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Monday, August 22, 2011

O, Say Can You See (Spiders!)?!

My sister and I, being the only female children in our family (that we knew of anyway), slept together in a double bed. We grew up very poor in the working class town of New Britain, Connecticut  during the "Golden Age" of American life; a time when most people found their lives in a far better state than that of their own parents. It was the early 1960s and 15 or more years had passed since the end of WWII. Baby Boomers were still being born, at least for a few more years. But, my family struggled to make ends meet. So, with 5 kids and only 2 bedrooms to put us in, there was a girls' room and a boys' room.

We were lucky, in that, our bed was big and comfy and we kept one another warm by snuggling all night. It was a good system, for the bitterly cold Connecticut winters were equally cold inside of our home. We didn't have heat.

We children were assigned age and gender-specific jobs, not unusual in that era. As the youngest, my job was to clean the bathroom. It always took me the entire day, every weekend, owing to my procrastinistic nature and ability to be easily distracted by absolutely everything. My sister had several jobs, being older (and quicker) than I. One of them was making our bed and straightening our room. I think I was around 5 years old.

I was cleaning the tub, when I heard my sister let out an audible, "Look, a spider!" I ran to the room, adjacent to the bathroom, only to see what appeared to be an enormous brown, spindly and very quick-moving spider on the bedspread. My sister wasn't afraid of spiders, but she wasn't anxious to touch one, either. She just watched it scamper across the bed. I was shrieking, transfixed, "I'm not ever, EVER going to sleep there again," as if I had numerous options. Our mother raced up the stairs, trying to determine who was bleeding or bruised from all the commotion. Satisfied that neither of us was, she inquired as to why I was carrying on so. "Mommy, there's a spider in my b-bed," I stammered, tears filling my eyes. "Oh,'s probably just a daddy long legs...and it's probably already gone."

Now, as convincing as the sound of her words was, the tone was something else entirely. I never realized till later in life that my Mom was also fearful of spiders. OK, not as much as I am, but still...she wouldn't have sought out the offending arachnid. She merely pooh-poohed my fears in a common-sense sort of way. "Mommy, I will never, EVER sleep in that bed again." She smiled at me and just quietly said, "We’ll see."

When it was time to go to bed that night, I pitched such a fit that my mother was forced to disassemble the bed linens to prove to me that the spider was gone. After that, during my growing up years, there were awful instances of spiders dropping onto my head when I'd play in trees, crawling on me while I lay on the floor to watch TV and just be the endless source of fear-inducing torture treatments for my older brothers to mete upon me. Yes, they thought my arachnophobia was just GREAT!

I recall seeing the "Incredible Shrinking Man" at the movie theatre as a kid. We had 3 theatres in our downtown: The Strand, The Palace and The Embassy. On weekends, usually the Palace and/or the Embassy would show double- or triple-features (for the young among you: that would be 2 or 3 movies in a row, preceded by cartoons and usually graphics of dancing sodas and hot-dogs to inspire your visit to the concession stand). Back then, the cost of a movie ticket was about 25¢. It was the absolute best babysitting deal for kids back then. Our parents knew we were safe for an entire afternoon while they relaxed or did projects. We reveled in the giant screens and ornate theatres of the day, complete with balconies and pay toilets with ultra-violet lights that purportedly 'sterilized' the seat! (Of course, the u-v light was located under the seat, so it was difficult to understand how, in any way, that could actually sterilize the surface). But, it cost an additional 10¢ for the privilege!

During the movie (for those who haven't seen it), a man who was exposed to dangerous chemicals, begins inexplicably shrinking. There is a point at which he becomes so tiny that as he is trying to escape the housecat (who thinks he is a playful treat), he falls down the stairs and into the cellar. In the basement, there is a ginormous, hairy black spider, many times the size of the now quite-shrunken man. He learns to hide from the spider by ducking into a match box, but finally realizes that the spider WILL eat him if he doesn't do something. In a moment of rarified bravery (or foolishness) he finds a hat pin and, when the spider alights atop him, he impales it, spider blood gushing forth. It was the most terrifying and disturbing thing I'd ever seen. I think I might have been 7 years old. From that time forward, I had repetitive night terrors with giant spiders alighting atop my sleeping body. I'd wake up; screaming in terror and sweat dripping down, and the spider would still be there for several seconds, until the hallucination would dissipate. But, I just couldn't even bring myself to tell my mother what was wrong. Even thought I was crazy--surely she would have me committed!

My night terrors continued, literally, into adulthood.

I remember working at the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston while I was a nursing student at the U of Texas in Houston. I'd gotten a job there even before starting the clinical part of nursing school, to help pay my way through. I worked in medical records, which was in the basement of the building. The basement. Just like in the Incredible Shrinking Man!

On Saturdays and in the evenings, I worked late and often was the last person out of the building. I was not afraid of being alone there. I wasn't afraid of anything. Except for spiders! Luckily, I didn't see any. Well, except that one time. I needed to find a chart that we'd sent to Dr. Pranke's office. Because I was alone in the building and it was nighttime, I needed to ride the elevator up to the 4th floor to get it. I pressed the elevator button and, there inside, was a GINORMOUS tarantula! I had never seen one, but just like in the Incredible Shrinking Man, it was hairy and looked very threatening. I didn't know what else to do. I ran back into medical records, grabbed a Houston Yellow Pages (which weighs about 10 lbs!) and tossed it atop the giant spider. Please do not send the ASPCA to arrest me. I was only 18 years old and I was petrified of spiders that were tinier than my baby fingernail. This was traumatic! I shut the elevator door, grabbed my purse and left the building, using the stairs for safe measure. I just couldn't stay, knowing that spider was still lurking dangerously close.

A few years later, early in our marriage and while living in Colorado, my husband would humor me...slaying the dragon, so to speak, even if the spider was an itsy bitsy one. I felt much protected! But, as time marched on, he became a bit less tolerant of my fear of even the most innocuous spiders. He could handle that I didn't want anything to do with the black widows in our cords of firewood and stone piles...less so of the miniscule arachnids who managed to find the part of the ceiling directly above my head, waiting till I climbed into the covers to drop...or worse, suddenly disappear from view, so I wouldn't know where they'd gone, exactly!

Yes, Chuck put up with a lot! Finally, a neighbor clued me in to a WONDERFUL solution. It didn't get rid of spiders altogether, but it was a solution for when they appeared. Get the vacuum out! I started leaving the Electrolux assembled, lying in wait for the next victim. Chuck might be sound asleep at 1:30am, when I'd suddenly see a spider on the ceiling, through my peripheral vision, while reading a book. No problem! I'd get the vacuum and suck the little bastard up! What a great system. Chuck wasn't too thrilled with it, though. And, then, there were the times when, instead of sucking the spider into the vacuum, the vacuum arm knocked it down and into the bed. Then, I'd have to vacuum the bed...otherwise, I couldn't sleep in it! Really.

I ended up realizing it was silly to have a giant vacuum to get rid of spiders. So, I bought myself a Dust-Buster mini vac. It was a perfect size and seemed the best solution. Plus, the model I bought had an extension arm that increased the reach...perfect for those midnight monsters on the ceiling!

I can't tell you how many of the spiders I vacuumed up...but, I can tell you it was a lot! A few months later, when I went to empty the vacuum chamber, sure it would be brimming, it was EMPTY. Yes. Empty! No little spider corpses within. Suddenly I realized that, either I had: 1) a bunch of pissed-off, oft-vacuumed spiders in my house 2) One giant, monstrous specimen had been eating all the spiders in the vacuum and had now escaped...OR...3) I'd been vacuuming up the same spider over and over again! Horrors!

