I’m not sure why anyone would choose to live there. Short, thorny mesquite trees riddle the arid land. And under these mesquites are shorter, thornier varieties of cacti. And under every other cactus is a rattlesnake, which, given his surroundings, is almost always in a foul mood. It is Eden’s far, distant, ugly cousin. And it is this town, Jal, sequestered in the very southeastern corner of New Mexico, in which I came into this world and spent the first eleven years of my life.
I think we owned a house in Jal, but doubts still plague me about that, because it seems my every waking hour, and a few of my sleeping ones, were spent in a five-acre patch of land my family dubbed, quite creatively, The Place. This spot outside town was the home of our horses, of which there were many; a constantly changing number of cats, to keep the mice population low and the coyote bellies full; a cage full of rattlesnakes at one time; and, for a brief, unhappy span, chickens and roosters.
Where my folks acquired these birds, and why, I don’t know. Perhaps it was during a moment of weakness in which they were tempted by forces beyond their control to make a rash decision. Whatever it was, judging by the temperament of the roosters, at least, the whole enterprise was a diabolical plot to bring injury and harm to our family. For these roosters, who hailed from the Rhode Island Red tribe, were feathered demons. Butcher one of them and just see if you can find a heart in that black chest. It’s not there. They are strutting, crowing fiends who will attack just about anyone, including me. No one was safe. And that was why, at the brave young age of four, I told my Dad I was going to kill me some roosters.
For the most part, I’m a relatively peaceful person who doesn’t go around looking for a fight. But attack me, or my family, and a revengeful, bloodthirsty monster arises from deep within the caverns of my soul to act swiftly and decisively to annihilate the foe. Obviously, these roosters were either too stupid to realize this, or didn’t care. Whatever the reason, they smugly flaunted their aggression, as if punitive consequences applied to every beast under heaven except them. Woe to such fools.
My Dad, upon hearing my declaration of war, said that was okay with him, and watched as I walked away. I don’t think he took me seriously. Most parents don’t take four-year-olds seriously. So he didn’t follow me into the barn, where I rummaged through the tools until I found a hammer. He didn’t observe me balance it in my young hands, and swing it through the air, like a knight his sword. He didn’t see me walk out of the barn with the hammer in my hand, and set my face toward the pen where the roosters were roaming about. My Dad didn’t see the coming massacre.
But a few minutes after he’d given me blanket permission to kill off the Rhode Island Reds, he did hear me screaming at the top of my lungs. And running over from where he’d been working, he saw me, hammer clutched by a white-knuckled hand, my four-year-old frame perched atop the fence as high as I could get, with roosters dancing violently below me, all of those birds still, still!, alive.
In my youth, and military inexperience, I had underestimated their love of life. And perhaps I had underestimated the fierceness of my fighting ability. Sometimes adversaries surprise us. But thirty eight years later, as I look back on that day, I can say one thing: though my mission was a failure, at least I was brave enough to take the hammer in hand and face down my enemy. Sure, I wish I’d have brained every one of those vicious birds, but that victory would have to wait for another day. You don’t always win a fight, but if you’re brave enough to fight, you’re going to win some of them. A coward always loses.