I could not wait until the second week in June of each summer. My cousin Billy, who lived in Vallejo, would come to visit us on our farm south of Turlock, California. This particular summer Billy turned eight-years-old, and I had just turned six on Memorial Day. Billy was tall for his age, and I admired him for it. He was bigger, stronger, and could always run faster than I could.
Billy’s Dad, Uncle Dick was the chief building inspector for Solano County, and it seemed like they always had a little more money than we did. My Dad owned a ranch, and I had lots of secret hideouts, and knew tons of neat stuff about the country, something that probably impressed Billy about me. Billy and I got along famously, but I still felt Billy drove the direction of our friendship and what we did together.
Our ranch had two huge red barns. There were twenty-two stanchions where cows could stick their heads through and eat hay from the manger. They spanned the length of both sides of each barn. In the center, in front of the mangers, was the haymow where the hay was stored. Each barn held fifty tons of hay along with dried field corn and other cattle feed.
We had one serious problem: mice! There was a plague of field mice in the barns, and they loved the dried corn. Since Billy’s last visit the previous summer, Dad and I entered into a father-son contract. I was given ten mouse traps and one of my uncle Pete’s old metal tobacco cans with a lid. My dad was not a smoker, but for some reason he acquired it and gave it to me. I thought it was a rather neat can. An additional part of my mouse-catching equipment was a pint Mason jar of peanut butter to bait the mouse traps.
“Here’s the deal,” Dad told me. “I will pay you a penny for every mouse caught.”
At first, I went hog-wild and caught twenty or more mice per day. Twenty cents a day was a huge amount of money in 1944. America was in the midst of World War II and money was really hard to find. Visions filled my head of vast riches from my mouse-catching enterprise. After a few weeks though, the mice population decreased, and my lofty goals tapered off.
Nonetheless, this episode gave birth to a whole new secret between Dad and me. Every Tuesday my dad and I went to the livestock and cattle auction on East Avenue in Turlock. I loved to go with him. It was a guy thing for us. In order to keep me motivated to catch mice, Dad would let me “junk-out” on Tuesdays. I could get real junk food! Mom was not really supposed to know, but I am suspicious she actually did know. She could have even given my dad the idea.
For 30 cents I could buy a big red delicious apple, a bottle of Hires root beer, and a Baby Ruth candy bar. So, I would catch mice and put them in the tobacco can, and in the evening after work Dad would count them. I would then take them out away from the barns, and bury them so they would not stink. We had a tally sheet on the wall of the milk house, and by Monday night of every week I always made sure there were at least thirty more dead mice.
Dad always got the same junk food I did, and some weeks we even shared a big bag of popcorn. This was real male bonding at its best. It amazed me how Dad could sneak so much cash out of the house on Tuesdays without Mom knowing.
After Billy arrived, I shared our secret with Billy. He was really excited, and so Dad bought us ten more traps. Billy insisted we always play in the barns together, and set the traps repeatedly in order to catch at least thirty mice each by Monday nights. That was a lot of mice! We even set traps in the calf sheds, the tank house and all around the house where we lived. This allowed us to always catch our sixty mice mice each week Billy was there, despite dwindling population numbers.
Billy loved to go to the auction with Dad and me, and I had bragging rights over the number of mice we caught each week. Billy met his match that summer, and he was very impressed. I was proud of what I accomplished. As a six-year-old, I wondered what he would tell his buddies back in Vallejo about his cousin Steve in the country. Perhaps he would say, “Steve is the richest mouse hunter the world has ever known!”