Monday, December 29, 2008

Arroyo Seco Stable Horses

Arroyo Seco Stable Horses
Copyright Ken Harris 2006

In 1957 my wife and I rented a house in South Pasadena owned by Chuck and Bobbi Williams, who also owned the Arroyo Seco stables. The house was a part of the stables property and so, besides our own two horses, Sheba and Legend, we had many other horses for neighbors.

Arroyo Seco Stables was a rent , boarding and schooling stable, so there were many horses permanently in residence. Chuck and Bobbi Williams had discussed the matter years before and had decided that they were put on earth to give horses a good home. I decided that in my next incarnation I wanted to be one of their horses. Those horses got rest, exercise, care, feed, and affection. Some humans who don’t do that well.

Many of their horses were U.S. Cavalry remounts. Cal Poly at Pomona had been a remount training station before the Army decided that they would go to tanks and helicopters. When the army went out of the horse business, Chuck and Bobbi bought some of their finest equine friends from them. An ex-cavalry horse was a great buy. It had received wonderful training and care during its formative years. Four of the Williams’ horses come to mind, Richard, O’Malley, Grey Dawn, Cocoq (pronounced “Coke” because we couldn’t figure out how to say his real name).

Richard, when I met him, was a 24-year-old bay. He was in good flesh, he ate well, and he worked as hard as any horse on the place. However, you had to be a little careful with him first thing in the morning. No sharp turns for the first fifteen minutes of the day. After that, you were dealing with a healthy, strong, mature horse. He was the best looking 24-year-old horse I’ve ever seen.

O’Malley didn’t like to work nights. He was a gentle soul and a favorite with student riders. When Bobbi gave a lesson at night, you could bet the ranch on it, someone would call for O’Malley. O’Malley would slink into the corner of his stall, put his head in the corner and make himself as small as possible. It never worked. He was a huge, seal brown gelding. If he had stretched himself out against the back of his stall, he might have disguised himself as the wall. But the corner schtick never worked. It was like hiding a football in a bucket. But each night O’Malley would try his little trick and wonder why it never worked.

Gray Dawn earned a little extra money for the stable by working in movies, appearing in at least one Disney flick. He was a perfectly well mannered horse, a perfect school horse. Except for one little character flaw. He had one buck a day. It wasn’t a sunfish, but just a little crow hop. But you never knew when it would happen. Riders were relieved when he bucked early in the morning. But as the day grew longer and the buck hadn’t come, riders would get more nervous. Then Gray Dawn would buck. Once. And everything settled down again.

Cocoq was a jumping fool. When Bobbi taught jumping classes and had a student who might be reluctant to jump (and if you stop to think about it, why would you jump a horse over an obstacle when you could walk around it), Cocoq was saddled up and away the pair went. In Cocoq’s opinion, the whole U.S. Cavalry had taught him to jump and who was some chicken rider to tell him that it was too tough.

That worked against me once. I was taking English riding lessons from Bobbi and I rode like I was duct taped to the saddle. No style whatever. Bobbi had heard somewhere that if one had a student of indifferent ability and talent, his progress could be hastened by teaching him to jump. I seemed like the perfect guinea pig to her. Of course, she didn’t tell me that. She just said she thought I was ready to learn to jump.

So there we were one night, Cocoq and I, in a “gambler’s sweepstakes.” The winner of the event was the person who took the most jumps in a minute. Maybe it was an hour. It seemed like it. Cocoq and I took the first jump and I lost my right stirrup. I tried to put my foot back into the stirrup, but by then Cocoq had committed himself to the second jump and I lost my left stirrup. Then I clenched the horse between my legs as much as I could and we took jump after jump, Bobbi calling, “Stop him, Ken, stop him!” Joanne, meanwhile, encouraged me. “Jump, Ken, jump.” I think she wanted me to win the event, but she may have been bucking for early widowhood. I completed the picture by hauling on the reins and crying, “Whoa, damn you, whoa!”

We won the event.

I could hardly walk the next day because I had strained every muscle from my toes to my nose. Bobbi said she was relieved that I had not cracked her horse’s ribs. For Cocoq, it was all in a day’s work.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Picking Up Ponies

Picking Up Ponies
Copyright Ken Harris 2008

Twin Falls, Idaho. Spring, mid-1960s. Opening day of trout season. My wife and I were trailering back to Twin Falls to pick up two stud ponies. Our intent was to win fame and fortune raising Ponies of the Americas (POAs).

It was a long drive from Auburn, California to Twin Falls, Idaho, made longer by a flash snow storm over Donner Summit. God, I loved crawling on my belly in muck trying to put rusty, borrowed chains on the GMC. Because it was opening day of trout season, there were thousands of motorists lined up at Nyack Garage to buy chains. Who brings chains on a trout fishing trip? Stu Wells, the garage owner, had a grin on his face they could have used to guide airplanes.

We finally got through to Twin Falls when the alternator on the GMC gave out. Slow go to no go. Bought a used alternator that wouldn’t work because the mastermind who sold us the vehicle had reversed the wiring. We stood in the weather while some guy with a screwdriver and a cigar clenched in his teeth tried to fix it. Did you know that there isn’t a single tree between the North Pole and Twin Falls to break up the wind? Not a single one! This happened 40 years ago and I still have icicles on my liver.

We loaded up our ponies, at least, we were assured they were ponies. It was difficult to tell under all their hair because they had been on good Montana winter range until we picked them up. I wondered if someone had slipped in some Ponies of Siberia on us.

Driving back was uneventful except for a brief – it seemed like forever – encounter with black ice in the high desert of Nevada. I'd heard enough about it to know to take my feet off the gas, the clutch, the brake, and just hope the forward inertia would do just that, carry us forward.

Not a pleasant trip. Successful, but not pleasant.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Balein and the Rose Parade
Copyright Ken Harris 2006

Balein was a steel grey stallion who lived at Bobbi Williams’ stable. He didn’t roam in a pasture with a herd of mares, but he didn’t work very hard either. His main job in life was to be part of an equestrian unit in the annual Pasadena Rose Parade. The rest of the time he hung out in his stall or went out with his owner, Don Branstatter on some trail rides or worked in the riding ring a bit. Life was good for Balein, except for that one day of the year, the day of the Rose Parade.
And this was that day, January 1, 1958. Don had asked us to help him prepare Balein for the parade and then to park his rig while he joined the rest of his unit. We thought it might be fun to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Rose Parade, and that is why we were up at 4:00 a.m. on New Years Day, yawning, scratching, and helping Don and his horse where we could.
Balein stood outside his stall, hip shot and half asleep. Perhaps he was all asleep. No point in his getting up early. He’d had his bath the day before. Grey horses always need a bath. That’s why they are called laundry horses. If there is filth anywhere in their vicinity of a grey horse, it will stick to, cling on, smear up and otherwise sully his coat. Balein slept through the night strapped warmly in his blanket so he could not roll in his own poop and thus enter the Rose Parade decorated with green smears.
I held his haltered head by a lead rope while Don picked up each foot and coated each hoof with black shoe polish, the liquid kind that comes in a bottle with a dauber. Joanne meanwhile brushed his mane and tail. There was no problem there, for she picked up the tail easily with the thumb and first two fingers of her left hand and ran the brush through the hair. Balein liked being brushed.
Then Don took off the blanket and put on the saddle. After that, he attached the breast collar. That keeps the saddle from sliding backwards in the event the horse finds himself facing uphill, as he might do standing on his hind legs. Again, no problem.
But then came crouper time. A crouper is the exact opposite of a breast collar. It is a ring that attaches to the back of the saddle and fits around the horse’s tail and it keeps the saddle from riding forward. Now we had a problem. Balein hated the crouper. Well, think about it. Would you like someone to give you a wedgie every time you went downhill? Balein clamped his tale down so hard that Joanne had to put both hands, arms, shoulders, hips, thighs, and some grunts and curses to lift his tail enough for Don to fit the crouper onto the horse. But on the other hand, Balein was no longer half asleep.
He was no more trouble after that. Once the crouper was attached he seemed to accept his fate and we finished our tasks and enjoyed backstage at the Rose Parade fully. We asked Don how one got such a well behaved stallion. Most of the stallions I had encountered didn’t actually eat human flesh, but you had to be careful with them. They were none of them as mellow as this guy. Don’s answer was as simple as it was brief. “You buy them.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


©Ken Harris, 2008
Auburn, California, 1980s. Our friend, Sally Poole, had a nice home east of Highway 49, a few miles north of Auburn. Still has it, by the way. On her property lay an inviting pond, pasture and a huge barn to accommodate her horses. In the huge barn she had some old hay bales that needed to be restacked to make room for a shipment of new hay bales, and here is where Joanne and I enter into the story.

Sally had invited us over for lunch. Or perhaps we invited ourselves. We do that sometimes. In any event, she asked us if we would mind shifting some hay for her.

Out to the barn we went, Sally, Joanne, I and, bringing up the rear, Podge, a marmalade cat. While nominally a barn cat, it had been some time since Podge had actually made an on-site inspection of the place.

We all surveyed the scene. Two-story ceiling, check. Dirt floor but hay on wooden pallets, check. Horses in the barn fascinated by anything connected with hay, check. Barn cat to supervise, check.

I shifted a bale or two and suddenly we saw a mouse. Then two, three, dozens, at least a hundred mice. The floor was covered with squeaking, scurrying mice. We humans stepped in lively fashion. I certainly didn’t want one of those creatures running up my pants leg. I don’t know how those weasel guys in the U.K. do it.

Podge immediately leaped into action, but he was only one cat. Soon he had a mouse in his mouth, then two, then three. We could tell because their tails were still hanging out. Besides that, he had another mouse under each paw and watched helplessly as dozens more scurried around.

Joanne soon joined Podge in the fray, scooping up mice and putting them in a deep bucket. It’s a wonder she didn’t get gnawed. She tells me I helped her, but I don’t remember that.

Very soon the mice disappeared, except for Podge’s and the ones in Joanne’s bucket. Then came the conundrum. What do we do with a bucket of mice. That’s another thing about this memorable day that I don’t remember.

We finished shifting the bales and all returned to the house to ponder our next move. Podge stayed behind because he knew what his next move was going to be.

