Being the Random Yarns of Emily Cotton, Merry Scrivener of Fact & Fiction Historical, Animal, & Minimal to Amuse, Inform, & Enlighten.

Archive for June, 2012

My most mortifying plane flight ever

Long long ago, when the first Star Wars movie was released, Jay and I went to see it in New York City. What made this memorable is that back then I was stationed far, far away in Astoria, Oregon. US Coast Guard Air station Warrenton, to be exact. But on the 4th of July weekend we were given five days off, and I wanted to spend them with my honey, not moping alone in my quarters running up a phone bill to NYC. (That’s another relic of days past – any time you talked to somebody who was more than 10 miles away, you had to shell out money to the company euphemistically called ‘Ma’ Bell.)

I had just found out about a military benefit that even we under-resourced Coasties could enjoy: Military Air Command. The way it worked was that when the military was shuffling planes and cargo around, any qualifying person could catch a ride on one, free of charge, first-come, first served – in order of precedence: active military first, then cadets at any military academy, and then military dependents, if there was room.

That Friday a transport plane was scheduled to be moved from McCord AFB, Washington, easy driving distance from Astoria, to Dover AFB, Delaware, easy driving distance from New York. So I drove up to McCord to get in line. I was the last one accepted, which earned me the ire of a group of cadets traveling together, as my coming meant that the last one of their group got bumped. They were pretty angry about it and complained loudly about rules being broken. I couldn’t blame them; they thought I was a military dependent because I was wearing civilian clothing.

When you flew MAC, active military were supposed to be in dress uniform. The Coast Guard had only begun letting women in two years before, and they were late getting a uniform designed for them. So we were issued WAVE uniforms left over from WWII. (These seem very classy now, but in the ‘70’s they looked bizarre.) But I wasn’t wearing mine, because I was seven months pregnant.

I would have explained the situation to the young men, but they quickly ushered us up the ramp and into the plane. It was a huge empty cargo space, no seats, nothing. Along both walls was a bar, which made it look like a ballet studio, except for the loop of olive-drab canvas that hung  down from it. While I was still wondering where we would sit, two crew members started unclipping the bar from the bulkhead (That’s ship-talk for a wall) and fastening it to seat-height stanchions spaced every ten feet of so along the deck (that’s ship-talk for a floor).

I eyed the resulting seat-row, consisting of a canvas sling hung between the knee-height bar and the wall, with dismay. It might have been acceptable when it was new, but the canvas had seen many years of service and it sagged like a basset-hound’s jowls. When four of us put our weight on the one sling, it stretched even further. My butt was less than a foot off the floor, and my knees were far too close to my chin. It was bad enough for the men on either side, but I was curled around a watermelon-sized belly. One seat belt was supposed to cover the four of us, run through loops between each person I took up more than my share of the belt.

The crew then came down the row, handing everybody a cardboard box. I opened mine and saw it contained food—the flight was five hours long. Everybody else was examining their rations, too. They had given us a sandwich, two bottled drinks, a bag of chips, an apple, and tucked in the bottom were two little pink squares of Bazooka bubble gum.

Across from me, where the grumpy group of cadets were seated, I saw everyone pulling the gum out of the boxes and unwrapping them. I looked baffled. The guy next to me leaned over. “For your ears,” he volunteered.

Of course—chewing gum helps with air pressure changes when flying. I opened one of mine a popped it in my mouth. It was horrible tasting gum, but at least they supplied it.

They guy next to me was giving me a strange look. “I just soften mine up in my hand, but I guess that would work,” he said.

I was going to ask him to clarify, when they started the engines, first a moderate ‘chuck-chuck-chuck’. Everybody hastily crammed the pink stuff in their ears while the jets crescendoed up to an ear-shattering roar.  With dawning comprehension, I removed the square from my mouth and followed suit.

There would be no conversation for five hours. I sat there, ears filled with waxy spit, and my son (who had no earplugs) started to kick my liver in violent protest.

It was going to be a long flight.

But it was going to get worse.


Conversations with a Camel

Conversations with a Camel.

