Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Travails of a Goddess

So continues the saga of the life and times of Molly, feline goddess of Guam.

Even for deities life is imperfect, and one day she got sick. I don’t know what it was, something like cat fever. We thought she was going to die. This happened right at the time we were finally going through culture shock. Things on Guam had stopped being wonderful and there wasn’t a good thing anybody could say about the place to us. (This happens to most people, I understand, after about six months. It certainly did to us.) We felt so unhappy about our cat and displeased with the universe in general and Guam in particular that we made plans to give Molly a burial at sea. We didn’t even want her corpse on the island.

I guess that wasn't very reasonable.

Molly recovered. And so did we. As Molly regained her health, she became the epitome of beauty, at least as far as the local toms were concerned. Toms in profusion came to serenade her. She sat on the headboard and sang back to them. On good nights it was only a duet. Sometimes it was a Wagnerian chorus. No problem, we thought. Cats only stay in heat a day or two, and then it’s all over. But not Molly. Molly loved her state of passion and it seemed she might stay that way permanently. We decided it was time for Molly to visit the vet.

The veterinarian was Filipino, and it had been our experience that, in general, Asian medical practitioners were uncomfortably fatalistic. Joanne devised a test. When we made an appointment for Molly, she asked him, “How many cats die from this surgery?”

“Die? Why should any of them die?” the vet replied. This was the right answer. There is no reason for a cat to die from spaying. More cats die from yowling than spaying.

The spaying went without remarkable incident. Well, Molly did get loose and hide herself under the refrigerator. I didn’t know cats could make themselves that flat. Molly was a small cat, but even so….

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Molly, Picasso's Cat

In 1970 we took jobs as teachers on the island territory of Guam. Every new teacher had an assigned sponsor to help get settled in a house and find their way around. We were no exception. We also had a sponsor.

Our sponsors had a female cat who had given birth to a litter of kittens just a few weeks before our arrival. Lucky for us, huh? We agreed to take a kitten and dropped by to make our choice. Joanne picked up each kitten in one hand and held her up over her head. Most of the kittens whined and complained, all except one. This very small specimen of feline attacked Joanne’s nearest finger and began to play with it. She, we decided, was the keeper.

We took her home when she was old enough to leave her mother and named her Molly. For no real reason. However, when we got her home we noticed that she was the strangest looking thing in the shape of mortal cat. Her ears were too large for the rest of her body and she seemed to be nothing but bones and joints, loosely held together by calico fur. She looked like Picasso’s cat.

Molly feared nothing and attacked everything. She snagged her sharp little kitten claws caught in chair cushions, curtains or clothes. Shaking her loose from my shorts while trying to put them on became a morning ritual.

She moved to Agana with us when we left Sinajana. She really related to the entire three-bedroom second-story apartment. She loved it there. There was room for a cat to PLAY! She used to sit in the center of a small throw rug and attack anyone who was foolhardy enough to step on it. Our daughter, Pat, would stomp at the cat with her bare feet while the Molly assaulted her toes. Sometimes our son, Eric, would chase Molly around the house and the cat’s claws would dig up ringlets of wood as she rounded the corners full bore. Then Molly would turn on Eric and chase him around the house. At least Eric’s toenails never dug up ringlets of wood.

We spoiled her. We had pets all of our childhood days and all of our married lives. There was always a cat, a dog, a goat, a burro, someone. When we first got married and living in an el cheapo apartment in Hollywood, we trapped a mouse, Poquito. Poor thing got caught in our frying pan, filtered down through the stove and stunned himself on the wall when he missed the doorway trying to escape. But now, all of a sudden, we had only this one, small, imperious cat and she basked in our collective affection and esteem. She deserved it, of course. She knew that. She was a goddess.

But even for goddesses live is imperfect. More later on.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Chinese Health Food

We spent Christmas of 1971 touring Taiwan with the Guam Science Teachers. That's how we happened to be at the Lungshan Night Market, just a half mile or so from Chiang Kai Shek's presidential palace.

The Chinese have a theory of health consonant with their theory of the universe. The universe is composed of contesting opposites, yin and yang. Don’t ask me which is which; I never could keep them straight. Sicknesses come in two varieties, hot and cold. When one is afflicted with a cold disease, a head cold, for example, one eats a hot food. Dog, for example. When one is afflicted with a hot disease, a fever, for example, one eats a cold food. Snake bile, for instance. Poisonous snake bile. The more poisonous the snake, the better the bile. They import poisonous snakes into Taiwan for bile harvesting.

So here we are wandering around the Lungshan Night Market with our mouths gaping as if we had just come into town on a wagon load of pumpkins. We saw a dentist lugging his chair on his back. When he got to his assigned place, he set up shop. We saw an acupuncturist at work. (I won't vouch for how sanitary his needles were.) There were fabrics and foods and it was like an Arabian Nights scene. Only everybody spoke Chinese.

We stopped by a smallish man who stood by stacks of wire cages. He bowed to us. We bowed to him. Then we bowed to each other some more. After demonstrating how flexible our spinal columns were, the Chinese vendor grabbed a piece of stiff wire about a foot long with a hook bent into the end of it. He opened one of the cages and poked around for a few seconds. Finally he brought his hook out with a black snake hooked over it.

The snake looked at us for a few seconds and decided he didn’t like what he saw. So he spread his hood. Joanne and I were in front, of course. We all of us suddenly realized that this Chinese guy was poking a cobra in our faces and instantly retreated three giant steps. If there were any children or pets behind us, they died. Two dozen people running backwards can cause a lot of havoc. Sorry about that.

The vendor offered to kill the snake for us and let us sample cobra bile, but we had just eaten a big dinner and we none of us saw the need to kill a perfectly good cobra just so we could lose our dinner in the streets of Taipei.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More Buck Fever

This is a very short story to demonstrate that I am not the only one in this family who gets buck fever. I am thinking particularly of one dive, probably in 1973 or 74. It was a beautiful day with warm, clear water and soft trade winds. Actually, a rather typical day on Guam. Joanne and I were diving on a reef dotted with larger coral heads. Suddenly she found a lobster peeking at her from a deep hole in a dead coral head.

She dropped her spear and grabbed the lobster’s antennae with both hands. Forget the sugar plum fairies. Visions of lobster with garlic butter danced in her head. She tugged on the antennae, but the lobster refused to cooperate. Instead, he dug in and would not be prized loose. And there Joanne sat a few feet under water, unable to let go of the antennae to get her spear gun because the lobster would simply disappear. She reminded me forcibly of the possibly apocryphal tale of the monkey with his hand inside a jar clutching a banana. But it would have taken some time for the monkey to starve. It wouldn’t have taken Joanne very long at all to run out of air

Joanne tugged on the lobster for ten minutes before it finally occurred to her that she wasn’t going to win. She might break the animal’s antennae off, which would damage him greatly, and she still wouldn’t get lobster tail for desert. Two antennae would look pathetic on the dinner plate.

It was buck fever all over again. But at least we didn’t hurt ourselves or each other.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Satan's Cat

It was outside of a bar in Torremolinos in 1975, near the beach, where Joanne and I met Satan’s cat. Just like that. Satan’s cat was neither small nor large, but he gave off an aura of a saber toothed tiger. Missing left ear. Right eye, gone. Several major scars adorned his face and front end, none on the back. Satan’s cat obviously faced his troubles squarely. And loved it. Even a casual inspection from ten yards away assured you of his gender. He swaggered down the middle of whatever path he chose, this gato del Diablo, this jefe of Andalucia. He was an El Máximo.

Neither Joanne nor I would have approached him with anything short of a .357.

Suddenly two Dalmatian pups bounded out of the bar and, sighting the cat, decided it would be fun to chase it up a tree or, even better, in front of a car. They charged, but the cat, rather than fleeing, sat down in the middle of the road and eyed the young dogs speculatively. I could almost hear him think, “Shall I blind the one on the right and castrate the one on the left, or vice versa?” The cat did not run, but waited calmly and with fell intent. I smelled brimstone. The cat smelled blood.

The pups realized that something wasn’t quite right and stopped bounding and prancing. They surreptitiously looked at each other. Neither would retreat first, but for damn sure neither would attack first either.

So there the three sat in the middle of the street. They would be there yet, but the pups’ owner came out of the bar and called them to follow him. The pup followed their master. Gladly. Quickly.

And Satan’s cat went on his way, his afternoon paseo undisturbed.

The Swimming Bolt Cutter

I am a man of many gifts. For instance, when I go scuba diving, I present more than just a menace to myself. Sometimes I am a clear and present danger to others as well.

We used to night dive a lot. All you needed was your usual scuba gear and a flashlight that wouldn’t short out in salt water. Usually the lights were encased in a waterproof plastic box with a handle for ease of carrying and a switch in case you actually wanted to use it. Such lights in these distant days were known for their bright light and high price.

Night diving was fun. The water always warm, the weather never cold. One New Years Eve we dove off Agat, speared some parrot fish which we cooked on a small hibachi and dined in style, fresh fish accompanied by white wine, white rice and kim chee. Such style. Such elegance. We needed only Guy Lombardo. Or Don Ho.

But one particular night Joanne and I went diving off Tumon (TOO-mahn) Beach. We were armed with spear guns and nightlights and cruising over the coral reef which, at that time, thanks to the Crown of Thorns starfish, was mostly dead and alga encrusted. We found a little fish, bright yellow, about the size of a saltshaker, sound asleep on top of a rock. Down for the count. Joanne picked him up gently in her hand and there he suddenly woke to his great danger. He vanished. Disappeared. I’m sure he left behind a little pile of fish poop in Joanne’s hand.

Since we were fishing instead of sight seeing, we cruised on slowly, two stealthy, menacing predators desperately seeking some fish that didn’t come frozen in a box. Suddenly I came upon another fish soundly sleeping on top of a rock. Only this one wasn’t little and yellow; he was BIG and algae colored. (Underwater at night, everything looks algae colored.) He looked to be as long as my leg. Things underwater look much bigger than on the surface, but if he looked bigger, so did my leg. This fish was as long as my leg.

Greed invested every cell of my body. Simply put, I came down with a case of “buck fever.” “Buck fever” is a deer hunting term referring to your state of mind when you see your first buck, or your biggest buck with the greatest rack, and you don’t even notice your dog, your pickup or your spouse standing behind the deer until after you’ve fired. In this case I cocked my spear gun and let fly, taking direct aim at his head, never giving a second thought to what would happen if I missed, or if I hit him but didn’t kill him.

