Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An Old Acquaintance

I have vivid memories of Richard. He was a likeable enough chap; slender but muscular, with graying hair and a beard to match, a pointed forehead, and bright eyes that spoke of his many experiences and adventures. The graying could have been premature; it was hard to judge his age. I met him quite by accident while visiting old friends who lived on a farm in Mascoutah, a neighboring town to Belleville, Illinois where we had just purchased a home. Richard was introduced to us, my family and me, as one of the farm helpers. It was easy to see that Richard was a trusted hand who put in long hours for modest reward. He had just come in from grooming a neighboring field and showed his enthusiasm for the gathering, making an effort to amuse the guests and doing his best to show he was a vital part of the family farming efforts. His droll mannerism and his cut ups were entertaining if not somewhat overbearing, the most annoying one was his penchant for butting in to conversations at inopportune moments. He had a penchant for making a curious sound. not at all unlike that of a goat, a sort of naaaa, injected into conversations at inappropriate moments. One had to wonder what his motivating factor was.

But I digress. We had been invited to come out and enjoy the fruits of the early summer harvest and had just settled in at an outdoor picnic table adorned with platters of bratwurst and barbecued chicken, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, baked beans, and cole slaw. This was an especially enjoyable time for me as I had just graduated the week before from a year’s residency at the Air Force Command & Staff College in Alabama. I had been given seventeen days of leave before reporting to Travis Air Force Base in California for further reassignment to Vietnam. I was using the time to relocate my family to Belleville where we had been stationed previously and to where I was informed I would be reassigned following my year in the Nam.

So it was with great joy to reunite with old friends from nearby Scott Air Base and see how they had developed their small acreage and, with the help of a few hands like Richard, had been able to start a lively little part time hobby farm while still serving on active duty. However, as things go in the military, one has no guarantee of how long they will be able to remain in a given location. Our friends were sadly announcing that day they would soon be leaving their home for an overseas assignment and would necessarily have to suspend their farming operations – either selling or renting the property. A good purchase offer had been received but one that stipulated that none of the help would be acceptable and they would have to let them go prior to closing.

During our conversation I mentioned my plans for our new home in Belleville and how I needed to find someone to take care of the yard during my year’s absence. As I described the large back yard, the garden and small pond my friend J.D. seemed to light up. He said, “Richard might be the answer to your problems. We have to let him go and I think he would like taking care of your yard.” Realizing that I would have to hire someone to do this, the idea had appeal. The only problem in my mind was that Richard had four legs and did I mention that I had no idea about the care and feeding of a goat? Yes, Richard was their prized goat and he grazed the large pasture and kept it totally groomed….no need for mowing. Richard could not have hired a better public relations firm than J.D. and Joyce. Yes we could stake Richard out on a chain and move him periodically so that he wouldn’t overgraze and with judicious movement… perhaps once every day or so, we could keep our acre in good shape. By the time they finished touting the merits of Richard we were all clamoring for the chance to put Richard to work on our yard. So when they allowed that Richard could be ours at no cost, it was impossible to say no. My son Earl and daughter Debbie were obviously overjoyed to have this new addition to our family and one that would relieve them of lawn mowing chores. My wife was a bit more reserved about the deal but usually trusted my judgement in matters beyond the interior walls of our household. So with no dissenting votes it was agreed that Richard would be delivered at such time as their sale closed which was just days before I was due to leave for Travis. All the way home that evening I congratulated myself on making such a shrewd bargain and overjoyed that I wouldn’t have to pay someone to come in and cut our grass.

That night I formulated the plan that would relieve us of having to stake poor Richard to a chain. I would fence in the back yard and pond. I wanted to do this anyway because of the hazard of the pond to neighboring children. The next morning found me at the local hardware store, getting briefed on how to install chain link fencing. It arrived the next day, all 750 feet of it. To the left is a picture of Richard's realm.

Needless to say I was gainfully employed for the remainder of my leave, digging holes, putting in posts and rails and stretching fencing. I finished with a few days to spare and just in time to welcome Richard to his new home in our fully fenced in yard.

Richard seemed to take well to the new surroundings. He showed little concern that we had recently acquired some other livestock – a small family of Mallard ducks that had wandered in and made themselves at home on and around our pond. I believe the kids had a big hand in inducing them to relocate from wherever they had come. They wandered in, the mom, pop and three little ducklings all in a row, just as I was putting up the final gate. My dear wife had also had a hand in inducing their arrival, supplying Earl and Debbie with bread to drop as the ducks came waddling down the street, single-file, one after the other, from parts unknown, nibbling at the crumbs that had been dropped to lead them right through the gate. It was indeed a happy occasion as we surveyed our newly acquired menagerie. At a family council that evening, the names Hansel and Gretel were selected and agreed to for pop & mom mallard. Although we had no idea at the time that they would remain on the site, they seemed to like dog food and Freya, our Collie, didn’t seem to mind sharing her abundant vittles with the new arrivals. Freya was too intent on seeing to it that Richard didn’t come too close. Old inborn instincts of sheep herding seemed to be reawakened, as the dog was really intent on making sure Richard kept his distance. Misty, our cat, seemed un-amused, but ever nonchalant about the whole thing of having first a goat and now ducks as close neighbors. She continued her usual activities of unearthing a mole almost every night and depositing it on the back doorstep for our morning pleasure and amazement. On the day before I departed I managed to cobble together a large A-frame shelter for Freya. Little did I know that in short order it would become a gathering point for the entire menagerie.

