Where Are You Now, Marlos Perkos?

Ricky Cox

     
   

            I didn’t realize how much Floyd County had changed until the day I saw a llama in a blue nylon halter sniffing at a neighbor’s potted geraniums. When I stopped for a closer look, the llama trotted on toward the main road, and I turned and drove the half mile back home to report the at-large llama, as I would have done if it were a horse or a cow. Since I didn't know who owned the farm adjoining the lot where the neighbor’s trailer stood, I called the real estate agency that had recently listed and sold that property.

            The realtors’ receptionist knew nothing about llama ranchers, but did give me a name and phone number from the far end of the county. The new owners of the farm seemed glad that their neighbors were keeping an eye on things and promised to get word to their son, who lived on the farm and was supposed to be taking care of the llama.

Except for occasional comments from other people who saw the fugitive llama that same day, that was the last I saw or heard of it. But I still hadn't forgotten about it when I heard a few weeks later that emus had been seen running loose in our community.

I thought about the llama and wondered briefly if this might be more than coincidence. Maybe llamas and emus are the venture capitalists of the animal world.  Anticipating that northward migration would be the next big trend in real estate, thanks to global warming, they might have been getting in on the ground floor, staking out prime chunks of habitat. Or perhaps continental drift had slipped up on us while all the scientists were looking up at the ozone layer.

            An hour or so after being alerted about the emus I was raking dead grass and weeds along the edge of my mother's yard and looked up and saw four six-foot birds pacing nervously up and down the bank of the creek that forms the front boundary of the yard. It's pretty strange to see four grown emus, even when you're kind of expecting them, in a place where no feathered creature bigger than a twenty-pound turkey has been since the last ice age. My mother, who was helping me with the grass and weeds, said that if I hadn't been there to tell her better, she might have thought they were big turkeys, which made me think to myself that all the collie dogs and brown ponies in Indian Valley were lucky that she had never taken up rabbit hunting.

            Having watched a lot of nature specials on public television, and read several Tom Clancy books, I can best describe these birds by comparing them to ostriches who had pledged their lives to an obscure and under-funded terrorist organization. Their bodies were covered with dirty grayish feathers, but their necks, beaks, heads, and legs, looked like dull black leather. Traveling late at night, these avian commandos would look like soot-smudged butterball turkeys cruising below the radar horizon.

            In spite of their sinister appearance, these birds seemed harmless enough. They talked to each other with soft, inquisitive chirping noises, and if you didn't have in the back of your mind what four ordinary chickens, given enough cracked corn from a Chernobyl grain cooperative, would do to flowers or a vegetable garden, you'd want to invite them over to keep you company for awhile. And it did seem like they wanted to come and pass the time with us, but couldn't figure out how to get across the creek, even though there was a newly planked wooden bridge right in front of them. Instead, they paced up and down the far bank, like a dwindling flock of broiler hens around a bloody chopping block, trying to calm themselves by rehearsing a few steps from a beginners class in country line dancing.

            While we were watching all this, a green and white van stopped in the road about 60 yards away, sat for a minute, then backed enough to turn and come up the driveway to the house. I recognized it as the old telephone company vehicle a local tree farmer had provided for his Mexican laborers to drive back and forth to work. I leaned my pitchfork against the hood of my pickup and moved toward the van, walking slowly to give myself time to dredge up a few fragments of college Spanish. Only a few weeks before, the Spanish word for "suitcase" had popped into my head and I had used it in a sentence for my wife. She was impressed, and said she felt sure that this word must come up frequently in conversations between Spanish speaking people. She gave examples: "Gosh, I guess you'll be taking suitcases when you go on vacation next July." Or, "Manuel and I want to start saving money for the children's suitcases."

             My Spanish was never very good, but I was determined to compose a greeting more sophisticated than, "Hello. How are you?"  On such short notice the best I could do was, "Piensan que ellos son aves grandes?"  I think that means, "Do you all think those are big birds?" If this went well, I would continue, "Estan muy mas grande que unas maletas, no?" I believe this means, "They are very much bigger than suitcases, wouldn't you say?" 

