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More letters from Mom about life in the old days in Suwanee, Georgia…

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June 12, 1965

Dear Rock,

Everything here is wet. It has rained for so many days I lost count. I feel like a swamp creature. We have hopes of clearing skies tomorrow.

Bible school is going on this week. We have all learned to hate each other working together in the church with the rain drumming on the roof. The kids have had to have their Kool-aid and cookies on the table in the back of the sanctuary, and well, you can imagine the crumbs, spilled grape juice and ice melting on the pews.

Brother Charles sat at home on his duff Monday and Tuesday. Claimed he did not know it is the preacher’s job to be at Bible School. Mrs. Gasser and I jumped on him and set him straight. He was there today and says he will continue to come. As I say, we have learned to hate each other, but it will blow over.

Outside of Martha Pierce, who almost wiggled out of it, the only people I could get to teach were Gloria, Mrs. Tate, the two Dianes and Peggy Puckett. Mrs. Tate got sick, so I have Helen DeLay in there now.

Martha and Peggy teach the juniors, Danny’s class. Today they made bookends out of plaster of Paris. Martha said Danny is a riot and keeps them all laughing. I said smart aleck is more the word for Danny.

Smitty took Old Shakey to Robert and had the brakes adjusted and had it oiled and greased. You ought to see the old thing. Daddy just loves it. It is black and looks like it might growl at you.

The other day, he went to Duluth to pick up some stuff at the farmer’s supply, and on the way there, the foot feed stuck. He said he was going wide open and couldn’t slow down. To stop it, he had to turn the ignition key off.

He would start up again, and it would go full blast, which really isn’t that much, then off with the key again. He finally pulled over and somehow fixed it.

Mrs. Hutchison spent the afternoon with me yesterday. She said that when Joe Jr. was 16, his dad put him to work with the construction gang, digging ditches. It was in the summer, and he had never done any hard work before.

One day he climbed out of the ditch and told the foreman, “When I get to be president of this company, I’m gonna fire you.” The foreman said, “Well until you do, you get back down in that ditch and dig.”

Joe Jr. was furious. That night, he told his daddy about it and said the foreman ought to be fired. The next day, Mr. H. called the foreman into his office and raised his salary.

Lee is on a date, Smitty is reading the paper, Dan is painting the bookends he made today, and Betty is asleep. I must get to the ironing board, as it is already after nine. I love you very much.

Mom

Betty and a struggling cat pose with Old Shakey.

Betty and a struggling cat pose with Old Shakey.

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July 21, 1965

Dear Rocky,

Your letter was most welcome yesterday and gave me more than my share of chuckles. I laughed heartily all by myself.

There has been quite a lot of tragedy around Suwanee this summer. Remember Winnie Burnett, James’s wife? They lived on the corner of Level Creek Road and Main on the left, where they always had a pretty garden. Two boys, 13 and 9.

She had a breast removed a year ago. Then some knots appeared on her neck several months back. They operated, but the cancer had gone too far. I never saw anybody deteriorate so fast. Saturday a week ago, she was taken to the hospital and died Sunday morning.

Doyle Moulder also died. He was Bonnie Moulder’s son, 28, asst. principal at Lawrenceville Elementary. He was at a lake near Madison with his family, had his little girl on his back in waist deep water, and he just suddenly went under.

The lifeguard saw the child floundering and brought her back to shore. Poor Doyle was stone dead at the bottom of the lake. They said he had no water in his lungs, so they think it was a heart attack.

Dan Brown took Rogers to the hospital in Buford in pretty bad shape. The doc said he needs an operation that involves going into his head, a four-hour thing. Dan thinks it’s just a sinus condition, but I heard that Rogers went berserk last week and was out of his head. Poor thing and poor Dan.

Rock, you know how we’re always discovering wonderful characters around these parts. I have discovered a simply marvelous one that is hard to beat. And the funny thing is, I’ve been hearing about him all my life.

His name is Forrest Turner, and he was a great pal of Leland Harvey. The two of them probably spent most of their adult lives in prison, and they were famous escape artists, especially Harvey, although Turner had a pretty good reputation, too. They never murdered anybody. Just pulled robberies.

Anyway, while in prison, Turner learned a trade. He learned to make false teeth. Now he is out for good, barring future misdeeds, and he makes false teeth.

He goes to the homes to do the work. For some reason, he always goes at night. He charges $55 for a set, uppers and lowers, whereas if you get them done at a dentist, it runs $250 or more.

It seems that most of the rural population of Gwinnett County goes around wearing teeth by Turner. Everyone says he makes beautiful, good quality teeth. Frank lost his teeth on his trip to Florida, so he is going to call Turner to come out.

Last year, Margie Tallant got wind of it and went to the judge in Lawrenceville and tried to get Turner stopped. But so far, he is still making teeth. He lives in Decatur. He must be an old man, because I remember hearing about him when I was a child. He was always escaping and would stay on the outside, the object of a manhunt.

I’ll bet many a poor devil is going around with teeth who otherwise would be gumming it, if not for this guy. When you think about it, he has no middle man and probably makes a good living at it. For example, say the materials cost him $10 and he charges $55. Not bad.

Well, I need to go to bed. This new typewriter ribbon makes more mistakes than the old one did. Daddy’s vacation starts Monday for two weeks. He can hardly wait. We are not going anywhere. Will vacation at home.

I love you,

Mom

Mom and Aunt Betty check the progress of Dad's beard.

Mom and Aunt Betty check the progress of Dad’s beard.

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More letters from home in my next post.

 

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More letters from Mom reporting on family life back home…

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Mon. night Oct. 26, 1964

Dear Rocky,

We have been having such beautiful weather for the past couple of weeks that I almost hate to mention it. Last Saturday, Smitty, Lee, Betty and I walked down to the river.

The trees all along the river bank were just gorgeous. Honestly, we didn’t see any prettier color when we drove up to the North Ga. mountains. Just more of it up there.

Agnes’ puppies are fat little butterballs. All they do is eat, sleep, squirm and holler. She takes good care of them. She is thin, but looks good. Her appetite is huge.

It was very hard on her since it was her first litter, and six big ones was quite a task. She had the pups in the storage room, and I could not get near them or her for two days. I wanted to get them all to the basement, but she was determined that I would not touch a thing.

Finally, she decided to come in the house. We had fixed up a nice bed in the basement with a clean, soft blanket. Dan took the puppies around to the basement door, and then we let Agnes down there with them. She was all upset for a while but is fine now.

We finally got the hogs butchered. They are now resting peacefully in packages in the freezer. We thought we had lockers reserved at Gann’s, but not so. Daddy had to scout around for a used freezer on the very day the meat was due to be picked up.

He found one at Goodwill Industries for $70 and had to rent a trailer to get it home. We used Danny’s roller skates under one end to maneuver it into the basement. You should have seen us.

Guess there is no more news. Mama and Frank are fine. Write when you can.

I love you,

Mom

In those days, the Suwanee Smiths lived on eight acres of pine trees and pastures.

In those days, the Suwanee Smiths lived on eight acres of pine trees and pastures.

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Thursday night, Feb. 4, 1965

Dear Rocky,

Before I forget, be sure to watch the next Jonathan Winters Show because his guests will be Bob and Ray. It’s bound to be hysterical.

Here is the news from Suwanee and outlying areas. Earl English’s wife had an accident and tore her new car asunder. She was in the hospital for a few days but is home and on the mend.

Faye Roberts’ husband has a new company car, a Chevy with all the trimmings. He gave Faye a mink stole which she hesitates to wear to church for fear people will make derogatory remarks either within her hearing or otherwise.