Sally did not call the exterminator, but she did stop feeding Podge in the house. Podge didn’t object and in fact disappeared from sight for more than a month. When he reappeared, the mouse population was under control and Podge himself looked extremely prosperous.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Two Bits

Two Bits
©Ken Harris, 2008

While we lived in Auburn in the 1960s, we decided to gain fame and fortune raising Ponies of the Americas, or POAs for short. A POA is a pony with Appaloosa coloring.

Appaloosa colors come in several varieties. Some animals are white with leopard spots. Others are dark colored with white, spotted rump patches, or some have
just rump patches, no spots.

Lightly colored but patchless horses may still have darker hair over shoulder and hip bones than the rest of their bodies. These are called varnish marks. Horses lacking even these markings, they may still have mottled skin around the eyes, as if they have some rare Egyptian eye disease. Striped hooves are another Appaloosa indicator.

The curious thing about breeding for color, be it full sized Appaloosa horses or the smaller POAs, is that if you get some color, you have an animal worth some money. It doesn’t matter whether the foal has an even number of heads, an odd number of legs or looks like a space alien. If it has color, it’s worth some money; the more color, the more money. If, on the other had, your foal has no color, it doesn’t matter if it has strength, stamina, beauty, personality, charisma, and a good disposition — you have nada. In France you could sell him for stew meat, but in the USA, nada.

The first thing we needed was some breeding stock, mares. But where to buy them? Not everyone had ponies with Appaloosa DNA. And those we found had some serious drawbacks. We did find one mare, Two Bits. She was possibly 13 hands 2 inches high. (A hand is 4 inches, but we horse people like to have our own jargon just to show how cool we are. I could have said she was 4 feet 6 inches at the withers, but then you would have known what I was talking about.) Two Bits was about 4 feet 6 inches across the butt, too. She looked like she’d lost her beer wagon. Her belly sagged from previous pregnancies. I considered building her a belly wheel. We persuaded ourselves that in spite of these cosmetic imperfections, she showed some signs of an Appaloosa background, possibly around the time of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Someone we knew had a POA stud named Road Agent. We bred the two animals and when Two Bits came due she had her foal in our garage. I opened the door to our garage one morning and here was this dark little colt running figure eights around his mother. We got the two of them into the pasture and saw them settled in. Two Bits was formidable enough that the other animals knew not to mess with her and her new baby.

For the record, we named the baby Short Change. Short Change by Road Agent out of Two Bits. Shorty was a complete miss. French stew meat. Two Bits did not agree.

One day, after Shorty was gone, sold down the river, I looked down at our pasture and saw Two Bits standing motionless at the gate. Two hours later, she was still there. Motionless. Something had to be wrong, so Joanne and I went down to investigate.

Our gate was just a stretch of field fencing that attached to a fence post. You took it down to let livestock go through, and reattached it when the animals were where you wanted them. It was like stringing an 8-stringed bow. We found our gate down and Two Bits tangled with all four legs through the wire. I held her head and spoke soothingly to her while Joanne gently freed her legs, first the front and then the rear. When we were through, Two Bits tested her legs gingerly, then kicked Joanne and bit me. We waited for a long time after that to see if we could catch her in a similar fix. We wanted to go down and bite her and kick her.

It never happened. It just shows how unfair life is. We sell her baby and she turns around and bites and kicks us. You’d think she would have been grateful.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bonnet on the Tevis Cup Ride

Bonnet on the Tevis Cup Ride

Shortly after this romantic interlude Bonnet moved to new quarters in Sunland and for us life went on. The next thing we heard, Lona had taken it into her head to ride Bonnet on the Western States 100. She conditioned him and trained him. I thought it was madness, but nobody ever asked me. (Nobody ever asks me.) She and the pony showed up, both of them in great condition because they had been working in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California.

The trail ride board of directors had stipulated that each horse had to carry 150 pounds of weight. Lona and her saddle weighed 130 pounds, but nobody cut them any slack. If Bonnet was going to play with the real horses, he was going to have to abide by Real Horse Rules. So he was fitted out with lead weights for his saddle.

I was concerned because much of the Western States ride is made at the trot. You’ve seen people riding English saddles where they bounce up and down while their horse trots. It’s called “posting.” It’s a way of equalizing the load and making things a little easier for the horse. People riding Western saddles don’t post. Instead, they put their weight from side to side as the horse progresses, counterbalancing the motion. It also equalizes the load. But both riding methods have something in common. The rider looks like he’s going to fall off any second.

Many people were concerned about Bonnet. Compared with the trail horses, even the relatively small Arabs, Bonnet looked like a Yorkshire Terrier running with Great Danes. But he was in such great physical condition that a hundred-mile trot only made him horny. He propositioned every mare he could identify along the way, and maybe a few geldings, too. When you’re young, you’re not particular.

The ride ends at the Auburn District Fair Grounds. At 6:00 a.m. certain vets conduct a quick post-ride survey of the animals. bIf they find some horse massively dehydrated, for example, they can do something quickly. Since Joanne was the vet secretary, she had to get up early to make the 6:00 a.m. call with them. She told me that Bonnet was still propositioning the mares. One of the vets commented, “That’s a damn tough pony.” “Damn tough” is a technical term used among veterinarians.

Bonnet lived into his middle twenties. He pulled carts, appeared in parades, and was Lona’s friend and companion during all that time. Several times he won the NTRA (National Trail Riding Association) national open championship.

When he died, Lona sent us an edged-in-black note saying she had lost her friend. And we mourned with her. He was one of the planet’s good guys.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bonnet Breeds His Last Mare

We had let Bonnet breed a few mares before we sold him to Lona, if you could call it that. Breeding horses is tricky business. It takes more than a willing pair of horses. You must wrap tails, engage breeding hobbles (for mares who aren’t quite so willing), and make sure that the stallion is wearing a halter equipped with a nose chain to get his attention in case he gets carried away by passion and injures his partner. Last, but not least, one requires a bucket for an antiseptic solution and sponges to apply it to the stallion’s member. He doesn’t always take kindly to this procedure. Imagine, Bonnet and his girlfriend have just gone through the beautiful act of creating a new horse, and while he is still dreamy with beta waves, we slosh him in the crotch with a bucket of Phisohex.

Breeding horses presents so many technical difficulties that it’s a wonder horses can do it for themselves.

We had one more mare to breed, and we just didn’t want to be bothered with all the usual foofaraw. We just bound her tail to keep it out of the way. Then we stepped back. Bonnet was so gentle that we didn’t fear that he would hurt the mare; in fact, he was quite a lover. He looked at the mare, nuzzled her a bit, looked at us, got a huge smile as he realized that he was going to do this on his own, and leaped into the air and clicked all four feet together. His pure joy made our day.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More on Bonnet

More on Bonnet
Copyright Ken Harris 2008

I mentioned before that there are advantages to raising horses on hillsides. They do not grow up, as some rural myths say, with legs shorter on one side than the other. Instead, since no matter where they go, it will be either uphill or downhill, the horses or ponies muscle up in the hindquarters.

And so it was with Bonnet. After six months with us in Auburn, he no longer resembled a Friday Horse. (To refresh your memory, you never wanted to buy a new car built on Fridays because that was the day they cleaned the factory and built cars out of parts that didn’t fit right in on first attempt at assembly Mondays through Thursdays.) All of Bonnet’s horse parts seemed to fit together better than they had when we first got him from Montana. Men no longer laughed when they saw him. We might have even finished 22nd in that show at Stockton, instead of 23rd. .

At that time Joanne and I were heavily involved with the Western States 100 Mile Trail Ride. We had both done the ride before and won our much coveted silver and gold buckles. (To win the buckle you had to ride one horse the roughly 100-mile distance from Tahoe City to Auburn within 24 hours.) Both of us realized that we only needed one belt buckle because we only needed to wear one belt at a time. But we still worked on the ride, clearing and marking trail in the spring to get ready for the summer event. I used to be a drag rider and sweep up lost riders and try to get them in so they could earn buckles. Joanne was a vet’s secretary. We did all this when we were not trimming our ponies’ feet.

During this time we met Lona Sweet and her family from Sunland, California. I don’t know if Lona will ever read this story, but she was a little bitty woman who might have weighed ninety-nine pounds if someone put rocks in her purse. She fell in love with Bonnet and bought him.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Owning a Horse

Owning a Horse
Copyright Ken Harris 2008

A few thoughts on horse ownership. If you like to ride and don’t own a horse, you go down to a stable and rent a horse or even take a class. Perhaps you have friends who own horses and are willing to loan you one or go riding with you. But, if you buy a horse, then either you must board the horse or put it in your back yard, if you have a big back yard. You have to feed your horse, take care of him when he’s sick, pay for the damage he might do if he gets out. You brush the horse, bathe the horse, braid his mane and tail. If you want to go anywhere far away, you must have a trailer. A trailer is not much good without a vehicle to pull it. You can’t ride very far bareback, so you need a saddle, bridle, saddle pads. You also need clothes for yourself, which could mean anything from jeans and shirt to coats, jodhpurs and rat catchers for fox hunting and jumping classes. Boots are always expensive. You’ll need to buy feed for the horse and you will need a barn to put all of this stuff in, not to mention a place to park your truck and trailer. By the time you have done all of this, your horse has died of old age and you have done everything but actually ride. You never found the time for that.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Copyright Ken Harris 2008

Dancer was our wonder pony, beautiful, sweet natured, gentle, good with children. Brilliant rump patch with prominent, defenite, chocolate brown spots. Dark chocolate. He had only one fault. He only had one testicle. Actually, he had two of them, but one was undescended. In vet school they would call him “cryptorchid,” a phrase that has nothing to do with flowers. In breeding equine animals, cryptorchidism is a serious defect. You can’t enter him in a show because one of the things the judge does is count testicles. If he finds an odd number of them, you and your pony are out of the show.

And so, with great regret, we called the vet out to have the colt castrated. In the testicle world none at all is better than one and at least we’d be able to show him off as a gelding. Unfortunately, the vet could not locate the undescended testicle. He reached inside the poor animal’s cavity and fondled various anatomical parts, but didn’t want to perform surgery by Braille. It would be really embarrassing if he removed a tonsil by mistake.

