Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rufus

As a kid, it is hard to imagine anything as cute as a soft downy chick and when one hundred show up in a small crate, it can be down right overwhelming. My father had purchased them to raise for their eggs and meat. But for me, they were just another diversion along the path of my life.

Those cute chicks didn’t last long and soon they were developing into chickens, which I wouldn’t describe as cute at all. Some grew up into mottled red hens with red combs and the rest into white roosters with waddles on their necks and spurs on their legs. But one rooster in particular was a little bit bigger and his spurs were just a little bit longer than all the others. It was this rooster who would become an integral part of my life and for reasons not remembered, was given the name of Rufus.

It wasn’t easy retaining a healthy population of chickens in rural southeast Iowa due to the large coyote population, so for the safety of the chickens, we dutifully locked them up in the chicken house every night when they went inside roost. Every morning, one of the first chores done was to go out to the chicken house and open the door to let them out. Rufus would always be standing in front of all the other chickens when the door was opened, waiting to lead his flock out for the day’s pecking of food.

My father was the person responsible for unknowingly starting a tradition that would cause much fear in my life and much terror in my younger brother’s. When my father would go out and release the chickens in the morning, he would antagonize Rufus a little bit and get him to ruffle his feathers by acting like a chicken and pretending to charge after Rufus. Soon my father would take off at a run with Rufus angrily tearing along behind him trying to protect his flock from my father by chasing him away. The problem was that Rufus couldn’t distinguish my brother or I from our father.

When my brother and I had to open up that chicken house door in the morning, we had a well practiced ritual. Stealthy as Indians, we would creep up to the door and while one person removed the cinder block used to keep the door closed, the other would press as hard as he could to keep any demonized roosters from rushing out and eating us whole. Then quick as we could, the door would be thrown open, the block thrown in front of it to keep it from flying shut again, and off we would go flying across the lawn at the speed of light. If there was a record for running from the chicken house back to the safety of the front lawn, we set a new one every morning.

My father on the other hand, refined his technique over the months and soon had a very set tradition. Once he was able to get Rufus to start chasing him, he would run through the yard around the house to see how long he could keep Rufus chasing him. He would run just slow enough to maintain Rufus’s interest in catching him but fast enough that he never got caught, except for one memorable occasion.

My brother and I would often watch in delight from the relative safety of the kitchen stoop as Rufus chased our father. Then one day, our father decided to include the stoop in the morning chase and ran up the steps with Rufus on his heels in hot pursuit. My brother and I jumped for our lives over the side while our father went running by and jumped off the back of the stoop. That is when the event became memorable and will forever remain etched in my mind.

After hitting the ground on the backside of the stoop, my father crouched down where he was and Rufus jumped off of the back of the stoop and landed right in the center of my father’s back. For a split second, I think I saw fear in both their eyes as my father hurriedly jumped up out of his crouched position and Rufus fell to the ground. My father briefly afraid that Rufus might use his long spurs on his back and Rufus afraid that he had actually caught this person after all this time and didn’t know what to do next. But once they had separated, their pride took over and both acted like they had meant for it to happen but the chase was over for that morning.

As Rufus reached his prime, he got a little bit more aggressive in protecting his hens. If we were to get too close to him for his liking, he would ruffle his feathers and if we weren’t on the run in short order, he would take to chasing us until he was convinced that we were no longer a threat.

My brother and I were very respectful of this fact and gave Rufus a wide berth while playing outside, but occasionally we pushed it too far. One day while playing out in the front yard near where my mother was hanging up laundry, I heard a blood-curdling scream come from the vicinity of the chicken house. Like a fire engine siren that gets louder as it approaches, my brother’s scream kept getting louder until he rounded the corner of the garage and went running towards my mother’s protection at full steam.

I was to the side and could immediately see what was happening, but my mother was in the line of sight and didn’t know what was wrong until she bent down to gather my brother in her arms fearing that he had hurt himself and he kept on running right on past her. Only then did she see Rufus running for all he was worth, chasing my brother so close that he was in the shadows of my brother’s footsteps. My mother ran for the broom and soon had the chase broken up but it was a while longer before my brother would go anywhere near Rufus.

