©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.