And then a curious thing happened. Dancer healed beautifully, but he had a profound personality change. He became vicious, unruly and carnivorous. Not only was his orchid crypted beyond access, it was putting out some really vicious testosterone.

We had to have the undescended testicle removed. This meant a trip to the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. It also meant signing a lot of waivers, but we were willing to do that. Poor Dancer had what was called a “high flanker,” and it took the doctors and students a long, long time to perform the operation.

The operation was successful and our normally sweet horse was restored to us. We promptly sold him to someone in Southern California who was connected to the movie industry. Dancer did a few Disney television shows but then, one day, while doing something perfectly normal, jumping in the air, running in circles, something he did every day, he fell and broke his back and had to be destroyed.

Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the insect.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pony Feet

Pony Feet
Copyright Ken Harris 2008

There’s something to be said for raising your horses on the side of a hill. Leg
problems tend to straighten themselves out. Haunches grow, knees straighten. But feet don’t straighten. They tend to remain the same. That’s where corrective trimming comes in. A horse’s foot is actually one big toe and the hoof is its toenail. Essentially, a horse shoer is an equine podiatrist. Our splay footed ponies needed some expert trimming, but we couldn’t afford an equine podiatrist to come out every two weeks and trim away. That lot fell to me. Every two weeks I would trim the outsides of the ponies hind feet, just a little bit, with the hoof nippers. Then I would file them smooth so they wouldn’t chip in the rocky pasture they called home.

Until this point I had congratulated myself on being the first Harris in four generations to not be a horse shoer. My father shod horses as a young man, my grandfather, my great grandfather, even though they all engaged in different occupations, they took their turn at trimming hooves level and nailing steel plates to the result. I had escaped this fate – until Bonnet and Dancer came to live with us.

The first thing you will notice when you work on a pony’s feet is how close to the ground they are. You raise a pony’s hoof and it’s still nose to the toes time. You spend a lot of time bent over that way, even if the ponies are cooperating. Soon I was doing a whole string of ponies, Two Bits, Queenie, their foals.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dancer and Bonnet

Dancer and Bonnet
Copyright Ken Harris 2006

When we lived in Auburn, California in the 1960s we pursued several mad ideas. One such concept was to win fame and fortune breeding Ponies of the Americas (POAs). A pony is an equine creature less that 14.2 hands (58") at the withers. A POA is a pony with appaloosa color or at least some other characteristics. It was a color more than anything else.

While we were in the Ponies of the Americas business, we decided that we needed a stallion, or even two stallions. We saw an ad in the POA newsletter placed by a Spud Snyder in Montana. Spud had two colts to sell, both colored, and he agreed to meet us in Twin Falls, Idaho to make the transaction.

We hitched our two-horse trailer to our salty GMC ¾-ton pick-up and set forth over Donner Pass. It was opening day of trout season. The Manitou of Weather chose that day to bring down a snow blizzard on us. Cars skidded around the road like skateless ice hockey players. The Highway Patrol put on the chain control at Nyack Garage. (All of this means nothing to you who are unfamiliar with the area. Let’s just say we were trying to get over Donner Pass in a snowstorm because we're not very good history students). Since most of the trout fishermen had no chains with them, they lined up for miles to rent or buy their chains at Nyack Garage. Stu Wells, the garage owner, sported a smile that almost broke his face. You could see his teeth for a hundred yards. One single storm had changed his fiscal year from loss to profit.

I had borrowed chains from Ina Robinson, but had no idea of how to put them on. I was a Son of the Desert from Riverside County. We do sand dunes and sage brush, not sleet and snow. Somehow I managed to attach the chains, with the help of pliers and baling wire, and we got over the hill, shortly before the chains rebelled at my inexpert attempt to attach them and broke loose, wrapping themselves around the brake lines.

When we arrived in Twin Falls, the GMC’s alternator died. We went to a salvage yard to replace it. I am here to testify that there is not so much as a single tree or bush between Twin Falls and the North Pole. Joanne and I were wearing long underwear, short underwear, shirts, sweaters, coats, everything but the motel blankets, and still we froze. The wind cut through us like we were wearing no clothes at all. I have never returned to Idaho and have no intention of ever again exposing my portly person to weather like that.

We contacted Snyder and bought the colts, two miserable looking little guys fresh off that good Montana winter range, wondering what they ever did to deserve weather like this. We loaded them up quickly and headed for California hoping the storm over Donner Pass would be over by the time we got there. As it happened, the weather had cleared, but it was cold enough to provide black ice in the higher places in Nevada. I'd never seen black ice before. On the road it looks just like water, but it's like driving on elephant snot. When you hit the patch with a trailer-load of horses, you take your feet off everything and hope you keep going straight.

We made it home in spite of all and our friends came around to dutifully admire our purchases. Dancer was truly admirable, a dark seal brown pony with a bright rump patch, with spots, a good looking head, and fine conformation. He looked just like a pony should look except he was a little cow hocked and splay footed in the rear end.

Bonnet was different. How is it that Southern Belles damn with faint praise? They precede their comment with “Bless his heart.” “Bless his heart, he don’t suck his thumb in public.” Well, Bonnet, bless his heart, was a Friday horse.

You’ve probably heard that you don’t ever want to buy an American car made on a Monday or a Friday. On Mondays the work force is hung over and on Fridays they put together some cars with left over parts, things that didn’t fit neatly the first time around. They look in the corners and think, “There must be enough parts here to build another car.” Bonnet looked like a Friday horse. He had all the right parts, but they didn’t quite fit. His base color was a reddish brown and his rump patch was not brightly colored and there were no spots. His head was not beautiful and the pink around his eyes and mouth, marked with darker spots, while denoting Appaloosa DNA, made him look like he had a skin disease.

More next week.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Copyright Ken Harris 2006

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my brother-in-law Fritz’s fault. It was all my neighbor Bill Van Landingham’s fault.

Long, long and long ago, not back to Dinosaur Days but almost, in the early 1960s, Fritz and Ruth Heyser came up to visit us in Auburn, California. We were all visiting together very nicely. We hadn’t insulted each other hardly at all. Things would have passed uneventfully if Bill Van Landingam hadn t come by and asked us if we liked frogs legs. Fritz and I both agreed that we loved frogs legs.

Now, from the wisdom conveyed by forty years after the fact, I confess that I had never eaten frogs legs in my life. How would I know if I liked them or not? But Fritz said he loved frogs legs and I wasn’t going to look like a wuss in front of him.

Bill then got us to agree to go with him that night when it was good dark to go frogging. He said that there were ponds where he worked that hadn’t been frogged in years, and he was sure that we could fill up our bags with frogs legs and have them for breakfast. Bill worked at the DeWitt State Mental Hospital as an attendant and said that he had scouted the territory well.
Nothing to it, he said. We drive out there, go to the ponds, fill our bags with frogs legs and return home to a grateful female population who would then gladly fry them up. In butter, rolled in corn meal. We could have frogs legs, potatoes and coffee with brandy in it for breakfast.

Fritz and I must have had a lot beer to drink because this seemed like a good, sound idea.
So that s what we did. We drove out to part of a six-foot chain link fence topped off with three strands of barbed wire that was near the ponds. The barbed wire was strung on arms that were set inwards 30°. Wait a minute. I didn’t remember Bill saying anything about chain link fences and barbed wire.

No matter. We climbed over and made our way to the ponds. It was easy; even the part where we jumped over the three strands of barbed And the frogs were there all right, chuggarumming so loudly you could hear them a hundred yards away. We shined our flashlights on the pond and frog eyeballs lit the place up. The pond looked like a Christmas tree. We gigged frogs with our three pronged frog giggers, killing them, removing their legs and cramming them into burlap bags. We were knee deep in mud, sweaty and yucky with frog yuck, when Bill said, “We d better hurry. We’ll be in trouble if we re caught.”

We filled three burlap bags with frogs legs and made our way back to the fence. But the three-strand layer of barbed wire, now loomed over our heads and looked far more formidable. We thought about going to the main gate and telling them that we weren’t patients there at all and that we didn’t really belong in a mental hospital. But we thought maybe the people at the gate might disagree. They might think we were exactly where we belonged.

So we gave up on going out the easy way and threw our bags and our gear over the fence and then made our way over as well. I learned a lot from this expedition, mostly about things that portly gentlemen should not attempt.

But we returned with most of our clothes, skin and flesh, and lots of frogs legs. The women had given up on us and gone to bed, but we woke them up, masculine studs that we were. They agreed to cook them and help us eat them. But we had to clean them. I never think things all the way through. You don t just throw a frog in a pan skin and all. But we got them cleaned while the women argued about who had the stupidest husband.

The frogs legs were excellent. But the whole experience was yucky from beginning to end. Ever since then I have just bought chicken at the store like a sensible man.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Killing Turkeys

Andrea’s Turkeys
Copyright Ken Harris 2008

My wife Joanne’s sister, Andrea, lived on five acres outside of the metropolis of Rough and Ready, California. Andrea and her late husband, Phil Phillips, lived in a fine home with a fine barn and a fine flock of sheep to live in the fine barn. They also had a fine flock of turkeys to live with the fine sheep. But Andrea was never cut out to be a farmer, and she made pets out of her sheep and her turkeys. She fed her sheep by hand, going to the barn and calling, “Here, Sheepie, Sheepie, Sheepie.” And the sheep would dutifully trot up to be fed.

Her turkeys were not quite as tame as her sheep. The turkeys had the run of the place and hitchhiked rides on the backs of the sheep. They rode everywhere, digging their claws into wooly backs until the backs were raw and sore. Phil once expounded the theory that the fact that turkeys hitchhiked on sheep was compelling evidence that turkeys were smarter than sheep. But that’s not saying much. Everyone knows that doorknobs are smarter than sheep.

One Thanksgiving when the turkeys were grown and the sheep’s backs were raw from so much hitchhiking, Audrey decided that the poultry had to go. She offered Joanne and Fritz their choice of fowl. There was a condition. We would have to do the slaughtering and she would not help in any way. In fact, she wouldn’t even be there. She would be indoors, upstairs, meditating and reflecting on the uncertainty of life. After all, these turkeys were her personal friends.