Ann Smith has a new permanent. She also just finished making a tan jumper and a tan and white checked blouse. She drinks too much coffee and smokes too many cigarettes. She still weighs only 100 pounds.

Donald is going into the Marines right after he graduates. If he graduates. I know Clifford will be relieved for the Marines to get hold of that boy.

The Hutchisons are going to Europe for three weeks. Margaret is going to have a baby in June. Fred Tallant had to oust a bunch of drunks from the apartments last Sunday. Margie Tallant’s mother is now a housemother at the U of Ga. Cute-Face is pregnant again.

Camel breezed into Mama’s kitchen last Sunday morning when the temperature was about 9 degrees, wearing shorts and sandals. Mama said he did it just for the pure hell of hearing her fuss at him. Anyway, she said he was three sheets to the wind and probably didn’t feel anything.

The Titshaws moved over near Lawrenceville and rented their house out to some logger. He parks his truck full of pulp wood half on the front lawn and half in the road. When you drive by, you get the feeling it is in the process of backing into you.

During the last siege of snow and ice, the preacher drove into a ditch and hit a tree. Dented his pretty black car, but nobody hurt. Hardy DeLay swapped his Valiant for a Dodge pickup. Anita Payne was in a beauty contest at her school recently, but I don’t know how she came out.

The Manns, who moved into the house where the McElwreaths used to live, have a daughter who rides the bus with Danny. She asked Danny if there is a whiskey still in the woods on the Browns’ property. She said Mr. Brown is always going into the woods at night with a flashlight, and one morning they woke up and everything smelled like wine. How about that?

Well, tonight is school night, and it is about time for Daddy to get home. I have to get his supper going. Take care. Write when you can.

Much, much love,

Mom

Relaxing at the Smith place. Left to right: Nuisance the Beagle, Mom, Betty, Lightning the Dalmatian, Lee, his girlfriend Sherry, and Danny. Danny is holding Dora, a Beagle pup. Dora's sister Doris is peeking out from behind Danny's shoe.

Relaxing at the Smith place. Left to right: Nuisance the Beagle, Mom, Betty, Lightning the Dalmatian, Lee, his girlfriend Sherry, and Danny. Danny is holding Dora, a Beagle pup. Dora’s sister Doris is peeking out from behind Danny’s shoe.

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More Chronicles in my next post.

 

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A few weeks ago, I hauled out of the closet a box of old cards and letters that hadn’t seen the light of day in 50 years. Literally.

I received the correspondence from various family members and friends in the 1960s, when I was in college and the Air Force. Fully half the letters in the box are from my mother, bless her.

Back then, people didn’t communicate the way we do today. Cell phones, email, instant messaging, social media — they didn’t exist.

The land-line telephone system reached more or less everywhere, but it was unreliable. Long distance voice quality was never good. It was sort of like the dial-up internet of its day.

For most people, letter-writing was a much bigger thing than it is today. And we Smiths were prolific letter-writers.

Soon after I went away to college, the family moved to Suwanee, Georgia, population 400, where my grandparents Leila and Frank Byrd lived. Suwanee was Frank’s hometown.

As it turned out, the town was a lively and interesting place with a cast of characters worthy of Faulkner. Suwanee had plenty of upstanding citizens. It also had scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells.

Virtually everyone in town went to church. But for years, the proprietor of one of the downtown stores sold moonshine from the back door of his establishment. Clearly, the demand was there.

Half of the town’s phone lines were party lines. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Gossip was the sport of choice.

What made Suwanee different from any other community in the land? Nothing whatsoever.

Mom was a natural writer who clearly enjoyed sitting down at the typewriter, and her letters are delightful to read. They’re funny, entertaining, and certainly revealing of her character.

Which, of course, is the point of presenting them. I’m deeply biased on this subject, but I assure you, Ann Smith was a person well worth knowing.

In the letters presented below, she refers to local people you don’t know. For the most part, it doesn’t matter.

But there is one exception. The “Camel” she mentions is Campbell “Camel” Hamilton, Frank’s cousin and next-door neighbor. Camel was a jovial, middle-aged country fellow, a bachelor living comfortably with no visible means of support. He was one of the more colorful characters in town.

Here are two of Mom’s letters. Welcome to Suwanee.

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Aug. 25, 1964

Dear Rocky,

Lee just crept off to football practice. He had entertained the thought briefly that he might skip practice this morning, but the coach announced that anyone who didn’t show up would run laps equivalent to 10 miles.

Lee thought the coach would mellow out after he got married. He didn’t.

I wish Lee wouldn’t play football. He isn’t big enough. He eats like a horse but still only weighs about 140.

I ought to have my head examined. I have never learned to say “no.” The chairman of the Retarded Children’s Drive called and buttered me up, saying what a wonderful job I did last year, taking charge of the drive in Suwanee, and would I do it again this year. I was so blinded by flattery I agreed instantly and have hated myself ever since.

The drive is less than a week away, I have to go to an executive PTA meeting tonight, help with choir practice on Friday, have to get Betty a shot before Thurs., have peas to shell and freeze, the house is dirty, my ironing is piled up to the ceiling, my hair needs attention, I’m behind about two years on mending and sewing, all the closets need cleaning. I could go on and on. What a rat race, and I take on something else.

Cute-Face had five kittens this week. They look just like the other batch except two of them are black as the ace of spades. I’ve threatened many times to cause Cute-Face to disappear, but it won’t happen. Danny keeps tabs on her too closely.

Joe at the Post Office is still imbibing. Last count was that he has been inebriated going on three weeks. I noticed we were getting more of other people’s mail than usual. Poor Joe. Wish I could help him.

Frank is off from work for a week, orders from the doctor. He was having trouble with his leg. Mama seems fine. Liz Hutchison is coming to play with Betty this afternoon.

Last week at church, I didn’t stay for the service after Sunday School, and the preacher sent word by Danny that I was missed. Subtle, eh?

So that is the state of affairs here. Already I can feel the Fall of the year creeping in. Either that, or it is old age.

I love you, sweetie,

Mom

The Suwanee Smiths, left to right: Betty, Dad, Mom, Danny, and Lee. The pets are Susan Cute-Face, Blacksmith, and Agnes.

The Suwanee Smiths, left to right: Betty, Dad, Mom, Danny, and Lee. The pets are Susan Cute-Face, Blacksmith, and Agnes.

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Oct. 1, 1964

Dear Rocky,

Tonight is Daddy’s school night. He goes on Tues. and Thurs. and gets home around 8:15. Betty and Danny are watching “The Munsters” on TV. Lee is doing homework. Agnes is asleep in my chair. She thinks I don’t know she is up there.

Big news in Suwanee. They moved into the new Post Office today, and you will be amazed at what a nice-looking thing it is. Joe and Frank are as proud as new papas. Frank is going to be working there permanently. At least that is what I gather.

Rock, those two black kittens are just darling. They have the longest white whiskers and are little devils! The kids named them Peggy and Tiger. Tiger, after Tiger Hutchison, who ran away and never returned. He jumped out of the car at the 1-Stop one day and took off like a striped ape.

Actually, I was not surprised. The treatment he got from Liz was rough. He probably was just waiting for his chance.

Buck Buice came rambling by late yesterday afternoon. Hardy DeLay was walking the cattle back over here, and Buck saw him and came over. Buck was about three sheets to the wind. I couldn’t help but get tickled.

Every time I see Buck, I think about the time he came to take Lord Ashley to the slaughterhouse, and he was backing up his truck so fast, with you hanging onto the back end. You said it was like being strapped to the front of a speeding locomotive.