As it turned out, I scored a direct hit. And woke him up. I stunned him a little, because I had taken a sizable chunk out of his head. He shook himself, creating a big cloud of mud, and began to swim ponderously away. He had a mouth made of two platelike structures, suitable for eating coral. You could hear him grind the plates together. He puffed up like a bladder. You guessed it, I had just shot a huge puffer.

I hadn’t even checked to see what kind of fish I was trying to kill. Even if I had killed him, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to slice and dice him. There is a singular toxin in the puffer’s gall bladder, and if even a drop of it contaminates the rest of the fish, someone is going to die. Perhaps a whole restaurant full of somebodies. The Japanese think this fish is a great delicacy. They eat some curious foods in Japan. Even in Japan you have to have a special license to chop up a puffer. I had just speared a fish that I wouldn’t have the nerve to eat even if I had killed him.

Joanne swam over to see what the cloud of mud was all about, and the fish slowly swam towards her, without aim or purpose, still stunned by the impact of my spear. We listened to his grinding mouth as the puffer slowly moved through the water. Directly toward Joanne. He could certainly bite off and swallow a finger, probably at the elbow, and not even notice it. Slowly the fish approached Joanne. Slowly Joanne laid on her back on the reef and used her spear gun and her fins to gently guide this swimming bolt cutter over and beyond her. We listened as he ground his way into the night.

At that point we aborted our dive. We decided we’d had enough adventure that night and we didn’t want to wait around until the fish came back.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More on Shell Collecting

Guam, about 1972.

One evening while sitting down to dinner, we heard a knock on the door. We opened it to greet a group of people we had never seen before in our lives. They were Howard and Sharlene McCord and family from the hamlet of Meadow Vista, just a few miles east of Auburn, the wide spot in the road we called home before moving to Guam. Howard was a meteorologist sent to the Naval Station to do whatever it was meteorologists did out there. Sharlene was a primary school teacher. They had heard of us, somehow, back in the States and resolved to look us up when they arrived on the island.

We invited them in for ice cream. While they took no ice cream they did accept our offer to show them around the beach and do some snorkeling. They loved snorkeling and soon set out to complete their shell collection.

However, instead of bringing home living animals to kill them so their shells could be attractive paperweights, Howard set up a salt water aquarium where the mussels lived together in harmony. I remember sitting by the aquarium one for a half hour watching Howard’s snails. They had their personalities. Some were energetic and moved rapidly, for snails. Some snails were jerks who seemed to take delight in bothering the others, and some were, well, sluglike. Watching the snails play for a half hour was epiphanous. I learned that I really needed to get a life.

One day Howard noticed that some of his cowries were dead. The only symptom was a small hole drilled in an empty shell. Then he learned that the miter shells we found all over the reef were carnivores. They didn’t devour green algae like the cowries and conchs. They wanted flesh, snail flesh. Their MO was to drill a hole in their prey’s shell, kill them (venom? I don’t know) and eat them, leaving only the empty shell. Howard quickly evicted his antisocial tenant and restored harmony to his aquarium. Attention shell collectors: you don’t have to kill your specimens if members of your own collection are willing to do it for you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Shell Collecting on Guam

Shortly after we began scuba diving people told us of the “poisonous cone shells.” Yeah, right, venomous sea shells. It turns out that this time the urban mythologists were right. There really are venomous mussels. And their toxin is deadly. It will kill a reef fish instantly, but it takes minutes to hours to kill a human because humans have so much more mass than reef fish. The mussels first stick an eye out of the small end of the cone and scout the territory. If they find a target, they withdraw their eye and stick out their proboscis, their nose, which then becomes an honorary blow gun. They snort their dart out, and whoever is on the receiving end of the dart dies. Now here is where it gets tricky for the cone fish. He has to withdraw his nose and stick out his stomach, retroverting it to envelope and digest his prey. It takes a couple of hours for this digestive process to occur, during which the cone shell is helpless.

Not many people on Guam collected cone shells. However, we had many Korean laborers on the island and you could find them on the weekends at the beach, boiling water over an open fire and dropping in mussels we called “Top Hats.” After the animals were cooked, the Koreans would eat them and canned kim chee and beer. We tried it ourselves and found that if you put enough catsup and mustard on the shell fish, it was quite palatable. Of course, with enough catsup and mustard, you could eat a sponge. And that just about described the texture of the boiled shellfish.

We have never regarded sponges as a great delicacy and, beyond that, don’t like the idea of boiling animals while they are alive. I’m told it doesn’t hurt them. Says who?

So, giving up on sponges as a source of protein, we were still interested in completing a shell collection, minus the cone shells. Many people on Guam collected shells. Some had spectacular collections, but the best ones came from living animals. Once the animal dies, the shell loses its glisten. The shell is, after all, a living part of a living animal and it needs nutrition. Without a living animal to provide it, the shell loses something. Being rolled over and over in the surf doesn’t help.

I lost my ambition for shell collecting on one diving expedition in shallow water. I’d found a large spider conch and held it in my hand, ready to store it in my net game bag, when it stuck its eyes and looked at me. Then it extended a claw-like appendage from its shell and flipped out of my hand to freedom. I figured that anyone who wanted to live that much deserved what he got and I would help him survive. I picked him up and hid him away from other divers. I don’t know if my puny efforts at conservation were effective, but over the years I sequestered half a dozen such conchs.

I concluded that a conservationist was someone who had already completed his shell collection.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Crown of Thorns Starfish

We lived and taught on the island of Guam from 1970 to 1974. That was where we encountered this curious animal, the Crown of Thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci, who destroys living coral. He doesn’t mean anything by it. That’s just the way he gets his food, by dining on the small animals who live inside their coral caves. The once vibrant colors of the reef become the fetching grey of concrete. The reef soon becomes covered with slimy green algae. The algae don’t mean anything by being slimy and green, either. That’s just the way they are. The best you can say for the algae is that the dead coral is no longer grey.

With the coral reefs dead, the fish soon disappear, first the one who directly depend on coral for the sustenance, and then the other fish who consume the coral eaters.

But there is worse.

Guam is a part of the Marianas Islands chain, a group if islands built almost entirely of coral and protected from instant destruction by the coral reef. And the Pacific Ocean around the islands is very deep. How deep is very deep? Try seven miles, the depth of the Marianas Trench not too distant to the east.

For we who lived on Guam, the plague of coral eating starfish posted a problem. We had to take strenuous counteraction. Either that, or pray and practice our dog paddle.

Not everyone on the island saw the Crown of Thorns as a problem. One sailor on the Naval Station took the opposite view. One graffito found on a men’s room wall exhorted, “Go, Crown of Thorns!”

But most of the divers and snorkelers with whom we associated felt very differently about good old A. planci. Search and destroy parties were organized to locate, gather and dispose of the pest. But you had to be careful because any animal that could munch coral could do serious damage to the bod as well. If one of them nails you with a few spines, the result will be colorful scarred pits. The spines themselves can be up to two inches and extend downward from the up to 30 arms the animal may possess. Most Crown of Thorns starfish are around a foot in diameter, but they have found a few elsewhere measuring over 30 inches.

Some people tried to chop the animal up. But they were informed as they were happily chopping away that all they were doing was creating new starfish. Starfish have some great regenerative properties.

The next solution worked. Not a silver bullet or a stake through the heart, but burning alive. Hey, it worked for the Inquisition. Why not for us?

However, the sound and the smell of this splendid solution were yucky in the extreme. It was so unpleasant that few people wanted to do it. There was something so basically satisfying about chopping them and chopping them and chopping them.

Fortunately, the infestation ended by itself, although there have been other major invasions throughout the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, most notably on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef currently. Guam’s plague doesn’t even merit a mention among those people studying and dealing with A. planci. Our Crown of Thorns invasion was just a minor episode in a long line of inconvenient cosmic events.

It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy things.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Under the Rainbow

Gossamer. I was driving eastward on Cruzon Grade in Nevada County, facing the morning sun. It must have been in the fall. As I understand it, that's Gossamer Season.

Gossamer, as in gossamer wings or the fabric of Lady Caro Lamb's dresses, has the reputation of being sheer, elegant and flimsy. Sheer and elegant to be sure, but never flimsy. Gossamer is spider web and there is no natural substance with a greater tensile strength.

There comes a time in every young spider's life when he has a choice. Leave home or become dinner for mama. (This is a choice she spiders must make, also, since mama is an equal opportunity diner.) The young spiders seek out the highest point they can find, even if it's only on top of a flower or a blade of grass. Then he squirts out some streams of silk from some of his spinnerettes, and they harden as soon as they are exposed to air. The strands become “wings” to carry the baby spiders away from their ravenous mothers.

The young Cruzon Grade spiders are fortunate because they don't have to launch themselves from flowers or grass blades. They have cedars 60-, 70-, 80-, 100-feet tall, all an escaping baby spider could wish for. A couple of squirts, and they're aloft, going wherever the wind takes them. (They don't have much control over where they go, and I imagine some of them end up in the middle of a river or a lake.)

On this particular day there were thousands of those little guys making an arachnid exodus. The breeze was just enough to keep them aloft, but not enough to take them anywhere. The morning sun shone through the silk shrouds and acted as a crystal. The light rays separated and the spider silks became a curtain of shimmering rainbow colors.

And so I found what was at the end of the rainbow. Well, under the rainbow. Thousands of spiders. Who knew.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Showing Class

North San Juan, California, 1980s.

Of all the vegetables in our garden, we were proudest of our tomatoes, which grew in columns seven feet tall made of construction wire, the heavy gauge stuff with the six inch squares. The Sweet One Hundreds seldom got to three feet, but sometimes the Early Girls and the Early Boys made it all the way to the top.

We loved our tomatoes, but so did the horn worms. We usually treated the annual horn worm infestation with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and, at need, hand picked them. I found hand picking difficult because the worms were so exactly the color of the plant they were devouring that I couldn't see one unless I got it stuck up my nose.

One fine day I found a horn worm right in front of me, practically begging, “Please pick me and feed me to your chickens.” He was the biggest horn worm I have ever seen, He would have been Mothzilla if I hadn't picked him.

