Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
The Goat Tree
Goats have a sort of, well, aura.
Some folks refer to it as a stench. Personally, I don’t think that word quite covers it. Goats are worse than skunks by almost any measure.
The really unique thing about goats is that, unlike skunks, have a predilection to spread their aura across the countryside, on the wings of the breeze. They do this by climbing – barns, trees, fence posts, rocks, almost anything higher than their natural stance. The purpose of this is to spread the cloying smell of goat as far as possible across the countryside.
In the Beginning…
When I was a small and innocent boy, the route my parents took to get to town passed by a small farm that was home to several goats, including one old Billy known locally as “Old Stinky.” That any goat, of all goats, was sufficiently rank to gain such an appellation as “Old Stinky” speaks volumes; in fact, there was muttering around the neighborhood about the owner of said farm, old man Andresen, conducting chemical warfare to drive down property values. The fact that old man Andresen bought up a couple neighboring farms at bargain-basement prices seemed to bear that view out; at least that gave him room to run a few more goats, over which Old Stinky presided as uncontested patriarch. Old Stinky took an inordinate amount of pride in his ability to drive away all manner of animals, insects, trespassers, and to turn green plants brown for twenty yards downwind. He sure seemed to enjoy himself; nobody was certain how old man Andresen was able to take it. Perhaps having the only fly and mosquito-free farm in northern Iowa was some compensation; flying insects of all sorts steered well clear of the Andresen place. Not even horseflies braved Old Stinky’s presence.
The road to town, as it passed the Andresen place, first dropped into the Canoe Creek valley and then made a sharp turn right at the driveway to the farm house. At the end of the driveway, right next to the road, was the Goat Tree. It was in this giant old oak tree that Old Stinky preferred to climb to announce his odiferous presence to the land. To get past the Andresen place to town, you had to drive down into the valley, slow down to make the sharp turn, cross the bridge and then race up the steep hill on the other side of Canoe Creek to get away from Old Stinky’s presence. The speed required to negotiate this obstacle was determined by how long the individual driver could hold his/her breath.
Anyone who was blessed in having a rural upbringing gets pretty used to some nasty smells. Some of my friends had parents who kept hogs, for example, and the domestic swine can make eyes water for several hundred yards downwind, even in the cleanest and best-kept of farms. There are also skunks, the stuff of legend as far and nasty smells; skunks of course combine one of Nature’s foulest odors with the capacity to project that odor in a form that sticks with you for weeks.
On one memorable occasion, my father found an injured turkey vulture. The bird had a broken wing, and we determined that the right thing to do would be to catch it in Dad’s jacket, wrap it up and transport it some 40 miles to Elkader, where the Iowa Department of Natural Resources ran a rehab facility.
The capture went fairly smoothly, and we were relieved when the bird didn’t smell too badly. We placed him, wrapped tightly in Dad’s jacket to prevent injury (to him and us) placed him in the back of Dad’s station wagon, and set off southward.
It seems incredible that a bird, accustomed to riding wind currents so gracefully hundreds of feet above the ground as turkey vultures do, would be subject to carsickness.
We hadn’t covered one mile of the journey when our rescued vulture began to vomit. And, dear reader, I ask you to contemplate the items that constitute fine dining to a vulture; throw in a few hours of digestion, and you still couldn’t possibly imagine the havoc this resulted in. Prodigious quantities of partially processed vulture foodstuff were quickly deposited in the back of the car, until it seemed that surely there was more of it than bird.
Tempting as it was to abandon car, bird and all, we stuck it out; Dad driving with his head out the window, eyes squinted against the wind, Mom hanging out the passenger side window, gulping in fresh air; and myself, gagging in the back seat, threatening to join the bird at any moment.
It seemed things couldn’t possibly get any worse, but then we turned the bend and began the descent into the Canoe Creek valley.
As we approached the Goat Tree, Dad let out a yelp and pulled his head in. Mom did likewise; even in a car filled with vulture vomit, the presence of Old Stinky pervaded the auto, seeping in even as we frantically rolled up the windows. Old Stinky was in place; sensing a challenge, he had climbed out on a stout limb overhanging the road where he stood proudly, head thrown back in a victorious bleat.