Camel took Mama down to Statesboro on Sunday. When he got back the next day, he was pretty well snockered on his home brew. He complained that he “couldn’t get that sorry-ass Ford past 90.” Pardon my French.

The place is real pretty now with a lot of Fall color. We have a blazing fire every night. We always have good frozen veggies from the garden, plus a nice beef roast or some pork chops, thanks to critters like Lord Ashley who sacrificed their all. Do you see how terrible I’ve become?

Rock, we enjoy your letters so much. Keep them coming.

I love you.

Mom

Mom at the lake, summer 1964.

Mom at the lake, summer 1964.

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More of the Suwanee Chronicles in my next post.

 

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In the decades after the Civil War, William Livingston Alden (1837-1908) was a celebrated American journalist, humorist, and diplomat. He’s virtually unknown today, but back then, Mark Twain called him “The funniest man on earth.”

In addition to writing a weekly column in the New York Times, Alden brought the sport of canoeing to the United States. He also served a term as Consul General to Rome. Quite the Renaissance man.

Alden’s humor and prose are dated — as ours will be someday — but, like Twain, he appreciated the humor of everyday life, and he related it with whimsy and panache.

Alden had a special appreciation for cats as a source of unintentional comedy. He delighted in writing about the sinister unpredictability of cats and how their very nature often leads to humorous conflicts with humans.

The short story below is a wonderful case in point.

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Van Wagener’s Flying Cat

By W. L. Alden
Published in The Idler, December 1896

“Sparrows,” said the Colonel, “may be very upright, respectably middle-class birds so long as they stay in England, but when they emigrate to America, they are no better than the average of our working classes.

“Some meddling idiot brought a lot of sparrows to the States ten or fifteen years ago, expecting they would kill all the worms on the fruit trees. They hadn’t been in the country above six months when they took the ground that they were as good as the best of our swell birds, and that they considered that killing worms was a degrading kind of labour fit only for blackbirds and crows.

“So they took to living on wheat, and strawberries, and cherries, and they multiplied so fast that they are the worst curse that the farmer and the fruit grower ever had, with the solitary exception of the McKinley tariff.

“That shows the folly of promoting emigration among birds, just as the exportation of rabbits to Australia showed the folly of supposing that man knows more about the proper distribution of animals than Nature knows.

“There are now about ten sparrows to every worm in the United States, and what we need more than anything else is some style of worm big enough to eat the sparrows.

“Professor Van Wagener and I were discussing the sparrow question one day, and I was complaining of the inefficiency of the American cat. Our cats are about as wide-awake as any monarchical cats that you can produce, but they can’t catch a single sparrow.

“I’ve known ambitious cats who set out to catch sparrows, and who wasted away to mere skeletons, and died of weakness, through watching from dawn to darkness, and never once getting within ten feet of one.

“As a general rule I don’t have much sympathy with cats, but the insulting language that sparrows use when they see a cat laying for them, and the aggravating way in which they will fly just over the cat’s head, or maybe hit the cat over the tail with their wings, is more than any cat can be expected to bear.

“‘The trouble is,’ said Van Wagener, ‘that the cat isn’t a flying animal and the sparrow is. The sparrow’s native element is the air, and you can’t expect a cat to catch a sparrow so long as the cat can’t fly.’

“That’s true enough,” said I, “but it doesn’t help us out of our difficulty. Cats weren’t made with wings, and neither you nor I can invent a new model of cat that will be able to fly, and to catch sparrows on the wing.

“‘Don’t you be too sure of that,’ said the Professor. ‘Science has improved everything that it has put its hand to, and I see no reason why science shouldn’t improve cats.

“A flying cat would supply a great public want, for she would kill off the sparrows as easily as she kills off the mice. I’ve half a mind to try the experiment of inventing a flying cat.’

“All right,” said I. “When you get your flying cat finished just notify me, and I’ll come and see her fly. Then, if you are going in for improving animals, perhaps you will invent a cat that can sing like a nightingale. The present style of singing among cats is disgraceful. They haven’t any more idea of music than a Chinaman.

“‘You only show your ignorance, Colonel,’ said Van Wagener, ‘when you ridicule science. Give me six weeks, and I promise to show you a flying cat. I don’t say positively that the flying cat will exterminate all the sparrows, for that would be a pretty large order; but I do say that she will fly, and that she will give the sparrows the worst scare that they have ever had.’

“Well, the Professor buckled down to business, and from his daily interview with his private cat, and the consequent scratches that diversified his good old scientific countenance, I judged that he was doing his best to make a cat that would fly.

“Before the six weeks were up he sent me a note, inviting me to come round to his house at two o’clock the next afternoon to see the first successful flying cat that had ever been invented.

“I needn’t say that I went. I had assisted at the birth of dozens of Van Wagner’s inventions, and I had generally found that the presence of a man with experience in the treatment of accidents was a handy thing, so far as the Professor was concerned.

“I found Van Wagener sitting in his library with the most discouraged looking cat that I had ever seen. As soon as he had shaken hands with me, he launched into a description of his new invention.

“‘You know, Colonel,’ said he, ‘my method as an inventor. I ask myself what is needed for some particular purpose, and then I proceed to supply that need. Most people think that an inventor has ideas come to him all of a sudden in a supernatural sort of way; but that is all nonsense. Inventing is a business, like any other, and any intelligent man can learn it.

“‘Now when I saw that the reason why cats don’t catch sparrows is that they can’t fly after the bird, I saw what was wanted was a flying cat, and I proceeded to invent one.

“‘Here I have a small balloon. This I fix to that cat of mine, and when it is inflated, it will just support the weight of the cat in the air.

“‘Then you see this pair of paddle-wheels. They are to be fixed one on each side of the cat, and are to be driven by a small electrical engine. The balloon floats the cat, and the paddle-wheels propel her. In order to steer the cat I fix a flat piece of tin to the extremity of her tail.

“‘When she sees a sparrow, her instinct will make her swish her tail from one side to the other, and her attention being fastened on catching the bird, she will unconsciously work her tail in such a way as to steer her directly towards it.

“‘All in all, I am justly proud of this invention. It is simple and effective; that is to say when the air is still, for of course my paddle-wheels will not propel the cat against the wind. I tried at first to fit the cat out with wings, but it was impossible to teach her to use them.

“‘Next to a woman, a cat cares less for science than any other animal, and it is impossible to teach her to take an interest in an invention that is designed solely to benefit her. However, the day will come when flying cats will be as common as the ordinary type, and when they get used to flying they will take to the sport as kindly as they now take to catching mice.

“‘Now, Colonel, if you are ready, we will rig up the cat for flying, and we will see what effect she produces on the sparrows in my backyard.’

“It wasn’t an easy job to rig up Van Wagener’s cat. She kicked and swore her level best, and got in several good scratches on the Professor’s hands. However, he stuck to his task, and after a while the cat was ready, and we adjourned to the backyard.

“There was a whole gang of sparrows in the middle of the yard, forming a sort of ring round two that were fighting, and from the way in which every sparrow was talking at the top of his voice, it was clear that some heavy betting on the fight was in progress.

“When they saw Van Wagener and his cat, they naturally flew up to the eaves of the house, where the fight was resumed. Van Wagener took his flying cat to the extremity of the yard, and after showing her the sparrows on the top of the house, and exhorting her to gather them in, he launched her into the air.

