Saturday, February 22, 2014

Garden of No Return

There was a time when sitting and whittling on a stick was just a way to pass time for small town America. For old Toby and me, we did just that, on a daily basis. I was only four years old and Toby was eighty-one years my senior. He had the curmudgeon thing in spades and in between long deep gasps for air, he let out irregular long guttural exhalations, intended to shock and scare off any who might have achieved even a minor level of comfort in his outdoor domain. It worked well on newcomers, the faint of heart and any unsuspecting crows that had recently landed in his garden. 

"Ah...whee...ah...whee...PHAAAAAW!" and then he'd spit, about seven yards, or right at your foot if he was of a mind. Toby was a mouth breather and his chin carried a good six-day growth. Tall and lean his frame supported him adequately with the aid of a hefty cane, which he enjoyed thumping, loudly, near his chair. Then he would go back to his morning coffee, examine the paper for suspicious doings while listening to the farm report coming from the old Bakelite radio perched above the tool rack in his musty old garage. The air was sweet with apple blossoms, the wind drifted through his collection of fishing lures that hung above his bench, waiting for paint or eyes or hooks as the case may be, and I was amazed. Amazed at the world of an old man who had out lived the horse and plow, but refused to stop being a farmer, even right in the middle of town. I was amazed that he had such a large garden and kept chickens too. 

We had just moved in next door, and filled the little house with my folks, two older sisters, an older brother, a younger sister, a new baby brother and one dog, Lady. She had been named for lady in 'Lady and the Tramp' a popular feature cartoon. My sisters identified with the main character for the name but our dog looked nothing like the one in the cartoon. Our Lady was a big Labrador Retriever. She had not turned out to be the hunting dog my dad had envisioned when he took her out to be 'trained'. What he found he had in her case was a gun coward. He pulled her out from under the car, drove her home and resigned her to family pet. Now while I waited for my siblings to return home from school, we spent the long days together, Lady and me and old Toby.

I had been well received at our old place by Pinky, the neighborhood street chap, and all around bad influence. As well gentle old Mrs. Prentice who, my dad confirmed to be, not a bad influence on me. Her love of pansies and gazing balls had him suspect as to what might be the result of that association, so now he was content for me to spend my long days with the codger in bib overalls and refined spitting techniques.

Each morning started with us seated below the shady apple tree, surveying the garden with it''s tall fence. The radio in the garage would sing out the latest market reports. Toby whittled and painted his fishing lures between occasional weeding. I retrieved the morning paper from where it arrived on the drive with a loud thump. Lady would roll in the dirt, nipping at flies while Mrs. Rubes brought tall glasses of lemonade from the kitchen. Life was good. 

Although Toby tolerated my stories and answered all my millions of questions with his routine loud "Phaaaaw!" He would have preferred to be been shed of me, had it not been for Mrs. Rubes. Her kind words had him at a loss to do anything but sit and wait for me to go in for lunch or my nap so he could cuss and spit with impunity.

Toby's garden had a ten-foot tall fence that circled the potatoes, melons, sweet corn and such. Two reasons required such great height, chickens, which he sheltered in a hut behind the old garage, and baseballs. The chickens kept insects off his plants and added a fertilizing agent to his wonderful crop. The balls came in on a regular basis by way of the adjacent playground at the Catholic school that practically surrounded Toby's garden. The hens smelled as one would expect and were shielded from view by a thick leaved grapevine from which he managed to obtain fairly nice grapes. 

He fortified these from the school kids by pruning the low hanging blooms. I doubt I ever tasted even one of those grapes, since he was a fierce guardian of his domain and all it contained. Paramount to this protection was the errant pop fly. Whenever one of the baseballs got over his fence, landing in the orderly rows of tomato and cucumber vines, he would slowly shuffle his long tall frame over to the substantial gate. Once through the gate he steadied his way down the wide plank walkway with a long handled spade. Paying no attention to the eyes belonging to the fingers clinched all along the wire enclosure, awaiting his response. Then with his spade he would calmly roll the ball to a suitable spot and proceed to put it deep into the soft loam as the compost he judged it to be. 

Only one gutsy student had ever clambered over the fence to save his ball from the garden of no return, the Kepler boy. He got the ball and tossed it back to his pals, but paid for his transgression by way of a swat on the behind from a long handled spade, before he could launch himself back over the fence. He made history, but none had the nerve to repeat the achievement when a wayward ball next landed in Toby's vegetable patch. 

