Spilled Milk

19 02 2013

            “Chet, this is absurd.”

            “Of course it is, Ethel,” my father agreed as he up-ended the big steel container. “That’s the idea.”

            “But think of all the starving people, not just in China, but right here in our own nation, in our own state.”

            “We’ll be starving, too, if the price of milk doesn’t get back above the cost of production and stay there,” my father insisted. He set the empty container to one side and reached to the other to take hold of a container full to the lid.

            “Chet, stop! What will the neighbors think? The townsfolk?”

            My father pulled the lid off. “I’ll tell you what the men at the Grange want them to think. This is absurd. This is silly. Something ought to be done. That’s why we’re all dumping our milk. That’s why I’m dumping it right here by the side of the road into the ditch, for anyone with eyes to see. And if they don’t see it, they’ll soon smell it once it turns rancid. I hope the stench flows all the way to the river in the village.”

            My father had been sure to drive the 1928 Model A truck to a place along the road far enough away from our farmstead so we would not have to smell spoiling milk. The odors of manure from cattle, hogs, and poultry already were more than enough for us to bear.

            “Mr. Chastain!” a voice called. It belonged to Kirstie McIntyre, who happened to be on her way to work on her bicycle. Stopping quickly, she said, “I heard what some of the farmers said they wanted to do. You’re actually doing it?”

            “Good morning, ma’am, and yes, I am.”

            “Good morning, Mrs. Chastain. Wesley.”

            Miss McIntyre referred to me, at that time one of her students.

            She continued, “Mr. Chastain, please. You must stop this nonsense.”

            “Miss, we here have forty cows. I can’t tell them just go on strike. They must be milked twice a day. I can’t store their milk indefinitely; this is a farm, not a creamery. My family can consume only so much. Our hogs, dogs, and cats can consume only so much. And I can’t keep selling milk for less than it costs to keep the cows. That, Miss McIntyre, is nonsense.”

            “But think of the poor.”

            “We have the poor always with us, as the Good Book says.”

            “I have the poor right in my classroom, Mr. Chastain! I have children going without milk!”

            “Chester, please,” my mother implored. “This is grossly wasteful. Can’t we at least give it to those who need it? Remember: ‘The poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.’ ”

            “Ethel, don’t cry over spilled milk. The men at the Grange made it clear, and it is clear to me: we must work together in this. If we dump enough, supply will go down, demand will go up, and prices will go up. How are any of us to make a living otherwise?”

            “There’s plenty of demand already, as far as I can see,” Miss McIntyre said. “Even though prices are absurdly low, some people can’t afford to pay them as they are.”

            My father shook his head. “ ‘But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.’ ”

He began lifting the container to move it into position over the road ditch.

            “Wesley! Hand me that empty can.”

            Miss McIntyre had long before made it clear that I was to obey her orders the first time issued.

            “What are you doing?” my father asked.

            My teacher had let her bike fall over as she stepped into the ditch and taken hold of the empty can. She held it below the one my father was ready to dump and said, “You know the Bible. What does it say about gleaning? I’m taking these leftovers for the poor.”

            “The poor are to do the gleaning. You’re not poor.”

            “Are you kidding? I’m a schoolteacher.”

            “I’m a farmer.”

            “Let her have it, Chet.”

            “That’s not her can.”

            “No, but it is my can. See the copper initials? That came from my father. I’m letting her use it.”

            “Okay…” My father dumped his container, and Miss McIntyre did her best to catch as much as she could in hers.

            “Wesley, the lid, please.”

            I handed it to her.

            “Are you ready for school?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Please. Would you accompany me? I could use your help.”

            She did, indeed. We performed quite the feat balancing that can on the seat and walking the bicycle to the schoolhouse.

            At school, Miss McIntyre offered the raw milk to any of the children who were hungry, saying, “Mr. Chastain has been charitable enough to provide this for you.”

            A girl spoke up. Her name was Cassandra Clementine, but the kids called her Cavity because of the condition of her teeth. “I can’t take it. We ain’t allowed to take no charity.”

            “Which, being interpreted, says that your family does not allow you to accept charity,” Miss McIntyre responded. “Do you consider yourselves Christians?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “By grace you have been saved, through faith. Not of yourselves, not of works, it is the charitable, gracious gift of God. Therefore, as Saint Paul once asked, ‘What hast thou that thou didst not receive?’ If you can accept charity from God, why not from God’s people?”

            Cassandra’s brother Chuck spoke up, “Ma’am, we’re told to do our own business and to work with our own hands.”

            Miss McIntyre stood silent for a moment. “ ‘This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ ” She spoke as if more to herself than to all of us. Then, “Yes, I understand; I can appreciate that. Thank you, Charles. And work you shall. For any of you with a will, there is a way.”

            Since the Clementines lived in the village, Miss McIntyre sent Chuck home to borrow one or more wash basins. Other kids who lived nearby, she sent to collect as many empty lard cans–or reasonable facsimiles thereof–as possible, along with scraps of thin, clean cloth and clean, waxed cardboard. Kids from the country she sent outdoors to find stones and bricks and anything in the way of dry wood. She gave me a nickel and sent me to Novosel’s drug store to buy some Hansen’s rennet tablets. Then she went to the janitor to see about obtaining sections of steel window screen and a few tools.

            Once we had gathered again with our findings, Miss McIntyre took us out to a corner of the schoolyard, where she directed us in our work job by job:

Build a small fireplace.

Start a wood fire.

Place a basin of milk on the fire and heat it just past tepid, which did not take long, considering the weather that day.

Remove from heat and add a bit of rennet dissolved in water.

Attend to normal academic lessons for about a half hour while the milk turns to jelly.

Cut the jelly into squares.

After another short wait, knead the squares into pebble-size curds.

Reheat to as hot as the hands can stand while stirring constantly to keep the curds separated.

Attend to lessons while the pan and contents cool.

Attend to lessons while allowing the contents to drip dry on a screen placed over another basin.

Massage in salt.

Place contents into cans with holes punched in the bottoms and lined with thin cloth. Cover the contents, not the cans, with waxed cardboard. Add stones or bricks on top and trays or even gravel underneath.

            The next day, we had cheese. We removed it from the cans, put each hunk onto clean cloth in the open air, and turned each twice a day until a crust formed. The finished product would not spoil for at least a month.

            Those kids who labored got to take cheese home to their families; those who refused did not get any. None of the kids was incapable of doing at least some of the work. Every kid was free to choose whether to do so, and every kid thus chose the consequences. That was one lesson of Miss McIntyre’s none of us ever forgot.

            My parents liked what I brought home. “Best farmer cheese I’ve ever tasted,” said my father. For months thereafter, in exchange for more cheese, whatever milk he threw away he threw Miss McIntyre’s way… and to neighbors in need by way of enterprising grace.

(Excerpted from the collection of short stories entitled Light Reading: Seven Stories of Protest, available at Amazon.)

 

Light Reading

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