“The cat rose slowly, kicking and yelling, until she was just about level with the eaves. The sparrows were so occupied with the fight that they paid no attention to her, and when she saw that there were at least twenty of them gathered close together, her desire to get at them made her temporarily forget her balloon and her paddlewheels.

“She lashed her tail, as cats will do when bent on murder, and, just as the Professor  predicted, the effect was to steer her in the direction of the sparrows. Her paddle- wheels were working smoothly and regularly, and though they were not large enough to give her any great speed, they steadily carried her across the yard towards the sparrows.

“Van Wagener was in ecstasy. He challenged me to point out any defect in his flying cat, and when I candidly admitted that it did seem to be a complete success, he was the happiest man in New Berlinopolisville.

“The cat came through the air so slowly and noiselessly that she was within two yards of the sparrows before they saw her.

“When they did catch sight of this new and startling animal, they were the worst frightened lot of birds that were ever seen outside of one of those so-called Happy Families, where half a dozen birds, clean paralysed with fear, are shut in a cage with a cat that has been filled up with chloral, and the public is asked to regard the exhibition as a specimen of what will be the usual sort of thing when the millennium gets its work fairly in.

“Those sparrows left in a tremendous hurry. They had a sudden business call to some distant part of Illinois, and I don’t believe a single one of them stopped flying until they had put at least thirty miles between themselves and Van Wagener’s flying cat.

“‘Now, you see,” said the Professor, ‘how completely successful my invention is. My flying cat will either catch the sparrows and kill them, or she will frighten them out of the country. In either case, the great sparrow problem is solved.

“‘It makes no difference to me, as a patriotic American citizen, whether all the British sparrows in the country are killed, or whether they are driven over into Canada.

“‘Come to think of it, I should prefer the latter result, for the driving of monarchical European birds out of our beloved country will be an object lesson in the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, which will be of immense benefit to the nation.’

“The Professor, being a scientific crank, was naturally a political crank also, and he was more than two-thirds mad on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine, which by-the-bye is unanimously believed in and worshipped by every lunatic in the States.

“When the Professor once got fairly started on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine, he forgot everything else, and he had clean forgotten his flying cat when Mrs. Van Wagener leaned out of a second story window and advised him, in case he was going to make a political speech, to hire a hall.

“She was a mighty sarcastic woman, and her contempt for her husband’s political views was even greater than her contempt for his scientific achievements.

“She was on the point of continuing her remarks about the Professor’s political oration when she suddenly gave the awfullest screech that I ever heard from female lips, though I was once in a room full of strong-minded women when a mouse ran across the floor.

“Mrs. Van Wagener thought that her last hour had come, judging from her screams, but, as I had a full view of what was taking place, I knew it was only the cat who had come.

“Having missed the sparrows, the cat turned partly round to see what had become of them, and just then, Mrs. Van Wagener having unconsciously put her head within the animal’s reach, the cat judged that her opportunity for making a landing had arrived, and accordingly, she lit on the top of Mrs. Van Wagener’s head.

“Most any woman, not knowing that her husband had invented a flying cat, would have supposed that some monster with sharp claws, and a talent for using bad language, came flying through the air and lit on her head; that nothing less than the sea-serpent, or the flying dragons mentioned in Scripture, had attacked her.

“What with the cat’s desire to kick herself free from her flying apparatus, and her anxiety to get square with the human race, she did more with that poor woman’s hair in five minutes than any other cat would have done in a good half hour.

“The Professor tried to explain that it was only the cat and begged his wife not to injure the flying apparatus. It didn’t seem to occur to him that he ought to run to his wife’s assistance till I had taken him by the shoulders and started him upstairs.

“I don’t want you to think for a moment that he wasn’t anxious to help his wife, but he was so in the habit of looking at things from a scientific point of view, that he forgot that while he was explaining things, Mrs. Van Wagener might be clawed to such an extent that she would never be recognised by her nearest friend.

“When he had once grasped the idea that she needed his help, he fairly flew upstairs and succeeded in transferring the cat’s attentions to himself.

“Then I had to come to the rescue, for the Professor not having hair enough to interest the cat, she had devoted her efforts to beautifying his countenance, and if I hadn’t succeeded in pulling her off, and tossing her out of the window, she would have torn his eyes out, or at all events ruined his nose.

“Her balloon had burst during her interview with Mrs. Van Wagener, and consequently, when I threw her out of the window she struck the ground pretty heavily, and smashed up the paddle-wheels.

“We never saw her again, but every little while, there would appear in the newspapers stories of a strange animal with a glittering tail, that haunted the lower part of Illinois. You see, the cat couldn’t rid herself of her steering attachment, and she naturally wasn’t willing to show herself in what she considered a disgraceful dress.

“Mrs. Van Wagener made peace with her husband on condition of his making a solemn promise never to have anything more to do with flying cats. I consider that she was wrong in so doing, for Van Wagener’s invention was bound to be a success.

“If he had been allowed to carry it out, flying cats would have become as common as bats, and every sparrow in the States would have emigrated. If it wasn’t that I don’t believe in using other people’s inventions, I would go in for the manufacture of flying cats myself.

“And as it is, I believe that Edison will some day hear of Van Wagener’s experiment, and will immediately invent a flying cat, and spend the rest of his life in trying to make the invention work.”

Original illustration from

Original illustration from “The Idler” by Cosmo Rowe.

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I’ve spent a lot of time lately in Savannah, sorting through the papers and photos of my late Aunt Betty. Betty left behind a substantial volume of personal and family memorabilia, and it needs to be perused, assessed, and dealt with.

Now and then as we proceed, one of us will uncover a treasure. Sometimes, it’s an item we knew about and were searching for. At other times, we find something unexpected, and occasionally amazing.

On my last trip, while going through the contents of yet another cardboard box in the den, I found a sealed envelope. It was labeled, in Betty’s handwriting, “Thoughts of Harry & Mama Cat.”

Betty was a committed cat person. She took in a succession of cats over the years, most of whom are a blur to me now. But I remember Mama Cat and Harry very well. They were mother and son and Betty’s favorites.

The envelope was packed tight with folded sheets of paper, 23 numbered pages in all, written in longhand. I flipped through the pages to get the gist of it.

It was an ode — a long, eloquent, heartfelt tribute — to her two precious cats.

Betty wrote the first part after Harry died in 1993, then added more when Mama Cat died in 2007. At some point after that, she sealed the letter in the envelope and put it away.

Far from being remarkable or unusual, the letter strikes me as being typical. It expresses the emotions of someone who has come to understand and love her pets.

Many of us, perhaps most of us, have had similar feelings. Betty just took the time to write it down.

Below is the tribute she wrote, including a few of the cat photos that were glued to the pages. I’m sure Betty wouldn’t mind that I’m sharing it.

——————

Mom
— Born 12-25-88

Harry
— Born 5-8-92
— Died 6-20-93

Harry

Cutest cat I ever saw. Smartest, too. Very curious about anything moving or new. When I walked or stood by a chair or the bed, not knowing where he was, he would reach out & pat me on the foot.

Loved to sit by me, yet only tolerated my holding him for a few minutes, before he wanted to get down. (Mom same way until she got old.) Loved to open the hall folding door & the bathroom door, when almost closed. Also, watched me bathe.

Every time he walked by the kitchen stove, he would pull the dish cloth off of the handle, then walk away & leave it on the floor. Very curious about the heat from the refrigerator & would feel all around underneath. Also, the floor furnace & air conditioner concerned him.

He liked to aggravate his mother when she was asleep. He would go sit & look at her for a minute then tap her on the rump & run.

He loved to sleep on the foot of my bed & awaken me each morning by walking all over me. (Mama pats me until I get up.)

