The worst thing Johnny Cash’s dad ever did to him was to name him ‘Sue’; the worst thing my Dad ever did to me was to teach the family parrot my name.
Okay, so one of those is a fictional event; the other taught me just how far the voice of a young parrot can reach. All the way down the block, it would seem, and ‘Ginger’ could keep it up for hours.
It was in some small way, poetic justice to learn that Ginger would attack Dad whenever he came near me as I was sleeping. I used to put her on the couch when I took a nap so she would be quiet. She allowed no-one near me, especially not Dad. It’s hardly the first time an animal had appointed itself my protector, but there was something especially impressive about that little green bird charging full tilt at someone umpteen times her size. Lessons in loyalty, huh?
In the end Ginger turned out to be a guy-parrot, and he became unmanageable when he finally reached maturity. We found him a home better prepared to take care of him. I can only hope he is still doing well today. …and yes, I still think of him as a her; it’s kinda weird, I know.
(Click to embiggen)
What has me thinking about this is a notion I recently had about my days in Navajo country. I often heard from older folks that sheep used to raise the children out there. This theme was usually mixed in with one of those declensionist narratives about the loss of culture and those gosh-darned kids! Older folks always have such stories, but some of them are more interesting than others.
I always thought the livestock-as-nanny theme was an interesting twist on this kind of story, not the least of reasons being that the difference between the adults I spoke with and the younger generation did seem to include this one very real difference. Many of the older folks (and here I would include people in their 30s and 40s as well as ‘elders’) out there really had grown-up herding sheep and goats, and evidently they found this to be a valuable learning experience. Few if any of the younger kids out there in the mid 90s had had this experience. Hell, they likely had the same baby-sitter I did as a kid, …the TV. That was one very real difference between different generations of Diné, and it always struck me as a big one.
Listening to folks tell me this story, I could well imagine a lone child (or perhaps a few cousin-brothers) out alone with a flock, responsible for its welfare. I could imagine hours of time spent with sheep and goats for company, and I couldn’t help but wonder how that might shape a developing young mind. I still wonder how very different childhood must have been for a generation growing up without it.
A sheep may be an odd baby-sitter, but so is a television.
The notion that animals could help to raise a person always struck me as a profound lesson, but it always seemed to me a lesson about the lives of others. It was only recently that I came to think of this as more generally applicable, perhaps even something that might shed a little light on my own life. A few weeks back I was studying the many scars on my hands, most of which I got from playing with a pair of Siamese-mixed Kittens (‘Boots’ and ‘Rover’) we got when I was a kid. I hadn’t even earned the majority of these scars due to anger, just from many hours of play. Like most boys my age, my elbows were bloody from about the age of 6 to maybe 12 or so. But my hands also had little claw scars for most of that time as well. Most of them were small and shallow, just enough to tell me ‘gotcha’ with a sort of wink, but some were big and deep, because sometimes a cat is done playing. Anyway, I always seemed to have such scars on my hands when I was younger.
The point is that I spent a lot of time with the family pets, especially between the ages of 4 and 8, when for some reason my family moved to a ranch in Southern Colorado. I had no human playmates within walking distance, well except for a trio of girls that lived down the way for a couple years, but they were, well, …girls! I preferred to ride my horse or play with the cats. Recently, I’ve come to wonder just what kind of marks they have left on me?
…besides the literal ones, I mean.
Is there any sense in which the family pets raised me? If I had to guess, I would say that my sense of humor is to some degree the legacy of those cats, right down to the moments when it fails me. My verbal play is in some ways a reflection of my days playing with those cats. In particular, I am thinking about the way a cat will assess your intent, the way it trusts a playmate up to a point. …and the way things can get ugly fast when you’ve reached that point. Wrestling with a cat is a real test of goodwill, and you are always one menacing gesture away from one of those deep scars, so to speak. I spent a good chunk of my childhood playing on those terms, and I suppose I have internalized them. So, maybe Boots and Rover did raise me.
…or would it be more accurate to say that we grew up together? Either way; they left their mark.
We also had a small pack of dogs on that ranch, and kept the pack for many years after, but I honestly don’t think these guys had quite the same impact on me. I understood the big dogs and how to keep on their good side, and the little ones were always good company. I loved each of the family pets, and I always felt a little more comfortable in their presence, but my interactions with the family dogs were nowhere near as intense as those with my cats.
Of course we also had an older Siamese, named Thai Ling. This cat was beautiful, but he had quite a temper. My older brother and sister still tell stories about a terrible event involving a dresser drawer and plenty of blood spilled upon opening it. No-one disputes that the cat had been stuffed in the drawer. Who put him there is still up for debate.As I understand it, poor Thai Ling may have helped one of my siblings with a few experiments testing the nature of gravity and cat-reflexes.
I never held it against Thai Ling that he was so cranky. Mostly, I left him alone, or stuck to petting him, which was dangerous enough. It is entirely possible that Thai Ling is responsible for at least a few of the scars on my hand. I certainly didn’t play much with that old guy.
