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  • Jerome Kocher

28. My Childhood

This post was an unintended pregnancy . . . of thought.

It started as an Easter morning reflection on my childhood and it took on a life of its own. And grew and grew and grew!


Growing up on a chicken ranch in Rio Linda, we domesticated Nature by raising chickens and selling their eggs on the free market. But we carried it a step further. Once a year we created a Darwinian leap of evolution by painting and decorating some chicken eggs and elevating them to the status of Bunny eggs. Now rabbits are mammals with live birth, so this evolutionary jump of species cannot be explained unless you consider my sisters and I the “missing link” that scientists have been searching for. We even placed our Easter bunny nests in front of a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in our backyard. This gave a primal Spring celebration the blessing of the Catholic Church. You might say it lent the credibility of an Immaculate Conception to our species changing creativity. The ritual began the day before on Holy Saturday when my father cut the grass using a push rotary lawn mower with a catch basket to secure fresh clippings. Our mom was the artistic one so she formed the nests with her motherly instinct. It was a family operation just like our chicken ranch.

Memories. With thirteen acres to play on, my sisters and I often trekked out onto a field with an old oak tree filled with magpies, black and white birds whose cries seemed to mimic the Furies. This was all before my initiation into Greek mythology. Together we would pull our little red wagon out to the tree as if we were those pioneers of old walking thousands of miles alongside “praire schooners.” It was an adventure and we brought some simple snacks to sustain us on that long trip of a hundred meters. The idea came from the Westerns we watched on our new black and white TV with an oval screen in a polished wooden box. To be exact, “Wagon Train” with Ward Bond as our role model, inspired our play. We had a white sheet covering the wagon like some puffed out pillow to make it look more authentic. Actually one day a neighbor called our mom to say one of the cows had escaped into the field and was circling the oak tree, even being attacked by those aggressive magpies. Like all concerned mothers, especially on farms, she went out to investigate only to discover that her own children had again turned Darwin on his head. There was no cow.

To make a little money, we also collected acorns to package in milk cartons and then sold them to Fred Sargenti to feed his pigs on the farm opposite us. It looked dilapidated, run down, like an old pig farm would be imagined. He was craggy, gnarly, aloof, not a grandfatherly spirit. But he paid cash for the natural pig food. We had no allowance, so feeding pigs was our way up in the world. Brenda and Pat saw it as a way to a brighter future to spend money at the corner store beyond Anderson’s. Being smaller and the youngest, I just saw it as a way to copy my big sisters and thus increase my stature, if not size, in the social pecking order.

Memories alone. I loved the swing set on what I called the umbrella tree near the egg house. I would swing for hours on end pretending that I was flying across the ocean on a non-stop flight. I had no idea who Lindbergh was. I didn’t know he was my father’s childhood hero. But I did have my father’s blood in me. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. But when not in the sky I was in the dirt. I built small earthen structures to house insects. I’m not sure if it was a hotel or a prison. It made me feel grand. I had no clue who Torquemada was, but I knew I was in control.

I also made a wooden plane with clothes line clips added and would run around the “ring road” which circled the house. I raised my invention high and accelerated my speed to give it the lift necessary for flight. This was more interactive than sitting on the swing. I felt I was actually flying somewhere.

With Dad. Together, we would take his air pellet gun and shoot the incinerator barrel as a target. I’d enjoy the rush of running up to the metal barrel to search for the ricocheted pellets having turned in upon themselves like kernels of popcorn. Growing up hunting in the woods near his farm, my father could now only share with his son the thrill of the hunt by shooting an inanimate object that also served as a receptacle to burn our trash. But it worked, because I did not realize the difference. That is, not until we took a trip back to our grandparents and those very woods where my dad had hunted. He and his brothers took me out on a night “coon” hunt with their dogs. When the animal was trapped in a tree, my excitement turned to horror. Oh my God! This is a raccoon and the only one I had known before was the animated character Rocky Raccoon. And we were going to shoot him. What would Bullwinkle say? I could never watch my cartoon friends again without a tinge of guilt. What was my father thinking!

Playing catch with Dad. I loved baseball, more than planes. Dad didn’t like baseball at all, but he played with me because his blood was in my veins. For my birthday he bought me a baseball mitt even though he had no knowledge of the game. But his son did and that was good enough for him. The problem was he bought me a catcher’s mitt, a round pancake shaped leather pillow built to receive fast balls from pitchers, not lobs from fathers. This mitt was useless for any other position, including playing catch. For the first time I realized my father did not know everything. In fact he was “baseball” illiterate. A shock. Am I all alone in the universe to fend for myself. My Father was just a man who loved planes and not baseball. Loved hunting and fishing, but not game sports like me. An existential moment. We are not the same. My dad is a totally different sports animal. But he is my Dad. And he loves me. And that was enough to overcome our differences.

With Mom. I remember she and I being alone one evening as Dad was at a Knights of Columbus meeting at the church. We (actually she) were making brownies in the kitchen. And then we’d take some into the living room to watch our new black and white television. And yes, in solidarity with dad we watched the Fulton J. Sheen show, an archbishop who gave us televised homilies on how to lead the good life. Of course for us, the good life meant being Catholic and going to confession every Saturday and Mass on Sunday. It had nothing to do with wealth or pleasure, unless you count going out after Sunday Service to indulge in glazed and powdered donuts. That was a continuation of Communion. If transubstantiation of the sacred wafer made us holier, then the donuts filled that hole and made us a little more pleasurable, if not fuller. Now that was the good life.

