My grandfather’s birthday is today; he would have been 91. In his life he was a farmer, a teacher, a fireman on a steam locomotive, a salesman, a trouble-shooter, a successful businessman and an eternally curious observer of life and the human condition. He was also a writer and storyteller from a young age. Blessed with an eye for detail, a keen memory and the patience to write it all down in longhand, he wrote mainly for his own interest. While he rarely submitted anything to be published, we grew up with his stories of the people he had met and known in his life.
One story we heard often, either in its entirety or in bits, had to do with a true adventure of one of his best friends. Eventually he got the story down on paper. In honor of his birthday and because the story takes place at this time of year and in town not that far from here, I’m posting it. All of the people involved are long gone, as are many who ever heard it told. The written version has never, as far as I know, appeared outside of our family. It is something that I will always cherish, though I must warn those of you want to continue that it is not a story for those with a faint heart or weak stomach.
John Elders gazed from the third floor window of the Hotel Madison in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an early Sunday morning in late November, 1929. On the opposite side of the street and directly in his view, a continuous line of church-goers were entering the Cathedral for early worship. Frequently some of them directed the attention of others to the third floor level of the hotel by pointing in that direction. The attraction that caught their attention was the cause of concern to Elders.
From the window of the room next to his, hanging by its neck and in plain view from the church, was a full grown gander, plucked bare of feathers, dangling in the freezing air. Room 327, next to Elders’ room, was occupied by Earl White, a fellow “door-to-door” Maytag washing machine salesman. It was Earl’s window from which the gander hung.
The object of attention was the culmination of a Saturday party that had ballooned out of control. Elders was awake early and sober. He was busily contemplating the best approach to facing up to the disaster of the previous evening.
He had already left Minnesota for the winter months in order to escape the paralyzing cold and deep snows. He now pondered the advisability of packing up and moving on after this, just his first weekend in Madison, Wisconsin.
A moment of reckoning was approaching. He and his fellow salesman had done extensive damage to rooms 326 and 327 Saturday evening. So far Earl showed no signs of being awake and about. Elders was determined that he was not going to face the wrath of the hotel manager alone.
Elders and White had ventured from their quarters at the Hotel Madison on Saturday morning in search of a weekend of levity and relief from the snow and cold. Being caged up in a hotel in a strange community for a weekend had little appeal. A one dollar bill pressed into the hotel doorman’s hand was the key to information on people and things of interest to wayfarers in a strange land.
On a small island in Lake Mendota located adjacent to the city of Madison, one of the sporting events of the week was in progress. A local trap-shooting club was sponsoring a shooting match on the clubhouse green. Winners were rewarded with items ranging from a quarter of beef downward to a rooster. Sharp-shooters preferred to use rifles. The less accomplished entered the contests that involved luck with placing the pellets from a shotgun nearest to the intersection of the lines of a cross on a cardboard target from a distance of thirty yards. There was something offered for everyone, including a generous supply of moonshine whiskey packaged in quart and pint bottles.
The sale of bootleg whiskey was the bottom line; everything beside the sale of booze was promotion. Shooting matches had proven to be good attractions. Cold weather and outside exposure boosted the sale and use of the whiskey and soon after arrival most everyone was in a jovial mood. Prohibition had never found its way to the remote islands in Lake Mendota.
Food was not out front in the service offered. Sandwiches were dispensed through a window from the Clubhouse kitchen. This arrangement was adequate since most guests arrived after noon and departed before evening. Patrons came and went on a private boat service that was a courtesy offered by the Club. Only during extremely cold weather did the Club close.
Elders and White arrived on the island at noontime. They mingled unnoticed with the crowd, trying their luck at shooting in a shotgun match without success. They soon discovered the availability of the “White Lightning” and in no time their courage and happiness were bolstered. Their attempt at winning a quarter of beef at the rifle range proved futile. Realizing that they could not compete in the sharpshooters league they moved on to other attractions.
The accommodating regulars lavished encouragement and hospitality upon them. They were invited into the clubhouse where they found gambling going full tilt. White, who had spent a hitch in the Navy, was delighted to engage in a game of “Ship, Captain and Crew”. He joined in and stayed until the crowd and games began to break up. He never bothered to count his winnings during the games, but he knew he was rolling. Elders was less fortunate in a round of blackjack and left the game early. He saw that White was on a roll and started making and winning side bets on him. By this time both had consumed enough liquor that neither was suffering from pain.
