the true stories
Russell wanted to play my Mousetrap game and I wanted to see his farm. He asked his folks if I could spend the weekend at his place and I asked my folks if I could go. It was a win-win situation. A cultural exchange between suburbia and the grange. Russell and me couldn't wait for Friday to roll around. I brought my gear to school and his mom picked us up after and drove us a few miles outside Baton Rouge to their property. We were two happy ten year old boys.
It was a small mixed use operation, mainly focused on beef but there was poultry, swine and some dairy animals as well as horses and a few acres of garden. It was big enough that they had a permanent hired hand called Lercy. He was a mysterious, almost tubercular looking man and I remember wondering how he was physically strong enough to actually help. He drove a rusty blue tractor and it was all done up with pictures of naked women taped everywhere inside. Only he or the cat was allowed to sit in the seat.
Russell's dad was a tall, strong young man all dressed up like a cowboy, which was something I hadn't seen too much of in Louisiana. His wife was a sassy red-head brimming with good cheer, confidence, pride and freckles. There was an older brother who's purpose on this earth appeared to be keeping Russell sharp. Kinda reminded me of my own sister.
We got my stuff stowed away in the boys' room and were given a snack. It was time to tour the property. Russell led me around to where the chicken coops were and showed off the rooster who sat atop the little house with a kingly air. Not too far away was an enclosure for some big ole pigs. They were the pink skinned type with white fur. When I saw them they were slathered with black mud and blue clay. They were happily snuffling up what looked like kitchen scraps.
There was a small corral across the way with two horses and a few more wandered the property and came from time to tome to drink from a huge galvanized trough. The balance of the buildings other than the big house was a massive barn, a silo and some various sized pens for cows and an enigmatic turnstile affair, I couldn't figure out the purpose of. Also there was a big long concrete trough full of some nasty looking chemical brew.
Way off to the back was what seemed to me at the time, an endless stretch of good grassland and you could see the herd of cows ruminating under shady patches where some oaks grew by a pond. In addition there were two German Shepherd dogs and a big, dusty black cat. Presently, we heard a commotion from the barn. We stopped at the silo to talk to Lercy. He was busy with some kind of small metal cage. He stood up as straight as he could and answered my many questions about the silo.
“We store a whole lot of grain in there boy. To feed the animals. Also, tell you what, 'tween you and me and the fence-post, if a man puts one of them clay jugs all corked up in the bottom before it gets filled up, guess what you get later on?”
“I don't know”
“Corn squeezins boy, that's what. White lightning.”
“How can it get into a sealed up jar.”
“Boy, the pressure is so heavy that it just forces the juice of the silage through. Drop by drop, kinda like.”
“Yes, Sir. Thanks for teaching me.”
“Nothing to it, son. Now ya'll go on, I got a little job.”
Russell and I ran across to the big open door and wandered inside. The shadowy interior was much cooler and it felt good. The eyes took a moment to adjust. Russell's brother was swinging from a rope, strung from a ceiling beam and jumping off the hay loft to land in a pile of broken bales on the floor. Sunday afternoons were Tarzan movie days in Baton Rouge and every boy worth his salt could imitate the cry of the jungle lord.
We amused ourselves for hours trying to best each other in length of swing, volume of yodel and complexity of dismount. After quite some time, a tall gaunt shadow appeared at the door. It was Lercy and he was toting a big gunny-sack. He shifted his faded welders cap on his sweaty brow and whistled loudly. We turned our attention and saw the two Shepherds come running.
“Lookie here, boys,” he said holding forth the bag which was tied with a knot on top and clearly held something alive struggling to get out.
He swung the bag three times as the dogs jumped around his feet and then tossed it in our direction. The dogs went wild and began to attack the bag from different angles. Shrill squeaks issued forth from the burlap and one of the dogs grabbed the whole shebang and shook it violently. That dog yelped and dropped it immediately. The other hound had a try with the same results and as we watched the two attackers, they worked out a way to each grab one lump at each end of the bag and shake it like a gravel sorter. Soon, they dropped it on the dirt and made a few lunging bites. The bag lay still and the dogs sat, panting.
Lercy strode over and untied the sack. He lifted it up and shook out the contents. Two huge rats plopped out on the ground, quite dead and bloody. He gave a command and the little wolves trotted out the door with their prey and loped into the sultry heat of the day.
“Them dogs done opened up a big ole can of Whoop-Ass!” said Russell.
“Hot dang!” I said, somewhat shaken by the unexpected gladiatorial interlude.
“That's how you learn 'em to kill rats without getting hurt till they figure out the best way to go about it. Come on now, Missus says to call ya'll for supper, boys.”
We had a wonderful meat and potatoes meal in which every last thing down to the butter on the bread was home-made and brimming with goodness. It was no wonder some of those kids I went to elementary school with were so big and healthy. We all ate like farmhands, literally. Lercy went to do some early evening chores and the father went to prepare something for the morrow they had been discussing at dinner.
I wasn't familiar with the terminology they were using so it made no impact on me. The elder boy was sent to do some chores with the smaller animals and Russell and I were guided to clear up the table and go get our hides clean so we could play that dad-gummed game he was so anxious to try. He had talked incessantly of it ever since I had mentioned it at school one day. I could tell that the family was already weary of hearing about it. I also knew that it was the main reason I had been invited by Russell.