            A young man with a goatee came out the passenger side door while five other men of various ages waited inside the van. I was preparing to hit him with my big birds question when, pointing toward the four pacing emus, he asked in perfect English, "Are those yours?"

            With his help I reconstructed what had probably taken place back at the Emu Ponderosa the night before or early that morning. After a short but intense argument with the four emus that were now standing by the creek, a fifth emu had decided to strike out on its on. As they were driving to work, the Mexicans had come upon the renegade emu standing alone in the middle of the road, and had jumped out and caught it and loaded it into their van. While the man with the goatee was telling me this I looked back across the creek at the legs and necks and beaks of the other four emus and asked the young man if the emu had been hard to capture. "Oh no," he said, and the men in the van nodded and smiled in agreement. From where I stood I couldn't tell if the captive emu was still in the van. The young man continued, "We can catch these others if you like."  Again, the other men smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

            To be honest, I did want to see how they would have organized that campaign, but it was already mid-morning and hot, and I knew they had other work to do. Plus I didn't know what to tell them to do with the emus once all five were in custody, which I was pretty sure would happen if these men made up their minds to round them up. I asked them to wait while I went inside and dialed the mother of the man on the llama farm.

            I identified myself as the person who called before about the llama and asked if she was missing any emus. I was not surprised to learn that she and her husband had dropped off five emus the day before, when they had come to retrieve their llama, which I assumed without asking was the one I had seen contemplating my neighbor’s geraniums.

            This woman was pretty much certain that the emus were theirs, even though I hadn't given her a detailed description. She said she was glad that the Mexicans had caught one of the emus and asked me to tell them to put it back inside the gate to the property. Regarding the four still at large, she promised to call her son when he got in from work and made a point of giving me his number at the farm where the two breakouts had taken place. Before letting her go, I asked if emus were a threat to a vegetable garden. She conceded that they might be, but didn't say if there was any one thing they were especially fond of.

            I told the Mexicans what the woman had said and they left us with a promise to catch the four emus if they were still around when the Mexicans finished work later that evening. Then I told my mother that the emus might eat her garden, implying that she ought to keep an eye on them while I went off to unload the grass and weeds we had piled on the back of my pickup. When I came back twenty minutes later, one of the emus had jumped a drainage ditch at the lower end of the meadow and crossed the culvert over to my parents' property. The other three had fallen into formation behind it, and struck out for an apple tree near the potato patch.

            "What do you think they eat?" I asked my mother.

            "Fruit, roots, and herbs," she answered, explaining that she had looked up "Emu" in The World Book Encyclopedia while I was gone. Forty human years is probably a very long time to an individual emu, but it's not much at all from an evolutionary perspective, so we figured that even the 1968 World Book Encyclopedia’s description of the diet of the emu would still be pretty accurate.

            To my mind, “herbs” means parsley, sage, rosemary… that sort of thing, which my mother didn’t have except for a few dill plants in the garden and some wild peppermint along the edge of a swamp. For roots, I thought about the potatoes growing right there under the apple tree. Technically, potatoes are tubers and not roots, but I didn’t expect the emus would know that since I didn't myself until a few months ago.

            There were plenty of little apples on the ground and within easy reach on the tree, but we weren't surprised when the emus showed no interest, since we never ate any of the apples ourselves. The emus circled around in the fence corner while we pondered what to do, experimenting first with getting in front, and then with getting behind them, neither of which was very promising.

Maybe because their gene pool comes from below the equator, they had different concepts of in front and behind. They seemed to want to be in front when we were trying to keep them behind. When we agreed that they could go in front, they would dart and bob around enough to get behind.

            The only other technique we knew to get them under control was to give them a taste of something they liked and lure them along to wherever we wanted them to go. While my mother stayed between the emus and her garden, I went back to my house for some cracked corn. I leaned over and set the bucket on the ground in front of them, but when I stood up it was behind them. I backed away and they stopped, turned around, and eyed the bucket. My plan was to get them interested, set the bucket on the tailgate of the truck, and hope they would follow back to where they were supposed to be.