Fritz was butcher-in-charge. He had read a magazine article about killing turkeys. According to this author’s advice, we should hang the turkey upside down by his feet over a bucket. Once the turkey had quieted down in this position, we were to cut the bird’s head off and it would quietly bleed into the bucket.

This didn’t sound quite right, but it sounded better than whacking the bird’s head off and watching its body bounce around the pasture like a big feathered basketball. So, what the heck, said we. Let’s give it a try, said we. And so Joanne, Ruth, Fritz and I stood in a ring around the suspended bird, and Fritz severed its head with a carving knife.

Can you say “pinwheel”?

That’s what the dead bird made of itself and in just a few short seconds we all looked like victims of a chain saw massacre. After that, we slew the other turkeys in a more conventional fashion and watched them bounce around the pasture like big feathered basketballs. Meanwhile we reflected, wondering whether Fritz had skipped a paragraph in that magazine article.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Halt and the Blind Saw Salmon

The Halt and the Blind Saw Salmon
Copyright 2007 Kenneth Harris

Our daughter Patricia phoned us one day from the Chapa-de Health Clinic in Auburn to tell us that in was Salmon Day. Periodically the Great White Father gives his Indian Children free salmon. These are dead females who have been “harvested” for eggs at the fish hatchery. In the normal course of events, the females lay their eggs and then die. The hatchery accelerates the process a little bit. It’s not very nice, but then it’s probably not a good idea to think about where any of your food comes from.

The hatchery uses the offices of Chapa-De Health Clinic to distribute the fish. It’s convenient since the clinic is tasked with seeing to the health needs of the Indian population in several Northern California counties. Truth to be told, the salmon are not as tasty as wild salmon caught off the Alaskan. Nor is the texture up to par. Nevertheless, it’s free fish and there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m Depression Baby enough to leap all over the offer.

We got our salmon in the form of two females frozen together in a solid block. They didn’t want to come apart with screw drivers or pry bars. We didn’t want to thaw them to get them apart and cut into steaks because we weren’t ready to eat both of the animals at one sitting. We offered to share our loot with Joanne’s brother Fritz and use his table saw to cut the fish into steaks. He agreed and we drove over. Meanwhile, he trundled the saw out onto his garage apron so that we could see what we were doing.

Good light was important because Fritz had wet macular degeneration of both eyes and wasn’t seeing anything very well. The nature of the disease is that you can see anything that is not directly in front of you. It’s like one of those television shows where they blot out the miscreant’s face.

I, on the other hand, had my right arm in a sling because I had just had a torn rotator cuff repaired and a stone removed from the elbow bursa, an aftermath of falling off a ladder and landing on a pile of gravel.

We plugged the saw in and turned it on. It was an old Craftsman saw, but the blade was new and unless we exercised some caution we could easily sacrifice fingers or a hand to this enterprise. The two fish were still frozen together, one solid mass. Joanne stood in front of the saw and pushed the fish through, first removing the tails and then the heads. Then she began to cut the fish into steaks. Fritz stood behind the saw to steady it and remove the pieces of fish as they came toward him. I stood to one side to help both steady the saw and handle fish pieces.

The process worked well except we were all soon covered with “fish dust.” Finely formed fish flesh, scales, and such other parts as had not yet been previously removed covered our hands and faces. And our shirts. And decorated our hair. We were earnest and energetic, but we looked like extras in a horror movie.

Fritz was essentially blind. I had one functioning arm. It’s too bad Joanne wasn’t lame. We could have been a threesome.

The fish, by the way, was…well, it was…free.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An Ending
Copyright Kenneth F. Harris

While Tequila and Norman were not successful, Joanne and I were. As Patricia’s birth neared, we faced some unpleasant truths about a dog we had come to value greatly. He was our friend. But we just couldn’t trust him with a new baby in the house. He was jealous of us, and it is doubtful that he would accept the baby with equanimity. And so Joanne took him to the vet, but this time not for adoption. Norman was intelligent, and he knew that he had failed again. He died quickly in Joanne’s arms. One shot from the vet and he was gone instantly.
That night we cried.
I still choke up every now and then. Fifty years later. And what really bothers me most is that all that time Norman was with us he was just being the best dog he knew how to be. Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Norman and Tequila

The important thing is that Norman was sensitive and intelligent. He was so shattered by the loss of his first home that he never adjusted to subsequent homes. He soon adjusted to us once he adjusted to the horses in the stable and our back yard.
Nothing in Norman’s previous apartment-style life had prepared him for people who just sat right down on a horse and rode it around. The first time he saw me on a horse he tried to drag me off by my boot heel. However, once Norman had decided that there was nothing obscene or degrading in the relationship between a man and a horse, he loved to come along with us. He had learned that horses occasionally got out of the yard and went interesting places, did interesting things.
Norman was the most intelligent dog I have ever met. He understood hundreds of words. It was our custom to go grocery shopping once a week. And every other week we bought Norman a bone. This bone held tremendous significance for him. He would bury his bone as soon as he received it. Then, in the evenings, when we came out to sit on the glider in back of the house and drink our coffee, Norman would appear with his bone. It was a pack thing, something we all did together, he and his family.
But one grey day Joanne forgot Norman’s bone. He understood time enough to know it was bone week. He stood at the door looking through the glass into the kitchen while Joanne unpacked our goodies. Suddenly, she looked at the dog and said, “Oh, my God, I forgot Norman’s bone!” Norman put his head and tail down and left the kitchen door.
Joanne ran to the phone in the living room and called her friend, Zoe Ann.
“Hello, Zoe? Have you been shopping yet?...Well, I forgot Norman’s bone. Could you pick one up for him?...You’ll bring it here in a half an hour? Wonderful!”
A living room window was open and Norman, sitting outside, heard this one side of a telephone conversation, but he understood. When Zoe arrived within half hour, Norman met her at the gate. He fawned, groveled, crawled on his belly like a reptile. He knew who Zoe was, knew she had his bone and he wanted it! Zoe had never before walked into our yard unchallenged, and she never did again, but that afternoon she was visiting royalty.
About the time that Norman came to live with us, Joanne’s brother, Fritz, and his wife Ruth acquired a German Shepherd bitch whom they named Tequila. And so, as must inevitably happen in the face of profound, collective ignorance, we decided to breed the two dogs to each other. Now dog breeding is one of the Greater Arcana, right up there with transmutation of substances and balancing the checkbook. People spend their lives breeding and raising dogs and still spend restless nights wondering about the myriad things that could go wrong. But we, we knew nothing of these things. Dogs have bred without human help for tens of thousands of years. How difficult could it be?
And so we got the two dogs together and poured ourselves some wine. Unfortunately for us, we had two virgin dogs. Norman smelled the air, he smelled Tequila, and then the two of them stood around looking expectantly. Surely something should be happening. But it wasn’t.
We had some more wine. Even that didn’t help. We picked up Norman and placed him on Tequila. Still nothing. We were getting rather desperate when Norman accidentally made the proper penetration. Then the two dogs were permanently stuck. They stuck together even when they tried to walk off in opposite directions. Finally, they got too near the bluff and fell ten feet into some brush where they fortunately separated. For some strange reason, we could no longer interest them in coupling. Perhaps they felt that sex was just too painful. Forget pups if that’s what you had to do.
We had come to that conclusion ourselves. And so Tequila and Norman never added to the gene pool.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Norman (Continued)
©Ken Harris, 2008
Norman had the unfortunate habit of biting people. Joanne and I were as safe as gold at Fort Knox but anyone else who came into the yard stood a serious chance of leaving a part of his gluteus maximus in Norman’s mouth. Whenever Joanne came home from work she always shoved Norman into the house first. Anybody lurking there was going to get fanged to a fare thee well.
It didn’t help that the drive-in parking lot joined our property line. Several amateur dog trainers had to be told to stop leaning over the fence and calling to the dog. I especially remember asking one man several times loudly, and profanely, to leave the dog alone. Norman had already taken some tentative steps towards him, trying to decide which hand to remove first. “But dogs like me,” the gentleman said.
“Yes,” I replied, “and this dog will like you so much he will remove your arm and bury it in the back yard.”
The gas man was another near miss. He screeched up to the driveway, stopped diagonally and vaulted the front fence. Norman was waiting for him on the other side of the fence with his mouth open. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone defy the laws of physics, because somehow he reversed direction in mid air and came back down on his own side of the fence. In this case, I was cheering for the dog because the man was showing no respect.
Another meter reader did not escape intact, though. He came into the yard and Norman followed him all around. He was about to leave when Joanne saw him and expressed surprise. “Well,” the gas man said, “dogs like me.” Joanne went back into the house and heard a cry of pain. Norman had sunk his canines right up to the gum line into the man’s leg. And the dog had been following the man around for twenty minutes. Oh, well, another round of quarantine.
The people who gave Norman to us lied about him. He was not a two-year-old dog. He was actually six year old, or even older. Joanne found this out when she had to take him to the vet. Norman had lived with one family in an apartment for five years and then been placed for adoption because, who knows why. The family had taken him to the vet and asked that he be placed in another home. But when Joanne walked in with the dog, the receptionist said, “Oh, no, not poor Norman again.” We were his fifth family since his original abandonment.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Copyright Ken Harris 2004

I sometimes think of our first dog, shortly after we were married. Let’s place this in the summer or fall of 1957. We had rented a house on a bluff overlooking Arroyo Seco in South Pasadena. It was part of a property including a stable owned by Chuck and Bobbi Williams, owners and operators of the Arroyo Seco Stables. To our north was the York Street Overpass. Next door to us, picking up traffic from the Overpass, was a popular diner with a large parking lot. To our east and south curved a major road and to our west, behind the house, was the bluff, probably 10 feet. At the foot of the bluff lay a level area behind the stable barns where we built a corral and kept our horses. Also behind the barns lay a collection of old cars and car parts that some uninformed people might mistake for a trash pile. In reality, it was Chuck Williams’ priceless treasure trove. Beyond the corral and trove area lay a city park and the Pasadena Freeway.

We had lots of property, horses and cats, but we were dogless. Joanne answered an ad one day and went to an apartment where she picked up a German Shepherd named Norman. The ad represented him as two years old. He was actually six, or even older. He had lived with one family for five years and then been placed for adoption because – who knows why; the important thing is that Norman was sensitive and intelligent. He had been to several other families before he came our way, but was so shattered by the loss of his first home that he could never adjust to subsequent homes. Also, when Norman came to us, he was under quarantine by the L.A. County Health Department because he had bit someone.

