My Uncle Bill died in his sleep last week at the nursing home in Lewiston, ID where he was spending his final days. He’s been cremated and his ashes will be scattered on the Alaskan ocean where he fished for salmon in his second career, alongside those of his late first wife.
I didn’t know Uncle Bill all that well, but remember Thanksgivings at his farm clearly. He was one of the two George brothers who married my father’s sisters Lenice and Joyce. As described in Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory , “They lived on farms on the east side of Chewelah [WA] that were so close to each other they were almost touching, just a little bit up the hill, on Cottonwood Creek Road. The Thanksgiving festivities were always at Uncle Bill’s place. He had a nice three-bedroom house that he’d just built [see picture]. Across the road, you could still see the primitive one-room log cabin Uncle Bill and Lenice had lived in when they first moved there, with its smelly outhouse. We children loved to play in the big red barn on Uncle Bill’s place. It had a kind of second floor, piled up with bales of hay. They kept the hay up there so they could just drop it down through special openings into the feeding troughs for the horses on the first floor of the barn. But you could move the bales of hay around and make passageways and tunnels and little secret rooms. My older sisters and I would play up there for hours during our Thanksgiving trips.
“But Uncle Bill’s main business was dairy farming. He had a herd of several hundred cows. Some of the cows were named for family members, including the one named for me: Bobby. They pointed her out to me but I wasn’t too impressed. The cows were milked twice a day, as all cows must be. Bored and stinky and farting and shitting, their tails flicking away flies on their backs, their huge udders hanging pendulously low, the cows needed to be lined up in front of the entrance to the milk house. (Sometimes, being creatures of habit, they would line themselves up.) Around the perimeter of the milk house ran a passageway with several dozen stalls, into which the cows would be led one by One. An important role in this process, which I proudly fulfilled even as a six-year-old, was the shit shoveler, who walked behind the cows as they ambled along the milk house hall, and scooped up the moist, malodorous patties they left behind—cows could shit all they wanted outside but the milk-house needed to be kept reasonably tidy.
“The central part of the milk-house was a cement-floored area three or four feet lower than the surrounding hallway and stalls, so that the men working there could quickly move to a stall containing a new cow, apply the udder cleansing solution, grab the udder attachment device hanging by an accordion cable from the ceiling, and attach it to the udder of the cow in question, one plastic tube for each red teat. Vacuum action in each tube started the milking process, stimulating nerves in the teat to send a message to the cow’s brain, which responded with a hormone instructing the teat to start giving out milk, a phenomenon known as “let-down—the same thing that happens when a calf starts to suckle, or a human baby, for that matter. The milking machine technology used in Uncle Bill’s milk-house had its roots in innovations in the late nineteenth century which succeeded in imitating the pressure of human hand on cow teat, or later, the pressure of a calf’s mouth.
“The milk drawn from Uncle Bill’s cows flowed through the tubes, also known as cups, and up a flexible plastic tube into a system of transparent pipes as big around as your arm running across the ceiling of the milking hall. It was quite a sight—all the white fluid coursing across the ceiling through the piping. The milk in the pipes headed to the next room, where it flowed into a massive stainless steel holding tank. This tank had a huge stirring blade that rotated at the leisurely pace of about once per minute. Uncle Bill would open up the top of the holding tank and hold up little Bobby to let him peer down on the lake of thousands of gallons of absolutely fresh, warm ivory-colored milk. Once a day, the Carnation truck would pull up, unfurl its hose and attach it to the outlet which allowed it to suck out all the milk in the tank into the truck and take it to the dairy where it would be processed into milk, cheese, cream, and butter to be delivered to homes across western Washington to build the bones and teeth of America’s next generation. My uncles made a good living off this business.
“Uncle Bill and Aunt Lenice had run a pipe from the tank directly to their kitchen in the adjacent house. So they literally had “running milk.” You held your glass under a tap and turned it on. What came out was utterly fresh, warm, creamy, unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk. Drinking this milk, it was impossible to avoid realizing that it had been produced by a living, breathing animal.
“All the women, including my mother, Grandma Myers, and Aunt Lenice and Aunt Joyce, Daddy’s two sisters who married the two George brothers, would spend all day in that kitchen preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Normally, two to three dozen guests would attend. This year there were twenty-seven….The turkeys were quite fresh, because they just went outside and grabbed a couple of unlucky ones and brought them over to a place in the yard with a kind of platform where they chopped off their heads. I learned that it is not only chickens, but also turkeys, which continue to run around even after their heads have been chopped off. What kind of signals continued to race along the nervous pathways of the decapitated fowl telling their muscles to place one leg before the other? After the blood stopped spurting from their necks and the headless turkeys stopped running around and were plucked and cleaned, they were roasted.
“Besides your basic turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and creamed onions, these Thanksgiving feasts specialized in pies. I remember an entire table covered with more than a dozen pies: cherry, apple, pumpkin, mincemeat, pecan, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, loganberry, blueberry, serviceberry, huckleberry, gooseberry, and chokeberry.”
Goodbye Uncle Bill.