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Dairy Farming in 1948  A Memoir -1-

VIGNETTES Dairy Farming in 1948

May 30, 2018



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  • 8/9/2019 VIGNETTES Dairy Farming in 1948


    Dairy Farming in 1948

    A Memoir


  • 8/9/2019 VIGNETTES Dairy Farming in 1948


    Dairy Farming in 1948

    A Memoir

    In 1947 I transferred from Boston Latin School to Jamaica Plain High School, to pursuecollege preparatory studies in animal husbandry. Id decided I would one day raisehorses.

    In June of 1948 I completed my junior year with good grades, but full credit forthat year wouldnt be mine until I had earned my work credits. This meant that, forthirty dollars a month plus room and board, Id spend the summer at hard labor on adairy farm in central Vermont. (This was the going wage for cowboys during the mid-

    1800s, and theymay have worked as hard as I was about to, but I doubt it.)From a housing project in South Boston to a dairy farm may seem a wrenching

    relocation, but Id always been fond of forest and stream. Not that Id have much timeto enjoy them, as it turned out.

    Aside from a cinder in my eye that felt like a pebble, I recall little of that traintrip, my first, but it seems to me I left Boston's North Station on the Boston & Mainerailroad, and at some point changed to the Vermont Central. Just after noon the nextday, belching soot and hissing steam, the old locomotive chuffed into Randolphstation, hauling a motley train of passenger cars predating World War I. This train,

    Vermont Central's best, was symptomatic of a nationwide fatal decline in railroadpassenger service. Sleeping cars were commonly referred to as "rolling tenements."Ninety percent of them belonged in museums. Most of the day-coaches belonged onscrap heaps. Railroad owners blamed the war, but long before 1941 the emphasis

    was already on freight, the goal a quick return on investment. Only nine hundred newsleeping cars had been built in the last sixteen years, most of them for the private (andpresumably business) use of the twenty-five largest railroads. Railroad managementrefused to invest in new rolling stock for passengers. The shortsighted greed ofexecutives and major stockholders was ruining America's railroads.

    I detrained and stood gazing at the Green Mountains, which loomed at the edgeof town like a verdant glacier. Obscuring the sun with a cloud of stinking black coalsmoke, the old locomotive lurched ahead and took up the slack. Crashing blows ran

    the length of the train and were reflected back to the locomotive, then the train startedup the grade, its ancient passenger cars squealing and groaning. Slowly thelocomotive gathered speed, its big drive wheels alternately grabbing and slipping,grabbing and slipping, its engine laboring then racing, and steam spurting fromexhaust valves with a rhythm sounding for all the world like a soft-shoe dancer doing asand shuffle.


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    I watched the train make the grade and chug out of sight around a thicklywooded curve, then I turned and looked over the town. It was a small town, a villagereally. I inhaled the clean piny air, and watched a big hawk turning stiff-winged spiralshigh above the tracks. Another boy might already be missing the city, but aside fromBilly and Whitey Bulger's beautiful sister, Jean, who for Christmas received a bath

    powder and cologne set that left me impoverished for two months, there was nothingin South Boston to hold me. On his deathbed my brother told about Whitey Bulgerchasing me down the street with a knife. I don't recall this, and Jim was heavilydrugged, but if it happened, it may have been because I had the temerity to knock onthe Bulger apartment door and gift his sister. Lord, she was a beauty, reminiscent ofEva Marie Saint in my memory. (Shed later be voted the prettiest girl at South BostonHigh School.) I doubt Jean even knew my name. She accepted my gift, though.

    A mud-caked jeep pulled into the train depot parking lot. Out stepped a rangylong-nosed man with a red creased neck. He was wearing a peaked cap and bibcoveralls, both striped like mattress tick. Sweaty half-moons darkened the armpits ofhis faded blue shirt. His rolled-up sleeves exposed thick hairy wrists. He raised ahand. "Jerry Gormley?"

    "Yes sir." I walked to the jeep."How do," the man said, extending his hand. "Howard MacDougall." The

    farmer was several inches taller than me, well over six feet. We shook hands. "I wasjust about to go get a cold drink," I said.

