|Albert and Pogo © Walt Kelly|
A farmhouse is headquarters of a working farm and its kitchen is its nerve center. A farm’s kitchen serves as boardroom, family conference center, planning office, homework study hall, lab, small parts repair shop, hospital, and oh yes, cookery, cannery, bakery, and breakfast room.
For my family, our farm’s ‘new’ house was built during the Civil War,– not the structure before that or the original log cabin built by my mother’s distant ancestors. Antique houses don’t have central heat, which meant two things: (1) the main kitchen (as opposed to a scullery or summer kitchen) provided the main source of heat during winter, and (2) peripheral rooms might or might not have stoves. Bedrooms weren’t heated at all. You’re a wuss if you haven’t slept where hot-water bottles freeze overnight.
Granny and the Gator
My sophomore year of high school, a local college student brought home an alligator from his university lab. It was a little less than two feet long. After showing it off during his autumn break, he realized his mother wasn’t going to give it pet treats or, for that matter, treat it to small pets. The student didn’t know what to do with it. I volunteered to take it off his hands.
I rose early, met him and picked up the gator. Carefully. Anything that isn’t armored on an alligator is a weapon… teeth, tail, and talons. I drove back humming to myself. The gator, tossed in the trunk like a common mafioso, was not amused.
Back at the ranch, I pulled into the farmyard and opened the trunk. One of the barn cats sauntered up… you know that saying about curiosity and the cat. I deposited the alligator on the ground and learned– along with a surprised feline– an important factoid about certain reptiles. When their elbows are bent, they drag along slowly, but when they straighten those legs and rise off the ground, they can run.
As the rubber met the road, the cat levitated off the ground, its wheels spinning like a cartoon character. It screamed something about “holey sheet” and took off like it had a rocket in its bum. The gator, in an immense show of self-satisfaction, buffed his nails and said, “That’s all you got? This joint maybe got a beer?”
I escorted him indoors. The bathroom was the only place that could at present accommodate him. I ran an inch or two of water for him to soak in.
Instead of appreciation, he complained. “You station me next to a toilet? Where people do their business? Oh please, gouge out my eyes now.”
My father typically slept only two hours; my mother could sleep ten or twelve. Unfortunately, I inherited her sleep genes. When she got up later that morning, I gave her a word of warning as she blindly stumbled toward the bathroom.
“Mom, er, there’s something in the bathtub.”
“What, an alligator?” I swear, she actually said that and to this day I can’t imagine how she guessed.
Things went swimmingly until my grandmother arrived for her seasonal Christmas visit. She feared only two things, God and reptiles and possibly not in that order. We hadn’t yet figured out hotel accommodations for Albert, so he continued to doze in the bathtub between baths.
Granny sat in the living room, endlessly crossing her legs until she’d finally ask, “Will one of you boys pleeeease remove that… that creature out of the bathroom so I can go?”
“Aw, granny. It can jump only three feet.”
But we loved our granny so while she was untangling her mistreated bowels, Albert grew used to the living room. Poor granny didn’t get her share of baths. The idea of her tender parts sharing the same tub as a hardened, cold-blooded beast didn’t sit right with her.
Just before New Year’s, disaster struck.
My dad woke me about six; he’d risen a couple of hours earlier. He said, “Son, I’ve got bad news. A power glitch last night caused the stoves to go out and the alligator froze. I pulled him out of the ice and have been thawing him, but I’m afraid he’s gone.”
He’d ignited the burners and, to speed warming the kitchen, he’d turned on the kitchen's gas range. Albert lay lifeless on a tray, a trace of water drooling from his mouth. Rural folks test for signs of life by touching an animal’s eyeball. Albert never flinched.
I picked him up awkwardly, kind of upside-down. As I did so, a trickle of water dribbled from his muzzle. I squeezed his abdomen and again water seeped out. Compressing his chest like a pump, more water drained. Suddenly, his little abdomen moved once on its own.
Dad and I stared… 10 seconds, 20… 30… then a faint tremor. I squeezed again and once more. Slow and laborious, the billowing of his lungs took agonizing ages. We waited on edge, not sure if the next breath would come, but he began to breathe on his own, one or two ragged breaths a minute, then three, then four.
Other household members rose and made their way to the kitchen wrapped in blankets and robes. Granny was conflicted. She didn’t like the idea of living in a house with a cold-blooded carnivore, but she also felt badly because her grandchildren’s pet lingered on the verge of death.
During that day, Mom marvelled that Grandmother sat holding a heat lamp over the comatose critter. By evening, it began showing further signs of life and its eyes flickered open. Like many birds, some reptiles have two eyelids, a protective outer one and a transparent lid. Within a couple of days, Albert was ambulatory and Granny went back to tucking her feet up in her chair.
Next week: Scratch my tummy… Oh yes, right there…