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I ran over to the small dead bird lying on the ground. I felt a deep feeling of regret and sorrow for what I had just done. I picked up the lifeless body and walked to the nearby garden, dug a deep hole and buried it. This bothered me, to the point that I couldn't get it out of my mind for weeks. To this day, I still reflect back on what I had done. I was 8 years old and never picked up a BB gun again. Despite the path I would travel through life this taught me a valuable lesson about the sanctity of life and that life in any form should be respected.
I grew up in a family of hard working first generation Irish Americans who owned their own home and three acres of farmland. This provided us an opportunity to plant a sizeable victory garden. In the 1940's, most families with gardens would harvest what they grew, can the fruits and vegetables, and use these to feed the family throughout the upcoming winter. My family was no different. My mother was a hard working, God fearing woman who was the family disciplinarian. She ran the house, worked the garden and also had a fulltime job. She worked the midnight to seven a.m. shifts in a mill that manufactured yarn. My grandfather, dad and two uncles all worked for the fire department. Then there was Rose!
Rose was the only girl in the family and the first to attend college. She chose to study nursing at a Catholic college in Washington DC. Following graduation, she went directly into the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph to become a nursing nun. She later became Director of Student nursing at a Catholic teaching hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. Rose becoming a nun made my grandfather furious. He stomped around the house in his undershirt, pulling at his suspenders screaming in his thick Irish brogue, how those heathen bastards stole his little girl. As time passed, he was finally able to control his outbursts. He was even tolerant, when my grandmother mentioned that she was going to church.
The year was 1945 and the war in Europe was winding down. There was hope it would be ending soon and the troops would be coming home. The men in our family were exempt from the service because of their jobs as firemen. Due to the manpower shortage on the home front, the three brothers took second jobs to help out. My father worked as a baker at the local bakery, and a life guard at the local swimming hole. One day, when he was working as a lifeguard I was helping him row the small boat that he used to keep to get a better eye on the swimmers. I asked him if he would teach me to swim. He responded by picking me up and throwing me out of the boat. My choice was to either sink or swim. I chose to swim!
After that lesson, you couldn't keep me out of the water. I started working harder and harder, striving for perfection. I won several medals and trophies at the local YMCA, which made my dad very proud. As time passed, I turned into a long, lanky, dopey looking kid, with a face full of zits that resembled a pizza with everything on it. I developed an extreme hatred for school. It seemed to me that school was a waste of time. My Irish upbringing taught me that callused hands and a strong back would always put food on the table.
After school, weekends, and in the summer I worked in the fields alongside the migrant workers, who were mostly Irish. On Fridays, when I could, I helped a local farmer who was a part time fish monger. He would go to the wholesale fish market and carefully pick up the fish, smell it, and look deeply into the fish's dead eyes. He would only pick the best and the freshest fish he could find. On the rear of his wooden wagon he had a large box container with a canvas tarp over it. He would fill it with ice and then carefully pack the fish he had chosen. He and his horse, Jacky, roamed the streets selling his product to the good Catholic women for their meatless Friday evening meal. I really miss those simpler times.
With all my odd jobs, I managed to put away what little money I had earned. It wasn't much but I saved every penny. When I got older, I started working for my grandfather on my mother's side. He was a big quiet man with hands the size of catchers mitts. He had a weathered face marked by the sun and was tough as nails. He always wore the farmer overalls; the ones with the straps and the bib in front. He was nothing like my dads father.
He was the head foreman of a large tobacco farm owned by the Colman Brothers. Their tobacco leaves were used for the outer wrappers of cigars. Horses were used in the fields to till the soil and pull the heavy wooden wagons to the large wooden drying sheds. They had roofs that were thirty feet high and measured fifty by one hundred fifty. Here is where the large metal spears held the tobacco leaves, so they could be hung in the barns to dry, starting from the top of the roof rafters down to the dirt floor. The tobacco would remain there to cure. When the curing process was complete, the leaves were ready to be auctioned off to the highest bidder to be used for the outer wrappers of the finest cigars in the world.
At the end of a hard day's work, I would unhitch the horses from the wagon and ride them bareback to the stalls. I would pretend to be a Roman centurion riding my horses into battle. I put one foot on each horse's back and rode them standing up. My grandfather would get angry when I did this; but understood that I was still a kid doing a man's job and needed an outlet.
