I stepped out through the back door of the farmhouse with a cell phone cupped to my right ear. My friend, on the other end of the line, was filling me in on all the latest news with his (rather extensive) medical diagnosis and treatment, so I was listening carefully. But then, coming from some distance away, I heard my name quickly barked: "Eric!" I looked around. The kids were off playing in the honey-house, on the far side of the garden, with both Mom and Oma in the near vicinity; none of them had been calling for me. I continued listening to the voice of my friend, reporting to me all that the neurosurgeon had said.
Then again: "Eric! Eric!" I recognized the voice now. "C’mon over here!" I wheeled around to the left, and sure enough: there was Grandpa Hettinger. I attempted a wordless motioning toward the phone cradled against my cheek, but Granda Hettinger apparrently didn’t notice or didn’t care. "C’mon over here! Quick!" he called.
I walked over toward the chicken coops, Grandpa Hettinger’s favorite part of the old family farm. And there, even as details of MRI results, the progression of neurological symptoms, and my friend’s long-term prognosis filled my right ear, Grandpa Hettinger started filling my left ear with instructions relating to the herding of a renegade brown chicken, who had somehow escaped the fencing around the coop. Clearly, I was trapped. Grandpa Hettinger loves his chickens dearly. And when one of his chickens is on the loose, he makes it his single-minded mission to bring the wayward animal back into the fold. Consequently, considering the fact that herding a loose hen back into the pen is ideally a two-person job (those birds are surprisingly agile), and since I was the nearest available potential co-chickenherd, I was wordlessly enlisted for the job, cell phone conversation and all. So while I listened to my friend’s continued medical report, I slowly stalked the chicken from behind a tree, moving him toward the waiting grasp of Grandpa Hettinger.
The chicken started to move left; I moved left. The chicken darted quickly back to the right; I swung my right leg out to counter. When the tiny brown hen bolted forward, Grandpa Hettinger strategically leaned to the side. Gradually, gradually, working together under Grandpa Hettinger’s watchful eye and detailed instructions, we managed to coral the chicken back toward a make-shift trap where Grandpa Hettinger had stretched out some chicken wire around a couple of trees. When at last the chicken had been cornered, Grandpa Hettinger eased his way toward the chicken and I continued my telephone conversation. But then, just as the chicken was on the verge of capture, panicked by his imminent return to the coop, the chicken madly fluttered and found a spot at the bottom of the chicken wire where she started to squeeze through. But then, like a flash of lightning, Grandpa Hettinger lunged forward. His hands reached toward the wayward bird guided by adrenaline and instinct. And when he picked himself back up off the ground, Grandpa Hettinger had that little brown hen in his arms. And though Grandpa’s right hand sported a nasty, dime-sized gouge where the chicken had pecked its last-ditch effort to complete its escape, Grandpa Hettinger was smiling broadly.
There can be no doubt about it: Bill Hettinger is a living legend. Perhaps not to most of the world. But certainly, to our family — and perhaps also to a number of other folks in the area of Richland County, Ohio. The man is the stuff of mythology. We know him as "Grandpa Hettinger," Marci’s maternal grandfather. But even outside of the familial relationship, it has to be admitted that Bill Hettinger is an extraordinary person. Indefatigable. Inscrutable. Practically indestructible. And in any event incredible.
Consider the following:
He’s been swarmed by bees at least twice, coming away with dozens of bee stings all over his body, and yet he maintained his beekeeping hobby for decades. Even now, though he sold off all his bees a couple of years back, he might like to get back into it if he ever hears about an unwanted swarm somewhere in the area. He’s fallen from numerous ladders and trees, sometimes as high as 20 feet (7 or 8 meters). He’s been pinned underneath a heavy farm tractor which overturned one day while he was working in the fields. He’s been rolled over by a semi-truck on Main Street in Shelby, Ohio. He’s had three-quarters of his stomach removed for ulcer problems (though that was over fifty years ago). He’s survived numerous intermittant bouts of skin cancer, though his earlobe hasn’t been unscathed, part of it having been partially removed awhile back. Yet he’s survived over nine decades of hard physical labor, out in the fields of northern Richland County.
Grandpa Hettinger is in his early 90s, and he still chops wood from the back forty just about every day, which he sells for $90 a cord or barters for milk from the area Mennonites. He repairs cars and any number of other things around the farm which break down from time to time. And of course — I suspect his favorite pasttime of all — he keeps chickens. He builds pens for them. He chases them down when they escape his pens. He collects the hens’ eggs himself every afternoon. He incubates a certain number of eggs to regulate the population, and he sells off or gives away the rest. Oh yes, Grandpa Hettinger loves his chickens.
If all of that weren’t enough, he tells interesting stories without falling into the trap of rambling. He prays passionately before meals and whenever he sees an occasion. And he is one of the finest horseshoe players I’ve ever seen.
Without a doubt, Bill Hettinger is a fascinating person. Indefatiga-Bill. Inscruta-Bill. Indestructi-Bill. Incredi-Bill.