Laddie's Gone Home
From Chapter Two, 'But through their counsel and example we also came to accept that our cattle and pigs and chickens were our livelihood, not our buddies'.
No mention of horses? Because my main allegiance in my youth was to the hoofed beasts that worked with me, nuzzled me, stepped on my feet, and occasionally tried to bite me. But the family Oscar for loyalty and diligence must go to one I barely remember, posing here with me and my brother Austin. Originally Gypsy, to us she was always just Gyp.
Dad and Mum purchased our farm in the early 1920's and Gyp was probably their first draft horse. So for the next eighteen years, she and Dad sweated it out over our our hundred acres. The first decade would have been brutal because the fields had lain idle for some years, and twitch grass and weeds such as mustard and burdock would be rampant.
Then came her winter duties...on deep snow days, Jean and Austin rode her bareback about a kilometer to our one-room school. There they'd dismount and pat her rump—Gyp returned home to wait at the barnyard gate for reentry.
Impressive, right? There's more. In the afternoon, Dad opens the gate and gives Gyp another pat on the rump...whereupon she walks back to the school and waits for the children to remount! One of the many stories from my sister that I wish I'd recorded.
However, childhood recall of the day of her death is still with me. And it's prefaced by hazy remembrance of snatches of conversation in our kitchen concerning her health. Now at age 23, Gyp was so decrepit that after lying in her stall, she could barely struggle to her feet. So I can only imagine Dad's personal distress...he who struggled all his life to abide suffering in any living being. And Gyp was family.
On the morning of the day in question, our neighbor's wife from the neighboring farm had hopped over the stile into our yard. Hilda was a tiny cheerful woman, a good friend to my Mom, and a very competent amateur cartoonist. And she had taken some care to prepare a picture story of Gyp's life...and in the last frame a stick-figure line-up of our grieving family. And at the very end of the row was little Stanley with his big pitcher ears! Odd the little things you remember eighty years later, if you're lucky.
About the dead wagon, below. It was summoned when large animals had died or were at the end of their useful lives. The truck arrived, men dispatched the beast with a sledge hammer or gun, and the carcass was hauled away. I don't recall if one paid for this service or if the glue factory paid the truckers— horses with their high collagen content were particularly valuable for glue manufacture.
Mom and I watched from the house. When the dead wagon arrived, my brother opened the gate to the barnyard and directed the driver to our hillside loading ramp. Then Dad leads Gyp from the stable...but instead of toward the hillside, they walk on toward the fields behind our barn. Soon they're over a hill and out of sight. He's carrying his gun.
Dad said his goodbyes alone and with respect consigned his decades-long partner to her rest.
* * *
Ursula performed a similar duty for an animal she loved but for different reasons. Whereas Dad and Gyp had trudged countless miles of hard labor, Ursula and her black Scottie Muffy had shared years of companionship when she was most troubled, first with a parent suffering from schizophrenia and later in a physically abusive marriage.
During the latter, she completed her nursing degree in Ogden, Utah. Enlisting in the USAF, 2nd Lieutenant Ursula Lubera (with Muffy) was assigned in 1974 to Scott AFB in southern Illinois, an Aeromedical Evacuation unit. At that time, Air Force patients from overseas were initially processed at Scott and then transferred to appropriate treatment facilities in the US.
During her second year at the posting, she shared an apartment off base, and it was there that Muffy was diagnosed with an inoperable condition. It wasn't until years later that Ursula revealed her reaction, and the distress in her telling me showed how personally traumatic it had been. Rather than subjecting Muffy to painful therapies that would merely prolong life, she chose otherwise.
There was a fairly remote park where on off-duty days in pleasant weather she'd spend off-duty hours tossing a Frisbee and picnic lunching and of course reading mystery novels. But on this final day of illness, there were no games. And she had the means. Muffy was buried beside a stream with a simple marker.
Just like my Dad, she would not abdicate the final kindness to a stranger.
* * *
These are sad departures, but some are not so sad...this is one of the latter and a segue to my personal perspective on pets. It occurred when at age six Santa gifted me a young goose. Dad often recounted a similar prior event when one of my siblings had rushed downstairs one dark Christmas morning only to be greeted by a raucous honking. And rushed back upstairs crying, 'Dad, there's a monster under our tree'.
On this day, possibly wee goose couldn't believe her good luck either. I don't remember her home but it probably began as a box in our back kitchen in the winter and then was moved outside when spring arrived. She followed me everywhere, growing fat and happy from feed grain and from the table scraps I would smuggle to her. Granted we didn't snuggle but she was certainly branded as Wimpy's pet.
Came Canadian Thanksgiving in early October. Readers more perceptive than pets can guess what's coming. The guest of honor? Yes indeed. Granted I had no part in her death or the preparation for the fête, but certainly knew it was her and received first dibs...a drumstick... in honor of her ultimate contribution....