            Two of the emus tasted the corn and moved on. The third stuck its head in the bucket and pecked around a bit, but came up empty. The fourth showed no interest at all. By this time I had decided that the birds were skittish but not completely wild, and might be approached if one were cautious. I thought briefly of making a grab for the smallest one, but remembered something from a PBS documentary about vicious kicking and pecking. I made a mental note to be in front of the television the next time they show a special on emus.

            This train of thought led me naturally to remember Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, which I think came on for half an hour each Sunday when I was a kid. Marlin and his assistant, Jim, would stake out an isolated water hole or salt-lick for about five minutes, then leap out of the bushes or off a low growing tree branch in front, behind, or on top of whatever dangerous animal was in the script for that week. Then they would try to subdue it, sometimes with the help of natives or a zookeeper on holiday, so a local game biologist could do some emergency surgery or attach a radio transmitter. When the biting and kicking and scratching reached a climax, the cameras would fade to a commercial where Marlin talked about accidental disability and the need to plan ahead for unforeseen situations. When the program resumed, the animal would be tied or drugged with Jim on top of it and Marlin's hair would be all messed up. The plot of the second half of the program hinged on whether or not Jim and Marlin and the game biologist could do what they had to do before the anesthesia wore off, or some of the animal’s friends got there.

            Only a few years ago I heard one of the older men at home say he wished they'd put old Marlos Perkos back on the air. I wish they would too, but right then I'd have been more satisfied with a 1-800 Wild Kingdom Hotline: "If you are calling from a touch-tone phone, and are being stalked by a nocturnal carnivore, press 1 now. If you wish to speak to an operator, please hold until the next available associate can take your call. Your call is valuable to us."

            But old Marlos wasn't around, and there wasn’t any hotline, so I resigned myself to dealing with the situation without even the Mexicans to help. I looked again at the eight powerful legs, and the four sinewy necks topped by four fuzzy black tennis-ball heads. "Even if I could handle one of them," I thought, "four would be too many.” True, the Mexicans had caught one easily enough, but there were six of the Mexicans and only one of me. And maybe they had a bucket of Purina Emu Chow in the back of the van. 

            So it was a standoff. But neither my mother nor I had time to sit and watch them all afternoon, so we went to get Heidi, a large, biscuit-eating German Shepherd, intending to fasten her chain to the rear bumper of my dad's pickup truck. By the time we returned the emus had disappeared, but we could hear twigs cracking in the grove of pine trees above the potato patch. Heidi sniffed around and barked a few times, then jumped up onto the tailgate of the pickup which had an eight-foot camper shell temporarily installed on its six-foot bed, giving the whole thing a very homey sort of portico-aluminum awning look.

            Heidi guarded the potatoes from the back of the pickup truck all afternoon but the emus were gone. I knew that after so narrowly escaping me and my mother and Heidi, they would move cautiously, keeping out of sight of roads, risking discovery only to steal the occasional root, fruit, or herb pie cooling on a farmhouse window sill, or, in a moment of desperation, to hotwire something with good tires and a full tank of gas. 

            The next week the local paper ran a picture of two emus someone had trapped inside the chain link fence surrounding a cemetery about two miles from my house, with the intention of keeping them there until the owners came to claim them. If I’d had Marlos and Jim and the six Mexicans to back me up, I'd have gone and taken them into custody right away, and maybe even fitted them with radio transmitters or clipped their toenails. Since it was just me, I decided I’d better stay home and mind my own business. But I have been reading up on dingo dogs and picking out spots for the eucalyptus trees.

 

 

     
 
   
     
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Ricky Cox holds the rank of Instructor and teaches Appalachian folklore and American literature for the Department of English at Radford University in Radford, VA. As an associate of RU’s Appalachian Regional and Rural Studies Center he teaches an introductory course in Appalachian Studies and is the coordinator of the Farm at Selu, a living history site representing 1930’s rural life in Southwestern Virginia. He holds an Associate in Applied Science degree in Machine Technology from New River Community College and a BA in history and an MA in English from Radford University. He is a co-editor of A Handbook to Appalachia: An Introduction to the Region (2006) and co-author, with the late Frank Webb, of The Water-Powered Mills of Floyd County, VA: Illustrated Histories, 1770-2010 (2012).