Why you should care
Because sometimes American history gets confused with science fiction.
Granddad shot Blackie under the big old tree in the center of the barnyard. My cousin Janet was lounging on a low branch, Alice in Wonderland–style, with me down below. I don’t remember what kid stuff my cousin and I were discussing, but I do remember my grandfather ordering Blackie, a mostly Labrador lying by my side, to go get the cows. He gave the “get the cows” order twice, and Blackie just cocked his head in that tongue-lolling, brown-eyed way that Labradors have, and looked at my grandfather, clearly perplexed.
Granddad sighed, walked to the house, retrieved his worn, much-used shotgun and killed Blackie right then and there, the crack of the gun twice punctuating my cousin’s hysterical screaming. Then, without ceremony, my grandfather fired up his rickety tractor, hauled Blackie to the manure pile and dumped him up on top. Until Janet’s death many years later, she and I would occasionally bring up that day, though never for too long — she would start to cry and my eyeballs would start to sweat, so we always changed the subject.
My grandfather always wanted to be a veterinarian, but after sixth grade, more schooling was an impossibility.
He had that touch, that magic that would calm an animal no matter how hurt or sick, bringing them rest and healing. No one bothered with farm dogs or barn cats back then; they lived, they died. If they weren’t “useful,” they were gotten rid of — there were no pets. So neighbors would deliver to my grandfather only their wounded and ill cash livestock for a last chance. Often they survived, thanks to my grandfather’s caring and gentle hands. But none of that really mattered; my grandparents were born just in time to be adults in the Great Depression, that glacier of poverty and despair that either ground people to dust or turned them into rocks, hard and cold as ice.
My grandfather had a lot of dogs over the years, and the ones that survived were great at bringing in the cows. How they came to know how to do this is an enduring mystery, as Granddad never gave them a lick of training. He would just shout at them to do whatever he wanted them to do, expecting the dog in question to know what he was talking about and to follow orders. To my grandmother’s ongoing disgust and irritation, Granddad was the same with chickens — at night he would shout at them to go into the coop … and then kill the ones that didn’t follow orders. Time after time, in the early evening he would offhandedly dump a half-dozen or so dead chickens into the kitchen sink, which had no running water, and expect Grandmother to gut, pluck and prepare them for cooking before morning. And then he’d go to bed.
Their enmity raged for years, so hostile and fierce that at times folks were afraid it would lead to violence.
When I start to judge my grandparents, I try to remind myself that they grew up in a different time, a time so different it might as well have been lived on another planet. “Having” to get married, they raised six kids, two of them delivered by my grandfather on the kitchen table. The shiny old shotgun that killed Blackie saw service three other times that I know of. Once was when my grandmother shot at a couple dozen of Granddad’s relatives to drive them off the farm during the 1930s. She had stood by day after day as the relatives camped out in the apple orchard and ran up grocery bills that my grandparents would have to pay … until she found out one of them, who was hot bunking with her kids, had syphilis. My grandmother yanked that old gun out of the closet and marched out to the orchard, where she banged away at the relatives, fortunately clipping only the apple trees. By the time Granddad got home that evening, the relatives were gone. They never came back.
Another time, gun in hand, my grandfather faced down three New Deal agents who had come to the farm to kill Granddad’s pigs under a government program designed to drive up livestock prices. But Granddad had six kids and his hogs weren’t low-priced, unsellable ones, they were food. So he threatened to kill those federal agents with that old shotgun. The agents left, and the hogs survived to offer up many a ham sandwich. Why Granddad didn’t go to jail for what he did that day is still a family mystery.
The third time, I personally saw him use that gun. Another cousin of mine — I have a lot of them — and I wandered from the back porch into the barnyard … at which point a huge bull, my grandfather’s pride and joy, came bursting out of the barn and headed toward us. I remember it stopped to paw the ground directly in front of my cousin and me, a really bad sign, when my grandfather ran from the house, shotgun in hand. My grandfather loved that bull; he needed that bull. It was the only bull he had, and the calves he so desperately required to make ends meet were the progeny of that one fecund animal and my grandparents’ scraggly herd of heifers. Before he even skidded to a halt beside us, Granddad had started shooting at the bull, and he shot and he shot and he shot until the huge animal turned away bellowing, and ran off, taking out part of the fence in his flight. I heard later that my grandfather was in such a rush that he might’ve been shooting the bull with bird shot, not having had time to load buckshot. I don’t know whether the bull survived as I never saw it again. Either it died or my grandfather penned it up far from the house.
In the 1930s, it got really bad for my grandparents and their kids. The dust bowl was raging, even hitting South Dakota, where they lived. There was drought. Crops failed. My grandparents had moved to a farm bordering a lake, and my grandfather became famous as the guy who would catch fish from that lake when no one else could even get a nibble. Those fish, one of my uncles later told me, saved the family. My uncle then added that he could not stand the taste or smell of fish ever after, as that was pretty much all they ate for some years. There were limits on the number of fish you could catch and take home even then, so naturally my grandfather poached.
Having a family of his own to support and knowing the heart-stopping terror of it all, he never said anything.…
One of my grandfather’s best friends from childhood became the game warden for the county in which my grandparents lived. Times were tough, and the game warden’s pay, I have no doubt, took care of and saved the warden’s family. Certainly he could not afford to lose that job, friend or no.
They became bitter enemies, the game warden and my grandfather. The enmity raged for years, so hostile and fierce that at times folks were afraid it would lead to violence.
The game warden, and everyone else, knew that my grandfather was poaching, and probably not just fish. Nailing my grandfather became an ongoing “I’m doing my job” goal and a constant “have you arrested him yet?” irritant for the warden, who decided one day that catching someone poaching fish was probably the easiest way to nail a miscreant, particularly in the winter when everyone used fish houses out on the ice.
The warden took to showing up at my grandfather’s fish house day and night, appearing out of the snow like some vengeful wraith, banging on the door and shouting, “Open in the name of the law!” He would also come by the farm, warrant in hand, looking for an excess of fish heads and entrails, but what with the always-hungry sty full of pigs on the premises, he never had any luck. Grandmother would offer him coffee.
I don’t know if it ever became a game, but I do know my grandfather worked out an entire process and enlisted his kids whenever he dragged them along to help out with the fishing. They would always throw a few fish outside of the fish house to freeze, making sure they were visible. They made sure all of the frozen fish met the size limit and that the number thrown outside was always fewer than the catching limit so it couldn’t be argued that Granddad and the occupants of the fish house could not go on trying to snag yet more fish in order to hit the legal limit. It’s a good thing that my grandfather built a false wall into the fish house with just enough room between it and the real wall to hold a lot of catch, as my grandfather caught a lot of fish, day and night.
The game warden never figured it out. Or rather, having a family of his own to support and knowing the heart-stopping terror of it all, he never said anything in those terrible times and pretended it was just an ongoing perplexity. If he did know about it and did nothing, then he was risking his own livelihood and his own family. And who would do that?
Then one day, out of the blue, totally unexpectedly, the game warden died.
The church was packed, I’m told, when my grandfather walked in. it got extremely quiet as he walked up to the coffin. He was wearing not only a suit but a tie … and no one had ever seen him in anything but patched, raggedy coveralls. In fact, I don’t believe he ever wore a suit again until the day of my grandmother’s funeral.
My grandfather stopped beside the coffin and leaned down, over the body of his enemy. He whispered something that no one could make out. Then he turned around, and at the front of the church, facing the congregation, he broke down and wept uncontrollably.