And why was a gosling gifted only once for each child. Was it my parents intent to show that animals deserved our respect and may win our affection, but their final purpose was always attendant to our livelihood and not our amusement? Or was it simply a prudent gift during Depression years when store-bought toys were too-expensive luxuries?
How about Rover and Puss? We'll get to them...but meanwhile I'll admit respect for one other farm animal. I could only chuckle with appreciation when research proved pigs to be the most intelligent domesticated animal. They were certainly the cleanest if given the habitat though naturally in summer they'd roll in the mud for good reason...sunscreen protection. And when moved to a new enclosure, they'd find the weak link in the fence every time.
Agreed in dire hunger, they might cannibalize the weakest of the litter. Preservation in extremis remind you of another species? Oink if that's a yes. Cows? Dumber than stumps.
As to farm cats, they were tolerated for rodent control in the barns. Most were feral and . accident and disease...distemper picked up from rodents...routinely dispatched them. But I do remember an incident when my wife Marlene toted a particularly attractive example to our farmhouse hoping it might be tamed...she truly loved cats. But the moment it was released came immediate blast off straight through a screened door and into direct orbit back to the barn! We labelled it declined domestication.
With house cats, I have a checkered history because my early Paladin reputation as stray cat assassin doesn't sit well with my conscience. Hopefully in my maturity, eventual kindness has chocked up enough brownie points to garner a pass from St. Peter. And if a Siamese is in his booth, I've got it made because it will be George—my buddy who died far too young.
George was a kitten when Marlene and I brought him to our first apartment, the furnished second floor of a house on Lake Street in St. Catharines. On work days we were both absent, me to my engineering job, my bride to office nurse for a St. Catharines Internist. So George would sit in the front gable window and serenade all to herald our return. He was noisy as all his clan are but also extraordinarily bright.
How bright? Cats are not normally great fans of car trips and if not caged are a driver's hazard. George was born to travel. And as young as four months, his reserved car seat was either in the back window or on my left shoulder in the front...the latter was my preference. Because when stopped in the right lane at a traffic light, the observed reaction of a driver or passenger in the car to the left was priceless.
He was also amenable to a leash, but strolls were infrequent and of short duration. But the biggest surprise came one morning when he was possibly eight months old. I was shaving for work when I hear a tinkle and look over—my buddy is backed onto the seat and peeing into the toilet bowl To this day I'm convinced he would have contributed Number Two if we'd had a cat-friendly flush button!
Sadly we lost George before his first birthday to distemper. Other Siamese were eventually adopted and Marlene once elected to raise a litter of Siamese kittens. This involved 'renting' a tom when the female is in estrus, the fee being a kitten if the encounter is successful. Their date usually lasted three days...each evening fair maiden was ushered to the basement with big muscular tom strutting down behind her with tail held high. My amusement derived from the wraith of a tom cat that crawled up the stairs each morning. Tough assignment apparently.
Years passed, and cats arrived and passed. My bemusement built off my children's attachment to them. But once the youngest child had saddled up, neither Ursula nor I were anxious for another resident. Later while living on a larger country property, we ventured one final interlude with a tabby. It ended badly; as George was smart, so Potter was psychotic. We bid adieu, nary a tear.
* * *
At last we come to Laddie, and a significant demise. Significant because it involved my exposure to personal trauma...and its impact was remorse. Simply put, an eleven year old boy received his first lesson in accountability for his thoughtless bravado.
Laddie's story had begun years earlier when he'd arrived as a pup to replace one I barely remember. And as a farm dog, his role would be to alert us to strangers, chase groundhogs, and help herd livestock. The latter was wishful thinking because my brother and I would spoil him thoroughly and also lacked the knowledge and patience to train him.
He was handsome, gentle and intelligent. And affectionate. And since I was the youngest child and more often available, we were together constantly. Granted he'd be tethered when field work was hazardous...and also in mornings on school days to prevent him following me. Which was dangerous because whereas traffic was sparse on our road, it was much heavier on the concession road at my school. And for farm dogs, chasing vehicles was hard to resist.
I was maybe age eleven on this particular day. Laddie came running up to me when I was partway to school so I didn't trudge back home to tie him up...after all it was for only one day. Came recess. All of us were probably in the little yard that fronted the road...there were never more than fifteen students enrolled over nine grades.
A truck came over the hill. Precocious show-off Stanley yelled, 'sic em' and Laddie took flight. It was over in a flash—he was caught and whirled by the front wheel, then flattened and killed under the rear dual.
The recess bell rang. I shrugged and turned to walk back into class. And my eighth grade classmate, a girl three years older, whispered in tears, 'How can you just walk away?'
* * *