Every couple months a hobo named Joe came through town. He would offer to clean the barn or hoe the garden in return for a meal and my grandparents always gave him something to eat. Somehow, he always seemed to disappear right after we fed him and we never did get any work out of him.
It seemed appropriate, when the raven appeared, that Grandpa would name him Joe. That raven never did anything for us, but always managed to get a meal.
We lived in Southern California and went to Oregon every summer for many years to visit my grandparents. The first such visit I can remember was in 1952 when I was five years old. That was the summer when Joe became almost a resident at the house.
The house was in Haines, a small farm community in the mideastern part of Oregon. Only a couple blocks from the main street of town, we had a barn, corral, two horses, chickens, and an acre or so of land.
Most of the land was my grandpa’s parking lot. He always had a broken down combine parked there, as well as two tractors: a Caterpillar diesel and an old red gasoline job. There were also two grain trucks; sometimes working, sometimes being worked on. The house had two small bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. We had a back yard about thirty feet by fifteen feet, all dirt. Behind that was the barn and corral. My grandma had a garden plot about the same size as the back yard on one side of the house.
Joe had two regular perches. His favorite was one of the fence posts in the corral and he stayed there most of the day. Whenever one of the horses came close enough, Joe would hop onto her back and spend fifteen or twenty minutes pecking at the bugs on her. The horses seemed to like it because, as long as Joe stayed there, they would stop flicking their tails and stand still.
It did not take Joe long to learn our schedule. We got up before dawn, ate breakfast and, by sunup, were leaving to work in the wheat fields. As we left the house, one of us would toss some breakfast scraps down into the yard. After only a couple days, Joe would be waiting on the edge of the back porch for his breakfast. That soon became his second regular perch.
He got so he trusted us enough that he would hop down and start eating while we were still there. He never took anything from our hands and we could never pet him, but he did not fly away when we walked out. If one of us tried to reach toward him, he would just fly to his other perch and wait for us to leave.
Joe did have a couple bad habits and one of them involved me.
The house didn’t have indoor plumbing. We had an outhouse in the back yard and had to pump water by hand. There were two pumps, one in the kitchen sink and one in the back yard. The pump in the kitchen was for cooking, washing dishes, and washing faces and hands. The pump in the back yard was for watering the garden, washing clothes, and bathing. It was beside the back porch and had a large wooden wash tub sitting under the spout.
Each week I would take a bath in that wash tub. I would pump the water into the tub, lay my towel on the porch, get undressed, and climb into the tub. When I was clean, I would get out, take a step or two, pick up the towel, dry myself, and go back into the house. The first couple of times, Joe just hopped down onto the porch and watched me.
Then, something made him think I was either his dinner or his entertainment. As I got out of the tub and started to pick up my towel Joe hopped closer and pecked my bare rear end. It hurt! I ran around the yard a couple of times with Joe hopping right behind me taking a nip every chance he got. I finally escaped into the house.
Did I get any sympathy? No. Grandma was mad because I tracked mud into the house. When I explained what had happened, everyone laughed. I did not think it was very funny, but everyone else did.
One week, Grandpa gave me a stick about a foot long and told me, “If Joe chases you, shake this stick at him and scare him away.”
“But, Grandpa,” I said, “he’s too big.”
“Oh, hogwash,” grandpa said, “you just shake the stick at him. You’ll see, he’ll fly off.”
The next Saturday I felt safe as I took my bath. Joe sat on the corner of the porch watching me. I got out. Joe hopped over toward me. I reached for the towel. Joe hopped closer. I picked up the stick and turned toward him. He kept coming.
I swung the stick at him as hard as my five-year old arm could swing. Joe just took the stick away from me, dropped it on the ground, and came after me. I ran around the back yard with Joe chasing and pecking me. I finally escaped into the house. The whole family had been watching through the window and everyone roared with laughter.
Joe’s other bad habit was also his downfall. He had been a regular around the place for a month when a magpie showed up. The new arrival started spending most of the day with Joe. We saw something akin to a friendship develop between these two birds. Joe and the magpie would each perch on a different fence post. Joe would grunt and cry until one of us would walk out and toss down some food scraps. As soon as we went back inside both of them would fly down and eat.
It took a few days for the magpie to lure Joe into committing the ultimate crime: stealing Grandma’s eggs.
I watched Joe and the magpie through the kitchen window one day. The magpie sat on the fence post and acted as a lookout while Joe flew into the chicken coop. He came out with an egg in his beak, flew to his fence post, dropped it, and broke it open. He and the magpie then enjoyed fresh egg. I remember Joe and the magpie eating three eggs that day.
Grandma’s eggs were important to us. We had about fifteen hens that produced enough eggs for us to have breakfast every morning with a few left over. Grandma sold the leftover eggs in town for extra money. It was only a few dollars each week but in 1952 that was enough to buy a few steaks, a bag of potatoes, or a slab of bacon.
One evening, at dinner, Grandma said, “I think there’s something wrong with the hens. They’re laying fewer eggs.” I couldn’t quite suppress a giggle, but nobody seemed to notice.
Each evening Grandma made some comment about the hens laying fewer eggs. She was getting madder and madder at them. As a kid, I though the whole situation was funny. Joe and the magpie were eating eggs every day. Grandma was getting madder every day because the hens weren’t laying as many eggs. And… I was the only one who knew the secret of what was really happening.
One day, Grandma walked out the back door just as Joe was coming out of the chicken coop with an egg in his beak. The magpie screeched from his perch on the fence post. Grandma yelled, “Drop that egg, you thief.”
Joe dropped the egg and he and the magpie flew off over the house.
Grandma stood there looking at the broken egg in the back yard. She went on and on about Joe stealing her eggs. I stood in the back door and laughed. I couldn’t help it. The secret was finally out and I just couldn’t stop. Grandma looked at me and asked, “Did you know about this?”
I kept laughing as I told her what I had seen the past several days.
I didn’t understand when she said, “We’ll just see about that.”
When we came home from the field the next day, Grandpa noted that Joe wasn’t on his usual perch. At dinner that evening, Grandma said, “I found that thieving raven in the chicken coop again today.”
Grandpa asked, “Well, what are we going to do about him?”
“It’s already done,” Grandma said, “I waited for him with my .22.”
As soon as she said that – I knew. I just knew what was to follow. My grandma was a farm wife and was an excellent shot with her little rifle.
“As soon as that thief came out of the henhouse I shot him, but the magpie flew off.”
I didn’t really care about the magpie, but I missed Joe and his antics. The rest of that summer and for many summers after that, when I heard the raucous cry of a raven, I’d look around wondering if it was Joe. I always looked, but I never saw him again.
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Friday Writing Essential, 11/21/14, “Joe.”