I threw him into the chicken pen and a big red hen rushed up to eat him. But the worm reared up and clacked! I didn't know they could make a sound, but this guy did. He made himself as big and as loud as he could. The chicken slammed on her binders and retreated momentarily.

But she recovered her composure and ate the horn worm. The worm had no chance, but he gave it his very best shot. I learned something from that. Even when all is lost, when your cause is hopeless, when you have no chance in Heaven or Hell, you can still go out with style.

You can always show class. Even if you're only a worm.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Pierre Lapin went the way of all rabbits. No one was quite sure what happened, but one morning he was not in his tree.

Some time later Carlysle replaced him with a pygmy goat. The goat also needed a name and inspection revealed that he had been “pruned.” Castrated, if one is to be indelicate about it. Carlysle immediately thought of Mozart.

Well, not Mozart really, but the castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini. As every schoolboy knows, Rauzzini was one of Mozart's favorite castrati. The relationship leaped to Carlysle's mind, and so the newest resident at Chez Carlysle was christened Rauzzini.

Like his predecessor, Pierre, Rauzzini was determined to live in the house with Carlysle and Cadence. The humans were firm in their desire to not share their living quarters with a goat, but Rauzzini was much more intelligent than a rabbit, wily, cunning, sly. Effective. And there was so much in the house to tempt a goat, cat food, potato chips, musical scores. There was so much paper in Carlysle's house, books, pamphlets, magazines, and scores, hundreds and hundreds of musical scores, art songs, Broadway hits, motets, Medieval chorale music, orchestrations. Very tempting to a goat's palate, especially one named Rauzzini.

He'd take advantage whenever a visiting student or performer left the door even slightly ajar. Carlyle's house was in the Victorian style, two stories, two stairwells, and many small rooms. It even had a dumb waiter, which Rauzzini never found. (If I ever write the screen play, Rauzzini will find the dumb waiter.)

Many were the hunts, the “hallo-o-os” raised by small groups of people as they chased after and tried to locate the well hidden pygmy goat. I recall chasing him down once myself, my voice lesson interrupted by the escapade of a goat. I had no idea there were so many rooms in that house, but I had a chance to visit them all. And once I had located Rauzzini, and dragged him from under the bed, I still had to find a way to get him outside. He wouldn't lead. Carrying a wriggling goat down steep stairs is not one of the safest things I have ever done. I'm not sure who was the angrier when I deposited Rauzzini outdoors.

Carlysle once tried to show me what a clever goat Rauzzini was. He was going to have the goat run back and forth on the driveway in front of the house. But first he had to show the goat what was wanted. Carlysle ran back and forth on the driveway in front of the house by way of demonstration. Rauzzini sat down and watched Carlysle run back and forth. I guess he wanted to study the technique.

Carlysle eventually ran out of breath and decided that if Rauzzini could run back and forth, he wasn't going to do so on that particular day. So everyone but the goat came in and we sang songs for a while.

Rauzzini eventually crossed over to where the weather is always fair in that great goat pasture in the sky. Carlysle had this final accolade for him. “Rauzzini had great taste. He only ate first violin parts.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pierre Lapin

Nevada City, California, 1980s.

I have a friend, call him Carlysle, who lives with his girlfriend Cadence in an old Victorian house on two acres of hilltop surrounded by cedar trees. He has nearby neighbors, but he only sees their houses when he drives up his winding driveway. He's also near several large shopping malls and a freeway, but he can't see or hear them either.

His house will never be featured in Sunset and no one would ever mistake it for a movie set. But it does have one thing, music. Cadence is a performing musician, singer and teacher. Carlysle also sings, plays a little piano and is currently working on the cello. There are lessons or rehearsals in progress and hot and cold running performers are in and out at all times in the old Victorian house. There is no time for distractions like freeway noise and mall lights.

Every now and then Carlysle does strange things. Once he brought home a rabbit. It might have been for Easter, but it wasn't a dead rabbit, something useful, something you could cook for dinner. My, no, this was a live rabbit and so, of course, he had to have a name. Carlysle named him Pierre. Pierre Lapin.

I don't suppose Carlysle gave much thought to where Pierre would live. He knew it wouldn't be in the house with Cadence and him, but he had no suitable hutches or other kind of outbuilding that might do. It was cold in those spring evenings, so Carlysle set up a cardboard box with some rags for warmth and some food for sustenance in his carport. (It would have been a carport, but there was no room for his car since it had an accumulation of other miscellany that grown over previous months. There was barely room for Pierre, and he was not a big rabbit.

Pierre did manage to make it into the house a time or two, but each time he was firmly put back into his box in the carport. Otherwise, he had free range of the large yard. However, dogs roamed the neighborhood, as well as raccoons, cats, and other predators who might be interested in a rabbit entree. Pierre survived several onslaughts but after one particularly perilous occasion, made himself very scarce. It took Carlysle several hours to find him.

Enough was enough, my friend decided. He resolved to put Pierre's box where it would be safe from all the predators. He put the box up in a black oak tree about eight feet off the ground.

But rabbits don't climb trees, not even gifted rabbits. But Carlysle had a plan. He got some ducting, the same kind of tubular material used to vent laundry dryers, and wrapped it around the tree several times so that it led gently from the ground to the box.

“Carl,” I said, “I don't want to hurt your feelings, but that is a genuinely stupid idea.” You see, I knew all about rabbit behavior and Carlysle didn't.

Apparently Pierre didn't know much about rabbit behavior, either, because he walked right into the ducting and waltzed up to his box. A tunnel is a tunnel, right?

MORAL: Just because an idea is stupid, doesn't mean it won't work.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Auburn, California, 1960s.

We've all seen race prejudice in humans before, but I have only seen one race prejudiced horse in my entire life. His name was Crow.

Crow, an appaloosa stallion, was a part of Betty Veal's horse business. People wanting to raise their own appaloosa foal would bring their candidate mare to Betty's ranch, pay their stud fee, and Crow would “cover the mare.”

There was only one thing wrong with this otherwise splendid scheme. Crow did not like grey mares, any of them. He liked bays, seal browns, sorrels, duns, buckskins, grullas, palominos. But he would not cover grey mares. He wouldn't even rouse himself to make the attempt.

What was Betty to do? Tell her customers to keep their money because their mares didn't meet with her stud's aesthetic standards? Refusing or returning someone's stud fee is a disagreeable prospect for anyone in the horse breeding business. But to have your stud become the laughing stock of the county is simply not acceptable.

Betty gave the matter considerable thought. She was a well-educated woman, a successful nurse. She figured that if she couldn't outwit her own stallion, she had better give up horses and take up needlepoint. It turned out to be no major feat to trick Crow.

Crow was particularly fond of one mare. When next Betty had a grey mare to breed, she hid the animal behind a building. Then she stood Crow's favorite lady, decked out in baubles and bangles with cornflowers woven into her mane, just around the corner from the grey. Crow rose to the occasion, as he thought, but before he realized what was happening, Betty had whisked him around the corner and he had covered the grey. Blecch!

I grew to really respect Betty's determination to accomplish a mission. If you have never assisted at a horse breeding, permit me to tell you that a stallion ready to “do the job” is an awesome sight. He rears up, three quarters of a ton of male animal ready for one thing and it isn't taking a walk.

But Betty accomplished the deed, and the grey mare got covered. The wonderful thing was, the trick worked several times. Crow never caught on. And every time it worked, Crow eyed Betty reproachfully. “Aw, ma, you did it again. Durn it.”

But I wouldn't try this trick witåh just any stallion. Crow was actually a pretty good guy.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Auburn, California, 1960s.

Sam was a gelding we had, part of our menagerie, a huge, sweet gentle brute. Sweet, gentle, kind. He bucked a lot, thereby demonstrating that nobody is perfect.
He was “cinchie.” that was the problem. If you tightened the saddle beyond what he thought proper, he panicked.

Sam was supposed to have been born an appaloosa. Appaloosa is a color type. If your foal is brightly colored, he's worth some money. If he is not so brightly colored, or even lacks the color pattern entirely but has some other distinguishing characteristics, you might be able to do something with him. But if your foal is a clean miss, no appaloosa qualities whatever, you've got dog food on the hoof. Sam was dog food on the hoof.

I don't know what appaloosas are like today, but back in the sixties, they sometimes had ugly heads. Alexander the Great rode a leopard spotted appaloosa named Bucephalus. “Bucephalus” means “cow head” in Greek. Sam didn't have a cow head. He had a suitcase head. Ina Robinson, his breeder, named him “Samsonite.” When we acquired the horse as a two-year-old, his name had been shortened to Sam.

The huge foal grew to be a huge young gelding, 17 hands 2 inches tall. But he was still a teenager. There was a lot of air between the ground and his belly. And sometimes between the saddle and the rider if you didn't get the cinch right. Sam's front legs were close together because his chest had not begun to develop. One rancher friend expressed it well. “So, who cares if his front legs come out of the same hole. Why waste a hole?” But as Sam grew into a real horse, he developed a real chest as well, but the front legs still came out of the same hole.

Joanne used Sam as a trail horse for a while. It had its advantages. For one thing, you ride above the dust raised by the other horses. I'd ride Legend, 15 hands (a ten inch difference there), gasping and wheezing on a hot, windless, breezeless summer day, sneezing dust out of my nose, and Joanne would be serenely above it all, safe on her tall horse.

On the other hand, she sometimes got scraped off on branches the rest of us rode under. Once she got a branch stuck in her boot. She kicked her feet free of the stirrups and hung on like. Sam went on down the trail leaving her dangling like a large, outraged bird while the rest of us proceeded on our dusty way. Joanne chose the correct option, though. Better to dangle from a tree than to come off over Sam's rump. He was a sensitive guy with an energetic way of showing his displeasure. You had to be careful.

Joanne used to brag that she had been thrown too many times to count. But one day Sam panicked because a stirrup touched his cinch and Sam augured her into the ground. Now she says she's only been thrown once. All the other times she just came off the horse.

Sam got over his cinchie ways when he was about five and we sold him to a little girl who was going to use him as a jumper. It wasn't fair, really. There was still so much air between the ground and the horse's belly that all he had to do was lift his feet to clear most obstacles he'd encounter in the jumping arena.

