One day, my father was kicked in the head by an old fire department horse and was unconscious for three days. He was about 11 years old, at the time. Pop, that is; not the horse.
For some reason, the city fire department needed to keep a team of fire engine horses on hand, despite the fact that the department had been motorized for over 25 years. My uncle Johnny the Cop talked someone in the department to stable a couple of the horses in the McGrane garage behind our old house off Cottage Ave. It was extra income for the family, and my father’s job was to feed the horses.
When Pop finally regained consciousness and Grandma McGrane was satisfied he was in his right mind, she turned on her eldest son Johnny and roared, “Get those damned beasts out a me barn!”
They were gone that day, but so was the extra income. Uncle Johnny got a couple bottles of beer from the basement, sat at the kitchen table, and began what he called “drinking and thinking”, slowly sipping on his beer while pondering over how to replace the loss income.
Well into his second beer, he suddenly sat upright, plunked his bottle down on the table, and bolted out the back door, shouting over his shoulder, “Don’t wait supper for me, Ma! I’ll be back later!” And he left.
No one saw him until breakfast the next morning, sitting at the kitchen table grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Grandma McGrane, hands on hips, demanded “And what the devil have you been up to, may I ask?”
“C’mon, Ma, let me show you,” Uncle Johnny replied, as he walked out the back door.
By this time all five of the other McGrane kids were up and they followed their brother Johnny and their mother to the barn. The horses were gone, of course, but now the barn was filled to the rafters with pigeons. Pop said there must have been a couple hundred of them, flapping about and cooing.
Grandma was stunned. “Mother a God, what’s this?”
Johnny announced, “It’s our new business, Ma! We’re gonna raise and sell pigeons!”
Uncle Johnny had it all figured out. They were going to raise pigeons and sell them in the neighborhood like they were chickens. Pop would tend them like he tended the horses. Grandma looked at the pigeons, looked to heaven for help, shaking her head, and strolled back to her kitchen.
So, Pop started tending the pigeons, which was much safer than tending the horses, but he kept finding half-eaten pigeon carcasses on the barn floor every morning when he went to scatter bird feed. He showed them to his mother, who waved them under Johnny’s nose when he came home from his shift on the beat.
“Well now, Mr. Financial Wizard,” she said, “seems that rats are eating into your profit. How are you going to solve this?”
Johnny sighed, went downstairs, came up with two beers and sat at the kitchen table. Drink. Think. Drink. Think. Suddenly he sat up and bolted out the back door, calling over his shoulder, “Don’t wait supper for me, Ma!…”
The next morning the family found Johnny sitting at the kitchen table, his hands, arms, and face covered with livid scratches, bandages, and red blotches of iodine, but he was still smiling. His oldest sister, Bernice, cried out, “Jesus, Mary, ‘n’ Joseph, Johnny! What the hell did you do to yourself?”
Grandma didn’t say word. She just drew herself up to her entire five feet of height and glared at him for an answer. He smiled and said, “C’mon, Ma, let me show you.”
They all filed out the door to the barn, and Johnny pointed to a corner in the rafter. Perched high near the roof was a barn owl, staring down at them with large, round eyes.
Grandma: “What’s this?”
Johnny: “It’s an owl.”
Grandma: “I know it’s an owl. What’s it for?”
Johnny: “Owls eat rats. They don’t eat pigeons. The owl will protect the flock and the flock will attract food for the owl. See?”
Grandma: “Y’didn’t steal it now, didya?”
Johnny: “Ma, do I look like I stole it?”
Grandma: “You look like you had a fight with an alley cat and lost. Are you sayin’ you caught that thing? With a bag or something?”
Johnny: “It’s a long story, Ma.”
Pop claimed that the owl idea actually worked. It left the pigeons alone, the pigeons were comfortable with it in the flock, and Pop found the remains of rat carcasses on the barn floor every morning he went to feed the pigeons. The McGranes ate and sold pigeons for a couple of years, and it was my father’s job to be keeper of the pigeons. I always thought he was lucky to earn the nickname “Slim” instead of “Pigeon Boy”; it might have made for a rough adolescence.