Some rough weather moved through Tennessee last night. I have an old barn near my house that lists dangerously to one side. It has been that way for the all of the years I’ve lived here. Every time a bad windstorm roars through I can hear its metal roof banging up and down. Some of the front boards in the hayloft are gone so it looks like it is missing teeth.
The wind was blowing so hard last night, I thought there was a very real possibility it would be laid out flat in the morning. When I woke up I looked out of my window and there it was…casually leaning to one side…like a hillbilly Tower of Pisa.
It’s tornado season in the south. When my son was younger he made a bed in the closet and left it there for the entire spring. I am not making light of tornadoes. I saw one literally pass right behind my house. It wasn’t a funnel like out of the “Wizard of Oz”…it was more like a malignant looking wall of clouds. Before it came through the sky turned an acid amber color and the air was very still and quiet. It was a frightening thing to behold.
I found the entire roof of someone’s barn in my field all in one piece.
With the tornado season comes the muddy season and it has been my nemesis. The mud is like quicksand. I am constantly jumping down off of my tractor or a fence and sinking into twelve inches of mud that sucks the shoe or boot right off of my foot.
Single shoes and boots are buried all over my farm. One day, hundreds of years from now, they’ll excavate and find a shoe here, a boot there and wonder what kind of people we were and what this ritual was.
It’s always been my dream to live on a farm and own a lot of animals. I am a soft touch when it comes to “all creatures great and small”. Over the years, strays have come and gone. Sometimes they’ve left their families behind for me to take care of. Kumbaya.
I let a farmer run his cattle on my back fields, and I talked him into letting me adopt an orphaned calf. I named him King Tut and bottle-fed him far longer than he needed it. I had to stop because when he got hungry he would bang his head against me and knock me down. Bulls can be dangerous, so I had the vet come and castrate him so I could keep him as a pet. Tut was a handsome guy and in spite of his…limitations…he loved the ladies. He courted the cows in the next field and found a way to get into their pasture. At the end of the day he would bellow to me to come and let him back into my field so he could have his grain. This went on for a while until one day he disappeared. I’m choosing to think he ran off with the girls and lived happily ever after.
I’ve been told that true farmers don’t own animals unless they can work for them or they can eat them. My neighbor down the road had a herding dog with a schedule. She ran up and down the holler like an executive secretary keeping track of the herds.
Her organizational skills paled in comparison to those of a dog I came across when I went in search of the world’s best molasses cookies in the Amish country in Kentucky. My sister was with me and after about two hours of driving in one giant circle, we decided to stop and try to get directions.
We came upon a big farmhouse with sheep grazing in front of it. We pulled into the driveway and walked up to the house. This older gentleman came out to greet us, a big black and white border collie at his side.
The dog stood on his hind legs and OPENED THE GATE. After we were through it…he stood back up and CLOSED IT. I can’t get my kids to close the door. This dog stood at attention next to the gate like a furry little butler.
What?!? The man asked if we would like to see what else the dog could do. Uh…YEAH.
He herded sheep like Mary Poppins and put them into a pen…all on hand signals. Then the man told him to bring one of the sheep out by name. The dog opened the gate to the pen, singled out the sheep and brought him out of the gate, closing it behind him. The sheep had on a collar with a name written in black marker…they all did…and unless this dog could read, then he knew each one of them by name.
It was really hot that day and we were standing in the blazing sun. I could feel the skin beginning to sizzle and peel up on my nose, but I was planted…totally mesmerized by this dog.
His owner asked us if we wanted a soda. He had a machine filled with Coke and Mountain Dew…the official beverages of Tennessee…we both said we’d take a Coke and he told the dog to go and get them.
I know it was blistering hot, but I was not hallucinating. This dog stood on his hind legs…pressed the proper button for Coke and when the can dropped, he BROUGHT IT TO ME. Then he went back, without prompting, and got one for my sister too.
I thought it ironic that my children had me trained the same way. I also remember thinking that I could really use one of those dogs.
We ended up spending the entire afternoon there. The man waved to us as we drove away, his dog sitting at the gate, eagerly waiting to open it for him.
