Saturday, November 26, 2005

Grade Check

Well, I can't say that Janette failed for the sake of her politically incorrect project, but that C+ in the sea of A's her other teachers gave her on her progress report does kinda stick out like a sore thumb. Nothing more has been said to her by the teacher, either, who has moved on to actual course content. (hallelujah!)

Ian, on the other hand, has more than one F on his progress report, but that's nothing new. He's a terribly bright boy who hasn't yet learned that you can't put everything off to the last minute. It will be interesting when they bring the returned projects to me.

So I guess the teacher thought once, and then twice, about making life more difficult for these two.

But maybe she was thinking a lawsuit might follow...


Growing up Semi-Agrarian: the Plusses, the Minuses, and the Goats

I don't talk about it much, but I grew up in what I'd call an agricultural-supplement-model home. You might could call it a semi-agrarian lifestyle. My daddy drove a half hour into the big town for his day (and night and weekend, oftimes) job. The rest of us lived on a couple of acres in a rural environment with a mama who had a producer mentality, as did Daddy.

Mama had two big gardens. In addition, we had citrus trees, pomegranates, and enough almond trees to ensure pollination and nut production. We had critters who doubled as pets and food (not always a comfortable thing for us kids): wiggle-nosed rabbits, noisy chickens, and a trio of elegant white ducks (my pets, and to this day I can't eat duck without cringing). There were two geese who showed up unexpectedly and lasted about a month, during which time they completely slimed the backyard and attacked every single one of us, especially the weakest and smallest. I am happy to report that I can eat goose without a single qualm, cringe, or soupçon of regret!

The big deal, of course, was my brother's 4-H project, the milk goats. Now, I like goats as well as anyone, but goats like to roam and eat whatever, so they must be corraled. Now Daddy was a smart man in many ways, but the placement of that corral rivals the stupidity of, well, just imagine sitting in the Mayor's office in New Orleans tracking Hurricane Katrina and thinking, "I don't have to evacuate that ol' 9th Ward just yet."

Now, California has been blessed with many mistakes, one of which was the planting by 19th century entrepreneurs of thousands of Eucalyptus trees to provide railroad ties for all that new line. It was just too bad that Eucalyptus tree wood twists and is of absolutely no use in the manufacture of railroad ties, unless you wanted to ensure a particular number of derailments per year.

But we'd been blessed with several giant Eucalyptus trees scattered around our property, one of which occupied prime goat corral space. At least, that's what Daddy thought. We found him out there early one Saturday morning with his saw, nails and hammer, and a pile of 2x4s fit to build a nice cottage or two. "Darling, what ARE you doing?" Mama said.

"Making a corral for the goats. I'm tired of chasing them all over the place." He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of the shirt he'd pulled off. Daddy was working shirtless again! (don't mind me, it's the pain of his skin cancer that leads me to gripe about that little course of action, multiplied many times over the years.)

Mama thought, and then thought better of what she had been about to say. Mama was wise like that, sometimes. (We all remember the times she wasn't.) "Well," she said. "Just don't forget to put in a milking station, please." And with that she was gone back into her own domain, where those living room lamps sure needed a heap o'dusting right away.

We all knew to get out of the way, so we left my daddy to sweat in that hot California sun all by himself. He was happier that way, and we certainly knew that from hard past experience. But we checked on him every few hours, just to make sure he hadn't keeled over in the heat and that something resembling a corral was being assembled.

It was right before sunset when Daddy walked into the house, dirty, smelling like Eucalyptus, his skin the exact color of that rosy afterglow that sunset leaves behind for a bit. He was smiling. I took this as a good omen. Mama brought him a beer, the cheap kind he liked primarily because it WAS cheap.

"Did you finish the pen, Daddy?" I asked.

"And then some, little girl. Want to see?" I always glowed when he called me little girl, because it meant he was happy and all was well. We trotted out to the back porch, from which I could see the corral, the milking station Mama had requested, and a little shelter just big enough for both goats.

"Daddy, that looks great!" I didn't have any reason to have a hesitation or reservation at that point.

"Want to go get a close-up look? I need to go put the goats inside."

"Sure, Daddy." So we trotted out to the back-back yard and unhooked the goats' tethers, and led their rather reluctant little selves on back to the pen. It even had a gate, with a lock and hasp! Right then I thought my daddy knew everything! We strongly encouraged the goats to get inside, then locked the gate after them. The Nubian then tried to climb the fence, requiring more strong encouragement to remain inside. The Saanen, the big milker, the one with the udder the size of a large set of bagpipes, walked around the corral once, then peacefully put her front legs up against the tree, and started chewing on some of the lower-lying Eucalyptus leaves.