There was one person in our family whom Rufus never chased and that was my grandfather. My grandfather had developed a large spare tire around his middle in his old age and didn’t move very fast anymore. One evening when he came over to our house for dinner and got out of his truck, Rufus decided that he was a threat and proceeded to ruffle his feathers and strut around much to everyone’s amusement. When Rufus felt that my grandfather wasn’t leaving fast enough, that rooster charged him only to be sent flying backwards in an arc ten feet high by a well-placed kick from my grandfather. Rufus hit the ground dazed and confused much to my grandfather’s delight and finally strutted off as if he had planned it that way the whole time. But in all the rest of Rufus’s years, he never ruffled a feather towards my grandfather again.

Eventually, my brother and I grew big enough where we weren’t afraid of Rufus anymore and during that time he grew less aggressive, or at least he wasn’t able to chase us like he used to anymore. It was also during these days, that my father showed us how if you placed a chicken’s head under their wing and slowly rubbed it that you could put the chicken to sleep.

One Thanksgiving celebration after every one had eaten, my brother and I decided the time had come to fight our fears and we went outside to look for Rufus. He must have new the gig was up, for when he saw us coming for he immediately started running away. But taking turns, my brother and I chased him all over the farm until Rufus, worn out and cornered; finally allowed us to catch him. Poor Rufus never had a chance and soon he was sitting fast asleep out on the kitchen stoop for everyone to see much to our delight.

Over the years, coyotes had thinned down our chicken population by catching those who failed to roost in the chicken house at night. More casualties were suffered among their ranks at the hands of vehicles running them over on the nearby gravel road as they went by and yet still others were killed for the meat. As a result, our chicken flock of one hundred chickens was reduced down to a dozen hens and Rufus.

Although our parents told us they were giving the chickens to our neighbor to watch for us while we went on a vacation, in reality they were giving the remainder to him because it was no longer worth raising so few chickens. Our neighbor, who had purchased the other half of the chickens my father ordered, added them to his flock that hadn’t been so thinned out by coyotes and cars. And so when we got home from the vacation, the chickens just stayed over at our neighbors place never to set foot on our farm again.

It was about this time that we adopted a stray dog by the name of Ted who showed up one day at my grandfather’s farm. Ted was only a year old at the time and liked to roam, so he soon found our neighbor’s chicken flock and proceeded to kill several of them before being caught by our neighbor. When my father arrived, he tied a couple of the dead chickens to Ted’s collar and proceeded to scold him to let Ted know that killing chickens was wrong. Ted showed his remorse by hanging his head and putting his tail between his legs and we thought that was the end of it. But Rufus would come into my life one last time by a sort of passing of the torch.

Ted showed up one afternoon bleeding profusely from numerous deep wounds all over his face and body. It looked as if he had fought the mother of all battles and had barely won. We cleaned and treated Ted’s wounds but it wasn’t until that evening that we learned the full story. Our neighbor called to say that Ted had been over in our his chickens again and killed some more hens and one rooster, Rufus.

Hens don’t have spurs so I knew that the inflictor of all those wounds had been Rufus. I knew Rufus had fought to the death protecting his flock of hens from Ted, and in the end, Rufus had succeeded. We never punished Ted for the incident, because he was too sick at the time. But in all the years following that fight, Ted never killed another chicken again. I was devastated knowing that the rooster that I had loved had been killed by a dog I was only beginning to love and it wasn’t until I was older that I found peace in the incident. Rufus was getting older and no one likes seeing a loved one grow old before your eyes and eventually die. So it was fitting that Rufus died as he lived his life, brave and protecting his flock.

A Short Fairy Tale

Once upon a time in a shop in Hutchinson town, worked a fair maiden by the name of Annie. This young maiden, had locks of gold that reflected the morning’s sunlight like a well polished mirror. None in all the land knew a more exquisite beauty and everybody assumed that such a person was surely betrothed to another. But Annie worked all day long slaving away for her employer and then went home to her empty cottage assuming that all that knew her thought she was hideous and something to avoid.

