Russ Ringsak

Spring in Dairy Country

April 1, 2002

The spring load limits are in force now, to protect the roadbeds from heavy trucks. There are two tiers of state roads in Minnesota, the trunk highways they call 10-ton routes and the local 9-ton routes. From March 20 through May 15 all 9-ton roads automatically become 5-ton, which means 5 tons per axle.
It's a necessary spring thing, but the nature of the dairy business is that nothing in the sequence gets a break, not the cow nor the farmer nor the equipment, nor the roads they haul the milk over. It's more relentless than show business. So in a community based on the sale of milk to the outside world, a law officer isn't expected to be as quick to write tickets to a milk hauler as he might be to some old dog of a flatbed hauling a load of scrap iron. Milk trucks are heavy and the concept of slack has to kick in; folks look the other way for a while in the interest of the greater good. Even if it is hard on the roads.

Purity has a tough time of it in the real world; if you enforce the axle limits to the letter the trucks have to make twice as many trips, take twice the time, burn twice the fuel and cause even more road damage; you pay more for transportation, the price of the milk goes up and the demand goes down and even more farmers are forced out of business. No one but a raving puritan would want those limits strictly applied to milk trucks. The other traffic, fine, but not the milk tankers. It's a clean example of a principle that applies in some way to everything from romance to running a railroad: you can't have a civilized society without slack, no matter what the true believers say.

A big part of the appeal of sports is that on the field of play there is no slack. The tiniest bit of toe on the line and you're out of bounds: the whistle blows and the punishment is dealt right there. There's a wonderful purity about games that way, in that they're different from real life. The rules are clear and they're enforced, in front of a lot of witnesses, and everything happens according to the skill and luck of the players and the human limitations of the officials. (Olympic ice skating is the exception here of course, but ice skating isn't a game.)

But dairy farming is more than economics out there and the traditional easing up on milk tankers is not enough. Some think there isn't enough slack to cut in the whole country to keep things going. Barns fall and people die off and they accept that; what's causing distress is the feeling that the entire system may be dying, that someday there won't be dairy farms every half a mile, that whole counties will be one big dairy farm with a chain link fence around it and an ADM or Time-Warner sign at the gate, and an Ivy League MBA sitting in an office running it.
Driving out to that dairy country one occasionally hears an interesting story, mostly told among old-timers. On a slow afternoon in a tavern two older guys were talking about some of the characters around town. "My old partner, Bill, he had an uncle named Walter who used to own a harness and shoe shop in town here; he was a single guy, very quiet. I kind of think he had some money stashed away, maybe old family money, because he always seemed to be well dressed and he charged such low prices; I think it was all the way into the 60s and he was still charging 15 cents to sew a shoe repair. And he was real good to fix harnesses and stuff.

"Anyway, he always wanted to drive a reliable car, because he played golf, and he'd leave town every weekend and head up to Brainerd and golf. He always drove a Dodge. Every two years he'd call up the Dodge dealer, Sam Kahler, and he'd say, 'Sam, I want to replace my car.' And he'd leave the keys in his car, parked there on the street, and Sam would bring a new one over and leave it, not even come into Walter's shop or anything, and drive the other one back. And a guy that worked there told me that Walter'd never bother to go outside or anything, all day. At closing time he'd go out to the street and find a new Dodge and look in the ash tray for the key and drive it home. He did that for years and years, 7 or 8 cars, he bought that way. Never even knew what color he'd get. Isn't it funny that he wouldn't be a little curious about a brand new car?"
The second man nodded and thought about it for a while. Then he said, "Back in those days a new car was really something. I think we only ever had one new in the family the whole time I was growing up, and I graduated in 1955."

"Ya. It was. It was a really big thing."

They pondered that, and the second man said, "There was a fella in my town back then, Julian, I forget the last name; he moved back here from North Dakota after a homestead claim failed on him. He wasn't much for hard work, and he had about 11 kids and a drinking problem. He did odd jobs around town, handyman stuff. Had a horse and wagon and he did some hauling once in a while, but most of his time he spent at Ruby's Cafe or the back room of the Main Street Lounge, playing cards. His wife didn't much care for this and she let him know it; she was pretty tough on him, but it didn't seem to have much effect.

"The priest was a good guy, Father Joe, and he took sympathy on this Julian, at least he took pity on the family anyway, and he hired him to ring the church bells for Sunday services -- and every day during the week at noon and six o'clock, for supper. He paid him $15 a month and Julian rang the bell at that church for 28 years. The bad part was, he didn't have a watch, and his card-playing pals would change the clock at the Main Street now and then, first just five or ten minutes but after a while it got so the noon bell would sometimes ring at 1:30 in the afternoon. Sometimes 10:45 in the morning. So when the bell rang, you never knew for sure if it was noon or six right on, or if it was one of those other days.

"He'd also have to ring the bell if a Catholic in the parish died. The priest would send someone for Julian and he'd come and toll the bell, one ring for every year of the person's age... People would be able to tell by counting the strikes who it might be. Like if it was 74 times, you'd figure that's probably old Melvin Kotlovitch or somebody like that, 'cause you'd kinda know who was in the hospital and so forth. You know."

"Ya. I guess you could kinda figure it out."

"Ya. Except you couldn't trust that either, if Julian had been drinking when the messenger found him, 'cause he'd lose track of the count. I remember when a young woman died from an accident, and I knew her, of course, she was 20 years old, about five years younger than I was at the time, and I counted those rings and he hit the bell 55 times.

"Finally Father Joe called Julian in and told him he had to let him go, that he just couldn't keep on with all these mistakes, that people were getting upset. And after ringing that bell every day for 28 years, and I'll never forget it, Julian told the priest: 'Well, I can understand, Father... I guess I just wasn't cut out for the bell-ringin' business."

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