    "I'm losin' considerable work time as it is.""It was a long hot train ride. I'm parched.""Do tell." MacDougall gave me a crooked little grin and got into the jeep. Now I

    understood what a high school senior had meant when he referred to the compulsoryfarm work as white slavery. I threw my duffel into the back and got in. We left town

    on a dusty unpaved road that wound through cultivated green valleys flanked bywooded hills. Each farm we passed looked pretty much like the ones before it; atree-shaded white clapboard house set back from the road, a raw weathered barn andstable on the opposite side of the road, herds of cows grazing some distance from thebuildings, narrow stands of high trees forming windbreaks between fields, and stone

    walls marking property lines and subdivisions. All at once I missed the sea, itsabsence more palpable than its presence had ever been for me. Most of all, I missedits cooling breezes and exotic aromas.

    The train ride had been long, hot and dirty, my shirt was plastered against myskin, my temper was badly frayed, and all I could smell was manure. I commented onthis to MacDougall, who flared his nostrils and took a deep breath, as if smelling hisenvironment for the first time. "Oh, you mean the dressin'."

    "Dressing?""Manure.""I thoughtmodern farmers used chemical fertilizer.""Sure we do, but manure's free."


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    "Andplentiful, by the smell of it. Any kids my age here?""Nearest one's a fur piece.""How big a farm do you have?""Six hundred acres.""How many cows?"

    "Thutty head, 'bout twenty fresh, t'others heifers." A pickup passed, blinding uswith dust. "Ro-ud's gettin' a mite dusty," MacDougall observed. "Time fer anothaoilen'."

    MacDougall's speech, laced with idiom and farming jargon, was made all themore foreign by a twanging sing-song drawl. I understood barely half of what the mansaid. I said nothing more for the rest of the trip.

    We passed a dozen farms, then he parked the jeep under two soaring oak treesand said, "Heuh 'tis." An old black and white collie slunk out from beneath the porchand approached us with head low and tail wagging sheepishly. I knelt and greeted thedog, which wriggled and whined as if seldom petted. "She's a work dog," MacDougallsaid with obvious disapproval.

    "Does that mean I shouldn't pet her?""Jes' don't coddle her."

    A boy and girl, towheads both, came out of the house and stood staring at me,their faces screwed up against the sun's glare. The boy was about twelve, the girleleven. "My boy Howie," said MacDougall. Then, like an afterthought, "And this here'sSam." The girl smiled and said, "Short for Samantha." The boy tugged at her halter andsaid, "Sam wore her new tit holders jes' fer you." The girl giggled. Feigningnonchalance at the boy's language, I squatted in front of the girl and told her she wastoo pretty to be called Sam. Blushing, she locked her arms behind her and swungfrom side to side, then dabbed a kiss on my cheek and ran giggling into the house.

    Her brother said, "Mush," and headed toward the barn.I was introduced to Mrs. MacDougall, a florid sweaty woman of ample

    proportions, then was shown to my room and given an hour to unpack and change. Ihung my good clothes in the old chifforobe, donned a blue denim shirt, dungarees and

    work boots, then went out to the kitchen and said I was hungry. Mrs. MacDougall,who ended most declarative statements withheh-heh -- "Lunch was over an hour ago,heh-heh" -- fed me a cold baked-bean sandwich and a large glass of what looked likemilk. I gagged. "Whatis this stuff?" The woman gaped. "Land sake, boy, you mean tosay you never drank milk afore?" I was accustomed to thinned-down pasteurized citymilk. This was whole raw milk, so thick and flavorful that it took some getting used to.

    MacDougall took me out to the stable and showed me how to harness the bigdraft mares, Cleo and Cloe. They had to be harnessed with Cleo on the left becauseshe was going blind in her right eye. Cleo immediately asserted herself by standing onmy foot. MacDougall grinned as I cursed and grabbed the horse behind the knee withboth hands to lift her big hoof. Cleo feigned innocence, then nipped me when I turnedmy back.


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    The other mare nickered and nuzzled my neck. I liked the oaty smell of herbreath and the velvety skin of her muzzle. As with Samantha, it was love at first sight.

