For our next trip several weekends later, Daddy wanted to visit his Uncle Lock and Aunt Dink on their farm. He hadn’t seen them since Christmas of 1940, just before he left for the Philippines. Uncle Lock had worked for an insurance company in Fresno all his life, but when he got close to retirement, he bought an old-fashioned farm near Woodlake in Tulare County.
It was still dark as we set out on Saturday morning. Leaving the thick Bay Area fog behind, we passed through Oakland, Hayward, and Livermore before seven. As Daddy drove through Modesto and south on Highway 99, the temperature began to climb, so he flung the Plymouth’s wind wings wide to let in the breeze. Then he started the singing. He began with “Old MacDonald had a Farm,” only this time he changed the words: “Uncle Lock he had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, and on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O. With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there, here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo….” We took turns picking the animals as we went through every verse we could think of: cow, pig, horse, lamb, dog, cat, duck, chickens, and more. My favorite was always the pig verse because the snort noises I made with my nose made everyone laugh. Time flew, and before we knew it, we were in Woodlake and bumping up Uncle Lock and Aunt Dink’s dusty driveway.
Rusty was with us too, but he wasted no time in making trouble. As we pulled up in front of the house, he evidently spotted a flock of chickens pecking at the ground over among a grove of scrubby trees. He pressed his nose against the side window, his body tense and quivering. Without thinking, I opened the door, and in a flash he was gone, barking wildly and scattering the terrified chickens in every direction. This was even more fun than chasing cars or cats!
“Damn that dog,” Daddy muttered as he jumped out the driver’s door, grabbed a rope from the trunk, and sprinted after Rusty. When Daddy finally corralled him, he walloped him a couple of times on his bottom with the coiled rope and tied him up to the front bumper of the car. Rusty crawled underneath as far as he could reach and hid behind a tire.
After all the kissing and hugging was over with and our suitcases hauled inside, Mommy took Rusty a bowl of water. But Uncle Lock, an old softie when it came to dogs, felt sorry for him, so he rounded up the chickens and put them into their pen so he didn’t have to stay tied up anymore.
After lunch, Uncle Lock suggested that Eleanor and I take Rusty and go swimming in a big irrigation ditch that crossed their property a ways from the house. At first Mommy was afraid the current might sweep us into a culvert, but Uncle Lock just winked and said the culverts were screened to keep critters out, so he guessed we wouldn’t drown. The word “critters” got our attention. “What kind of critters?” we wanted to know.
“Well,” Uncle Lock said as he winked at Mommy again, “there are probably alligators and crocodiles and maybe a rhinoceros or a hippo, but they won’t hurt you because I have them trained not to bite little kids or cocker spaniels.” We could tell he was just kidding, so we changed into shorts and off we went, clanging the kitchen pots and spoons Aunt Dink had given us to play with.
Eighteen inches of water filled the ditch, cool but not cold. The mud on the bottom squished between our toes as we played, splashing each other and Rusty too. Mommy called us in after only an hour, but we got sunburned anyway and had to have Aunt Dink rub Crisco on our shoulders to ease the sting and prevent peeling.
Then Uncle Lock asked if we’d like to go for a walk to check out the farm. Eleanor had begun reading a Pearl Buck book she’d brought along, and Rusty was already snoring on the rag rug under the dining room table, but Daddy and I thought a walk was a fine idea. I trotted along beside them until we came to a willow tree with several thick dead branches at its base. Uncle Lock broke one off with a loud crack, took out his pocket knife, cut off a chunk about five inches long, scraped off the bark and sat down and began to whittle. I squatted beside him and watched, fascinated, while he worked. He carved a little wooden doll, with legs and feet and everything. They didn’t move, though. As he handed the doll to me, he said with another wink, “This is a good luck doll. It’ll protect you so that you never get eaten by any alligators or crocodiles.” Daddy laughed. I laughed too and took Uncle Lock’s hand as we walked back toward the house.
While Daddy went ahead to unload more things from our car, Uncle Lock unlatched the gate of the chicken pen and I followed him in. In a flash, he grabbed a chicken by its feet, flicked open his pocket knife and, with one quick move, cut off its head. Then he grabbed another and did the same thing. I looked on in horror as the chicken bodies ran around in circles, blood spurting from the necks, while the two heads lay there in the dirt, the beaks wide open and the bulging eyes going blink, blink.
That evening Aunt Dink made a big fried chicken supper. I ate lots of mashed potatoes and gravy and two whole ears of corn, but I didn’t touch the chicken, and I decided at that moment that I would never marry a farmer.