Special to the Armenian Weekly
I always felt different growing up. It’s kind of hard not to when there are two Brandons in your class, three Ashleys, two Tylers, and your name is Sebouh and you bring lebneh and pita bread sandwiches to lunch.
I grew up in northern Wisconsin in rural and isolated old logging and mining towns that you might say were dwindling, but if you did, you’d be wrong—these towns were dwindling when they were founded. While there is an Armenian community near Milwaukee, Ashland, which was the nearest city of any importance (population 8000!) to where I lived, was hundreds of miles north of it. In other words, my family was its own Armenian community. We were all alone. Due to being the only Armenians in an area that probably corresponded in size to about ten Republics of Armenia, we were viewed as exotic, enigmatic outsiders. I got fairly used to people asking if my name was “Sebastian” or mispronouncing my name as “Seth” or “Zeb” (and at points in high school I playfully encouraged this, convincing people that my name was short for “Sebediah”). But it wasn’t until I started my first job that I realized just how different my family was from our neighbors.
When I was fifteen, just as my freshman year of high school was wrapping up, a neighbor, Tim O’Donnell, asked my dad if any of his three sons might be interested in helping around the farm at the end of the road. I had seen Tim around, but none of us knew him well. Despite this, he was always very friendly to us, in a neighborly way. When he’d see us on the road, bike riding or walking our dogs, he’d always slow his big, red Ford pickup down so as to not kick up dust or run us off the road. He’d usually wave or say “howdy” out of his window. He once pulled our car out of one of their fields when my aunt, visiting from California, had slid on ice and went off the road.
My dad told me about running into Tim later that day. The decision had already been made for me—I would contact Tim and tell him that I was interested in working on the farm (since I was 15, I didn’t have a say in the matter). My dad had decided that not only was I going to work on the farm, but so was my brother, Van, who was fourteen at the time. My dad thought that it would be a good experience for us, something to build character, and teach us the value of money.
A few days later, Van and I walked to the end of the road and into a large barn beside the O’Donnells’ house. Tim and another man, who we found out was his brother, Mark, greeted us. They told us what they needed us to do and then asked us to come back Saturday morning at 3:30.
That Saturday, my dad woke us up at three a.m., made us tea, and then walked us down our block-long driveway to the road. From there Van and I made our way to the barn.
Our first duty was to shovel any cow patties off from behind the cows or from the walkway into a “U” shaped ditch that surrounded it. A conveyor led the manure out of the barn, dropping it off in a field. After that we were to spread lime, a white powder, underneath each and every one of the ninety cows. I think that this was a disinfectant. We were then to prep for milking by rubbing the udders of the ninety cows with moist towelettes, being sure that we cleaned off any manure that might have splashed onto the udders. Usually this manure would have dried, caking itself to the them. This required us to scrape the waste off of the teats with our fingernails (which were underneath white surgical gloves). We also had to be on the look-out for staph infections. This whole process usually took an hour and a half to two hours, after which we would shovel hay and corn into a wheelbarrow and then go around throwing it in front of the cows. We did this as the O’Donnell brothers finished milking the cows (they used milk machines that they placed upon each of the cows’ four udders). We would then wash off the milking machines in a sink using dish soap and do one final sweep for manure before leaving around 6:30 or seven in the morning.
Van joined me for a weekend or two, however, one weekend he was going out of town with our mom. We told the O’Donnells in advance that Van would miss a weekend. They said that it would be fine. On one of the days that Van didn’t show up Tim pulled me aside and said:
“You know, your brother is fourteen. When you are fourteen you don’t really want money. When you are fifteen you want money, but not when you are fourteen. I don’t think that your brother really wants money that much.”
I thought that this excuse was strange and half-hashed, especially because he had just been telling me about how his twelve-year-old son was always asking for money to buy toys. I figured that they didn’t have enough money to pay both Van and me since they had only asked for one of us to work for them to begin with and my dad has misunderstood.
The following Saturday I went to the farm without Van under the impression that they didn’t want him to work for them any longer. I went out about the duties by myself. While I was preparing the cows, Tim turned to me:
“Where’s Van today?”
“Huh?” I asked.
“Bet he’s in bed, huh?” Mark chuckled. Of course he was in bed—who wouldn’t be at three in the morning?
“Um, he’s not coming in today,” I replied, confused.
