Leonard Rue’s rich and colorful memories of a boyhood spent on a small farm in northwest New Jersey in the 1930s will appear in coming issues of Farm Collector. In this installment, he recalls a startling experience while milking.
Craaack! Boooom! There is nothing quite as impressive, or even as scary, as a storm with thunder and lightning. It’s no wonder ancient people thought God was rolling boulders around and throwing bolts of lightning at the earth.
A vivid display of lightning will make the hair on your arms and the back of your neck stand straight up. Has to do with electricity in the air. Thunder and lightning not only scare the daylights out of a lot of people, it scares the bejesus out of a lot of animals.
Our farm bulldog, Tiny, was a tough old bulldog. Even his bark was as rough as the bark on a shag-bark hickory. Just that bark was enough to keep all the neighboring farm dogs off our land. Tiny would disappear under the porch, however, long before the first peal of thunder could be heard and would not come back out until long after the last rumble was lost in the distance, far, far away.
And there was a time that I felt that way, too. Overcoming my fear of thunderstorms was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I thank God I was able to do it. You see, lightning really made an impression on me — mentally, as it left no physical scars, for which I am thankful.
It was in the summer of 1941. World War II was on in Europe and Asia, and dark war clouds were gathering over our country, too. It was not war clouds that were on my mind that particular afternoon, but the actual storm clouds that had darkened the sky, and the sheets of rain that were falling outside. In the barn, where our hired hand Sam Van Whys and I sat milking, we were snug and dry, but the cows were restless, moving back and forth as far as they could go in their stanchions. The storm outside really had them all riled up.
Ours was a bank barn, as were most of the barns in our area. A bank barn (or banked barn) allowed an access ramp up to the second floor of the barn where a truck or wagon could be driven to unload the hay into the haymows on either side of the center of the barn. The first floor of the barn was where the cows were kept in two rows of stanchions with their heads toward each other, separated by a space of 6 to 8 feet where we fed them the hay or grain that was thrown down from the second floor.
Actually, nothing on our farm was level. Our barn had been cut into the side of a hill in the back. Bill Seguine built our farmhouse in 1905 and there was absolutely nothing level in, or on, the house either. Any liquid accidentally spilled on the floor promptly ran to one corner of the room or the other; no floor tilted in the same direction as the adjoining room. There wasn’t a window in the house that was level or even the same size, as my folks found out when they had to custom-fit shades for each one. We don’t know if Seguine built the barn, but we doubt it because the barn was almost level, but even the cow urine in the drops tended to gather at an end that was lower. Perhaps it was planned that way: It was easier to scoop the urine out, seeing as how it was concentrated.
In cold weather, the big sliding doors on the second floor entry were kept shut and fastened securely. In the summer, we left the doors wide open because it allowed a breeze to blow in and down the steps to the area below, making it cooler.
There were three regular Dutch-type half-doors in the front of the barn, two of which were used to let the cows in and out from the area where they were fed and milked and where they slept in winter. The third door opened into the area of the barn where we kept the horses.
I sat milking in front of the center door, with both halves of the door wide open. Sam sat directly across from me at the foot of the steps leading up to the big double doors, which were also open.
They say nature abhors a vacuum; all space must be filled. That saying must be true because it’s my wife’s nature to fill up every empty space. Anyway, all those open doors were perfectly aligned for a pathway and pathways are meant to be followed.
With an ear-splitting CRRAAAAACK, a bolt of lightning crashed through the upstairs doors and raced down the stairway, knocking Sam’s cow off her feet. My hair crackled as it crinkled, and a ring of fire flew around the rim of the metal pail of milk I held between my knees. The lightning tore away the metal stool on which I was sitting, then went outside and shredded the bark off a locust post in the garden. Milk, pail, stool and I all flew in different directions as the rent bark on the post smoked. I’m truly thankful that I wasn’t stepped on or kicked by the cow I had been milking or the one standing behind me, because all of the cows that were still standing were lunging around.
I wasn’t sure if I had been killed or not. I didn’t have time to find out. My mouth was filled with the taste of ozone and my legs’ muscles had all the strength of wet noodles. Somehow I was able to pick myself up and stagger out of the barn to see if it was on fire. I was glad to find that it wasn’t and I finally realized that I wasn’t dead either. Sam and the cows were OK, too.
That was the last time I ever milked during a thunder and lightning storm. It’s hard to milk when you are hiding in the darkest room you can find. It was years before I could actually enjoy the splendid grandeur of a colossal electrical storm again. FC
Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.
Read more stories from Leondard Rue III in Life on Small Farm Was Worth It and Embarrassing First Ride on McCormick-Deering 10-20.