The girl renamed him “Tiny Tim.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ralph and Ken's Bear

I taught with Ralph Henson for many years in the wilds of the San Juan Ridge. I am the "Ken" in this story. We were teaching eighth grade that year, and we took the class on a field trip to Yosemite. (His idea, not mine. I would have gone to Reno. Everyone needs to know about fleshpots.) We had hiked from the valley floor to a camp site near the foot of Half Dome by a flowing river.

The kids set up their tents near a fire pit while Ralph and I set up our tents by the river. We camped there two nights. On the first of them a bear snuffled at my tent and I reflected on what a poor barrier a nylon dome tent made against a determined bear. Or even a negligent one. I also said a prayer of thanks that I didn't have any Fritos with me.

But the next night provided Ralph and me with our brightest, shiningest hour. We had climbed Half Dome that day, and then climbed back down again. What else are you going to do? We were all fairly tired. Ra;lph and I retired to our tents as the kids began to turn in. A few stayed by the diminishing camp fire to tell ghost stories. It looked like the end of a good day.

I hadn't been secured in my nylon mushroom for very long when I heard a whisper. “Ralph. Ralph.”

Ralph and I both came out of our tents to see what was amiss, and there stood Jolene, one of our eighth grade girls, let's call her Karen. “Ralph,” she continued at the whisper, “there's a bear in our camp.” And just to verify her story, a bear stood up behind the girl. The bear, a female, had left two cubs behind to terrorize the children's camp while she followed Karen.

Ralph, thinking quickly, picked up some pine cones and threw them at the bear, shouting, “Go away! Go away!” The bear decided we didn't have any bacon and were very rude besides, and went away.

Meanwhile, Karen bowed her head and said, “All right, Ralph,” and slowly turned away. It made perfect sense to her that she could come to Ralph and complain about a bear in camp and he would throw pine cones at her and tell her to go away. That Ralph. Sometimes he was in such a bad mood. By the time she had turned around, the bear had gone. Karen never knew the bear was there.

Ralph and I took off for the kids' camp armed with nothing more than good intentions. Authorities recommend we don't shoot bears but frighten them away with noise, like banging sauce pans with wooden spoons. We didn't have a sauce pan and wooden spoon. I don't know what we thought we were going to do.

When we arrived at the kid's camp, what a sight greeted our eyes. The she bear and her cubs wandered around the camp as though they owned it. Four girls jumped up and down on a fallen tree shouting, “Bear, bear, bear.” Two boys climbed a tree, but the tree was so small that the top bent down. Josh, the unfortunate bottom boy, kept hitting the bear with his own bottom. Fortunately, this confused rather than irritated the bear.

Many of the other campers, meanwhile, ran around like Keystone Kops, running into each other, cursing, screaming. One boy, Kyle, who had retired early, came out of his tent wondering what all the uproar was. Daniel decided to settle some old scores and smacked Kyle in the nose with bloody, satisfactory results. There was Kyle bleeding all over the place and people were screaming, “My God, the bear got Kyle!” Actually, the only thing the bear got was the marshmallows in Kyle's backpack. He had to carry his stuff back home in a trash bag. He did not have a good day.

And through it all, three sleeping beauties, eighth grade girl children who had brought some funny looking cigarettes with them, slept peacefully through the whole affair. “Bears? What bears?” they asked the next morning.

Amid all the pandemonium, the bear decided that she wasn't going to find any bacon anywhere and she really didn't want to have her cubs hanging around eighth graders anyway. She and her tribe left leaving behind 25 bug-eyed kids and a trashed backpack. And everybody had a good bear story to tell.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bear Scat

Back in '86 and '87 I taught 2nd and 3rd grades at tiny Malakoff School. One of the really neat things about working at Malakoff School was our location, east o' the sun and west o' the moon. This meant, among other things, that I didn’t have to constantly ask permission in triplicate every time I wanted to take the class for a walk. In the spring, after the snow melt and the dogwood blossoms burst, we spent many afternoons just walking around in the woods. If pressed, I’d call it P.E. or science – but nobody ever pressed.

And there were such wonderful places to walk. To the east, through the Optimist Camp grounds lay the old “potato farm.” I don’t know what it really was, but an old cabin and an old garage were slowly rotting into the ground at one end of a large meadow. Maybe somebody actually grew potatoes there. Maybe it was an old homestead once owned by Hiram and Clara Potato. As you looked at the old buildings, you could really let your imagination run wild.

Or we could hike south along Humbug Creek. The trail crossed the creek twice on the skeletons of two ancient bridges. Twin 12 by 12 beams spanned the creek and the heads of rusted 20-penny spikes peeped up here and there, but the boards which lay across the beams and furnished the floor of the bridge had long since vanished. When the first-graders first attempted to cross on the beams, they did so on their hands and knees. But after a few attempts, they skipped over like everyone else.

My personal favorite walk was to the west. We’d cross onto California state park land and skirt a meadow that used to graze livestock. A spring fed a concrete basin with water year round and, if we could just keep still long enough, we might see a representative of the wild community come in for a drink. It never happened with us. Keep seven- and eight-year olds still? Maybe on some other planet.

If we followed trail down, we’d come near the old townsite of Derbec. There’s nothing there now but the remnants of someone’s apple orchard. Beyond the apple trees we could find a small lake, really a pond. It froze over in winter and we could send a log out to the middle and try to slide rocks and hit the log. Or in spring, we could float a log out to the middle and try to hit it with rocks. This was so much more interesting than watching Sleeping Beauty on videotape.

One spring afternoon our entire student body, all 14 first-, second- and third-graders, walked to our pond. Along the way we found a large pile of bear scat right in the middle of our trail. It was a large pile, about the size of an NFL football. Using the deductive powers of a trained mind, I concluded that the large pile of bear scat had been left there by a large bear. I noticed that the scat was very fresh. So I concluded that the bear might still be nearby.

We walked on to the pond clustered closely together, as though we were bungeed. We were hoping the bear might be unable to decide which juicy kid to eat first, and starve before it made up its mind. When we got to the pond, we saw a huge track where the bear had gotten a drink. I made another Holmesian deduction: the bear was a female. I could tell by the little bear track right beside the big bear track where a cub had also gotten a drink. I made one other deduction from the available evidence. I deduced it was time to return to the classroom. Do you see how all these deductions leap to the trained mind?

(A really well trained mind would have returned to the classroom after finding the bear scat, and not pressed on to the pond.)

We did not see the bear on our way back to school, and the next morning I made a plaster cast of her paw print. The kids used the cast to make their own paws and we did bear math, bear art, read and wrote bear stories, and the whole thing worked out exactly as I’d planned.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The birthing

As you might have suspected, there is more to this story of breeding Legend to Monandan. Unfortunately, the cover took. I remember thinking, it couldn't get worse. Could it?

It got worse. In due course, Legend’s time for delivery arrived. We regularly checked her nipples for waxy deposits, colostrum. I began to have second and third thoughts about the wisdom of our actions. After all, Legend was not a girl, but a grown mare, a matron. Was pregnancy really the right thing to do?

We had pretty well decided on what night she would deliver, based on our studies of Legend’s udder and the calendar. That fateful night we put her in a smaller pasture next to the house. I woke up every 45 minutes to check on her and make sure that she wasn’t trying to do this mad thing alone. I didn’t need to worry because when her time came, she walked to that part of the pasture closest to the bedroom window and bellowed, “You got me into this, boneheads, now get me out!”

Joanne and I quickly put on our clothes and met Legend at the pasture gate. She lay down and Joanne shined a flashlight on the delivery area. We could already see front feet and a nose presented. This was a help, because it wasn’t a breech birth and we didn’t have to call the vet. However, we could also see that this wasn’t going to be particularly easy. Legend lay on a slope so that her head was uphilol. That was good. She was going to let gravity work for her. As it turned out, gravity worked for all of us..

Soon enough of the foal was presented so that Joanne and I could get our hands on it. Every time Legend had a contraction we would pull. In the meantime we murmured words of encouragement. Running through my mind were positive thoughts like: I am so stupid! How could I do this to my friend? We’ve made the Tevis Cup ride together. A hundred miles in twenty-four hours. We’ve ridden cross-country from Barstow to Las Vegas and slept in adjoining stalls at the fair grounds. She helped me sing for my drinks in Goodsprings, Nevada. We’ve even jumped off a cliff together. “Oh, Legend, my friend, how could I have been so goddamned stupid, I’m sorry, push, baby, push!”

While Joanne and I pulled at the foal's hooves every time Legend had a contraction, I noticed that its front feet were delicately folded together with its nose resting on them so as to present the smallest front possible. The hooves were very soft, rubbery, like cuttlefish, so that they wouldn't tear anything on their way out. Well, not very much anyway. When the foal came, he slipped out all at once. Joanne and I probably took ten or fifteen minutes off Legend’s delivery time.

It was a boy, a colt. A slimy little guy, slick with afterbirth. We slid the foal uphill toward Legend’s head and she began to lick him clean, clearing the sack away. This is the way it happened, and if it grosses you out, don’t blame me. Blame God. If this is intelligent design, I’ll take vanilla.

Very soon the colt raised its head to Legend and made a strange little sound in the back of his throat. Legend repeated the sound, the only time I ever heard her make it in her life. The imprint was completed. They knew who each other was.

Joanne and I left the two together and returned to the house to remove some really filthy clothes and shower.

By good daylight the foal was running around the pasture enjoying the first morning of his life. He was totally lacking in color and all other Appaloosa characteristics. He was a thoroughly sound mongrel colt. Dan and Joan couldn’t boast of the color, and so they named him Montanden’s Secret. But the Daniels' disappointment aside, it was clear that the colt and his mother thought he was the finest creature ever born. Joanne and I were pretty proud of ourselves, too. What a way to start a day.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Breeding Virgin Horses

We were living in Auburn, Placer County, California at the time. We had five fenced and cross fenced acres upon which we grazed and raised our horses, cats, dogs, and sometimes other livestock. Among our horses was my very good friend, Legend, an Arab-American Saddlebred cross. She was about fourteen years old and had never had a foal.

Our neighbors, Dan and Joan Daniels, lived over the hill on their own five acres. They were going to make their fortunes raising Appaloosa horses and had acquired some very nice mares from Utah. But they had no stallion and so had to trailer their mares to stallions on other ranches and pay a hefty stud fee. This was not cost effective. A successful horse ranch needs a resident stallion, even though they are assertive and unreliable at best.