    Having often harnessed the milkman's horse when I helped him deliver milk inthe city, I was quick to master the double harness. We hitched the mares to a wagonand rode up a hill behind the house to a potato field where MacDougall told me to

    pick rocks and add them to a stone wall in progress. He explained how tovoice-command the mares. Come up, girls meant go ahead. Come up a step meantjust this. Back, girls. Back a step, girls. Hawfor left turn,gee for right. Back haw,back gee. And the only familiar terms,stay andwhoa. "Don't back-turn 'em too sharpor you'll bust my wagon tongue." MacDougall turned and walked back down to thebarn.

    I soon discovered that the place smelled of a lot more than manure; my nostrilscaught the fine Christmas-tree scents of pine and spruce, the semenlike aroma ofnewmown hay, and a variety of wildflowers combining their fragrances into one finenosegay. I liked working alone with the mares. Working with horses alwaysestablished an ancient sense of pace. A few modern conveniences aside, I hadstepped back into the nineteenth century.

    The frost heaves of winter had raised a good crop of rocks. By sunset, whichcame early in the valley, I had added three wagonloads to the wall, at no time usingthe reins. MacDougall returned and grunted his approval of the wall's growth, then werode back to the stable. While I curried and fed the horses, MacDougall stood outside,hands cupped to mouth, calling "Kaboysh," a call evolved over generations from Come

    bossie. Each farmer had his own version, to which only his cows would respond. Thisavoided confusion on neighboring farms.

    From their day pasture a quarter-mile downhill, brown and white Ayshire cattlecame head-bobbing up the lane. First came those in need of milking, their udders so

    swollen that the cows had to walk with hind legs splayed. Next came heifers not yetfreshened. The collie was sent after a few heifers lallygagging in the pasture. The olddog circled down through the tall alfalfa, got behind the heifers, and drove themkicking and cantering up the lane. MacDougall said, "That's okay fer heifers, but mind

    you cain't let 'er run milk cows. Bloodies the milk and we hefta dump it."With cupfuls of nutty mash the children enticed the cows into stalls and closed

    stanchions around their necks. Most of them seemed to have been waiting for thisopportunity to defecate. Their dung, loosened by green fodder, splashed and stank. I

    wrinkled my nose and grimaced. One cow tried to kick me. Two put the squeeze onme. It took all my strength to push them apart. "They're testin' you, boy. Jes' show'em who's boss."

    The next cow that kicked me got a left hook to the rump that made her bawland favor the leg for a while. MacDougall glared. "I an't ahter sayin' break theirgoddam legs."

    We washed the cows' teats, slipped suction cups over them, and by means of avacuum pump drew the milk into a stainless steel collector, which we emptied


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    through paper filters into big milk cans, which were refrigerated for pick-up by thecreamery truck. Each cow gave some fifteen quarts morning and night. The machinemilked two cows at a time, but left in each a quart or two, which had to be strippedout by hand. I stripped out only seven cows to MacDougall's thirteen, yet at dinner myfingers were so stiff that I could barely use knife and fork.

    Mrs. MacDougall's cooking was, like herself, plain but abundant. Each week'sculinary high point would prove to be Saturday evening franks, baked beans andbrown bread, eaten on the porch from paper plates so that the Missus could get ahead start on prettifying herself for the Grange Hall dance.

    After dinner I was shown how to care for twenty hens and a young pig, then thechildren took me up into the loft to see their pet rabbits. To my amazement, Howieasked, "Didja ever see rabbits fuck?" When I said no, he let a buck mount a doe. Aftera brief but furious coupling, the buck fell onto its side, screaming. Samantha lookedup at me, her face the picture of dead-pan innocence. "Sure looks like fun, don't it,

    Jerry?" I said I was tired and went to my room.