In that same house, we had an honest-to-goodness air raid shelter. And, for those of you too young to know or remember: back in the early 60's, during the cold war with Soviet Union, we had 'air raid drills.' These were designed so that more people would allegedly survive a nuclear attack by those pesky Russians! Most people would go to a designated Air Raid Shelter (usually a school or public building) and gather. However, some people, like the paranoids who'd previously owned our home, just built one into the house. Now, we weren't too worried about a Russian nuclear threat in 1992--we had, I just decided to use it as a room to store wines, the beer that Chuck brewed and the fruits and veggies I'd canned.

The problem was, being dug out of the ground, and with barely any structure, it was mostly a radon-filled spider habitat. Now, this is why I had decided to bear children: my son would gallantly go forth and fetch beer, wine or any canned good I might have stored. I don't believe I ever retrieved anything he didn't grab for me before he left for college in 1996. I left it all there for whoever would move into the house after us. I just couldn't make myself go in there.

In 2004, we left Colorado for Southern California. Both of our kids ended up there, so it seemed like a good plan. We moved to Del Mar, just north of San Diego. Chuck and I would go on daily walks. We marveled at the fact that we could walk in our shorts in October and November, when our friends in Colorado were digging out from early season snows! It was great. Mostly, earlier in the summer and fall, we'd walk along the beach near Torrey Pines. But, as the weather started getting cooler near the ocean, we took it inland and would walk a 3-4 mile stretch near our apartment. It was an area lined in trees and bushes and had lots of gorgeous flowers.

I remember the first time I saw one: a GIANT orb spider that dropped down from a tree we were walking under. I screamed and shoved Chuck out of the way. No, not to protect him. It was my egress route! There was no way I was getting anywhere near that thing! Then I realized, starting around October, they were EVERYWHERE. I don't know if they had previously been too small to notice or what...but, never did I see one till October...They would string webs across the sidewalk and dart back and forth across, hang from trees above and to our sides. I felt like I was under siege. How could Chuck walk KNOWING that they were all about? Was I the only one who saw them?

A year later, we bought a home in Orange County, about an hour north of Del Mar. We had a lovely yard, filled with all sorts of fruit trees: lemons, limes, kumquats, oranges, pears, apples, and figs. In addition, we had roses and all sorts of other flora. I absolutely LOVED our yard. We moved there in June, just in time for the birth of our first grandchild, living in nearby Newport Beach. I now had a new focus that dominated my attention (and digital camera space!). It was glorious to be a grandma.

Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM) was built around a man-made 'lake.' It was really a beautiful spot and there was a concrete path around the lake (about 2 miles around). It was tree-shaded and just lovely. However, as fall approached, when I looked upward at the canopy formed by the branches of the trees, there were the dreaded spider webs and large dangling spiders up above. At first, they weren't particularly large or threatening. However, by October's end, they were humungous and dropped precipitously down from atop their high perches, ostensibly to gather a morsel for storage in their vast webs. I had to start wearing hats, to guard against the dropping arachnids. I wanted to carry a tennis racket, with which to protect myself, but mine was packed in the garage from the move still. I started to wonder if this was why spiders are associated with Halloween...since this seemed to be an October phenomenon? Or maybe it's why autumn is also called 'fall,' because of the falling arachnids?!

I found that I just couldn't make myself do these autumnal 'obstacle courses.' Other walkers and joggers would stare as I'd bat at (what probably looked like) empty airspace, with seizure-like efficiency and grace. As good as walking is for the heart, the terror that spiders inspired in me was likely to be equally bad. I couldn't do it! Instead, I retreated to the solace and quietude of my lovely back yard.

I was sitting on our patio, when I saw something large and yellow moving very quickly in some of the tall border plants to my right about 30 feet away. I got up off of my chair and moved toward the plants, looking intently. Suddenly, I saw the biggest ass spiders I have seen outside of the Houston tarantula experience! These were orb spiders with an attitude! Their bodies were about the size of the palm of my hand, their legs, long and sleek. They had black and yellow markings. They were intent on capturing the Africanized bees that had formed a nest in our back yard. To be honest, I was able to appreciate these particular arachnids...they were smooth and efficient in dispatching the bees, seemingly catching them in mid-flight as they bumped their webs. But, mostly because they were where they belonged : not in my home or above my head in the trees, ready to drop down and terrify. They were far enough from my house to not pose a threat, they were serving a useful purpose (as all spiders do), but they were also quite lovely, in their own way. Their webs were architectural marvels. As long as they stayed there, I could deal.

Then, almost 2 years ago, we ended up moving to Seattle. I'd been quite amazed, my first year, at the fact that there didn't appear to be spiders here. I was elated, in fact. If I had to live in a place with this much rain and coffee, it was nice to know that at least I didn't have to co-exist with spiders! But, I grew to see that it is probably because we bought the model home in our subdivision. It was probably heavily sprayed for the time it was being used. My neighbors say they see some spiders. And, in this second year, while I haven't seen more than an anemic-looking tiny specimen indoors, I have started seeing some small-to-medium-sized orb spiders outdoors on the trees and webs that travel from bushes to raspberry plants. I was doing fine. Until. Until I went to the hardware store to buy some organic plant food. There, on the shelf, someone had misplaced a bag of "Hobo Spider" killer. WTF?!

I went on the internet and did a Hobo Spider search. Holy Moly! This critter is also known as the 'aggressive' house spider. GREAT! Turns out, this is a spider whose forebears hitched a ride on a boat from Asia to the Port of Seattle with cargo, and set up housekeeping, probably mating with some native species. They are large and ugly and evidently have the same skin-sloughing potential as the brown recluse! Lovely!
So, now, every night when I go to bed, I check the wall, I check the ceiling and I think, "Mommy! If I see that spider in my bed, I will NEVER sleep there again!"

© 2009 Ryb Katz. All rights reserved

Big Ass Spider in Rancho Santa Margarita backyardAnother big-ass spider in RSM!

A smaller Renton, Washington spider for comparison.OK...I am NOT sure what is contained within this treetop web on our walk along the Cedar River...but, I'd hate to see the big-assed spider that built it!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Nut Lady...or the Fall of the Acorn

The Nut Lady…or the Fall of the Acorn

I was going thru a tough time in my life, though others have undoubtedly been through worse. As my sister always tells me, ‘your reality is your own.’ Brilliant. My angst is not particularly germane to the story, other than the fact that it was my state of mind that led Ellie to decide that I required some cheering up. I flew from Aspen to Massachusetts to spend some time with my family of birth.

When I arrived in New England, my sister said, “While you are here, I think you and I need to visit the Nut Lady.” I totally love my sister, but I was thinking she might be two slices of bread short of a loaf here. “The Nut Lady?” I asked. “You’ll see,” she replied, somewhat cryptically. Um. Ok. I figured she’d forget before my 3 weeks ended, so I wasn’t all that worried about being tied into a trip to Southern Connecticut where this Nut Woman allegedly set up shop. 

I was enjoying my time with my family, as I always do. My elderly mother and I would cap off every night with a salvo of Scrabble games; sometimes 4 or more per evening. We had a friendly competition going ever since she’d begun teaching me the finer points of the game when I was 10. I suppose that, even then, she knew that she was creating a ready opponent. My Mom, in her prime, was probably the most brilliant human being I’ve ever met to this day. Parts of her mind still hold vestiges of that intellect even today, though she is nearly 85 and her brain has been ravaged by multiple ischemic strokes over the past 26 years. She still can spout off wry witticisms, almost without taking a breath after someone makes a comment to her. 