As far back as I can remember all I wanted to be was a sailor. Although I was tall enough at fourteen, the minimum age to enlist was seventeen. Even at that age my dad would have to sign my enlistment papers. Three years seemed a long time to wait! Even at fourteen I got the feeling that I was missing something. Although everything was going well at home, I just needed to get out on my own and try something new. I started to devise a plan.
With the money I saved, I would purchase a Greyhound Bus ticket. My destination was California just because of what I had seen in the movies! A week before I planned to leave I went to the bus terminal and picked up a bus schedule. I approached the ticket agent and asked, "How much will it cost to California?" He told me the price of the ticket. I laid out all the cash I had on the counter and we counted it. "You're short son" he said. "How far will this take me?" I asked. He checked his schedule and said, "Laramie, Wyoming." I was committed to this adventure. So I nodded my head, gave the agent my cash and purchased the ticket. When the day came to leave, both my parents were working the night shift. I wrote a note telling them of my decision and that I would write when I got to my destination. I picked up my bag, started for the door, opened it and hesitated for a moment. I looked back at the only home I had ever known, wondering if I would ever see it again. I got to the bus stop with time to spare. I began nervously pacing back and forth on the sidewalk outside the ticket office. I kept looking up and down the street until I finally caught sight of the bus. It pulled in and stopped at the curb. The door opened and the driver smiled down at me. "Running away from home?" he asked. "Yes sir, I am," I replied. Holding out his hand for my ticket, I gave it to him and hopped aboard. My adventure had begun!
I looked around at the six people seated on the bus and wondered where they were going. I was sure they all had their own stories. Throughout the trip, people got on and off the bus. To pass the time, I made up stories in my mind as each of them boarded. After a few days we finally arrived in Laramie, Wyoming! I got off the bus, saying thank you to the drivers. I walked down the few steps that led to the sidewalk. There I stood on the curb as the bus drove off, leaving me standing there all alone. I thought "This place is like a pimple on a flea's ass." "Boy did I screw up!" I wasn't exactly sure what I expected, but this wasn't it!
Across the street I saw a motel with a red sigh that read Vacancy. I walked over to inquire about the room rates. Behind the counter stood a girl in her mid twenties, not bad looking, but not really good looking either. She told me that the rooms were two dollars a night. When she saw me cringe, she asked if I was broke. When I nodded yes, she asked if I would be interested in a job that paid five dollars a week and that including room and board. "What would I have to do?" I asked? "A little of everything like cleaning and all around handyman," she said "Yes ma'am, I am very interested," I said excitedly. "Good, let me show you around." she said. She led me to a small apartment in the back behind the office. It was clean and had a bathroom with a shower.
That was all I needed. The next morning at six o'clock I showed up at the front office ready to go to work. There was an older guy there who welcomed me. His name was Mike. Doris, who I met the day before and had hired me was his daughter. For the next week or so, I stripped beds, did laundry, cut grass, did some painting, and small repairs. One hot afternoon I was helping Doris make beds when she asked me if I had ever been with a girl. I said yes, thinking what she meant was the touchy feely things kids do when they're trying to find out what the difference is between the two sexes.
That's not what she meant! When she found out I was a virgin, well, this just made her day! She guided me through the process of foreplay, paying special attention to every detail. She really enjoyed telling me what to touch, how long, how fast, and when to move on to the next lesson. She enjoyed what I was doing to her and I enjoyed doing it. This went on almost every day for a week until Mike walked in and caught us. That ended my motel career and my place to live.
I was walking around town when I noticed a help wanted sign in the supermarket window. I walked in and asked for the job. They hired me and I started the next day. I stocked shelves, and bagged groceries. I slept any place that was dry until I could find a suitable place to stay. A couple of days later, I was bagging for this old guy whose name was Gus. We got to talking. He was younger than he looked. You could tell this man didn't have a soft life growing up. He told me he owned a sheep ranch about ten miles outside of town and was looking for a hired hand. He asked if I would be interested in a job as a shepherd.
I said yes, without thinking. After all, how many guys can say they worked as a shepherd? I made arrangements with Gus that the next time he came to town I would drive back to the ranch with him. The day came, so I picked up my wages, threw my duffel bag in the back of the old pickup truck that had seen better days, and I started my new job. It was July 22nd and my fifteenth birthday. I called my mom and gave her an update on everything that I was doing. I told her that I loved her and I would be home in time for the start of school in the fall.
