I remember the long drive from Massachusetts to upper state New York. My father and I were going to visit some close family friends in the upper Champlain Valley. Like my family they were of French-Canadian descent. They were old family friends left over from a time when our family lived in the Adirondacks.
I was fifteen years old and as such I thought I knew a whole lot about the world. I was most interested in the natural world, and I was not afraid to tell anyone who would listen every little fact that I knew about nature. My new found knowledge would grate on my father’s nerves over the span of a six-hour hour drive. Even though I was not known for being tremendously perceptive, even I could see his eyes glaze over after about the first 15 minutes of the drive. It didn’t matter, I easily had another 5 hours and 45 minutes of facts bottled up inside of me that I would tell even the most unwilling listener. It should have been no surprise to me that upon arriving, my father took a long, long walk without telling me where he was going.
Our French-Canadian friends were dairy farmers. I had spent a summer with them when I was 12 years old, so I knew them well. After realizing my father had mysteriously disappeared, I went looking for Romeo Trudeau, my father’s good friend, and Claude, a farmhand who was Romeo’s right-hand man and best friend. It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and knowing their farming patterns from the summer that I had stayed with them, I headed right for the barn where I guessed I would find them milking the cows. Sure enough, Romeo and Claude were both in the milking parlor, getting ready for the evening milking.
Romeo was a large man, not particularly tall, but he had a barrel chest and the largest forearms and biceps that I have ever seen. He was about 40 years old at the time and had a grizzled, unshaven gray stubble that covered his face at any time of the day after the noon hour. Claude, on the other hand, was short, very thin, and had black hair and a very wiry frame.
Romeo laughed as I barged into the whitewashed room. “Bill,” he said in a thick French-Canadian accent, “you have grown to be as big as a bull.”
Claude just smiled, a cigarette, as was his custom, hanging out of his mouth, checking me out from head to toe.
“Hi, Mr. Trudeau,” I replied, “I knew I’d find you here in the barn.”
“Come Bill,” said Romeo as he smiled warmly at me, “you can help us out. You do remember the routine, eh?”
I nodded yes, but, of course, I had no memory of the routine, but it didn’t matter for I was amongst good friends.
“Bill, line the first two cows up in the stanchions, side by each,” said Romeo, applying French grammar to the English language.
I did as instructed, and Claude, without saying a word, attached the milking machines to each cow after wiping down the udders .Romeo and Claude worked quietly and efficiently. Two by the two, the cows were led into the milking parlor, milked (not without affection) and the let loose into the barnyard that led to a nearby grazing area.
The quiet silence was just killing me. I had all of this information that I was just dying to share with someone, and I was searching for the right topic when a light bulb went off in my head.
“You know, Mr. Trudeau, man isn’t the only animal that tends other animals for his own benefit.” I stated.
“You don’t say!” responded Romeo.
“That’s right” I replied. “There is a species of black ants that tends aphids, much like you keep cows.” Now that got their attention. Claude looked at Romeo with his bloodshot blue eyes as if to say “This boy is crazy.” But in fact he didn’t say a word. Claude, like many of our family friends, understood English perfectly, but chose to speak mostly in the French language.
“Imagine that!” said Romeo as he winked at Claude.
“Yep, the ants will herd up the aphids into a section of a branch where the leaves are ripe, green, and plentiful and guard them from other insect predators” I stated in a matter of fact manner.
“And why would they do that?” asked Romeo.
“You see,” I explained, “aphids turn the carbohydrates in the leaf into a milky sugary substance that the ants use.”
Claude said something in French to Romeo, and they both laughed.
“What did Claude say?’ I asked.
“He said he would like to see the teeny-weeny milking machines that the ants used to get the aphid milk,” Romeo said, holding back more laughter.
“Actually,” I said quite seriously, “the aphids produce the milky sugary substance in their stomach, and the ants remove it from their rectum with their proboscis.”
Romeo’s eyes widened and asked “What’s a proboscis?”
“It’s kind of like a nose,” I replied.
They both laughed uncontrollably. I didn’t mind being their entertainment, but, my god, this was serious scientific knowledge.
Claude said something else in French, and they laughed even harder. Claude was now sitting on the floor, laughing so hard he couldn’t stay on his feet.
“What did Claude say?” I asked again.
“He said, they would be much better off using the teeny-weeny milking machines!” roared Romeo.
Trying to appear somewhat scientific I went on, knowing I was at risk for more ridicule. “The ants actually herd the aphids to different areas once a set of leaves has been completely grazed. They do this by picking up each individual aphid and carrying it to a new set of leaves,” I said.
Romeo and Claude had gained a little control over themselves at this point. And then Claude said something, once again, in French, and they both starting howling again.
“What did Claude say this time?” I asked, somewhat indignantly.
“Claude says the ants should use teeny-weeny cattle dogs. He thinks the ants can’t be that smart if they carry the aphids from grazing area to grazing area. He wonders what it would be like to carry a cow to the next pasture!” Romeo said, holding back an entire belly-load of laughter.
“Ants are very strong,” I replied. “They can carry 100 times their own weight.”
Romeo interjected, “Too bad we couldn’t get those ants to stop chewing down the barn and start moving our cattle.” Romeo and Claude stared at each other, trying to hold back the laughter, but they just couldn’t, and the howling erupted once again. Claude asked something in French, and Romeo translated without me asking. “Claude wants to know what the ants do with the milk,” relayed a smiling Romeo.
“They bring it back to their nest where the colony uses it for their survival,” I replied.
Then Claude asked, for the first time in a French-Canadian version of English, holding back his laughter “Do the ants sell the milk to rest of the colony for a teeny-weeny profit?”
“No,” I said, “it is a cooperative effort in a highly organized, highly sophisticated society.”
Claude says something in French, and they both begin laughing loudly, once again.
“OK, I give up, what did he say this time?” I asked Romeo.
Romeo had tears streaming down his face, his huge arms shaking uncontrollably, and he had to lean against the whitewashed wall to stay upright. “Claude says they must be teeny-weeny communists,” and with that Romeo fell to his hands and knees onto the concrete floor next to Claude. Both seemed to be at death’s door with laughter. The milking parlor must have sounded like a comedy club to anyone listening from the outside world.
Just then, my father walked in, looking a little more relaxed then when we arrived.
“You boys look like you’re having fun. What’s so funny?”
Romeo managed to get control of himself, and said “We’re talking about dairy ants, teeny-weeny little communist dairy ants.”
And with this statement I joined them in the hilarity and fell against the wall laughing. My father looked at us long and hard like we were all a bunch of crazy French-Canadian farmers.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “I’ll tell you about plants that eat meat.” And the laughter started all over again.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in May of 2007.