My Mom and I have the same tendency to relieve tension, boredom and depression through playing solitary games: puzzles, solitaire, etc. For some reason the ‘mindlessness’ of game play seems to alleviate the bulk of the stress. Or perhaps it just tamps it down so that it can be dealt with another day. Sometimes, we would sit for hours and do puzzles or play solitaire parallel to one another. However, Scrabble, and other games of skill and strategy, were always reserved for evenings; honing our minds and psyching eachother out. Rarely did I ever win against my Mother. And, she respected me too much to ever ‘throw’ a game. I knew when I won, I deserved it. 

My Mom had a very difficult life. When I was going through my own hardships, I wouldn’t need to say a word. Somehow, in our silence and the intensity of our play, my problems appeared to minimize and seem almost downright ridiculous. There was just something about being around her that made that happen, even though nothing was ever discussed. Of course, my time in New England was not limited to playing games. I also spent time with my nieces and nephew, visited 2 of my brothers who still lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively and hung out with my best friend since 2nd grade, Debbie Peterson. 

As the time was nearing to wrap up my trip, Ellie started to, once again, remind me that we needed to visit the Nut Lady. I had never heard of her and was not all that excited about visiting her, but if it would make my sister happy (or at least make her stop nagging), I would do it. We scheduled the trip to Lyme, Connecticut, for a Thursday; I was leaving on Saturday. I really had put this off for my entire visit. 

The day started out pretty much like any other. Mom and I had breakfast, I gassed up my rental car and drove over to Ellie’s home to pick her up. Her daughter, Lauren, had decided to come with us, as well. Most of my family now lives in South Central Massachusetts, just over the Connecticut border. Lyme is in Southern Connecticut, right along Long Island Sound. The drive down should take about 1½ hours, we reckoned. 

Ellie is a Type I (Juvenile) Diabetic and very ‘brittle’ in control of her disease. She always has to carry an arsenal of testing supplies, medications and food goods to treat any and all emergencies that could potentially arise on a journey of any length. She doesn’t usually venture too far from home due to the vast considerations of her illness; so, this was an unexpected treat: to be able to sojourn with her to the edges of her earth…or at least, New England! 

We drove, at her instruction, down a freeway on the eastern side of Connecticut, I believe it was the 395, heading south toward our target. It was autumn and the trees were starting to turn. The weather was lovely, sunny and warm further north, but as we got into Southern Connecticut, the skies grew cloudy and gray. We got to Lyme right on schedule and just as the drizzling started. 

“Ok, where is the Nut Lady?” I turned to Ellie and asked. “Well….I don’t exactly know…” came her reply. “I just figured we’d find her when we got here…” she let out a nervous giggle. I was not amused. “You know,” I started, “I could have gotten a TripTik” from AAA, but you said you knew where the Nut Lady was!” “But, I did!” she insisted. “she’s in Lyme.” 

I just growled.

“Why don’t you go to that gas station, Auntie Karen,” interjected my peace-seeking niece. “Over there.” She pointed to an old-fashioned service station down the street, the sort that still had full-service pumps and a garage. I pulled in. It was starting to rain harder. “I’m NOT going in,” I said to clear up any potential doubt. “I am NOT asking anybody where the ‘Nut Lady’ lives.” 

“She has a museum,” said my sister in a small voice. “Oh, alright; I’ll go in,” she said, dejectedly.

Within a few moments, Ellie and 3 attendants were standing outside, pointing down the street. One of the men came up to the driver’s side of the car. “You need to drive down here,” he indicated with a flick of his index finger; his cigarette dangling, mostly turned to ash. “Then turn left and head to the ocean. Drive a short ways to your right and zigzag and you’ll see the sign.” He shook his head and continued: “Man that Lady is nuts, though. She’s like…” and he made the sound of a space ship from the outer limits and twirled his index finger, pointed at the side of his head, in circles. 

Ellie climbed into the passenger seat. As we pulled out of the service station lot, we could see the attendants pointing at our car and laughing. Ellie started laughing, too. A lot. “See! I told you this would be fun!” she said, gleefully.

We followed his instructions exactly. We found the Sound; we zigzagged, but we never saw a sign for any ‘Nut Museum.’ We continued down the street he’d indicated, but only came to a naval launch at an inlet for the Sound. We turned and headed back toward town. “What now?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically. 

I am someone who almost never gets lost in the daytime. I don’t do well with maps or GPS units, but I’m great about committing landmarks to memory. At least, I think that’s how I do it. I started to retrace our steps back to town. I noticed, on the right side of one of the streets we were on, there was a psychiatrist’s office. “Hmmm…” I observed. “Nut Lady.” Surely here, they would have heard of her. I pulled up alongside the house on the quiet, mostly residential street, with the shingle on the lawn. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I got to the door. Maybe it was someone’s home and they just did part-time psychiatry. I wasn’t willing to just bust in there like a…well, nut! I knocked softly. Rat-tat-tat…no answer. I rapped louder. Still no answer. Defeated, I returned to the car. But, not before another car pulled up behind mine. I walked back and indicated to the driver, a middle-aged man, that I wished to ask him a question. He rolled down his window, somewhat cautiously.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where the Nut Museum is?” I implored. (it was really more like plain old asking, but ‘implored’ sounded more pitiful here). He raised one eyebrow, ala Mr Spock, and said, “I may have heard of it, but I don’t know where it is.” He kept glancing at the psychiatrist’s sign, then at me. He looked at his watch like he was late for an appointment. Maybe he was the psychiatrist, I reasoned. But, no, he went up the walkway to the adjacent home and let himself in. Ellie was on the floor laughing at me when I returned to the car. “Did you see the look on his face?” she snorted, and broke into fresh gales of laughter. I took one look at her and started laughing, too. And, Lauren was laughing in the back seat. We’d been gone from Connecticut for nearly 3 hours and were no closer to finding the Nut Lady than when we’d left! 

“I think I saw a fire house just before we turned onto this street, just down from the gas station,” I said. “The firemen would have to know the Nut Lady…” I drove to the clean, new building I’d seen earlier and pulled into the lot. Chuck, my husband, was a volunteer firefighter/EMT for 15 years in Colorado. Firemen knew everything that went on in a town! 

It was raining quite hard, by now. I pulled my jacket up over my head and ran to the side of the building. Locked. I guess Lyme had a volunteer department, too. There was no evidence that there was anyone in the building. No cars. Nothing. I ran back to the car and climbed in. “No luck.” By now, I was becoming intrigued with the idea of meeting this Nut Lady. Certainly, she was not highly regarded by the townsfolk. But, strangely enough, considering the reactions of the locals, she wasn’t trying to be on center stage, either. 

“Where to go…where to go?” I pondered. Now, Lyme is a very pretty, very quaint small New England village. Aside from being the inspiration for the spirochete that bears its name, it appeared that Lyme had a plentitude of museums. It occurred to me that one museum usually fraternizes another. “Let’s go to a museum and ask!” I exclaimed. This had to work!

We quickly sighted an art museum that was both open and appeared to be busy. Ellie and I alit from the car and dashed inside, the rain still coming down in giant, wet globs. Just within, there was a woman sitting at a reception desk that looked more like a lectern. “May I help you?” she asked in VERY loud, nasally voice, all the while snapping her gum, creating a sound that was unpleasant and made me wish to leave. “Uh, yes…” I began, “Do you know where the Nut Lady’s Museum is?” Ellie echoed my words, a beat behind. “The NUT LADY?!!?,” the woman intoned, almost screeching. I felt as though I was in a library with a patron who was violating it’s quietude. I put my index finger to my lips. “Yes, The Nut Museum?” I repeated softly, hoping to model ‘our quiet voice.’ 

Very, VERY loudly and without provocation, she shrieked, “Does ANYONE know where the Nut Lady and her Museum are?!!! Anyone?!” I thought she was yelling at us…but, then, I realized she was asking her co-workers, whom we had not seen, to this point. A small voice, from upstairs, quietly responded, “I do.” The receptionist gestured us upstairs, tilting her head toward the staircase.

