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Fair lets me try my hand at something new

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published April 18, 2006


Fair lets me try my hand at something new

The invitation was innocuous enough.

Could I compete in the Hernando County Fair celebrity cow milking contest? A colleague was unable to make it this year.

I couldn't say no.

Over the past six months I had experienced a series of firsts - airboat ride, snorkeling dive with manatees. Milking a cow - no problem.

To be honest, I was a bit unsure about cow milking. I had seen cows milked before, but I couldn't recall whether I had actually applied hands to teats and milked. But I was old enough to remember when we used to get deliveries of fresh milk daily at home.

The last time I had even remotely tried to milk a cow was more than 30 years ago in the Caribbean. Then I was a city kid visiting relatives in the country. We went into the pasture to watch the neighbors milk their cows. What I remembered from that morning was the smell of the milk and the pain from the thorns in my feet days afterward. City kid that I was, I'd worn rubber flip-flops to the pasture. It was a lesson of a lifetime.

None of that would benefit me as I prepared for Friday's competition, however. The contest had been introduced a few years before as part of an effort to inject new life into the ailing fair. It worked. There were people in the stands.

I was anxious, though.

Imagine going one on one in a cow milking contest and the humiliation of not being able to tease any milk from the cow. I could imagine the headline: "Columnist an udder disaster at milking cows."

Thankfully, it wasn't that complicated. Instead of head to head, cow to cow competition, the 20 "celebrities" were split into two teams of 10. Each team was assigned a cow. State Rep. David Russell, Sheriff Richard Nugent and local historian Virginia Jackson were among members of the opposing team. Former County Commissioner Mary Aiken, smartly clad in her farmer browns, County Commissioners Robert Schenck and Christopher Kingsley, and County Judge Don Scaglione, were among my teammates. We were a preppy band of jeans-denim-shirt-sneaker and cowboy-boot-wearing city slickers trying to make a good impression. With this assortment of business folks, journalist and so many politicians, the barn with its pungency and dirt, seemed an appropriate setting.

In the days leading up to the contest, I had looked to my experienced colleague for advice. He knew about milking cows. He lent me his secret weapon: a balm just for milking hands. You have to build a relationship with the cow, he said. Warm hands enticed milk from the teats. You put your head against the cow's body. Show the cow some love.

These 1,500-pound cows were accustomed to being milked by machines, not by hand at the Rolling Z dairy farm in Brooksville. Each team member milked for 60 seconds. That could be an eternity if the teats didn't respond. With my inexperience, I wasn't going to lead off. I hid my insecurity in the lower half of the line up. I figured I would learn from others, see which nipples produced the most milk. As our team struggled to find the best nipples, I saw Sheriff Nugent on the opposing team expertly squirting milk into the metal pail, left hand, right hand, like a gunslinger with two six-shooters. I could see other team's bucket fill. Team members needed two hands to lift it.

Milking a cow I learned takes practice. The method of alternatively squeezing and pulling with both hands comes naturally to some.

Not me. Maybe I grabbed the wrong teat, but the one in my right hand produced milk, while the manipulations of my left hand produced nothing but air.

Soon it was over. We lost gracefully. After all we weren't grownup farm boys and girls.

Other than their previous competitive experience, most of my teammates had never milked a cow. How far we had strayed from our ancestral agrarian origins.

That's why we have an annual county fair.

To remind us of childhood, the place where fascination begins, where we learn to celebrate life and its simplest pleasures: cotton candy, onion rings, the Ferris wheel, the superslide, bumper cars, sheep, rabbits, and most definitely, our face pressed against the warm underbelly of a cow.

--Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com