I remember the morning I left to catch my flight to Travis, I felt pretty good about having gotten the family relocated and generally settled into a home in an area where we already had lived before and with which they were familiar. Though rural in character, it was very near schools, shopping, and other town activities. I should mention that it was my wife who found and bought the property in advance of my graduation in Alabama, making the transition and move much easier and smoother. So now, enroute to Vietnam, I could concentrate on what lay ahead, with little worry about the family being well provided for.

It was weeks before the first mail found me. I remember getting a stack of letters (fourteen I think) telling of, among other things, the many and varied experiences with the back yard menagerie. My wife, Lilo, to whom I was married for thirty-three years until her death in 1987, could better relate these tales.. much better than I can at this late date. Lacking her first person input however, I have been reviewing letters and together with recent conversations with my kids I’ve been able to cobble together much of the excitement of those days.

One thing stands out. Richard was no shrinking violet and the numerous flowerbeds in our yard were easy picking for his ravenous appetite. Staking him out did little good it seems, as he would always find a way to get loose and head for more tasty pickings. He didn’t seem to care whether it was a shoe left out to dry or a bowl of dog food…he always seemed to find interesting and varied snacks until several weeks into his arrival it became apparent by the incoming letters that his days on Alexander Drive were numbered. The untidy droppings did little to enamour him to Lilo, and it seemed they found their way into the carpeting on the bottoms of little shoes forgotten to be removed at the door. To make a long story short, but not short enough for her, I wrote that it would be best to get rid of Richard as expeditiously as possible.

Maybe because Lilo was German born she seemed to have a knack for practicality. She immediately contacted everyone we knew to see if anyone could use a goat. Apparently everyone had enough goats, as no takers were forthcoming. JD and Joyce had departed the area and the new owner of their property was not inclined to take him on. A quickly placed add in the paper produced negative results. Save for one call from a retired farmer who suggested that if the goat was such a problem he should simply be butchered….he added that goat meat was quite tasty and even suggested a local meat market that did small scale butchering. So a call was made to Wolf’s Meat Market to inquire if they could come pick-up and butcher our goat.
“No Mam,” came the reply. “We don’t pick-up live stock but if you deliver him we will handle it from there.”

The next letter to arrive related all this. I knew as I was reading it that Lilo would surely find a way to get Richard to Wolf’s Meat Market. She was a very capable gal but I had no idea that her capability would extend to imagining that she could make the delivery herself, especially as our sole mode of transport at the time was a Volkswagen Beetle. It used to have a nice interior too, which I would learn in the fullness of time had been sacrificed in the cause of expediency.

At any rate, my little family held a pow-wow on how to get Richard corralled and into the Beetle. Earl got a rope around poor Richard’s neck and with much coaxing they got him through the gate to the front driveway where the transportation was waiting. Debbie opened the drivers door and pulled the front seat back forward and Lilo said “Come on, Richard, get in the back. We are going for a little ride.” OHHHHH, YEAHHHHH!

Richard had other plans, it seems. Not willing to climb into the back seat, Earl came up with the bright idea of going to the other side, opening the passenger door and attempted to pull ol’ Richard into the back seat. Even with Debbie and Lilo pushing him he balked and bayed. Finally he decided to do it but he bolted in so fast and out the other side that Earl was left floundering, bowled over by the wiley goat, and Richard was half way to the corner before anyone realized that he was no longer attached to Earls dangling rope. As it was now mid morning, curtains up and down the block were pulled back and heads were peering out at this unusual scene, at once new and interesting compared to what normally passes for excitement on Alexander Drive. Fortunately one able and agile man to whom we are ever grateful was able to catch poor Richard and hold him until Earl was able to gain the upper hand with rope reattached. At last Richard was reunited with the back seat of the VW and with Lilo driving and a child sitting on each side of Richard to hold him they made a not to be forgotten drive to Wolf’s Market, Richard Naaaing and complaining the whole way. It must have been a comic sight, that VW cruising down the road with a goat sticking his head out of the open sunroof.

Fate has a way of serving up ironic tricks to try folk’s souls. As this curious VW approached the loading ramp behind Wolf’s Meat Market, it was just past 12 O’clock noon and all the butchers were sitting out on the loading ramp eating their lunch. Lilo drove up and asked one of the men if they could help unload the goat. He replied, thankfully more in jest than seriousness, that their lunch hour would be over at 12:30. She could park and wait. Well this elicited some extreme and not gentle response from my sweet mate and all the guys on the platform were bent over howling at the verbal fireworks. At any rate it went something to the effect that if they had ever in their lives experienced such a day as she was having they would welcome with open arms a couple of pokes in the eyeballs and other similarly attached parts. Well it was all in good fun with the guys and after what seemed an eternity but probably only a small seemingly never ending minute, they took delivery of Richard, who was only too accommodating in exiting the Bug, leaving enough scratches and mars on the seat and upholstery to always remind us of “the morning the goat went to market.”

Earl of necessity replaced Richard as the new grounds keeper. Here he is pictured on the right doing his thing. A few days later, Lilo took delivery of Richard in neat little packages of white butcher paper. He resided in the freezer until I returned. No one wanted to eat him and in the end we gave him to a friend who made mulligan stew for a local homecoming celebration. I’m sure it was a wonderful stew and Richard’s finest hour, if not his last hurrah. No doubt, older long-time residents of Alexander Drive can still remember and tell of the day that Richard went to market in the VW

© 2008 David Agniel


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