When Joanne answered this ad, I knew nothing about it. This was a nacky notion she came up with all by herself. We had only been married for 16 months. I’m more used to her doing this now, but it was a big surprise to me that day. I had been off fishing that day in a small boat offshore from Santa Monica. There we were, three innocents afloat, even including the clueless boat owner. He landed a barracuda, which fell flopping and wriggling onto the bottom of the boat. Our host grabbed a hammer and pounded on the fish, screaming, “Kill him! Kill him!” I was afraid he would punch a hole in the boat and sink us all in the ocean with the other barracudas. He didn’t sink the boat, but he did splatter us all with barracuda parts. I drove home with the windows open, but still could scarcely stand my own smell.

When I arrived home I found my wife in the company of a large German Shepherd who tried to bite me. I couldn’t blame Norman. I was a stranger who smelled like a barracuda. This could not be reassuring. But, thanks to Joanne’s strenuous intervention, he did not devour me and by the next day, I was his favorite person.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Death of the Black Calf

The End of the Black Calf
©Ken Harris, 2006

When we last left this story, Joanne was standing in the middle of a pasture dressed in hose, heels and clutching an extremely dirty blouse. The cow, still in discomfort, nosed at her long, thin, black calf wondering whether it had been worth the effort. And Barbara Van Landingham cooed over the latest addition to the nursery, wondering how they would ever, in a year’s time, find the resolve to kill the beast and eat him.

Joanne said that the real problem would be letting him live long enough to get big enough to eat. She never spoke truer words. This calf was BIG! He was also MEAN! (This is a really unpleasant combination in calves, and I don’t recommend it.) In just a few short weeks he destroyed the flower beds, knocked down the fences, pulled seedling trees out of the ground, treed the cat, nigh pulverized the dog and Barbara found that neither she nor any of her family could even go into their own pasture.

At last Barbara decided that castrating the calf would improve its temperament. We agreed that when the calf reached six weeks of age, we would do the dirty deed.

I don’t know why females think castration improves a male’s temperament. It certainly wouldn’t have improved mine.

And so on a bright, sunny, Saturday morning we showed up at the Van Landingham house ready for work. The calf, who had been named Sunshine, or Sweetness, they should have named him Damien or Be’elzebub, had been penned up. We went to the pen and found ourselves looking eyeball to eyeball with the animal. We checked our tools, Phisohex, clamps, razor blade, and ropes. Lots of ropes.

So we were ready. Be’elzebub wasn’t. He doubted our sublime intent and wouldn’t stick his head in a noose. At last we got a bit of a noose around him and, from the top of the corral, I threw myself on his head. We dropped to the ground, the calf and I, and Joanne lashed his hind feet to the bottom of a corral post and then his front feet to the bottom of another corral post. He was lying flat on his side and I still had hold of his head.

As soon as Joanne made her first incision, the calf objected strenuously. He lifted me up by his neck and slammed me into the ground while at the same time pulling in with his feet. These gyrations went on through the entire delicate procedure. I didn’t dare let go of the head because he would certainly have wreaked havoc (and wrecked everything around him).

At last the job was done. I let go of his head. Joanne untied him. He had pulled so hard he had snapped one of the corral posts off at ground level. It’s a good thing we nailed him when he was only six weeks old. Otherwise I’m not sure who would have done what with which to whom.

When we finally killed him, some months later, he was two axe handles broad and did everything but breathe fire. But he had good taste.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Driving a Dead Cow

Driving a Dead Cow
©Ken Harris, 2008

It was a dark and stormy winter afternoon in the 1990s in North San Juan, California. One of our short-yearling steers lay dead in the mud, stiff and ungainly. This was a disagreeable event at a disagreeable time in a disagreeable place.

Our “ranch” lay on two horizontal planes joined by five hundred feet or so of more or less 45ยบ real estate. On the upper plane sat our house, on the lower plane a pasture and a seasonal stream. In between, on a bulldozer enhanced level patch of ground, sat our barns and a fattening pen, protected by large madrone and bull pine trees and lots of manzanita and Scotch broom brush. But the trees and brush didn’t offer sufficient protection, for the steer lay dead in the field of mud we called our fattening pen. Joanne, Bill Brown, a man whom we occasionally hired to help us do grunt work, and I glumly surveyed the scene as the rain whipped in our faces and dripped down the backs of our slickers.

We had to figure out what to do with this large, dead animal. We couldn’t just leave him there for the coyotes, buzzards, flies and microbes. The carcass would perfume the valley for weeks.

We had to get him out of his mud puddle and off to some place where we could bury him. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get our 4-wheel drive pick-up anywhere near the carcass without taking out a side of the fattening pen and driving on serious mud. Even if we took out the side of the pen, mud driving is a minor art form in itself. From a previous experience I knew that chains just dig you in deeper and faster.

At last we came up with a plan. Bill and I tied two long ropes around the dead steer’s head and then the three of us rolled the carcass onto its back and pointed it in the direction of the entrance to the fattening pen. Then Bill and I looped our ropes over our chests and arms and began tugging like two mules breaking sod. Joanne stood behind with a hind hoof in each hand, like a pioneer woman gripping plough handles, keeping the steer on its back and giving some direction to our efforts. She steered as Bill and I strained, hopping the steer’s head wouldn’t pop off before we got to where we could attach him to the pick-up.

Success! We got a whole carcass all the way to the pick-up. The rain and wind were just as bad, but my arms were so sore I didn’t even notice. We towed the animal downhill to the level pasture and Bill and I grabbed shovels. Seems you never have a backhoe when you need one.

Of course we had to bury the animal. We couldn’t cut it up for steaks and ribs because we didn’t know why it had died, basic knowledge you really want to have about your food.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Birth and Other Inconveniences

On Birth and Other Inconveniences of Life’
©Ken Harris, 2007

Puppies, guppies and other wildlife young were not occasions for great comment in our family. Someone was always whelping, calving, littering or otherwise inconveniencing themselves. Doesn’t everyone hatch chicks in their ovens?

Occasionally, however, some truly spectacular births occurr. One such was the birth of our neighbor’s calf. We were living in Auburn then. Our neighbors, the Van Landinghams, didn’t know much about cows or calves, but that didn’t keep them from having a pregnant white face cow. This poor cow had been trying to have a calf all day, but things just weren’t working out for her.

My wife, Joanne, was teaching math at a local high school at the time. I mention this to explain her inappropriate apparel. I was working for Intercoast Life Insurance as an underwriter and working on my teaching credential at the University of California, Davis. I had arrived home from school fairly early, but even so Joanne had arrived before me. As I drove up the hill to the house I could see her trying to help this cow through her hard birth, assisted by our neighbors.

Joanne was still wearing hose and heels because she didn’t even go up to the house to change into her grubbies, but just leaped headlong into the situation.
She was dressed for school, except for her blouse. She had removed that garment and wadded up in her hands to use it to get a better grip on the calf as she pulled. The calf had presented its front legs properly. This was not a breech birth situation. The calf was simply too large.

Some readers may not have had the opportunity to assist at a mammal’s birth. On the other hand, some female readers may have given birth to your own mammal, but hopefully not in the middle of a cow pasture surrounded by well meaning but ineffective amateurs

I drove on by the impromptu delivery room and changed my clothes. By the time I returned to the scene of the action, the blouse had been discarded in favor of a length of baling wire looped around the calf’s front feet. The blouse, too slimy to put back on, just lay heaped in the grass. Joanne tugged at the calf, and then I tugged at the calf, and then we tugged at the calf. But it was hopeless, and eventually even we saw that. The calf was stuck like a pig in a stove pipe.

We decided to call the vet. An ungenerous observer might say we should have called the vet in the beginning. But that would be – ungenerous. We always try to solve our problems by ourselves before we call in people with knowledge and tools. It’s our family, it’s a tradition.

As Barbara Van Landingham called Virgil Traynor, the newest veterinarian in town whom we called Virgil the Vet, her 12-year-old daughter, Julie came out with a jug of wine and some glasses. I don’t know about the cow, but the rest of us definitely needed a restorative.

Eventually Virgil the Vet arrived. He set up a pully arrangement attached to a frame connecting the good mother earth to the buttocks of the good mother cow. Then he attached a line to the calf’s front feet and, without benefit of clergy or contraction, began to crank away. The calf came out. A bull calf. A long, thin bull calf. I thought it was a wonder both mother and son survived the birthing process.

The cow bonded with her calf and began cleaning her up. But she was still having massive contractions. Finally, with a hearty shudder, she expelled a blob about the size of a basketball.

“What’s that?” Joanne asked.

“Uterus,” replied Virgil the Vet.

“What will we do?”

“Clean it off.” With that, Virgil began plucking blood clots off the uterus.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” contributed Paula, the older Van Landingham girl.

“Go somewhere else to be sick,” replied Paula’s unsympathetic mother, Barbara. “Don’t do it here.”

In short order, Virgil cleaned off the uterus, and was ready to place it back inside the cow. This was more easily said than done, for the cow was still shuddering and contracting. Moreover, the uterus, while it had shrunk a little, was still a formidably sized organ. Virgil didn’t want to spend time waiting for the cow to stop contracting and the uterus to shrink, which would surely have happened eventually. Instead, he and Joanne together put their hearts and hands into the reinsertion project. There followed a curious game of push-of-war (the opposite of tug-of-war).

At last the uterus was inside the cow where it belonged. At least, it was inside the cow. Who could say where inside the cow it actually was. Virgil rummaged through his shiny, new doctor’s bag. “Darn, I don’t have a needle or any thread. Oh, well, keep an eye on her and if the uterus falls out, give me a call.” As he was leaving, he added, “Call me tomorrow. I’m going out tonight.”

We left the cow tending her calf, who by this time had pulled himself together somewhat and looked a little more like a real calf than one from an alternative universe.

The next morning the cow was found grazing in her pasture, both calf and uterus following dutifully behind her. Another call made, and Virgil the Vet returned, this time with a needle and thread. This time the uterus, now the size of a small apple, went in easily.