Harry liked to sit on my car leaving muddy footprints & twice I actually saw him walk down the side of the car along the windows. How he balanced himself I do not know.

He spent a lot of time catching birds and lizards. He was very fast. Also, caught at least 3 squirrels this spring.

He loved me especially during the winter. He snuggled up to me & purred his heart out when we were in the bed.

Young Harry.

Young Harry.

Hazel gave him some toys when he was recovering after we think he was bumped by a car, & he liked playing with them & his toy mouse. He also found the bowl with the seashells & he would pick a shell out & play with it in the kitchen. (Mama Cat does the same thing.)

Harry & his mother would fight while she sat in the chair & he sat up like a rabbit & boxed around the opening of the wooden part of the arm.

He liked to untie the bow on my shoe every time he could, & he always bit my toes if I were barefooted. (Mom is fascinated with my toes & slippers also.)

He was my heart, & when I held him like a baby he was a ball of fur & was so lovable.

When he had to be in the hospital after being hit by a car, everyone there loved him. When he came home, I had to confine him for a week & keep him in the house for two additional weeks so his bones could heal, so we got to be good buddies.

I noticed that while we watched TV he never blinked his eyes, so I put my hand in front of his eyes, thinking that he needed to rest them, & he pushed my hand away with his paw.

I feel that it is my fault that he died, because I noticed that he was losing weight. But I thought it was due to the heat, & the cats did not eat as much as usual. Maybe the vet could have found out that he had a problem.

I adored Harry & his mother, Mom, but I never will have another pet, as much as I love cats, because it has broken my heart to lose him. I think he really loved me.

When I returned from Lawrenceville, I called & called & searched for him. When I found him he was dead, so I buried him in my garden. He was the love of my life — the personality kid of all time.

I never went outside to work in the yard without Harry & Mom appearing. Not knowing where they were when I went outside, they always showed up & would watch me work. If I took trash to the lane or worked in a different area they followed me.

Harry liked to scare me. I would be pulling weeds & he would jump out of the bushes & grab my hand, but never scratched me. (Mama bites me when I pester her, but she never clamps down.)

When I would dig a small hole in order to plant a flower, he would dig the hole bigger, like a dog would dig.

He loved to sleep under the azaleas where the ground was damp. (Mom also.)

Another favorite sleeping place was on the dining room chairs, where he could be hidden by the table cloth. I could find him because his tail would be below the cloth.

Harry liked to sleep on my liriope & the maidenhair fern. I guess it was soft.

He chased anything that moved, like butterflies, bees, lizards & birds.

Most cats don’t like to get wet, but Harry did not care. He sat in the bird bath, investigated the spray from the hydrant, put his paw in the bucket when full of water & played in the commode if the top was up.

Harry.

Harry.

Harry & Mom liked to sit close to me or sleep close to my feet & legs but did not like to be held but for a few minutes. One night I felt as if I were in a straightjacket because they were so close, one on each side of me.

Harry & Mom wash all the time. They get into the most unusual positions. They look just alike. Mom is a little greyer on her back, where Harry’s stripes are a little more prominent & he is not quite as heavy. He would have been bigger than Mom had he lived, according to the vet.

At present, Mom is sitting on my note paper watching me write. She is a wonderful cat also, & was a good mother when she had kittens. She belonged to the family next door, & they moved away & left her, so she became my cat. She stayed here all day anyway because they worked & went to school, so were gone most of the time.

(At present Mom is sitting about 3″ from my pen watching me write. She tried to grab my pen & the paper.)

Mom taught Harry to fight. They had a good time playing, but after he learned to defend himself she was ready for Harry to move on to his own territory. But he stayed, so they hissed & picked at each other about once a day. I don’t think that he could understand why, after playing with him so much, she did not want to play any more.

Every day after Harry ate his food he washed himself, then walked to the end of the flower bed by the back door & sat & looked around. After a few minutes he would go under the bushes in the shade & take a nap. Mama Cat does the same thing.

The reason for his being named Harry is because he was born May 8, which is Pres. Harry Truman’s birthday, so he was named for the President. I named his sister Stella because May 8 was also Mother’s birthday.

I gave Stella to a young lady on 63rd St. and gave Harry’s twin Smoky to a little boy on Goebel Ave.

Harry was born 5-8-92, the President’s & Mother’s birthday. He died on 6-20-93, Father’s Day. Was buried 6-22-93, Mother & Daddy’s wedding anniversary.

Mama Kitty was raised around 3 children next door so was used to people & confusion, but Harry only knew me, therefore, he was shy of confusion & people & would go hide in the bushes. If you talked to him, he would come out & be friendly to adults, but he did not seem to trust children. He liked Allan, Hazel, Ann & Walter & played with them.

The first time Harry saw himself in the hall mirror he thought it was another cat & his reaction was a show. He looked around the corner & when he saw the other cat he would jump back. Later he hit the cat with his paw.

By the time I thought about taking his picture he only bristled up his fur once. Glad I got that picture because he was not scared of that cat after that night.

Harry & Mama are so different. She is a real lady. The way she walks, taking short prissy steps & she never comes into the house unless invited. She is slow deciding what she wants to do. Harry is in like a bullet as soon as the door is cracked.

When he digs a hole & covers it up, he goes at it full force, really making a project out of it while Mama is very gentle & slow & does not scatter kitty litter all over the area.

I often thought people were silly to make so much over a pet, especially when they died, but now I know how they feel. It is as if I lost my best friend & I am to blame for not taking him to the vet when I noticed his weight loss. I do not know what killed him but I feel sure it was internal.

The minute I drove up or came outside, he came running to greet me & rub against my legs. (Mama also always greets you when you arrive home.) Although I adored Harry, I had no idea how much I would miss him.

When Harry was on the screened porch & someone walked by & he could not see who or what it was, he sat on his haunches like a rabbit to see over the bushes.

I bought 2 rocking chairs for the porch & they needed to have the rockers put on, so I had them stacked in the breakfast room & covered with towels until Allan came home to assemble them for me. Mama Kitty loved to sleep in her new secluded spot, but Harry found out about it & delighted in getting there first.

He had a place below her spot that was just like her spot, but he wanted hers. Of course, when she found him there, she hissed at him.

When Harry was a kitten, I took him to the vet for his shots & he crawled up around my neck as far as he could get under my hair, where he thought he was safe. Later I took him for his adult shots & he stood on the table as close as he could to my body. He knew who would protect him.

Someone sent me a card with a cute kitten on the front. Harry spotted it & jumped up on the cabinet & stared at it, I guess deciding whether or not it was real. After a while he walked over & touched it & when the kitten did not move, he walked away.

When Harry was on the porch & the door was closed & he wanted to come in, he got on the back of the rocking chair & banged it against the window sill to let me know that he wanted to get in.

One day I was bent over by the car working & something patted me on the fanny. Harry was sitting on top of the tire on the car & reached over & touched me.

Mama Cat sleeps different places on the porch & in the house most of the time. Early each morning, usually between 6-8 AM she gets on the foot of my bed & watches me. After a while she pats me on the leg, body or arm. If I don’t wake up she pats me with both paws like a dog digging a hole. She is hungry & wants me to get up & feed her.

Mama is a very pretty, lovable cat. She lets me hold her longer than she used to, but like Harry, she wants to be near me but not held too long. Her coat is thick & soft & she washes all of the time.

Mama can sense a dog anywhere in the area. She can be in the kitchen eating & if a dog walks by she growls & her hair stands up. I go look outside & there will be a dog. She does not tolerate other cats in our yard.