Ellie and I, red-faced, climbed up the stairs, only to find a petite, soft-spoken woman in an office. “I just took some friends there a few weeks ago. She’ll be closing any day for the season. She may already be closed, in fact. But, I can direct you right to her door.” Surely we hadn’t come all this way, only to discover she had closed for the season. We resolved to at least find her.

As it happens, she gave us the identical directions as the gas station attendants, with one important difference: the sign for the nut museum, she told us, was very, very small. We might overlook it, unless we knew just where to look. Her directions were impeccable. We thanked her profusely and left.

We drove back up the residential street where the yellow house stood that was also a psychiatrist’s office. The gentleman’s car was still parked in front of the adjacent house. I waved as I drove past, though he wasn’t in his car. “We’re going to the Nut Lady Museum,” I called out my open window. 

It occurred to me, just then, that I didn’t even know the story as to how Ellie had come up with this hare-brained scheme, so I asked her. She told me she’d recently read an article about The Nut Lady in Good Housekeeping Magazine. The article jogged her memory, for she recalled having seen her on Johnny Carson. She said she was very funny and just the thing for us. We drove up the zigzag street where the museum allegedly was housed. The homes here were far larger. THERE! On the Right. There was a sign no bigger than a corner street sign, hand-written and low to the ground. ‘Nut Museum’ was all it said. I turned the car into what appeared to be an alleyway. We drove just a short distance on this paved, narrow road, before coming to a very strange array of sculptures, all made of sheet metal. Behind the sculptures was a large home; a mansion, really. It was in a state of disrepair, but it clearly was the Nut Museum. We pulled up alongside the sculptures. 

Noticing the time on the dashboard clock, I realized it was now almost noon and I began to worry about Ellie. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Her diabetes is very unstable. “Now that we know where she is, should we go get some lunch and then come back?” I asked. “No way. We’re here now. I brought some instant breakfast. I’ll just drink that and I’ll be fine till after we do the museum. How long can it take, anyway?! We’ll be done in no time and go to lunch after.” So, we sat in the driveway, motor running, as Ellie pulled out her jar of chocolate instant breakfast and started to sip. 

I’m not sure what prompted me to do it, maybe just the residual silliness from this mornings’ events…but, I remembered that when we were little kids, if I was drinking something, Ellie would say to me, “I hope you don’t laugh and that drink comes out of your nose!” So, for some reason, I looked at her and said this and started laughing. Ellie started laughing, choking and snorting and the chocolate worked it’s way out of her nose and all over the windshield, glove compartment and her seat. We all started laughing, hysterical at the sight. The chocolate had spewed EVERYWHERE: the dashboard, windshield, cup holder. It really was funny. I would probably have to pay a clean-up fee for the rental car, but I didn’t care. However, in the midst of my laughter, my boobs pressed against the horn of the car. That was when we met Elizabeth Tashjian, the Nut Lady. She thought, in beeping the horn, we were summoning her. She came out on the great porch of her mansion. We exited the car and approached her, a tad cautiously. 

“Is the museum open?” I queried. “Oh, yes,” came her reply. But, they DID tell you there was a charge for admission, didn’t they?” I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were, but I nodded my head. “Yes, I brought money.”

“That’ll be $2.00 each plus a nut per person.” She said in all seriousness. I cocked my head to the side as I looked straight into her eyes. A nut? She smiled and indicated a squirrel that was attached to the exterior wall of her home, just to the right of the door. She lifted it’s brass tail. The ‘entry nut’ was to go into a round slot in the squirrel’s ass and drop into a repository below. I couldn’t take my eyes off the squirrel or it’s ass. “Of course,” she winked, “if you don’t have a nut of your own, I DO have ‘loaners.’ This was when I knew that I would absolutely love the Nut Lady. Lauren, my niece, jabbed me in the side as she brushed past me. 

“I wasn’t expecting any visitors to the Museum today. I don’t get many at this time of the year, now that school is back in session, during the week. I close the Museum this Saturday for the season.” Elizabeth ushered us into the great foyer of her home/museum. The phone rang. “Will you please excuse me? It’s been ringing a lot lately.” “Of course,” we assured her. 

We started to glance around. Ellie’s attention was captured by the crown moulding in the foyer. I caught her glance and followed what she was staring at. “Look,” Ellie observed. “This is what she grew up with. No wonder she honors the nut.” The moulding had bas relief sculptures of acorns. And, there were acorns worked into the domed ceiling, as well. 

The mansion had to be well over 150-200 years old. It looked as though it hadn’t been attended to in almost that many years. The walls had dents with plaster and wood showing below. In places where there was wallpaper, some of it was torn or pulled away from the wall. There were stains on the painted sections. But, through all that, you could see the grandeur of what once was. There was a beautiful staircase leading to a second level. This was cordoned off and not available to view. To our left, we could see a display room and caught glimpses of nuts, large and small. Some were adorned, some plain. 

Articles from various magazines were posted on a wall in front of us. We edged closer to read. There were photos of Elizabeth with Johnny Carson on two of the magazines; younger, yes, but no less spirited in her mien. I suddenly realized that Lauren hadn’t followed us over to the magazines, but was standing in the foyer still, listening to Elizabeth on the phone. “Well, I’m not sure…yes. Yes, of course I would like to. May I think about it and let you know? Alright. I will call you back. Yes. Goodbye then.” She stirred a bit in the other room and came out, holding a large piece of material in her hand which she deftly smoothed out and put on over her clothing. It could best be described as something between a caftan and what a seer would wear when doing tarot readings. It definitely added to the eeriness of the setting! 

“That was the BBC. They want me to fly to Australia to do a talk show, but they never want to pay me enough. Johnny said to me, I’m going to make sure you get your AFTRA (union) card so that you will at least always be paid minimum! But, that’s only in the US. Now then…I see th…” she began. “Excuse me for overhearing your conversation,” Lauren interrupted. “But, do you have someone to represent you to the media? It’s clear to me that you have something they want. You have a lot to maintain here and that can’t be inexpensive for you to do. Plus, there are a lot of costs associated with traveling. An agent would negotiate all that for you. If I was you, I would tell them you are worth MORE than that. Your time ALONE is worth much more, and you want to be paid what you are worth!” The phone rang. “Excuse me,” Elizabeth said, apologetically.

“You know,” we over heard her speaking. “I have something you want. And, I have a lot of expenses maintaining my museum and no one to tend to it when I am away. I have my AFTRA card in the US and so I am paid at least minimums here, plus travel arrangements in the highest class. Maybe I should have my agent speak to…what? Ok…that would be fine. December 18th? Ok. Thanks. Yes, alright. I will wait to hear back from the scheduling desk. Goodbye.” 

Elizabeth returned to the room, beaming. She looked at Lauren and said, “I told them just what you said, and you were absolutely right! They are giving me everything I asked for, plus a first class ticket to Sydney! Say…will YOU be my agent?” It was the sort of question that had you wondering if Elizabeth was dead serious in asking, or if she was being facetious. Lauren laughed nervously, unsure. “Oh, I don’t think you’d want ME to do that,” she said softly. “Oh, but I DO!” came Elizabeth’s reply. “Well, I’ll have to think about it.” Lauren responded, a little sadly. We’d only known the Nut Lady for about 10 minutes.