The crowd had dwindled to a dozen stragglers and the service boat was preparing to make its last run to shore. Elders suggested that they restock their liquor supply and leave. They each purchased a bottle to carry through the weekend.
They also accepted an invitation to join in the last shotgun shoot of the day. The prize was a full-grown gander.
Neither of them were ever positive of the true results of the shoot. It seemed that about everyone in the match knew that Elders had won the gander even before the targets were checked. It was obvious that those who could think clearly knew who the winner was by acclamation even before the shooting was underway.
The crowd of regulars was made up of characters who did not want to be burdened with a live gander late on a Saturday afternoon, or anytime. The more experienced men in the shoot knew that the best way to handle a live gander was to not win one. Elders was scheduled to learn the same the lesson.
The few stragglers remaining offered much advice on how to handle the gander. It could be said that most of the experts were too stoned on liquor to recognize a gander from a rooster. Someone resurrected a roll of cord and made a leash to attach to the gander’s neck. Elders remembered from his days on the farm how to drive a hog by attaching a rope to one of its front feet and then walking behind it. He proceeded to use the same system on the gander.
After leaving the boat when they reached shore, Elders, White and the gander started the six-block trek to their hotel. White led or dragged the gander and Elders followed with his cord tied to the gander’s leg. They reasoned that the unselfish thing to do would be to share their whiskey with the bird. A few drops would help fend off the cold.
Elders forced the gander’s mouth open and White administered a small dose from his bottle. They managed somehow to make their way from the boat dock to the hotel, with all three arriving at the same time.
Before entering the hotel, Elders halted the procession and suggested that the gander was entitled to, and should have, a name. He had in mind to name it “Emo”, which was acceptable to White, who thought the naming ceremony required a toast. They took a long swig from their bottles and then administered a shot to their feathered comrade for good measure.
Each unsteady jerk on the make-shift leash caused Emo to let forth a clarion honk that could be heard for a block. Emo’s protests were frequent. Elders and White had become so unsteady that the rope was being jerked frequently, and Emo was responding accordingly.
Crossing the lobby to the room clerk’s desk for their room keys, Emo brought the lobby life with honks like Madison, Wisconsin had never heard before. The guests of the hotel who were relaxing and napping in their chairs in the lobby lounge were brought to attention in short order. The hotel manager’s refusal to allow the gander to remain in the hotel led to a futile argument. The hotel would not extend its hospitality to Emo.
The elevator boy scrounged up an empty box to put Emo in until he could be disposed of the following morning. Inside the elevator Elders struck a bargain with the boy. A dollar changed hands. After nightfall Emo would be delivered to Room 327, which would be unlocked. Delivery was made as promised.
After a dozen hands of cards and a few shots of bootleg in Room 326, the problem of what to do with Emo had to be faced. White was typically a man of reaction. He preferred to wait for Elders to make the first move and then he followed without question. When Elders stated that Emo had to be dealt with, White agreed. Emo also seemed to agree with a honk that was loud and clear.
The whiskey that had been administered to Emo kept him in a lively mood and seemed to have sharpened the pitch of his voice. His honks penetrated the walls and sent echoes reverberating up and down the corridors.
Elders considered every possible way of keeping Emo under control for the four remaining days until Thanksgiving. At that time he would deliver Emo to friends in Tohma, Wisconsin, who would be happy to prepare roast gander for Thanksgiving. Elders could not leave his work before the holiday due to commitments and business appointments. He became so engrossed with the problem Emo presented that he lost three straight hands of gin rummy to White.
Both players had gradually reached a degree of inebriation that befuddled their reasoning. Elders’ idea of having Emo for Thanksgiving dinner refused to diminish. He stacked his cards and asked White, “What are your plans for Thanksgiving?” White had no plans. Elders suggested that they drive to Tohma and have dinner with his friends, the Johnstons. “Better still, we can take Emo with us and have him ready for Mrs. Johnston’s oven early on Thanksgiving morning,” White said. Emo voiced his opinion with another clarion honk which brought each man’s thinking into focus simultaneously. Emo was a problem that was not going to wait until Thursday to be resolved.
