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.)