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  • Nora Koch

This essay was originally posted on Facebook in 2017

A way to get to know a farm intimately is to follow its cow paths. One of our jobs as little girls was to go get the cows from pasture for evening milking. We’d moved from the farmstead on the north side to the farmstead on south side of the road when I was four, but kept the cows in the pasture on the north side during the summer. In the early days, we had a mixed cowherd with Guernsey, Jersey and large, docile Holsteins. Most of them towered over us, yet I was never afraid to go with my sisters to round them up and bring the cows home. It was one of my favorite things to do. The lane from the vacant barn to the pasture was a favorite place. A cow path meandered along it and when it had not rained for a while, the dirt on it was as soft as cornstarch into which our bare toes sank.

Once released from the confines of the lane, cow paths spread out to different corners of the pasture, eventually disappearing altogether. In one place instead of going around a bush, the path went right through it. I could crouch amid the branches on either side and watch the cows pass through, late afternoon sunlight illuminating their legs. To the east, the pasture rose up a low hill into scattered trees, some of them apple trees from a long gone homestead. Lilac bushes grew there, indicating the margins of an abandoned yard. The pasture ended up across the road from Grandma and Grandpa’s house, about a quarter of a mile away from our farmstead.

One spring when I was three, Mom had gotten chicks in the mail and was keeping them in a newspaper-covered room upstairs until she could transfer them into the coop. She probably did this to protect them from raccoons. My sister Jan and our cousin Roger found worms and were feeding them to the very enthusiastic chicks. My cousin Holly, Roger’s sister and I, wanted some worms too, but Jan and Roger didn’t want to share them with us, so we went looking for them ourselves.

We wandered out behind the barn, looking around the stone pile. Unaware that we needed to overturn the stones to find the worms, we proceeded along the lane on the cow path. Once in the pasture, we finally settled for lichen found on low hanging branches of Hawthorne trees. We reasoned they looked like worms, and headed home to feed them to the chicks. Taking a shortcut across an alfalfa field, Jan and Roger (5 and 6 years old), met us half way and spanked Holly and me (three year olds). In her alarm at finding us missing, Mom had called the police, but I explained to her that we knew right where we were and assured her we could see Grandpa and Grandma’s house all along.

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  • Nora Koch

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

The Cadre (mixed race), were passing my desk and greeted us with big smiles “Hi Ladies!”

My co-worker J. and I laughed and smiled. She said, “They think we are talking about unimportant, easy things.” We were in fact discussing our respective experiences of being beaten by our ex-husbands. This was my first grown-up job. I worked for ROTC on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus. J. was the federal Secretary and I the state.

Major Spriggs, our boss, was the first black person I ever knew. I met him as he interviewed me for a position with the Military Science Department at UW-Platteville. I was nonplussed to see his black hand across the table from mine during the interview. I had never seen black skin up close. I needed the position, but I knew at that moment that even more I needed to work with him. Fair, funny and diligent, he was one of the best bosses I have ever had; in company with a small select group all of whom but one have been men.

I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and then western Wisconsin. There were no black people in my life – none, not even in college, though while I was a student at UW-Stout in 1972, I did go to listen to Angela Davis speak and concluded at the end of it that she hated us all.

Major Spriggs was part of the company of Army guys who helped me move from one old Victorian house to another. He, his wife Fanny and two young sons, Derrick and Pickles became my neighbors. They came over for dinner, felt sorry for me that I had no wine glasses and bought me some. Fanny often lamented “You are a hard man, Jack,” but it seemed to me they loved each other well enough.

Major Spriggs liked to glower at J. and me as he came into work in the morning. We laughed about how he was trying to scare the little white girls. He was Adjutant (Chief paper pusher, as he said), was good at it and required that we be good at it. He remarked many times how much he hated Physical Training (PT), and camping; how he loved concrete and bright lights. We thought in that regard that he was crazy.

Sergeant Major Spikes from Louisiana, also a black man, served multiple tours in Vietnam prior to coming to Platteville ROTC. He was noble; devoted to his wife and family, one of the gentlest people I have ever met. In his position as Sergeant Major it was he who taught the cadets how to be in the Army. He was responsible for their PT and as cadets they were his subordinates. After the swearing in ceremony, a newly commissioned smirking First Lieutenant approached him, gloating in the fact that Sergeant Major Spikes was now required to salute him. Sergeant Major Spikes’ salute was disciplined and professional; in my eyes his patience even more impressive.

Sargent Major M., Sargent Major Spikes' predecessor, appalled me by his total lack of a conscience. One day as I suggested that he had a responsibility toward the children he had sired, he remarked “You mean to tell me that if I spill my seed, I am responsible?!” I couldn’t believe it, but told him that “Yes”, I thought so.

Major Spriggs was replaced by a black major, whose wife R. became a good friend. Through her I got to experience a Baptist worship service for the first time. Unbeknownst to her, while I was in the midst of drawing various women as Arwen from the Lord of the Rings, did one of her on a horse. Her husband was not a great boss, not a good Adjutant. J., a professional, who had worked there for five years, fed up with doing her job and his while being badgered by him, quit. I left soon after.

These were my first encounters with black people.

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  • Nora Koch

Except of course, for not having Mass, not being able to meet with those whom I love, not walking to work, or seeing the people I work with each day, not feeling safe in a grocery store, not being able to find toilet paper, things seem the same as ever.

Everything looks the same, but nothing is the same. It seems to me we are being called to repentance, as we always are, but now, like the Israelites, either left in a ravished land, or hauled off to a place they did not want to go, we are made aware of our peril.

I am left alone with my husband, who before the “Shelter in Place,” order, was sheltering in place for two months, recovering from a wrist operation and was scheduled to go back to work this week. We have been surprisingly good to each other during this time, and I am grateful that he is in my life. I shudder when I think of weathering this alone, as I was for 25 years before I married him. He has had to interrupt drawings for a new painting of Mary and the Child Jesus to keep away from, our friends, the Mother and three-year-old son, models.

The day before the likely lock down, we drove to Maiden Rock, and hiked back a half hour to the edge of the cliff where he painted and I prayed, read and mused, since I forgot to replace the SD card in my camera. On the way home, we stopped at the Ellsworth Creamery and from the parking lot, called in our order for cheese curds; they brought them out, with gloved hands. Except for the parking lot exchange, this day was not unlike others we have had. One would never know what was going on in the world.

I don’t much like myself these days: I see my sins too clearly, repent of them and then see more, or commit them again. All of the things I planned to do at home when I had time stare me in the face. I get some of them done, but realize my plans are a joke.

Yet I am grateful for the opportunity to watch Bishop Barron’s Mass and know that my friends watch the same mass; to go to drive by confession given by our treasured Pastor and Associate Priest. I pray throughout the day, especially for our friends who have the Corona Virus, one of whom is recovering, the other ventilated and in danger. I pray for friends who suddenly lost their daughter-in-law and I pray for friends who both have cancer, who I may never see again. In addition, I pray all my old prayers, and clutch a rosary dragged around France by my friend for me and touched to holy sites, which makes it a third-class relic. I love the saints that pray with me.

I awake saying Veni Sanctus Spiritus. Veni Per Miriam.

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