    Each day followed the same hellish routine -- arise at five AM to the blare ofradio march music, do the milking and other morning chores, then eat breakfast, thentake the horses into the forest and spend the rest of the morning harvesting cedars fora silo MacDougall planned to build. It was back-breaking work, wielding the two-mansaw, sledge-hammering big iron wedges into the cut to keep it from binding the saw,then limbing the felled trees with heavy double-bladed axes. The heat made me reel,but MacDougall would suffer no rest periods until a log was as clean as a whistle andready to haul. The farmer, thirty-five if he was a day, set such a demanding pace, and

    with such ease, that I was damned if I would let the old man show me up. Thisseemingly modest man showed a prideful side, an inward yet manifest exultation that

    The two-man saw has been around since the middle ages. This is called a 'cross-cut' saw becauseits designed to cut across the grain, for example, to fell a tree. A 'whip saw' or 'rip saw'

    would cut with the grain to make lumber. Note the combinations of teeth and 'rakers'. The teeth

    cut. The rakers scrape the cuttings away. Every saw must address two problems; cutting, and

    purging the sawdust from the cut without binding up the saw in the process. This isnt easy with

    a two-man saw designed to cut in both directions.


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    he could perform the most arduous tasks, sufferthe worst heat and biting insects, all withoutcomplaint. This attitude was common amongfarmers then. They wore the evidence of theirhard life like a badge of membership in an

    exclusive fraternity.I had no desire to join this brotherhood of

    sweat and pain, but I suffered in silence just towipe the gloating grin off MacDougall's face. Eachmorning we felled and limbed two large trees,skidded the logs out to the road with horse-drawnchains, and stacked them for later transport to asawmill.

    Between fellings we visited one of thefarm's many springs. Never had I tasted anythinglike cold spring water, fragrant with leaves andevergreen needles. I often saw deer tracks in themoist earth edging the springs.

    Despite MacDougall's occasional referenceto "bars" and a cougar dubbed the Randolph Panther, I felt very much at home in theforest. One morning I could have sworn I saw something watching me from a nearbythicket. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and looked again, but whatever I had seen

    was gone. Lest I give the farmer gloating license to say that the city slicker would soonbe seeing cougars and bears behind every tree, I said nothing.

    Even worse than logging was haying, for this was done in open fields, in thebroiling sun, and would continue through much of the summer, each field yielding two

    crops of alfalfa and clover. The hay was mowed with a chattering cutter bar, left todry, then gathered into windrows with a rotating side-delivery rake. Mowing machine,rake, and wagon were horse-drawn. All other work, including mowing with scythes

    what the machine missed, and pitching the dried hay onto the wagon with four-tinedforks, required considerable manpower and sweat. The only powered farmequipment consisted of the milking machine and the jeep.

    Howie spread the hay on the wagonwhile Samantha rode on the driver's seat,giggling whenever I looked her way. Each loadof hay brought in from the fields had to bepitched again from wagon to haylofts in thebarn. It was hot dusty work. The remedy fordust-parched throats was vinegar water, drunkfrom a common one-gallon jug slung beneaththe wagon.

    As weeks passed and the lower lofts filled

    Felling axes

    Summer 1948. Me, Dolly (who disliked me), &already antique haying rake. By this time I hadmuscles in my stools, and spoke like a fahmah.


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    up, the hay was lifted to the upper lofts by a jeep-powered track fork which carried athird of a wagonload. As each big load came rumbling along the track and I yanked atrip line to drop the hay, then spread it by hand, the air became filled with angry

    wasps. I would spend many hours in the loft, choked by dust, exhausted by heat, andstung by wasps. Almost daily I threatened to quit, but this meant losing credits and

    having to repeat my junior year, and MacDougall knew it. I had no choice but to stay.

    One day MacDougall and I helped a Franco-American neighbor, Dubois, geld adraft stallion. "An't enough Duboize bought a stallion," said MacDougall as we drove tothe next farm, "he even tried to work it 'longside his mare. Course, with the stallionhellbent on mountin' that mare, Frenchy ended up spendin' more in busted harnessthan he saved buyin' that fool hoss."

    We arrived just as the veterinarian was getting out of his mud-spattered LandRover. He was a balding man with a barrel chest and forearms as thick as a buddinggirl's thighs. MacDougall, myself and Dubois, a smallish bearded man, hobbled thestallion and held it steady while the veterinarian injected a pint of anesthetic into theanimal's neck. The stallion swayed like a drunk, but remained standing. The

    veterinarian administered another half-pint of anesthetic. The stallion's kneesbuckled. We pushed him over and the veterinarian loosened the hind hobble enoughto spread the stallion's legs. Just as the doctor made his first cut, the horse kicked andthe scalpel laid open the back of the man's hand. Bleeding more profusely than hispatient, he bound his hand with a kerchief and finished the job, shucking the stallion'sgonads like oysters. Awed by the ton of raw male power I felt shuddering under me, Ilooked down and saw the stallion watching me. I couldnt bring myself to look thehorse in the eye.

