Stephenson Tales

Animal Husbandry

When Peppy was finally gone, his passing marked the end of a long episodic saga of our family's relationship with the lower animal kingdom. Along the way there were some pets that stand out sufficiently to qualify among these memoirs.


Whatever convinced Mom to permit a cat to take up residence with us I will never know. She hated cats generically and individually. If a cat were to leap on to her lap, she would screech like a cartoon character ("Eek!"), put her hands in the air and cry, "Get it OFF!" Whenever we were in a house where there was a cat, it would inevitably leap on to her lap with the ensuing response just described.

A note in Mom's handwriting in my Baby Book under "Baby's Pets" reads: "A tiger cat. Jim Bob named her Bessie, why we'll never know."

Bessie had an unfortunate feline propensity to have fits. Suddenly she would wake up and begin to run wildly all over the house - caroming off the walls, on the dining room table, on the sink in the kitchen, up and down the stairs - a furry streak that defied gravity as well as any human pleas to settle down. A fit might last anywhere from 15 seconds to almost an entire minute. Then she would fall down, roll on to her back with all four feet in the air, and go to sleep. No one ever figured out the cause of these spasms, nor could anyone predict when one was going to occur. I do not know if one of these episodes finally did her in; whether she died naturally (but we did not have her long enough for it to have been old age); got hit by a car; or Dad simply strangled her. But in any case, that's all I remember about Bessie.


One of my American History books claimed that the play "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe was as much responsible for The War for Southern Independence as was the firing on Fort Sumpter! In the play was a little black slave named Topsy. When asked about her mother and father, her reply was, "I ain't got no momma ner no poppa either; I just growed."

Our hound dog, Topsy could make the same claim. He had no pride of ancestry that I know of. Somebody gave Orlando the hound as a pup. The idea of buying a dog was unheard of in those days. Topsy was probably the sweetest and stupidest dog of all our long parade of pets.

One unfortunate incident must be told. Topsy had fleas. Flea powder had yet to be invented, as did the internal treatment (as today) by pills. One merely washed the animal in Fels Naptha soap. That worked for approximately 5 hours.

My father was in charge of all Master's Degree and PhD Candidates in the University of Michigan who were getting their degrees in the social studies. Don't forget, he wrote a High School textbook, "Everyday Economics" - of which I did not understand a word, "The History of Ann Arbor, the First Hundred Years," and was always writing articles on social topics. Remember, too, his high school course, "Modern Social Problems" (prisons, poverty, the Negro in Society, etc.), which was one of the best courses I EVER had (along with Preston's "World History" class in college).

One day he was at his desk with a PhD candidate going over a draft of a chapter of the young man's dissertation (he taught me how to edit, by the way), when a small black spot suddenly appeared on the page before them. My father looked at it, then up to the face (now red) of the candidate and said, "Well, you can write home and tell them that your dissertation advisor had fleas."

Topsy vanished.

I suppose that because we all (even Dad) missed that stupid dog, we were given another one - a tiny black puppy that had just been weaned. Alert! Obviously intelligent! Adoring his new family! Black as coal - and no wonder, for the mother had had her litter in a coal cellar. A central furnace in the basement did the usual heating. Adjacent to it was a small room into which coal was shoveled through a basement window - about three times a year.

So the first order of business, of course, was to drown the fleas that accompanied him. The home at 552 Third Street had but one bathroom leading on one side to "the little room" in one wall (Orlando's bedroom was directly above it) and into the kitchen across the corner of that wall. So into the bath Fox went. As the Fels Naptha began to suds up and the little dog was lathered, to everyone's amazement he began to turn white. The bath water got darker and darker and Fox got whiter and whiter. By the time of the third sudsing and rinsing what emerged was a pure white Spitz! (Pictures are in my photo albums.)

He was a joy for us for years. He loved to go sailing in "The Lorelei" and in my two boats, "Applesauce" and the "J. Wellington Wimpy" (before I all but inherited "The Lorelei" from Orlando). In spite of the ever-present insect inhabitants (easy to spot and crush on white fur and bright pink skin!), he was a real member of the family, and to my hazy memory, kept his passengers to himself!

Composed 4-5 October 2008; Transcribed by Lucky

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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