Riding in my Sunday dress in the passenger side of a well-equipped Cadillac Deville down an old gravel road, I was feeling the kind of sublimity that not even my small town southern preacher could’ve gleaned from me that day.
Why? Because I had a rooster on my lap. And the rooster was remarkably calm as well.
He wasn’t a handsome chicken. His feet were scaly and his feathers were scraggly and his cock-a-doodle-doer was busted. But he was a gift – one that validated a lifestyle choice I had spent years in the suburbs and the cities pining over, that of country girl.
So when my neighbor gave me his last surviving white Silkie rooster after raccoons ate his peacocks, life was good—for me, if not for the peacocks.
I had lived in the small farm town in west Tennessee just over a year before meeting my elusive neighbor, Mr. Cole. I had heard he was a veteran of three wars, so I expected a hardcore, Hollywood-style roughneck, not a soft-spoken man, slightly bent and scrappy, raising peacocks, chickens, kittens, and Muscadines – all things sweet, soft, and sugary.
My own grandfather’s last name was Cole, and I adored him, so much so that I named my son after him. Clearly, it was divine intervention that I moved next door to this exceptional man and his livestock. And I felt an overwhelming need to tell his story. It was as if God was whispering in my ear to know, know, know him. Or maybe I was channeling Dolly Parton.
But how could I convince Mr. Cole to allow a total stranger to tell his life story? But was I a total stranger? We were neighbors, after all, and he did give me his rooster.
But I was still a bit shell-shocked from my previous relationship with a man from the Greatest Generation.
“The world is made up of protons, neutrons, Fig Newtons, and morons,” my former boss, once a chemistry teacher and now an owner of a successful swimming pool business, liked to say. And then he would indicate, with a nod of his head, which category he believed I fit into. I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t the Fig Newtons.
So out of a fear of rejection, I stuck a note in Mr. Cole’s mailbox with a few pleasantries and one question: I’m a writer looking for a story to tell. Could I tell yours?
The very next day he came over, bringing with him 32 Xeroxed pages of memoirs written on an old typewriter.
Validated again! First the chicken, now the memoirs. I only hoped I could do him justice with both.
The day after that there was a knock on my door. It was Mr. Cole, and he gave me a brown paper bag filled with squash from his garden. We talked casually about the squash, he inquired about the chicken (temporarily housed in my garage), and then he left.
A couple of days passed and he came by again.
“You like squash?”
“Yeah, but I still haven’t eaten what you gave me already, so please don’t bring me any more yet.”
The next day a brown paper bag turned up on my doorstep. On it was written, “Hope you like squash!”
Soon following, he brought over 32 Xeroxed pages of memoirs written on an old typewriter. He had no recollection of already having done so.
So I changed the subject and asked him if I should put his Silkie rooster in my coop with my four other chickens (one larger rooster and three hens). This time the whispering in my ear was more akin to a loud yelping of “Don’t do it!”
It came from neither God nor Dolly. It came from my conscience.
But Mr. Cole answered, “He’s lonely. I think he’ll do fine in there.”
So I put the rooster in the coop and took my kids over to Mr. Cole’s to pick raspberries and listen to his World War II stories. He talked of his Irish friend dying on a land mine and the German prisoners he sent to retrieve his body who met the same fate. He spoke of digging a foxhole in the frozen ground under a foot of snow and sharing it begrudgingly with a chain smoker. And he recounted the memory of a German maiden he tried to woo, who didn’t share the same sentiment and instead made a go for his gun.
My children interrupted with pleas for a kitten, being that Mr. Cole happened to have a litter of the downy white, blue-eyed rascals. My daughter insisted our house would be ideal for the one she held in her hand. I told her it absolutely would not.
That day, the kitten came home with us.
Soon after, I realized it was deaf.
No big deal, I thought. I once had two eyeless guinea pigs and a motherless squirrel. But if I kept seeking validation through Mr. Cole’s gifts, I would have to open a petting zoo. Besides, my bigger concern was the rooster, and rightfully so.
Within two hours of raspberry picking, my big rooster had bitten off two-and-a-half of the little rooster’s toes, leaving two red stubs and one dangler.
I was horrified!
Like a highly trained Red Cross chicken nurse, I removed him from harm’s way, constructed a small coop, and sped to the farm supply for medicine.
“I have 50 chickens,” the girl there said, handing me a bottle of blue antiseptic. “You’ll love this stuff. You can see where you put it ‘cause it’s blue.”
Out of my wits, I was easily convinced I would love it, “’cause it’s blue.” The chicken, on the other hand, wasn’t. As I was applying the antiseptic, the panicked chicken kicked over the bottle, and splattered the liquid all over the lower half of his body (and mine).
Horrified again! Not only was the poor chicken injured, he was now also blue.
Mr. Cole had trusted me. What would he say when he found out? Would he quit sharing his stories? Would he stop bringing me squash? Would he take back his kitten?
Even worse, maybe I just wasn’t cut out for the country girl way of life. We had, after all, accidentally burned my other neighbor’s pasture and secured a solid, “Stay off my property or else,” from the neighbor across the street.
We were practically lepers.
So my mind reverted back to every scheme I had ever used as a teenager to conceal the truth from my parents.
Burning beer cans. Blaming a friend. Hiding in a closet.
No, nothing had prepared me for this. I would have to face the consequences.
So the next time Mr. Cole stopped by, I showed him what I had done.
“You built that?” he said, referring to my hastily crafted coop, hardly noticing the chicken inside.
“Uh huh,” I answered and provided a rambling explanation on the methods I used to construct the crooked door and attach the tin roof and frame the front porch.
“Nice work,” he said nonchalantly.
And then I cracked.
“But-I-turned-your-chicken-blue-and-he’s-missing-some-toes!” I blurted, breaking out into hives.
Mr. Cole leaned over, looked at him thoughtfully for the first time, and smiled up at me.
“Oh, he’ll be fine. Just get him some hens.”
And that was that. And to this day, that chicken is still fine.
We now call him Patriot, because he was at some point during his stay with us every bit of red, white, and blue, and because he was given to us by a true patriot: Mr. Cole.
He came over yesterday, riding his big red tractor with his 6-foot bush hog during the middle of a heat advisory. He said he wants to share his daffodil bulbs, but we can’t dig them up until fall. I hope he remembers, but if not I’ll remind him. And while we dig I just might share a story of my own – the story of how one old man’s decision to get rid of a lonely rooster justified a young girl’s entire sense of being.
I’m sure he’ll just shake his head and quietly laugh. It does seem ridiculous to find validation in yellow squash, a deaf kitten, and a patriotic chicken, but hey, I’ll take it where I can get it.