“Huh. Well, tell him to come in whenever,” Tim said. This really perplexed me because Tim had told me the week before that they didn’t want Van to work for them. Now it seemed that he was inviting Van to come and work, but not for pay. Nobody would want to do that kind of work for no money. Van wasn’t going to volunteer at the farm. I didn’t blame him.
I spent the next five months, every weekend, reporting to the farm at 3:30 am. Sometimes I would work double shifts, going in on the afternoon as well if one of Tim’s or Mark’s kids, who usually worked the afternoon milking shifts, were busy. The O’Donnells would occasionally inquire about Van’s wellbeing or whereabouts.
“What’s Van been up to lately?” Tim would ask.
“Probably creepin’,” Mark would reply.
“Yeah, he’s probably creepin’ outside the barn right now!” Tim suggested amidst laughter. I never really understood this or got why it was funny to them, but I played along with it.
My parents are highly educated, very cosmopolitan people unlike the proud country-folk the O’Donnells were. Of course, my unusual name inevitably prompted questions from them.
“So how do you say your last name again?” Mark asked randomly one morning.
“It’s pretty much pronounced like it is spelled. ‘Pel-tek-ee-an,’” I explained. It’s actually pronounced “Pel-tek-yon” but I’m used to people (including members of my own extended family) mispronouncing it.
“Oh, so what is that?” Mark asked.
“It’s an Armenian name.”
“Oh, so what do you guys believe in?”
“You mean what’s our religion? We’re Christian” I replied. Armenians are, but my family is pretty secular.
“Do you guys have a bible?”
Mark continued his questions. “Do you guys have a god?”
“Well, we’re Catholic,” Tim told me.
“We have the same god as you and same bible,” I told them.
“Yes. Catholics are Christian,” I explained.
“Really?” Mark asked, looking at Tim.
“Well, okay, but we’re not Ar-mayn-ee-an, we’re Irish,” Tim stated.
“That makes sense. A lot of Irish are Catholic,” I answered.
“Huh? Is that so?” Mark inquired.
“Yes, just like the French, the Spanish, Mexicans, Italians…”
“Eye-talians are Catholic?” Mark and Tim exclaimed.
“That’s where the Pope lives.”
Tim and Mark looked at each other. The barn was quiet for a moment, save for the sound of the fan on the opposite end of it and the occasional “murrr” emitting from a cow. Tim was the one that broke the silence: “We better get back to work.”
I was shocked by the O’Donnells’ ignorance. I’m not sure if Tim shut me up because he was embarrassed or if we were really lagging behind, or both. In retrospect, while I obviously think that everybody should know about the world around them, I understand that these men had literally grown up in a barn. They rarely ventured out of northern Wisconsin—they had no reason to. Their world was very small. Curiosity about the world wouldn’t help them do their jobs. It wouldn’t sell milk. Curiosity wouldn’t take care of their cattle.
All that being said, there are some deeper cultural differences. While my family was geographically rural, we were cosmopolitan in nature. Of course, a big part of this is because my parents grew up in large cities, were educated, and that we frequently drove four hours one way to Minneapolis to get feta. But, after spending the summer of 2013 in Armenia, I found that even the kids from the most remote and mountainous of little villages had an interest in the world around them, had dreams of traveling abroad, and spent their summer evenings teaching themselves Italian, and reading Shakespeare. For Armenians, culturally, whether from Armenia, the US, France, or Lebanon, there is more to life than whatever the equivalent of football and hunting is (which I guess would be something like playing backgammon and eating seeds). There’s a cultural appreciation for education, curiosity, and gaining knowledge. This is something that is absent in many rural Wisconsinites.
I’m not trying to put the O’Donnells down, they were good neighbors, but we came from very different backgrounds. I do appreciate having had the opportunity of working on a dairy farm, which is something not many people have had the pleasure of experiencing, even though it couldn’t be more of a Wisconsin stereotype.
When I went to Armenia, I was excited to learn more about the culture and make Armenian friends. But in many ways, I found my background was just as foreign and outlandish to the other volunteers, who mostly came from large metropolitan areas with active Armenian communities, as it was to the O’Donnells.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the company of the people I was with, but I didn’t automatically fit in like I had expected. Funnily enough, while in Armenia, I kept encountering non-Armenians from Wisconsin—people who were working with Peace Corps and other organizations. I was always excited to talk with them. They reminded me of home.