When I was a small boy and new in that town, I encountered Lowell Foss. Mr. Foss was formidable in size and friendly approach, but nobody had told me about him. So I was intimidated indeed when he appeared out of nowhere in front of me, thrust an enormous thumb under my nose, and said, "Smell what I put on my cows to keep off the flies!" I smelled, and his thumb did have an odd flavor. Evidently satisfied, Lowell walked down the sidewalk. When I asked about him, I was told, "Oh, that's just Lowell Foss. He's harmless. Ask him to make you a rhyme."
Not long after, I had a chance to ask Mr. Foss to tell me a rhyme, and he said, "I can't tell rhymes all the times." He was, nonetheless, our village laureate, and when he did make an off-the-cuff verse it wasn't all that bad. Probably we're fortunate his poetry is lost; he couldn't write, and nobody ever set any down. But what he put on his cows to keep off the flies, either in poetry or prose, should have been preserved.
In the time of Lowell Foss, insecticides had not been perfected, for man or beast, and Lowell may have had a sonnet of rare value had it been printed in The Rural New Yorker.
As custodian of our family cow since I was big enough, I know what I'm writing about. At the proper time, in late afternoon, I'd disengage my Blackie from the tether that had kept her on grass all day, and then I'd run like a bunny to keep up with her as she bolted for her stanchion in the tie-up.
Poetry, such as "the lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea," is an utter absurdity. Before walking to get Blackie, I'd dump a dipper of dairy ration in her feed box, and she knew this as well as I did. Once the snap was taken off her halter, she was free to get to that grain by herself. She didn't need anybody to lead her; she knew the way.
When I arrived in the tie-up, she was engrossed in her pleasures, and I would have a bit of a tussle to get the stanchion chain fitted to her neck. When I did, the next thing was to get her bounty into a pail, and that's where the flies come in.
Blackie, coming into the stable as I have described, was distracted from the pesky flies that persisted in rural affairs and were fond of her. "Let 'em bite" was her attitude as she lapped up her ration. She paid no heed even to the kind young man who fixed her supper. The kind young man was now on his stool, off the starboard stern, about to extract the lacteal fluid, and this was indeed the finest time of day and full of blessed pleasure for the happiest cow in the world. Then, all at once, Blackie would be reminded of flies.
Something had diverted her attention, and now she was coming back. Flies were riding on her back all up and down. So she'd wind up that tail, which is made like a broom handle with a broom on the end. The tail is to swish the broom part, and the broom part is to swoosh the flies so they whirl up in a flock and buzz about in annoyance until they settle down again just as they were before the swoosh.
The moral of this story is that the fine young man on the stool, whom we well esteemed up front, is severely treated down back. The tail whacks him on the left ear, and the bushy, broomlike end wraps around his neck and causes him to say, "So, so, bossy, so!" Losing the rhythm of his manipulation, he unwinds the tail and composes himself. Blackie will do this again, when you least expect it. The maneuver has no effect whatever on the fly situation. Flies went with the cows.
The first effective relief from flies was an ointment, or perhaps a paste, that came in a small round can like that for shoe polish. You rubbed some on the backs of your hands and around your ears, and it discouraged everything from coming anywhere near. The stuff was called Woodsman.
Many years ago, I was with Flint Johnson on Spencer Stream, and as we sat on two rocks eating, Flint said, "Couple coming down the trail."
Some 20 minutes later, two men came along the river trail, saluted us, and kept on going. I said, " How did you know those jokers were coming?"
"Smelled the Woodsman."
"But you knew they'd be two."
"Yeah. Too much for one, but not enough for three. Elementary."
I NEVER knew anybody who was sure of the ingredients in Woodsman. While they did keep flies at a distance, they also rendered the user unloved and unwelcome not only through fly time, but even unto his third generation. Fly time, in the Maine that was, ran from soon after Christmas right through to turkey hash.
We have left the fine young man on a milking stool, artfully applying his skill, and we have seen gentle Blackie absorbed in her gastronomic pleasures, and we may rightfully expect to see Blackie switch her tail again and swish the fine young man again.
But no! To frustrate future attacks, the young man has resorted to a stratagem. If you noticed, he reached over with his left hand, continuing to strum with his right, and grasping the tail, he brought his hand downward until it had the brush, or bushy part, and he brought that part over and tucked it slyly into his left popliteal cavity.
And now, by pulling his left foot back he effects a vise, and he has Blackie's tail in a bind. She can't wander off in her thoughts and belt him again. She can, however, try. And now with his pail nearly full, the young man is jerked off his stool popliteously, and if he spills the milk Old Saw says it is nothing to cry about. There isn't a great deal more than that to be remembered about fly time Down East.