Other Ways to Pass the Time (and Hint a Homer)
TOUGH OL' BIRDS
by Jerry Murley
Our area of Tennessee is aged and attractive, bringing in the ample purses of successful professionals, champions of commerce, and celebrities. Over the years, the farmland of established families has been devoured bite by bite by housing developments and upscale whole-life communities that include boutique clinics, food stores, and other convenience shops and services. These newcomers, as well as their minions, err considerably if a twang in the voice, a sprinkle of poor grammar, a multicultural set of teeth and gums, a face of day-old gray beard stubble, a dirty baseball cap, a worn blue-jean jacket, and loose-fitting overalls – all succeed in disguising the cagey business sense of farmers whose family lineage in this county pre-dates the Civil War. These grizzled farmers know how to play the market as well as any Wall Street tycoon who is unprotected by a posse of corporate lawyers.
A little before neighbor Paul Franklin, along with his brother, sold a farm on the highway for several million dollars and launched a collection of antique vehicles and a new barn a year, he made a deal with a doctor in the next hollow to take possession of some emus. The emu is a very large ostrich-like bird from Australia valued for its meat and the medicinal properties of an oil that it secretes. Its feathers almost look like a fine clump of high grass. No doubt each party to the deal thought he was getting the best of the other. The doctor probably realized what a handful of trouble an emu is, and Paul thought he was making a sound investment in exotic bird meat to augment his primary product of Black Angus cattle and high-quality hay and straw.
Paul and his family must have fed and cared for the emus well, because the birds grew big. He built a special fenced area for the emus that was about 40 by 80 feet. We could see the birds from the road, and we often saw the feeding of birds in the caged area by members of the Franklin family. We had heard tell that the birds were not delicate creatures. From the road they looked both immensely ridiculous and a tad menacing. And if the bare ground in their fenced area was any indication, their movements were a bit rough on their home turf.
Paul's "investment" of time and capital in such activities suggests layer upon layer of inscrutable motivations. The urban schooled can dwell among these rural men and apprentice them for years and never begin to master their wily ways or gauge the fullness of their character. I have wondered whether they sometimes do what they do in large part for the privilege of recounting the story afterwards.
On most days since his retirement, Bob, Paul's immediate neighbor and distant cousin, sits in his catbird seat, a big, leather recliner in the knotty-pine, solid-wood-paneled den where he keeps his guns and a personal museum of Indian arrowheads, a flint spearhead, a Civil War cannonball, a rack of deer antlers, and other artifacts and objects of nature found on or near his farm. He was, as usual, occasionally glancing at his chair-side weather station to check the temperature and looking out the big picture window to watch the birds feeding on the west side of the house.
Bob's farm has a broad, beautiful, open front pasture on the east and it narrows like a funnel back to the west to five more fields. A ridge runs down both the north and south sides of his land. The parallel hill lines run slightly northwest from the county road. For some, long hollow is the most fitting description and name for the farm. A creek, flowing clear all year long, runs all the way along the base of the south hill line from a spring-fed lake on a neighbor's property to the extreme west. At the entrance of the farm on the south side is a high hill starting immediately at the creek close by the driveway. That hill line turns at about 110-degrees in a slow curve to the southeast, with the creek running at its base but across the county road, until it abuts Paul's farm. That hill ridge ends about 50 yards shy of Paul's emu habitat.
Bob also had a small herd of Black Angus cows. Young cows are interested in unusual moving objects. They, like youthful humans, are sometimes curious to a fault. On this clear, crisp Sunday morning in early March, the dogs must have been off on some pointless canine excursion to parts unknown. Instead of watching the dogs, Bob watched as the young black cows that had been grazing and lounging in the pasture nearest to the house and den window, started moving in the direction of the creek in the next field behind the barn lot. Within minutes, he saw the cows charging back toward the house.
To run the cows is as near a mortal sin as you find on a cattle farm. It ranks even higher than walking on a freshly planted damp garden. When dogs, whether strays, those of neighbors, or family pets, get caught running the cows more than once, they are likely to find themselves on the flamboyant end of a shotgun. There are very few exceptions to this rule and farmers are very direct in communicating the dire consequences to neighbors and family members. Nothing is permitted to alarm the cows.
Well, earlier that week some of Paul's emus escaped their confines and fled over the hill to the north towards Bob's farm. Bob knew that Paul had an emu still on the loose and called Paul to come fetch the bird, when he determined that the emu was the cause of the cows' curious reconnaissance and frightened retreat. He put on his boots and overalls and set out in the direction of the disturbance with the intention of persuading the bird into the barn lot and corralling it there until Paul arrived with a trailer.
Paul had been through the drill before, he drove his truck into the barn lot with a cattle trailer attached. His plan was to encourage the bird into the gated trailer. But soon the gentler approach, seeming futile, was cast off as the two men hatched a new, more daring plan. Bob would grab the bird by the throat and throttle back on his air intake, while Paul secured his legs to keep him from running off or kicking his pursuers. This is when the real battle began.
For several tense minutes there was a thrashing tangle of flailing limbs, determined grimaces, reddened faces, ruffled feathers, hurled curses, and splattering mud. You can just about see and hear the commotion, punctuated by shouts, grunts and groans, as we speak. The melee intensified with their every effort and continued unabated in scenes marked by minor victory and defeat until the bird made its way up into the trailer. Paul and Bob each bore a bruise and a scratch or two, but they finally manhandled the bird into the trailer and clamped the gate in weary relief. Though looks had been tossed and words spewed in the heat of conflict, the episode soon cooled in comic reflection. The events of the day were, even then, slowly evolving in the metamorphosis from which life stories emerge.
Now, at the time of this fracas, Paul and Bob were both in their 70s, with Bob approaching his late 70s, over ten years after his retirement. Neither man was prone to coddle animals that had slipped their bounds, especially when the animals put up a fight and inflicted injury, whether to pride or person. In this instance, Bob's overalls were shredded as the furiously kicking emu caught its toes and nails on side pockets and previous tears and ripped them further. The three-toed bird has large toes and large toenails. And besides being able to run well, it can kick fiercely to the front and side. Paul says that the emus nails were pretty sharp and the bird itself was "pretty stout." "It took a man to hold one," he says. Paul says that in that fight at Bob's, the emu "tore Bob's britches plum off." But Bob remembers that his overalls were ruined due to multiple rips as the bird resisted incarceration with its swift and forceful leg work.
I have heard this story at least a dozen times from Bob. Each time he tells the part about squeezing the birds neck, he puts his extra-large hands up about neck high to himself and takes a tight grip of an imaginary emu neck. Then he says, "I squeezed his neck" until he stopped thrashing around. The bird's head, he said, dropped down to the side of its long neck and its tongue hung out in breathlessness and exhaustion. Then Bob drops his head down low to the right side with his tongue hanging far out for a dramatic re-enactment of the choking. Bob usually repeats the re-enactment at least twice because of the laughter the combined gestures evoke from his audience.
With every re-telling of this familiar tale, we listeners jump in at times – sometimes as a group in chorus – to irresistibly add or repeat the favorite parts so as to emphasize their import, accuracy or humor. Or to advance our local hand-me-down tradition, we join in to recall left-out details or to further embellish the particulars. This helps imprint the story in our minds and sinews so that we can better re-tell it to our friends and family beyond the hearing of Bob.
Paul says that he bought the emus in the early 1990s, eventually spending $8,000 on them, counting twice-day feedings and the expense of the caged area he constructed. His only material return was a little emu oil and some eggs, of value mostly as local curiosities. And yes, the big return on investment was a tall tale with a tall, tough bird or two who still had plenty of fight left in 'em.