Stories originate with each soul, Even the soul of cats. My Grandad’s raven sharp barn cat’s soul came with an abundance of independence. Although within Wild Pete’s physical dimension, he operated as a somewhat muddy and manuery (if that’s a word) barn cat.
In 1953 my family called me Butch and I’m compelled to tell this brief story that belongs lovingly to my Grandad, me and Wild Pete. I met Pete at age five on a snowy, bitter cold November morning,. Let’s look back .
My parents had gone to Reno and dropped my sister and I off to spend a few days with our maternal grandparents. Our grandparent’s house, recently built, had this marvelously large rectangular picture window. The window located in the kitchen breakfast nook furnished a grand view. In the spring Grammy Lena’s yard with its many flowers and shrubs radiated beautiful color and blooms. Then stood the giant cedars with their rich green bough canopy that spread an earthy smell and on a hot day, shade. Through that window on a clear day, in the distance Grayback Mountain reached high into the sky and stood stately above its Siskiyou Mountain neighbors. The house featured along with that wondrous view, electricity and indoor plumbing. An exciting treat.
* * *
Born in April 1948, from the family I’ve heard it a thousand times. You were born in April and six inches of snow fell in the valley that day. So maybe snow in my life became a webfoot prophecy? I’ve discovered and dealt with the cold and snow beginning early in my life in rural Josephine County outside the little town of Cave Junction, Oregon. My dad plowed snow for a living. See what I mean? Now I live in Nevada and seeing snow in the distance on Mt. Charleston provides me with such pleasure because I can describe the snow as distant.
Our family was country. Our little home, so unlike our Grandparent’s home, stood along a narrow road about eight miles from the logging town. We toileted in a single hole outhouse. Trekking to the outhouse in the dark through freezing rain or snow and cold elevated my fear to a God help me, please? Dad hands you a flashlight and tells you “If you have to poop, that’s where you go.” I would have preferred the thunder mug. At four or five years old if I thought SHIT, that’s appropriate, right? So go to the wooden smelly outhouse twenty yards from any real light other than that shone by the moon or stars, if the clouds were away. Well-equipped meant a charged battery, a handful of Montgomery Ward catalog pages and zero constipation. Now, only the bears, coyotes and mountain lions to worry about. And, of course, spiders. First, I shine the light out into the orchard hoping to not see surprised, shining animal eyes, then point inside the outhouse as if someone else or something might be attending. I light the walls and corners for spiders at home in their webs. The only heat inside those outhouse walls comes from my brain, the red-hot speed of fear. The most hostile creature feature was the deep, dark hole Itself maybe the devil’s doorway? I used to think so. Damn, I hated those trips. Those trips made a hand pump at the kitchen sink look futuristic. Our only interior light came from kerosene power and our only heat from a wood stove. Yes, it’s true in 1953, taking baths in a little round metal tub with the hand rings on either side was a family affair and equal pleasure to a nightly serving of cherry jubilee compared to that outhouse experience. I still roll over sometimes at night contemplating what those trips to the outhouse might’ve done to my psyche. Best of all though was visiting with Jim and Lena, our grandparents, in a well equipped modern home.
* * *
Our first night after dinner during an apple pie dessert, Grandad asks me if I would like to go with him the next morning and milk cows. There were thirteen Guernsey dairy cows to milk, the head count mattered not to me, but the adventure, now that mattered.
Winter was settling onto our little valley. Grammy objected, “Jim, it’s going to snow. It will be too cold for him.”
“No it won’t. We’ll dress warm, won’t we Butch. He’ll be fine.” He looks me in the eye, his blue eyes sparkling above a wide grin and below a shiny bare scalp. “There’s bears around but I promise to not let them get frisky. How about it Butch, you want to go?”
“Yes sir,” I say bravely while wondering in my five year old mind if I had made a terrible mistake by agreeing to go. I wished that agreement could be more closely examined or get some sort of second chance. Too late.
“Okay. I’ll wake you up at five, you get up and get dressed warm and we’ll go milk thirteen cows. Have you met my barnyard cat, Pete?”
“No Granddad,” I said swallowing a bite of apple pie.
“He’s afraid of bears Grandad,” my sister reported.
“I am not,” I fibbed.
“Yes you are,” she said.
