Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Animal Stories

One evening in a Key West bar, I was telling stories from home to the wife of one my favorite new colleagues. Debby and Allen are fun people, hipsters, urban dwellers who likely buy only organic fruits and vegetables and have images of farm life not unlike my friend Jackie who grew up on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Farms to them are happy places where the chickens bring you their eggs and the bacon comes from a pig down the road, but certainly not Wilbur from  your own pen.

On our farm, we ate a lot of the animals Jackie would have named and be-ribboned, and my brothes thought if it moved, it was shootable. And maybe edible, too. They didn't kill every animal, though, of course. Some were needed to run down the animals marked for grilling; and some they just took a liking to. 

So anyway, I told Allen and Debby about my dad and the fox he’d befriended and which followed him like a dog. Eventually, the fox was shot and killed by a hunter, I think. I don’t remember the who or the why of that action. What I remember is my dad liked the fox so much, he had it stuffed, and it sat near our television for years.


He also brought home a baby raccoon once, which we raised. Until, the day (or one shortly thereafter)  I was carrying it through the dining room when it jumped on the back of the poor sod sitting there at the table with my father, trying his best to sell him an insurance policy. The insurance salesman did a dance like no dance had ever been done in my house (my parents were fundamentalists to whom dancing was a sin.) My father thought it was hysterically funny. I don’t think the insurance salesman ever came back.


Back in Key West, I also told Allen and Debby them about my brother who rescued two baby raccoons he found out in the woods one day.  Never mind that he was probably responsible for their orphan state -- ‘coon hunters spend all night in the woods with dogs chasing, treeing, retrieving and eventually killing and skinning the raccoons. 

I don’t know who buys these pelts, but in the winter at my house ('coon season is a winter sport) there were always dozens of hide stretchers lying about, drying out the skins for sale. So David finds these baby raccoons and brings them home. He raises them like puppies, but as anyone from the country (and one former insurance salesman) knows, raccoons are not indoor pets. 

They’re not even pets. I don’t remember why, but David's raccoons were always terrified of thunder and lightning. He babied them through the storms, and as they got bigger and bigger, he eventually returned them to the wild. I always thought that was a bad idea because he was, still, a coon hunter and might have eventually brought them home again in a different fashion. Maybe he thought their connection was strong enough that he'd spare them. Or maybe he only really liked them in their baby state. The world will never know.


He was married at the time of this wild life adoption and living in my grandfather’s house, which had a long, long linoleum covered hallway from the back door to the master bedroom.  Weeks after the raccoons had been gone, a storm hit. It woke David up but not his wife. He heard the raccoons break in through the back screen and skitter down the hallway. I can see him grinning now in the dead of the night, waiting for them to jump into safety with all the grace of a night-terror-striken toddler. 

Laurie, though, was was blissfully, deeply asleep. 


He divorced not long after that night. It wasn't only because of the racoons, but you do have to wonder if they were the tipping point. She did not seek custody of the raccoons.


I was reminded of these stories and other animal stories this weekend after I drove home from visiting my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Larry. Cousin Jimmy (my mother and Aunt Shirley’s cousin) was there, as were my sisters Donna and Debbie and my cousin Lori. 

Shirley is my mother’s sister. Larry is my father’s brother. So when the story telling started, it was difficult to leave. There was the one about the attack turkey (It attacked everyone with no provocation, but it was only when it attacked the family’s first grandchild that it became dinner.) There was the one about Uncle Larry’s pig, which Donna as a young child killed accidentally (I think) when she threw a croquet ball and hit it in the head. “Killed it deader than hell,” Larry mused.

I only remembered the turtles I'd tried to save on the way home. I was driving a two-seater Geo Metro LSi convertible when I saw them trying to cross the highway. I was on my way home to visit the family and I thought the kids would get a kick out of them. There were two and I snagged them and threw them in the passenger floorboard. 

It was only about 10 minutes from there to the my dad's house but I swear those turtles tried to kill me for at least nine of those minutes. I might have jumped over the door to escape them whe I got home and there he was again with that grin. "Don't you know it's mating season for turtles?" he said. Turns out they weren't just frisky, they were snapping turtles. 


It was the attack turkey that inspired the last of my father’s Animal Stories, and one I hadn’t heard.


We’ve always considered my father kind of a Pied Piper. He attracted mutts of both the two- and four-legged variety. No one and no thing was ever turned away, and most of those that came within his force field found a way to stay there.  I only vaguely remember seeing a white rooster strutting about the farm, but apparently in the last year or so of his life, my father collected a white rooster. 

It followed him around like that fox must have done. If he went across the road to the garden, the rooster followed him. If he patrolled the yard, it was at his heels. If he strolled down to the barn to observe the collection of crap he had squirreled away in there, there was the rooster, cackling off the inventory list.


The rooster also, apparently, channeled the attack turkey. If it didn’t like you, it would attack you. I must not have inspired it at all, because it didn’t so much as look my way.  I seem to remember it being a straggly kind of thing with tail feathers that might have suffered electric shock at one point. While chickens are not known to be especially attractive beasts, this one was less comely than most. And of course it had that bad attitude.


When my father died unexpectedly at home one day, no one thought to tell the rooster.


To hear Donna tell it, she and my sister Diana observed it walking over every speck of ground that little farm had, looking for my dad. One day, on another trip across the road to the garden, a favorite haunt of my dad's so a logical place to look, the rooster was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. 

There was no attempt to track down the driver because there were no hard feelings.


“We’re sure it was suicide,” Donna said.

When I got back home later that evening, Alison reported that her father was so worn out by his baskeball session that he'd taken a 3-hour-nap. She'd tucked him in with her quilt and had even brought him the stuffed turtle he'd had as a kid and which she heisted from her grandfather's house.

Don't worry, though. It's months away from mating season, and I don't think it's a snapper....




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