Two years ago my wife and I moved from Pensacola, Fla. to Oklahoma avenue in Vineyard Haven. One afternoon as I was riding my bicycle around the state forest, close to the Vineyard Youth Tennis club, I saw a big red rooster standing in the middle of the path. Having grown up in rural South Carolina I notice animals and have been doing animal rescue for years. The rooster was a magnificent sight, standing tall with his chest out. His feathers, full of incredible colors, sparkled in the sunlight.
Every time I went bicycling in that area I saw the rooster. I realized that he was living under a pine tree with nothing. I went to SBS and bought a big bag of cracked corn from Liz. The rooster flew down from high above and ate like he had never seen food before.
I continued to check on him, bringing fresh water and food. As winter approached I could not stand the thought of him living outside in harsh conditions. I went to E.C. Cottle up on the north end of the Island and started buying wood. I have been a woodworker for 40 years and love the old architecture. I started building a small salt box chicken coop for him. I didn’t cut any corners. The guys at Cottles would say to me, “Your hot tub and central heat have come in for the rooster.”
I insulated the coop with a heat lamp system.
One night a hard rain fell and I grew worried. As soon as the sun came up, I went to check on him and he was setting under the little pine tree. I told him, Well, you have a home now and it’s time to go. Then the fun began.
After three or four hours of climbing over and under every tree and branch in the woods, I was worn out but I had him in the car and was headed for home. When I got there my wife, Peggy, had already put out fresh food and water in his new home. I put him in there and he started throwing the hay around and scratching the ground for bugs.
Bright and early the next morning there was the best crowing you could ever want to hear. I went out and talked to the rooster and it was like we had been friends forever. He has three-inch-long spurs that would scare most people but he doesn’t have an aggressive bone in him.
About a week later a lady knocked on the door. “Do you have a rooster,” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Well, I am Animal Control and we have a complaint.”
I said, “Okay, I will turn my guitar down when I play.”
“No, I’m here about the rooster,” she said. “I need to see him.”
When I showed her to his coop, she said that he was the biggest rooster on the Vineyard and asked where I got him. When I told her, she said people on the Island that don’t want roosters throw them out there to die. She also said I had to write a report about him to show her supervisor and that she needed to know the rooster’s name. Being a historian, I thought of my favorite movie, Jeremiah Johnson, and how tough it was for the character played by Robert Redford to survive in the wilderness with nothing. I told her his name was Jeremiah Johnson.
A week later the woman returned with her supervisor. They said some neighbors couldn’t live with Jeremiah crowing in the morning and that I needed to conceal him until at least past the morning sound ordinance.
As the weather turned colder, I brought Jeremiah inside and put him in a nice crate in a heated room with some food and water. I did this the whole winter. When spring arrived we had to leave the Island because the house we were living in went to summer rentals. We were offered a place with friends in Chappaqua until we could return in the fall. I couldn’t take Jeremiah with us and although I hated to leave him there was an animal farm on North Road. The people there said they would keep him and take good care of him.
I called a lot from Chappaqua and they always said Jeremiah was fine.
Things took a turn when my wife’s 93-year-old mother who lives in west Florida became gravely ill. We decided to winter down south to be near her. We moved to a quaint little town named Magnolia Springs, Ala. It is like being in the old south with antebellum homes and giant oak trees covering every street, a town like in the movie Forest Gump.
After living down south for a month I received a call from the wonderful animal rescue woman on the Vineyard.
“You better hurry and come get Jeremiah,” she said.
“Because he is pitiful,” she said.
I rented a van and headed north to get him. My son and I went to the farm and I just about died. Jeremiah was living in a tiny cage that had never been cleaned. He had no water or food either, and was so emaciated that I didn’t recognize him. Nearly all of his beautiful feathers were gone, too, and he was infested with mites and parasites.
I took him with me back to a home in Katama and tried to clean and comfort him and gave him food and water. I wasn’t sure he would live. The next day I caught the ferry and headed back south. I put Jeremiah in a nice carrying crate and he began to make a little purring sound as we drove. After a while I decided he had been locked up for too long. I pulled over and put him in the passenger seat. When I stopped for gas two women asked to take a picture saying they couldn’t believe I had a rooster riding with me. Every time I stopped on the drive home another crowd formed and took pictures, including some college girls at Auburn University. At a Cracker Barrel restaurant near Richmond, Va, I was given four extra corn muffins. I crumbled then up for Jeremiah and he was so happy he started eating and cackling at the same time.
When I finally arrived in Magnolia Springs, I took Jeremiah to a country veterinarian named Adam Langston. Within two months of Dr. Langston’s care, Jeremiah was healthy and himself again.
Folks in Magnolia Springs now bring Jeremiah corn muffins from Cracker Barrel, including a former Top Gun fighter pilot. On Easter Sunday the mayor’s wife dropped by. She said on behalf of the town she hoped that Jeremiah never goes back north. My daughter in law has worked for 20 years at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. She said everyone at the studio is in love with Jeremiah Johnson, and that Robert Redford would be proud.