a tail—a terrible, scowling, black and white cat the size of a Springer Spaniel. If he’d been given the facility for speech as well [this one would’ve had a Norwegian accent and no doubt descended from Jotunheimen Mountain Trolls], he might have said,

“Lili Doofken!--Grrrrr! I eet rats baigger dan yue fur brekfust!--Heissss!!”

This little boy from the suburbs was getting the impression that these barn cats were definitely not pets, and that they sure didn’t think much of me. I didn’t ever want to be alone in the barn with them, ever. As young as I was, I still didn’t want to admit to Uncle Omar that they scared me to death.

“Uncle Omar?” [Gulp] “Those cats sure are big—and they don’t have tails!”

“Oh—Ya Vell, Ve gotta spe’shool breed’a kat heer, doncha’ know. Dey’re bourn vee’tout tels—Ya den, I spos’ dey’ll be fae’moos som dey, hmm?”

I couldn’t believe my incredible luck to become acquainted with this rare and barely discovered breed of cats. I asked Uncle Omar if I could go inside and talk with Aunt Boletta about their special breed of cats. I waded through the chickens (if they were alot bigger, and if they weren’t so stupid, they might be scary too), out the barn door (taking care to close it behind me) and ran through the snow to the farmhouse.

I let Aunt Boletta know that Uncle Omar had let me in on their secret—their special breed of tail-less barn cat—and I hoped that they would enjoy becoming famous.

“Vat 'arr yue taukeng a’boat, jung man?”, Aunt Boletta smiled. She had a lovely, kind, and charming smile—years later when I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film, I decided that Boletta looked like Liv Ulmann all those years ago. She patiently listened to my account of meeting their tail-less cats. Finally, she couldn’t keep herself from laughing.

“Oh, det Omar—hees such’a keed'r!” She told me how my Uncle had just been teasing me, and explained the nature of what I’d really seen: In the winter, barn cats like to sit close to the milking machine because it’s warm. Unfortunately, there’s that long, heavy belt on top going around and around very fast. Anyone who’s watched a sitting cat will get the picture—how a cat naturally swishes its tail back and forth, back and forth. A cat sitting in the wrong place (close to the moving belt where it enters a gear on top of the milking machine) swishing its tail at the wrong time, gets caught in the belt.

One of two things happens: (a) the cat is pulled into the milking machine gears and dies a quick and violent death, not unlike when they crawl under the hood of a car to sleep on a warm engine and then someone goes out and starts the car, or (b) the cat’s tail gets quickly amputated—sparing the cat, who uses up at least one of its nine lives by surviving. Of course, you don’t see the dead cats skulking around the barn—and thus the illusory appearance of a barn populated by a ‘breed’ of cats without tails. Come to think of it, having sustained the shock and surprise of a violent tail amputation might have had something to do with the survivors’ disposition. I felt sorry for the cats that died; but my Aunt and Uncle were good and kind people—and for this reason I could accept their matter-of-fact attitude that they (like all farm people) needed to have about the life and death of animals that after all were not pets.

I sat at Aunt Boletta’s kitchen table and smiled as she said, “Var sa godt” and passed me another gingerbread cookie. (Say, “Var-sha goo”--literally “Be so good”. It’s a useful, all-purpose Norwegian phrase, meaning something like, “Here ya go.”)

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