So Dan and Joan picked up an untested young horse, Montanden. Monty, as he was called, had never bred a mare for reasons that are peculiar to the Appaloosa trade. Appaloosas have certain physical characteristics, striped hooves, white sclera, mottled skin around the eyes and rectum, and Appy foals are checked rigorously for these distinctive qualities. It’s embarrassing, if you’re the foal. But the most coveted characteristic of them all is the color, either the rump patch or the leopard skin pattern. With brilliant colors the animal is worth beaucoup bucks. Without any color at all, he’s dog food.

Monty was untested, a virgin stallion, because nobody was going to entrust their mare to a stud that might not throw color. And until Monty had some foals on the ground, nobody knew for sure what he could or couldn’t do. It’s like an acting job in Hollywood; you can’t get a job unless you’re in the union, and you can’t get in the union unless you have a job. What to do? What to do?

The Harrises and the Danielses put their pointy little heads together and came up with a splendid idea. Why don’t we breed Legend to Monty? Neither has ever been bred; it will be an experience for both of them. Moreover, maybe the foal will be brilliantly colored and be worth thousands!

On the day Legend showed up in heat, Joan and Dan brought Monty calling. In the horse world it is sometimes difficult for a mare to distinguish between passionate love making and outright rape. So we decided we would use breeding hobbles to keep the mare from changing her mind in mid event. The Danielses hauled out enough leather straps to harness three horses, and decked and festooned poor Legend from head to tail and side to side. She looked like Gulliver in Lilliput.

At last the poor mare was ready and Monty was decorated with a leather-and-chain headstall positioned, with Joan on the end of a rope and armed with a whip. So there we were, four humans, two horses, and whips and chains. And not a clue in the crew. Joan pointed Monty in the right direction and the stallion stood on his hind legs and charged, nailing Legend in the ribs. A second try scored on her left ear. A dozen more tries produced a very frustrated stallion, but finally, with the help of all human hands, Monty found the right place.

It was then that Legend decided to object. She took off running, she entangled in the hobbles, Monty entangled in the hobbles, and both of them entangled with each other. Monty bounced off of Legend and came down to her left side just as Legend decided to run through a pile of junk wood I had stacked for later burning. Boards flew everywhere, rusting nails pointing out. Once through the wood pile, adding large pieces of wood to their leather ensemble, the horses headed for a barbed wire fence. I imagined a small child at a spelling bee standing in front of a large audience saying, “stupid, H-A-R-R-I-S, stupid,” to resounding applause.

Dragged down by large pieces of lumber and stumbling over each others feet, the horses stopped just short of the barbed wire fence. Very quietly we approached them and began the grand disentanglement. Once peace and order had been restored, we decided that if this covering did not take, there would not be another. Forget the horses, the humans weren’t up to it.

But the cover did take and Legend found herself in a family way. Well, thought I, that’s over. It’ can’t get any worse, can it?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Duck Blind

When Joanne first attended the University of California Riverside in the fall of 1954, she brought her two horses, Sheba and Legend, with her. Naturally. Since the two horses wouldn't blend in very well in the apartment Joanne shared with three other young women, she boarded them at a ranch owned by Ken and Joy Haiks in West Riverside.

For some reason I've never understood, West Riverside lies just north of Riverside on the other side of the Santa Ana River. The Santa Ana River, at that point, is nowhere near the city of Santa Ana. Not even in the same county. Go figure.

The horses loved it at Haiks' ranch. There was plenty of room and it had a duck pond. During the months when the flies got numerous and bothersome, Sheba immersed herself in the pond. All you could see was nostrils and eyes as she swam in circles. The flies then moved their swarm to Legend who never put it together that she could go swim the duck pond too.

Haiks didn't keep a pond for the purpose of raising ducks. But he loved the fact that ducks would come there because then he could shoot them. If only he had a duck blind. If only.

Pastures tend to be devoid of cover. The cows and horses take care of any ambitious grass searching for height. Haiks devised an ingenious duck blind. He used Legend. Legend was still learning how to be a horse, and she didn't realize that what Haiks was doing was not acceptable. You ride horses, jump them, have them pull your carts. They do not tap dance, cook your dinner or answer your phone. And they do not stand still while people hide behind them and shoot shotguns.

Legend didn't know that, so she became Haiks' duck blind. I hope that she got extra oats out of that.

That's life. If you don't learn to swim, you may end up as somebody's duck blind.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Nest

The Nest

North San Juan, 1990s. When we drove through the front to come home to our North San Juan house, we had to get out of our car, work our way through a pack of unaccountably fat dogs considering they were telling us that they hadn't been fed in days and days and days, and walk around to the left side of our two car garage to reach the deck that led to the front door some thirty feet away. And each time we did that, and we did it at least once and usualloy several times a day, a Cassin's finch hen would burst out of her nest screaming, “Oh my Gawd, they're here, the Barbarian Bird Eaters are here, fly, fly for your lives!”

Well, she didn't actually say that as she shrieked and squawked to the top of her little bird's lung capacity, but that's what she meant. And she did that every time we tried to get into our house through the front door. She was a very emotional bird, and very tiresome.

For all of her emotionalism, she knew how to build a good nest. She and her mate used it each year when they returned in the spring. Each year with a few minor repairs the nest was good to go. She hatched out at least two clutches a year, sometimes more. For a three year period, this pair of finches were our primary source of red birds for our garden.

She couldn't even get a drink on her own. On several occasions we watched her cock fly to a perch over the water source, survey the scene and chirp out an all-clear before she fluttered out of a tree to drink her fill. Who knows what other duties he had besides impregnation and water watch, but she appears to have been a demanding mistress.

After three years Joanne had had enough of being dive bombed and shrieked at. The hen had already hatched out a clutch and the fledgelings were sort of on their own, flying competently if not gracefully, and with only the odd feather sticking out, and so one day she tore the nest down.

The hen was understandably upset because this time the Barbarian had actually struck. Her home/maternity ward was nothing more than a scattering of sticks and twigs.

The hen quickly organized her family into a construction brigade and she, her long suffering spouse (probably grumbling all the while), and her two most recent fledgelings set about rebuilding the family mansion. They built a structural wonder. You wondered if it would stand up under a finch fart let alone a heavy wind. Sticks stuck out at all angles and the deck underneath was littered with wisps of straw. Definitely not up to her standards. But it was also a wonder that she even got any nest up at all.

That was the last year she ever built a nest at our house. And it was the last of the red birds at our house. I didn't miss her attacks of hysteria and I didn't miss tripping the light fantastic around fresh bird poop on the deck. But I did miss the red birds themselves. They were beautiful.

Lucky, the Cutting Horse

Auburn, California, 1960s. When we lived in Auburn, Joanne taught math and science at Colfax High School. Our friend Claudia also taught at the high school, Home Ec. But this story isn't about either Joanne or Claudia. It's about Claudia's horse, Lucky, a quarter horse mare, a cutting horse who had developed navicular in both front feet and had to be “nerved. “

Cutting horses are bred to isolate a selected calf from a group of them and herd them to a predetermined destination. Since the calf will usually have entirely different ideas, this will require an extremely agile horse. Whether stopped or moving, a good cutting horse can go in any direction, forwards, backwards, sideways, up, down, on four legs or two, and do it instantly. Cutting horses are among the greatest athletes on earth.

Lucky received her cutting horse training from fillyhood and became a champion, but it's tough being a cutting horse. Her front feet gave out from the constant pressure and torquing of sudden stops and direction changes, and she was nerved at age six. When a horse is nerved, certain nerves in the pastern are severed. No more pain. No more feeling of any kind there. No more roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd. Lucky went from being a contender to Claudia's private saddle horse.

Lucky was an acceptable riding horse, but you had to be careful, because she never ever lost her early cutting horse training. The first rule to riding a cutting horse is to be careful what you tell her to do, because she will do it instantly. The second rule is to not fall off if you violate the first rule. If you accidentally ask her to do a 360 on her hind legs, that's what she will do. Sorry about you.

Claudia was a very good rider and could be relied upon to maintain a light rein and a firm seat and not give Lucky any unintended directions. I'm not nearly that good.

I only rode Lucky once, but it was memorable. I can't remember why, but we were somewhere near the Auburn airport. For some reason, someone had to ride Lucky back to our place rather than trailer her. For an even more mysterious reason, that someone had to be me. I don't really understand how all this happened. Story of my life.

It was like riding a powder keg with a fizzing fuze. Sit very still, Ken. Relax. Don't put your heels into her sides. Don't neck rein right or left. Don't break wind. It was one of the longest rides of my life, considering nothing happened. She was very good to me, but she was way too much horse for me.

We got back safely and Lucky once again roamed our pasture where she was an honored guest. It was here, in our pasture, that I saw Lucky display a stunning ineptitude. We had grown a little corn, harvested the ears, and pulled the stalks out. We threw the stalks over the fence into the pasture for the horses. They loved them. Lucky picked up a corn stalk and began to munch on it. The motion caused the root ball end of the stalk to rustle in the glass. It scared the liver and lights out of her.

She backed away and, naturally enough, the other end of the corn stalk followed her. That was enough. She took off around the pasture, corn stalk clenched in her mouth, running madly with a=tghe rootball waving in the breeze and slapping her on the rump. She was frightened, but she never stopped chewing. Chewing and running. Running and chewing.

Eventually she bit through the corn stalk and the root ball dropped off. But she never put it together that she was running from her own dinner. You don't have to be a genius to be a cutting horse, just smarter than the average calf.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Night on Bald Mountain

One August around 1963 or 1964 Joanne and I rode into Desolation Valley and camped by Phipps Lake at the foot of Phipps Peak. According to Google sources, Phipps Peak is 9,234' above sea level. And what a view. To the west you could see the coast mountain range and to the east, pretty as could be, Lake Tahoe and then the high desert heading towards Utah. I don't think we could actually see Utah, but we could see a really long way.

Joanne rode her large Thoroughbred type gelding, Sam (a shortened form of Samsonite because his original owner thought he had a head resembling a piece of luggage) while I rode Legend. We had enough food for ourselves and grain for the horses for a couple of days camp out.

Phipps Lake is but one of many tiny lakes. I'm sure that in Minnesota they would be called ponds. But each tiny lake provided home to golden trout. Golden trout are really rainbows who live at a high altitude and develop an oily, salmon-like flesh. The trout in Phipps Lake didn't like worms and salmon eggs were blech, but they adored helgramites. We were lucky enough to find a few and enjoyed a golden trout dinner.

