To make ends meet on our ever-failing farm, in between the morning and evening milkings, Buck laid iron with Iroquois Indians recruited from nearby reservations. He said he loved the work—being outside, climbing and dangling from the substructure of a building. One day my mother and I stopped at a muddy construction site outside Ithaca. What looked like a medium security prison but later turned out to be a Howard Johnson was going up along Route 13. We pulled in and checked around for a sign of my father. Scanning the skeleton of the building, I saw his unmistakable silhouette skipping along an iron beam, two stories up. His arms were flying out from his sides like a tightrope walker in the circus. He seemed lighter than air.
My father left when I was 12. It was a sudden thing, and as far as I know, beyond his travels to increasingly far-off construction jobs, he had given no warning that he would leave home permanently. Our 50 cows were in the field, needing to be milked. A neighbor helped out in the mornings, and my sisters, brother, and I did the second milking when we got home from school. Evening chores had always been a warm, antic time. In between hoisting milk pails, my sisters and I practiced cheerleading routines on the long concrete alley between the cows and sang Three Dog Night songs at the top of our voices. But now the milking became quiet. My 16-year-old brother handled the heavy lifting, and my sisters and I silently went about our business.
We didn’t know where Buck was, but after a few weeks he called from Lowville, a town along the Black River in the North Country. He had taken up with a woman named Joan, who waited tables at a truck stop he frequented while working a construction job in Watertown.
My father told my mother that he had sold our herd of Holsteins. The next day two huge cattle trucks belonging to the Gunzenhauser Dairy in Cortland drove in and took the cows away. It was April and raining a cold, hard rain that was sluicing the last vestiges of dingy snow into the creek. I watched from the driveway as our cows slipped and slid through the mud and were prodded with electric shocks onto the trucks.
Like most farm kids, I had a love-hate relationship with our cows, but when they were gone I found I missed them terribly. They showed up in my dreams, roaming through my mother’s flower beds, lowing quietly, and letting me know that we had failed them. Our old red barn was like a cathedral looming over the landscape. It was the size of an ocean liner with enormous rooms, milking parlors, and lofts. After the cows left, I couldn’t go inside it.
We had an auction. The Munson family ran all the auctions in our area, and they handled things. About 100 people crowded onto the property just outside the entrance to the barn. Glenn Munson, who was a junior at our high school and had muscular dystrophy, called the auction in a speedy high-pitched singsong auctioneer voice, swaying back and forth in his wheelchair like Stevie Wonder at the piano. Our neighbors bid on our rusty farm implements, milking equipment, even the leftover hay stacked in our barn, and loaded our worldly goods into their pickups.
Later in school, whenever Glenn wheeled by in the hallway, I felt him looking at me compassionately.