Elizabeth sashayed, her satiny gown flowing behind her, into the main room of the museum, to the left of the entry of the mansion. “I see you were looking at my articles. Johnny changed my life. I loved him for that. He ‘got’ my humor. A lot of people think I’m crazy. But, I’m not! I’m eccentric and there’s a difference. Eccentric is bright and off-beat. Crazy is…well, crazy! I’m eccentric and I love being this way. I call myself a Nut Evangelist! There is no one but me singing the praises of the lowly nut. In fact, I’ve written a few songs about them.” She dashed past us and grabbed some giant, placards with musical notes and scales painted on them. “Would you like to hear me sing? Johnny paid me $10,000 to sing this, but I will sing to you for free!” Without so much as a nod from us, she launched into a heartfelt rendition of ‘Nuts To Youuuuuuuuuuu’ which stirred us to the core (and, truth be told, we had trouble not laughing out loud—and when she saw this, she gave us permission to laugh, because after all, it was funny!). If it ‘translates’ to this blog, here is Elizabeth, singing her own song,  "Nuts Are Beautiful"  :

Keep in mind that the ‘exhibit hall’ that we were in was perhaps the size of an average parlor or living room, maybe slightly larger. It took us 1-½ hours to go through the ‘exhibits,’ each with an explanation, a song or a memory of how they came to be in her possession, including the largest nut in the world, which I believe was a betel nut. The phone rang yet again. Elizabeth left us and indicated that we could go to the other ‘hall’ in the room that was to the right of the foyer. We made our way in there as she spoke with someone from a US network. She was definitely in demand.

In this second and larger ‘hall,’ we noticed that there were fewer small nut items and more of Elizabeth’s sculpture and paintings. We glanced around the room and noticed that, at the far end, there was a piano with a transparent tray of pastries atop. “Oh, my gosh. She is going to try and feed us afterward,” I said to Ellie! We broke into fresh gales of laughter. We pretty much had not stopped laughing since coming to Lyme. 

Elizabeth had come back into the room. Here she showed us masks made from nut husks and explained that her love of nuts was lifelong. She was born into an artistic family and her grandmother encouraged all her right-brained activities, including music and art. She started out as a fine artist in her earlier years and still enjoyed sculpting from sheet metal and painting. Many of her paintings, some quite lovely, graced the walls. She said she’d gone through a ‘nut evolution’ late in life. In her inimitable way, Elizabeth then proceeded to tell us her theory on nuts: “"Nuts have a heart. Hard and prickly sometimes on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. That's my philosophy." 
She caught Ellie staring at a strange-looking metal sculpture. “Oh, dear!” I made that one just for Johnny! He thought it was my best,” she exclaimed. “And, it’s anatomically correct, as he pointed out.” There stood a large amorphous stick figure carved from sheet metal. Between it’s legs dangled 2 chestnuts. “Nuts to youuuuuuuuuu,” Lauren sang softly. Elizabeth was priceless!

“Well, you can mill around this room some, but really, that concludes the tour of the Nut Museum.” We were now just over 2-½ hours in. Elizabeth walked to the end of the room and said, “I just baked some muffins. Would you care for any?” Caught off-guard, Ellie hesitated. I looked at Elizabeth and quickly said, “No thanks…we really need to go now.” She shrugged a shoulder toward Ellie and replied, “Well, SHE was going to say ‘yes’ before you said that!” She had me there! I went on to explain Ellie’s diabetes and that she would have eaten out of politeness, but that I needed to get her to a restaurant for a real meal. 

“Oh, ok.” Elizabeth seemed a little defeated. She reminded me a lot of Ruth Gordon, I decided. “But, I need to get a few things from the store and I no longer have a car. Can you drop me off at the Stop and Shop? It’s not very far…” I started to assure her we could, but Ellie broke in quickly, “You know, we’d be really happy to pick whatever you need up for you.” “Would you? You are so kind. Just a moment. I need to get something,” Elizabeth said. With that, she hurriedly left the room, removing her caftan as she floated. She did NOT move like a woman who had to be in her mid 80s, I mused. 

The moment she was out of sight, I looked at my sister. “Why did you say that, El?” I asked, my voice serious. “Because, if it took 2-½ hours for her to take us through her museum, how long do you think it will take for her to shop? And we can’t just leave her there! How would she get home?” I couldn’t really argue with that logic. There were maybe 15-20 minutes worth of exhibits at the Nut Museum. Had it not been for the entertainment portion of the program, we’d have been long gone.

Elizabeth reappeared, coupons in hand. “Would you like me to write this down for you?” I shook my head. The three of us would remember the few items she needed. “Ok,” she began, “they’re having a sale on this ice cream, Chocolate Royale. I love my ice cream. And, D’Angou pears, too. I really like them. Could you get a few?” We all nodded in assent. “Oh, and, I almost forgot. Some liverwurst. And, if you see any…” I looked over at Ellie and she was rolling her eyes in an ‘I told you so’ fashion. The list continued. And continued. Then Elizabeth handed us $100 in cash. “I hope this will be enough.” “I’m sure it will. We’ll be back very soon with your groceries and change,” Ellie said, rubbing Elizabeth’s shoulder with her palm. 

We returned to the car and, the minute I opened the door and saw the chocolate Instant Breakfast spewed all about, it brought to mind what an insanely strange day this had already been; and we weren’t even nearly done yet! We all climbed in. 

“Oh, Auntie Karen,” Lauren started. “she hadn’t known me for 10 minutes before asking me to be her agent. And she gave us $100 in cash. How does she know that we won’t just keep driving and pocket her money? Someone needs to protect her.” Lauren brought a moment of clarity to the situation. Yes, it would be easy to take advantage of someone so trusting. And, it makes you wonder how many have? We continued on to the Stop and Shop, a mile or so away from Elizabeth’s house.

Walking inside, we realized that Elizabeth’s ‘list’ contained enough items that we would need a grocery cart. I looked over at Ellie and said, “I can’t believe we are grocery shopping for The Nut Lady!” We split up and divvied the list to shop more efficiently and were done and back at her home in less than one-half hour. 

Elizabeth looked very pleased to see us (and her ice cream!). She offered us the change from her $100, about $65. We refused. Really. The pleasure was all ours. I went from being cranky and depressed to having one of the best experiences of my life. And, despite my account, there IS no way to adequately describe Elizabeth, her Museum OR the amazing adventure we three had on that one October day in 1998. It’s been 11 years and we still talk and laugh about it as though it was yesterday. And, other family members, who’d chosen not to or weren’t able to go have rued that decision ever since. 

Sadly, Elizabeth died, I read, in 2007 at the ripe age of 94. A few years before, she’d been forced into a skilled nursing facility in nearby Old Saybrook where she lived out her last years, undoubtedly singing to the staff all the way to the end. 

“Nuts to youuuuu,” Elizabeth; Godspeed to you.

Elizabeth Tashjian is featured on the “Best of Carson” available on DVD. The segments included were all hand-selected by Carson as some of his favorite moments on his shows over the years. Elizabeth Tashjian's Website

© 2009, Ryb Katz, all rights reserved

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Whacking the Rooster and Other Lessons in Life

At some juncture during my 26 year tenure in Colorado, I’d managed to embrace a sort of ‘mountain-chic’ (maybe minus the ‘chic’ or plus a 'chick!') lifestyle that I hadn’t previously known or even acknowledged existed. Yes, I was a city girl, but my hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, could be more precisely referred to as a ‘mid-sized’ city of 75,000 souls; and, both my parents grew up on farms. Ergo, my reasoning had me to earnestly believe that I was channeling my inner Martha Stewart or perhaps Amos McCoy. 

In either case, when Chuck and I decided to buy a home on ¼ acre lot in the dead center of Carbondale, Colorado (population, at that time: 2500), I was thrilled. I would now be able to have the vegetable/flower garden of which I’d previously only dreamt. OK…truth be told, I never had really ‘dreamt’ of having a ginormous garden; I was just trying to build the intensity of the prose here; but, I had previously owned a flower box, and that’s almost the same thing.

