Grandma and Herb
July 9, 2008
Growing up on a farm in Yuma County in the fifties meant being somewhat isolated. It was a long way to town, and the cost of drivin’ (gas was 26.9 cents) notwithstanding, a day in town meant a day away from work needin’ done.
We were fortunate to have relatives living and farming nearby, so, often when we did leave the work, it was for visitin’ family. A Sunday afternoon frequently meant dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm just a couple miles South. Uncles, Aunts and cousins would gather there, so Grandma’d usually have a double handful of mouths to feed. Most of the ladies would chip in some pies or other tasty stuff.
One of Grandma’s best dishes was chicken and dumplings. Durn. My mouth waters thinking of that. She always kept a couple dozen layin’ hens and usually had chickens of various ages peckin’ around the yard. It was always fun as a kid comin’ down and playin’ with the chicks.
One spring Grandpa’s dog, Dog, had a litter of pups at about the same time one of Grandma’s hens hatched out a nest full of chicks. An interesting thing happened in the following weeks: one of the chicks seemed to adopt the puppies as his family, completely ignoring his nestlings. The chick would spend all his time with the pups, sleeping and even eating with them. Well, to be accurate, he didn’t eat with them till they started getting fed some puppy food Grandpa’d picked up at the Coop. (Dog was gettin’ sort of gant, feedin’ all twelve pups, so her and the pups all needed some help.)
Herb, (Grandma named him Herb, after their banker in Burlington) began actin’ like a puppy. He’d rassle with the pups, peckin’ at ’em and they’d nip back at him, and he even played ‘tug-of-war’ with ’em. Herb would be on one end of and old dishrag the pups had swiped from Grandma, a pup on the other end, growlin’ and tuggin’ while Herb tugged right back, flappin’ his little wings and makin’ chicken sounds with his beak clamped tight on the rag. Herb was usually at a disadvantage in this game, because he’d get all vigorous and his wings’d flap more and he’d lose traction from the ground and the pup would pull him all over the yard, flappin’ and feathers flyin’.
As the pups grew, so did the mischief. Grandpa’s driveway was a couple hundred yards long, and when a car turned in off the road, the pups would all race up to greet it, then chase it down to the house, Herb racin’ right along with ’em. He’d occasionally spot a grasshopper that needed nabbed, but mostly would join right in on the pups’ fun.
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Neighbors heard about Herb, the chicken that thought he was a dog, and folks started stoppin’ by to see the odd sight. Now and then, after Dog weaned the pups, somebody would take a likin’ to one and Grandpa gradually sent most of them to other farms.
They was a mix of bird dog/shepard/cow dog/mongrel, and some showed promise of turnin’ into good farm dogs. Two or three seemed like they was never going to grow up, always causin’ mischief, chewin’ up Grandma’s garden hose and knockin’ over her egg basket and the like. Herb seemed to hang with these trouble causers more than the ‘good’ pups and he’d be right there peckin’ at the hose with ’em.
Grandma was a gentle old lady in her seventies by then, but the pragmatic, practical farmwife in her was always near the surface, and she did what needed doin’ to provide for her family’s table. Her garden was always big and produced a bounty for their pantry. She’d can dozens of jars of produce and fruit for their (and our) winter fare.
Grandma mostly tolerated Herb and the miscalcitrant pups, but I could see her patience wearin’ thin. When Herb and the pups began diggin’ holes in her garden, I could tell Grandma’d had about enough of their mischief. I overheard her tellin’ Grandpa he needed to find homes for “those durned pups” pronto. (She didn’t say anything about Herb, a sign I later knew to be an ominous portent for Herb’s well being, but my young innocence missed the look in Grandma’s eyes.)
Well, Grandpa, seein’ the veiled threat in Grandma’s admonishment about the pups, managed to give most of the remaining ones away. Once he even slipped one in the backseat of the banker’s car as he left for town after drivin’ out to deny a loan. Grandma got a huge kick out of that. They drank a glass of rhubarb wine toasting Grandpa’s ingenuity.
There was still a couple pups left, however, and they and Herb seemed to grow more and more delinquent. Even started chasin’ Grandma’s milk cow, Ethel. The pups’d be at her heels, with Herb perched on her back flappin’ wings and peckin’ her tail hump. I noticed that seemed to grind on Grandma’s pleasant personality.
One Saturday afternoon, Mom sent me down to help Grandma weed her garden. As I pedaled my bike down her driveway I noticed no pups came boundin’ up to chase me to the house. I walked in, findin’ Grandma in her kitchen preparin’ stuff for tomorrow’s dinner. I asked, “Grandma, where’s the pups?” She told me Grandpa’d finally found homes for the last two. Said she and Dog were glad to be rid of ’em. Then I got to thinkin’ I hadn’t noticed Herb in the yard. I says, “Grandma, where’s Herb?” She said “that’s him boilin’ in the pot on the stove.” Shocked, I says “Grandma! How come yer cookin’ Herb?” “Well”, she told me, “he got into the henhouse and was killin’ chickens.”
In subsequent years I think I finally figured why Grandma named that chicken after the banker. Even gentle old ladies enjoy a little retribution.