Spring Thaw and Cold Memories

So, is there anybody out there who is really, really ready for spring?  I am, and I don’t even live in one of those really, really cold places that have gotten hammered this winter.

But, just so you know, I paid my dues living the first 19 years of my life on a working dairy farm in north central Wisconsin. Oh yes, I paid my dues. For me and my family, daylight savings time meant more time to work.

I suppose in today’s litigious society, me and my three siblings could have had our parents charged with violations of child labor laws. We all were awakened at zero-dark-thirty to go get the cows in from the pastures to the barn, help milk them, clean stalls and gutters, feed them and get them back to the pasture to graze on fresh, green, unpolluted grass.

Then, we ate breakfast, got cleaned up, got ready for school and climbed onto the bus about 7 a.m. Yeah, we did more before 7 a.m. than city kids did all day … no brag, just fact.

After school, we climbed off the bus, back home about 4:30 in the afternoon, just in time to get changed back into work clothes, go get the cows out of the pasture and do it all over again. By 6:30 it was time to eat, do homework, watch some TV if there was time (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Jackie Gleason, Oh Yeah!) and go to bed.

Next morning, we’d get up and do it all over again.

Now, in the warmth of the brief-but-welcomed summers in Wisconsin, this wasn’t so bad. But when September and October came around and those frigid air masses began moving south from Canada, we were directly in the line of fire.

I try to tell my wife and kids about this, but they are all southerners who rarely if ever experienced a below-zero day or snowfall over a few inches, so they think I am exaggerating.

I tell them about days when the actual temperature was 30 BELOW-ZERO! With wind chill, the mercury plunged to about 60 below and then punched out the bottom of the thermometer.

They have never seen a 5-foot snow fence, placed strategically in the fall, before the first snow, to catch drifts and try to keep driveways or other access areas opened. More often than not, the drifts topped the fence and overran the intended path anyway.

So then I try to describe my memory of me and my siblings and/or parents deploying with snow shovels to shovel a path from our house to our barn, or dig out the driveway, and reaching up way above my head to bring the snow down so I could shovel it. We often had to put it in a wheel barrow and deposit it elsewhere because the drifts around us were too high to toss the snow over.

I  tell the tale of walking from the house to the barn in a trench of snow, the walls reaching what seems to me now to have been at least two or three feet over my head. 

Maybe time has turned this into a fish story, where the fish gets bigger as time goes by. But I don’t think so, because I can go back into my family photo archives and show pictures of us urchins, standing in mammoth drifts, looking like a Michelin Tire Guy, all bundled up in several layers of every stitch of winter clothing we could find. 

Yep, I paid my dues and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that in the midst of trying to avoid frost bite, we still had to milk those cows twice a day, just like in the summer.

Of course, the cold provided challenges in this respect. On the coldest days, we couldn’t let the cows out of the barn or their udders would have frozen. 

Caution To The Wind

Looking back, I realize that our parents were courageous. After a trip to Wisconsin in the early 1930s to visit friends who owned a farm in Merrill, Wis., they decided that lifestyle was better than raising their family in the burbs of Chicago where they lived. 

They didn’t know a thing about farming. The only experience my dad had was a cow and a few chickens his family had for food; my mom was a Chicago city girl. But they packed up everything they owned, bought a 120-acre farm between Marshfield and Stratford and moved their two children, my oldest siblings, to their new home.

We four siblings have pretty much decided our parents were geniuses at farm-help family planning. The two oldest siblings were four years apart, then an 11-year gap, and my next oldest brother and I were four years apart.

So when the first two were graduating from high school and going into the Army (oldest brother) and working at a bank (sister), my brother and I were just developing into the next generation of farm hands.

I remember my parents telling stories about how my dad didn’t know how to plow a field and when he tried it himself, too proud to ask for help, the neighbor man a mile down the road stepped in to help him straighten out the curving rows he was plowing.

We learned how to drive at an early age; I remember driving an old Dodge truck around the farm at 8 or 9 years old. We learned basics of how to fix broken machinery, how to take care of equipment, how to organize our time; our lives literally depended on it.

In retrospect, it was a good upbringing. We learned the value of work ethic; we worked as a family to survive; we learned to respect our elders; we learned how to think independently and solve problems. 

We got a good solid public education in reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, civics and economics. 

So, all in all, I’m not bitter about being sentenced to 19-years of hard labor at the gulag-farm in the Siberian-like climate. As my siblings and I look back and talk about it, we agree it was a good upbringing.

But my parents offered the farm to each of us siblings in order, and we all said thanks, but no thanks. In hindsight, that was short-sighted on our part.

I was the last, and almost immediately after I graduated from high school my parents sold the farm after nearly 30 years and moved to nearby Marshfield. My sentence was served. I was free.

But as spring approaches and I look forward to fishing the Inter-coastal waterway in the warm southern climate where I now live, I my experience compels me to empathize with my northern neighbors; I feel your pain brothers and sisters. I wish you warm breezes, melting snow, ice thawing and blooming flowers.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.