Note: This is another of several pieces that I have written about my experiences in Ohio, starting with “Shooting Emma“. For the other posts in the series click the Category drop-down menu and choose ‘Ohio’.
On a cold day in January when snow lay over the land the sheriff of the next county to the north phoned the Ranch and asked if we could take a one-footed goose. The bird had gotten caught in some kind of jaw-type animal trap, and the foot had been severed either in his trapping or his freeing. If we could take him and would be willing to come fetch him, we could have him, otherwise they would have to “destroy” him. Uncle Bill asked me to take this quest.
We put a cage from the barn into the pickup — a large cage but one that would still fit into the cab — and I drove up to where two rural highways met and found the sheriff pulled over and waiting with a Canadian goose in his car. We put the goose in the cage and the cage in the cab. On the way back to the Ranch, the goose rode quietly in his little cell in the passenger seat. He could not stand up because of his injury, but he kept periscoping his neck upward until he could see over the dashboard or out the side window, and he was obviously intrigued by the sight of the world racing by so fast. I imagined he was confused, since he knew he was not flying but it probably looked to him as though he was.
The highway here rode along the backs of some high ridges, and as we drove south and east the moon came up a pale pink in a deep blue winter evening sky.
I named him Groucho. We put him in a small circular pen under the stand of pines next to the ranch house where he would be safe from predators. He liked to stand on his single foot and hiss at people.
Besides Groucho and myself, other broken and lame individuals found their way to the Ranch. Sometimes it seemed that that’s all we were, a collection of hurting, wounded souls who tumbled or staggered in there with some story in our heads about what we thought we were about, but really our deeper longing was for healing and nurturing and to find community, to belong somewhere and to be able to contribute.
One day a few months earlier a young man maybe in his early twenties with a likeable drawl but an irritating aura of phoniness had showed up at the stable and allowed we could call him Tex. Was looking for a place to work. Knew horses. Bill never turned down volunteer labor, so this young man came to live with the other Gentlemen of the Mill, as the Georges and I called ourselves. But no one ever called him Tex. We learned his name was Hal and so everyone called him Hal, which suited him better than Tex. He was full of b.s. and I felt sorry for him. He seemed to know even less about horses than I did. He was a little guy with bad teeth and bad eyes so bad that he wore thick glasses that made his eyes look huge (the way my glasses do now only even moreso). They made him look shifty.
I felt like I knew Hal’s pain. He wanted to fit in and be accepted and respected, and he put on an air of confidence, rather like I did, but honestly, every time he opened his mouth he said something that irritated someone or made him seem more like a goofball. Maybe I did, too, for all I know, but with Hal it all backfired on him. He liked to employ his drawl to say charming things to the women on staff, but they and even some of the older female campers told me they were creeped out by him. I found myself defending him. At least, I kept reminding people that we were supposed to be a Christian community where love was the overarching principle, not blame and gossip. But people abused him, complained about him. He quickly became a kind of punching bag. Arden and Bill gave him crappy jobs to do and seemed to deliberately keep him away from the stables, which was fine with me because horses sense vibes and I couldn’t afford to have anything wacky going on while we were putting six-year-olds on ponies.
Hal complained to me about how he was treated by the other staff, but his car had broken down and he had few options. He told me he’d leave if he had anywhere to go and any way to get there.
One silent snowy day Hal was assigned to accompany me to chop down some trees in the woods near the Brick House. I had been taught that very autumn how to drop a tree safely, how to make my cuts so that it would fall where I wanted it, adjusting even for any breezes that might be tugging at the tops of the trees that you might not notice at their feet. Hal kept up a nonstop chatter in my ear about how he knew a better way to do this, and general stories of his exciting life, most of which I figured were tall tales. The insulating snowfall — which covered the sawdust and fallen trunks immediately so that in a few minutes it looked as if nothing had happened, as if the trees had fallen long ago in another time — made his voice seem closer and louder. I liked working outside in the cold and the quiet, but with Hal peace eluded me even in this snowbound wood. I finally told him that if he’d just shut up and do what he was asked to do without so much bragging and arguing things would probably go better for him. That was the day he told me that his father had thrown him out of a window onto the front lawn.
I once took Uncle Bill aside and busted his chops after he badmouthed Hal in Hal’s absence but in front of the staff. I didn’t often confront Bill directly, but I was seething with anger over it. Bill took the remonstration graciously because by then he knew I didn’t blow steam over trifles, but it was too late. One day shortly after that Hal got his car started, took several quarts of oil from a case I had bought for Little Nemo, and made his break, left without a word or a note. I couldn’t muster any ill will toward him. There was a lot of trash talk and “good riddance” when it was discovered that he’d bolted, but I felt we had failed Hal rather than the other way round.
I can’t remember if it was before or after Hal left, but a rumor went around that the police were looking for him, and some thought that he’d been using the Ranch all along just to hide out. I thought, who of us isn’t hiding from something here? In fact, I had begun to wonder if it wasn’t time for me to leave and face whatever part of my life I was running from.
Groucho the Goose was definitely not hiding out. He had been up stumping around on his peg for some time and by February he was eager to get out of his pen. He could hear other geese down at the lake through the crisp winter air and he wanted to join them. Uncle Bill wanted to keep him fenced in. The bird made a handsome addition to the Ranch’s menagerie. Someone uttered the opinion (or hope) that he might simply fly out of his pen, but Bill said he’d never be able to, he wouldn’t have enough runway to get off the ground and over the fence in such a small area.
We could all see that this was true, but we underestimated our avian thrall. One day some of the younger campers were watching him because he was making a lot of honking noise; it was suddenly time for him to go and he knew it. They saw him open his wings and run awkwardly at the fence, then as the air accepted him into itself he simply curled his trajectory and spiraled up and out over the fence and was gone.