Virgil charged the Van Landinghams for two calls. He also said that the cow would never have another calf, a reasonable enough assertion on the face of it. But in subsequent years, the cow had several more calves
What was I doing while all this tugging and pushing of generative organs was going on? Well, someone had to make notes.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Redwing, "Okie Cow"

Redwing, “Okie Cow”
©Ken Harris, 2008

The people who sold Redwing to us called her an Okie Cow. She had beef cow and milk cow in her DNA. She was brown and white; we figured her for Hereford crossed with something dairy. She had the dairy cow personality, mellow, easy to handle. Our son, Eric, named her Redwing.

We bred her to a beef bull every year. Redwing’s beef background gave us a 3/4-beef calf, something we could sink our teeth into when he (or she – we’re equal opportunity carnivores) grew to the right size. Her dairy background guaranteed enough milk so that we could raise a second calf, a “drop calf,” on her, thereby getting two edible animals for the effort of raising one. Drop calves were to be had at the dairy, little bull calves not much use to anyone who makes his living milking cows. Drop calves were usually free and, while the beef wasn’t top notch, the price was great.

Redwing had all the maternal virtues and bonded quickly with her own calves. She showed less enthusiasm for the “orphans” we foisted upon her, but she usually came around after a couple of weeks. Not only did she nurture her own babies, she was careful and considerate of other peoples’ babies as well, whether human, equine, canine, feline. I have a picture of my nephew, Mark Kampe, sitting on her back while she is lying down enjoying the sun. The amazing thing to me is that her brand new calf is lying down just a few feet away. Another time, I came home from work to find the three neighbor children and our own two all perched somehow on the cow. Eric was climbing hand over hand up Redwing’s tail. All of the children were singing Michael, Row the Boat Ashore at the top of their lungs. Redwing stood placidly and appeared, and if she didn’t enjoy the attention, she appeared resigned to it.

We bred her through by artificial insemination. On an appointed morning the local artificial inseminator would show up with his selection of bull semen stored in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. For the curious, nitrogen liquefies at -320°F. He handled his vials of semen very carefully, because at 320 below you could give yourself a nasty freezer burn. Then, while one of us held Redwing by her halter and the other held her tail aside, The Great Inseminator inserted a tube into the cow’s vagina, into the uterus, put his mouth to the free end of the tube, puffed firmly, and the job was done. The cow flinched every time. Well, I guess! That semen couldn’t have warmed up all that much. I always entertained myself with the speculation about what would happen if cows could come up with a pre-emptive uterine puff first. There would be fewer artificial inseminators and more happy bulls.

Once a Hereford bull did make it into our pasture. That animal was BIG. We didn’t go into our own pasture for several days, until we located his owner. Redwing loved it. Her own personal bull. She grazed at his side with a smile on her face like she’d just filled an inside straight flush.

When Redwing first came to live with us, she had little buttons for horns. If we had taken them off with a pocket knife right then, there would have been no problem. But we were so ignorant. We let them grow and soon she had four-inch horns and we had a problem because, while she wasn’t vicious and would never have gored us on purpose, she might whack us accidentally shooing flies away. We hired our horse shoer, Jack Howell, the same one who taught us how to trim a rabbit’s teeth. Jack came over with a hacksaw and a can of combination disinfectant and instant blood clotter-wound sealer. Again, with little formality, we held her down and Jack sawed away. My lord, the blood. It spurted with each beat of her heart, long streams, eight feet. The canned medicine worked and the blood flow ceased almost instantly. We turned her loose within a few minutes. For the next week, Redwing refused to speak to us. When we entered the pasture with hay or oats, she turned and looked away. If we pursued the matter, she would walk away. She just wanted nothing to do with treacherous people. I couldn’t blame her. We had let our ignorance get us into a situation that could not be resolved in any pleasant way.

Augustine was probably the best drop calf Redwing ever raised. We drove out to a dairy where a nine-year-old boy was in charge. He took us out to a large wooden barn where a number of calves stood, tied by their necks to the walls with jute baling twine. We chose one and loaded him into the bed of the pickup and drove home. At least, we thought it was a him because we didn’t check too closely. We figured even a nine-year-old, if he was connected to a dairy, must know the difference between a bull calf and a heifer.

He didn’t. August became Augustina and she was as gentle as one of the dogs. We knew we would have trouble butchering her for beef. She was just too nice. We traded her to some neighbors for alfalfa because they wanted her for a 4-H project for one of their daughters. A few weeks later we received a phone call from the neighbors wanting to know something about Augustina’s breeding. The 4-H organization didn’t require papers but they did want to know something about the heifer’s background. Sui generis doesn’t cut it with the 4-H. Joanne phoned the dairyman and explained how we’d gone out to get a bull calf and the kid gave us a heifer, ha ha, and now the new owners wanted to know something about the animal. “Is that what happened to her?” quietly asked the dairyman, more to himself than to Joanne. “That heifer’s mother was last year’s state butter-fat champion. Is there any chance I could get her back?” Joanne gave the dairyman our neighbor’s phone number. We never did hear how it turned out, but it seemed obvious that Augustina was not going to go on the butcher’s block.

When we moved to Guam we had to get rid of Redwing, send her to another home. Many people wanted to buy her. She was sweet, kind, gentle and if you staked her out by the road to get rid of a fire hazard, that hazard was gone. Our friend Betty Veal offered to buy the cow and to satisfy my ego I said I wanted $1.00 per pound for her, a fair enough price for the world’s greatest cow. Then I estimated her weight to be 100 pounds, and Betty and we struck a deal.

Redwing lived with Betty for many more years. Some years she raised two calves, some years one, some years none at all. After Redwing had passed her 20th birthday, one man suggested to another that she be butchered for bologna. “Good thing Betty’s not here. She’d make bologna out of you for that suggestion,” was the reply. Redwing had that effect on all who knew her. She wasn’t a cow, she was a person.

When Redwing died Betty hired a backhoe operator to dig a hole under the oak tree at the west end of her property and bury the cow there. She had liked to stand there in the evenings and watch the sun set. Like most of us, Betty was not foolishly sensitive; but some people just deserve a final gesture of respect, and Redwing was one of those.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Betty's Heifer

Betty’s Heifer
©Ken Harris, 2008

Back in the 1960s in Auburn, California, Jack and Betty Veal lived on some acreage with their horses, cattle, chickens and other family members including a white faced heifer whom they felt was ready to be introduced to a gentleman cow. Unfortunately for a good many of us, Betty’s heifer did not want to be introduced to any gentleman cow, thank you very much.

Betty hitched her two-horse trailer to the pickup, removed the divider so that the heifer would have plenty of room once she was loaded, and put a little hay and grain on the floor in front of the trailer, something to entice the beast inside. But the heifer wasn’t having any of it. Hay and grain were all right in their place, and that place in a manger or feed rack, certainly not on a floor inside of a trailer. The heifer wouldn’t go in the trailer.

Betty called her friends to help. Joanne and I responded to the call, along with our horse, Legend, in case we needed some good old fashioned cow ponying. Carolyn Geier also brought her horse. Ina Robinson, Max and Jonie Fields, and Woody Bexar formed the rest of our excessively brave and foolish crew.

The plan was to herd the cow into the trailer quickly and painlessly and then treat ourselves to self-congratulatory brewskis. Unfortunately, nobody consulted the heifer.

First, the heifer didn’t want to be herded. Joanne and Carolyn tried to sandwich her between their horses and guide her toward the trailer. The heifer was having none of that, however, and made a 90° turn to the left and ran under Joanne’s horse toward a fence. The horse, Legend, was somewhat surprised by this antic, but she had been used as an endurance horse, a cart horse, a trail driving horse, a parade horse and a carrier of small nieces and nephews. In fact, we had asked her to do everything but tap dance. So she didn’t panic when the heifer ran under her. She just thought it was unusual and raised her front legs so the heifer could proceed unmolested toward the fence.

The fence, now, that was really going to bring the cow up short. It stood four feet tall and proud, heavy gauge field fencing attached to thick, steel posts. Surely this fine fence would hold the cow.

But, actually, the fine fence didn’t hold the cow. The fine fence didn’t even slow this cow down. She ploughed through the fence and proceeded westward dragging ten yards of fencing and T-posts behind her. I am sure that when Leonardo first conceived of the tank he had just seen a runaway cow.

We followed behind the heifer as best we could. She faced another fence and slowed for it and so we caught up. By that time she had shed her field fence adornment. As we urged her trailerward, she took out the second fence and off she went again. We followed in her wake, confidence now replaced by desperation. We soon left the boundaries of the Veal ranchette and proceeded down a draw filled with scrub oak, poison oak, rocks and brambles. I began to wonder if we were going to have to follow her to Marysville, some thirty miles away. Suddenly Woody Bexar got close enough to the the cow to get a loop around her neck. He quickly ran to an oak tree that fortunately grew nearby and took a dally. The Cow hit the end of the rope and the earth around the oak tree quivered. The cow dropped like a rock.

We quickly loosened the noose around her neck because we didn’t want her to die on us, not there, not a half mile from the nearest motorized pulley. Skinning and dressing out a cow with a Swiss army knife and then packing it out was just not an option. She soon regained consciousness, but then she just lay there, flat on her belly, front and back legs pointing back, just as though she had splatted on the spot from an airplane overhead. In an attempt to motivate her to move, Joanne and Carolyn attached lassoes around the animal’s neck and began to drag her toward the trailer and her gentleman suitor. Surely she would yield to force majeur, and get onto her feet and follow along rather than have her head pulled off. Surely.

No. Surely not. Joanne and Carolyn dragged her on her belly, leaving a trail a foot wide and three inches deep in the scrub oak duff. She was easy to track that way, but we didn’t need to track her. We already knew where she was.

We loosened the rope, but we were still many, many yards away from anywhere useful. Our next idea was to sever a hot wire from a nearby electric fence and hold it to her nose. That motivated her to move rapidly, but just far enough from the hot fence to where we could no longer shock her. Then she dropped again. But she outsmarted herself and fell near a puddle of water. One of us collected some water in a felt hat and poured it in her ear. The idea was to persuade the animal she was drowning and maybe she would swim cross country toward the trailer. Stupid as the idea was, it worked – for fifty feet. Then down she went again.