On a hunch, I risked a look over the back of my seat. The vulture was trying to get his head stuck under a wing, and his normally red head was showing a distinct green tinge. Somehow I don’t think the ride was responsible. Old Stinky had written another chapter in his legend; no other animal could make even a vulture gag.
His Greatest Coup
Old Stinky lived for many a year, and it was not until I had reached the age of 17 that the final episode in his legend took place. Old Stinky went out in style, though; his demise involved a pretty brunette from town, a halter-top, a convertible, and a steep ditch.
The story began a few weeks before my 17th birthday, when I took to keeping company with a cute little dark-haired girl from town. Rhonda had a trim figure, long legs, dark hair, dark eyes, and parts that protruded and curved in all the right places, in all the right ways.
Rhonda’s father, Mr. Walters, (“but you best call me ‘Sir,’ boy”) was less than enchanted with the liaison; Rhonda came from a town family with money, and her Dad wasn’t too pleased with his baby girl taking up with a long-haired, slightly bedraggled woods bum who earned extra money by trapping muskrats, ate with his Buck knife and dressed up for company by putting on a clean black t-shirt and knocking the dirt off his steel-toed engineer boots. I never did figure out why Mr. Walters could never seem to remember my name, and made up for his memory lapse by referring to me as “Worthless.”
Still, Rhonda and I went out for several weeks, and enjoyed each other’s company a great deal. Things had progressed to the point of exchanging smooches in the front seat of my ancient Ford when Rhonda’s Dad presented her with the gift of a nicely restored 1966 Mustang convertible. This was too good to be believed; on the great day that Rhonda took delivery of the Mustang, she called me to announce the great news, and offer me a spin around the countryside.
Early October in Northeast Iowa brings some of the most beautiful Indian summer days you’ll see anywhere. The day that saw Rhonda pull into my folk’s driveway in her new Mustang, the sun was shining, the thermometer was in the eighties, the Mustang’s top was down, and Rhonda was enchantingly dressed in cut-off shorts and a white halter top. I was decked out in my finest; jeans that still had knees, a black t-shirt with no holes, and I even stopped to knock the mud off my engineer boots before vaulting over the door into the passenger seat. And away we went!
The day was indeed wondrous; occasional stops for a bit of cuddling made it more wondrous still.
I guess it was the halter-top that was to blame. For those of you who don’t remember, halter-tops in the late Seventies generally consisted of a small triangle of cloth with four strings; the cloth was just large enough to cover the strategic portions of a girl’s chest, and two ties at the nape of the neck and two at the mid-back secured the whole thing in place. It was probably due to Rhonda’s halter-top commanding my entire attention (to be honest, it was the bow-knotted string ties I found particularly intriguing) that I didn’t notice her taking the turn down into the Canoe Creek valley.
The nose of the Mustang dipped as the road took the first turn down towards the Andresen place, and I noticed the aura… ever so faintly, the aura, of…
Rhonda seemed oblivious as we rounded the last bend, chatting happily away, one arm on the top of the door, one on the steering wheel, her left knee raised in a manner to take the breath away from a young man.
But it wasn’t the sight of Rhonda’s thigh that was taking my breath away. It was the sight of Old Stinky, out on his favored limb on the Goat Tree, casting his evil gaze at the oncoming Mustang.
Old Stinky was wise in the ways of cars. Old Stinky knew that, in a convertible with the top down, there was no escape. Old Stinky was ready. Out on the end of his favored limb, right over the road, Old Stinky threw back his head and bleated his triumph once more to the world. His miasma descended to cover the road to our immediate front.
“Say,” Rhonda asked, “Do you smell something?”
“HIT THE GAS!” I shouted. Rhonda turned to me, a concerned look on her face, and then we both looked upwards. As we passed under the Goat Tree, we heard the sound; the awful sound, the horrifying sound. The sound of Old Stinky’s limb breaking.
