Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Living The Big Sky Life: Dr. Doolittle Raised A Duck Hunter

As I’ve mentioned before, Chef and I grew up together in The OC surf city community of Huntington Beach, California. We have, in fact, known each other since we were about six years old; and as far back as I can remember, Chef’s dad was the local veterinarian who treated my family’s pets whenever they needed treatment, which wasn’t very often.

What I didn’t know growing up was that, although his father’s day job was that of animal doctor, Chef’s father wasn’t interested in bringing his work home by having a house full of family pets. Because Chef was never permitted to have a pet of his own, his minimal hands-on exposure to domesticated household pets was limited to a big tom cat that was never even allowed inside the house. Consequently, the bulk of Chef’s beliefs about animal caretaking were compiled, not from experience, but from years of subjective and desensitizing vet-isms occasionally uttered by his emotionally detached father at the dinner table.

It wasn’t until we arrived in big sky country with my daughter’s cat, Newt, that I discovered just how inflexible and unrealistic Chef’s compilation of animal doctrines could be.

Newt had a twin brother, Ziggy, who didn’t survive the coyotes of south Orange County. Where I come from, anyone who has a cat has no business leaving it outside after dark when the coyotes emerge from the hills looking for dinner and a midnight snack. And bringing them inside before nighttime is still no guarantee of their safety because poor Ziggy got snagged in the middle of the afternoon.

My youngest daughter was about six years old when she named and claimed the 8-week old Newt as hers. He was devoted and docile, and he was without question her favorite doll. She was known to regularly wrap him up in a tight receiving blanket like a new born baby and place him in her doll’s cradle to rock while she sang and talked to him for hours. More than once did I walk into her room only to see his round green eyes widen and look up at me pleadingly from that cradle, yet he never made a move to hurt her. Never a hiss, never a scratch.

But when Newt arrived in Whitefish, Montana with us in May of 1992, he too became traumatically subjected to a new way of life, and that included non-negotiable principle #1 of Chef's animal doctrine which firmly declared that cats are nocturnal animals who belong outside at night so they can hunt and wallow in all of their nocturnal-ness.

Talk about kitty culture shock. This new lifestyle was completely contrary to every reality Newt had known since infancy, and while he managed to get through those initial warm summer nights with little trouble, all of that changed at Halloween when the first snow fell and the temperatures dropped to freezing. Newt stubbornly tested Chef’s rigid animal ideals all winter long. And not to be outdone by a cat, Chef remained callously committed to dismissing Newt’s pitiful manipulations, as if the cat had nothing better to do than fake his uncontrollable shivering. There wasn’t a lot we could do as Chef repeatedly rejected Newt’s loud front porch cat-pleas to exchange the icy outdoors for the sanctuary of a house heated by a wood stove. The best option we had at the time was to sneak Newt into the house when Chef was at work in the evening, but overall, it just wasn’t a frontline battle priority when we were all struggling to acclimate to a new situation.

Unfortunately for Newt, he wasn’t the only one suffering from culture shock, and in the name of new home peace promotion, I felt I had to be selective about the battles I picked. My hair crusade undoubtedly led the battle charge, but that first year of being squeezed into the Unabomber bungalow saw us all making challenging compromises and personal sacrifices.

Being left out in the cold that first winter eventually triggered some dormant, yet instinctive, survival mechanism inside of Newt’s brain, and I watched him go from domestic docile housecat to wide-eyed wildcat intent upon survival in the wilderness. It only got worse when we left downtown Whitefish and moved into the home on the range where there were no limits to his domain, or to the always present life-threatening risks posed by roaming wild creatures.
Anyone with open acreage and horses knows that flies and mosquitoes are a fact of life, hence the ceiling fan. Nothing keeps flying insects at bay inside of the house better than the turbulence caused by a ceiling fan. And anyone with open acreage and horses also knows that mice are a fact of life as well, hence the cat. Having a couple of good mouse-cats in the yard is essential for keeping the rodents at bay and out of the house.