Gus told me he would be checking on me every three days to make sure everything was going OK. He set me up with what I would need out on the range. A horse that I learned to hate, a bedroll, blankets, food and an old Springfield rifle. This rifle was to help fend off the varmints, as he called them. I wasn't keen on the gun. But, what I was up against was not a helpless bird, rather something that could kill me, as well as the sheep that I was being paid to protect. I was out on the range for about two weeks. The heavens were a mass of stars and except for the smell of sheep this suited me and I liked what I was doing.
Most of the time I slept outdoors in my cozy sleeping bag. But when it got really cold, I used the small line shack that was built just for this purpose. Living like this gives you a lot of time to think. The thought of going back to school left me cold. I still needed two years before I could get into the Navy that is if my dad would sign my enlistment papers.
One quiet night, tucked into my bag, I heard something that snapped my eyes wide open. I lay still not breathing. My horse stomped her hooves and snorted. Slowly I unzipped the bag, grabbed the rifle, and cocked it all in one motion. I was no sooner in the sitting position when this large black bear came running on all fours into camp heading for my horse. The camp fire showed his blood red eyes, with his mouth open, exposing long yellow fangs with drool running down the front, anticipating an easy meal. The horse was going nuts rearing up on her hind legs, whirling then kicking her rear legs and letting out shrieking sounds, almost like a baby crying. With amazing calmness, I jerked the gun up to my shoulder and fired as fast as I could ram another shell into the chamber. The bear went down, blood pumping from three direct hits. It skidded along the ground, coming to rest inches from my horse's front hooves.
I went from a calm steady hand to shaking uncontrollably and throwing up. I'm sure I crapped my pants. All through the night, I lay curled up in a ball on the ground, wide awake and shivering. If Gus hadn't stopped by on his three day rounds, I would still be lying there. Once he talked me down and I stopped shaking, we loaded the bear into his pickup truck, all the time thinking to myself, "So this is what Gus calls a varmint." We made arrangements for him to relieve me in a few weeks so I could start my trip back home.
After the second week Gus picked me up to drop me at the bus station. He shook my hand and handed me the two fangs from the bear and said "You did a fine job; I'd like to see what kind of a man you turn out to be." I thanked him and got out of the truck wishing I didn't have to go. There I stood in the same bus stop, in the same spot, where I got off the bus three months earlier, looking at the same motel across the street. Doris saw me standing there and walked over to say goodbye. I thanked her for her help in preparing me for my future encounters with the opposite sex. "You ruined me for other men, she said jokingly. We both laughed. She gave me a big kiss and a hug and walked away to become a memory.
The trip back was a repeat of the trip there. When I got off the bus, people stared at me, as if I was from Mars. I guess they never saw a real cowboy, except for in the movies. Come to think of it, I never saw one until I headed west. But there I stood, six foot three inches tall and one hundred sixty pounds. I was way overdue for a haircut. My face was dark brown from the sun and still covered with zits. I was dressed in well broken dirty boots, faded Levis, large real silver belt buckle, plaid shirt and a large orange faded cowboy hat. I must have been quite the sight. No one was expecting me so I walked the two miles to the house. No one was home and it was as if the last three months never happened. Everything was exactly the same, except for the feeling that I had really accomplished something that no other fifteen year old kid had done. I was feeling pretty damn good about myself.
School started. I sat day after day going through the drill. I didn't have any one that I would consider my best friend to share my stories with. But, I did have a steady girlfriend. Looking back at the relationship with her, all she really was was a friend. I couldn't tell the difference back then with the saving yourself for marriage thing.
When I turned sixteen, my mother went into the hospital for a relatively simple operation, but things didn't go well. She never came out of the anesthesia. The family spent two days and two nights gathered outside her hospital room while an iron lung kept her alive. I guess someone made the decision to unplug the device because she died on the end of the second day, I'm sure I was in a state of denial because it didn't seem to affect me as one would expect until the day they lowered her into the ground. Reality took hold and I broke down and cried.
I stayed in school, but took all kinds of jobs to keep myself busy, until I was old enough to enlist. Six months later, just before Christmas, my father had enough of my griping. We went down to the post office in Hartford and spoke to the Navy recruiter. He signed the enlistment papers and I was to leave for my physical in Springfield, Massachusetts in two days. If I passed, I would be on my way to boot camp in Bainbridge Maryland, the same day. My father brought me to the train station. All he said was. "This is what you've been waiting for all your life; make it count." He slapped me on the back as I walked away.
Excerpted from Being Lucky Can Be The Death Of You by Bill Taylor Copyright © 2012 by Bill Taylor. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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