We were a city family, but we always had the kinds of animals one would expect to find in a rural home. From rats to rabbits, cats to crows, lambs to Lucifer, the boa constrictor. We were never without a pet that set my friends’ eyes a-goggle.
As I wrote my book about growing up on Chicago’s West Side, I included many of the animal stories that had enlivened our home. But as I faced the daunting task of cutting 60,000 words, I knew some of these stories would have to hit the “cutting room floor.”
I’m including here some animal stories that didn’t make the final cut. The opening scene takes place about 1955. In this story, Dad returns from one of his many weeks-long job-related travels with a surprise in the trunk. I’m six years old, Paul is nine, and Billy is about two.
Both a kid and scientist at heart, Dad was fascinated by all of nature. He wanted his children to feel the same child-like wonder that still electrified him. Dad taught us to care for a variety of animals too. We experienced the affection, nurturance, and entertainment that interactions with animals bring into our lives.
When Billy was still a toddler, Dad returned on a humid summer day from one of his long absences, a grin spread across his face as he entered the back door and set down his suitcase. We all ran to greet him. “Daddy! Daddy!” I yelled leaping up and down.
“It’s so good to be home,” he announced, then scooped me up into his arms, kissing me over and over on each cheek.
After giving Mom a good, tight squeeze and a long, warm kiss, he ruffled Paul’s hair and picked up little Billy under his arms, lifting him high into the air. “Look who’s gotten SOOO big!” Dad said, then rubbed his beard stubble against Billy’s face.
“Owwie!” Billy wriggled away. Dad waved his hand, beckoning us, as he walked toward the car. “C’mon, everyone. Come see what I have in the trunk.” I’d learned to recognize his barely containable glee. It meant sure-fire excitement was in the works.
Dad led us all out to the alley. He threw open the trunk, and there skittering about on sheaves of newspaper, gooey with poop, was a gaggle of mallard ducklings!
“Their mommy was hit by a car,” he said, as he gingerly lifted one to show us its fuzzy head and little webbed feet, “so I brought them home before they died or were eaten. Here, hold out your hand to make a little cup. Very gently now,” he said, lowering the little fluff ball into my palms. Peep. Peep. Peep. I made a lid of one hand over the other, the duckling’s tiny bill poking out.
“Oh, it’s soooo cute!” I cried. Dad gave one to Paul, but Billy was too little.
“We’ll make a duck pond and feed them until they’re old enough to go off on their own,” he said. “Lil, do you have a shoebox we can carry them in?” In these early days of my childhood, Mom went along with a lot of Dad’s animal schemes, especially when she could see how thrilled we kids were.
The Duck Pond
Right after Dad changed his clothes, he headed down to the basement to fetch shovels, a big one for him, two smaller ones for Paul and me. We all started digging, dirt flying over our shoulders. Pretty soon we had a good-sized hole in the corner of the lawn. “Well, that’s looking just about right,” Dad said, laying down his shovel, then straightening himself, hands at his waist, stretching backward, exhaling with an “Ohhh.”
“Well, what do we need next?”
“Water,” Paul and I shouted. Paul ran to fetch the hose, unreeling it from under the back porch and draping it into our excavation, letting it run until the cavity was filled to the brim. One-by-one, we introduced the ducklings to their new watery home, where they paddled around. We jumped up and down and shouted across the yards for our friends. “Come see the little duckies my Daddy brought home!’
While Paul and I watched over our new charges, Dad fetched chicken wire (our basement was stocked like a hardware store). Uncoiling the prickly roll, he moved step-by-step around our pond, pressing the wiggly wire into the earth keeping out the local cats and rats.
Bringing home animals was Dad’s way of blasting excitement into our lives. He delighted in surprising us – as well as the neighborhood kids, who clamored to be in our yard and see what Mr. Gartz had come up with next—and that made me proud.
Dad taught us to feed the baby ducks bits of bread, corn meal, even flies we whacked in the kitchen. At night we brought the ducklings into the house, bedding them down for the night in the shoebox lined with bits of torn tissue.
In a few weeks, the duckling novelty wore off, and Mom complained about the messed up yard. So Dad explained to us that it was time for the ducks to learn to be wild again. He gathered up the brood and delivered them to a nature center just northwest of Chicago, where they’d eventually be released into the outdoors.
Over the years, Dad brought home an abandoned pet crow, an opossum, a raccoon he’d rescued from an illegal steel jaw trap set in a forest preserve, an enormous turtle that laid eggs in our hands, (really!), rabbits which lived in straw-filled cages on the back porch, a flying squirrel, a boa constrictor, rats to feed the boa, and a pair of gamboling ferrets he sometimes hung around his neck.
Once dad brought home a baby hawk that fell out of its nest. When I was a child, it seemed cruel not to rescue the tiny orphan. We nurtured the callow creature, feeding it tiny bits of bread soaked in warm milk, cradling its scrawny body in a cozy nest of torn tissue, but it didn’t survive more than a couple of weeks. I learned that even gentle loving care can’t be counted on to thwart death.
More animal stories, our lives on Chicago’s West Side, and the racial transition that changed our lives. Watch for Redlined.
To be published by She Writes Press: April 3, 2018