It was a crazy contraption wherein, a small ball bearing was put through a hap-hazard obstacle course of mechanical devices that each triggered another portion of the ball's progress. Eventually, if everything went right, a small basket came down on a mouse, trapping it to win the game. The full run of the machine when once set in motion ran for more than a full minute and appealed to the engineer and inventor inside every little boy. Being heavily promoted on TV, it was well known long before it became available.
We scrubbed up by turns and soon were laying with our feet under the bunk-beds and assembling the intricate structure. As soon as we had it built and set, Russell demanded to take it apart and rebuild it so he could learn how it went for when he got his. We did this and I enjoyed the building of it as much or more than the stupid rules and the long dance leading up to triggering the trap and catching the mouse. At lights out, we put it away and I spread out my sleeping bag where we had been playing. Russell's brother snored all night.
The farm was already going full-tilt when we got ourselves dressed next morning. Russell's Mom greeted us and listened to her son describe all the parts of the Mousetrap machine. She was busy making a whopping big breakfast as there were extra hands on deck this morning. There would be a few more men who had been hired for the day. She handed me a big colander and told us to go out where her husband was. Evidently we were going to bring part of the breakfast back with us in that bowl. I was intrigued and proud to be helpful.
“Are we having prairie oysters?” asked Russell with a grin.
“We sure are, hon.”
“What are prairie oysters?”
I reckoned they were some type of fresh-water species and we would gather them up at the pond. My mouth watered remembering my Grandma's Texas seafood gumbo chock full of fresh oysters.
“Come on. You'll see.”
We ran out the kitchen door to the turnstile thing I had seen the day before. Russell's father was relieving his bladder a few feet away from the contraption where a long handle jutted out to the side. He had hung his gloves on the handle and Lercy was there holding a pair of some kind of fancy pliers. There was a couple of men in one of the small pens with a fire going. I knew from watching Bonanza what was going on. They were branding calves.
Russell's father rolled a smoke and told him to show me around first. We went over to where a bunch of small calves had been separated out from the herd into a big pen. Men were leading them through a little walkway one by one to the cement trough where they were encouraged to walk through some kind of medicine dip. The little fellows seemed to want to do it no more than a young boy wants to bathe.
After a good splashing, they were led to the branding area. Here they were hobbled and laid down by a big black man while a Mexican looking fellow pulled an iron out of the little fire and burned in the tattoo on the animal's hind-quarters. The hair smoke stunk of sulfur but the calf didn't bleat any louder than he had when getting his medicine bath. He was let up and directed to another corridor of temporary fence which led right up to the turnstile. We ran back alongside. When the hoofer stepped into the turnstile, Russel's Pa pulled hard on the long handle. The two walls of welded pipe closed like a Venus flytrap onto the calf's sides, immobilizing it.
Lercy squatted down and after adjusting his cap, he reached a bony arm through the pipes and grabbed the calf by the testicles. The other hand came through the bars wielding the pliers and I heard a snick. There on the dusty ground were two longish blobs that resembled chicken livers. Lercy tossed them a few feet away, the lever was raised and the calf ran down to join his mates in a big pen where another man doctored the cut.
This I hadn't seen on TV and I said, “Gawd dawg!”
“It don't hurt 'em none, Mike. That's so they don't grow up and trample everybody. You see, that's the difference in a steer and a bull. Bull still has all his tackle. We keep a couple for breeding separate from the rest,” said Russel's Dad.
I was always thirsty to learn any and everything from anyone who would waste the time to talk to me and this aided my quick recovery from what I had just seen. Wanting to reciprocate, I asked the man where I could find those prairie oysters I was supposed to gather up for our breakfast. I had a white-knuckle grip on my colander and hoped to be sent to the pond yonder.
Before he could answer, Lercy grinned and motioned to the blobs in the dirt that had been hanging from the calf a moment ago.
I looked at Russell and then at his father to see if I was being fooled.
“He's telling you true, son. Ya'll stay right here till we get your bowl full and then bring it on in to my wife.”
I decided to make the best of it. I grabbed up the tissue and plopped it in the bowl. The next calf came and many more behind it. The process was like a well-oiled machine. I started to feel a pride at my infinitesimal part in garnering a living from the soil. The ancient spirit of gathering any kind of food came among us and we started to celebrate as the colander filled up. It was like picking black-berries or catching fish and watching the pile getting bigger.
“We gonna have us a big bunch of prairie oysters,” I chirped.
“Wait till you taste my momma's buttermilk biscuits,” said Russell.
“Goes mighty nice with that bacon, yeah boy,” said Lercy.
“How about we finish this nut-cutting before we start talking food,” said the Boss.
“Then we get to play Mousetrap,” chimed in Russell.
When our bowl was full we raced across to the kitchen and proudly handed over the prize. The lady of the house took the colander and rinsed all the dust off thoroughly. She looked over at me and said I didn't have to eat them if I didn't want to. I told her I sure did want to, if that's what they ate. She smiled and dried them off on a towel, dusted them with flour, salt and pepper and fried them up in a big black skillet. Russel's brother came in with a basket of fresh eggs.
It was one of the best breakfasts I have had down to this day. It was the first and last time I had prairie oysters. They were delicious as I recall. On Sunday morning I had to go home and after rolling up my sleeping bag, I gave the Mousetrap game to Russell. It was the least I could do after such a rarefied weekend. I would have swapped places with him if I could have figured out a way.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.