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I heard the sound of milk hitting the metal pail

COWS make nice neighbors. Although my cow neighbors have lived all of their lives in the country, you can tell I have not. When I see a pasture full of bovine creatures of assorted age and sex, I say ``cows.'' A real country person would, of course, call them cattle. My grandpa called them cattle. My parents were born on farms, and I've never known either of them to make the mistake of calling a mixed herd ``cows.''

I was born in the city. I try to remember the proper terms when I am talking to a real farmer, but inside, I still think - ``cows.''

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I am not close to ... cattle ... often, but sometimes when I walk by the pasture up the road or Farmer Duncan's herd is feeding across from our mailbox, I try talking to them over the fence. Cows are very good listeners. They pay attention most of the time, eyeing me with patience and curiosity.

They will listen to my political opinions or a speech about the state of the world and offer neither shocked disbelief nor heated rebuttal. In what is called polite society, we humans often feel it is wise to keep some of our thoughts to ourselves. Not so with cows. It is safe to try out any idea on the neighborhood cow. The worst she can do is turn her back and walk away. I'm not sure even that can be taken as a rebuke.

Though I am most familiar with cows face to face, I do know where milk comes from. When I was in grade school, we visited my uncle's farm in Indiana one summer, and he taught me to milk. His herd was small and milking was a hands-on experience - no machinery involved. I can shut my eyes right now and remember what milk sounds like hitting the bottom of a metal pail.

Cows are huge and solid, especially when you are 9 and sitting under one, but I don't remember being afraid. Most cows do not present a threatening attitude, and my uncle's herd was well tamed by his friendly association with it.

Many times since that summer I have wondered if I could still milk a cow. Thinking through the process as I remembered it, I was confident that I could, but my ability has remained untested.

Marilynn and Bob, neighbors down the road a couple of miles, usually keep a cow or two. Not long ago, when Mary Lou was the resident Holstein, Bob had to be away from the farm for a few days.

And that's another thing I have learned about country living. You can't just leave a farm and go off on vacation. One does not drop off the cow, four dozen rabbits, and a truck full of chickens at the neighbors and leave for the seashore. Neighbors are always willing to help out, but asking for full baby-sitting services for a barn full of animals is a bit much when everyone who has a farm here is already working a 26-hour day.

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So Marilynn and Bob have rarely left the farm, and if they do leave, they don't go together. This time, Bob was the one who had to go up north to a meeting. Marilynn stayed at home with her chickens, the rabbits, and Mary Lou.

MARILYNN is as much a product of city living as I am. By then she certainly had more experience with a farm than I had, but when the time came to milk Mary Lou, she called me. She was confident, but I decided from the sound of her voice that my past experience with cow-milking could, in the name of friendship, be of some help. I even harbored the secret thought that my long-untested abilities would come forth and save the day.

Marilynn was in the barn when I arrived. Mary Lou stood by the rail fence awaiting procedures. She was stamping her feet and flicking her tail nervously. I wondered if she did that when Bob milked.

I walked in a wide circle behind the cow and found Marilynn scooping grain into a feed bucket. She was talking to herself. ``Five scoops of grain in this bucket. Get the wash water and a clean rag....''

Her verbal countdown continued as we approached the job at hand, and I learned something else. Cows can roll their eyes.

Close up, Mary Lou looked bigger than my uncle's cows had. I regretted ever telling Marilynn what I had done when I was 9. However, Marilynn is a good friend, so I stayed steadfastly in the game, standing by a short distance away while feeding and washing-up proceeded. Then Marilynn sat down. I shut my eyes.

Pretty soon I heard the sound of milk hitting the bottom of a metal pail. I opened my eyes. Marilynn was looking up at me.

``Hey,'' she said, ``you could help.'' I held my breath as my thoughts whirled back to my uncle's farm.

``Please,'' asked Marilynn, ``she keeps swatting me. Would you come over here and hang on to her tail?''

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