It was nine o'clock. I was just about to crawl into bed with my sister, Laura. With the ring of a phone, pandemonium broke loose downstairs. People were shouting, doors were slamming, and Mom (who was upstairs with me) started yelling for me. I scrambled out of bed and ran to her room. "Yes?" I asked. "The barn's flooded. Get out there and help your dad."
Downstairs, I put coveralls over my pajamas, slipped my boots on and ran through the cold night to the barn. My youngest sister, Mary, followed me.
A flooded barn is never a good thing, but it can be a disaster in the middle of winter. The water goes into the gutter behind the cows and if it freezes, you can have one long gigantic iced cube. The gutter is where the cows drop their waste. A metal chain in the gutter runs along and pulls all the manure out of the barn. If it freezes, then you can't take the manure out of the barn, which causes a host of problems.
At first I didn't see any water. All the aisles were dry. But then I looked in the gutter. The water was almost a foot deep on the east end of the barn, and it was slowly making its way toward the much colder west end.
My sister Andrea was in the south calf pen, madly shoveling wet bedding and water out of it. It was a strange sight. Water filled the pen. The bedding floated on top like some strange floating island. The inhabitant of this sorry mess, a newborn heifer calf, was hopping around miserably. She kept trying to get on top of the bedding, which wasn't working so well.
I started scooping out the water onto the walkway, where it would pour into the gutters. As we worked, Andrea told me what had happened. Dad had been storing an old pillar in the calf pen. The dog or the calf must have knocked it over, and the post fell on a drinking cup, snapping it neatly off the wall, leaving the hose it was attached to running. It was a miracle that it was even discovered. Dad had been in the basement putting more wood in the furnace when he heard the well pump running. He knew there wasn't any water running in the house, so he had gone out to the barn to investigate.
The calf was fine, but she was starting to panic. I picked her up and carrying her on my shoulders, I put her in the north pen and told Mary to get a towel and dry her off. I went back to help Andrea finish cleaning out the pen. Dad was there, fixing the drinking cup, and he immediately gave me a different job. "Sarah," he said. "You've got to stop the water from getting to the west end of the barn. If it gets down there and freezes, I don't know what we're going to do. Use as much straw as you have to, soak the water up and keep it from going any farther."
I ran and got the wheelbarrow and quickly filled it with bedding. Then I took it around the barn, stuffing straw in every space I could find in the gutter. I did this again and again.
By the time I was done, Andrea had cleaned and bedded the pen. Dad had fixed the drinking cup, and Mary had the calf dry.
"I'm done," I told Dad.
"I hope it works," he said, "Why do things like this always happen right when it gets below zero?"
"Murphy's Law, " I said, and laughed.
I carried the calf back to her pen. She lay down quickly, sighing and shivering. "Poor baby," I said, kneeling by her. "You were really scared weren't you?" I took her soft brown head in my hands and rubbed under her chin softly. Instantly, she relaxed. In a few seconds she was asleep.
"Oh!" Mary cried sympathetically, "the poor baby!" As I stood up Mary lay down next to the calf and hugged her. An orange cat immediately leapt up on my sister's back and curled up on her neck.
"Oh, Sarah, look!" she breathed, "Isn't she cute?" But really Mary was the cute one. Her messy blond hair spilled out from under her hat, framing her face, which was rosy red from the cold, her big blue eyes shining.
Not a lot of kids would willingly get out of bed to go outside in the freezing cold and deal with such a mess. "Thanks for coming out, Mary." I said, "You were a big help."
The next morning, it took Dad and I a long time to clean the barn because the gutters were so full of bedding. But we were just glad the gutters hadn't frozen.
Before Dad went to spread the load he came in and talked to me. "Well, good thing it didn't freeze," he said. "I don't know what we would've done then." Tongue in cheek, I replied, "I guess we would have had to shovel it all out by hand." I expected him to laugh, but instead he considered my comment seriously. "I never thought of that," he said, "I guess you get so dependent on machinery, you forget. Yeah, that's how we did it when I was a teenager." He laughed and started to walk away. "Well, that makes me feel a lot better," he said. "We'll never have to be afraid if that happens again."
I watched him go, stunned. I couldn't believe it. The idea of shoveling all the manure out by hand made him feel better? I fervently hoped I would never have to do that. Did he realize how many wheelbarrow loads of manure that would be? It would take all day! If not two....
Farm Fact: Cows can sense an impending storm by the lowering pressure before a storm and will lie down.