“Tell the truth, I am not,” I fibbed again.
“The truth is that you are afraid of bears.”
Granddad interjected“We’ll take care of any bear that happens by, because I’m afraid of them myself.”
“See,” I said.
“A bear might have you for breakfast,” she answered.”
* * *
I’m rambling . I got so silly with a five year old’s minute or two. Sorry.
Wild Pete, me, Grandad and the cows ,
Recall spins a boy’s distant past and allows,
A once upon a time tale wanting to last.
Time oh time, damn you time,
Fade not this, that so pleasingly passed.
It’s so cold, polar cold. Red nose cold. Grandad pulls his homemade milk cart, arms extending behind him. Shoulders lean forward. Hands thick, naturally gloved and croc tough, curl around the cart’s steel handlebar. The cart groaning in clangs and clinks, the metal wheels scraping the frozen rocky path to the barn. Empty milk cans and equipment clink and bump. We pass under the cedars where snowflakes tangle with the limbs so fewer reach the ground. The snow drops a cerebral comfort and quiet feeling on me and distracted from my fear of bears. I watch for them though. Grandad spits tobacco through the flakes about five times on the way to the barn.
The barn takes shape larger and darker with each step, outlining itself within the falling snow as we draw close. The sagging peak, and on the peak’s end a rusty metal image of a wind spun rooster silhouetted against the white gray moving sky. The barn appears like a grand monument. Mighty and wonderfully spiritual. My first real trip to the barn to see my Grandad milk his beloved Guernseys, now I am excited. Large snowflakes disturbed by a circular breeze fluttered about as though albino butterflies having lost any sense of direction.
He pulls the cart to the ramp and to begin unloading his milking equipment and taking them inside the long serving, cold barn. Not one bear did I see.
Inside he prepares for milking, setting up the equipment and has me stand quietly against the wall just inside the ramp entry while he herds the cows to their stanchions. They are happy to come inside from the snow and cold but seem to tease Grandad a bit with their angles and lollygagging. He teases them back. Cussing and pushing at their hind ends and calls them by the family women’s name. For example, Goddamn it Jenny, move your fat ass over so Sonnie can get to her stall. Each cow’s name comes from a family woman’s name and I could never figure out how he could tell the difference. They all look the same to me.
Grammy while baking apple pie, or canning apple butter or cleaning and taking care of the chickens often complained of Granddad’s cussing because she had good ears and he sometimes got pretty loud coercing those cows to cooperate. “That dirty old man, God’s going to punish him if he doesn’t quit that swearing.” she would say. I don’t recall he ever quit or reduced his cussing. I think God took him anyway because God is nature and so was Grandad.
I spot the cat. “Grandad, I see Pete.” Wild Pete stands a boxer’s distance, seeming to size my reach, his back hunches a bit and the black ears lay back. His eyes watch me warily like maybe I’m going to want a bite of his mouse. His eyes are lemon yellow, and the pupils are enlarged.
“That’s Wild Pete, Butch. The meanest damn barnyard cat in all the valley. ”
Grandad, aye, a rugged garden growing nature walk,
loves to grow apples, milk cows and farm talk.
Pete roams, captures mice on his farm,
His kitty mansion, a fine old ramshackle barn.
Nestles to sleep by mouse bones in caves of hay.
Granddad’s workplace that barn, he toils there every day.
“Keeps the mice busy chasing them around and catches one for dinner often. I’ll show you something important after I get the pulsation going.”
Wild Pete’s black coat could use a bath and grooming, but he seems untouchable. I do sense a friendly bone in his body but maybe I’m mistaking that for a hungry bone.
Granddad locks the cows in their stanchions and I can hear them peacefully chewing hay or slurping grain as they feed. Occasionally a friendly moo sounds as grandad places a leather strap over the first two cows to be milked. The strap crosses their backs directly above the udder. He attaches to the strap ends to a thin curved metal bar from which he hangs the milk container. The container, called a surge bucket, resembles a cow’s udder in size and shape with the tube cluster on top. Interestingly, the cow’s udder cluster tubes (teats) point down into a metal udder cluster tubing (lined with synthetic rubber) pointing up. The tubes connect with a sucking swoop drawn with a vacuum and the milk harvest begins, pulsating choo chau, choo chau, choo chau as the motor runs. I observed all this with wonder keeping my eye on Pete who keeps his eyes on me from a measured distance.