White had become more assertive in speech and action under the influence of liquor. “I can tell you how to handle that gander,” he said. “Let’s dress the critter tonight and freeze him until Thursday. That will solve the problem and we won’t have to get up so early Thanksgiving morning. There will be no problem to freezing him, we’ll just hang him outside the window.”
Elders was amused at the take-charge change in his friend. He asked, “How do we go about getting a gander dressed on Sunday, or even Saturday night? There are no shops open to do it, and it’s obvious that we can’t keep a live gander in this hotel. One more honk and we, along with Emo, will be out on the street. Whatever we do must be done soon.”
“Follow me,” White said. “I know how to handle this situation.”
In White’s room the plans unfolded. He inquired of Elder, “Do you have a sharp pocket knife?” Elders had a knife that he used more for a utility tool than for cutting. It was dull but White thought it would meet his needs. He asked Elders, “Have you ever wrung a chicken’s neck? We’ll wring this critter’s neck, pluck his feathers, draw his entrails and he’s ready for the oven. We’ll use the bathtub so it will be easy to clean up the mess.”
Emo was a huge bird, and heavy. He had a wingspan of more than five feet, and a neck that was long and flexible. Elders had experience at wringing the neck of a chicken, but he found the gander to be another story. To complicate matters, Elders had consumed enough whiskey to effect his equilibrium. He latched onto the gander’s neck with his right hand and attempted to windmill it like a crank.
It quickly became difficult to tell who was the wringer, and who was being wrung. Emo extended his wings to their limit and flapped them in the air with authority as Elders held tight his grip on Emo’s neck. Emo waltzed Elders about the room. Finally the gander won. White relieved Elders and with a vise-like grip on Emo’s neck, dragged the bird into the bathroom.
With the dull knife he tried to cut Emo’s head off. The neck was partially severed but the head remained attached. White threw Emo into the bathtub, quickly stepped out and slammed the bathroom door closed. Emo was left free to flap and thrash. The commotion inside the bathroom carried on in starts and stops for fifteen minutes and then all was quiet.
White ventured to the bathroom door, opened it slightly, and peeked in. The carnage was unbelievable. The walls were covered with Emo’s blood from floor to ceiling. White picked Emo up off the floor and tossed him back into the bathtub, but Emo was not yet ready to depart this world. As he landed in the tub he came to life enough to hurl his bloody body flopping out into the room. The furniture, carpeting and walls were all anointed with blood before the combined efforts of the two men got the situation under control and Emo back in the bathroom behind a closed door.
The gander finally gave up the ghost. The bathroom was no longer fit to be used a slaughterhouse, however. The alternative was the bathroom in Elder’s room. White proceeded to start plucking the feathers from Emo. He immediately discovered that plucking the dry feathers was an enormous task. They took turns and sometime after midnight the job was completed. Both rooms were a disaster. It had been a long, eventful day. They went to bed.
As Elders viewed the street scene below from his window, he reflected on his early childhood in Mint Springs. He had been away from his boyhood community twenty years now without returning. Lessons learned there, however, were still fresh in his mind.
His thoughts returned to the problem at hand. It was Sunday, but he hoped the hotel manager would be on the job. He did not want to lose time away from work during the week to face the hotel management and resolve the damages he and White had done to their rooms. He had no other thought than to meet his responsibilities; this training remained from childhood.
Elders’ mind had cleared but he still had a man-sized hangover from the previous day and night. As he watched from his window he found a bit of amusement in the reaction of the church-goers to Emo’s nude carcass hanging from the window. Elders could only guess at the remarks being passed by the onlookers.
His thoughts returned to the problem of damages to the hotel. This weekend fling could be costly, perhaps a few thousand dollars, or perhaps he could get by for just cleaning costs.
The idea of having roasted gander for Thanksgiving had lost its appeal. Perhaps a light dinner in a remote restaurant away from the public eye would be better. He was thankful that he had enjoyed a profitable year in sales, but it hurt to think of how much of that money he was going to have to pay out for one evening of foolishness.
“Oh well,” he thought, remembering the words the Kansas ranch hand had once told him when he was a boy, “It’s too damned late to say that the baby is ugly.”