I hate geese. I am an animal lover extraordinaire, with the exception of geese. You may wonder why this particular species engenderers such anathema, what could cause a sane, rational, mature woman who is otherwise very kind, to feel the way I do.
When I was five years old we moved from the coast of Oregon to Montana. My Grammy and Grandpa had moved there to homestead and my parents decided to go out too. The ocean air was hard on my lungs and I was sick all the time. There was a 100 acre farm for me to run around on, to build up my strength.
We drove to Montana in a chartreuse 1950 Ford. Mama filled the back seat with pillows and put my baby brother in an apple box beside me. I was in charge of him because I was reliable and loved babies. I could change a diaper as well as women four times my age. There were no seat belts back then, so our nest was for safety as well as for sleeping.
I was so excited the day we left. We were going on an adventure. To a sickly little girl who only attended four weeks of 1st grade, and spent the remainder of the time in bed, ill with fever, this was the best thing that ever happened. I had been put in first grade at five. By then I read out of medical books and huge mysterious tomes. They passed me to second grade by having teacher give me a skills test. I loved school, read everything and made up rhymes all the time.
My brother Richard was my obsession. Unlike an older child who resents the newcomer, I fell right into taking care of him and would rock him by the hour. He was four months-old when he rode to Montana in an apple box. Everything about him was sweet-smelling and fascinating. Mama had given me two coloring books and a box of crayons, but I spent most of the trip fussing over the baby.
As we were crossing the mountain pass, getting close to our destination, I heard my Mama gasp and the next thing I knew she was over the back of the seat, holding my face into the pillows, shrieking, “Don’t look!" It was years later that I learned there had been an accident and a man was decapitated, his lifeless head on the hood of his pickup. Most likely I would never have looked, but the incident loomed large in my child’s mind and I was crazy with curiosity, and my fertile imagination went right straight to work. A big deal only becomes a big deal if someone points it out. When I raised my children I remembered this incident and forced myself not to overreact to something a child might not even notice.
The snow in the pass captured my senses. That was the first snow I had ever seen. There may have been snow on the Oregon Coast, but it was never in such huge, random piles. Near the top we had to stop and wait for a road grader to plow a path for the cars in line. A pilot car would select five waiting travelers and guide them across to the start of the down side. Several times during our slow slide down, families of deer would hop down hills and run across the road. Daddy would apply the brakes and curse at the deer, but we didn’t hit one. There were all kinds of animals around. I would ask Mama what each one was and copy it down in my treasure book.
Daddy and Mama took turns driving the Ford. I had to keep Richard absolutely quiet while Daddy napped in the passenger seat. Daddy was a good man, a hard worker and a fair man, but he had a mean temper to him, and everybody worked real hard to help him not lose it. I would hold Richard to my chest and Mama would tie a dish towel around him and tie it at my back. For hours I would coo to him and rock him. The most special feeling in this world is a warm little baby next to your heart. He was the first of many babies I mothered. Now the babies are grown, but my two ferrets now receive the rocking. My female will sleep for hours being held.
I could tell when we were going into Montana. Daddy stopped the Ford on the gravel to the side of the road. Mama got out and they took turns taking pictures of all of us underneath a big sign that said, “Welcome to Montana, the Big Sky Country". There was a long way to go yet, but this was the official seal on our trip.
The air had become sweet and warm, and Daddy rolled down the windows. I savored that fresh air blowing across my face. The smells were wonderful. Flowers and farms and huge fields of wheat each contributed to the intoxicating brew. Everything was new and different, and though I had cried about having to leave the ocean behind, this country put its spell on me from the start.
Grammy lived seven miles outside of Kalispell. We went from the highway to a tar road and then to a crushed gravel road. Mama had lived in Montana before. She had kin everywhere. My grandfather and his young new wife lived in Whitefish with their three children, my mother’s step-brothers and step-sister. Iola was a big, comfy woman who taught school in Whitefish for years. I didn’t want to betray my loyalty to Grammy, so I tried real hard not to like her, but she was so sweet it was impossible.
For the moment though, these were future people. Grammy’s ranch was way out in the country. Finally my Mama sighted the house that was captured on film by Grammy’s old Kodak with its fold-out lens. I hadn’t know what to expect, so I was enchanted with everything. All the way out my folks had murmured about Grammy’s imagination and how the ranch was just a plain old homestead. As we turned down the gravel road to the dirt track I tried to drink in every single sensation. To memorize everything I saw. A wonderful little white cottage sat off the road. There was a big red barn out back and several outbuildings. There were flowers everywhere. Grammy passed her love of gardening on to me.
There was fuss and turmoil as Mama and Grammy cried and Walter, her new husband, and Daddy shook hands. Grandpa swooped me up and asked me what I thought about everything. I was mute. Sensory overload rendered me speechless. But Grandpa still smelled like Grandpa…a mixture of flannel shirts and the old briar pipe he kept clenched between his big yellow teeth. He understood that the baby would be the center of attention and took care to make me feel important too.