Just what I did to earn my parents wrath, I will never know, but I am fairly convinced that the Shetland Pony was an attempt to do me in. I couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6 when this creature came into my life, and the worst thing about him was the child-like reins that I was given to ride him with. These reins had a closed loop at the end, presumably so that it would stay on his neck whenever I let go of them. The problem was that I never did let go of them, even when ‘Scooper’ would suddenly drop his head down to eat some grass. The reigns weren’t that long, and so I would inevitably go tumbling over Scooper’s head and onto the grass in front of him, coming up with my cowboy hat down around my then bawling eyes, asking someone to help me up.
…and this tragedy would repeat itself until the adults in my life grew tired of watching it.
Later, my parents bought got a Welsh Morgan for me. I wanted to call her her ‘Blacky’, but somehow she ended up with the name ‘Little Bit’. I had completely forgotten that name as I wrote this, btw, had to come back and edit the post). Little Bit was a good horse. …except when she decided to head to the barn. If she and I had a dispute over which direction to go, Little Bit always won. My brother once gave me a stick to use as incentive, but I wouldn’t have it. So, I continued to lose the argument with Little Bit until we moved to California and gave her away.
One lesson Little did teach me was how to make the best of a bad situation. If I could coax her all the way to the far corner of the ranch, taking advantage of all the twists and turns in our fence line, then I could point her towards the barn, give her a quick giddy-up kick, and enjoy the ride of my life.
Now THAT was fun!
In time, I got a couple dogs of my own. There was ‘Legs’. Someone brought Legs to my family announcing that he was a Doberman Pincher that had been hit by a car. He was wrapped in a blanket, so we didn’t see much at first. The ears on legs seemed rather large, but none of us knew how big an uncut Dobbie’s ears were supposed to be anyway. He never did outgrow the limp that earned him that name. Legs became my dog as time went on, and mostly I remember playing chase with him for hours. He limped, but he could manage speed when he needed to. …or wanted to. Damned if that dog did not wasn’t an expert at tripping me; then he’d run away cause then I was ‘it’ so to speak. We learned one very important detail about him that first night though. He dragged himself to the door and began howling at the top of his lungs. Suddenly, the big floppy ears made a bit more sense.
…and Dad said; “that’s no doberman.”
Another of the pack that came to be mine was a Peekapoo (Pekinese-Poodle combination) named “Midget.” …okay, some of these names suck, but that wasn’t her fault. Anyway this dog was the closest to a pure-breed that I ever owned. Mom and Dad bought her at a pet store, something I would never do in a million years today (give me a pound-mutt any day, dog or cat, …no offense to Midget). She was a sweetie, and I taught her to play fetch. …she taught me never to do that again. Seriously, that dog would try and play fetch with me for hours on end. Course I may have let that lesson slip with Auto-Kitty. She’s rather fond of fetch.
In fact, I swear to the Invisible Pink Unicorn that Auto-Kitty used to play catch with me. She could toss a toy right to me, and for awhile she did. Now she makes me come get it. And I guess it’s okay that she fetches, because she doesn’t wear me out with the game. If only she didn’t choose 3am as her favorite time to play it.
I would be remiss if I left out one other significant non-human from my childhood, the truck. We never gave it a name, and I never did learn it’s gender, but I recall learning to drive on this thing. Dad would put me in the driver’s seat as he and my siblings tossed bails of hay into the back. They’d shout; “stand on the pedal” and “stand on the brake” as we moved down the row of hay, then someone would get in and turn it around to go back the other way, and I would go back into the driver’s seat.
Later, Dad would have me drive the truck on the dirt roads to the dump. I used to love going to the dump, partly because I would get to drive and partly because we always went shooting for awhile afterward. Dump-day was the highlight of the week.
We still had the truck when I started college. I still remember driving around with a couple classmates, chattering away as we descended down some hill. One friend kept trying to interrupt me, his tone getting progressively more urgent; ‘Dan! …Dan!” I was too busy making some point about who knows what. Finally, my friend shouted out, “Dan, seriously, is this thing going to stop?” …I hadn’t even thought about it. I was pumping the brakes, which is what I had to to before any stop. My poor friend saw me doing this as we approached an intersection and became convinced he was about to die. Had to flutter the gas pedal to get it to start, too, and that freaked him out a little more. For me it was just another drive; for that friend it was like a horror-show.
Anyway, that truck had personality; it was a family member for a couple decades.
Still can’t believe Dad sold it!
So, what have we learned today? Well, I suppose we’ve learned that family pictures can lead to a serious bout of nostalgia. We also learned that a dog will wear you out playing fetch, but a cat will just wait till you fall asleep to initiate the game…and well, I suppose I was trying for something more profound.
I’m afraid most of my anecdotes don’t quite live up to the promise of the initial question. I do think that most of us underestimate the impact that animals have on us. We may care for them, but we don’t quite give them credit for shaping our personalities. Typically, most people talk about raising and training dogs and cats, or about putting up with their behavior. We may jokingly refer to a pet training us in some way, but folks seldom take the prospect all that seriously. But pets leave their marks on us in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s a scar on your hands; sometimes it’s a sense of responsibility for caring for them, and sometimes their legacy is a little more intangible.
The pets you grow up with would seem to be especially important; jut as you are learning how to relate to other people, you are also learning how to relate to them. This gives the four-legged critters and even the flying ones a little say in our development, I think. We don’t just teach them how to behave; sometimes they are the ones doing the teaching.