Once we moved into our new home, I recognized the potential for other farm-like routines, like maybe growing animals; perhaps chickens! 

My neighbor, Kate, also a nurse, who’d likewise longed to raise fowl, suggested we go in cahoots on this one. While she’d grown up with chickens, she’d really only cared for them peripherally, so didn’t have much more of an idea of just how to raise them than I did. So, the two of us went to our neighborhood Rancher’s Co-op and searched for books and tools for raising chickens. Now all we needed were some hens and we’d be in business…well, not exactly, but we’d have somewhat of a head start in our quest to be chicken-mistresses in this jaded world. 

My kids went to a private, laid-back school in Aspen, Colorado. The Aspen Community School, now a charter school, is located on one of the most beautiful 40-ish acres on this earth, across the street from the late and notorious Hunter S. Thompson's home in a lazy village called Woody Creek. The school was built on property owned by a man who helped to start the school and who became it’s director, George Stranahan. George also owned more property, further up Woody Creek Rd with a working Ranch, the Flying Dog (as in the micro-brew company he also owned). George is a wonderful and philanthropic man. He and his wife, Patti, have a great spread and some fantastic people working it. The Flying Dog was known for exploring cattle genetics. George has his PhD in physics and is the definition of "Renaissance Man." 

That’s all well and good, you’re thinking, but this all seems non-sequitur to procuring and raising chickens! But, it IS related, in a sort of 6-degrees-of-raising-chickens kind of way. Annie Steindler, along with then-husband Jesse, worked George’s ranch; Annie raised chickens for the Flying Dog. Kate had recently been talking with Annie’s sister, Jillene,  who happened to live in Carbondale, just down the road from us, and learned that Annie culled her stock annually. She’d get rid of those that weren’t earning their keep and keep the rest in the flock. Annie, then, was our gal! We contacted her and she agreed to let us have some of her older chickens, just to get us started. In the meantime, Randy, Kate’s husband, built us nesting boxes and we cleaned up a little outbuilding on my property, which would become the chicken coop. We were nearly in business! T-14 days and counting, as Annie said that’s when she’d be ready.

Two weeks hence, Annie called to say that she was ready for us to pick up the hens. Kate and I made the 25 mile trip up to the ranch, where we got to see the elaborate set-up these hens currently had. They had ramps and heat and multi-level nesting boxes. There was a separation space, keeping the older hens from the newly hatched chicks. It was a sight to behold and something to which we would aspire. 

Annie took us into the enclosure. Gasping in awe, I watched as Annie picked up each hen and poked a finger into it’s…um…tail end. Now, I’m a nurse, and I’ve never done this sort of thing to any of my patients on first meeting. I looked at Annie questioningly. “I am checking to see if they are still laying eggs. No point in you taking them if they aren’t producing,” she informed us. I tried to close my mouth and not appear the rube. Oh, wait. I WANTED to appear the rube. Never mind. I closed my mouth and tried not to appear the city-slicker that I was. “Ah…I thought that was what you might be doing,” I replied, trying to seem cool with it all. I don’t really think she was buying. That Annie is a smart gal. 

We’d laid newspapers down in the rear of Chuck’s new Jeep Grand Cherokee and brought some laundry baskets to help contain the hens by placing them upside-down over groups of the ladies. In spite of all the clucking in the rear, and a really 'fowl' stench, which I hoped would dissipate before Chuck discovered what I’d done with his Jeep (I didn’t tell him why I needed it), I was over-the-moon with excitement about being a chicken maven; a hen  mother, of sorts! Oh joy, rapture! This was going to be good. 

Now, it never really occurred to me that the newspapers could separate; nor that hens are very ‘efficient’ animals, when it comes to elimination. Yes, as it happens, they don’t ‘hold it’ until it is convenient for you. They kind of just go when the spirit moves them. Or, at least when their bowels  move them. When we opened the rear of the Jeep, the White Leghorns appeared somewhat ‘tarnished.’ Worse yet, there was chicken pooh all over the carpeted rear of Chuck’s Jeep where the newspapers parted like the Red Sea. Holy Moses! I could be in trouble. And, when we removed the laundry baskets, the hens BOLTED at top speed out the back of the Jeep, without regard to the fact that they were not in an enclosed area of my yard. In fact, they were in an alleyway behind my house that led to the street in either direction. Uh oh. Kate ran and got a giant fishing net. Now, what this was supposed to do, I have no idea, but at least the hens seemed to be afraid of it. Somehow, we managed to herd them all into the coop area. They were clearly traumatized by the drive and all the commotion, as well as the new digs. A third neighbor, Karyn Culver-Zaremba , who was into all sorts of herbal treatments and now owns Herbal Simplicity,  ran into the house, grabbing a vial of Arnica, which she said would relieve their stress from the events of the day. These were destined to be New Age hens! They all filed into the henhouse and appeared to want to sleep it off. 

I returned to the Jeep, gasping at the sight. Not only was there pooh strewn about, but there were eggs, whole and broken back there. I knew I had to tackle the situation immediately. I cleaned up the laundry baskets and crinkled up the newspapers, tossing them into my compost heap (the newspapers, not the laundry baskets) and then quickly drove my car to our local auto wash and detail. These men are professionals, I reasoned, and could easily get out the stains and odors. Success! 

Back home, I returned to the coop to admire my new chickens. They were just beautiful. I was already finding eggs in their nests. Kate and I agreed to name them all “Henrietta.” Life was good. 

Flash forward a few years to the mid-1990s. By now, chicken farming was a finely oiled machine. Kate and I not only still had some of our original flock, which had outlived all expectations, but many were still making eggs. Neither of us had the heart to ‘off’ our pet hens, so we just let them live out their natural lives. However, nearly every year, we were adding to their ranks in order to rotate our stock and have hens of many different age groups. We would order through a place in Iowa called Murray McMurray . MM not only was a great place to make efficient orders, but they had unusual varieties of hens, which appealed to both Kate and me. While the White Leghorns we started with were reliable layers, they were rather boring to look at and just laid plain old white eggs. We wanted some interest and variety. We started ordering all sorts of off-breeds that were interesting and fun. Like Polish chickens. That’s right. DzieƄ dobry!! And, Phoenix Chickens, Butterscotch, Banties, Silkies, Auracanas, etc.; we were in chicken heaven. Their eggs looked like they were already dyed for Easter: blues, greens, speckled, every shade of brown and tan. 

However, the downside to ordering these spectacularly colorful and productive hens was that Murray McMurray couldn’t sex them accurately. In other words, they couldn’t guarantee that we’d just end up with hens. This was just fine with Kate and I. We LOVED the beautiful and colorful roosters that were produced. Problem was, Chuck didn’t. In fact, he was quite irritated by them. To be honest, and though he'd never admit to it,  I don’t even think that he, himself, was as irritated as he feared our neighbors would be. 

It would all start so innocuously…a raspy little ‘cough’ would begin the process. Gradually, the cough would become a hoarse bark and eventually work it’s way up to a full-fledged and proud crow. Said crowing would have been just fine, if it had been limited to a once-a-day…maybe even twice-a-day event. Unfortunately, it would go on all day, from first light till last. And, if there was more than one rooster in the henhouse, it could get pretty loud. That was why, when I ordered 24 chicks one year and 8 of them were roosters, I knew something had to be done. Ok…I would have let it go, but even I had to admit that the cock-a-doodles were dooming our roosters. 

Kate and I had a friend who was a veterinarian in town. “Dave, we were wondering if you would be able to de-crow our roosters? Can you remove their vocal cords?” we asked. Sincerely. We LOVED our roosters. De-crowing them made perfect sense. Dave looked at us and laughed out loud. “Um. NO!” He then explained that it was not a practical solution to our problem and in and of itself, the procedure, which wasn't taught in veterinary (or any other school) would probably kill the roosters. Back to ground zero. 

