May 27, 2016

The Pigeon Catchers… (Sketch #18)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


And for a moment, it seemed, he saw the visages of time, dark
time, and the million lock-bolts shot back in a man’s memory…
Light fell upon his face and darkness crossed it: -he came up
from the wilderness…from a time that was further off than Saxon
thanes, all of the knights, the spearheads, and the horses.

Was all this lost?

“It was so long ago,” the old man said.

—Thomas Wolfe

Darkness dropped all around, and the evening chill swept in. I was probably twelve, maybe thirteen. At that age, a year is a big deal. And I was pretty excited. My brothers had decreed that I could go along that night. And after the chores were done, and after supper, Stephen hitched Bonnie, his plump little brown mare, to his top buggy. And the three of us loaded up. Stephen, Titus, and me. The “three little boys,” way back, now not so little anymore. We rattled out the drive, and Stephen turned east. And we were off on a quest not all that uncommon, back in those days. Although this was the first time I remember going along. We had told Dad, and he hadn’t made much of a fuss. It was legit enough, our stated goal. We told him we were going out to catch some pigeons.

And yeah, I know. That sure sounds like some strange activity for Amish youth to be doing. Running around the countryside, climbing around great old barns at night, chasing and catching pigeons. It’s more of an old-time thing, I think. I don’t know if it’s done today any more, anywhere. But it was fairly common in Aylmer, the place where I spent my childhood. There, it wasn’t strange at all.

Pigeons were pests. That was a given. Ugly birds, all around. Rats with wings, I’ve heard them called, and that’s about accurate. And the great red barns of Aylmer were just infested with them, pigeons of every stripe and color. They strutted and preened and cooed and flapped about. And crapped all over the place. I can’t say they really did much harm of any kind. But they weren’t much good for anything, either. They just got in the way and got annoying.

And the Amish boys of Old Aylmer had reasons enough to go scrambling around the large barn lofts and silos at night, hunting pigeons. Because every Tuesday at the Aylmer Sales Barn, the Pigeon Man showed up in his rattletrap truck all stacked with cages on the back. He was a bit of a shyster and a blowhard, the Pigeon Man was. But the bottom line was that he paid good money, he paid cold hard cash for pigeons. And the Amish boys brought him many dozens of pigeons, stuffed in burlap sacks.

The story was always told when I was little, of a thing that happened long ago. It came from my brother Joseph and our cousin, Alvin Graber. Old time pigeon catching was something they did on a regular basis. And one week, they had a particularly good haul of pigeons. I guess the old barns were loaded that week, and the boys were nimble in the dark and caught a few dozen birds. They stuffed three or four burlap bags full, and headed off to the Sales Barn the next afternoon. But then they got to thinking, and then they got to talking. They had way more pigeons than usual. If the Pigeon Man saw all those birds, he’d drop his price, for sure. So the boys crafted a little plan. They parked their buggy, grabbed their flapping burlap sacks, and walked over through the parking lot toward the Pigeon Man’s truck. But when they got close, one of them stayed back among the parked cars with three of the sacks and most of the pigeons. The other one ambled on in to see the Pigeon Man, carrying one lonely sack of pigeons. I don’t know who did what. Let’s just say Alvin Graber stayed back, hidden, and Joseph traipsed on in with the one burlap sack.

The Pigeon Man greeted Joseph loudly. “Well, now,” he shouted. “You brought me some pigeons. Let’s count them out. I need a lot more than that. My price today is fifty cents apiece.” And he and Joseph released the dozen or fifteen pigeons from the sack into one of the cages on the truck. And Joseph asked. “Fifty cents apiece, for all I can bring you?”

“That’s right, young man,” the Pigeon Man roared. He took the flask from his hip pocket, unscrewed the lid, and took a vast swig of whatever was sloshing around inside. (OK, I just made that last line up, but I always figured the man must have been drinking to get so loud and boisterous. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t.) And Joseph turned back to the parking lot where Alvin was crouched, hiding. He waved, then went out to help carry in the three remaining sacks of pigeons. “You wait, I’ll be right back,” he told the Pigeon Man as he darted off.