At 9000+ feet spring comes late and lasts only a few weeks at most. We were lucky enough to be there for Phipps Peak's spring. We even found heather blooming, and wild daffodils blooming around tiny little elven pools. On the second day of our camp out we rode around the area for several hours, stopping here, gaping there, and at last decided to return to camp. That's when I learned that Sam and Legend were two different horses.

Sam wanted to return to camp the way we had come, following his hoof prints back to camp. If we wandered around lost on the way up, he wanted to wander around lost on the way back.

Legend, however, had a different idea. She wanted to go back to the trailer parked some miles away on a flat just west of Highway 89. And she wanted to go straight. If that meant jumping off a cliff, she would have wanted to do that.
Neither of these horses had really great ideas for getting back to camp, but Sam's was far safer. I can truthfully say that Legend never had a good idea in her life, and you could really get damaged if you let her do the thinking for the two of you. I know. And I'll tell you all my sad story soon.
But meanwhile we had spent a couple of nice days. We had come up with three other riders the first night, but they left the following morning and we were by ourselves. Joanne was in charge of making our beds which she did by laying our sleeping bags out side by each and then setting up our saddles at the heads. Then she spread a clear tarp over the whole thing, thereby improvising a tent. Stirrups dangled down to each side and everything smelled of horse, but I've smelt and slept worse.

The sun went down, darkness came, we put out our fire and went to bed. One good thing about sleeping in a shelter improvised from clear plastic tarp, you can see the sky. One bad thing about sleeping in a shelter improvised from clear plastic tarp, you can see the sky.

The night started out clear. The stars twinkled and did all of that start stuff. But soon a wind came up and clouds covered up our lights show. Not to worry. Another lights show came along. Thunder, this time, and lightning. Winds to bend the tall trees surrounding the glad where we camped. Lightning striking all around us. Did we tie the horses securely? Or are we going to have to walk home carrying our saddles? And it went on and on. Rain fell. Wind tugged at the tarp.

There is this one thing about me. When things get tough and more than I can manage, I drift off to sleep. And that's what I did here. If we were going to be killed by lightning, I didn't want to be around when it happened.

The next morning was crystal clear. We saddled up and returned to the flatlands of Lake Tahoe as though nothing had happened. And in nature's overall scheme, nothing had happened. Nothing at all.

Copyright Ken Harris 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Meditation on Scottish Deerhounds

My wife and I got most of our two Scottish Deerhounds, Mary Lincoln and Merry Andrew, from a friend in Auburn. Scottish Deerhounds are keen of eye, fleet of foot, and possess the uncanny ability to gratify their desires while they ignore yours and all the while make you love them for it. What would be graceless intractability in any other dog becomes charming eccentricity in a Scottish Deerhound.

Scottish Deerhounds are a large breed of sight hound. Imagine an eighty pound Greyhound with grey, shaggy, wiry hair. Alternatively, imagine an Irish Wolfhound who is a hundred pounds lighter and doesn't take the world so seriously.

Since the woman who gave us our dogs breeds deerhounds, she must also show them. This involves some travel. Deerhounds like to lay down and nap. Next to running, sleeping is their favorite sport and they might indulge themselves twenty hours a day. Even more if the weather is bad. And when they nap, they like to maximize the floor space they take up. That instinct lies deep within their DNA. Since it doesn't take very many horizontal deerhounds to overflow a Camry, it follows that any deerhound transporter needs a larger vehicle. At least an RV, if not a U-Haul.

Our friend and her dogs were in Southern California and stopped for the evening at a dairy farm. She let two dogs out. They saw a coyote in the distance and immediately gave chase. Silently. They don't bay like beagles.

The coyote saw two large, hairy beasts coming at him and took off. Deerhounds can cruise at 30 mph and the coyote had no chance. But he gave it his best shot. He juked and jived, zigged and zagged, cut left, cut right, and flat flew as fast as he could. But no matter what he did, the deerhounds got closer and closer. Finally he thought to himself, “Nuts, you guys win. Kill me now.” And he rolled over onto his back and submitted.

The deerhounds tagged him with their noses and went off looking for something else to chase. The coyote was left sniffing his arm pits and wondering if there was something wrong with his deodorant.

That was all good entertaining for everyone, but sometimes a deerhound's activities can be an embarrassment. It was spring in Northern California, near Easter. Our friend was en route to or from somewhere and decided to give the dogs a break at a well known restaurant, rest stop, restroom, shady place and picnic area. The parking lot was filled. The grounds were oozed with families, men, women, children, chihuahuas, Charley's Aunt, they were all there.

The deerhounds got out of the RV, sighted a rabbit, and they were off. Their owner tried to call them off, but good luck with that. Calling deerhounds off a target will exercise your vocal cords and raise your frustration level, but that's all.

Soon the dogs returned, one of them proudly dangling a dead rabbit from his mouth. The performance was witnessed by shocked mothers and crying children. Our friend retrieved the rabbit and said, “I'd better take him to the vet.” Then she and her dogs hopped into their vehicle and drove away. Expeditiously, I might add.

Understandable. What was she going to say to a bunch of kids who just watched her dogs kill the Easter Bunny? “Sorry, kids, no eggs for you this year.” Or how about, “Eggs are bad for your cholesterol.”

Our friend and her dogs proceeded down the road leaving some very upset people behind. She was lucky. I understand they lynch people in some states when their dogs kill the Easter Bunny.

Copyright Ken Harris 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

Skoshi and the Rooster

OK, I lied. I found a few more animal stories lying around. I'll post them as well.

Auburn, California, Summer, 1968.

Skoshi was a very old dog. He had grown old in our service as our “chicken dog,” guarding the henhouse from intruders and making sure that the chicks survived their chickhood. We never lost a chick if Skoshi was on the job.

But now he was old and spent a lot of time sleeping in the sun. We didn't have many chickens then, just a banty rooster and his hen. The hen had laid a clutch of eggs. They never hatched out, but she sat on them anyway, for weeks. She never went out to eat or scratch or preen. She never did anything, just sat there on her infertile eggs.

Now roosters are like the males of most other species of animal. They aren't worth a damn without their female(s). In this case, our hen moped and so did our rooster.

On this particular summer afternoon Skoshi sat on the small bluff overlooking the house and the rooster sat at his side. As it neared 3:00 in the afternoon the rooster lost heart and climbed onto the branch of an oak tree where he roosted a night. The limb came very near a bedroom window and in the bird's younger days he used to like to crow into it at 4:00 in the morning. “It's four o'clock and all's well! Bring on the hens!” But without even one hen he went to bed early and slept late.

Joanne was working in the garden when she saw the bird climb onto his branch. “All right, enough's enough,” she said. She went into the hen house, grabbed the hen, and threw her clucking and squawking under the oak tree. The rooster, miraculously rejuvenated, leaped down and began the chase. Great were the noise, dust and feathers for a while, but it soon settled down and the two birds scratched contentedly in the garden.

Skoshi dozed on. We didn't have a hen or chicks for him. Meanwhile, Joanne threw the hen's eggs as far into the pasture as she could. Boy, were they ever rotten.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Last Post

I find that I'm running a little thin on animal stories for now, and so I intend to let the subject drop. I'm going to leave these stories up for a month and then either delete the blog or add more stories, if any more have occurred to me.

I hope you have enjoyed these stories, but this will probably be my last entry here.

Ken Harris

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In March, 1961, we were living in El Monte and actively involved with children, jobs, and, whenever we could find the time, horses. Equestrian Trails, Inc., or ETI as we all knew it, was a large statewide organization dedicated to procuring, retaining and maintaining riding trails throughout rapidly urbanizing Southern California. Work at the local level was done by individual local chapters called “corrals.” We belonged to Corral 36. ETI corrals provided our social lives with trail rides, barbecues, entry-level horse shows and gymkhanas.

Barstow’s ETI corral annually put together a week-long trail ride from Barstow to Las Vegas. I had a little vacation time coming from Occidental Life and so took a week off to make the safari with my wife’s sorrel mare, Legend. Joanne had been conditioning the mare to make the 100-mile-in-24-hours Tevis race from Tahoe City to Auburn. There was no question in my mind that an animal able to cover 100 miles over the Sierra Nevada mountains in 24 hours could easily go 130 miles from Barstow to Las Vegas in one week. Legend would probably think she was on vacation as well as I.

We had a neighbor who regularly made this ride and through a cost sharing arrangement with him I was able to get Legend to Barstow. We couldn’t have made it on our own because we had neither horse trailer nor pickup to pull it with. We arrived in Barstow after dark and threw out our sleeping bags and I drifted off to sleep assuming everything was well.

It wasn’t.

It was a strange, but throughout her life most horses hated Legend on sight. They struck at her with their forehooves, slashed at her with their teeth, squealed insults at her. True to form, the other horses in the van on the way to Barstow brutalized Legend so that by next morning she was hunched up like she was standing in a blizzard. Her urinary bladder was stopped up. Or her kidneys. Or something.

Her condition put me in a quandary. The horse transportation had already departed and if Legend were too sick to make the trip to Las Vegas she and I would be stranded in Barstow without shelter, food, love or money. On the other hand, if we attempted the ride and she broke down, then we would be stranded in the desert, same situation except more cactus and no telephone. I decided to go for it and began the ride on a borrowed horse leading Legend at the gentle walk. By now there were about a dozen riders.

We ambled along for a half hour when Legend decided to urinate. And so she did. And did. And did. After a while she commanded quite a bit of attention from everyone else. If I had known she was going to present such a virtuoso urinary display, I would have sold tickets in advance.

I say that other horses did not like Legend. There was one exception. Beanblossom, a large, rangy buckskin gelding with a forceful personality, homely to look at but more intelligent than most humans I’ve dealt with. Not that Old Bean ever misbehaved. He was very well trained and did whatever his rider wanted, but you had the idea that he was well aware that he had options and was just going along with the gag.

Beanblossom had been a range horse and I think there was a lot of mustang in him. He had been trained by a teenage male who had some curious training tactics. For instance, he would approach the horse, whip out a hidden loaded water pistol and squirt him in the face. Most horses would have responded badly, but not Old Bean. He thought it was a great joke. He immediately took to holding a last mouthful of water when he drank and then sneaking up behind someone and letting him have the whole liter. Beanblossom had quite a sense of humor and it made him famous throughout the Barstow area.

