There's Always Some Killing You Got to Do On a Farm
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the secrets of youth are sometimes best left secret.
By Damian Magista
It was 1976. The United States was in the middle of a deep and pervasive malaise, never really regaining its footing after the wholesale destruction of the Summer of Love. The Vietnam War had just ended. Taxi Driver was in theaters, and John Wayne Gacy was burying young men in his crawl space. I was 6 years old.
I remember walking around my hometown of Longview, Washington, tremendously excited about the fire hydrants that had been painted in celebration of our nation’s bicentennial. The smell of the pulp mills permeated the air. A sort of sulfurous stench would hit your nose, a reminder that logging was king.
We lived on the Old West Side near Lake Sacajawea, which was nothing more than a dredged-out slough full of carp and muskrat. It was designed by the Olmsteads of Central Park fame. Ostensibly it was a community showpiece with lovely trails, bridges and parks. At one time I’m sure it was; in 1976 it was not.
He was regaling us with insane tales … running from riot cops, hanging out with Hells Angels and checking himself into mental institutions for fun, just for the drugs.
Our house was a small 1940s ranch-style dwelling. It was modest, two bedrooms, one bath. My mom had divorced my father sometime around 1973 and had remarried a year later. My stepfather was a millwright at the local paper pulp mill. He worked long hours and was prone to explosions of violence followed by expressions of regret.
My mother wasn’t working. She was taking classes at the local community college studying building technology. Apparently they were going to build a house on a plot across the Columbia River in an even smaller hick town than Longview. Thank God they didn’t.
Every other weekend would be spent with my biological father. It was always a welcome respite from a tumultuous home life. Living on a farm about 30 miles away in the tiny bucolic town of Toutle, he had carved out a lifestyle based loosely on the ’70s ideal. He wasn’t a hippie, he was more of a contrarian.
I learned how to shoot a gun, fish, cook and be a kid on the farm. All under the encouraging eye of my father. He was a thoughtful teacher, providing me with books on art, science, biology and a fierce sense of loyalty to family. He fostered curiosity and instilled an underlying sense of rebellion.
My father had grown up in the South Bronx. Our family came through Ellis Island from Castellano, Italy, in the 1920s. After being put through Catholic school, he was given the choice of continuing on or enrolling in a trade school. He chose to leave the nuns behind and enrolled in the aircraft mechanics program at Aviation High School on Long Island. In his words, “Everything you’ve heard about nuns is real. There was no way in hell I was staying with them.”
After a stint in the Air Force and monitoring the radiation levels on the nation’s first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, in the Bay Area, he hooked up with my mom in Benicia and bingo, I’m born. At some point my parents made their way to Longview and divorced. My father attended culinary school, then moved to the farm in Toutle. Being Italian, cooking played a central role in our relationship. It’s a value I’ve carried on to my family.
Every other weekend, very early in the morning, my father would show up at my house to pick me up. I’d run out to his red 1967 Volvo and we’d be off. He always had some adventure lined up for us.
Often we’d spend longs days at the Toledo Airport, a tiny municipal airstrip where he and his friends would parachute out of small, dubious, single-engined airplanes while I would pack parachutes. Other times he’d put me on the tank of his ’74 Honda CL350 and we’d take the winding backroads to Mount St. Helens. Or we might explore ancient lava tubes.
On this visit, the sun was barely peeking over the horizon as we drove north on I5. Turning off the freeway we made our way to the farm. It was at the end of a long dirt road sitting on a hill. He parked the car and we got out.
He turned to me and said, “Come here. I want to show you something. I’ve got something for you.”
“What is it?”
He walked me over to the top of one of the pastures and pointed at something in the distance. The sun was just coming up. I could barely make out a large animal in the field. I squinted, trying to figure out what it was. I looked at my father and then back at the creature.
I turned to him, blurting out, “Why did you get me a donkey?”
He laughed and told me it wasn’t a donkey it was a Shetland pony. It was my pony. He got it for me.
“Oh,” I said.
It had been dumped off at animal control. He saw it and decided to bring it to the farm. The problem was Shetland ponies are notoriously mean. You couldn’t get near it without it biting or trying to kick you. It was impossible to pet or ride.
I was excited to have a pony but disappointed that I couldn’t get near the recalcitrant equine.
The weekend ended, he took me home and I continued my other life until two weeks later. He arrived to picked me up. Same thing, early morning car ride to the farm. But this time when I excitedly ran over to the top of the pasture to look for my pony, it was gone. Just an empty field remained.
I asked what happened. He told me that it had jumped the fence and run away.
Smash cut to 40 years later.
I’m married and living in Portland, Oregon. He’s been in Seattle with his wife and family since 1983. It was around Father’s Day, and he had made the drive down to stay with us for the weekend. We took him out on a jet boat, toured a submarine. Made a fun day of it.
That evening at the dinner table, we were telling stories of the early days. He was regaling us with insane tales from his time in the Bay Area that included running from riot cops, hanging out with Hells Angels and checking himself into mental institutions for fun, just for the drugs.
At some point I brought up the mean old Shetland pony. It’s a story we’ve told numerous times throughout the years. I recited it to my now ex-wife. How he took me to the top of the pasture and pointed it out. How I looked at it. Looked at him and asked why he had gotten me a donkey. We all laughed.
I ended my story: “Never saw it again after that. It hopped the fence and ran away.”
My father looked up at both of us and said, without missing a beat, “No. I shot it. We ate it.”
- Damian Magista, OZY Author Contact Damian Magista