Uncle Larry, My Dad, and the ‘Rooster’
The ‘rooster story’ came to me piecemeal when I was ten years old, riding with Uncle Larry in his 1950 Buick station wagon, known as the “Woodie” because of the wood trim on the side. Some of it came after fishing on the banks of the Dubois Creek near Washington, Missouri, where he showed me how to disengage a hook from a huge alligator gar that had swallowed my hook. Another piece of the story came after an afternoon where I sat perched in the rafters, watching Uncle Larry vaccinate a barn full of squealing hogs below me. It came randomly, along with other stories in his low gruff voice, as he drove us to the next destination. We spent a lot of story time in his “Woodie”, driving to some distant farm to look for loco weed that was making horses crazy, or sometimes just driving back roads looking for a good place to fish. I stayed with Uncle Larry and Aunt Mary for parts of several summers. He had a successful private veterinary practice; but the government recruited him to do research on hoof and mouth disease in Ames, Iowa. Their gain, but my unbearable loss!
Most of the stories came while he was at the wheel of his “Woodie.” Stories about my dad putting on boxing gloves to challenge an older neighbor girl, who promptly decked him. Stories about Larry and my dad trying to raise mink for money, but feral cats ate the newborns. A story about my dad swimming across the Missouri River and back, on a bet; and the two of them picking fights with Standard Oil strikers at the Bloody Mary Bar near the Missouri Bridge, to test their manhood, (always with the engine running on Larry’s car in case they were losing).
With the road hum and the open windows, I probably missed words and key elements of the stories. Added to that, Uncle Larry had difficulty turning his head toward me, with his fused neck vertebra. Then there were the distractions of his two black and white spotted bird dogs, hanging out the back windows, and my searching the passing scenery for a lake or river that might have fish in it.
As teenagers, Larry and my dad skipped school with two girls they were sweet on, so I know there was at least one other girlfriend my dad had before my mother. They went to a popular lake north of Kansas City that had a concrete bottom, and a man-made sand beach. Larry ran to the end of the dock to impress his girl with his dive, and found he had to alter his dive in the act of doing it. There was a small unseen fishing boat tied up at the end of the dock, and instead of a graceful dive, he had to kip, and went straight in vertically, breaking his neck when he hit the concrete bottom of the lake. My dad packed his neck in sand on the beach, and they waited three hours for an ambulance to arrive.
Larry was best man at my father’s wedding, and a pall bearer at his funeral. The rooster story confirms that they had been best friends since childhood. The tale occurred not long after my dad was blown out of the sandbox. If you missed that blog, it was when dad’s older brother Ronald struck a railroad warning torpedo with a hammer. The only permanent injury was to his younger brother Kenny, who lost sight in one eye. When my dad was blown out of the sandbox, he was four. The rooster incident happened when he was five, (in the spring of 1915), probably late spring when Grandpa and Grandma’s garden was beginning to produce leaf lettuce, radishes, and snap peas.
I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that “Uncle Larry” was not related to me in any way, neither by blood, nor marriage. As his stories were told, it seems he spent nearly as much time at my grandparent’s home as my dad and my real uncles. Larry’s own father was a violent drunk and often unemployed, and may God forgive me, if what I remember as a ten year old, sullies a good man’s name!
My grandparent’s garden, back when they were feeding hungry children, was a key factor preventing them from being impoverished characters in a Charles Dickens’s novel. I sat at their kitchen table when I was five or six, 34 years after the "rooster incident", and remember looking out at a small garden patch mixed with weeds. It was probably the same garden spot where the “rooster incident” occurred. I watched grandpa eat peas from that garden, which he had lined up on his table knife, something I had never seen done before. Odd, the things we remember from our childhood.
In 1915, my dad was five years old, Maud and Plinnie, my dad’s parents, had tragically lost four children, but they had four living children to feed: Joy, Ronald, my dad Leonard, Kenny, and you might as well add Larry, since he was there more often than not.
Even though the garden was important, it was not protected by a fence. This is where the villainous rooster enters the story. Said rooster was a trespasser of unknown origin, and made daily rounds of the garden, pillaging the produce and wrecking the garden.
This would not be lost on my dad and Larry, especially when they saw my grandfather repeatedly chase the rooster while hurling vindictive language at him. My grandfather was highly religious, so he abbreviated the most blasphemous epitephs, like “god damn it to hell”, to innocent versions like “Sam Hill.” I heard him say this once when he hit his thumb with the upholstery tack hammer. He might say “horse pucky,” or “fudge berries,” but grandpa would never say something vulgar, or take the lord’s name in vain. Given that, grandpa could get mad as hell at a rooster destroying the garden.