Our neighbors Keith and Evalyn, were elderly. Keith had been a coal miner and suffered from emphysema. He lived on oxygen which he wheeled around with him in a large green tank. Keith could barely walk 10 feet without needing to take a rest; but if I asked him to kill a rooster, he would be at my coop with his axe in about 2 seconds flat. He was amazing! Evalyn would boil up a pot of water while Keith prepared his axe. Because these weren’t spring chickens (and neither were Keith and Evalyn), they would be tough to eat (plus, I free-ranged them…they were pretty skinny), but Evalyn would can them for use in stews and such. I let Keith know that there was a job to be done. 8 roosters. Keith was excited at the prospect, but said he couldn’t do it at that time and would get to it ‘one of these days.’ The downside was that Keith's lack of strength and agility meant it was a "Lizzie Borden" mission, eg; about 40 whacks to do the trick. But, I reasoned, it gave him something to look forward to.

Now, a while before I’d had specific roosters to kill off, I’d told Keith that another friend, Carol Craven, had specifically asked me to save her some chicken feet, as she’d heard they were good in soup. I asked Keith, whenever he did kill them off, if he could save the feet for Carol. 

A few weeks later, Chuck and I took our kids to the nearest shopping community: Grand Junction, Colorado, about 100 miles away. We’d go there to do major shopping several times a year and it was nearly time for the school year to begin. We’d leave for Junction in the early morning, shop and return that evening. This trip was no exception.

Exhausted, we got home from Grand Junction, kids ambling into the house as we, laden with bags from Mervyn’s and Target slowly began to make our way out of the car. Suddenly, we heard a blood-curdling scream from within the house. We quickly dropped the bags in the driveway and ran inside, only to find the refrigerator door pitched wide open and Cheryl agape, pointing at the bloody contents of several gallon-sized zip lock bags! “It’s our chickens, isn’t it?” she shrieked, shaking, then ran sobbing to her room. I looked at the bags, puzzled at first, until I recognized a reedy-thin leg with feet on it. This was the beginning of Cheryl’s conversion to vegetarianism. She’s never eaten chicken since. 

Yes, Keith was a reliable resource whenever we got into a bind with roosters. And, because we couldn’t have our roosters and eat them, too, he and Evalyn would take care of both issues. He was always ready with his trusty axe, until his strength and stamina left him a few years later and his lungs eventually failed him. Keith was a good man.

We actually had several ‘chick-adents’ in those years. Our hens had become our pets and it was very difficult to see things, natural or otherwise, happen to shrink their ranks. On one occasion, 2 huskies, escaped from their own home, jumped our fence and killed about 9 of our hens in less than 5 minutes. They weren’t interested in eating them, it was strictly an instinctive kill. As soon as they were done, they laid down and panted, begging to be petted. They were beautiful dogs and it really wasn’t their fault. Turned out they belonged to a tenant of a property that Chuck managed. It also turned out that the tenant wasn’t permitted to have animals; she was served notice to vacate. She also was required to appear in court and had to pay a hefty fine. In ranching country, killing livestock is taken very seriously. The responding policeman even offered Chuck his gun to shoot the dogs, a permitted action in this case. But, of course, we wouldn’t have done that. The owner deserved to be shot more than the dogs. 

On another occasion, a fire broke out in the chicken coop. We were awakened by the sound of sirens, embarrassing since Chuck was on the volunteer fire department and ambulance service in those days. He knew he would take a ration of teasing over his own chicken coop going up in flames. They were able to actually save the coop and most of the hens. But, we did lose a few. I was sad that no one was willing to do mouth-to-beak. Whatever. I would have, but, that’s me. They were my friends. 

There was a second dog incident, after which Kate and I put up a 7 foot enclosure of chicken wire around the coop area and quit letting them free range in the yard. Up to that point, I was keeping about 40-60 chickens and up to 6 ducks. I was only really allowed to have maybe 6 chickens, but I did have the big yard, so the space was fine for keeping so many. That and Evalyn was the police chief’s mom, and I gave her all the free eggs she wanted. I didn’t really think I’d get busted when there was more serious crime afoot, like stolen bicycles and all. Nope. I felt fairly bullet-proof. 

Somewhere in or around the new millennium, after Keith had died, I ordered some more hens. By now, Kate had her own coop in her back yard and we each had maybe 17 hens. Kate took a few of the new crop of 24 chicks and I took the rest. I had more space and could accommodate more hens than she could. In terms of eggs, my personal favorite hens were Auracanas. They produced blue-green eggs that are naturally lower in cholesterol and just beautiful to look at. Plus, the hens, an exotic South American breed, are wonderful setters. They are also very mellow and not ‘broody.’ However, for fun and beauty, my favorite chickens are the Polish varieties. They kind of look like Tina Turner with a giant Afro. And, they come in all sorts of colors. The males are especially proud-looking and have gorgeous feathers. They are one of the breeds that Murray McMurray cannot sex. But, I decided to take a risk and order a some in my batch of chicks. 

Of course, I managed to get ALL roosters from this batch of Polish chicks. I had a fantasy, ongoing from previous years, assuring  me that no one would notice the roosters inthe coop....of course, no one did--till they started their crowing business. Sadly, Keith was gone. But when I mentioned the situation to my friend, Ginny, she knew just what to do. Ginny grew up in West Virginia and was used to such things, I reckoned. When she arrived at my home, she wasn't quite wearing camouflage and a headband, but she did come with rope and a plan. My assignment was to run through the yard and capture the roosters, she'd do the rest. Ginny dispatched the roosters quietly and efficiently and hung their lifeless little carcasses on the side of my barn to let the blood. There were about 9 of them in this assemblage and Ginny said that there wasn't enough meat among the entire group to feed her family of 3! Ginny was soooo matter-of-fact about it all. It was as though she didn't realize that chickens came from the grocery store nicely wrapped in cellophane, or something! I was excited, knowing that I had my ace-in-the-hole should I end up with more roosters in the future. 

However, by a year or two later when I made my next order, Ginny had left the area. Again, I ordered 6 Polish poults and just my luck: one of the chicks was NOT a chick…but a rooster. What to do?

My husband, Chuck, by now in law school and studying furiously at home whenever he wasn’t in his real estate office, was extremely annoyed and hypersensitive to the cockcrow. This little fella managed to have a VERY loud croaking voice, almost right from the get-go. And, he was the only rooster in the bunch, so he was one happy boy with a big smile on his beak, if you know what I mean. Starting in early spring, Chuck was on me about the rooster. “Get rid of it.” was his mantra. I, of course, made light of the situation, though I was trying to proactively find some housing for the little guy. I put up a notice at the Co-op, I checked with other chicken-keepers--even with the vet tech school at the local college--all to no avail. Evidently, that year there was a bumper crop of roosters. No one was willing to take even one more. 

Chuck was becoming more annoyed with me. “Get rid of the rooster!” he would bark. Still, I was managing to keep things light and misdirect him so that he wouldn’t focus on it 24/7. Meanwhile, I took a trip to the east coast to visit my family. While I was there, staying at my Mom’s (who had a Mother-in-Law apartment in my brother and sister-in-law’s home), I went upstairs to visit my brother. Ken had been laid up with a leg injury. I sat on a couch across from him; his leg was propped up and in a brace. He was telling me about his injury and, though I was listening, I was distracted by a documentary he was watching on HBO that I noticed via my peripheral vision. The movie detailed the life of a very impoverished family living a survivalist existence in either the Appalachian or Smokey Mountains. What really caught my eye as I was speaking with Ken, though, was when the woman they were filming, in a seemingly unconscious move, grabbed a chicken and effortlessly wrung it’s neck, then plucked it and cooked it for dinner. A plot was hatched, in my mind, as I knew that, if I ended up having to ‘off’ my rooster, I could maybe benefit from having seen this demonstration on the art of rooster-whacking. 