A few minutes later, the two boys triumphantly returned, carrying three large flopping sacks. “We got a lot more pigeons here,” they announced. “You said you’d pay fifty cents apiece. Let’s unload these sacks and count them out.” The Pigeon Man goggled at them and at the flopping burlap sacks in a most displeased manner. He got all unjolly, all of a sudden. He’d been had, and he knew it. He couldn’t even haggle for a volume discount, here.

The specific details remain a little vague in my memory. But Joseph and Alvin didn’t get full price for all those extra pigeons. The Pigeon Man reneged, backed out of his promise. They settled for a little less, maybe thirty-five cents apiece, for the birds. The Pigeon Man probably thought, these little Amish boys don’t know any better, and they’ll take what I give them, and they won’t grumble. And maybe they didn’t know any better, and maybe they didn’t grumble. But they sure told some stories when they got back home, stories that got passed on down, told and retold over the years. Such is the stuff of family lore and legend.

So it was economics that drove the Amish boys of Old Aylmer to climb and scramble around the great old barns at night, catching pigeons. And it was a social thing, too. You get to hang out with your friends for an evening. And catching pigeons was far from the strangest social thing the boys got into. I remember clearly one evening a long time ago, when I was very young. My older brothers were getting together with their friends. They planned to go up to Ervin Lambright’s little farm, up north a few miles.

Ervin was a reclusive, red-haired, red-bearded bachelor with a perpetually red face. He lived alone, kind of away from everyone else. He had moved in from northern Indiana, somewhere, if I remember right. Or maybe it was Michigan. And he kept pretty much to himself, except on any given Sunday, when he showed up for church. Ervin was so reclusive that he once got his Sundays mixed up. The Amish have church services every two weeks. In Aylmer, they had Sunday School service on the in-between Sunday afternoon. Aylmer was one of the very few Amish communities that believed in Sunday School at that time. It was considered a very progressive thing, almost like the Beachys, people who drove cars. Old-time, hard-core Amish still look very suspiciously at any Amish community where there is Sunday School. It’s scandalous, they claim, and so worldly.

Anyway, Ervin got his Sundays mixed up, and one Sunday he showed up after church services had just been dismissed at Levi Slaubaugh’s place. People were sitting at tables and feasting on peanut butter sandwiches and pickles. Ervin thought it was Sunday School Sunday. When he realized his mistake, he blushed and blushed in shame. Deeply embarrassed, he self-consciously wiped his face with his hands and looked at the ground and muttered. “So dumm, so dumm” (So dumb, so dumb).

My older brothers and their friends planned to go to Ervin’s little farm one night. I guess they had asked him, and he said it was OK. Anyway, they were going to hunt and kill rats, out in his barn. I guess Ervin’s place was pretty infested, from what I heard tell. It makes me shiver a little, from where I am today. Rats have always made my skin crawl. Of all the creatures God created, the rat is the most vile and viscous. I couldn’t imagine getting together in any dark old barn at night just to hunt them. Not like the Amish youth boys of Aylmer got together one weeknight, and killed a bunch of rats at Ervin Lambright’s farm. It was a social event for them. A large time was had by all.

We plugged along through the darkness on the gravel road, heading east. Bonnie the mare trotted right along. She was a plump little horse, not all that fast, but enduring. She made the move to Bloomfield with our family a few years later. And a few years after that, Stephen sold her to Bishop Henry, who was looking for a safe driving horse for his boys. And as far as I know, Bonnie lived out her remaining days in great contentment on Bishop Henry’s farm. The man sure kept his horses gleaming and looking good. After half a mile or so, we turned south and headed over toward Highway 3. Stephen had told us the destination earlier, and that was one reason I wanted to go along so badly. We were heading to Piggy Ray Morse’s place, over in Richmond.

Ray Morse was an older retired guy who came around and made a few extra bucks hauling the Amish around in his great white boat of a car. Content, retired, and vastly overweight, the sagging folds of his face reminded me and my brothers of a hungry, eager hog. There was no fanfare, and we didn’t hesitate. We unceremoniously dubbed him “Piggy” Ray Morse. We kept the name pretty quiet, just among ourselves, and we never called him that to his face. So he never knew. But he was always Piggy Ray to us. He lived over in the small village of Richmond, and that’s where Bonnie was taking us that November night.