This week I accompanied my grandchildren Hailey and Demetri to the Oakland Zoo. I hadn’t been in years, not since their parents were children, and I was tremendously impressed by the facilities, which were carefully designed around the needs of each species or compatible group.

But off in one corner, rather an afterthought, was a nothing-special exhibit for the camels. Because, in zoo terms, dromedaries (that’s the one-hump camel) are nothing special. I suppose they are only there because to a wide-eyed child, a camel is just as unusual as a panda.

As a long-time breeder and trainer of llamas (camelids, or ‘little camels’) I made a point to go see them at the dead-end of an uphill climb. They had three, but my eye immediately went to a dark bay who was harassing another one. Years of watching herd interactions gave me the context: Darkbay was an adolescent female, and she wanted to play. The elder was putting up with her with a patience which only a mother would muster.

So I went over to the fence and initiated a conversation. I did this by keeping my hands down, sticking my neck out like another camel, and moaning softly. (Chewbacca from Star Wars is a recording of camel noises, specifically a camel at Marine world trained by my friend, the late Paul Barkman.)

There were several other people at the fence, but Darkbay’s interest was immediately piqued. She came over at once, and we had the following conversation, here translated into English for the benefit of those who cannot read Camel.


Me: Hi honey. If your Mom hasn’t any time for you, I’m a listening ear.

Darkbay: That’s weird. Usually the two-legs holler and point. But you seem very polite. You aren’t going to grab at me, are you?


Me: No, I’ll keep my hands to myself, until you invite me. And here’s a whiff of my breath.

Darkbay: (inhaling) Hey, cherries! You’ve been eating cherries! They smell delicious. Though the alfalfa hay we got for lunch isn’t bad, see? (blows gently.)


Me: If you come a little nearer, I’ll tell you a secret.

Darkbay: Ooo, I love secrets. And you have the most aromatic ear-wax! What’s the secret?

Me: I’m VERY fond of camels. I have bunches of little ones called llamas. You can smell them on my cap, I wore it on my last packtrip.


Darkbay: I like you too! Lots and lots! Let’s have a kiss.

Me: (twitching lips, llama style). Kissy Kissy Kissy.


Darkbay: Why don’t you come live with us? I’m bored. None of the grown-ups will play.

Me: sorry, the fence is in the way.


Momcamel: (Coming over). Now dear, stop pestering the two-legs. You know some of them spit.

Me: Ma’am, I understand your concerns completely. I have llamas, and whenever we go out in public there is always some brat who spits at them, trying to get them to spit back.


Darkbay: Mom, that was fun!

Momcamel: Yes, dear, there are a few polite humans in the world.

Many thanks to my daughter-in-law Heather, who never misses a good impromptu photo shoot.


Continued: Me and a chicken in a very small bathroom

(To my grammar-Nazi Mom, who is probably the first one to read this: Yes, I know it should be ‘The chicken and I in a very small bathroom.’ But I’m not going to phrase it that way, because – well, it sounds kind of perverted. That’s probably just me.)

When I chased Henrietta into the tiny shower bath, I was sure her roaming was over. How could something that weighed less than three pounds escape a person with a five-foot reach (measure fingertip to fingertip) in a space where no dimension exceeded that length?

The bathroom was roughly T-shaped, with a toilet at the bottom of the T and a vanity washbasin facing a  minimum shower on either side of the door. Henrietta perched on the hand-towel ring. I made a grab for her. She took off, leaving me with only a few feathers and a liquid deposit to signify her emotional state.

By now I was regretting my impulse to do a show-and-tell, especially as I remembered where the kid’s Mom was: that morning Frigga had a hearing scheduled with Child Protective Services to do the necessary red tape required by the difficult and complicated circumstances which brought her to our home. Another day would probably be better for all concerned, so I decided that as soon as I had her caught, Henrietta was going straight out to Randy.

Poor Henrietta, mistrustful of my intentions, decided that her best bet was to hunker in the tiny space under the toilet. I knelt down in front of the loo, and, assuming pretty much the same position as if I were going to use it to throw up in (but the lid was closed, you understand, so it wasn’t a gross as you’re thinking) I reached around with a hand on either side, thinking to trap her gently.