    The stallion revived and was released into a pasture. Immediately he cornered

    the mare and tried to mount her. "He'll lose interest in a few weeks," said theveterinarian. I felt myself an accessory to a crime against nature.

    Mrs. Dubois came out and bandaged the doctor's wound. In halting English,Dubois thanked everyone for their help, then went into the house. MacDougall spat.

    "Least he might do is offer us some hahd cida,"he muttered as he revved up the jeep and spunonto the road. "He puts up barrels of it. Damngood, too."

    Whenever a cow near term failed toshow up for milking, the children and I wentlooking for her. We usually found her at theforest's edge, half wild and jumpy as hell, tryingto lead us away from her calf, and charging us

    when we got too close to it, which of coursetold us roughly where it was hidden.

    Summer 1948. Me with new calf. Gordie withunknown, probably one of his rabbits. Probablephotographer, Mona, Gordies kid sister.


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    Somewhere in the tall grass near the woods wed find it curled up, as scent-free andstill as a newborn fawn, obeying instincts undimmed by millenia of domestication.

    And while the children distracted the cow, Id sling the calf over my shoulders andcarry it up to the barn, there to wean it by getting it to suck my thumb in a pail of milk,and then to drink from the pail. Bull calves were sold for veal within weeks. Heifers

    were nurtured toward annual production approaching ten thousand quarts of milk.When a cow dried up, it was sold for beef to an abattoir and received as its finalreward a pointed sledgehammer through the forehead. No place for sentiment infarming.

    One day it rained hard on the Dubois side of the property line, but not on theMacDougall side. I could literally go from dry to drenched by hopping the stone wall.It was one of the strangest things Id ever seen. I told MacDougall it was hispunishment for enslaving city boys. "Never again will your farm get rain," I said.MacDougall just smiled his crooked smile and told me to get back to work, but Ifigured the man was superstitious, and caught him casting worried glances as the raincontinued to observe the boundary line for another fifteen minutes, then stoppedaltogether.

    The farm offered so few diversions that I often spent my free time, what little Ihad, with the children. We watched the farm's half-wild cats hunt rats in the barn, andbet how many mice would run for cover when we opened a feed bin. We fished forbrook trout and watched great blue herons hunt frogs in the brook. We found a foxden and watched the kits at play. Sometimes, just after dark, I waylaid big rats feedingat the chickens' trough. While I dispatched my share with an ax handle and the dogbroke backs, the children watched through cracks in the door, and the hens on theirroosts looked back and forth like spectators at a tennis match. The record night's toll

    was ten rats, which I photographed on the lawn next morning with the old collie sitting

    proudly beside them. The ritual hunts seemed to give the old dog a new lease on life.

    That Saturday night, I accompanied the MacDougalls to a square dance at the Grangehall. As we entered the hall, I could imagine myself in a much earlier age, for the farm

    wives presented a colorful tableau not much changed in two hundred years. Wearinggirlish hair bows and patent leather dancing shoes, they were dressed to the nines instriped and checked gingham dresses reaching to the floor. The men were attired as iffor work, though with overalls and shirts freshly laundered, boots tallowed, and redkerchiefs worn like ascots at the open necks of their blue denim shirts. The work-likedress was appropriate, for the farmers danced as hard as they labored, responding

    with embarassed extroversion to the caller's chants ofAllemande andDoceydoe. Bythe end of the second set the hall reeked with underarm odor, but this was acceptedthen, and it smelled no worse than the average city subway car or trolley at rush hour.I checked out the local girls and was hard-eyed by the local boys, but saw nothing

    worth risking a fight for. The only girl who caught my eye, a darkly pretty thing withhorn-rimmed glasses and nice lips, looked barely twelve. The few times I danced, I


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    two-stepped with Samantha, who was clearly as proud as punch to be chosen overthe older girls.