Richmond is a tiny little town on the path to nowhere, just a few miles south of Highway 3. When I was very young, maybe three or four, my sister Maggie often took me along on her little shopping trips to the Richmond General Store. The store sold groceries and hardware and toys. I remember the toys. And I remember always heading to the back room and staring in fascination and awe and wonder at the shelves and shelves of sturdy metal Tonka tractors and dump trucks I would have died for, and plastic buckets and shovels and little toy barns and all kinds of colorful plastic horses and cows and pigs. The toys were mine only in my dreams and in the deepest longings of my heart. I never got my hands on a single one of them. Which makes my memories of them all the more intense.

Bonnie clopped along the paved road, and we approached the little village. I don’t remember if any of us had ever been to Piggy Ray’s house before, but we had the number. And soon enough, we arrived. Stephen turned his horse in. Off to the side, by the garage, he tied her up. We all got out and stood around and stretched. And the excitement stirred in us. Well, here we were. But we weren’t here to catch any pigeons. Piggy Ray didn’t even have a barn to catch pigeons in.

We walked over to the house. I tagged along behind my brothers. We stood outside the porch and Stephen rang the doorbell. The porch light flipped on, and a moment later, Piggy Ray came waddling out. He recognized us and opened the door. “Hello, boys,” he said. Stephen did the talking. “Good evening, Ray,” he said. “I mentioned last week that we might want to stop by and watch a hockey game, and you said we could come. So here we are.” I’m not sure what Piggy Ray was thinking, but he kept right on smiling. “Come on in, come on in,” he said, waving us by him. And we stepped into the porch shyly, and then followed the man into his house and on into his living room. Electric lights glowed softly everywhere. And there in the living room was a large, heavy floor model TV, black and white. It was turned on, and it was blaring. And we saw right away. There was a hockey game on. A real, organized hockey game. And we settled in, or at least I settled in, to absorb an experience such as I had never seen before.

Hockey was sacred to us. We were huge fans of the game, even though no one had ever taught us a thing about it. We learned the game on our own, with no guidance at all from anyone, from reading the newspaper and looking at pictures. Our hunger and thirst for the game knew no bounds. We set up rinks and played on our pond night after night in the winter cold. And by that time, by that night at Piggy Ray’s, Stephen had already owned a little transistor radio for a few years. He listened to hockey games, and I got to listen, too, now and then. From such a foundation, we taught ourselves to play.

But we had never watched a game. Not a real game with real uniformed players on a real ice rink with a painted center line and blue lines and face-off circles and a crease in front of the net around the goalie. We had read of these things, and seen pictures. And heard them told. But we had never, never seen them in live action.

Piggy Ray waved us to the couch. He sat back down on his recliner, from where the doorbell had called him. He never offered us anything else, no snacks or pop. It never even crossed our minds that he would. Because what he did offer was way more than almost anything we could imagine. The chance to watch real live hockey on TV.

A few words aside, here. A few thoughts. And no, I’m not dredging down, not beating my breast and bemoaning the lack of morality in what we were doing that night, and how we had blatantly misled Dad, getting there. Obviously, there were some relationship issues, some communication gaps, between a father and his sons. It all was what it was. And it all was a long time ago. This is just a story. That’s all it is. But when I look back at who we were and what we were and what we were pulling off, well, the risks involved were pretty serious.

Not just for us boys, but for Piggy Ray as well. I’m sure he would have preferred that no Amish youth show up at his door like we just had. But when we did show up, he did not hesitate, but invited us into his home. It would not have gone well had word leaked out to the Aylmer Amish community that Ray Morse, the driver, allowed Amish boys to come around and watch hockey on TV at his home. It would have drastically affected his business and his livelihood. I give him credit to this day for recognizing and acknowledging the relentless driving hunger that stirred inside us. He was a good and solid man, and he stood tall and shining in the moment. And here, at this late date, long after he’s gone, I honor him for that. Ray Morse, you were a man.