One year ago to this very day, a young lad named Jack stumbled upon Annie by chance on a fair sunny day when her locks reflected the most. He was blinded so much that it took the very breath from his chest and left him speechless before her. But young Jack was not blinded by her beauty outside as were all the other lads but by the beauty that radiated from her heart.

For Jack was pure at heart and soul for he was the last of the true romantics that roamed the land. He had been searching for the woman who would whisper the words that he longed to hear. Many had tried over the years but none had uttered the correct ones and so he wandered from one village to the next looking in all the maidens’ eyes searching for the one that he would love for all time until he saw Annie.

Jack’s heart swelled with a feeling he had never felt before in all his time and he struggled to remain collected with his wits for he had yet to hear those words that he longed to hear. Jack rose every morning that he was to meet young Annie with a light in his eyes and warmth in his heart wondering if today would be the day. He befriended Annie, continuing to find out more about her and to slowly revealing more about him. Jack told Annie of his dreams and desires while showing her everything he had in hopes that she would someday whisper the words that he so longed to hear.

One day, one year from the very day they met, Jack learned that another lad had smote the young maiden and his heart was broken in two by the news. For weeks, he tried to remain to young Annie the person he had been before but it surely got to him like water eventually cracks the rock and so young Jack set off for lands unknown.

Jack sailed the seven seas seeking to grab death by the heels to relieve him of his misery but death could not be found. He wandered roamed the seven continents and saw the seven wonders of the world in hopes that their beauty could make him forget that of Annie but was only further reminded of what he had left behind him. Years would pass and the nights only seemed to grow colder to Jack until he gave up his search for death and went back to an area he knew well from his travels as a youngster on the River of the Buffalo.

There is where we find Jack one cool winter day in his twenty seventh year, sitting on a rock overlooking the Valley of the Buffalo with a tear rolling down his cheek. He had vowed to remain here until Mother Nature herself had removed the last breath from his lungs as the young maiden he had seen in Hutchinson town. He sat there accepting his fate when a voice seemed to come from the very mountain behind him and caress his soul. The voice said, “You are my destiny, for our destiny is one.”

In a flash, Jack was up and young Annie was in his arms wiping the tears from his face with kisses as sweet as a mountain spring. He had finally heard those words that he longed to hear for so many years and he was happier than anything he had ever known. They were wed in a simple ceremony befitting of a pauper but it mattered not for all who attended were blinded by the purity of their love for each other and it was passed on through the centuries by other romantics who arose from the ashes to search for their true love. And so Jack and Annie live happily every after because they were each other’s destiny and their destiny was one.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Flying the Thrill-a from Manila

I am reminded of a nightmare of a plane trip myself. It all started the day before I was to leave when I got an email saying that my flight itinerary had changed and to please call Expedia whom I had bought the tickets from. My direct flight from Chicago to Hong Kong had been cancelled and was replaced instead by two flights and a stop in Los Angles. Since it was too late to get new tickets, I was to report to the scheduling desk and they would make the changes there the next day. The next day arrives and they issue me the new tickets for the trip out but said that only in Manila, Philippines (my destination) could my new tickets be issued for the trip back. Okay, good to go and other than four more hours added to my trip time, I made it to Manila without incident.

Now flash forward a couple weeks when I am at the Manila airport heading home. I had a bundle of souvenirs that wouldn't fit in my suitcases so I had wrapped them with a couple rolls of packaging tape and took them with me. Their completely wrapped shape looked like three rifles bundled together but they didn't ask me to do anything other than write my address on them with magic marker since their identification tags couldn't be attached. I gave them to the attendant fully expecting to never see them again but two days later they would be there waiting for me. Besides the souvenirs, I also had a huge head cold that I had picked up during my stay in the Philippines and it was rapidly getting worse. I struggled to concentrate as the lady at the desk said that they couldn't issue all my return tickets as the lady in Moline, Illinois (where I had started my trip) had told me. But they would issue me the first ticket to Hong Kong. Once again, good to go.