We may not have had horses like our neighbors, but our fields were filled with voles (aka field mice), and thankfully no rats. Ten acres was a lot of territory for one cat to do vole patrol on so it wasn’t long before Newt got a baby black buddy named Inky. Chef built an insulated protective cubby inside the garage for the cats to use at night, but Newt refused to occupy it. He preferred to alternate between the neighboring hay barn belonging to Steve and Sue Ellen and the attic in Paige Ochenrider’s garage. Inky, on the other hand, knew no different and grew accustomed to staying out at night in his cubby without complaint. Although he was known to have a motor mouth most of the time, Inky usually spoke with the purring voice of a contented cat. And the louder he purred, the more he drooled.
Newt and Inky weren’t the only sentinels roaming our property however. They shared the range with Chef’s yellow Lab, Bucky. Bucky was a gift given to Chef by Jack and Deanna Frazier, his employers and the owners of Jack’s Diamondback Restaurant and Casino, several months before we moved out of the Unabomber bungalow. Jack and Deanna had gone down to a Labrador breeding farm in Creston (near Big Fork) to select the 8-week old pup for Chef, and frankly, they couldn’t have bestowed it upon a more grateful recipient. Chef may have grown up with a veterinarian for a father, but for the first time in his life, he found himself responsible for raising and caring for his very own dog.  

And like any new parent, Chef wanted to do everything right. The critical voice of his father’s vet-isms interrupted the natural course of my life with pets once again. This time it took the form of principle #2 of the animal doctrine which firmly declared that bad dogs are almost always created by bad owners.      

Bucky had as much pressure put on him to be the perfect dog as Chef placed upon himself to be the perfect owner, and those perfect standards were clearly set by Dr. Dad. My father-in-law wasted no time in warning Chef that Labradors have a tendency toward hip problems, and the best way to minimize this problem was to never let your Lab become overweight. So Bucky’s diet was strictly regulated from the beginning to always keep him lean and fit. No snacks, no treats, except when Chef was training him to retrieve dead ducks from our pond on his quest to create the perfect hunting dog. I’m happy to report that Bucky did not disappoint his master when duck season arrived.   

By this time, it should’ve come as no surprise to me that Chef didn’t believe it was right for a dog to have roaming privileges inside of the house. OK, whatever. I’m all for well-behaved, house-trained pets, but I’ve never needed to restrict their mobility within the house in order to achieve that. Good thing Bucky was basically an outdoor dog anyway. What Labrador with his own pond and plenty of room to run wouldn’t be? He had a secured pen with a dog house to sleep in at night, but when he was allowed inside the house, Chef confined him to an ugly green carpet remnant placed strategically on the floor between the dining room and the living room so that Bucky could see everything going on around him.

Obviously the cats were harder to restrict once they were inside the house, but Chef made sure that we all knew there were no exceptions to principle #3 of his animal doctrine which declared that no cat should ever be allowed on top of the bed he slept in because to discover a cat licking itself on his pillow would be the lick of death. Our cats weren’t stupid. If they were going to lick themselves, they made sure to do it in my daughter’s room when Chef wasn’t looking. And the only evidence he ever had of their grooming habits took the form of regurgitated hairballs left violently at his feet.
Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Friday, February 10, 2012

Living The Big Sky Life: Sterilizing Sutton

Chef deserves full credit for the house hunt that ultimately led to our acquisition of the home on the range - he was the one who found it. He’d been driving around the neighborhoods of Whitefish he considered suitable for about nine months before finally spotting a local broker’s for sale sign posted on the street in front of “The One.”

He might’ve been able to find his dream house sooner had we enlisted the house-hunting services of one of the local real estate agents, but my prominent position at the town’s only title office made taking that approach difficult, especially when there were so many pitbulls fighting over the same scraps. The catty fallout from giving the impression that I might be playing favorites with any of the area’s real estate agents I was dependent upon for business just wasn’t worth it. There was no doubt in my mind that the prudent approach in this circumstance was to circumvent any unnecessary big sky drama by finding the house ourselves, and simply contacting the listing agent directly when we were ready to view the property. As snipy as those agents were in the habit of being, there wasn’t one of them who could find fault with that.

The seller of the house we hoped to call home was a retired man in his late 60’s named Sutton. His wife had divorced him about two years earlier after bolting from big sky country with a younger hillbilly buck. It was obvious that Sutton had grown tired of living alone on a property that was too large for one old man to maintain, but it was the need to pay his ex-wife her share of the equity in accordance with the terms of their divorce settlement that really forced the sale.

When our purchase was under contract and put into escrow, Sutton invited us over to the house for a personal tour with the objective of educating us on how to operate and maintain the homestead. This would typically be unheard of in a big city home sale, but in rural Whitefish, it was commonplace. We were stoked, and didn’t waste a second in accepting his offer because we were all about doing anything we could to shorten our learning curve.

Obviously Chef and I had toured the house before making our offer to purchase, but viewing a property with the intent to purchase tends to have an abstract emotional detachment associated with it. For us, that emotional detachment had no choice but to quickly alter into attachment when the reality became hands-on, and that was the minute we pulled into Sutton’s driveway for our new homeowner instruction. With a copy of our home inspection report in hand, we emotionally embraced our new reality with ambitious anticipation.

