My great uncle Norman owned a cattle ranch out near Elkwater, where my dad spent a lot of his days as a young boy riding horses and exploring. Uncle Norm spent his whole life building up the ranch and figuring out the best way to make millions. None of us could ever really figure out why, as he lived fairly simply rarely buying himself new clothes, driving second-hand vehicles and eating at cheap restaurants. He remained a bachelor and as Norman got older he spent more and more time in town staying at his sister’s (my grandma’s) house. He was a regular fixture at the Medicine Hat casino and if you ran into him there he’d plug a slot machine full of money for you to play while you chatted about the weather and his latest get rich quick scheme. Over the years he invested in a perpetual motion machine, diamond mines, and a million other crazy things; always to have ‘just missed’ making a fortune by a hair. He would also fill you in on the local gossip as though you knew every rancher in Southern Alberta just like he did.
Norman would often show up without warning at our house. If you didn’t hear his Lincoln Continental roar up, you might hear his booming voice long before you’d ever see his six foot four frame duck through your doorway. Norman was known for having a temper, but he was also known for being a generous man. He quietly gave many of my aunts, uncles and cousins a leg up with a new vehicle, a horse or a down payment for a house. He almost always had a roll of bills in his pocket worth about three thousand dollars, and occasionally when I’d run into him as a kid he’d pull out the wad and peel off a 50, or a 20 or a whole stack of bills. This was better than Christmas.. a random sum of money on a random day. His generosity was dizzying; it was almost always something life changing when you were least expecting it. He also had suppliers of various meats and vegetables and if he happened to stop by there on the way to your house, you could expect to receive a few chickens or a bag of tomatoes.
One day Norman arrived at our house with an old potato sack and told me that he had found something he thought I would really like. There was a distinct smell emanating from the bag, and I could see bits of what looked like hide sticking out of it. The bag was stained with old blood. I stuck my hand in to fish out whatever disgusting mess awaited, but my uncle stopped me and gently pulled out a dead porcupine.
My mother went pale and tried to keep her composure, even though she probably would have been less offended if my uncle had taken a dump on her living room rug. My dad took it pretty casually. The dog went apoplectic. My eyes popped out of my head. This was possibly the best day of my whole life. Uncle Norm went on to explain that he had been out checking the cattle when he came across a dead porcupine and immediately thought of me. He threw it in the back of the truck and took it home to skin it and tan it. He’d been waiting weeks for it to dry out properly enough to bring it to me.
The dog’s overenthusiasm for the porcupine was blamed for having to keep the bag in the garage (this was not his first encounter with a dead porcupine, he had rolled in one several years earlier and nearly died from the infection) even though I begged to keep it in my closet. I would sneak out to peek inside he bag and brush my hand over the quills. That summer I think I read everything there was available about porcupines in the local library and I became quite the expert on how their quills were filled with air and how they didn’t really throw them. I knew everything there was to know about porcupines.
In the fall I finally talked my mom into letting me take the hide to school for show and tell. Filled with all my porcupine knowledge and the by now degraded hide, the boys were all fascinated and it immediately elevated my status among them. It confirmed to all the girls that I was possibly deranged. The teacher was horrified and made my mother stand by to take the porcupine home immediately after show and tell to (rightfully) avoid any health hazards.
Ultimately the hide started to disintegrate. Amateur taxidermy is a common pastime for those living out in the prairie (go to the grouse house in Manyberries to see a whole army of taxidermied gophers) but few are actually very good at it. The smell finally started to take over the garage and my mom insisted that the hide had to go. Me and my dad drove it out to the dump and I said my goodbyes. And that was that.
Uncle Norman passed away unexpectedly about eight years ago after a piece of mirror from a ceiling weakened by a freak rainstorm fell on him in a casino. Standing at his grave side in the sweltering July heat, his cowboy hat perched atop a spray of wheat on his coffin, all I could think about was that porcupine hide. I regret not telling that story at his funeral. Many people commented on his generosity, but I think few recognized that Norman’s greatest gift was recognizing what each of us truly needed. I needed a dead porcupine. I was interested in science, quirky and not really afraid of anything and Norman knew that about me. Norman was one of a kind, and I miss him all the time.