It seems Old Stinky had been putting on some weight as he got on in years. The limb that safely supported him in his prime was dangerously fragile now. I was told some time later by a saddened old man Andresen that Old Stinky hadn’t been out on his perch in a year or more. It was only the irresistible sight of an oncoming convertible that drove Stinky, in spite of his advanced age, to one last feat of stenching.
With a loud crack, the limb gave way, pitching Old Stinky into the Mustang’s back seat.
Rhonda let out a screech that would have made a wildcat green with envy. She yanked the Mustang to the left, then to the right. Old Stinky staggered to his feet on the back seat, and fighting to keep his balance, grabbed in his long, snaggled teeth the only thing that presented itself, that being the top ties to Rhonda’s halter.
Rhonda screeched louder still. In what I imagined to be a chivalrous move, I started hammering Old Stinky’s head with my left fist; it was then I learned that an aged Billy goat’s skull is the approximate hardness of marble. The only result was a badly bruised fist. I had to some up with another course of action, fast; my vision was starting to get blurry, and Rhonda was starting the dry heaves. A plan came to mind, and I shouted it at her.
“STOP THE CAR!”
Rhonda’s right foot came down hard on the brake pedal, and the Mustang’s wheels locked, sending the car careening into the steep ditch on the opposite side of the road. The Mustang slammed hard against the side of the ditch; Rhonda’s seat belt held, and she only bounced off the steering wheel enough to give her a slight bruise on her forehead. As for myself, in a display of teenage machismo I hadn’t fastened my seat belt, and so was slammed against the dashboard with rib-cracking force.
Old Stinky, though, fared least well of all. Still gripping the top ties to Rhonda’s halter, he was catapulted upwards, over Rhonda’s head, over the windshield, and a good fifty feet into the cornfield just ahead. A trail of stench followed Old Stinky overhead, much like the wake of a boat; as he passed, he kept his grip on Rhonda’s halter ties. The top ties held, but the bottom ties gave way; my last sight of Old Stinky was of his airborne figure, trailing Rhonda’s detached halter top, sailing into the rows of golden cornstalks.
I’m saddened to report that Old Stinky didn’t survive his first experience with unassisted flight. After all his malign intent, after all his evil smell, Old Stinky was a local institution, and it’s always sad to see a legend pass on.
I’m still more saddened to report that, while we didn’t dare follow Old Stinky into the corn in search of Rhonda’s halter, she did have a blanket in the trunk of the Mustang, in which she wrapped herself up tightly and drove me in silence back to my parent’s house. The thoughts of what the original intent Rhonda had in placing a blanket in the back of her car frustrated me for years afterwards.
I didn’t see Rhonda again after that. I guess the initial attraction was overcome by the association with the trauma of her banged-up Mustang and the odoriferous presence of Old Stinky, which never did come out of the upholstery. Rhonda instead took up with a boy from town, a boy from a family with money. I’m told that Mr. Walters (“I always told you he was worthless”) was pleased with the way things turned out.
It turned out that Old Stinky left a legacy, after all. A genetic legacy, one that curses the Canoe Creek valley to this day. It was many years later, on a visit to my parents at my childhood home with my own family, that I learned that Old Stinky’s name is not forgotten. During the course of a pleasant vacation at my Mom and Dad’s home, with my wife and two little girls, we decided one afternoon to take a drive to town. As we turned our truck into the Canoe Creek valley, my wife turned to me.
“Honey,” she asked, “Do you smell something?”
“It stinks, Daddy!” our little girls chirped from the back seat.
I looked up, and there, on the Goat Tree, stood a younger version of Old Stinky, on another limb overhanging the road, head thrown back, a victorious bleat ringing forth from a young and healthy set of lungs.
A strange feeling came over me, and not just because of the smell. It was a feeling that combined nausea, nostalgia, and an overall warm, fuzzy feeling that some things, some legends, can never die.
My wife didn’t understand my expression, even as we drove through the clinging cloud of stench Young Stinky let loose to waft down onto the road, even as we all were gagging and our eyes watering…
I was smiling.