I hadn’t sat down to breakfast for more than five minutes when Daddy came through the kitchen and, without stopping, grabbed his hat from behind the door. He playfully swatted me on the top of my head as he continued out the door and called back over his shoulder, “Come on son! The cows nor time will wait!” I rolled my eyes instinctively and at the same time groaned and was immediately ashamed that I didn’t catch myself from doing both. Momma smiled before we exchanged a shared look of trepidation as she quickly stuffed several biscuits with sizzling sausage straight from the cast iron to offer me. I had dressed, sure enough, before the crack of dawn and even our old rooster’s alarm and ready as usual to do what was expected from the eldest son and child. But, though I dearly loved and respected both of my parents, my heart was not in today’s chores. Truth be told, I had become more and more restless since graduating from school. I figured most other half grown men my age also found themselves in the similar angst of the in-between stages of child and man. “What now?” we often wondered. “Who am I today and what is tomorrow’s purpose?” I had even tried to described my sense of agitation to Momma, and she had naturally listened attentively but only sighed deeply from lack of a more helpful response. She loved me, no doubt, but couldn’t possibly understand my need to begin defining my own life by stepping forward and away. I just had to know what was down the road beyond this farm and on the other side of these ridges.
I saw that Daddy had not gotten too far ahead of me as I stepped out and watched him walk purposefully while whistling as he always did when tending chores. He’s the most contented man I know always happy to do what he did every morning, noon and night! Our dog, Charley, fell back to walk along side of me, wagging his tail, but only because he smelled the biscuits in my hand. I shared generously and was rewarded with more happy wags. The three of us had crossed the dirt road to the pasture together and met the cows already moving toward the cattle gate as Daddy threw it open. We had but five milk cows, then, but the docile girls had no need to be herded. They were proven milkers, comfortable with our human touch and knew that a scoop of grain and relief from the milking was just ahead so were happy to oblige us. By the time that I got into the pasture and around behind them to simply encourage forward movement, my boots had become soaked from the morning dew. Daddy & I had followed this same path & chore every single morning at the exact same time for years. But, it had not seemed too long ago that he had lifted me and swung me up onto the back of the gentlest ones to ride into the barn. I paused to smile at this memory.
Once the barn door was opened and each Jersey had made her way into a stall, Daddy & I put feed into the trough in front of them, collected the cleaned wooden buckets, took our milking stools off the walls and began cleaning their udders. The smells here associated with the manure, cows, hay along with the soft noises of the milk hitting the buckets and even the cats begging for a taste combined to create an age old melody of senses many other families also repeated daily. But the milking was only the beginning of this daily routine. The cows had to be returned to the pasture, and then the buckets of milk carried to Momma so that she could strain and prepare it for churning butter and making cheese the next day. I usually sat in the kitchen corner and dashed the cream from the day before since I was already up. I sometimes further helped to wash, squeeze, salt and mold it. I admit that it was real satisfying to see the finished product in one Granny’s pretty milk glass domed butter dish. We used the surplus to barter with our neighbors for vegetables, canned goods or even a portion of meat at slaughtering time.
I will always remember that day not because it was the last day that I spent with my family but because it was the day when I told Daddy of my intent to leave. We had just finished dinner and were briefly leaning together over the fence rail before the final evening chores. As I began to describe my plan, I tried to make him understand how restless that I was and how I feared that, if I didn’t go, I might become resentful as indeed I had already begun to feel. “Son,” he said, “how do you intend to make a go of things when you’re not yet prepared?” I knew exactly what my plan was but only asked him to trust me and promised that I would write often so that they wouldn’t have need to worry. I heard Momma & Daddy talking late into that night and knew that they were trying to come to terms with a son who felt compelled to leave a home filled with love and pride for him. Daddy was a man clearly defined by contentment and completely trusted that he was right where his God meant for him to be. I couldn’t explain why I’m so different but knew that it was true.
It was another pre-dawn morning several days later when Daddy, me and my younger brother brought the cows in together and, with little conversation, milked them and returned their yield to Momma. She had already darned and mended what I had determined to pack but was also wrapping up sandwiches and fruits in a bag for me to take along. Those farewell hugs lasted forever for me because I was not sure that I would ever be coming home. Yet, we hugged and hugged again until Daddy finally shook my hand like it was man to man. That was the moment I truly had the courage to leave because he showed me that he had confidence in me as a growed man.
That was three years ago and, since then, I have broken the boundaries of my home state which I had never done before. I’ve also met hundreds of people from every corner of America as well as from several European countries. I’ve learned how to develop friendships with people from different backgrounds and even different languages and then how to live from the loss of many of them as I’ve traveled this journey. I’ve walked through gorgeous country sides and observed their cattle & gardens with the experienced eyes of only someone who had grown up on a farm could. Yes, I’ve even sheltered in barns on many a night and, there, felt desperate homesickness for the first time in their familiarity. I’ve trudged through the cobbled streets of Italy, France and Germany and have been amazed by their grand cities and ancient cathedrals. It was actually in the magnificent Aachen Cathedral where I briefly listened to God and learned of my destiny with complete clarity & authority. In the end, these past years have profoundly taught me just what it meant to be a man.
You see, I knew as Daddy did that I did not yet have the skills that would serve me hardly grown out of my youth. But, I knew that my country needed me and that I was able to serve like every other eighteen-year-old man. So, when I left home so long ago, I walked straight to the recruitment office to sign up and swear to support and defend our country against all enemies. From that point on, I learned amidst war & evil exactly what was down the road and over the mountains from my home. And, now, as I sit here during the first days of June, I’m writing once again to my family. Thousands of us are waiting here near the English Channel for what appears will be a major order, but more urgent to me personally is this letter. I write that my curiosity and wanderlust have been satisfied and want more than anything to come home.
June 4, 1944
Oh to only rise again on a crisp dawn to help bring in our cows, prepare them for milking and to lean my weary head against their flanks while at the task. I want to live simply and at peace as I did as a child and surrounded by my kin, the wooded hills and green pastures. Please wait and watch for me! It can’t be too much longer.
Your Devoted Son