The Bawdy Ballad of Carnation Milk
February 3, 2013
As darkness draped the land, she thumbed through a worn magazine, reading as the flickering flames from a kerosene lamp cast a strange assortment of shapes across the bare walls. She was intrigued with page forty-three, the one carrying an advertisement for some new-fangled product called, of all things, canned milk.
It would revolutionize the ranching wife’s kitchen, the ad said, graciously omitting the fact that cowboy artist Charles Russell had once pulled a can of Eagle Brand from a cook’s shelf, tasted it, and remarked, “It must have come from that bird on the label. It’s a cinch it never flowed from any animal with horns.”
The rancher’s wife wasn’t particularly interested in the product. She knew that cowboys had a vehement dislike for milk and cream, especially in their coffee. Her husband didn’t mind herding cattle, but he certainly had no intention of drinking their milk. He never minded his breath smelling of whiskey and tobacco, but he certainly didn’t want it smelling like that of a young calf.
No, what fascinated the rancher’s wife was the promise that she just might win a prize if, perchance, she submitted the best jingle about Carnation milk. Chances were she wouldn’t, of course. But in a life filled with loneliness and drudgery, it was the only promise that the rancher’s wife had been given in a long time.
She sat down that night and carefully wrote:
“Carnation milk, best in the lan’.
Comes to the table in a little red can.”
She smiled with approval, placed her poem in an envelope, and eagerly waited for the night to pass. She had not been this excited in a long time. She re-worked the two lines over in her head time and again, but, for the life of her, she could not think of any way to improve them.
As the first rays of a new day spilled shadows across the barn, the rancher’s wife summoned the crippled old cowboy and gave him a hot cup of coffee, which he usually had to brew himself if he wanted any, and the crippled old cowboy always did. She handed him the envelope, along with explicit instructions: “Hitch up the buckboard and ride to the nearest post office in Amarillo. Mail the letter, and don’t waste time wandering around the backcountry, looking for stray cattle.” She would throw hay to cattle for him, and the manure didn’t have to burn until tomorrow.
The crippled old cowboy nodded without a word and began leading a pair of matched jackasses out of their stalls. If he hurried, he thought, he just might make it on back home by dark. Then again, if the Amarillo whiskey was wet, and it generally was, it might be daybreak, tomorrow or even the next day, before he got a good look at the ranch again.
The rancher’s wife was only interested in making sure her letter was mailed, not seeing his face again. He only knew a few certainties in life, and that was one of them. He would have bet on it, but he’d lost his money and his cards in the same game.
The rancher’s wife sat on the front porch day after day, waiting to hear whether or not the prize would be coming to her. She had never considered herself a poet, but, for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out how anyone could have written a jingle any better than the one she sent to Carnation. The days dragged wearily into weeks, then months.
Her husband and his cowhands had returned. A few more strays were in the near pasture. The grasses had turned dry, the hay brittle. A man who owned the water rights to his land was worthless if the water was gone, and the river was no longer wet enough to make a good mound of mud.
And finally the letter from Carnation milk arrived at her doorstep. With trembling hands, she tore it open it and read: “We’re sorry, but we cannot use your poem. We’re afraid that it is unfit to print.”
The rancher’s wife grew angry, then bewildered, and finally confused. There was nothing unfit about her poem. She was sure of it. Suddenly, suspicion began to worm its way into her confusion. She stalked out to the barn and found the crippled old cowboy striking a match to a pile of dried manure.
She was blunt and direct. “Did you do anything to my jingle before you mailed it?” she demanded to know.
Her face was flushed, his bewhiskered. He grinned a shy, slow grin. Her boiling gaze melted, then erased it. “Well, ma ‘am,” he said, “I took the liberty of reading your little poem and figured it was too short. I knowed how important it was for you to win that little old prize, so I figured I could add a verse and make it a might better.”
“Then what in creation did you write?”
“Oh, I just gave it a little more punch.”
“And what’d it say.”
The crippled old cowboy took a deep breath and recited in a ragged voice:
“Carnation milk, best in the lan’.
Comes to the table in a little red can.
“No teats to pull, no hay to pitch.
“Jes punch a hole in the sonofabitch.”
The rancher’s wife would have cried, but when drought crept across the land, water was too precious to waste even as tears upon her face.