Beanblossom’s owner, if such a horse can be said to have an owner, was Jobert Williams, an Armenian-Cherokee American who had been a bull rider, run his own undercapitalized saddle shop which failed, and was the mover and shaker in a local fast-draw gun club. I would never have the nerve to go into business for myself and you couldn’t get me into the same corral with a bull, let alone on his back. And I don’t believe in playing with guns. Talk about the odd couple. Nevertheless, we got along great together and so did our horses. We rode most of the 130 miles together.

A truck carried our sleeping bags and other gear and met us each night at the new camp site. More importantly, the truck met us twice a day, at 10:00 and 2:00 with beer for the humans and water for the horses. Well, there was one day when the terrain was too rough for the beer wagon. The horses knew when 10:00 had arrived as surely as if they had tuned into a satellite, and when it became apparent that water was not to be forthcoming, they made their displeasure known.

A motorized chuckwagon provided civilized food. So in the evenings we didn't have to eat meat that had been wrapped around a stick and undercooked over an open fire. Instead, we sat around the open fire and pretended we were real cowboys. And cowgirls. We would talk about things that concerned riders. One evening the subject was tethering.

Most of the riders used the Horseman’s Knot to tether their horses. It’s a nifty little hitch made with a couple of quick flips of the wrist. The beauty of the Horseman’s Knot is that a horse cannot free himself by pulling back on the rope, but the rider can untie it by simply pulling on the loose end. One tug, a flying mount, and you’re on your way out of Dodge leaving the sheriff in a cloud of dust, spluttering and gnashing his teeth. Joe Williams didn't use the Horseman's Knot because Beanblossom had figured it out. Easy, easy, easy.

But, me, I didn’t know how to tie the Horseman’s Knot. Joanne had tried to teach me several times, but I have this problem, have had it all my life. Joanne says I’m stubborn, but I think I’m just unable to tie knots. “Well, I never use the Horseman’s Knot. I just use a bowline.” I didn’t mention that I used the bowline because it is one of the two knots I know how to tie. “I’ve never had a horse get away from me yet,” I added.

Everyone burst out laughing. That puzzled me because I didn’t think it was one of my better one-liners. Then I looked behind me. You guessed it. There stood Legend, looking for me, dragging her lead rope behind her. Apparently my heralded bowline had simply dropped off and Legend had come to me for advice.

Two days out of Las Vegas we crossed into the Great State of Nevada and camped at the town of Goodsprings. We were 12 miles east of Sandy Valley and 7 miles north of Jean, to locate this place precisely for you. In 1961 Goodsprings was as close to a ghost town as you could get and still not be haunted. There were around 20 old houses in varying states of disrepair and two others were actually occupied.

Goodsprings also sported a weathered hotel that looked like it was falling apart. But it had a well-stocked bar. Unfortunately, I had very little money with me, so the abundance of alcohol was really irrelevant. Then I had a happy thought. I sang my repertoire of Tom Lehr songs and Jobert added a few golden ditties he’d picked up on the rodeo circuit and that provided a few drinks while my trusty steed stood by the campfire. I would have invited her into the bar with me, but I was afraid she would fall through the floor.

Meanwhile, I can tell people I’ve entertained in Nevada, in a hotel just outside of Las Vegas.

The night after Goodsprings we camped at a hobo jungle near a railroad track. The campsite provided an epiphany for Legend in the form of an artesian well. She had never seen water just come out of the ground like that. She wouldn’t even go near it. I had to fill a bucket with water for her so she could drink.

That night we made sure all the horses were secured to the picket line and that the pickets were firmly anchored into the earth. I especially double checked my bowline. We thought the midnight special might come by and frighten the horses into pulling their pickets. The visual of a dozen horses connected by 50 feet of chain running through the desert was not a pretty one.

Jobert also made sure Beanblossom was tied and double tied because Old Bean would think it a great joke to untie himself and all the other horses and go into Las Vegas without us. But we weren’t as careful with our beer cans, and Beanblossom found one. He worked it to where it lay between his front hooves and then gently kicked it from left hoof to right hoof. And then back again. Click click click. Click click click. We all lay awake listening. Click click click. Finally, our ride leader, a heretofore gracious lady, could stand it no longer. “Williams, take that goddamned beer can away from your goddamned horse!” she screamed. Jobert did, but Beanblossom gave him his innocent, “what did I do?” look.

We finally made it to Las Vegas in time to participate as a riding unit in their Pioneer Days parade. But our horses, so surefooted over sand, rock, and shale, stumbled and slid all over the pavement. Luckily, no one was hurt, but it wasn’t our fault.

Eventually we fetched up at the Clark County fair grounds where Joanne met me. She had found a sitter for our two little ones, probably her long suffering mother, and came up to spend a wild night on the town with me. Legend had her stall, a very nice one with new straw for bedding. Joanne and I had the stall next to hers, and we had clean bedding straw as well. Jobert and his wife and Beanblossom were in stalls across the aisle. Life was good.

Copyright Ken Harris 2008

Wednesday, March 11, 2009



This is the saga of Legend, the flying horse. We lived in Auburn, California in the mid-1960s, and involved ourselves with the Tevis Cup One Hundred Mile ride group. Joanne and I had both done the ride and we wanted to keep our horses in condition. On weekends would take twenty-, thirty-, forty-mile pleasure rides. In the spring we took these occasions to clear and remark the trails after the harsh winter months.

That's what we were doing one day when we found ourselves on a steep hillside. Usually when I tell this story, it’s a cliff. But the slope wasn’t ninety degrees, it was more like seventy. It was certainly too steep for ballroom dancing. The slope had a few oak trees growing on it, but you couldn’t see their sides, only their tops.

Wendell Robie was the guiding light for the Tevis Cup ride and, as I stop to think of it, figured in several of our misadventures. He was in the lead, followed by Joanne on her horse, Country Girl, followed by me on Legend. We came upon a pine tree that had fallen over during the winter rains leaving its rootside uphill of the trail and the topside dangling out into the air. Wendell rode around the obstacle. A horse is perfectly capable of negotiating a seventy degree slope if the rider just gets out of his way and lets him do it. Joanne didn’t want to go around the tree, she wanted to jump it. And jump it she did.

Legend got ready to jump the tree from a standstill, but I didn’t want her to. I wanted her to go around the obstacle, not over it. I pulled back on the reins and turned her out facing the slope. I figured we would go off the trail and down the slope, around the tree and up the slope, the way Wendell had done. I had forgotten my earlier jumping lessons at the Arroyo Seco Stables in South Pasadena. I had forgotten that to Legend could and would jump from a standstill.

She did jump from a standstill.

I wish you could have seen the look of amazement on legend's face when she saw nothing but air beneath her feet instead of firm ground. I saw it, and I wish you had been there instead of me. As soon as I realized we were airborne, I let go of the reins, kicked my feet clear of the stirrups and tried to abandon ship. But the higher I went, the higher she went. My ship wouldn’t let me abandon her. I don’t know what she thought I was going to do, but she clearly expected me to save us.

Fortunately, we landed in the top of an oak tree where we parted company. If we had augured into the ground I wouldn’t be writing this story now. We filtered through the tree and fell to earth, taking branches with us, and landed one on each side of the trunk.

Joanne tells me I was knocked unconscious, but that isn't true. I was merely laying face down wiggling fingers and toes, rejoicing in the movement of each digit. It took a while. After all, there are twenty of them. Legend had a scrape above her left eye and I didn’t get a scratch, although some years later a chiropractor looked at an x-ray and asked me about my whiplash.

The rest of the crew continued with clearing the trail, but Joanne and I repaired to a sandy beach on the river and fished what was left of our lunch out of the saddle bags. Our friends said that if I’d do it again they’d bring a cameraman along and do a cigarette commercial. Then we could all split the money. I have such good friends.

Meanwhile, I learned two important lessons. One: horses can’t fly. Two: I can’t either.

Copyright Ken Harris 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Jumping With Legend

Jumping with Legend
© Ken Harris 2008

Joanne was taking English riding lessons from Bobbi Williams in 1957. That’s where you bounce up and down in the saddle like you had springs in your pants. I was not really gifted in this activity.

Bobbi had heard of a splendid scheme to improve indifferent riders by teaching them to jump. The supposition was they would be too busy just trying to stay on their horse to worry about niceties like balance. They would automatically become better riders if they never succeeded in taking a jump. Assuming they survived.

By the end of several weeks of this untender tutelage, I had not fallen off my horse even though I looked as if I stayed stayed in the saddle by duct tape. But I had been riding school horses, not our own true Legend. I made the comment that although I had not been riding long, I had not yet been thrown. What follows is confirmation of my theory that not only is there a God, but she doesn’t like loudmouths.

Most sensible horses will stop in front of a jump if you haul on the reins hard enough and roar “whoa” in their ears. Some horses will ignore you and jump anyway. Legend did both. She came to a complete stop. And then she jumped. She went up and up and I went up and up and up. We came down on the other side of the jump, so I guess you could say we took the jump. We just came down about ten feet apart.

Legend would do that. She would take a jump from a standstill. Just to prove something to somebody, we did a repeat performance, but differently, five minutes later. This time she went up and forwards and I went up and backwards. Gravity exerted its inevitable effect and this time we ended up on opposite sides of the jump.

Joanne reminded me that I still hadn’t been thrown. Falling off doesn’t count.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Singing for my Tevis Cup Supper

Singing for my Tevis Cup Supper
Copyright Ken Harris 2008

The Western States One Hundred Mile endurance ride began in the 1950s when Wendell Robie of Auburn, California, gathered together with some trail riding friends. The topic under discussion: whether modern horses and riders were as tough as the Pony Express horses and riders of the 19th century. They knew roughly where the old mail trail from Tahoe City to Auburn was, over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and they decided to try if they could make it over that trail inside of twenty-four hours. They decided to make a race of it.

It was a wild, wooly, uncurried experience at first, but by the time Joanne made the ride in 1961 and I followed suit in 1963, the ride was much more under control. There were vet examinations on the day before the race, enforced rest stops along the way with entrance and exit vet checks, and a vet check immediately upon finishing. Additionally, a team of vets checked the first ten finishers on the morning after the ride. There were horseshoers at the major stops and each rider brought his own pit crew to nurture the horse during the rest periods. The local radio club monitored the trail in case any riders fell off the trail or got lost.

