Growing up on a farm, there were plenty of jobs to do. But milking the cows was my favorite chore. Mother liked me to milk the cows because she was convinced they gave more milk when they were listening to music. When I milked the cows, I sang to them.
Early one September evening I began milking and singing to our cow Old Spooky. She had been raised on the range and hadn’t taken kindly to being milked, so sometimes milking her was a struggle. I was singing my most soothing song, developing a kind of mesmerizing rhythm, when a rock landed on the tin roof right above Spooky and me. Spooky’s reaction to the noise was both violent and predictable. I found myself dazed and flat on my back, ten feet away from the milk stool. My arm felt like it was broken, and the milk pail lay dirty and dented in the manure. I sat there for a few moments trying to figure out what had happened when I heard a shrill, fiendish laugh emanating from the street immediately outside our fence. The laugh told me the source of my troubles. It was also my first introduction to Winferd.
When I stepped out of the shed, I saw the little towheaded neighbor boy convulsing with laughter. Obviously, he had never before witnessed anything so funny. I shouted a few well-chosen words hoping to intimidate him and thwart a repeat performance.
Several days passed, and I had almost forgotten my little seven-year-old troublemaker. I was confident my threats had deterred him from further mischief when one day I was milking Old Spooky and the clangor on the tin shed triggered a performance from Spooky that would have done credit to a rodeo Brahma bull. The only difference this time from the first rock-throwing episode was that I didn’t get kicked. Spooky had stepped in the milk bucket, bending it beyond repair. Without even looking, I knew who had thrown the rock. I leaped the corral fence and caught Winferd in full cackle. I grabbed him, then twisted his arm until I extracted a promise that he wouldn’t do it again. But Winferd was not intimidated. As soon as I released him, he crawled through the fence that surrounded his lot. When he was sure I couldn’t overtake him, he shouted a defiant, “I’ll do it again!”
And he did. Again and again and again, each with diabolical variations. He filled my milk buckets with manure and hayleaves. He opened the gate and chased my animals. There was no end to his ingenuity. I caught Winferd several times and gave him a good pummeling and rubbed his face with fresh cow manure—all to no avail. Winferd was having too much fun. He met my threats with “I’ll do it again” whenever he felt he could elude me.
While Winferd seemed to be thriving, my relationship with my mother was deteriorating badly. She couldn’t understand how a little seven-year-old boy could outguess a fifteen-year-old. My fall from grace with Mom pained me. One day, I explained my situation to my older brother, who was home from college. He listened quietly and then took an excruciatingly long time before he spoke. I expected him to tell me some way to get revenge.
His answer was both disappointing and unbelievable.
“Why don’t you try killing him with kindness?” he said.
“I’ll kill him, all right, but not with kindness,” I blurted out. After I finished, my brother could see I was overwhelmed with frustration and malice.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s the way to do it. Kill him with kindness.” Then he continued. “I’ve got a dime. Here, take it. The next time you catch this Winferd, act as angry as usual. Grab him by his collar and drag him to the store and buy an ice cream cone for each of you.”
“Waste a nickel on that brat?” I was incredulous.
“What have you got to lose?” he asked. “It’s my dime. You’ve tried everything you could think of and it hasn’t worked.”
It was a measure of the depth of my frustration that I even agreed to try what seemed like a silly plan. I figured even if his plan didn’t work I would at least get an ice cream cone out of it.
I didn’t have long to wait to try my brother’s crazy experiment. The following Monday, I was feeding the animals when I spotted Winferd sneaking around the far corner of the barn. It took a bit of doing to both catch him and not give in to my anger and frustration. After I caught him, I marched Winferd the two blocks to the store with him resisting every step of the way. I then ordered two ice cream cones. One for me and one for Winferd. Nellie, the storekeeper, was mystified. She was not accustomed to seeing anyone being coerced into taking a cone, least of all a young boy.
Winferd was clearly baffled at this strange turn of events. As we started for home, I kept a tight grip on his collar. Soon, however, I felt Winferd relax as he licked his unexpected bounty. I let go of Winferd, and we walked slowly together to my gate. What an unlikely and unexpected scenario—tormentor walking with the tormented, and both eating ice cream as if nothing had ever happened between them.
As we arrived at the gate, I turned in and Winferd went his way toward home. Neither of us had said a word. I was left to wonder: What next? I was troubled with mixed emotions. Our walk together had given me a small ray of hope that things could be different between us. But our silence seemed to prevent that from occurring. Nothing prepared me for what would happen next.
The following morning as I went out the back door of our home with my milk buckets, scarcely able to see in the early morning twilight, there, huddled on the step, was Winferd. He timidly asked, “Can I help with the chores?” All of the bravado was gone. Only a ragged little towhead remained who wanted to be noticed and loved.
After that, Winferd was a joy to be around. Sometimes he was like a friendly, loving, eager-to-please puppy. In the ensuing years he spent much of his time at our place, often only going home to eat his meals. Until I went away to college, a blond, loving friend often worked at my side, quick to be helpful, never demanding or expecting any kind of remuneration. None of us in those Depression years had money to spare. Winferd knew how it was and worked willingly just to be around someone who cared. After high school I served a mission, went to college, and joined the Air Force, and our paths seldom crossed. I missed Winferd, and was full of sorrow when I learned he had been killed in World War II.
I often think of Winferd, and when I do I see in my mind’s eye a ragged little boy lofting a rock onto our tin shed, hoping someone—anyone—would notice and love him. I also pay tribute to a loving and insightful older brother who had the compassion and vision to understand that a towheaded kid could become a friend for life for the price of a five-cent ice cream cone.