Theirs was a very small town in New Hampshire: typical of the New England countryside, they lived in an old farmhouse with a barn out back. In many homes in New England, the barns and the houses are connected by a long, draughty hallway meant to keep you safe and dry during snowstorms, so you can feed your animals: count your chickens, so to speak.
On the top floor of their barn was a large, open, circular pen. Pigs? No. Sheep? Nope. Trick ponies?
Designed as a ring to train roosters, John’s father painstakingly dedicated himself to training the best fighting cocks this side of Vermont. John and his brothers, all of whom did not share their father’s love for cock fighting, watched and helped their dad as he brought up the roosters and watched them in action.
A rooster’s natural temperament is one of fighting, domination and violence: ruling the roost as we all know comes from a rooster’s predilection to hurt other roosters and his hens. But, John told me last week in the parking lot of the local gas station, over coffee, there are ways to get them to be even more vicious.
“You cut off their spurs, you know, and you put a sharpened razor blade up against their leg and tape it down til the flesh just grows right over it.”
After what one assumes is a bit of time to train up your fighting roosters in the circular pen on the top floor of the barn, John’s dad would take the roosters and his sons to fighting matches elsewhere in town.
John’s dad suffered from chronic allergies and was never to be found without 4 or 5 cotton handkerchiefs stuffed into all his pockets. His nose constantly ran, winter or summer, especially so when he was excited about the day’s cockfight. Fighting to the death, the roosters would set upon each other in a ring not so dissimilar to the one on the top floor of the barn. Farmers young and old would bet money and cheer on their favorite fighting creature until one lay dead, and the other, bloody, stood victorious.
Of course, cockfighting is discouraged in American society, even thirty or forty years ago the cops just didn’t like it. At the beginning of each cockfight, John’s dad would come to him and say,
“Ok, son. Now, if we get raided, I want you to hide here, under the floorboards, see? And after I get out of jail, I’ll come and get you. Now don’t you leave now, you just wait right here. I’ll be back for you.”
John’s dad was arrested multiple times for cockfighting, but of course, never stopped. He had a passion for the sport. Once, after a raid and subsequent arrest, when we can assume that little John was hiding under the floorboards of a stranger’s barn until he felt safe enough to run home, John’s dad ended up in jail with the cops who knew him and his family and his strong love for cockfighting. They took away all his handkerchiefs, saying that he might tie them all together and try to hang himself in the jail cell.
He said, “But what about my runny nose?”
They said, “Use your sleeve!”
He said, “But can’t I just take off my shirt and tie it up and try to hang myself?”
Despite their father’s love for cockfighting, neither John nor his brothers took up the pastime, seeing it as savage and cruel and not liking the death of so many beautiful, albeit bloodthirsty, birds. I asked him if he thought there were still cockfights around Maine and New Hampshire, and he said, “oh yeah…bound to be. They’re just hidden is all.”