From our house it was only a block to the Farm Coop Elevator. At this wonderful place, area farmers would bring their wagon loads of feed corn and such over the big scale built into the drive to be weighed. Once the total weight was known, the load would be removed and the return weight balanced out to determine what had been the product weight. As all the different trucks of farm produce came and went, Lady noted with great interest, that some of the trucks contained crates of highly prized fowl, chickens! They were stacked high and wide in crates that fitted together and had a swing gate that allowed the birds to be placed inside and, and when appropriate, removed. By and by as chance would have it, a gate would come dislodged, or a desperate hen of great genius, would manage her escape. Lady, being the natural bird dog she was, saw her opportunity, would catch the escapee and proudly make her way home. 

First, to take notice was old Toby. He quickly made it his business to emancipate the poor droopy fowl, and then deliver her to his chicken hutch for safe keeping. Eventually the teamwork became so efficient with this operation that Toby only had to take count to gain a new occupant. The spring-loaded gate allowed Lady to make a deposit to the pen night or day. Toby was elated. Lady wouldn't tell. All she desired was an atta-girl and a pat on the head. Little Jd had no idea of what was taking place, sort of like a ball in the garden, all for the better good. By the end of summer, Toby's chicken population had blossomed into veritable explosion of white fat, egg laying, bug picking, fertilizers. Lady was a champion in Toby's eyes. 

On Sunday morning the boys from the elevator came over during the after church glad handing session and asked my dad if he didn't have a big yellow lab. Proud of the dog, he gleefully admitted to owning such a bird dog. 

"You haven't noticed her showing up with a chicken now and then?" They asked. Then all participated in a lot of head scratching as he denied gaining hens in that way.
"I'll keep an eye on her" was his reply. 
Of course, my dad knew nothing about it, but on the way home he peeked through the grape vines. 

"Sure enough," he told mom, "half of Toby's hens have no feathers on their necks." 
"Well you don't know how they got there, best say nothing and keep the dog in during business hours" she suggested.

No matter, Lady would sniff out any breakout participants, whatever the hour. She and Toby continued to carry on just like a couple of pros. She got the praise, he got lots of eggs and regular fried chicken on his plate, and I enjoyed the big red apples that bounced onto the shady lawn by Toby's garage. I was an unsuspecting partner in crime, but relished in the rewards for supplying the getaway device. We were a crime ring of an unusual mix.

Soon the kids returned to school and the balls landed in the garden. This fall was different. The Keplar boy had seen how the arrangement was working with Toby and my dog, and when ever he got a chance he would play toss the ball with Lady. He would give her pieces of his lunch. She began to wait at home plate for the new game. Soon as the noon whistle sounded, she was off to play with the kids. 

The next time a ball landed in the garden, Lady was at the ready. As soon as Toby loosened the latch on the gate, she pushed past him and bounded right through the hanging vines. Grabbing the ball in her teeth she raced back for a reward of peanut butter sandwich. 

Old Toby was furious. "Phaaaaw!" he bellowed, "that darned no-good dog!" he threw down his shovel and shuffled back to his chair to sulk. When Lady returned he was abusive toward her and made target of her with spit. Soon this routine became the norm. No matter how Toby tried to exclude her from the garden. With this change in loyalty she lost favor in his eye and set about to give her a poke with his cane if he could. He turned off the radio, removed all the apples and began to spend recess time indoors. Lady, however, was industrious, and the next morning he found the gate standing open. All over the garden were small mounds of dirt, each with a corresponding hole. The balls he had buried lay piled upon home plate. 

A new alliance had developed and the kids now made friends with Lady. She would spend all the recess time running after the kids and bringing back their balls.

Finally, Toby had enough. That fall when all the produce was harvested from the garden, he propped the gate open and tied a stout rope onto it. "Here you go Lady!" he said and tossed a big apple into the garden. Lady bounded after it, and when she was well inside the fence, he pulled the rope, shutting the gate tight. Next he tied the rope securely and chuckling gleefully went inside for dinner. 

Lady sat and waited by the gate. She expected some reward. Toby went to bed, and Lady waited patiently late into the night. It grew cold Lady decided she had had enough.
In the morning Toby woke up and went to the window to look out at his clever trick and see what had transpired. What he saw was a big hole under his gate.

"Phaaah!" Toby shouted. He hurried down the stairs in this bathrobe, past the fresh coffee and the morning paper. Out the back door he bitterly shuffled toward his ruined garden gate. Then he stopped short half way across the yard. What he saw made him speechless. The door to the chicken hutch was standing open and all his chickens were gone. Lady sat proudly by the apple tree waiting for the morning farm report.

That Sunday morning I over heard the boys from the elevator say, "You wouldn't know about that ole dog that brung us all those twenty some chickens last week? That's some dog!"

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