My Father Was No Chicken

(from “Being Happy in a Crappy World: An Intentional Catholic’s Companion” by Pat Corbitt  –  To Be Released: 9/8/2014)

My father wasn’t afraid of anything, most especially vile dogs and cantanker­ous horses, two creatures, respectively, that can – without warning or ceremony – either bite your face off or kick your brains out. Or both.

Now Pop was a fairly gentle little man and usually approached these ani­mals with what always appeared to me as a kind and open heart. His attitude actu­ally seemed to spread a certain calm amongst them. On our farm in rural Mary­land, I recall opening the barn door very early one cold wintery day to see a duck, three chickens, two tomcats, four kittens, and a bulldog curled up in a peaceful sleep together. Around the corner stood a vigilant rooster at the feet of a doleful thoroughbred mare. Life could be peaceful in the country. I often think it started with my father’s kindly Irish manner.

Of course, there were moments.

Every so often, after an endless day selling eggs and chickens from his truck in Baltimore, my father would appear at our farmhouse door with a “rescue” ani­mal. This was usually a dog. But, in one instance, it was a monster: “Mike” a tense boxer with rippling sinews and, I am almost certain, steel teeth. My brother and I immediately pegged Mike as a purely mean – no, make that evil – beast that con­sidered tomcats as appetizers.

We two boys were terrified at the very sight of Mike. He could jump any fence and break any chain at will. The only human who could go anywhere near him was my father. In fact, when Pop strode into the fenced area where Mike ruled, the monster cooed and licked and nuzzled like a puppy. To this day I am not sure how Pop did it.

Ultimately, at my father’s side, Mike became relatively civil. We mortals could feed him without fear of losing an arm, and he was allowed to wander more freely, though his mere presence near the barnyard terrorized the cats and chick­ens. After he was rehabilitated to relative domestication, my father placed him with a retired Army sergeant. I am certain the two of them lived happily ever af­ter.

Horses were a different matter. Most on the farm were docile creatures… re­tired work horses, ponies and the like. But not so at the race track. Among a host of other things he did in life, my Pop was a trainer of thoroughbred racehorses. Big ones. And, occasionally, nasty ones.

“The Track,” as we called it, was an education in itself. There I saw a thor­oughbred stallion kick an oak panel in his stall and shatter it like a toothpick. Most of the top boards along the half-doors to the stalls were chewed so far down as to eclipse the work of a beaver on a birch binge.

The only animal I have met more contrary than the Track’s amped-up stal­lions is a camel. Once, later on in life, at the edge of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, I had the misfortune to have to ride one of these wicked creatures. Before I got atop him, I had narrowly escaped being violently bitten, kicked, peed on and spit at… nearly all at once. I am not exaggerating. It seems that even on a good day, these are surely some of God’s most disgruntled and unpleasant creations.

Back home, and long before my camel days, I had learned that Race horses can be no picnic either, especially stallions. One of my most memorable visuals is from the great Pimlico racetrack near Baltimore, home of the fabled Preakness. The horse barns there were some of the best in the world. Two long rows of back-­to-back stalls looked out on green malls. The barns were built with lush overhangs that ringed the buildings and provided a shaded “cool-out” track around the struc­ture where grooms would lead horses that had just raced to “cool them down” be­fore returning them to their stalls. It was a marvelous bucolic sight on a warm Spring day. Most of the time.

My memory of one particular Pimlico Spring morning started with a pitch­fork of horse manure. I heard a commotion down at the end of the barn on the track under the overhang. Grooms and stable boys were diving for cover. A feed bucket shot out on to the green like a rocket. Clouds of straw and dust billowed. A big stud was unhappy and making it loudly apparent. As the apparition came closer, I realized that the unpretentious custodian of this disturbing leviathan was my father!

The horse was trying to eat him alive and he was laughing and joking with the thing! I gave him a wide berth as he led the great-great-grandson of some Preakness winner into the stall I had just cleaned. Pop’s parting words to the ani­mal were something like, “Don’t know what the hellz wrong with you today. Now eat your sweet-feed and behave yourself.” As we walked away to grab a sandwich I heard a snort and a crack! Another distressed oak panel, no doubt.

I used to thank God for my life on the farm. Country life was simple, and living close to nature, instructive. You knew how sausage came to be (never eat hot dogs, by the way). You saw life and death often. You stuck together because there was always a barn fire or a tractor mishap or a sick neighbor. You faced reality be­cause you lived so close to it. There was no escaping it.

We lived life without much of a safety net back then, nearly seventy years ago. Finding the country doctor was invariably an adventure. The nearest hospital was in Baltimore, some forty rickety road miles away. Even getting a Vet was a chore. We learned self-reliance, faith and trust in ourselves, one another and the Good Lord. And we learned not to be afraid of much of anything.

I am certain that my father’s equilibrium in the face of some of the most hostile of God’s creatures and the reality of living in the middle of nowhere came from his self-assurance and religious foundation. He was unafraid of life, and its many threats, because he was unafraid of death. When he first learned he had can­cer and told me, no matter how brave a face I tried to put on, I am sure I looked visibly upset. After a bit, he looked kindly right at me and said: “Oh, what’s a mat­ter with you, boy? We all gotta die of something.”

It was ten more years later before he died with dignity and in peace with my wonderful mother, brother and sister-in-law at his side. The night, after he died, I awoke from a fitfull sleep to feel his presence. From that moment on, and with few exceptions, I have not been afraid of very much that this world has thrown at me, and there has been a considerable barrage.

We all need to cultivate a sense of who we where this is all headed. As in my father’s life, God has often stepped in to help settle things, to bring a calm in the storm, peace to the troubled soul. For that to happen, we need trust that there is a Plan – God’s Plan and not ours – and we are an impor­tant part of it. We need to learn where we fit and what we must do with our lives. To learn we must pay close attention and put the lessons into practice.

I was very lucky to have received the gift of Faith at Baptism and to be raised in a loving Catholic home where daily Mass was the way we started our day. Church, at seven in the morning, meant to bed early on the farm so that we could pray together. After Mass, Mom would head out to teach first graders in the public school; my brother and I would walk to Catholic school, and Pop would drive off to brighten some unfortunate animal’s day. I respected and loved my hardworking folks and the loving rhythm of life they built and sustained for our family.

There are other fearless people we all can look up to as well. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Francis of Assisi, a great pastor, those two great new Pope-Saints, a wonderful grandparent. These are the people who – in our own time – we must try to emulate if Christ’s King­dom is to come to this world as we pray in the Our Father. The worst sin is to miss that opportunity to step up and become that person, through whom Christ needs to work, to save yet another piece of this world. We call it a “sin of omission,” a missed chance to do the right thing.

You see, we are obligated as Catholics – as Christians, as people of good heart – to become that person Christ directs us to be, that hero for good, inspired by the Holy Spirit’s graces. It can take some guts.

What can you do to be that person? What lesson do you need to learn, no matter how hard, no matter how unexpected, no matter how dreaded? With prayer and a sense that this life is only a part of the human picture, you too can achieve an inner peace that will make you unafraid. It’s an amazing empowerment that the Holy Spirit can bring to your life and well worth the effort to find it. Be­sides, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing, like my Dad, that you are definitely no chicken!