At this point we began to think in terms of a barbeque right there, on that particular spot. Or better yet, just shoot the he cow dead and go to church bingo that very night.

Somehow, though, after several hours and the expenditure of much energy, we got the animal to within two hundred feet of the trailer. Unfortunately for us, close as we were to the trailer, there was a large barn in the way. And brutal as you may think us, that heifer was in a lot better shape than we were.

At that point Betty Veal’s husband, Jack, drove up. He saw our problem and at once announced a solution. First, he opened the barn doors on both sides of the building so that we had a straight shot at the trailer. Then, the trailer already having been prepared for the heifer’s virginal entrance, Jack stationed two of us to quickly slam the ramp up and lock it once the calf had entered. These preparations made, Jack picked up a pair of offset pliers and grabbed the heifer’s nasal septum and gave it a sharp twist.

The heifer sprang up with a roar and began to chase Jack with lethal intent. Jack had no desire to die that day, and so he ran for the trailer. Very fast. He was highly motivated. He didn’t dare let go of the pliers or slow down, either one. He flew into the trailer, closely followed by a fire breathing heifer. And then, as the ramp clanged shut behind him, he let go of the pliers and dove head first out trailer’s safety door up front. He let the heifer have the pliers.

And so we had our brewskies after all and finished the day covered with blood, sweat and beers. The heifer, meanwhile, left in the trailer on her way to meet her gentleman cow. Aint love grand?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Vaca Mexicana

Vaca Mexicana
©Ken Harris, 2008

In 1956 or 57 my wife and I lived in a Hollywood apartment and attended universities. We were both working very hard and welcomed the opportunity to take a brief vacation whenever we could. Usually we went to Joanne’s parents’ mining claim on Paiute Mountain in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Usually we took Bobo, a poodle, with us.

Bobo was very intelligent and could learn anything in five minutes. This was fortunate because he could forget anything he wanted in ten minutes. He would also put his own spin on his orders of the day. “Don’t get on the couch” meant “wait until everyone has gone for the day.” But he was pleasant company even with his faults.

On this particular occasion we had finished supper in the cabin and the three of us went for a walk to the meadow several hundred yards to the north. We gingerly crawled through a rusty barbed wire fence surrounding the pasture and noted the sign of many cattle. The meadow was part of the Bureau of Land Management domain and overgrazing seemed to be a part of their policy.

We came across the herd. There were a lot of them. Mexican cows, some with twisty horns, all of them lean. A few had extravagant brands on their hips. None of them looked like Elsie. The herd bull stood to the far side of the herd and ignored us. He didn’t look like Elmer, either. His disinterest in us was his only redeeming trait that I could see.

We stayed clear of the herd and tried to keep within running distance of the fence. It was just as well we had, for Bobo found a calf. He immediately tried to play a game with the calf, something named “I chase you around.” The calf cried, “Mama!”

The old lady showed up immediately. As soon as she saw Bobo and us her expression changed from exasperation to menace. She was a strawberry road cow, so lean you could count her ribs with long, twisty, glinting horns. The right horn could have gone in my navel and out my nose.

We called for Bobo, quietly. “Bobo.” Then firmly. “Bobo!” Then desperately. “BOBO!!!”

By this time the cow had decided which of us she wanted to gore first and she began to move. So did we. I beat Joanne to the fence by several yards at once demonstrating speed and lack of gallantry. Bobo, delighted that we had joined in the game, yapped and barked harder.

The calf ran away from all the noise and confusion and the cow followed. And that’s all of the story. Nothing really happened. Except I remember thinking the next morning as I shaved, “This is ridiculous. Indians don’t get grey at 23.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Copyright Ken Harris 2007

We have just returned from a sea kayaking trip off Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington State. Since we live in Tucson, Arizona, we found the weather colder than a teacher's wit. However, I'm posting again. Here's a story about our Main Coon Cat, Babe.


Sometime around 1978 someone gave us a Maine Coon Cat. For the uninformed, Maine Coon Cats are larger than the average family feline, and very hairy. They’d have to be to withstand the Maine winters, wouldn’t they? Babe was so hairy that it parted down the middle of her back and tail and drooped to either side, much like a skunk’s. Also like a skunk, she was black with some white markings, her four feet, her nose and some chest markings. More like a civet cat, actually.

She was a grown cat when she came to us. She had lived with her former owner in an apartment for several years until that owner died. She brought her own bed, blanket, combination scratching post and climbing gym, and toys with her. Oh, yes, she also had her baby book with pictures lovingly collected by her previous owner. Babe was a precious jewel, an apartment cat, and she had never been outdoors in her entire life.

The bane of Babe’s existence, at least at first, was Tiger, our half miniature poodle-half Yorkshire terrier. The little dog was already in residence and it was his home. He did not buy into the concept of sharing. Babe, on the other hand, had no concept of sharing at all.

When they first met Babe didn’t really know how to respond. Then Tiger barked and ran up to her. Babe then made of up her mind. She ran. She zigged and zagged and juked and jinked but when she neared the counter separating the kitchen from the living room she looked over her shoulder and there was Tiger zigging and zagging and juking and jinking six inches behind her. She hadn’t gained a centimeter. In fact, she’d lost a few just by looking over her shoulder. She leaped high onto the counter, rattling a few pans in her unceremonious landing.

The dog and the cat soon came to terms, mainly because the dog was essentially a pleasure loving beast and fairly easy company for a cat. Also, Babe was considerably larger than Tiger and if he had actually come to grips with her he would have regretted it.

Having a cat that had never been outside did not meet our family traditions. And so one afternoon when we were sipping our brewskis on the back lawn, we saw Babe happily sunning herself in the window. Joanne went inside, picked her up and brought her out to the lawn. She put the cat gently down on the grass, a thing she had never felt underfoot before. Babe raised all four feet at once, with predictable results. She landed on her belly, literally bounced, did a 180 in mid-air, and ran back into the house. It was a week before Joanne could get near her again.

But she soon forgave us because we were, after all, the people who fed her. And Babe soon became a notable huntress. Deep in the DNA of a Maine coon cat lie certain imperatives. See small animal. Stalk it. Kill it. Eat it. Mee-oww. And while she was very good at night stalking, she could never entirely overcome the handicap of the white breast patch. Usually the small animal saw her in time to escape unscathed. But both Babe and the small animal got lots of exercise that way.

Babe and Tiger even became partners in crime once. It was winter in Upland, California, mild by Midwest standards but unpleasant by California criteria. I lay prone upon our water bed for a well deserved afternoon nap. The bedroom window provided the only sunny spot in the house. The only warm one, either, for that matter. When I woke up I found Babe asleep in my left arm pit and Tiger asleep in the right. Joanne said they’d been that way for half an hour. Of course, they weren’t supposed to be on the bed. Neither was I for that matter, not in mid-afternoon.

One night Babe went hunting and never came back. All we ever found was some hide and part of a jawbone. We reasoned that two coyotes got her, or there we would never have found anything. As you may or may not know, coyotes run freely through urban southern California. Streets, walls and fences don’t seem to mean much to them. We were sorry to lose Babe, but glad in a way that she died hunting, the thing she was literally born to do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


©Ken Harris, 2007

When we married in 1956, we were both 22 years old and convinced we were adults. Everyone else had their doubts. We had a small apartment in Hollywood near Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Joanne worked on her secondary teaching credential at Cal State Los Angeles and I pursued a bachelor’s degree at UCLA. We had no pets.
No pets. No car. Very little money. For wheels we had a little handcart to carry our groceries home. We couldn’t even buy enough food for seven dinners. Joanne’s parents, Sid and Esther, always came through with an invitation for Sunday dinner. It was in our budget. They even drove out to get us when we couldn’t afford bus fare from Hollywood to El Monte. We were so poor that we once had a party and served the cheapest beer we could buy mixed with the cheapest sauterne we could buy as a punch. Our guests were so poor they drank it and so polite they called it good.
We wanted a pet, but how could we afford one? Answer: we couldn’t. And that’s where the mouse came in.
I first met our mouse one morning when I came into the kitchen to fix breakfast. I had known he was living with us because I had seen little droppings around the kitchen. We had intended to get a mouse trap, but we were both very busy. Besides, if he could find anything to eat around our house, he was welcome to it. (I got down to 155 pounds at this time of life. But I was working 12 hours a night at the Post Office and carrying 18 units at UCLA.)
On this particular morning I came into the kitchen and found the mouse in our cast iron skillet. He ran in circles in terror. Then he tried to dig his way out through the bottom of the skillet. At last he put it together that the only way out was up and over. And with a mighty leap he made it -- halfway over the rim. He scrambled frantically until he dropped over the side of the skillet to freedom, falling out of the pan into the fire ring, beyond the drip pan, bouncing off various inner workings of the stove and eventually hitting the floor. He made a mad dash for the door, but missed. By several inches. Instead he smacked his nose on the door trim, which sent him reeling backwards. Recovering, he finally made his escape. It cost him every shred of dignity, but he escaped.
At this particular point in our lives Joanne was taking a course called Mammalogy. One of the class activities involved capturing a mammal, chopping its head off, boiling or otherwise getting rid of the meat on the head and then intensely studying the skull. In this way you could tell what kind of animal it was. I guess they didn’t have Peterson’s Field Guides in those days. I never did much care for the premise behind this course. The activity may have furthered scientific knowledge a nanomillimeter, but it didn’t improve the animal at all.
We set out a live trap for Poquito, for so I named the mouse, and he, not suspecting our plans, walked right into it. We set up a little nest for him in a mouse cage and placed grain for him to eat. We seldom saw him, although when he thought he was unobserved he would pace the ceiling of his cage.
Fortunately for Poquito, someone gave Joanne a cow’s head. They had slaughtered the cow and gave us the head. So we didn’t need Poquito’s head. Rendering the meat off a cow’s head presented more of a challenge than a mouse’s head. It took several weeks. We borrowed an Army soup kettle and boiled away whenever we could.
Joanne had a friend, Sally Porter, who would drop by and check the pots, pans, cupboards and refrigerator for anything to eat. So in she dropped one afternoon early on in the rendering project and opened the soup kettle lid. She slammed it down again firmly, surprised by the mournful stare of the cow. We had not yet removed the eyeballs. In subsequent days she encountered the head in the refrigerator, on the stove, in the oven, always with less meat and more bone visible. Finally, she just gave up in discouragement and decided she would never find any Fritos® at our house.
So even though Poquito’s head could not serve science, his entire living body might do so as an example of a mammal. But once again, Poquito was saved! Joanne’s brother, Fritz, caught a gopher, and this was thought to be a much superior example of a mammal than a mere mouse. She built a terrarium for the gopher with wooden sides over the glass so that when they were removed people could observe the tunnels the gopher had dug.
So Joanne took the cow’s skull into class and the gopher in his terrarium while Poquito was left at home to pace the ceiling of his cage. Other people brought in other animals. One Saturday the class lab assistant, a student named Bill Hatten, came in to catch up on his work. Bill let his sample mammal, a dearomatized civet cat., out to wander the room and stretch his four little legs. When he caught the animal again, he saw that the terrarium had been disturbed. He sifted and resifted the dirt in the terrarium, but he never found hide nor hair nor fur nor feathers nor any part of that gopher.
Not only that, the civet cat had got into the study skins. Study skins were another part of the Mammology curriculum. Students had to trap small animals and skin them and box their hides, ie display them in a sort of unnatural looking rectangular form. They even took field trips to do this. But skinning a small animal is not all that easy. Granted, it’s easier than skinning an elephant or a giraffe, but small animals’ skins tear easily. Here you are, the intrepid student, trying to gently work the skin off a dead shrew, getting it off completely so that you can display it on a piece of cardboard, and it tears in half. You’ve not only gotten your hands dirty, you have no skin to show for it. The shrew isn’t improved either. Joanne was very good at skinning shrews because of her long experience as a Girl Hunter on Paiute Mountain in her early days. Whatever you shot, you ate; and dinner tasted better if you skinned it first. Joanne had quite a nice collection of study skins. And Bill Hatten’s civet cat completely tore them up.
We eventually turned Poquito loose. He didn’t get his head chopped off. He didn’t get eaten by a civet cat. With his luck, he probably sired nineteen generations of mouselets.
Anyway, in the conclusion you thought I’d never reach, our first three pets were a mouse, a gopher and a cow’s head. Now that is purely pathetic.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Impy the sparrow farmer