Time passed, but Chuck’s wrath was growing. I was still hoping for miracles, where the rooster was concerned. Maybe if I did some rooster-whispering, it would stop its wily ways? Or maybe it would be taken out by spontaneous combustion? Perhaps a well-aimed lightening strike? Dang. None of this was to happen. By the beginning of August, I could see that Chuck was becoming more agitated. I only rarely heard the rooster crow, but Chuck could hear it BREATHE! One day, on his lunch hour, Chuck came home to eat. He was already on a tear about some issue at work. However, with the windows wide open, the crowing rooster resonated loudly in the living room. Suddenly, the rooster became the focus of Chuck's atrocious day. He made a bee-line for the shed, rooting around for an axe. “Oh, just stop!” I relented. “I will take care of it.” He stormed out of the house, slamming the door for effect. I tried to bolster myself for the task ahead. 

At about 2 pm, I went out to the chicken coop which was located under an ancient Colorado Blue Spruce. Really, that tree kept what I was about to do from reaching the eyes of the general public; this was probably a good thing. 

Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned about this particular rooster is that he, being the king of the coop, felt entitlement. While he may have looked like Tina, he acted more like Ike. He had giant spurs on his legs and he didn’t hesitate to use them. Scrawny though he was, Henry would kick you with his spurs and you would most definitely feel the pain on bare shins. The minute I walked into the chicken yard, he charged and spurred me, as though he knew what I was about to do. 

My chickens were tame and, though they didn’t love being held, most of them would at least let me get close. Not Henry. Not on this day. He saw me coming and took off. I spent at least 20 minutes running around the coop and chicken yard, trying to catch him (and half-hoping I wouldn’t). When I finally did, I was totally out of breath and sat down on a stump with Henry on my lap. I just looked at him and giant tears rolled down my eyes. Even though he was the goofiest-looking thing you’ve ever seen, had just spurred the heck out of my shin and he was twitching as though he was having a seizure in that nervous way that chickens do, I just adored him. “I am so, so sorry. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” Henry cocked his head to the side, as though he was trying to figure it out, too. 

I stood up and cupped my right hand around his neck and used my left to hold his legs together, to keep him from getting away. He fluttered his wings and blinked a lot. “Oh f***ing shit, damn it all! I am so sorry!” I probably said more of the ‘f’ word. In fact, I think I said it the entire time, in one looooong syllable, during the wringing ceremony. With that, I dropped my left hand off of Henry’s feet, the weight of his body lengthening his neck in my right hand. “F**K!” I screamed as I whirled and twirled poor Henry to kingdom come. Horrified, after about 25 twists, I dropped his body to the ground and broke into a fresh stream of tears. I had spent my life as a HEALER; A HEALER, I tell you. And, here I was, wresting the life of a helpless fowl. 

There he lay, prostrate and dead, on the ground. The chickens in the coop cautiously came out, sort of like the Munchkins after Dorothy’s house dropped, and they edged progressively closer to poor Henry, curious. Henry’s neck was preternaturally elongated. One brave hen came up and gave him a peck. In the eeriest move possible, Henry suddenly jerked upright. His neck wasn’t right. It was very long and a bit wobbly, but there was Henry, up and running away. Fast. Oh shitty shit! How could that be? Now, I had to run after him. I got up, my mind reeling at the fact that I had done everything the woman on HBO had, but now I have a long-necked rooster who is REALLY pissed off at me and walks funny, to boot. I went after him. Though he appeared stunned, he was really quite fast. It took a bit to catch up to him, but I finally did. 

All I could think of was, now I really,really need to be effective. I don’t want Henry to suffer. More, that is. I grabbed him and with the same sort of swearitude as before, I began with vituperation and and a string of expletives. I wrung Henry for all he was worth. In fact, I think I could have won a wringing contest. I tossed his lifeless body to the ground, only to watch him, once again stunned and now bleeding slightly from the beak, stand up defiantly. It was Rocky vs. Apollo. It was David vs. Goliath. It was me vs. Henry. 

Now, if I’d been thinking straight, I would have realized that I had probably done in the little bastard’s vocal cords, by now, with all that squeezing and jerking. But, I was crying inconsolably, miserable that I had failed in my task and now had this suffering animal on my hands. I decided there was only one thing I could do. I ran down the alley to Evalyn’s home and asked her if she still had Keith’s axe, then proceeded to tell her the tale of woe. To my utter horror and surprise, she stood there laughing. “Oh, I’ll take care of him, honey,” she said. “I’m a Nebraska farm-girl, you know.” Now, Evalyn was, at this point, at least 83; there was no way I was going to let her swing an axe. She did, however, insist on coming with me. 

Henry, though alive and standing, wasn’t looking great. He mostly looked really, really confused about life. I was able to catch him, though he still eluded me on my first few attempts, and placed him gingerly on the stump I’d sat on earlier. Many of the hens kind of gathered round, peering nosily, sort of like the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson’s, “The Lottery.” Yes, that’s exactly how it felt! 

I saw Evalyn place her hands on either side of Henry’s now rather long neck. 

“No!” I shouted at Evalyn, not meaning to come across as harsh. “You don’t understand. I will NOT  be looking at what I’m doing when I swing this axe. I could just as easily take off your arms or head. Please don’t hold him." She moved and strangely Henry stayed there. I took a wide stance and adjusted my swing. With a fresh stream of swears, my eyes clamped tightly shut, I brought the axe down on Henry’s vulnerable neck. I realized, too late, that I still hadn’t fully committed to my swing. Henry was not completely decapitated. Evalyn let out a laugh. I was dry-heaving. And swearing. And crying. Evalyn took the axe and hacked twice more before completing the job. She walked back down the alley toward her house with the headless and profusely bleeding trophy of Henry and the bloodied axe, looking somewhat like Baby Jane. It’s an image I won’t soon forget. I went back to the coop and got valiant Henry’s head and tossed it in the garbage. Well fought Henry. Well fought. 

I kept my chickens and ducks until Chuck and I moved away from Colorado to Southern California. Between this tale and our leaving, there were still more adventures, including the police shooting of a rabid raccoon in my yard (the raccoon had been attacking my chickens and ducks). The police knocked on my door, waking me up at the crack of 10am, so as not to scare me when they were going to shoot the ‘coon. It was a little reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vs. the Bolivian Army. I think they even reloaded and continued to shoot after emptying both their pistols. It may be the only other animal in Carbondale that went through a more protracted death than Henry. I also had to save one of my ducks from the clutches of a fox and yet another was killed by a different raccoon, leaving 6 fertilized and ready-to-hatch eggs, later incubated by a hen who thought she was the ducklings’ mom (see photos, below). 

I probably will never have the chance again to raise chickens or ducks, but they taught me a lot in the 11 years I had them. For one, they showed me how simple life can be: eat, eliminate, procreate. Then there’s the whole nature thing…just the fascinating life process. Their eggs were totally awesome, amazing and delicious. And, for a time, we had the coolest house in Carbondale and the local petting zoo. How can you put a price on that?! 

© 2009, Ryb Katz, all rights reserved

Henrietta and ducklingsHenrietta was very frustrated with the ducklings. Though they imprinted with her, she just couldn't teach them to scratch in the soil like the other chicks she'd raised. AND, she was positively beside herself when they jumped into the pond!HenryA cacophony of Carbondale chickens