I don’t have any gate opening, soda serving animals. But I have had the privilege of some incredible creatures passing through my life.
One morning on my way to the post office I came upon a dead opossum in the middle of the road. She had babies with her and three of them were still alive and wandering around her body.
I couldn’t just leave them on the road. I got some gloves out of my car, picked the babies up and put them in my glove compartment so they wouldn’t crawl around in the car while I was driving.
I took them home and made a bed for them in the cage that I had built for the thirteen kittens two cat squatters had left for me as a thanks for my hospitality.
I hadn’t put much thought into how I was going to feed them. Possums carry rabies, so I put my gloves on and tried to bottle feed them with kitten formula. They weren’t having it…their tiny ugly faces scrunched up like babies tasting lemons.
Taking them to a vet would have been a death sentence. As a last resort, I put some blackberry yogurt into the lid of a jar and put it down in the cage. The three of them cautiously walked up to it and sniffed. They LOVED IT…they dove in…snouts and front feet.
I didn’t give them names because I knew I would have to release them back into the wild. I had no idea how I would accomplish that, but I’d do some research and work it out.
After a couple of weeks I was able to handle them. They would stand on their little hind legs and poke their noses through the mesh of the cage when they saw me coming. I know it was the blackberry yogurt, but I’d like to think we had our own special bond.
Everyone thought I went off of the deep end. “You know that’s a cousin to a rat. You’re just fattening up future roadkill.”
I went out to feed them one morning and found the cage tipped over. Two of them were gone and one was lying dead. He had been chewed on.
None of the cats would look me in the eye. I had my suspicions.
My porch was home to a giant white rooster named Yeti and an elderly tomcat named Otis. Yeti and Otis had their own relationship. In the summer they ignored each other, even though Yeti roosted on the porch rail a few feet from Otis.
One winter day I came home and saw white feathers sticking out of Otis’s cat house. Yeti was nowhere to be found.
“Oh no. Otis ate Yeti.” I leaned over to look inside.
Yeti and Otis were huddled together keeping each other warm. They both gave me dirty looks and went back to sleep. They lived like that all winter long. When spring came, they went their separate ways, ignoring each other until the cold weather rolled around again.
Yeti was a cool rooster. He let me carry him around under my arm and followed me like a feathered general bobbing his head and flapping his wings like he had something to say.
I was moving bales of hay in my barn one afternoon. Yeti was sitting on the fence above my shoulder supervising. I pulled a bale back and he swooped down past me. There was a rattlesnake coiled in the stall. He pecked it and harassed it until it slithered away.
A rooster saved my life. Not too long after that I found Yeti laying on his side in the chicken coup. He had been mauled and was barely alive. He must have been defending his ladies against some varmint. All of this tail feathers and most of his back feathers were torn out. His spine was completely exposed. The maggots had already claimed him as territory. It doesn’t take long in the heat of the summer.
I was beside myself. I called my friends Phil and Teri, my farm gurus. Phil suggested I spray Yeti with WD-40 to kill the maggots.
I failed to ask how much to use. DETAILS.
Yeti lay perfectly still while I sprayed his back and his tail. I knew I’d sprayed too much when his eyes rolled back into his head…and so did mine.
I sat on the ground and waited for the dizzy spell to pass. We both struggled to our feet at the same time. I put him in a tub of warm water and washed his wounds. He never pecked at me.
I wrapped him in a towel and sat on the hammock holding him. The kids and I made a bed for him in the hay and said our goodbyes. I figured we’d be having a funeral the next day.
But when I got up the next morning…there he was…sitting on my porch rail at attention, just like he had every other morning.
All that time that Yeti had spent with Otis paid off. He was an honorary cat. He had nine lives. He recovered from his assault but he was never able to fly again.
I ran over him once by accident with my pickup truck. I jumped out. He was laying there staring up at me with disgust.
He got up, took inventory of himself and stomped off, clucking at me over his shoulder in outrage.
Yeti died of old age. We buried him with honors in our pet cemetery beside our beloved golden retriever Thomas.
Yeti…you were a proper bird. I will remember you.
Day Three Hundred and Forty…tall “tails” and hot chocolate…