©Ken Harris, 2007

Impy, a grey cat, felt that there was much room for improvement in the world. He especially disliked kittens, and, wouldn’t you know it, my wife’s family, the Heysers, family was always bringing home new ones. The kittens never knew anything. They had to be taught everything, and guess who had to teach them? Right. Impy. Would Sid and Esther teach the newbies how to snatch gophers and break their little necks? Not on your tintype. Lessons like this were always left to Impy. And just when the kittens learned enough to be of some help around the house and in the garden, they would get run over and the whole process would begin again with. Sheesh!
Impy was a large scale sparrow rancher. In the Heyser back yard, between the house and the barn, stood a huge English walnut tree overgrown with ivy. The ivy provided home and haven for thousands of sparrows. When the birds were in full throat, you had to shout to make yourself heard. And if you ventured under the tree without an umbrella, chances are you would have to change clothes and bathe, such was the steady drizzle of guano, dust, twigs, egg shell and other sparrow detritus. In short, the sparrows were a Compleat Nuisance.
While the rest of the family suffered, Impy thought the situation was great. His own plantation! He climb his tree daily, checking the nests. When he found a baby bird that was just right, not too small and bony, not too many baby feathers, he would tip it out of the nest onto the concrete walkway below. Then, down he would come for a sparrow snack. Life was good for him: less so for sparrows. But there were so many sparrows, and only one little cat; he could have gone on for decades if it wasn’t for a stroke of bad luck.
Impy’s days as a plantation owner came to a sudden halt when Joanne’s brother, Fritz, came home from an outing one day with a sparrow hawk in a bag. The bird was a fledgling, just learning to fly, and Fritz had come across him sitting on the ground. He threw a cloth over him and, presto, the bird was bagged. The hawk was unhurt save for his dignity.
Fritz installed the sparrow hawk in a tall cage, about 4’’ x 4’ x 8’, in the back yard and gave some thought to taming the bird. One day he gently poked the remains of a chicken drumstick through the cage, hoping to convince the bird that he was a source of food. The hawk seized the drumstick with one claw and snapped the bone in half and Fritz abandoned all thought of teaching the bird to eat out of his hand.
Several weeks after the sparrow hawk arrived, he decided that he had listened to shrieking sparrows enough. If they wanted shriek, he’d show them shriek. And so he did. Once. Every sparrow in the walnut tree fell silent and people could hear other ambient sounds again, locomotives, freeway traffic, thunder. The silence lasted for a few seconds, and then every sparrow took flight, never to return. The back yard had been restored to the Heyser family, and Impy’s days as a prosperous bird farmer were over.
Fritz freed the sparrow hawk a few days later. He was too wild to tame and too small to eat.
The first time Joanne brought me home to meet her parents, Impy was there to greet me. I wanted to sit in a chair that he already occupied. I waited. And waited some more. Finally, I gently grabbed the cat by his rib cage and lifted him up. The seat cushion came up with him, for he had sunk each claw into the cushion as deeply as he could and then clenched his feet. But gradually gravity took hold and the cushion came loose claw by claw. I sat down and Impy grumpily left the room twitching his stump of a tale. (He had lost most of his tale to a refrigerator fan; otherwise he would have really flipped me off.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


©Ken Harris, 2008

El Monte, Los Angeles County, 1958. We had a new home so we acquired a new kitten, a grey kitten with four white feet that resembled moccasins. We were too lazy to say “moccasins,” so we named him Mocs. He and our new dog Skoshi immediately became fast friends. They played a special game, “Ambush.” As Skoshi ran around the persimmon-colored Volkswagen, yelping loudly at nothing at all, Mocs lurked behind the right rear wheel. Then as Skoshi whizzed by, Mocs would pounce on the dog’s hind leg while Skoshi ran off happily yelping, dragging the kitten with him. This scene repeated itself over and over.

Skoshi had long hair that knotted and tangled easily. Except for the left hind leg where the hair was long, silky, and untangled, combed by the family cat.

As is the case with most kittens, Mocs was a jangle of nerves. Once Joanne’s sister and her husband, Audrey and Tom Kampe, visited us bringing with them their teacup sized black dog, Frederick Minimus. Frederick just knew he was a predator. It was deep within his DNA. As soon as he saw Mocs, who was much larger than he, he ran up behind him and yapped as loudly as he could. Mocs immediately leaped high into a nearby persimmon tree. Then he sat in a fork of the tree, front paws on one side and rear paws on the other, and looked at the happy, dancing dog in utter self-disgust. “I ran from that?”

As an only cat, there was no one to teach Mocs to hunt. He showed little natural ability. One morning he took an interest in a flock of doves grazing on our front lawn. He hid himself behind a saxaphragia plant Joanne had just planted a few weeks before. The plant was still small, the kitten large; large enough to be plainly visible behind the saxaphragia, at any rate. He bulged out on all sides.

As the doves grazed and moved ever closer to the lurking cat, you could see Mocs trying to resolve some monumental questions. Which bird? When? Now? Which foot do I start with? What do I do if I catch one? It’s not easy being a cat. You’ve got to have a keen eye, balance, and a sense of timing. You’ve got to have a plan. The doves eventually tired of waiting to be eaten and wandered off leaving the poor kitten to wonder if he would ever get it right

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rope Racer and the Kittens

Rope Racer and the Kittens
Copyright: Ken Harris, 2008

Auburn, California, mid-1960s: When our daughter, Patricia, was still in grade school, she fell in the playground and sustained a greenstick fractures of the left leg. In a cast, immobile and hurting a little bit, she was unhappy. To make her feel better Joanne brought home a kitten.

The kitten was a congenital hysteric. The least untoward noise sent her nervous system into spontaneous disassembly. She tried to run through a glass door once because somebody sneezed.

She was hyperactive, like most kittens. Our son, Eric, christened her Rope Racer after they had played “Let’s-Maul-the-Dangling-Jump Rope” for half an hour.

Rope Racer grew to a fearful, fugitive feline, afraid of anything that moved, or might have moved in the past or might move in the future. If you tried to put her on your lap, she took immediate evasive action. I didn’t have to be clawed too many times in delicate places to recognize a bad idea.

If she found my company distasteful, she didn’t have any trouble with tomcats because she turned up pregnant one day. Oddly enough, impending parenthood seemed to settle her nerves a little. She no longer caromed off the walls simply because I set a coffee cup down too hard. She no longer hid under the refrigerator like a furry chuckawalla simply because the kids ran into the house announcing to the entire county that they were home from school.

We held a family conference to determine where Rope Racer would best have her kittens. I built her a nest out of a cardboard box stuffed with freshly laundered rags and put it behind the hot water heater in the garage. It was the darkest, warmest place around, much better than outdoors because it was still winter. I thought it was the ideal place for a cat to have her kittens.

Rope Racer did not agree.

I arose early on weekday mornings so I could change the sprinklers in the pasture and do other little chores before putting on a suit and driving 50 miles to my job as an insurance company junior executive.

Once ready for work I cranked up the Datsun, backed out of the garage, and began to carefully negotiate the steep gravel driveway leading away from our house. On the way down I heard a “me-EW, me-EW” coming from a distressed kitten. Several other voices soon joined in a chorus of complaint. At the foot of the hill I stopped to investigate. Suspicion confirmed. Rope Racer had chosen to set up her nursery under the front passenger seat of the car.

She had conferred upon a waiting world seven fat little kittens with distended bellies and eyes squeezed shut. Rope Racer oozed pride and didn’t even have a screaming fit at the idea of being so close to a human being.

And here’s where I demonstrated my mettle and displayed my true colors. I drove back to the garage, opened the door to the house and called out to Joanne, who was putting on her hose and heels getting ready for a day of teaching high school biology, “Honey, I’m taking your truck today. You take my car.”

I started to get into the truck, but I just couldn’t be that rotten. I opened the door to the house again and called out, “You’d better check under the front seat before you leave.” Then I got out of there in a hurry.