I got on my plane and doped myself up with cold medicines and Dramamine. A typhoon was currently lashing Manila bay so I dozed in and out of consciousness as we sat on the tarmac waiting for a lull in the storm to take off. The winds tapered down to a relatively calm 80 mph and suddenly the plane started up and lurched off the runway in the space of about two minutes. That is the fastest I think I have ever gone from loading dock to air! The airplane lurched and bounced like a children's toy boat in an ocean in the turbulence as we flew over the typhoon. At least five people in the immediate vicinity of my threw up and I would have joined them if it hadn't been for the Dramamine. But that didn't stop me from getting really green in the gills.
Down in Hong Kong, I now raced to try and make my connection. The air pressure changes had packed my head full of snot and I couldn't breath or hear plus I was starting to get chills and my forehead was sweating. The ticket lady there wouldn't issue me a ticket and it was after an hour of wrangling that I was finally able to get through the language barrier and explain the situation. They gave me the same speech, we can only issue you the ticket to Los Angles and they will issue you the rest. Yeah, yeah, yeah, good to go again.

Now running through the airport, head feeling like it was going to explode, a fever setting in, I come to a checkpoint where they are taking everyone's temperatures. SARS was still a big issue at the time in Hong Kong and everyone was wearing surgical masks and I had been warned before my trip that anyone with a high fever would be quarantined until tests could be run to see if they had SARS. Just my luck, I was going to get this far and end up being quarantined with a bunch of people who probably did have SARS and I would never see the United States again. I wiped all the sweat off my forehead, dried my watering eyes and fanned my forehead with my boarding pass as I waited for my turn. They placed the thermometer on my forehead and he paused to frown at the thermometer as I held my breath. He finally nodded and turned his attention to the next person in line. I took the nod as an OK and ran off down the hall. I made the plane just as they were shutting the gate doors behind me and crashed into my seat. Nothing stopping me now!

The typhoon that had been lashing Manila bay on the way north was now approaching Hong Kong and our route to Los Angles went right over it for a second time and again I was tossed around like a ping pong ball in a bingo cage. I redosed myself with cold medicines and Dramamine though according to the directions I needed to wait another four hours. I immediately passed out only to waken some fourteen hours later on the decent into LAX. Finally I really did get tickets issued for the rest of the trip and a short wait and another flight later, I was now in Chicago and feeling like the walking dead. Unfortunately, when they rescheduled all my tickets the day before I had left, my short layover in Chicago turned into an overnighter before my last flight to Moline left first thing in the morning. I had eight hours to kill but because I would have to check out and then check back in, I figured that I would only get about four hours of sleep if I left the premises for a motel so I decided to camp out in the terminal.

I fastened all my luggage to my body and found a bench down a deserted concourse where I attempted to sleep. But the constant announcements to keep track of all my luggage every thirty minutes, floor waxes, sweepers, janitors, cleaners walking by made sleep impossible despite my zombie like state. After three hours of tossing and turning, I grabbed my bags and walked the interior perimeter of the airport killing two hours. So I did it again killing another two hours. Finally the food shops started opening up and I sat down for a quick meal all the while the waitress stared at me as if I was on drugs...... the illegal kind. I guess a sniffling man, sweating bullets in a cold restaurant and in desperate need of a shave and clean clothes automatically signifies drugs. My plane came, I made it home with my bundle of rifles looking package of souvenirs and fell into bed and remained there for the next two days. Never was I so glad to be home.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Death of Ted

I drove down the long driveway and pulled into my customary spot underneath the large elm tree on the west side of the house. Ted was lying in the grass which was unusual. He normally would run out to greet me as I was coming down the driveway but today he just laid there in the sun dappled shade. As I got out of the car and approached, he remained unmoving with no sign of life, causing my heart to skip a step. When I reached him, knelt down and called his name, he feebly wagged his tail and turned his eyes in my direction. I knelt there scratching Ted behind the ears, allowing my eyes to drift down his body and I could see a large shaved area on his abdomen where all his golden reddish fur had been removed down to the skin. A large scar that had been sutured shut now stretched across the area. My parents hadn't said anything about Ted undergoing any kind of surgery so I figured it must have been some sort of accident that had just happened. I continued to stoke his head for a few minutes and then went inside the house.

