The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Michele Bender

April 19, 2014

Bye, bye, Easter birdies

— Animals fascinated my mom. Riding the train between Johnstown and Philly, she saw horses, pigs, sheep, cows … a Mattel See ’n Say of farm critters.

When I turned 5, my dad got a cat. He named her Miss Kitty after Marshal Matt Dillon’s dance hall gal on “Gunsmoke.”

Miss Kitty, a demolitions specialist, prowled the kitchen counters and clawed the club chairs to shreds. The day she climbed the Christmas tree, breaking dozens of glass heirloom ornaments, her time ran out.

My dad had a patient with a farm. (Yes, in the 1950s and ’60s doctors still made house calls!) Miss Kitty assumed her new job of barn supervisor. She ran a tight yard. I’d visit, and she’d cuddle and purr for a few minutes, but quickly resumed walking her beat.

I had nothing against farm animals except the aroma. As for chickens, you couldn’t pet them, walk them, or play ball with them. Or bathe them!

In 1956, my dad developed tuberculosis. He remained at White Haven, the “San,” for most of the next two years. Mom’s sister, Ethel, a widow, moved in with us.

One morning a stray dog turned up on our stoop. Looking exactly like Tramp from the Disney movie “Lady and the Tramp,” this short-haired, gray mutt was playful, streetwise and protective. He understood the “housebroken” concept, more or less, and if a chipmunk sneezed, he barked ferociously. Tinker became our guard dog.

In 1957, the W.T. Grant department store fronted on Main Street. A smaller back door opened onto Lincoln. Seasonal items were displayed in that rear area, so Christmas trees, inflatable plastic swimming pools and other bulky stuff could be purchased and loaded easily.

Easter baskets, plastic-wrapped chocolate bunnies and 5-pound jars of jelly beans were clunky. But displayed along with these Easter necessities were peeps. These tiny, noisy, helpless, not-quite-a-chick-yet creatures came dyed in ghastly colors … taxi-cab yellow, grass green, hot pink and vivid purple.

Mom brought two “taxis” home in a shoe box on the Hy­stone bus.

“Dorothy, what’s wrong with you?” Aunt Ethel scolded my mother.

Tinker sniffed the newcomers and then ignored them. He probably didn’t like how they smelled any more than I did.

Apparently, they came with instructions: “sod in box bottom, include water, keep warm.” Mom placed the box on the floor in the dining room, just under a wall outlet. In our junk drawer, she found a 60-watt bulb that would plug directly into a socket.

Easter morning, we woke up to a smell that permeated the house. Tinker dashed down the steps, but abruptly halted about a foot from the crime scene. Tinker knew that smell!

He crept backwards, looking at me as if to say, “I promise, I’ll never pee on the carpet again!”

Mom cried a little and Ethel stashed the corpses in a vacant field down the street.

Dad returned the following spring. To celebrate, Mom happily marched into the house with another shoe box. Purple peeps (there seems to be a song there).

My dad removed 60-watt bulbs from her reach, thus preventing this Buster Brown box from becoming another Easy-Bake Oven. Tinker shrugged.

Easter morning found us all happy, healthy and safe. Mom must have studied, because those freaky critters thrived. By Father’s Day, they resided in the garage, having outgrown five other boxes. Each weighed about 4 pounds.

The final Colonel Sanders battle was classic.

“Dorothy, they’re going to get bigger,” my father said.

You could hear the purple feathers flapping.

 “I’ll drive them to the bus stop and give each one a token,” Dad growled.

In the end, we took them to Miss Kitty’s farm. The cat looked astonished when two purple chickens bounded out of Dad’s Pontiac. Amazed cows, sheep, pigs and horses muttered.

But the rooster! Poor Foghorn Leghorn!

“Ah say, ah say … what? WHAT?”

Happy Easter!

Michele Mikesic Bender is a Johnstown resident and a member of  The Tribune-Democrat’s Readership Advisory Committee.

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