Mama Cat.

Mama Cat.

After Harry died I saw Mama sitting by Harry’s grave, just looking at the spot. Matter of fact, I went to several stores & when I returned, she was still there. Makes you wonder if she knew that he was there.

I have a backscratcher that has ribbons tied to one end & Mama loves to play with it every night. She loves to grab it with her claws & especially when I pull it under the edge of the rug.

She also is fascinated with my toes in my slides. She spies them & grabs them. Her claws are sharp!

She always checks out anything new & has to get involved, like when I am writing or on the new step ladder or wrapping a gift. Just curious & wants to be part of what is going on.

The cutest thing Mama did was one night she went to sleep on the back of the sofa & was so relaxed that she slid down around Allan’s shoulders. She was so sound asleep that she was not aware of it when he slowly moved & she slid down to the seat in a big lump, sitting on her backbone. She looked as if she were drunk. Even her eyes were dazed looking.

When I am looking for Mom & cannot find her, all I have to do is go outside & walk around the yard, & she will appear from somewhere.

She also likes climbing the dogwood tree & going on the roof in the winter because the dark shingles hold the heat & it is warm. Also, likes to sleep on the hood of my car because it is warm when I have driven somewhere.

If I say nice things about Mom or talk to her, she sits & looks at me & squints her eyes & looks as if she is smiling. Other times she stares at me as if she is not interested.

When I feed Mom she knows where the food is kept so she runs over to the container & we pick out a can of cat food. If she does not like it she goes through the motions of burying it! Then she goes to the cabinet & reaches for the dry food box on the counter.

Mama Cat can also open the back door if it is cracked but not open far enough for her to walk into the kitchen. I tell her to put her paws on the door & push. She does it every time, opens the door & walks in.

Mama has pretty green eyes. Every visit to the vet, someone comments on them. The eyes are very green & bright & clear. She is 8 years old now & is very pretty, active & healthy.

She hates to ride the half mile to the vet. She cries all the way there & back. Must be the sound of the engine because she does not cry until the car is turned on. She weighs 13 pounds.

4-24-2007

Today is a sad day/week for me. I lost my old friend from Atlanta, Mary Arnold, who was buried in Savannah on Sunday, the same day my long time friend from Louisville, Ga., Phil Denny, died.

Margie Purvis died today at Hospice. Another good friend, Betty Ann Beldin, was also in Hospice and died today.

All of the sick people above are special, but nothing to compare with the loss of my Mama Cat. She was my best and most faithful friend.

Mom’s health has been bad for a year or more. Not eating hardly any food but drank lots of water. She was so soft and had a beautiful face. She lost so much weight that she was very weak the last few weeks and could hardly walk.

I took her to 4 vets over a year & was told that she was old, & loss of appetite was normal. Not in Mama’s case. The 4th vet gave her 3 shots & it was amazing how much better she walked, & ate well for a few days before going back to not eating much.

For months she could not retain the food so it was no wonder she lost weight.

Mama sat on my lap every time I sat down & I loved to pet her soft fur & listen to her purr. Today I knew that she was going to die. Her pupils enlarged so big her eyes looked black. I held her like a baby (which she did not usually like) but she lay in my arms & just looked at me. After several hours she made a coughing sound several times & then her heart stopped.

I placed her little body on a white towel in a box & placed her in our garden next to Harry.

I will miss Mama Cat. She was my best friend. She never failed to meet me when I drove into the carport. She woke me up every morning & was a wonderful mother & friend to everyone.

The only time she ran & hid was when workmen came. She was a friend to other men, but not repair men.

Our neighbor has a very friendly, beautiful orange colored Persian, Thomas, who comes over several times a day to visit. Mama does not like for him to come into her yard, so when she comes out the door & Thomas is present, she hisses & takes a swing at him.

He and our other cat named Monte (the man who came to dinner & stayed) always had nice manners & sat about 6′-8′ away until she ate her food, then they moved in.

Mama was born 12-25-1988 & died today 4-24-2007. 19 years + 4 months. She was a beautiful lady. My friend.

Mama lost her hearing, & if I wanted to call her I banged on the side of the house & she would appear.

Mama & her son Harry looked just alike. I loved them dearly.

When I was taking a bath one day, the door slowly opened & she came in & sat on the counter & watched me bathe. She always liked drinking from the faucet instead of a bowl.

Mama Cat had a beautiful, sweet little face with pretty green eyes & soft fur. I loved holding her. As she grew older she spent a lot of hours in my lap.

Harry was missing & when I looked for him, he was by the opening to go under the house. Both of my kitties were such a pleasure to have in my life.

Mama is buried in our garden next to Harry. I really do miss her.

——————

After losing Harry, Betty resolved never to have another pet. No one believed her, of course.

In 2008, the neighbor who owned Thomas announced that he was moving, and he asked Betty to take Thomas. He said the cat was too old to handle the stress of a move.

Actually, it was an act of kindness. The neighbor knew Betty loved the cat dearly. Thomas spent his days and many nights with Betty anyway.

Betty accepted graciously. Thomas died in 2012 at the amazing age of 25.

Betty and Thomas at home, 2010.

Betty and Thomas at home, 2010.

Some of the graves in Betty's garden.

Some of the graves in Betty’s garden.

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Web of Life

This is my second post in two weeks about wolves and the balance of nature. Go figure.

—————

“Sustainable Man” is an online movement that promotes peace, empathy, equity, justice, and environmental protection — as opposed to, you know, fear, greed, and consumption. The goal is to leave future generations a sustainable planet.

The idea originated with brothers Chris and Steve Agnos, who produce videos for their website to get their messages across. The brothers are environmentalists of particular intelligence and compassion; they probably don’t vote Republican.

If you have a scintilla of respect for Planet Earth, and if, like me, you despair about our future, then you may be encouraged by one especially excellent Sustainable Man video, “How Wolves Change Rivers.”

A link to the video and a transcript of the narration are below.

Please note that when the British narrator refers to the “deer” of Yellowstone National Park, he means, in fact, American elk. In Europe, “deer” often is an umbrella term for deer, reindeer, elk, and moose.

Wolves howlng

How Wolves Change Rivers

A video by Sustainable Man, narrated by George Monbiot

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom.

And the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995.

Wolf stalking

Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals. But perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others.

Before the wolves turned up -– they’d been absent for 70 years -– the numbers of deer (because there had been nothing to hunt them) had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park, and despite efforts by humans to control them, they’d managed to reduce much the vegetation there to almost nothing. They had just grazed it away.

But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects.

First, of course, they killed some of the deer. But that wasn’t the major thing.

Much more significantly, they radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park -– the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges.

And immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood.

And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds and migratory birds started to increase greatly.

The number of beavers started to increase, because beavers like to eat the trees. And beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers. They create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.

Wolves

The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise — which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers.

Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left.

Bears fed on it, too. And their population began to rise, as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs. And the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.

But here’s where it gets really interesting.

The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed. More riffle sections. All of which were great for wildlife habitats.

The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often. So the rivers became more fixed in their course.

Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places, and the vegetation recovering on the valley side, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that, as well.

So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park -– this huge area of land — but also its physical geography.

Wolf howling

——————

Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Don’t sell out.

— Christopher Reeve

 

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QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA — A man was arrested last month for robbing a 7-Eleven store while wearing a flower pot on his head and wielding a chainsaw. 

According to police, the intoxicated man entered the store at 4:30AM and lunged at the two employees with the chainsaw, forcing them into a back room. Loudly demanding cash, he splintered several shelves with the chainsaw. After mooning the employees, the man fled with a stolen soft drink. 