Mom was at the kitchen sink when I walked in and from the look of inquiry on my face, went directly into an explanation without waiting. The years of arthritis medicine had taken their toll on Ted's internal organs and they were failing. Ted was dying. I asked how long but she didn't know. Ted had undergone exploratory surgery yesterday where he had been diagnosed and as long as he wasn't in too much pain, my parents decided to care for him until he died. They hadn't wanted to put him to sleep at the vets office and had wanted to give me a chance to say goodbye. That spring morning had been such a beautiful one that my mom had moved him outside to lay underneath the large elm tree where Ted could keep an eye on everything. She thought he would be happy there and I agreed.

Ted had shown up about seven years ago near my grandfather's farm thin and starving and after searching for an owner, we had adopted him, brought him home with us, where we nursed him back into health. A couple years later, Ted started getting lame in the rear hip and we decided to take him into the veterinarian to see what was wrong. After some tests and putting two and two together, we were able to piece together some of Ted's history. He probably was meant to be a hunting dog since he was a Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador mix but as we already had found out, was gun shy. The owner had probably beat him in an attempt to train him but it hadn't worked. No longer interested in him, they had tried to scare him into running off but he had kept coming back and so they had shot him, hitting him in the rear hip. By the time Ted arrived in our possession, his physical wounds had healed but he had a lot of emotional ones. He would cower whenever a hand was raised even if it were just to scratch behind his ears. With time and patience, Ted would grow to trust us and this would fade with the years. Ted never liked to be out of site of everyone, something that never did fade away and loud noised would always scare him, but at long as we were close by he would remain, albeit with a "I'm miserable" look in his eyes.

But at the age of three, the old buck shot wounds were started to cause arthritis in his hip leaving Ted in constant pain. The doctor had said there was nothing that he could do with an operation but that he had an experimental drug used to eliminate the symptoms of arthritis in race horses that we could give him in the form of an injection once a month. We did and it worked. After the shot, Ted would be unshackled from his pain and he could be an active dog again until the pain started creeping in again towards the end of the month. He seemed to sense that the shots were taking away the pain because he never objected when the time came to administer the medicine. That same medicine that gave him four more years of a pain free life, had also taken its toll on Ted's body and now he was dying.

As I walked outside to go help my dad out in the fields with the spring tillage, I sat down beside Ted, put his head in my lap and spent awhile talking to him and stroking his head. Planting season was fast approaching and every minute counted but something inside me felt that I needed to tell Ted what was on my mind. I thanked him for all the good memories that we had together over the years and told him I was sorry that things had to end this way. As I talked to him, I could see his eyes looking into mine and that old fire in them was still burning. I told him goodbye and that I would spend the entire evening with him when I got done working in the fields. A half hour after arriving home, I drove off again towards the fields leaving Ted lying in the green grass in the shade of the large elm tree.

Barely another half hour would pass, when I heard my mom's voice over the CB radio saying that Ted had died. I continued working the fields in silence letting the memories flow as freely as the tears. Instead of my life, it was Ted's life flashing before my eyes and I watched his movie being played in my mind. Both my father and I worked until well after dark, neither of us wanting to go back to the farm and face the reality. When I finally came home, I fueled up the tractor and put it away in the shed where I noticed a tarp wrapped object resting in the other tractor with a scoop on the front. It had been raised up off the ground to keep other animals away and I knew that Ted's body was beneath the tarp. I told Ted happy hunting and that I would see him in the morning.

By dawns early light, Ted was buried beneath the outreached limbs an old oak tree fifty yards from the house. It is a peaceful spot unadorned by anything and covered only by the hardy prairie grasses that grow there beneath the shade. I still visit his grave now and then when I visit my parents to talk to him but mostly I just live with his memories inside me. He was a dog huge in heart and taught me that it is possible to love again even after experiencing so much hurt. I will always be glad that he could hang onto life so that I had a chance to tell him goodbye.

Thanks for the memories Ted.

Friday, December 10, 2004

A Single White Flower

In the meadow grows
a single white flower
Beaded in dew
reflecting the sunlight
Through it runs the earth's axis
and the world spins
If but for a second