“Come on Butch, want to show you something.” Pete moves just before we do. We go the other way into a part of the barn that serves as a tractor pull through entrance and exit to load or unload winter hay. The space has a dirt floor with a thin layer of strewn hay.
He puts a hand on my shoulder, “Butch you see that ladder?” A wooden ladder is part of the barn and ladders on the wall all the way to the top where it ends at the inside peak of the roof. “Now I want you to look up to the top of the ladder. Thirty five years ago my dad was up there repairing louvers in that vent you see. You see the vent?”
“I see it Grandad.”feeling my whole body shiver.
“Well, he fell.” He shook my shoulder and our eyes fixed. “Dad hit that cross beam up there.” He pointed up, “and then hit the ground. Broke his neck.’
“That’s a long way to fall Grandad.”
“Yes, it is. I was standing about where you and I stand right now and saw him fall. He was dead when I kneeled down to see if I could help. He is your great grandfather Butch. His name was Pete. Now you know the origin of my Wild Pete’s name. My barn yard friend I named after my dad. I was eighteen, been farming by myself ever since. Pete has fifteen years or so. Damn good barn cat so I shouldn’t say by myself really. Pete’s been here.” Grandad reaches into a small crevice and pulls out a bottle of whisky, unscrews the cap and takes a chug. “Don’t you be telling your Grammy I got this bottle. C’mon let’s get back to milking. You watch for Wild Pete. You won’t ever touch him. He’s wild as grizzly and meaner than a honey badger. You can still earn his respect though, remember Pete is wild. Take what he gives you.”
I wonder if there is both a before breakfast drink and an after-dinner drink?
I notice Pete with his arched spine, ears laying back and eyes empty of trust.
Wild Pete scratches a dark crevice with paws of straw and manure,
Traps and teases a fat, country mouse to skewer,
Then greedily dines intuiting only the predator, not the prey,
Will enjoy Grandad’s warm cup of milk this cold must die day.
Pete knew I was going to move, and in which direction, before I move. How?
Grandad was milking the last cow and he left one teat open. “Be still Norma,” he says to the the Guernsey. He had a tin cup in his hand and the other surrounds the teat, he gently squeezes and pulls down and squirts milk in the cup several times until I could see fresh milk near the rim.
“Butch, you want a taste?”
“No sir.” Too late he aims the teat at me and squeezes a wet white stream. It finds the mark. My mouth. Grandad laughs. “Take this cup and hold it out on the ramp till I get these girls out of here then we’ll feed Wild Pete. The cows left a little reluctantly but stayed out of the snow by milling around in the pull through area.
“Okay Butch, set the cup down over there on the floor under my bench a little and come back here to the ramp.”
I set the milk down. When I looked up there was Pete sitting just inside the exit near the cows on the other end. Eyes again, round and hungry intently watch me. He needs me to step away before he can enjoy his breakfast, maybe wash down a mouse part. I want Wild Pete’s respect so I engage his gaze with all my five year old, inexperienced heart. Come on Wild Pete, I promise not to do anything but give you this milk. After a few seconds Pete stands and moves towards the cup but stops short a few strides and connects with me, Okay lad, this is my barn, you come again, stay but stay out of my way, he tells me as the back arch softens, ears perk, pupils dilate and the distance between us shrinks. He focuses on the milk. Grandad loads the cart. Lastly, Grandad pushes a flat nose shovel through a trench where a few cows left their nitrogen rich fertilizer. The trench drops manure in a bin outside the barn.
Cows have souls, an outhouse too, sort of, I bet they are afraid of bears too. Wild Pete though, much smarter than the bear.
“You think there’s bears going back to the house?” Granddad smiles down at me, “No bears Butch, but one helluva pile of snow. You keep a look out in case.”
“Okay. Thanks Grandad and Wild Pete too. I think he respects me now because of the milk and we understand each other.”
"Good, let's go get warm."
Granddad, Pete and Wild Pete left,
Bittersweet endings drew them far away.
They’ve gone there to stay.
Into the green fields of heaven
where cows and cats and Grandad's graze free.
Their souls dancing and singing, waiting for me.