I imagine (filling in between the lines of what Larry told me), that after grandpa went to work, or drove his Model-T to town, Larry and Leonard rounded the clapboard house to take over the duties of protecting the garden from the rooster. This was probably a more frightening task to five year olds, than to someone like Plinnie, whose height distanced him from the rooster’s beak and claws. When attacked, roosters often attack back, and I suspect this one did when Larry and my dad chased it, with the rooster thinking the garden was planted there for him to peck through and destroy.
After several unsuccessful battles with the rooster, Larry and Leonard might have retreated to consider an alternative plan. Their final plans for the rooster didn’t involve humanely hypnotizing it, which I’ve heard can be done.
The final plan would not have been approved by either of my grandparents: Maud must have been busy in the front of the house making a quilt from upholstery samples, and Plinnie must have boarded the trolley for his job in Kansas City at the Wyandotte Furniture Factory.
Somehow Larry and my father caught the rooster, subdued it, and proceeded to pull all of his feathers out, save a few of the longer tail feathers that they left intact, either wearied of the task, or as an artistic flair that proved this plucked bird had once been a fully fledged rooster.
I wish I could go back in time, in the front seat of that “Woodie” wagon and ask for more details like, “How did you and my dad catch him Larry?” “How long did it take to pull all his feathers out? Questions like that. But there were those two bird dogs (I wish I could remember the names of) hanging out the back window, and me wondering if we were going to stop and fish along the way to the next farm; or if Larry was going to stop at a promising field, and let the dogs out to locate and point to a covey of quail. I was continuously distracted.
The real home of that marauding rooster was unknown. He could have come from somewhere over past Pollard’s Pig Farm, or south, across the creek bed where the Drumm Farm was built for orphaned boys a few years after the rooster incident. The neighborhood has changed now, but in 1915, small farms and poorly maintained acreages were scattered around my grandparent’s home. Larry lived nearby in one of those homes with his out of work alcoholic father. The rooster probably came from nearby also, possibly from the home where the good for nothing teenager lived that gave the railroad torpedo to Ronald, suggesting that if he hit it with a hammer, it would make pretty sparks.
The important thing to Larry and Leonard was to inform the owners that he was unwelcome. Very unwelcome! To insure the message was received, they made a small cardboard sign, and printed a message on it that said “If this Roster comes Bak he is DED!” The misspellings are my wild guess, since neither Larry nor my dad had yet to enter a classroom. They tied the sign tightly around the Rooster’s neck, probably with pilfered string from Grandma’s sewing box.
It was in this de-flocked and desecrated condition that the Rooster was released to find his way home. I suspect Larry and my dad could have tracked that Rooster, even with him in his violated condition, running as if his life depended on it. The trouble with that plan is they would be identified as the culprits who plucked the rooster. Another possibility, as I mentioned, is that it belonged to the family with the teenage boy who offered the railroad torpedo to Ronald.
The reason I give this credibility happened a few days later when my dad was at Larry’s home. They were on the porch looking at his dad’s fishing magazines, or thumbing through Larry’s comic books, when two teenage boys showed up looking for them. There must have been some words exchanged, and the volume raised to the point that Larry’s father, ( bull necked, wearing a sleeveless undershirt that showed his huge biceps, rose from the kitchen table where he had been nursing a beer), and came to the door to see what the ruckus was about. The young teenagers skedaddled, but I’m sure Larry and my dad laid low for the remainder of the summer.
That’s the extent of the “Rooster Incident”. I still have questions about details of the story, and if Larry was still with us, and reading this, he might run to fetch his “bullshit grinder”, a clever wooden toy with a crank. He often pulled it out when a farmer or fisherman was telling a whopper.
Post script: Uncle Larry and Aunt Mary never had children of their own. They paid for my sister Sherry’s tuition at Graceland College in Iowa. I’ve heard they paid tuition for seven other students as well.
After Uncle Larry retired from the government work, he came and talked to my biology students at Van Horn, entertaining them with tales from his days as a large animal veterinarian, and wowing them, and me, with his recall of scientific names for plants and animals.
When Uncle Larry was in his seventies, I helped him trim some trees in his backyard. There were at least four traps for feral cats that I could see. He had never forgotten or forgiven
the cats that ate the baby minks that he and my dad had tried to raise for money. It’s a good thing his veterinary practice was for cattle and horses.