Whiskey and Milk

Even a toad on the road of life can make a markAnonymous Curmudgeon

In the last hour before I go to sleep, I like to read in bed. When I recline, Karma snuggles on top of me. She lays her head on my chest, turns it to one side and looks deeply into my eyes. Then she strokes my face and pulls on my whiskers with her seven-toed front feet. Karma equates my facial hair with her mother cat's flank. In short, Karma thinks my beard is her momma.

When I was younger I made fun of older folks who acted as if their pets were family. Now as "empty nesters" my wife and I treat our cats with an equanimity that might invite ridicule from the person I once was.

Using the bathroom at our house is a four-step process.

1) Remove cat from toilet lid and place on sink.

2) Do whatever ... while cat purrs, watches and drinks from the faucet.

3) Move cat from sink back to toilet.

4) Wash hands.

I hope I'm not over-sharing here.

The integration of pets into our present domestic life contrasts starkly with my farm-boy past.

In my childhood home, the cat would have been shoved roughly to the floor, with no sentimental regard whatsoever. In fact, early on, cats weren't even allowed in the house. They were considered livestock, not pets. On our farm several buildings called granaries clustered around an open space near the barns. The grain in the granaries attracted and nourished mice, who flourished and grew in great numbers. The mice attracted and nourished cats, who also thrived. My father used to stand in the open space and skip rocks along the ground. Soon cats would emerge from beneath the granaries and tear around, chasing the rocks. My Dad would say he was training the cats. Like all livestock, the cats were expected to earn their keep.

My parents did not provide any commercial cat food. Cats foraged for themselves and did well, thanks to the mice. We only provided fresh milk – mostly from a pan on the barn floor. Milk was also delivered to the cats by squirting directly from the cow's udder. The felines intercepted the airborne streams and pawed the precious liquid into their gapping maws.

My father had grown up in a subsistence lifestyle. Fun was where you found it and sometimes pets were where you found them. Dad recounted stories about making pets of orphaned cottontail rabbits, skunks and badgers. He and my uncle told me that young skunks made great pets, even when not descented. When I asked them how they avoided being sprayed, they told me skunks would stomp their feet when disturbed. If the disturbance were to cease, they would not spray.

My Dad described a house party where visitors had come from miles away to celebrate into the night. A friendly, semi-feral skunk got too much attention from revelers and then became alarmed. The ensuing foot stomping cleared the house in moments. Shortly the merrymakers were outside leaving one skunk alone in the house.

Taming a badger might seem akin to taming a tornado, but if anyone could tame a badger, it would have been our Dad. My father claimed that a photo had been taken of him riding a motorcycle with a badger sitting on the handlebars. We have yet to locate that photo.

The first animals I remember being in our house were calves. If they were sick they were brought into the basement and laid on cardboard for treatment. A frequent medical problem for a newborn calf was a bovine colic called "scours". The recommended remedy was whiskey, which my father hated as a recreational drug but would feed it to a calf when needed.

The first dog I remember was "Scamp" – named after the mongrel offspring of Lady and the Tramp from a Disney movie of the time. Scamp was worthless. He was an incompetent cattle dog. The cows hated him. He tried to bite my Dad when he played with us kids and he was addicted to chasing cars. My Dad used to talk about shooting him because he showed such little value.

The county road that ran past our house hosted a passing car every half hour or so. Scamp would listen for an oncoming vehicle and when one was within a half-mile he would charge for the road and attempt to bite the tires. One day while Scamp was practicing his hobby, we heard a yelp, and within moments realized that no panting mutt was coming back from the road. My large troop of siblings and I went out to the road. Scamp lay motionless in the ditch.

Dead animals were a familiar sight to a farm kid. It was sad to see, but we were used to it. We poked at him a bit, but he didn't move. We traipsed back to the house and announced: "Mom, a car hit Scamp and we think he's dead."

Since our mother was busy raising eleven kids and farming two square miles of ground with our Dad, she accepted the report without verification.

"Be sure to tell your Dad," she replied.

When our Dad got in from the field a couple of hours later, we gave him the news.

He summoned us with, "Let's go see".

Being a calculating man, he was probably estimating what this event would save him in shells because now he wouldn't have to shoot the dog. We followed our Dad back to the roadside.

"Yup, he sure looks dead," said Dad. Hope springs eternal... He reached down and touched Scamp's head.

"I'll be damned, he's still warm."

"Ddaadd, the preacher said you weren't spose to use that word."

"The preacher uses it: I guess I can use it too."

Our Dad squatted down next to the smelly pile of fur. He put his hand on Scamp's flank. "What the hell, he's breathing!"

The chorus of admonishment from the younger set was repeated and so was the reply about the preacher.

From his squatting position Dad pushed his powerful arms beneath the dog and rose up cradling the no-account mutt in his arms. He headed back to the house and passed the fenced yard where the cows were. They had been watching the proceedings since the beginning and – because they despised Scamp – looked forward to his demise. Alas, their hopes were about to be dashed.

Dad laid Scamp at the front of the doghouse. Dad worked Scamp's hindquarters gently into the back of the enclosure leaving his head hanging out of the doghouse and his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

My father went in the house and got a slice of Wonder Bread. There was no way that my mother would let him use her good homemade bread for this. He tore the bread into small pieces. He poured milk over the bread. He took the mixture to the doghouse and knelt down and sprinkled a little milk on the dried-out tongue. The tongue moved slightly. He set a milk-soaked piece of bread on the tongue and it withdrew into the mouth.

For the next month our father would come in from the field at regular intervals to feed milk-soaked bread to that useless critter. Eventually Scamp began moving around. Before we knew it, he was back to ambushing cars. As before, the cows glared at him as he charged past them for the road.

Two things had changed. Scamp stopped trying to bite my Dad when he played with us. He still couldn't herd cows, but one day when I went down into the basement I found Dad feeding whiskey to a calf and Scamp lying next to the calf – nuzzling it and calming it.