    Monday through Saturday, I worked from dawn until well after dark. Even on Sunday Ihad morning and evening chores, but the rest of each Sunday was my own. My first

    The Percheron is a breed of draft horses that originated in the Perche valley in

    northern France. Percherons are usually gray or black in color. Theyre well-muscled,

    intelligent, and willing to work. They were originally bred for war, but came to be

    used for pulling stage coaches, and later for agriculture and hauling heavy goods. In

    the late 1700s and early 1800s, Arabian blood was added to the breed. Percherons

    accounted for 70% of the draft horse population in the United States, but their

    numbers fell after World War II. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0Generic license.


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    day off had been a day of rest, but on the next I packed a lunch and rode Cloebareback into the forest.

    As the trees closed in behind us, I felt a keen sense of escape. The air beneaththe forest canopy was dark and cool, fragrant with evergreen and mellow withbirdsong. The horse's scent must have masked mine, for many animals let us

    approach quite close. The old mare moved like an overweight Arabian, head and tailhigh, ears pricked and nostrils flared to catch every sound and smell. Clearly she wasloving every moment.

    Before long we were in deep timber. Great trees soared, some a hundred feettall and as straight as temple columns. Between them slanted brilliant sunbeams,through which flashed birds and insects of every description. I saw many white-taildeer. In the cover of deep timber the deer seldom broke into a run, but insteadskulked from tree to tree. At one point a prime buck, antlers in velvet, paused in ashaft of sunlight and licked his nostrils to get a better scent of horse and rider.

    All morning we wandered logging roads and any smaller trails that Cloe couldnegotiate. When the sun stood overhead, we came to a stream where a doe and herfawn were cooling themselves. The deer bounded off into the forest. I stopped at thestream and stripped to the waist. As I sat on the sun-dappled bank to eat my lunch,the mare moved to higher ground and entered a nearby meadow to graze.

    Black-capped chickadees appeared and accepted food from my fingers. Achipmunk flitted and flowed along the opposite bank, then crossed the stream by wayof a tree branch to feed from my hand. Even at the peak of summer's bounty, peanutbutter seems irresistible to many forest creatures.

    I shared my last bit of sandwich with the animals, then cooled myself in thebrook and lay against the steep grassy slope to dry myself in the sun. A blue herondescended through a gap in the canopy, waggling its great wings to avoid branches.

    The bird alighted and began stalking frogs and crayfish in the stream. I watched theheron for a while, then retrieved the mare and continued riding along the brook,

    which I suspected, rightly, would lead us back to the farm.

    MacDougall decided to shell out some cash and have the last crop of hay baled. Thatbaling machine saved us a lot of hard work. It consumed windrows of hay like amonstrous animal that excreted blocky pellets as it grazed. The next-door neighborsBruce and Dubois helped us get the hay into the MacDougall barn. Each bale of hay

    weighed 65 pounds. MacDougall and Dubois together would stab a bale with theirpitchforks and lift it up to me in the loft, where I grabbed the bales with hooks andstacked them. Bruce was so strong that he could stab a bale with an extra-longpitchfork and lift it all the way up to me. By the time we finished, my forearms wereraw and bleeding.

    In August I became friendly with the Bruce family, who owned the farm adjoiningMacDougall's on the other side from the Dubois farm. They had a college-age


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    daughter named Sally, pie-faced but lavish of body. I wasnt attracted to Sally, butbecame totally smitten with Estelle, her college chum who came to visit for the lasttwo weeks of the summer break. Estelle was petite, dark, and lovely. I was painfullyshy and barely seventeen, and she a worldly college woman, but she encouraged myadoration. I was so tongue-tied I could scarcely ask for seconds at supper, and I was

    invited to supper a lot. One evening we all played hide-and-seek, and it was chilly so Ilent Estelle my shirt and when I found her hiding in the barn she felt my muscles andlet me kiss her and touch her through my shirt and next morning I saw her driven offby her fiance. But that's another story, and this ain't the place fer it.

    So much for farming. I reverted to liberal arts, studied electronic engineeringand engineering management in college, founded an advertising agency, and laterbecame a writer of books and articles. Go figure.

    -- THE END