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March 2014

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The Manure Pit – A True Story

Written by , Posted in Short Stories, The Farm

You can see by my last name of Kent that I have an auspicious, almost super name to live up to, and by chance, growing up on the Kent farm, wearing  glasses and plaid shirts, throwing hay as a child and even now, putting pen to paper, I have not strayed from the oft used nickname that I have received over the years, but embraced it.  I am a sucker for the super hero, a fanboy, soaking up what stories I can in an attempt to steal a piece of the great tapestry that the likes of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created, reliving those stories as though I was not John, but Clark, leaping tall buildings and stopping bullets.

I believe the world needs heroes, big and small, all with their own great stories to tell and people to inspire; a league of their own. And so it happened one morning after I left the house, bound for the barn to feed my cows, young Holstein heifers destined for milk parlours to produce pure silky delicious milk, that I joined that league of extraordinary.

The barn ran straight for one hundred and eight feet and thirty six  across with a feed alley down the centre, two walk alleys on either side flanked by an elevated row of stalls on each outside wall where those cows should have been lying, chewing their cud.  Built of wood and steel by our own hands, the barn was designed with automatic alley scrapers to clean the manure into the concrete walled pit in the secondary section of the barn.

   It wasn’t an elegant system, often breaking down such that , if we were lucky,  my brother and I were forced to fix the scrapers with sledgehammers, and if we weren’t so lucky, we were forced to clean the alleys with snow shovels before hammering the scrapers flat with sledgehammers. With every consecutive breakdown, the scrapers weakened further, the futility of using them becoming like pushing water uphill with nothing but your hands.

I saw nothing amiss when I entered, but the sounds of animals at the wrong end of the barn alerted me to the error of my assumptions. I felt my heart skip, the thrum in my ears almost deafening, shuddering again and again like the coughing of a tractor as you try to start it in the dead of winter.  When I could breathe again, my eyes adjusted to the half light of the morning, I found more than a disaster. A disaster would have been cows breaking out of the barn and scattering in the night. Cows at the far end of the barn meant only one thing; they were in the pit. DEATH!

In any situation of peril, they, the ever present they of old, they, who tell us when we do things wrong and they, who say what to do when we are in danger, say never to panic, but unfortunately as humans, it is admittedly a natural reaction, one that must be overcome. After a time and much screaming for help, my brother and I stood above the pit looking down at seventeen animals milling in the pit — here is where I must tell you that for those who are weak of stomach, that it will become rather messy from this point forward in the story — the shortest of the animals, the heifer we named Tankcalf, barely keeping her nose above the level of liquid.

Unfortunately, for a hero to create hope, they must first have something to save. On that day, walking into the barn where I should have found animals milling about lowing and chewing their cud, but instead discovered them deep in the pit where only the refuse should be, I knew that in the dark of night, something had skulked through the barn, spooking the cattle, sending them careening like lemmings through two chained gates  and then over the cliff into the half-pumped manure pit. The horror I felt wasn’t just because the animals were locked in a prison filled with poo, but because it was my brother and I who had set that trap, leaving the lid off the night before because we hadn’t yet finished emptying the pit.

Resigned to our task, it took some time to further empty the pit with the tractor and pump such that no animals were injured and then pull the same pump out so we could assess the damage that had been done. Surprisingly however, there was actually very little damage and instead of the animals falling to bended knee, their strength all but drained, we had seventeen robust heifers, all calling out for help, packed into the pit like sardines.

Things happen, gates break and cows perish, but there are times when things can be prevented. In this instance, we can look back, questioning the decisions that we made. Should we have added water to the pit the night before so we could have pumped it further and pulled the pump out immediately? Certainly, but I could just as easily counter with the fact that in your fourteenth or fifteenth hour of work, another hour doesn’t sound terribly safe. Should we have quietly pulled the animals from the pit, executing them for the terrible diseases they could have contracted or the trauma they had suffered, knowing that more likely than not, we would have to pull them from the pit with chains around crushed necks? We certainly could have, but a trait some call tenacity and others, stubbornness, drove us to get help and do it properly.

Of course as good farming stories go, there is no disaster that doesn’t get better with a phone call to the neighbour and so within minutes there weren’t two farmers with crossed arms looking down at the cows, but three, all sharing the same furrowed brows and pursed lips. Whether by wisdom or pride, thankfully we stopped short of calling more people and so there was no zoo on our lawn of firemen and media reporters; that, we left for the day the silo burnt.

George came with a fist full of ideas so soon we drafted a plan, replete with chains, hip-waders , and me climbing into the pit, eight feet down and it four feet deep. Down I went into the depths of hell, my hip-waders over coveralls, two pairs of gloves and a memory of a rope tied around my waste so I didn’t fall in the ooze and get trampled by frightened heifers. It was a strange feeling, walking through four foot thick mud that parts at the top but drags you down from below, mud with a heavy pungent stench that burns the nostrils  eliciting an immediate gag reflex. Is it a blessing that my nose doesn’t work in those times or simply the reason I get the short end of the stick?

The first heifer was the easiest to secure, standing with her head up like she basked in the summer sun as I threw the chain over her. I half wonder how much of it was due to her lack of mobility and strength and how much was her wanting to be rid of her prison cell as she waited stoically for me to signal to George above. She was composed as my brother started the tractor and gently edged the loader arms up, dragging her out of the muck with a terrible wet ripping sound as he she broke free of the vacuum keeping her sealed within the tomb we occupied. She inched upwards, stretching out to her full length, hundreds of pounds dangling above my head until my brother shifted the tractor backwards and set her down on the ledge of the pit. SUCCESS.

Hushed silence reigned for a few seconds until a vial of medicine was administered and she was released into the adjoining barn, shaking her head and prancing around like a horse frolicking in the rain. She lifted her neck, shaking her head vigorously as she kicked out with all four feet, spending her last energy in triumph. Animals do have emotions and hers was relief.

I am not sure how many hours we worked that day, pulling the animals one by one from the pit, the level of manure shrinking with every prisoner released, the last few animals gaining enough room and strength to run, forcing us to lasso them from above long enough that I could secure the chain, their lifeline of safety.

   And then I was free of the prison, my skin drenched in sweat and my legs shaking visibly as I threw the gloves to the ground knowing they’d been breached, not caring because I was alive and so were the heifers. My clothes we burned, my arms I washed in bleach, but my animals, with no doubt in my mind, we saved.