And as for us, well, the risks were more terrible than anything we wanted to even think about. If Dad found out what we had done, there would be severe repercussions. A whipping for me, for sure. I was young enough. And for Stephen and Titus, there would have been dark looks and endless scolding and all kinds of admonitions for a long, long time. None of it would have been any fun at all. We didn’t analyze those risks all that closely. We just knew we were willing to take them. The immediate rewards gleamed and beckoned like a great shining city right close by, the future risks lurked out there far away like dark thunder clouds hovering over distant mountains. Thunder clouds that with any luck would never reach us.

We sat there on the couch in Piggy Ray’s house, our eyes riveted to the TV. Too shy and polite to make much noise, we just sat there, mesmerized, and watched. Murmuring excitedly to each other at a particularly spectacular play or when a goal was scored. It was a Minor League Hockey game, going on. Only in Canada is hockey enough of a religion for Minor League games to be televised. I think it was the London Knights against Hamilton, both relatively local teams.

We didn’t know the names of any of the players, but there’s one name I remember hearing over and over again that night. Hamilton’s goalie. I always played goalie in our little hockey games on the pond at home, so my eyes were instantly glued to that man. His name was Roley Kimble. The teams were badly mismatched. London’s offense ran all over Hamilton’s defense. There was one balancing factor. One man. Roley Kimble. He flopped around like a madman, and fiercely guarded his net. Peppered with pucks from all over, he single-handedly stood firm. And not one shot got by him. Not one. I watched the man in awe. In my dreams, I would one day play like he did.

It wasn’t all that late when Stephen made noises to go. Maybe a little after ten. Hamilton was leading the game, 3-0 in the third period. Roley kept his shutout intact, we saw later in the newspaper. We stood, then, and thanked Piggy Ray. And then we showed ourselves out. Bonnie plugged along toward home, and we chattered excitedly all through the 25-minute ride. At home, we put the horse away and slipped into the house.

It was probably around 10:30 or 11:00. Dad was in his little office down the hall, pounding away at his typewriter, like he always did every night until midnight or so. We slipped quietly past his doorway, so as not to disturb him. And on upstairs to bed. We were practically on a high from the experience, from where we had been and what we had seen. It never happened again, not an adventure quite like that. And I never did play goalie like Roley Kimble did.

There was one more major hurdle to cross. We didn’t fret, or lose any sleep over it, but it was there. The next morning, we got up and did our chores. Then came back into the house, where Mom had cooked up a large, delicious breakfast of eggs and toast and bacon and biscuits and gravy. We sat around the table like normal, hunched over our plates, wolfing down our food. “The boys eat too fast,” Dad always said.

And Dad always tried to chat a little at the table, to get some sort of conversation going. Although in the mornings that task got a little difficult, because no one felt like talking that early. And this morning, he asked. “Well, boys. How did the pigeon hunting go last night? Did you catch anything?”

Titus and I were hunched over our plates right then, looking down, shoveling in our food. We froze when we heard Dad’s question. For a moment, at least. But then we got back to eating, all nonchalant. We figured to let Stephen do the talking.

And Stephen stopped eating long enough to look right at Dad. And then he answered, very calmly.

“No,” Stephen said. “No, we didn’t get any pigeons caught last night.”



  1. Mr. Wagler
    As usual an Excellent Blog .. Thank you , sir .

    Comment by Georgie Sanders — May 27, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

  2. Very interesting. Just wondering how in the world you remembered all the details of something that happened a long time ago.

    I enjoyed it.


    Comment by Linda Morris — May 27, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

  3. Funny how we remember things from our youthful days and they mean more to us now then they did then. I think as we get older we kind of have life reviews, at least I do. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — May 27, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

  4. I love your Aylmer stories. After reading this one I sit and wonder how much has Aylmer changed in these forty years of time? I wish I could spend one summer in Aylmer to observe and listen in. But of course that will never happen…

    Comment by Katie Troyer — May 27, 2016 @ 10:33 pm

  5. Ira, the pigeon-catching story brought back memories of how my brother and I also did that at neighbor’s farms back in the sixties. We would then have old one handed Manny Nafziger take us (yes he drove with one hand) to Green Dragon Farmer’s Market along with bantams, guinea pigs and, yes even cats! to sell there. Some of us who were in Rumspringa often went to an older English couples house in Smoketown on Sunday evenings to watch some “strongly forbidden” T.V., usually a movie on T.V. or a football game. Unlike you, we never watched hockey, that’s something us Lancaster Countians were not into at all.

