My daughter Joanne, was cleaning out Rogers cage this morning and so, as a result Roger was out and about. I think I should clarify that Roger is our Budgie. You see when we first had him about three years ago, he was constantly climbing all around his cage as though looking for an escape route. He seemed so intent in those early days to abscond that we called him Roger, after Roger Bartlett (Big X) in the movie The Great Escape. But I digress. It reminded me of the animals that were so much a part of my life when I was a small lad at 28 Connell Road, West Bromwich.
I suppose the animal I remember most is Bruce. Bruce was an Alsatian, with a pedigree kennel name of Comus of Heronfield. He was a big dog with the heart to match. Dad bought Bruce as a puppy with the intention of showing him, which in later years he did, and not without some success may I add. But Bruce was never anything other to me than my best mate. Dad joined a local dog training club and every Thursday night the two of them would troupe off for dog obedience lessons. Bruce was never a house dog and Dad converted the old Anderson Shelter in the rear garden and near to the back door for Bruce’s living quarters. He built a hardboard bed raised off the ground and surrounded it with more hardboard so that the dogs sleeping area was draft free. Dad’s modernisation of the redundant shelter resulted in it being warm and dry. I could have lived in there myself, in fact the amount of time I spent in there with the dog, you could say I almost did.
I recall that Bruce, whilst fully grown but still very young, developed a habit for chewing the wooden door to his lodgings. Dad tried everything to dissuade Bruce from this wanton vandalism by all means of non violent measures. He placed Colman's Mustard Powder on the door, and also used eucalyptus oil and a variety of other non toxic but foul tasting substances at one time or another. Nothing worked. One evening Dad returned home from work only to discover carnage had been inflicted on the Anderson shelter door. Dad lost it. He stormed into the kitchen where Mom was preparing the evening meal and declared, ”That’s it. I’ve stood all I’m going to stand. That bloody dog knows what he’s doing is wrong and I won’t stand it no more”. At that father stormed back out heading for a once and for all showdown with the dog.
What exactly happened outside I cannot say as I didn’t actually witness it. All I heard was a great deal of shouting, the odd yelp and whimper, and the clatter of dustbin lids on a concrete floor. A short time later Dad returned with his right hand covered in blood. Mom took one look at Dad, called him something I didn’t then understand, and which now I would not repeat, and headed at full speed to find the dog without giving Dad a chance to utter a single word. We found the dog lying outside on the concrete patio. He was clearly out of breath as well as hot and bothered, with his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth, panting. We gave Bruce a very thorough examination, assisted in part by the dog rolling onto his back with his legs in the air. There was nothing. Not a cut, scratch or abrasion. The dog was pristine, in the best of health and totally unfazed. When we returned indoors the truth of the matter was revealed. It transpired Dad had taken an almighty swing at the dog, but the dog had ducked at the last minute causing Dad to miss his intended target and instead strike the Anderson shelter door. This was the very door remember that Bruce had spent the entire afternoon fashioning to resemble the gaping jaws of a Great White Shark. For some reason Bruce never chewed that door again and we ate our tea very late that night. Hospital casualty departments were slow even in those days.
I also remember my Grandad’s racing pigeons. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s it was a major sport in the Black Country. My Grandad had a pigeon pen at the top of the garden and must have had in the region of sixty birds. I recall standing in the garden with my Grandad, watching his pigeons circling in the sky above, together with other flocks from nearby neighbours. Even though there were very few telephone wires present at that time the birds did have a habit of flying into them. As a result Grandad applied to the Post Office who administered telephones at that time and a few weeks later workmen came to put corks on the phone wires so the pigeons could see them. I think Mom was very pleased with this development, as she no longer had to mend the birds wings using old lolly pop sticks, I on the other hand found it quite sad as we no longer had an pigeon accident and casualty ward in the house.
However, Grandad took the sport very seriously and entered into a strict breeding regime. He purchased a large ledger and assigned my Mom the task of keeping track of his breading programme. For twelve months he noted the results of cocks and hens he had entered in various races and as the breeding season came, he set into motion his master plan. The interior of the pen was divided into a series of well, pigeon holes, some of which had bars to keep the birds separated into individual pairs. He paired up the best males and females, according to race results, in separate areas so that if breeding took place he would know which two birds had sired the offspring. In each pigeon hole he placed a large brown platter bowl filled with straw for the egg laying process. After the practical process was well under way and laying was in full swing, Grandad would sit Mom down and dictate at length which male bird had carnal knowledge with which female. “The pied cock ring number 37856 with the red hen ring number 95726, the blue cock ring number 84624 with the white hen ring number 82643, and so on. Mom would list this information down in the ledger with precession and utmost care to ensure that the information logged was correct and accurate. The system was as far as he was concerned infallible and within a few years he was convinced he would have bred a flock of un-beatable racers.
It was during one of the school holidays and I was at home. My Dad and Grandad were at work and my brother Stephen, who was somewhere in his second year, was playing in the rear garden when it happened. I remember it was a Monday because Mom was preparing vegetables for tea and I was mincing the left over Sunday roast beef joint, onions and bread with a hand cranked mincer which was secured to the kitchen table. Mom was making faggots for tea (we always had faggots on a Monday to finish off the Sunday joint) and I had been detailed to help. It was then that Stephen entered the kitchen from the rear garden and uttered just four words. All activity in the kitchen came to an immediate DEAD STOP! “Me got eggs Mommy”. Mother's head very slowly turned 180 degrees, a fete I never saw repeated until I saw the 1973 film ‘The Exorcist’.
As I looked up, there in the doorway of the kitchen was Stephen, proudly holding a brown platter bowl full to the brim with pigeon eggs and sporting a satisfied toothy grin. I had heard the words Mother then used only once before, and that was during the dog and the Anderson shelter door incident. Horror was apparent on her face as she wiped her hands on a tea towel and then gently coaxed the bowl of eggs from my brother’s hands. She placed the bowl on the draining board and examined the eggs with care. They were intact, un-damaged and still warm. Now this is where my Mom showed a brilliance that impresses me to this day. She dispatched me to get ‘The Ledger’ and upon my return she started to study it avidly. I pointed out that there was no way that we could know which egg belonged to which breeding pair and she nodded knowingly as she continued to read from the book. What she said next was just inspired, “Listen our Robert. I can’t tell the difference, you can’t tell the difference and the birds can’t tell the difference. All we need to know is how many each pair had”. For the next half hour Mom and me, using the book as a reference, replaced every single egg. I was sworn to secrecy and Stephen wasn’t old enough to know what he had done. And so, with the panic over we returned to making faggots for tea.
Over the next few years Grandad had moderate success with his pigeons which he always put down to his regimented and systematic breeding programme. Mom and me on the other hand...