Grammy still peered quizzically through her wire-framed glasses, her sweet blue eyes a little bit out of focus. She was a little bit of a woman, not even close to five feet tall. So Grandpa put me down and she swooped me up in her floury, flowered apron and I felt serenity fill the world.
The electric hadn’t yet made it the seven miles out to Grammy’s. Grammy hated the electric anyway. Warm candles and kerosene lamps put soft edges on the world at night. There was an outhouse way out back, and once I smelled it, I understood its isolation. Right behind the house was a big mound with a door in it. The root cellar that kept foods over the winter. I excused myself to the bathroom, or outhouse in this case, and began running down the well-worn path. I had just passed the first outbuilding when something came roaring out of hiding, hissing and squawking, wings a million miles wide. It was there I became acquainted with the species know as goose. Before Grandpa could reach me these foul fowl pushed at me with their wings and screeched so loudly I was sure I would go deaf.
Candy and Dandy, the ranch geese. One or the other of them kept nipping at my shirt and trying to get their beaks around my thin arms. Grandpa finally rescued me and sent the homicidal couple to the side of the shed. The adults were all laughing and I realized it was something I was supposed to find amusing.
Candy and Dandy stood at the edge of the outbuilding, still hissing and flapping their enormous wings. Grandpa walked me on past them and let me continue to the outhouse. I had never used an outhouse before. Since there were no gas stations or rest areas back then, travelers found a brushy spot to make a stop, and I had done that many times. The outhouse stood on a little hill, and had a half-moon in the door. The boards were rough and uneven. When I pulled on the leather strap to open the door a cloud of flies were buzzing inside. Big blue bottle flies that shone shiny in the sunshine peering through the sides. The smell hit me and for a minute I considered just going back to the house, but I had to go so I stepped up inside. There were two holes with wooden lids and the obligatory Sears and Roebuck catalogs.
Somehow I managed not to fall into the rancid holes and wiped myself with a page of wringer washers. I would have taken a deep breath, but the stench would probably have leveled me.
Watching carefully through a crack in the outhouse door, I looked around for the disastrous duo. They were no where to be seen, so I started down the path to the house. As I came even with the tack room I heard murmuring noises. My young girl instinct just knew it was the geese again. It was. Out from around the tack room they came, heathens from hell.
Grammy’s ranch was wonderful. I ran around so much that first day that I was awake all night screaming with cramps. It was my first memory of pain. Grammy and Mama took turns massaging my calves. Grammy got a jar of bear grease and worked it into my legs. Finally I fell asleep, after one of Grammy’s hot toddies. The nastiest stuff you ever put in your mouth. It was her cure for everything and I grew to dread any sign of infirmity that might call for forcing that noxious fluid down my throat. It had another benefit though. It was whiskey laced with lemon and who knows what else. I never had to worry about becoming a drinker - just the smell of whiskey nauseates me.
Next day the time finally came when I couldn’t put off a trip to the outhouse any longer. I prayed one of the adults would escort me past those Nazi geese. Wrong. I was a big girl and they were only geese. As soon as they got used to me everything would be fine.
So, there I went, wobbling on legs that threatened to collapse beneath me. Fiery pain from my calves pulsing with my heartbeat. I slunk along as quietly as I could, looking for any sign of Candy and Dandy. About midway I heard a rustle and my heart went cold. It was a rustle of goose wings. Waiting, I knew I would never make it to the outhouse. Here they came! Bullying, biting and beating with their wings. Until they caught wind of the bear grease. Their beaks shook like castanets as they tried to wipe the grease off that they had gotten onto themselves from me.
Apparently geese don’t like the smell or taste of bear. Both of them backed off and turned to waddle away. Not feeling particularly sympathetic, I raised my arms out wide and went after the devilish duo, squawking at the top of my lungs. Then I began making bear noises, or what I perceived as bear noises. Those geese goose-stepped as fast as they could go. Shrieking in absolute rage, the geese headed for the barn without looking back.
I was intoxicated with power. For the next few years I rubbed myself with bear grease every day. It wasn’t much appreciated at school, but I didn’t care. As long as it kept those horrible geese away from me, I was thrilled. My little behind remembered the feeling of being goosed and I questioned God as to why He had to waste time making geese.
Bring on lions and hippos, Tasmanian Devils - I’ll take them all on. But if I never saw another goose again in my life I would be delighted.
Sherry Asbury is a Portland, Oregon fixture. Her work appears in all types of venues, and she is well-known as a advocate for the homeless and for domestic violence, with her work appearing regularity in a newspaper for the homeless. She lives with her two rescue-ferrets, Amber and Rascal.