    Comment by jon fisher — May 28, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

  6. Great piece! Love the way time flows and there are no spaces just a perfect story unfolding.

    Comment by G racina — May 28, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

  7. Your story about catching pigeons reminds me of the time my brother Ron and I climbed the two 50 foot silos to catch pigeons. We were more interested in the young ones (squabs) which we placed in a small outbuilding and fed them until they were plump enough to be part of the cuisine that Mom was so good at cooking up. That was around 1950 when I was six years old and Ron was five.

    Comment by Wes Hackman — May 28, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

  8. Good blog! Brought back memories of how my brothers used to catch pigeons and sometimes my twin sister and I went along. We were all happy for a few dollars. I loved the honesty of your brother Stephen with his father. The story ended there…..Did your father not ask any more questions? Emma

    Comment by Emma — May 28, 2016 @ 9:41 pm

  9. Good story, reminded me of the days that we would sneak to the pool hall to watch the Hawkeyes, or even more dramatic pretend we were working on Sat and travel to Kinnick stadium, I don’t think my dad was blind enough to believe that we always went to work. H e would usually be irritated if we ”hounded” around town all afternoon. And of course one time when I was 15 I went with an older married brother and watched #1 Iowa defeat #2 Michigan, the married older brother got so excited that he forgot to take the all of the diapers out of the Laundromat(the reason that we went to town) He quite embarrassed had to make a trip to town on Sunday and retrieve the rest of his diapers:)

    Comment by Gideon Yutzy — May 28, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

  10. Fun little read, as always. I wasn’t aware wild pigeons were a commodity. I’m surprised your folks brought that little mare down here. Guess she was too valuable to leave behind-maybe she was a Haflinger x? ;)

    Comment by lisa — May 28, 2016 @ 10:29 pm

  11. Seems religion imposed breeds self-justifications of those under the “structure.” Which make it harder to learn from real life consequences (justifying keeps one from learning and changing). And thus feelings of confusion, rather than understanding a Father stands behind the consequences, attempting to communicate love.

    Since all earthly fathers are sinners (as are sons and daughters, who misinterpret boundaries as hardness, or even hatred, in the case of extreme hard hearts), it is hard to see how there is any human “mechanism” for communicating real love. It seems there must be a dawning from inside the individual, regardless of human experience?

    Just thinking.
    Great piece of history writing, that allows us to feel all the longings and tensions.

    Literally, just as I was commenting, a red cardinal flying by my window flew close and touch-landed outside for less than a second, long enough for me to glance and see him. This world is somehow full of wonders, I guess for child-like eyes. It seems the qualitative difference (between, like, delight, “brushing it off,” or even irritation – all potential reactions to the same event) depends on the eyes of the heart that is perceiving them. But how how do we get the slant of perception in the first place, or the desire, and then the ability, to change it?

    Comment by LeRoy — May 29, 2016 @ 8:22 am

  12. Pigeon catching for pocket money was popular in the Amish community I grew up in.Young ‘rumspringers’ would show up after dark and ask dad if it was okay to go into the old red barn and see what was there.That kind of slowed down when some of my brother’s and I figured out how to use that barn as a skeet trap.A little brother was bribed with something and sent into the hayloft with a pocket full of rocks.When the pigeon’s came boiling out of the opening up near the roof on the north end,they were met with a barrage of 12 gauge shot gun pellets.That would last as long as mom could tolerate the commotion,which usually wasn’t very long.Then it was time to make one’s self scarce and disappear.My grandmother would cook with the ‘squabs’and they were tasty as long as I didn’t think too much about what I was eating.One got raised as a pet and it would startle people if we were outside and it flew over and sat on my shoulder.The bird and it’s cage ended up in BJK Helmuth’s small engine repair shop as the house pigeon.I’m not sure how that happened,I guess I got tired of the dirty bird and gave it to one of his boy’s.Great article about the ‘dava’ and what we did with them when we were young…and they really are ‘flying rats’…peace to all…

    Comment by lenny — June 6, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

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