As far as I was concerned, the inside of Sutton’s ranch house was an old man’s homage to the 1970’s. It was like a time capsule; replete with dark brown hi-lo shag carpet, wood paneled walls, yellow countertops, ugly wallpaper, and heavy orange Aztec print drapes that were always drawn. But I figured all of this was merely aesthetics, and not worth stressing over too much until escrow closed, when the house became officially ours to update.

Unfortunately, the whole décor thing took on a very disturbing dimension for me during that home tour with Sutton when he began to personalize the house by casually dispensing way too much information about his lifestyle for my sensibilities ... thereby reaffirming my belief that sometimes there is no bliss better than ignorance because once known, it cannot be un-known. And because his Suttonisms were intermingled with the important knowledge we were there to acquire, it made it next to impossible to stop listening altogether in case we missed something significant.

Consequently, I silently suffered through the tall tales pouring out of this pot-bellied Moby Dick in overalls who possessed the sensitivities of a caveman as he described for us just how easy it was for him to entice the casino chicks over to his man-cave (and my soon-to-be new home no less). Apparently all he needed to do to hit the jackpot on any given night was to dangle the irresistible amenities of his bachelor pad in front of some lucky lady tipsy enough to take the bait. Each room seemed to have its own salacious anecdote, but the topper was when we got to the large sun room on the east side of house. The sun room was home to the hot tub.
Hot Tub Sun Room on the right (east) side of the house
Let me preface this next part by saying, I’m not a big fan of hot tubs, never have been. I’m of the opinion that they’re basically gigantic, gurgling petri dishes, chlorine infusions notwithstanding; and besides, chlorine makes my sensitive skin burn.

When we eventually got around to the sun room, Sutton wanted to show us how efficient the on-demand hot water heater in his walk-out basement was when it came to filling up the hot tub. I was immediately bowled over by the hot, humid wave of chlorinated air that hit me like a wall when I stepped into the sun room. Sutton was already rambling on about the wild hot tub party he had last week while fast at work removing the hot tub’s protective cover in order to show us his fountain of youth percolating underneath. A steam cloud of concentrated chlorine billowed straight up into my eyes when the lid came off, and so it was through watery eyes that the unbidden dream sequence surged forth and did its damage …

... An image flashed before me of old man Sutton lounging naked in the hot tub with his arm around some shriveled big sky mountain mama; half empty wine glasses sitting on the deck behind them. Then I saw the soaking effects of hot, chlorinated water as it violently circulated through the unit’s jets, and exfoliated the dead layers of Sutton’s flaky skin from his body, only to co-mingle with the other body fluids seeping simultaneously into the churning cauldron. I watched the resulting brew of nastiness create a thick, oily film on the surface of the foaming bubbles that had frothed to the top. In horror, I blinked my eyes and snapped to like I was waking up from a horrible nightmare …

There wasn’t enough chlorine in the world to sterilize the ick of that unsolicited vision from my brain, and once the house was ours, I asked Chef to drain the hot tub right away. Draining it wasn’t even enough though; and when I ultimately told Chef I would never, ever use it, he decided to pull it out and sell it. Good riddance.

All procrastination aside, Sutton had too much stuff for one old guy to move, so he couldn’t manage to get himself moved out the house before we arrived with our first truckload. No surprise there, we were half expecting it, but we had people moving into our old house and were on a tight timeline.

In the end, Sutton left a lot of junk behind that we had to pitch for him, nor did he bother to clean up the house before we moved in. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve come to believe that household dirt is a personal thing – it’s never disgusting when it’s my dirt and grease, but when it’s someone else’s dirt and grease, it’s gross. And with Sutton, it was extra gross. So before I would let anyone even use a toilet, I put on plastic dish gloves, filled a bucket with some kind of sanitizing Pine-sol mixture, and wiped down everything in that house. And I mean everything.

By the time the sun had set late on moving day, those ugly orange drapes were in a heap on the driveway, and Chef had ripped out a hideous juniper tree in the backyard that had the misfortune of blocking his view of Big Mountain from our living room windows minus those drapes.

The brown hi-lo shag carpet, on the other hand, ended up staying with the house until I left. It didn’t take me too long to realize that it did a phenomenal job of camouflaging the dirt from ten acres, a yellow Lab, two cats and an adolescent daughter with a lot of friends. Replacing the carpet simply kept moving down on the home improvements priority list until it just never got done, at least not by me. That’s OK though, because it was our dirt the carpet was hiding.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King