Victor Davis Hanson
A Child’s Garden of Animals
What did Mr. Frank Hanson teach us?
How to ride mules, donkeys, and horses bareback. How to put a saddle on—and how to ride with it. And the “nevers”: Never leave an animal tied up in the sun. Never leave any animal without a pan of water. Never let an animal go hungry. Treat an animal like you would a person and you won’t regret it.
We watched him break horses, but he kept us away from the wilder ones. After lunch, he took his nap—inside the back seat of his old Dodge, feet out the window.
From him we learned to cut off the head of a chicken and pluck the body. My brothers and I discovered how to milk a cow, to kill a 1,000-pound hog, to hook up the carcass to a pulley, to scrape off the bristles, to gut it, and to slice off the choice cuts, as he and my dad dressed it out. Once he shot between the eyes a doomed hog with his Krag that we were to dress out. But the hog seemed armored and instead of rolling over, charged us boys who were sitting on the corral. In a second, he yelled for us to stay still and jumped into the pen with his butcher knife and sliced the jugular of the rampaging animal. He was in his seventies.
For security from strangers and his own ark of free-ranging animals, he took vineyard wire, nailed it to posts, and circled the yard with it. And then he simply plugged the contraption into an old outlet, creating a quite dangerous electric fence (to keep out the roaming animals and people).
If we didn’t obey my father on our weekend animal outings, he threatened to put us in the “pokey,” or a five-foot-high turkey and peacock pen. (He never did.)
He spoke with a thick Swedish accent. If pressed he would explain how his father arrived from Lund to Kingsburg with the first wave of Swedes who established the “colony.” (Rumors how my great-grandfather, who had a poor mother, arrived in the U.S. somehow with substantial wealth were never confirmed, given some sort of illegitimacy scandal that I’ll pass over.)
I often asked my father how his father and his family survived in the days before social security disability, women in the workplace, and Depression-era farm prices. In a second, he simply said, “We ate and drank everything we produced.” From that I distilled that Frank tamed horses, slaughtered beef, pork, and sheep, and sold milk from his tiny barnyard of eight or so cows.
Once I was old enough to appreciate the talents of Slim Pickens of then “Dr. Strangelove” fame, my dad asked Frank about him. “Oh, I used to break horses for Lou (Lou Lindley), and he was a great guy.” (And we gathered “Pickens” was not really a Kingsburg Swede as much as a Texas implant who was born and grew up for a while there.) My grandfather used to go to the Woodlake and Clovis rodeos just to see Lou perform as a clown.
After his death, a few years later my brothers and I began farming his 43 acres. I would explore the ancient barn that was collapsing and a tiny lean-to hidden behind it. My father in his teens had built an 8×8 foot shack (no electricity or running water), to allow his sister to have her own bedroom in the house.
There were all sort of ancient tools and appurtenances inside the pitch-black barn, from the age of horses—wagon wheels, horse-shoeing tools, harnesses, and collars. My brother still has his gas mask and 91st Infantry Division helmet, with its green triangle/evergreen tree on it.
From Frank Hanson we were taught not to complain, to endure physical pain, to remain independent, to love though not romanticize animals, from fox terriers to geese to cattle. Oh, and not to back down—only if in the right. Once a linoleum installer cut the wrong pattern and was going simply to correct his blunder by hodge-podge splicing together, given the otherwise bleak kitchen. “You won’t mind,” he told my grandfather.
“Oh,” he said, “You’ll fix your mess, or you won’t leave here today. I guarantee that.” And the frightened twenty-something went back to his truck and started over with a new sheet.
It was from him I grew up with knowledge of the Swedes, his wonderful brother, my uncle Alfred, who was huge, jolly, of course, a “tough” Swede. Such strange people, I would think growing up, those Kingsburg Swedes. They loved to work, considered idleness a sin, were often silent, solemn, even depressed. They were thrifty, of course, but interested in money only to the degree it gave them distance from the rich and the government and not to the degree to be enslaved by the desire for it.
A Swedish funeral? Lots of silence among the “mourners” (no crying), with an occasional sigh over the dead, “Ya, ya, he worked hard,” and then retirement to the home of the deceased for coffee and alphabet Swedish butter cookies, and more of “Ya, he worked hard…”.
My grandfather Rees, who should have been antithetical to Frank, admired him tremendously and would often say, “I never met a man who knew horses like your grandfather” and “He has the best 40 acres in the land, it will grow anything.” (See Fields Without Dreams on our nightmare there.)
And “he’s as good as they come.”
Amen to that.