Generations of Naval Academy dairy workers feel forgotten in the stampede to save the cows while their way of life is dismissed.

HIGH AND DRY

August 08, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

GAMBRILLS -- Steve Covington swipes leaves and dirt off the lawn-chair cushion, and eases his weary self down before firing up a Kool Light to ruminate on tornadoes and Nixon and bull semen.

With tan face and arms, wavy gray-flecked blond hair and mustache, he looks like Nick Nolte after a fight, especially with the dried blood on his hands and cuts on legs shod in heavy boots.

It's early in the afternoon, and Covington has just woken up. But this is how and when his days begin, with a smoke and a stretch in the 865-acre back yard. When you milk cows for a living, the sleep-wake cycle gets skewed. You sleep a few hours, you get up to milk the cows at 3 a.m., you sleep a few hours more, you get up to milk the cows at 3 p.m. And so on.

But after 18 years, it becomes a peaceful, almost hypnotic cycle of life, in which work and play loll along together. It's a life cycle that begat Steve and Cathy Covington three children, two of whom still live and work on the farm, and two grandchildren.

That cycle will soon end for the three generations of Covingtons and a dozen other families, some of whom have known no other job nor home than this.

On Monday, their employer and landlord -- the U.S. Naval Academy's Dairy Farm -- begins closing shop, ending the 87-year saga of one of Navy's oddest outposts. Losing their jobs will be the 13 people who milk the cows, tend the crops and package the milk that until yesterday was trucked to Annapolis, upwards of 1,000 gallons a day, where it lands in blue-and-gold cartons on the dining tables of the academy's students, the midshipmen.

Yesterday, the academy ceased milking operations and on Monday, for the first time since 1911, will buy milk commercially. Eventually the academy will auction off the herd of 140 or so cows, all part of the academy's desire to get out of the cow business and save money.

Over the past month, members of Congress and others have been fighting to spare some of the cows from slaughter. Many of the registered Holsteins have been adopted by local 4-H club boys and girls, who gave their pet heifers names like Sierra and Sugar.

Lost in the save-the-cows discussions were names like Steve Covington, Oscar Barnes, Helen Hamrick and Ray Brenneman -- people who've spent the bulk of their lives on the farm.

Barnes has been here since 1957. Forty-one years.

Raymond Brenneman was born here. He's 45. His father milked cows here. So did his father's father. Now he and his brother work here. Their sons will not.

Pete Peterson came here 17 years ago when he was a Navy officer and, after his retirement, stayed on to become farm manager. "Life is constant change," Peterson says stoically. "Sometimes you like it, sometimes you don't."

Some feel they're being caught off-guard, in the middle of their lives. Too young to retire. Too old to start all over again.

"I have no idea what we're going to do next," said Helen Hamrick, who, with her husband, Ben, has lived on the farm since the day they were married -- 34 years ago.

In 1964, after high school, Ben Hamrick and his brother left their home looking for work, which was scarce in the hollows of West Virginia. They came to live with an aunt in Gambrills, and found an unlikely employer in the Naval Academy. In no time, Ben met Helen, whose brother was working on the farm. They married and began a countrified life together.

"We raised our kids here. We raised our grandkids here. So this is a big deal," Helen said. "I love it here, it's so peaceful and quiet. But what does Ben do? He's done this all his life, and he's not ready to retire. I guess if we need to we can go live with our kids."

The dairy employees and their families won't exactly be thrown into the street. They've been offered compensation packages that include six months of severance pay and, because they all live rent-free in a small complex of cottages and trailers at the farm, they'll be allowed to stay another six months while they look for new homes and jobs.

But no compensation package can replace a community. And it's doubtful the workers will find jobs that offer a 200-yard commute, free milk and a side of beef each fall.

In recent weeks, these neighbors haven't talked much about what's coming. They've all been wearing this blank look, said Covington, a slightly wide-eyed, dazed expression that seems to ask: Now what? Where do you go to start over?

Even with the beginning of the end just days away, Covington doesn't know the answers. He's staring down the barrel of midlife, with no interest in starting a new career, especially not with such alternatives -- as one company kindly offered -- as a traveling bull semen salesman.

"One of the reasons I chose this life is because of the peace I find here. I don't even know what's on the other side of this," said Covington, 43, pointing to where the tips of far-off corn stalks delineate the horizon. "I can't do nine-to-five."

'They never asked us ...'

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