It should be noted that there were no medical doctors in attendance. Care was taken to be sure horses weren’t hurt, but if humans were stupid enough to try to ride a hundred miles over rugged mountain terrain in 24 hours, they deserved what happened to them.

For a while Joanne and I served on the Board of Directors and she always devoted a weekend to being a vet secretary while I rode the drag from Michigan Bluff to Auburn. This was the last 40 miles, rough ones, through lava flows, river fords, and all done in the dark with terminally tired riders.

Awards ceremonies were held on the evening following the ride. Buckles were handed out and people got very emotional about their horses. Sometimes entertainment was provided. It came to Wendell’s attention that I sang folk songs and accompanied myself on the guitar. He invited me to provide the music for the evening, free of charge, or course. He didn’t give me any guidelines on what he though was suitable entertainment, but in retrospect I realize he had something like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Tumbling Tumbleweeds in mind.

Of course, I sang nothing of the sort. I took a rollicking little tune, a song about an Arab who introduced camels into California named Haji Ali, known to one and all as Hi Jolly, and substituted my own words.

I presented the result on the night of the awards dinner. I’ve lost the words, but I can remember some of them. I touched on how easily you could get lost in the forest.

“Our trails are quite clearly marked,
At least, that’s what they say.
You can’t get lost unless you’ve really tried;
But when our trails you’ve ridden
And you see how well they’re hidden,
You’ll wonder how you ever made the ride.”

The humor of the verse comes from the fact that the trail was marked with yellow ribbon. But so were last year’s trail and the trails before that. Nobody ever took yellow ribbons down. They just put up new ones. I think Wendel had an interest in a yellow ribbon factory, because over the years we put up a lot of yellow ribbons. And we never took any down. So, a Virginia or Massachusetts rider might come along and discover, “Hello, I’m in the Yellow Ribbon Forest. Can the Yellow Brick Road be far away?”

Another verse dealt with all the expert advice old timers gave to new riders.

“There’s Robies and there’s Tellingtons
And Moyles by the score,
And every one has told you how to ride.
They advised you night and day,
But you made it anyway,
So you can be forgiven for your pride.”

The more verses I sang, the louder the laughter, and the grimmer Wendel’s expression grew. The chorus, as I remember, finished with:

“Call me a chicken drover,
But if I ever do this over,
Lock me up and throw the key away.”

The audience laughed, they cried, and finally they gave my song a standing ovation. Judging from Wendel’s granitic look, I wouldn’t be invited back, but if I left immediately, I might make it out of the parking lot alive.

I was right. I was never invited back.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How the Rooster Lost His Spurs

How the Rooster Lost His Spurs
Copyright Ken Harris 2009

From the title you might think this is a children's fable or a Native American myth, but it isn't. Instead, it's a story about two real roosters among our flock in North San Juan in the late '80s.

We had several flocks of chickens during our time in North San Juan. They were Leghorn crosses or Rhode Island Reds. We always tried to have a rooster in the flock to keep order in the hen house.

But once we somehow managed to acquire two male birds at the same time. This situation was not conducive to order because there is room for only one rooster in a small flock. The two males were vicious to each other until one decided that a subservient life without dignity was better than none at all.

Once the two birds decided who would rule the roost, some interesting physical changes occurred in each one. The winner's comb grew larger and redder while the losers shriveled significantly. The dominant bird's spurs grew long and sharp, while the inferior bird's spurs shrank to nubbins.

Life for the dominant male was pretty good – until trouble came up. Trouble arrived to the flock in the form of the neighborhood bobcat, the one who included our henhouse as a part of his territory. One snotty, cold, dark winter's night the bobcat decided it was just too unpleasant to hunt, and so he would visit our henhouse to see if he could discover a breach. And when the Great Bobcat visit, it's time for the Boss Rooster to stand up to be counted.

In this case, the rooster successfully defended his flock and survived to tell the tale, but it cost him his spurs. He tore them off trying to beat the bobcat off through the fence. We could see the disturbed ground and torqued chicken wire where the battle had occurred. It occurred to me that being Cock of the Walk might not necessarily be a good thing.

The bobcat revisited from time to time, and the rooster died, whether from bobcatitis or some other dread disease. Thus came the promotional opportunity for the inferior bird. Everything changed for him and he responded with increased testosterone. His comb grew long and richly red and sharp new spurts quickly appeared on his heels.

Soon he, too, lost his spurs. But he survived and shortly after that we trapped the bobcat in a humane trap. Then we put a bullet in his head. The rooster went on to rule his flock of hens for years. Timing is everything.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Another Op'nin', Another Blow

Another Op’ning, Another Blow
©Kenneth Harris, 2008

We lived in Auburn, California from 1962 to 1970. For much of that time I worked for Intercoast Life Insurance Company, home office in Davis. For all of the time we lived in Auburn we were involved with the Western States Trail Ride.

The Western States Trail Ride occurs once every year on the Saturday following the “Hunters Moon,” which occurs in the hot days of summer. Starting out at o-dark-hundred, riders attempt to take their horse from Tahoe City to Auburn, over the Sierra Nevadas, in 24 hours.

But there's more. Each year the trail has to be reopened, rediscovered, or relocated after the winter snows and rains. This involves hardy horsemen riding out on many weekends armed with hatchets, bow saws, yellow tape to mark the trail, and lots of muscle and good will. My horse, Legend, and I were usually part of the trail crew and, in general, I enjoyed being a part of it all.

One day in 1968 sitting at lunch in the safety of the insurance company home office with a co-worker named Dave de la Cruz, I nattered on about the joys of riding in the mountains. I didn't mention anything about hazards and hardships, just the pleasure of communing with nature. Dave said, “Gee, I wish there was someplace like that we could ride. Dixon is so flat.”

What could I say? Dave lived in Dixon. Dixon is in the Central Valley. Dixon is flat. I don’t want to downgrade the place, but it is pool table flat.

What could I say? I could have said any number of things, but what I did say was to invite him and his wife to go riding with me on the following Saturday morning. I had thought of a ride across two canyons from Michigan Bluff. We would go down a steep canyon and out of it, across Deadwood Ridge, into and out of another steep canyon to Last Chance Mine, and then turn around and come back again. By the time we returned to Michigan Bluff we would have ridden a distance of 20 miles or so, but have involved ourselves 7,500 feet of ascent and descent. Beautiful country, but you needed strong horses and strong butts. Iron horses and iron butts would be even better. I was looking forward to it.

It never occurred to me that Dave and his wife, used to the loamy flats of Dixon, might not be able to make a ride like that in good style. Or at all.

Fortunately, the matter never came up because we didn’t make that ride. We would have had to trailer over mountain roads, paved but steep and curvy, and we needed to leave by 8:00 o’clock. Dave, and his wife, and his car, and his trailer, and his horses, arrived at 10:00 o’clock. Two hours late.

They arrived in an elderly station wagon that could barely pull the steep hill up to our house. When Dave opened the hood to his vehicle to see why he was having such power difficulties we saw sparks flying from loose and cracked wiring. He had eight cylinders, all of them firing about forty percent of the time.

A Michigan Bluff ride was out of the question, but we could trailer down to Robie Point, just outside of Auburn, and then ride down the Old Stage Coach Road to the American River, follow a few trails for a while, and still get back in time for a late lunch. And this became our new plan.

We trailered to Robie Point, the de la Cruzes with their quarter horses and me with Joanne’s pet horse, Ringwraith, since my pet horse, Legend, was unavailable. (We had acquired Ringwraith just after we had read The Lord of the Rings. Ring was a big, strong animal with very dark brown hair. His ears lopped, which made him look as though he would love to stomp a hobbit. Consequently, strangers gave him a wide berth. But Ring was really a nice guy, mainly, I think, because people left him alone.)

When it came to trailering, Legend and I had spoiled each other. I would put food in the trailer manger, lower the tail gate and rump chain, point Legend in the direction of the food and in she would walk. I would fasten her halter to the manger by means of a breakaway chain, drape her lead rope over her back, hook the rump chain back up, and close the tailgate. When it came time to unload the horse, I was supposed to unsnap the chain from the halter. The horse’s head is free, it backs up, feels the rump chain, and waits until the universe is in better order. But with Legend I had got in the habit of doing things in reverse order. In this case I first did the tailgate, then the rump chain, then tried to unchain the halter.


Ring felt the rump chain give and backed up. But his head was still confined, held by the breakaway chain. At that point he lost his head. And I almost lost mine. He swung his head back and forth wildly while I tried to undo the chain. His head hit mine accidentally and split it open above and to the side of my right eye. Popped it like a grape.

Eventually I gained control of Ring’s head and backed him out onto the street. Now we had a slight complication. Blood had stuck my eyelids shut and I couldn’t see. I asked Dave to hold my horse. He said, “No.”

His wife added, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

I realized I had a problem, maybe two or three.

I pried my eyes open so I could see at least a little bit, tied Ring to the trailer and then washed the blood off my face with water from the nearest garden hose. I dripped back to my horse, untied him, climbed into the saddle and said, “Let’s go.”

Just then the guy who lived in the house with the garden hose came out and asked, “Are you all right?”

But for some reason my company felt we ought to return home. I took stock of myself and saw that I looked like I had fought on both sides at the Battle of Shiloh. I looked like I had all of my blood on my clothes and none in my body. Even I realized we didn't need to go on a ride. The morning had already been perfect.

When we reached home Joanne drove me to the doctor’s office for some fancy whipstitching. The doctor was a horseman and treated the whole episode with jovial manner while I had unkind thoughts. When he was through, Joanne pointed out that there were still a few bits of flesh sticking out at odd angles from my face. Not to worry. He snipped them off with scissors. That part of my face wasn’t numbed, but I was fairly numb all over anyway.

We had a light lunch and Joanne took the de la Cruzes out for a gentle ride in an area we called Big Hill. Not mountains, but rolling hills with oak trees and magpies. It was a nice ride. They rode for half an hour, but when Joanne asked them which direction they wanted to go next, they said back to the trailer. They were exhausted. I hate to think what would have happened if we had tried the Michigan Bluff canyons. We’d still be there.

Lesson one: Just because someone says he can ride doesn’t mean he can ride.

Lesson two: Just because someone says he can unload a horse doesn’t mean much either.