Let’s go, guys. Time to get up,” a loud voice said, unconcerned that my exhausted body needed more rest. “Yeah,” I moaned in my most convincing tone. I rolled 90 degrees and half opened one eye to see what time it was. The illuminated digital clock read 4:35 a.m. in bright red. Dad’s portly figure towered at the bedroom door. The hallway light surrounded him, giving him the aura of a heavenly messenger dressed in white. Dad’s message, however, was not exactly prophetic: “We’ve got cows to milk. You guys awake?”
“Okay, okay,” Steve said slightly annoyed.
I closed my eyes, then felt my nose with my hand. It must have been ten degrees colder than the rest of my body, which was warmed by a stack of six blankets. I snuggled, eyes closed, listening to the wind howl outside the bedroom window. I heard the bathroom door open. “Let’s go, Steve,” I said to my brother as I slowly rolled to the edge of my bed. I flipped back the covers, sat up, and quickly pulled my pants over the insulated socks and long johns I wore all night. I grabbed one flannel shirt and slipped it on, then imitated the procedure with a second.
I heard the back door close as I headed downstairs. Steve was right behind me. In the coatroom I donned another pair of pants over the ones I had on, then two more flannel shirts of a quilted style, and a dirty green army jacket. Snowmobile boots, a heavy winter cap over my ears, a thick scarf, and sheepskin gloves completed the outfit. I took a deep breath and looked at Steve. He glanced back, in almost identical clothing. We pulled open the door and stepped out into eight inches of swirling, drifting snow.
Steve’s voice was muffled by the scarf over his mouth, but I detected a sarcastic tone as he talked, “Sure is a lovely morning.”
“Yeah,” I replied, pointing to the thermometer by the milk house. “Let’s check the temperature.”
Out of habit, we walked single file, stepping in Dad’s boot tracks. The barn lights shone brightly through the windows. I could see Dad’s reflection and knew he was throwing hay to the cows. Half asleep and shivering I was barely aware of what I was doing. Dad, however, was bustling around feeding and checking each cow to make sure she had made it through the night okay. We both stopped at the telephone pole, and Steve scraped the ice off the thermometer as I adjusted my view of the mercury. “It’s only twelve below,” I mumbled, “five degrees warmer than yesterday morning.”
As we stepped in the barn and untied our scarves, the warm air penetrating our nostrils was filled with the sweet aroma of oat straw and alfalfa hay. Johnny, our dog, ran to greet us. We each took a second to say good morning to him. Then, without speaking to each other, we moved to do our preassigned chores. In sleepy silence Steve and I prepared to milk as Dad fed the cows. The clanking of neck chains and hooves on concrete was drowned out when I turned on the radio.
As we milked I watched Dad and wondered what it would be like without him. He never missed a morning in the barn. He was never late, and he never complained. No matter what happened (and things inevitably would go wrong, especially in cold weather) he always handled it with cool, efficient professionalism. I wished I could be as patient as he was. He always shared a positive attitude, explaining that things were never as bad as they could be.
The next words were spoken half an hour later when Dad said he needed to check the heifer barn to make sure the water wasn’t frozen. We heard on the radio the wind chill outside was about 55 below. He left but returned in five minutes. We watched as he got the propane torch. “Not too bad,” he shouted cheerfully on his way back out the door.
“I’ll bet that water is frozen solid. He just doesn’t want us to get perturbed at the cold.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “that’s Dad.”
At 6:45 Steve and I were almost done milking. Dad returned. “Took you awhile, Dad. Everything okay up there?” I asked.
“No problem. Everything’s fine,” he said reassuringly.
I looked at Steve in disbelief. His face said without words exactly what I was thinking. “Right, Dad!”
We assembled in a circle and made sure each one knew what needed to be done before breakfast. After deciding who would do what, we dispersed. It took an extra 30 minutes on cold winter mornings to make sure every water line, calf, cow, tractor, and truck was safeguarded from the elements. I took some shortcuts while cleaning the feeder, hoping Dad wouldn’t check. It was a dumb thing to hope, but my fingers were numb and my nose resembled a circus clown’s. Of course Dad checked and discovered my slothfulness. As I refroze my fingers finishing what I hadn’t done before, I imitated Laman and Lemuel and murmured against Dad’s thoroughness.
At 7:20 we sealed up the barn and braved the bitter cold again on our way to the house. Around the breakfast table we discussed the things to do today and decided who would be responsible for each. The list seemed long, especially when I thought of the icy cold weather.
I expressed my disgust at the arctic conditions and complained to Dad about all the trivial things he wanted done. He smiled and explained the importance of each of the “trivial” jobs. I nodded in agreement, my face indifferent. Strangely, I looked forward to the next eight hours. I didn’t realize it then, but Dad was teaching me each day invaluable lessons about responsibility and preparedness. I was in the eighth grade.
Twelve years have passed since that cold January morning. We don’t milk cows anymore, but Dad hasn’t changed a bit. He still shares a positive attitude even after a crippling accident that has left him disabled. The lessons he taught us surface in my conversations and experiences all the time now. At last I understand what he has taught me by his example. I love my dad.