Responding to the employees’ call for help, police quickly apprehended the flower-pot-wearing man. He was charged with armed robbery, going armed to cause fear, willful damage, possessing suspected stolen property, and public nuisance. 

7-11 robber

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — On a dark street near Manchester University last month, a 32-year-old robber approached a lone student, pointed a pistol at him, and demanded the student’s cell phone. 

The student, age 18, pointed to the side and exclaimed, “Wow! What’s that over there?” 

The robber fell for it and looked, and the student punched him in the face. As the assailant reeled from the blow, the student fled. 

University security staff saw the episode on camera and alerted police. The would-be robber was arrested moments later. He was charged with attempted robbery and possessing an imitation firearm. 

Look over there

BALI, INDONESIA — At the Uluwatu Temple in Bali, a Brazilian tourist was taking a photo of the resident monkeys when one of the monkeys grabbed the camera and ran.

The temple is home to a troop of Balinese macaques famous for snatching the belongings of visitors. 

The man said he coaxed a group of monkeys with fruit, then tried to get a picture. He said the monkey struck with lightning speed.

“After a few minutes of panic,” the man reported, “A sweet lady who works in the temple made a deal with Mr. Monkey and traded my camera for some fruits.”

The camera was returned with minor scratches — and a selfie taken by the macaque. 

Macaque

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The evolution of the late author and ecologist Aldo Leopold from hunter to environmentalist was a simple progression.

(1) Was hired by ranchers to kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions preying on livestock. (2) Came to respect the animals and see the crucial role of predators in the balance of nature. (3) Spent the rest of his life promoting wildlife and wilderness conservation.

Leopold believed that all things — animals, plants, soils, and waters — are part of a collective “land-community.” He championed a “land ethic” in which humans become steward/protectors of the environment, not conquerors.

Makes sense to me.

In his best-known book, “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold wrote clearly and directly about his transformation.

It’s an essay that ought to be taught in every school along with the multiplication tables.

—————

Chapter 11

Thinking Like a Mountain

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

* * *

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)

Aldo-2

Aldo-3

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Without a Dog

Being a writer, and a dog fancier clean to the bone, I appreciate a good story about canine behavior and the influence dogs can have on people.

That’s why I was so taken by a recent essay in Bark Magazine by Katherine Goldberg, a veterinarian in Ithaca, New York. Goldberg wrote about Sydney, a female pooch she rescued in 2006 from a garbage dump in Bucerias, Mexico.

Although now thoroughly acclimated to being a house pet, Sydney is quite self-sufficient, as you can imagine a former street dog would be. So, when Sydney ran off one day in September — disappeared, lit out — Goldberg set out anxiously to find her — but wasn’t too concerned about the dog’s well being.

However, a few days later, with Sydney still missing, Goldberg’s anxiety began to escalate. She undertook an all-out search. She posted missing-dog flyers. She set traps baited with food.

The experience had a greater impact on Goldberg than she expected. She later wrote this about her feelings during the time Sydney was on the run:

—————

Days four and five were scenes of increasing despair and decreasing function. Overwhelmed by calculations of how many years it had actually been since I’d lived without a dog, and preparing myself for that new reality, I was raw and just plain lonely.

We take for granted the presence of a dog — even a quiet one who doesn’t do much and isn’t very soft.

Until there is no dog, it is hard to imagine how much space one actually occupies just by curling up on a small circular cushion that L.L. Bean calls a bed.

Without a dog, there’s nobody to check in with, out of the corner of your eye, just to feel a sense of “you and me, we are both here now” — a sense that, as it turns out, is pretty damn important.

Without a dog, days have less structure — no going home to let the dog out, or feed, or tend to — and while structure doesn’t always equal meaning, I think that with a dog, it does.

Without a dog, being one person in one space is surprisingly lonely. With a dog, there is connection.

—————

Yes, the story had a happy ending. Sydney reappeared at the door of a nearby residence — dirty, but healthy and well-fed, thank you very much. This is how Goldberg described her great relief:

—————

One glass of red wine later, breaking my firm “no dogs in the bed” rule, I buried my face in Sydney’s dirty coat, speckled with vegetation and ticks, and breathed her in. It was the first time in five days that I was alone in my house without being lonely.

As I write this, Sydney is sleeping on her bed after a thorough brushing, tick-picking, and bath. I wish I knew what she was thinking, but I suppose that is one of the mysteries of dogs.

I breathe more deeply knowing that the air in my home is full of dog-ness once again, but I have no idea how we can love them so much.

All I know is that I will probably love her more now that she is outfitted with a GPS device on her collar.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z's. The print is "Master Bedroom" by Andrew Wyeth.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z’s. The print is “Master Bedroom” by Andrew Wyeth.

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Full Disclosure

On Monday, I posted an installment of “This Just In,” one of the regular features on this blog. “This Just In” is a mish-mash of brief, slice-of-life stories from the news that are either funny or ridiculous or both.

The installment in question included this item:

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MOUNTAIN CITY, TENNESSEE — A veteran city police officer was fired last month after he  discharged his weapon inside a Dollar General store, killing a squirrel.

In September, Officer Jody Putnam responded to a call from the store manager, who reported that a squirrel was scampering around inside the store and frightening customers. Initially, Putnam pepper-sprayed the squirrel, but the fumes spread and sent customers running for the exits, hacking and coughing.

Putnam then drew his handgun and fired multiple shots, killing the squirrel. The remaining customers stampeded from the store in panic.

Mountain City officers are required by city ordinance to file a written report after a weapon is discharged. Putnam refused to file a report and was terminated by the City Council.

Squirrel

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Yesterday, I received an email from an informed reader that included former officer Putnam’s own version of the squirrel incident, which he sent to a local TV station.

It contains much surprising information — including (1) the fact that the squirrel, far from being blown away as news reports stated, was captured, taken from the building, and released unharmed, and (2) the fact that Mr. Putnam is running for county sheriff next year. Wow.

Maybe, the informed reader gently suggested, I should post Putnam’s side of the story, too.

Indeed, I should. Here, in the interest of full disclosure, is former officer Putnam’s account, complete and unedited.

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In late September I received a call from my 911 dispatch stating there was a squirrel inside the Dollar General Store on Church Street in Mountain City. At the time of receiving the call from 911 dispatch they stated to me that they were unable to get Animal Control or the T.W.R.A. to respond to the incident.

Upon my arrival I was told by the store manager that a squirrel was loose inside the building, and she was afraid it may bite one of the customers, and that it was also destroying merchandise inside the store.

At that time she directed me to the shelving inside the store, stating the animal was behind the shelf and between the wall. A short time later we were able to locate the animal in the bottom base of one of the shelves.

At that time I placed phone calls again trying to see if I could get Animal Control to respond, but again a response from them was not available.

I told the store manager this, and she stated we have to do something because I am concerned the animal may bite someone.

I told her my resources were limited in what I had to take care of the situation, and that I did not have any equipment to catch the animal.

She asked me if I could spray the animal in an effort to try to get it out of the building and I stated to her you know you are asking me to deploy my chemical weapon on this animal.

She said yes I know that, but if we can’t get a response from Animal Control, then we have to do something to remove the animal.

I told her that if I deployed my chemical weapon on the animal that I was not concerned about the pepper agent causing a problem because it has to be in direct contact with the skin, but that there would likely be a small amount of CS gas that would disperse in the building.

She stated she understood, but to go ahead and try to get it out. I told her to turn up her ventilation system, and open the doors to the building as well as suggesting placing fans at the door to aid in ventilation of the building.