Wow. Bantams can PECK! The nasty rotten little dust-mop ATTACKED me! I withdrew to lick my wounds while Henrietta sharpened her beak.

This would not do. I had to get her out from under there so I could throw the towel around her – I’d have to wash it anyway – and safely transport her back to the carton, and the egg be damned. It seemed that an even smaller space would be a good idea, so I opened the door of the 3-foot-square shower in readiness for my next gambit.

But how to get her there? I bethought myself of the toilet plunger we kept in the vanity cabinet against the insertion of Legos and similar foreign objects into the plumbing. In a trice I had the thing out and was bearing down on my adversary from the vanity side. Sure enough, she squirted out from under the toilet.

I brandished my rubbery weapon, thrusting and parrying with dexterity and skill until the chicken retreated to the shower stall. Then I shoved the plunger handle into my back waistband, in case I needed it again, snatched the towel and jumped after her, closing the glass door behind me.

Now it was just me and the chicken, and she had nowhere to go. So I dropped the towel on her and  leaned over to gather her up.

She shot out from under the cloth and bounded into the air. I straightened up and, towel in both outstretched hands, tried to clap it over her, spinning to follow the feathered rocket that was zooming around the stall, sometimes at knee-height, sometimes rising to my shoulders, and once zipping between my feet.

I am not given to profanity, preferring accurate descriptive language. But I confess that in this case adjectives failed me and I resorted to a few choice terms from the gutter.

And then, when I almost had her between my knees, Henrietta gave one last leap into the air. I raised my towel-covered hands with her, and my elbow knocked into the handle of the shower, turning it on full-bore.

It took me a couple of shocked seconds to get the thing off—enough to be completely soaked down the left side of my body, although the right was still nicely dry. Henrietta got the full force of the stream, which ruined the aerodynamic quality of her feathers. (For the record, the term ‘madder than a wet hen’ is a misconception. If you substitute ‘sadder’ for madder, it would be nearer the mark.)

I quickly wrapped her in the sodden towel with her head sticking out. The handle of the toilet plunger had slipped down my pants leg by now, leaving the business end sticking out above the waistband. I left it for the moment, as both hands were occupied keeping the critter trapped. Time enough to deal with the toilet plunger and my half-wet hair and clothing when I had Henrietta safe in her carton. My left shoe squelched with every step as I hurried back to the entry.

And there in the doorway stood Frigga, accompanied by her social worker who had come to inspect her new abode and meet me.

concerning a chicken, a CPS worker, and a toilet plunger, continued…


So here I am, with a loose chicken in the house. But all in all, it’s not so bad, because Henrietta is heading for the open door of the den. This is far better than if she had gone the other way, into the living room, which has a high open ceiling. My daughter’s cockatiels used to zip in there and they were pretty hard to get down. We had to wait until they perched on the fan, and then turn it on low. (The high speed would have made them flutter to a more solid perch.) As the blades gently rotated, they would try to stay on by hunkering down, wings pressed against the surface while they slowly slid backwards with the centrifugal force. Eventually they would drop off the end. Usually that was enough for the moment, and they would come down to your hand, somewhat bewildered. Repeated several times, all the tops of the fan blades would get dusted.

Where Henrietta is heading, on the other hand, has a nice ordinary ceiling and more to the point, nowhere to perch that is too high for me to reach. In fact what we were using as the den used to be the master suite, but when we were running D-house we made it a public room (Jay and I built a separate apartment out back, it kept us sane when the house was full) so that the small bathroom could be used when the others were occupied.

As soon as the chicken was inside, I shut the door. So now it was just the two of us in a 10 x 16 space full of couches, chairs and shelves. I chased her around the place at speed, but she was faster than I was. Unlike the farmer who sold her to me, I did not have a pool net. We were at an impasse.

I sat down to contemplate the situation. Henrietta stared balefully at me from across the room. As I returned her stare, I saw behind her the door to the former master bathroom, a tiny affair consisting of a shower, a lavatory, and a toilet, and not an extra inch of space. The light bulb went off. In that limited place, there was no way she could avoid me!