With Family . On Saturday night we prepared our souls for Mass by watching Gun Smoke and Paladin, both westerns that taught through parables, just like we would hear the next morning in church. But Sunday nights were the best. We would watch the Ed Sullivan Show together and eat popcorn made by my mom in a cast iron skillet. We used recycled cottage cheese cartons as popcorn bowls. With a little salt, now that was the good life. No one ever told us we were poor. We just lived on a chicken ranch that no one ever visited except Uncle Dude’s family. We were rich in imagination. We had Jesus, donuts and popcorn. And of course I had baseball, the cherry on top of it all.

With my sister Brenda. She was the oldest and had privileges we could only dream about. She even had a birthday party to which she invited her friends to our chicken ranch. I had no friends. I was just a little brother in a world of imagination all to myself. But she had real life friends. Girl friends came to her party dressed in their summer peddle pusher pants. Bright colors. Fabric went just below the knee revealing a bare calf. All of a sudden our chicken ranch became a veal farm. Being smaller I don’t remember their faces, but just their brightly colored pants and bare legs. They adored me because I was so charming and I had no competition to share their attention with. Brenda’s little brother was the hit of the party. I didn’t know it, but the hook was in. That was my introduction to the outside world and to girls. Something more than acorns or baseball. If I remained charming for the rest of my life, I’d be OK. They liked me. That was the beginning of the end.

With my sister Pat. She started the revolution. And it took no prisoners, unlike my insect entrapment that I built in the dirt. No, Pat was bold. She took hollow aluminum rods about two feet long and stuffed a piece of chalk in the end. That became our weapon of choice. We took our makeshift swords and went around leaving the mark of Zorro on the chicken coops, a chalk “Z” scribbled onto the wooden walls. It was the perfect crime. No fingerprints. Nothing to connect us to the scene. Except my Dad knew that no one ever came to our chicken ranch and that the only suspects would be the indigenous wildlife, us. Not surprisingly, our swords disappeared in the night. And someone scrubbed the “Z’s” off the walls. And it wasn’t mom. Nothing was ever said. But he knew and we knew. The revolution would have to wait.

Chores. Just as no one told us that we were poor, no one told us about child labor. After school our job was to clean the eggs. Spoiler alert! For those of you who never grew up on a chicken ranch the reality is that eggs come out of an orifice in close proximity to another body cavity. Yes, “kaka” can be smeared all over an egg and must be removed before being transported to city folk who expect their world to be sanitized and clean. They want to buy the eggs, not the ranch. So as kids, we’d come home and scrub the eggs clean with blocks of wood covered with sandpaper. This polished them up and removed any trace of country life from a future omelet.

So in kindergarten during the morning I may have participated in a musical activity with chimes and sand blocks, but by afternoon I was applying those same skills in the egg house. It was my little secret. I dare not tell the other kids. Many of their families had moved out to the country for its bucolic and rustic charm. Back to Nature. But gradually those same families multiplied and complained of the smells coming from the neighboring farms. Yes, it was those same pastoral farms that they found so alluring several years earlier and could brag about to their city friends. They too were now living the good life, until it started to smell . . . of agriculture. So obviously I didn’t tell any of my five-year old classmates that my family was a source of the odor. It served no purpose. One of the lessons of kindergarten was learning to be secretive, to protect your own privacy if not your reputation.

Every Saturday my father and I would take those same eggs to the local Farmers’ Cooperative and sell them in exchange for more chicken feed. The eggs were now on their way to respectable homes. But in our rural neighborhood the non-farmers began to become the majority. They would eventually zone out the distasteful parts of Nature that had attracted them in the first place. My father saw the handwriting on the wall. Suddenly when I was seven, my father announced to the whole family that we were moving . . . to the suburbs where they ate our clean eggs. He wasn’t waiting for his ranch to be eliminated by anti-agricultural re-zoning. He would make the first move. Checkmate. And cash out before they forced us out.

In this new environment, by eighth grade I was re-zoning myself. I wanted to go to Africa. I wanted to become a Catholic priest and bring Jesus and basketball to the locals. I was smart enough to realize baseball took up too much space. But everyone could put a basketball hoop above their garage. I never asked if they had garages in Africa. And a priest? In our house no one ever talked about being a doctor or a lawyer or even a teacher. The highest role models were priests and of course, farmers. But I was done with eggs. So in Freshman year I moved out . . . to the seminary. Ironically, my two older sisters and I all left the same year. They married their sweetheart dates to the Senior Prom and I married the Church. At age 14, I was a child bride (groom) in an arranged marriage. A sociologist would say I absorbed my parents ideals, especially to please my mother. But to me, I was positive that I was making all my own decisions, with hoops and Jesus. Even if I was still a boy, I was going to be The Man.

And just as teenage years bring an end to childhood, so it brought an end to mine. By Senior year the Church was past history. Once again, Darwin nudged me forward into my next evolution . . . or incarnation. I was no longer on the farm and the Vietnam War demanded that I decide who I really am. I became a Conscientious Objector and was catapulted to New York and then to Europe. I never really returned home for eight more years. But all of that is another story. Though I finally did make it to Africa over fifty years later, in Kenya and Tanzania, I never saw any garages, but there were lots of giraffes.


For all these wonderful memories I must thank my mother and father. They planted the seeds and I watered them with my imagination.

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Catherine Torres
Catherine Torres

Mr.Kocher, I am speechless at this beautifully typed growth! I am blessed to meet you and above all as a student of your own teachings that made us here on earth a lot more admirable in honoring your timeline, history, and great wisdom of the past. I might not have been born in the 1940's-1960's & beyond, but I am truly by the heart very honored to hear a piece of your own heart Mr.Kocher! I will never forget for all the memories we had in the classroom and the activities we did as a class that connected to your own life experiences, even in your own nostalgic memories that made you, the you today. Like the metamorphosis of a…

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