She took this action and with the help of a customer we located the animal again in the base cabinet, and I deployed a one second burst of chemical spray onto the animal.

The animal did not come out and exit the building like I hoped it would, but instead continued it’s way toward the middle of the building, still staying behind the shelves, and out of my reach.

I then received another phone call and was told that they were still unable to get Animal control. I then relayed this information to the store manager.

At this time she asked me if I could shoot the animal. I advised her that with the type of ammo I carried that shooting the animal with that ammo would be overkill, and I would rather not kill it if possible. I then checked an found I had a low grain round of ammo and told her that I could use this round, but my intention was to stun the animal, not to kill it.

She said that was fine. I instructed her to get a heavy towel to throw on the animal so we could get it out of the building. I also told her to instruct everyone inside the building to move to the far side wall away from me for their safety, and to create a cover for them, and also told her to advise everyone that there was a possibility they may hear a handgun go off inside the building.

I then checked outside of the building to make sure nobody could be harmed if the round discharged made it through the wall.

I then re-entered the building went to the area where the animal was at, as well as the store manager. She then vacated the area also going to the far side of the building.

I then started watching the animal and as it traveled down the shelves coming closer to me I took my pistol and when it was directly in front of me I discharged one shot into the shelf, and the wall at a distance of around 7 to 10 inches from myself and the wall.

The animal then exited the shelf started running through the store, and I was running after it. As I closed on the animal I holstered my firearm, and stepped on the animal’s tail to catch it.

At that time I instructed the store manager to throw the towel on the animal wrap it up and head out the door with it, at which time she did, and the animal was released unharmed.

As for the rumors of screams inside the building, none was heard except from the animal once I caught it.

I was then notified that Animal Control was on their way to which I told them to disregard because I had already taken care of the problem.

As for Mr. Duffield that spoke on the news, he was not in the building except the time I arrived, and we were talking about how to get the animal. He left the building as soon as the burst of chemical weapon was deployed.

The reason I took the measures I took was because I was concerned that if I refused to take action after being dispatched on the call, and had I have not taken some action to resolve the problem, and the animal did in fact bite someone inside the building I could have been liable for that if I did not take some kind of action to resolve the problem.

It was a damned if you do and a damned if you don’t situation, and I had to make a judgement call.

I can assure you that I exercised every precaution I could take to ensure no human life was in jeopardy but that of mine only.

I am trained to preserve life, and property. Not jeopardize it.

This incident happened on a Thursday evening just around 5pm and I heard nothing else about this incident until the following Tuesday when I was not working, and I recieved a call from the Chief. He wanted to know why there was no report on the animal call, which I told him there was not one, and found this request unusual because we normally have never been required to file a report on an animal call.

I asked him why do you need a report, what is going on, and he stated to me “you violated department policy by discharging a firearm inside a business” and then requested me to come to the department over the incident.

I then made a phone call to the Sergeant of the Department and asked him what was going on, and he stated to me the Assistant Chief and an Investigator are at the Dollar Store trying to get the bullet out of the wall, and the Chief has me out trying to obtain statements from people about the incident.

I then called the Chief back, and asked him not once, but three times if I was under investigation, and after asking for the third time he stated “I guess if that’s what you want to call it” I then advised him I was not issuing any written report, or statements until I spoke to counsel, due to not being notified I was under investigation, and not being advised of my Garrity Rights.

I did however secure my department policy manual, and did not find any prohibition of discharging a firearm inside of a business, but I did find policy stating that officers were permitted to kill dangerous or injured animals.

I contacted counsel who in turn contacted the city attorney about the matter, and due to a city council meeting being held on that evening inquiry was made by my counsel as to whether this matter was going to be discussed at the meeting that evening. The city attorney stated to my counsel that he was told the matter was not going to be heard that evening.

I called the city manager and asked her if the matter was going to be heard that evening, and she told me no it wasn’t. I then asked her to notify the Mayor because I wanted a work session scheduled with the Mayor, Alderman, and Chief of Police so we could discuss this incident. She stated she would make the notification.

Later that evening while I was at home I received a phone call from the Chief stating the council had voted to terminate me for insubordination.

The issue that I was told was not going to be heard that night was heard after all, and I was not notified of it so that I could be present to argue my case.

Am I guilty of insubordination, yes I am because I have worked there for 5 years, have put down several animals as well as other officers, and at no time was I ever told a report was required, a handgun discharge report was required, or notification of a supervisor was required when a firearm was discharged.

Yes it exists in the policy manual, but that policy was never enforced until this incident, and if you enforce policy, then policy is to be followed every day, not just during a conflict.

I have knowledge of other incidents that have occurred inside the department that was in direct violation of department policy, should have resulted in disciplinary action or termination but these incidents were not addressed.

That is the reason I have taken the action I have, and I am almost certain not on handgun discharge report exists inside the department until after this incident, and my termination.

It is no secret that I am seeking the Office of Sheriff in Johnson County in the 2014 election, and I know that some people are not happy about that decision.

I can’t help but to believe there are political factors playing into this situation, especially after news media are notified two weeks after this incident occurred, and after I rebutted a story published on the front page of our local newspaper concerning the incident with totally inaccurate information.

The same inaccurate information that was allowed to be aired on your station, that in turn went nation wide.

The sad thing is when your station approached my Chief that day concerning this matter, I had been in his office even after being terminated, and told him what had occurred at the Dollar Store. Instead of giving a statement then he told me he did not tell the news media anything, but they did get a copy of my personnel file. To which I responded to him I was not concerned about the personnel file because there was nothing in it.

Your news story aired that evening, and I watched a 20 year career destroyed in about 5 minutes. And my Chief would not answer the phone after the story aired.

He actually knew what happened, but wouldn’t make a statement to your station.

So this is the actual events that occurred, and why I chose to stand up for myself, and that is why I have retained the Southern States P.B.A. to represent me and the city government has been notified, as well as a freedom of information request was filed last Tuesday evening in writing to the entire city council and the Chief of Police for release of copies of any and all handgun discharge reports on file per department policy, and copies of any and all reports filed by officers in reference to animal calls.

Today is the seventh day of the freedom of information request, and I have got no response from the city, and no response has been directed to my attorney either.

In reference to your eye witness account of the Dollar Store incident. I remember her she was a white female with dark hair approx 5ft to 5ft 3 carrying a child, and pushing an empty buggy. As I was going after the squirrel I had my firearm at my side. Not in a drawn position. And the reason the firearm was at my side was due to the fact I had removed my magazine containing my duty ammo, and chambered one low grain bullet and I did not replace the magazine into the firearm. When a Glock handgun is fired with one round only, and no magazine in the pistol it results in a empty magazine action that automatically locks the slide back after the last round is fired.

As i approached the eye witness I activated the slide release on the firearm so I could holster it. But at that time the firearm was completely empty. As for any statements I was alleged to have made the only thing I recall is yelling at the store manager to throw the towel on the animal and remove it from the store. Based upon the eye witness’s location inside the store which was near the entrance, and the fact that she was pushing an empty shopping cart, I could only assume she had just entered the building, and was totally unaware of what was going on inside the building.

But I can assure you 100% I did not have my firearm drawn in a defensive firing position at her. It was an empty Glock with a slide locked back in my right hand down to my side, and once I released the slide lock I was able to holster my firearm.

Jody Putnam

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Life, especially in a small town, can be stranger than fiction and equally as entertaining.

And if Mr. Putnam is elected county sheriff next year, it will be even more so.

JCSD

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