So I slid ever so quietly to that side of the room and opener the bathroom door wide and turned on the light invitingly. Then I slid back to the opposite side of the room and resumed my pursuit. It took a few abortive attempts, but soon Henrietta flapped into the bathroom.

Triumph! I bounded inside and slammed the door. Now is was just me and the chicken in a five-by six room. I was sure I had her!

To be continued…

a true tale of a chicken, a CPS worker, and a toilet plunger.

So I mentioned in my last post that I had bagged a hen as a mail-order bride for Randy the Rooster. But before I dropped her off to her connubial duties, I thought I’d give the 11-year old who was staying with us (along with her homeless mom) a view of a real live chicken.

(The kid’s Mom, whom I’ll call Frigga, was too gullible for my husband to resist. She was good for any hoary old joke, including the one where he points at her and exclaims, “Oh look, you have a henway!” To which poor unsuspecting Frigga responds, “What’s a henway?”

“About three pounds.” And Jay goes off laughing. Yes, I have put up with this kind of humor for over thirty years. Now you know why I seem a little nuts. But back to the matter at hand, and the Bantam hen, who, for the record, weighed a good deal less than three pounds.)

It’s only two in the afternoon when I come in with my lively sack, and nobody’s home. Our kids are grown, Frigga is out dealing with whatever, and her kid is still at school. So I find a cardboard box for show-and-tell, since a feed sack is no fit display for the glories of chickendom, and contemplate the various methods for transferring animated hen with already demonstrated flying skills into inanimate carton.

I un-knot the sack, then invert it over the box. Henrietta is in no mood to take a drop; she has her claws in the weave and clings like a burr. So I grasp the top of the sack in one hand and encircle the fabric with the other, moving steadily downward. Sure enough, she loses her grip and falls into the carton. “Clunk!”

Transfer accomplished, I toss the bag and slap the top shut. And then I think, “Wait a minute. What went ‘clunk? Chickens don’t go ‘clunk’. Unless—”

I open the top flap a bit, and sure enough, there in the gloom at the bottom of the box is a teeny little pearly white Bantam egg.

I cracked the carton a little wider to get a better look, and fall back, startled by a fusillade of feathers as Henrietta explodes out of the opening. She bounces off the ceiling and rockets down the hall, with me in hot pursuit.

To be continued…

More misadventures with chickens


The last post on Randy has reminded me of our longest-lasting chicken, Henrietta. As I mentioned before, we frequently had abandoned critters dumped at the packstation, as we called the acreage we rented from BART. It was bounded by the freeway on one side and the frontage road on the other, and had a creek running through it with a flood plain covered with oaks and the remnants of a walnut orchard. If the poor dumped animal was a dog, something that would suffer and starve, we called the pound. But for the usual run of chickens, ducks, rabbits, hamsters, and even cats, we let nature take its course. There were plenty of hungry fox kits and owlets whose diligent parents would put this easy food supply to good use.

Every time some hens got tossed over the fence, Randy would get so excited. He’d strut and crow for a day, and then the next day, there’d be nothing but feathers. (That’s just a matter of speaking. In fact, there were many other unappetizing parts left behind, most of them quite gruesome to anyone but my biologist friend, you know who you are.) Poor Randy would droop around, all alone again.

I was on a feed run when I saw a farm sign that said ‘Bantam Hens $10’. Now Bantams are legendary for being survivors – being neither bred for eggs nor meat, they have a lot of the ‘wild sense’ left in them—and I figured that $10 was a cheap price not to see a drooping rooster. So on the way back, I stopped.

The farmer led me to a large enclosed chicken run and told me to pick one. I pointed to the one who was roosting highest, on the theory that she would be most likely to outlast the predators. My guess was confirmed by how hard that chicken was to catch. But eventually, he snagged her with a pool net. I thought he’d put her in a cardboard box for the trip home (about two hours) but to my consternation, he merely stuffed her in a feed sack, knotted the top, and handed it to me.

“Quiets ‘em down,” he said. “It’s the dark inside the sack. Chickens go to sleep in the dark.”