This didn't bother us at all, at least not then.

Mama and I soon mastered the co-operative art of using the milking station. One of us would strongly encourage the goat to get up on the wooden platform, while the other got ready to snap the tether onto the, well, I don't remember what we called it, but it kept the goat from swiveling her head around and getting all upset because we weren't baby goats and were still taking all her milk. Then one of us would position the stool next to the milking station while the other would grab the goat's legs so it wouldn't stick its fragrant little feet into the milking pail, thereby ruining the milk. Then whoever had milking duty would push-pull the teats until the bucket was full of rich, foaming, creamy milk. The other would be busy strongly encouraging the goat to keep its fool feet out of the rich, foaming, creamy milk.

Well, this arrangement was a little better than trying to milk her on the ground, at least. And for a few days the milk was enjoyed by one and all, including the cats and other critters who got our surplus. (and when your best milker has an udder the size of a large pair of bagpipes, you have excess, believe me!) Daddy walked around looking fit to bust his suspenders with pride, even though he'd never owned a pair. All seemed well in semi-agrarian heaven.

It was my brother, the one whose 4-H project the goats supposedly were (but who did the milking? hmmm???), who first noticed the change.

"Mama, this milk don't taste right." He made a huge face and spit his milk back into the glass.

"What do you mean, Ronnie? We just milked them this morning." Mama was fanatic about food freshness, and when you have a goat with an udder the size of a large pair of bagpipes, the milk is ALWAYS fresh.

"It tastes like...." He fished around for the appropriate description. "It tastes like Vicks Vapo-Rub™!"

I sniffed my glass. Sure didn't smell like Vicks. But I was too much of a coward to take more than a sip. I rolled it around on my tongue and, sure enough, there was the faint flavor of Vicks tainting the creamy sweetness of the milk.

"Mama, he's right." I plunked down my glass and refused to drink further.

Mama grabbed my glass and took a big swig, kind of like Daddy did with his cheap beer.

"Tastes fine to me. Finish it up, Laurel." I looked up at her and knew there would be no compromise. Taking my life into my hands, I bravely swallowed the milk, all of it.

"Tastes funny, Mama."

She was washing dishes by this time, and I figured the taste wasn't all that bad, so I would have to make do.

The next morning while we were feeding the goats, I noticed that both goats were up chewing on the lower leaves of that Eucalyptus tree, but I didn't say anything to mamma, who was busy putting grain in their trough.

But that day's batch of milk tasted even more strongly of the cold remedy. It even smelled like it! I sat at the table at lunch wishing I could just dump my glass of goat's milk down into the dog's bowl, but it was too far away, and besides, Mama had eyes in the back of her head and a few beside each ear as well.

"Mama, don't you smell it? Somebody dumped some Vicks in the milk as a joke!" I glared at my brother. “Who would want to ruin good goat's milk? And it was his 4-H project anyway.”

Ronnie rose to his feet. "I didn't dump Vicks Vapo-Rub in my own goat's milk!" He didn't miss a beat. "Maybe you're just trying to get me in trouble."

Well, once we got let out of our rooms, we set at the table fine and drank every drop of our milk. Yummy milk.

Meanwhile, the goats were in their fine little corral, happily munching Eucalyptus leaves. Yummy Eucalyptus leaves.

That evening, Mama and Daddy puzzled up and down about what could be causing the milk to have a funny taste. Yes, they had noticed, but they weren't going to let us get away with wasting food, no way. But it wasn't until after weeks of consuming really yucky milk that a solution was found.

That was the week my brother, bless him for the vehicle of rescue that he was, got bronchitis combined with a bad cold. Mama went to the drugstore in town, which required, of course, washing the car and wearing a nice dress, hat, and gloves. (We may have been semi-agrarian, but Mama had pride.) At the top of her shopping list was...Vick's Vapo-Rub, just the thing for Ronnie's congestion.

She brought the jar into Ronnie's bedroom, now turned into a sickroom with a pot of water boiling on a hotplate to put some moisture in the air. Taking off her gloves so they wouldn’t get stained, she opened the jar. When she opened it, an all-too-familiar smell almost overwhelmed her. The kids were right, she thought. This does smell like the goat milk. Or the goat milk smells like this.

Then she turned the jar around so she could read the label. Active ingredients: Camphor. Menthol. EUCALYPTUS.

Next thing we knew Daddy was out in the back-back-yard up on the ladder cutting down all the limbs of the Eucalyptus tree up to about 15 feet high, and Mama gave me a new chore, making sure there were no Eucalyptus leaves anywhere near the goats. Twice a day. She called it "sweeping the stable".

I called it my brother's job. After all, wasn't it his 4-H project?