I gingerly accepted the agitated package and set it next to me on the truck seat, hoping she would be asleep by the time we reached I-5. Perhaps the bag wasn’t dark enough, because Henrietta showed no signs of drowsiness. As I pulled the loaded trailer up the on ramp, she figured out how to get up in the sack, and it started to jerk around.

And then the sack started to move in my direction. I was concentrating on driving a fully-loaded stock trailer in a stiff breeze and didn’t pay it much attention until she got over next to my thigh. It was a hot day, and I was wearing shorts.

A chicken can peck through a feed sack with remarkable ferocity.

I knocked that bag onto the floor of the passenger side, possibly with more force than intended. At which point Henrietta subsided, and the rest of the journey home was broken only by the occasional resentful cackle.

At the time, our house doubled as a transition home for women and children. We had one school-age child and her mom staying with us, and I got to thinking how much 11-year-old Gertrude (not her real name) would enjoy seeing a real, live chicken.  She would be getting out of school soon, so I swung by the house before going over to drop off the feed.

And therein hangs a tale of a chicken, a CPS worker, and a toilet plunger.

Next post.

Randy the Rooster

Randy the Rooster
I have dragged my feet on blogging for years now, because I am only too aware that once a thing is posted on the internet, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and those words are PERMANENT. Being the sort of person who thinks out loud, I suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, and frequently have to dislodge my toes from my tonsils. But as I am, after all, a writer, and it is only fair that prospective buyers should have the opportunity to sample my wares, I am resolved to publish my warts and foibles for the world to see.
What gives me courage, however, is that ‘the world’ is not likely to see much of them at all. With millions, maybe billions of people out there blogging about everything from sand sifting to bodily functions, I doubt anyone will see my first posts except those who already know me and therefore, my flaws. That being the case, I am going to start by telling a few stories which are already favorites in the hope that they will at the least, read it through.
So I’m going to start with a joke told me by my dear friend Ann, who’s probably laughing in heaven right now. Ann liked to laugh.
Ann was helping me put up fences on the six acres of urban farmland we leased from BART for our llamas when we were startled by vigorous crowing from the top of the shed. We looked up and there was a tall, red-gold rooster. It wasn’t the first time; being close to the highway meant that people were always dumping unwanted animals, and roosters were illegal in town. What was different about this one was that he was still around a week later, meaning that he had enough smarts not to become dinner for a hungry fox, hawk, or raccoon.
“He needs a name,” Ann said. I’ll call him Randy.”
“Why Randy?” says I.
“After the rooster in the joke,” says she. And she proceeded to tell it.
It seems there was a farmer whose hens didn’t produce very many chicks. So he shopped around for better rooster and found one that was advertised as extremely virile. He drove many miles to fetch this prepotent poultry paragon and put down a good price.
When the farmer got him home, he set him down at the door to the chicken shed and gave him a bit of advice. “Now Randy, there’s a hundred hens in there, and I don’t want you to wear yourself out. You have weeks to get the job done, so take a few at a time.”
He opened the door and shoved Randy in, and that rooster got right to work. The squawking, cackling and crowing were like nothing he had ever seen. The farmer watched in consternation. Randy apparently had no concept of ‘pacing himself’.
When the farmer finished his chores, feathers were still flying in the henhouse, and he became afraid that his valuable rooster would die from overwork in the first day. So he rounded up Randy and put him in the barnyard, away from the hens.
When the farmer brought the cows home, he saw a quacking huddle of geese in the barnyard. Randy was in the midst of them, doing what he did best.
The farmer broke it up and shooed the geese back to the pond. But when next he went by the barnyard, Randy was at the guinea fowl.
By that time it was getting dark, and he knew the guinea fowl would go to roost in the trees, where Randy could not get them. So he went in to his supper, thinking that the next day he would build a pen just for Randy.
But in the morning he saw vultures circling the barnyard, and when he ran to see, there was his new prize rooster, flopped out dead.
The farmer knelt down by the feathered form, shaking his head sadly. “Randy, I told you to pace yourself. But you just couldn’t, and now look at where it’s got you.”
The rooster opened one eye a crack. “Shhh!” he said. He pointed a wing-tip upwards. “Buzzards.”