Have you noticed that animals play a role in many major western holidays? People associate Easter with little white bunnies and yellow chicks. We scare the children on Halloween with stories of cats and bats. Saint Patrick s Day is a celebration based on the belief that the fourth century saint was responsible for driving the snakes out of Ireland. On Thanksgiving we eat a turkey. When we think of Christmas, we think of the baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by lambs and calves. Howard Rodenberg once told me a story about the Hanukah chicken. Being a gentile, this piqued my interest. But, when I pressed for details, he became evasive. I have since come to believe that, without remorse, he ate the Hanukah chicken. Now, listen my children and you shall hear the story of the Christmas bunny.
When I tell stories about the old days of EMS, many of our younger colleagues don t believe me. The stories are true, albeit sometimes embellished for entertainment value. But, this story is true — I swear.
It was 1975, and I was working as a paramedic in my hometown of Fort Worth. My partner, Art Skinner, and I worked for a private funeral home ambulance service named Ray Crowder. Art was 10-15 years my senior and could be quite cantankerous. We worked the south side of Fort Worth. I was assigned to the south side for two reasons: I spoke Spanish and I grew up in the most confusing neighborhood in all of Fort Worth — Wedgwood. The urban planners of the 1960s had the hair-brained idea of naming every street in Wedgwood with names that started with a W . I grew up on Woodway Street, and the closest cross streets were Walton, Winifred and Whitman. I knew the neighborhood well, and thus I was assigned to the south district. But I digress.
It was during a shift before the Christmas holidays that we stopped to visit our friends and colleagues at Fort Worth Fire Station 17. We found the station captain in the apparatus bay killing and butchering rabbits. When we arrived, he had already killed several of the rabbits and hung them off the back of the ladder truck to drain the blood. This, of course, caught our interest. First, I didn t know that he raised rabbits.
Second, I had never seen dead rabbits hang from a fire department ladder truck. Third, I had never eaten rabbit. I asked him about rabbit, and he said he thought it was among the best meats available. Art and I decided that we would indeed like to taste rabbit. The captain said that the rabbits hanging from the truck were already sold. (In some Hispanic communities in Texas rabbit is eaten as the Christmas meal.) Anyway, he told us to come back during the next shift, and he would have a rabbit for us. We got details on the best way to cook a rabbit, and looked forward to our return.
So next shift, which happened to be Christmas Eve, we ran a few calls. Around 11 a.m. we went by station 17 to get our rabbit. Just as we pulled onto the apron of the fire station, we got a call. I ran in and grabbed the rabbit — it was in a box — and ran back to the ambulance, placing it between Art and I on the ambulance seat. I looked up the call in the MAPSCO, and we were off.
Enroute to the scene I opened the box. Low and behold, the box contained a live, white adult bunny rabbit! I said, Art! There is a live rabbit in here. He said, You re kidding? I thought the rabbit would already be butchered. I looked through the opening in the box and saw the rabbit look up at me with sad, plaintive eyes. Anyway, we arrived on scene.
Our patient was an elderly man who was in the final throes of cancer. There was no real emergency, but he was too weak to walk and his elderly wife could not get him to the hospital. So, we placed him in the back, and his aged wife got in the right front seat of the ambulance. We took a slow trip, so the bumps would not cause added pain to the cancer that had now invaded his bones. About half way to the hospital the rabbit started scratching and flopping around in the box. This, of course, startled the elderly woman. Art patted the box hoping to settle the rabbit down and it did — for a while. As we turned into the ramp of the hospital the boxed rabbit proceeded to throw a full-blown conniption fit. The elderly woman looked at the box and scooted as far away as possible. She was truly distressed. Art and I acted as if nothing was wrong. As we walked away from the ambulance pushing the stretcher, the elderly woman asked, Wha wha…what was in that box? Art nonchalantly said, Dinner.
When we got back to the station, I said to Art, Why don t you kill and clean the rabbit, and I ll start the grill. He said, I ve never butchered a rabbit. I replied, The captain hits them in the back of the head with a large crescent wrench and then slits their throat. I guess you could wring their neck like they do with chickens. Art bent down and looked at the rabbit and said, First, rabbits don t have any neck to ring. Second, we don t have a crescent wrench. I said, Hey, I got an idea. I ll hold him down and you clobber him with an E cylinder. That ought to do it. To which Art replied, I am not going to bash a bunny with an oxygen cylinder — are you nuts? I went to my car and came back with a tire iron. Art took one look and said, This is not a jack rabbit. I failed to see the humor. We can go by my apartment and get a shotgun and shoot the rabbit. Art looked at me like I had really gone off the deep end. He said, Will you give him a 50 foot head start?
About this time, the tones sounded and we were off on another call. The rabbit, still very much alive, was in his box in the front seat of the ambulance. On the way to the scene, the call was cancelled. I said, Art, I can t kill this rabbit. You will have to do it. He said, I am not going to kill and butcher that damn rabbit; you ll have to do it. I said, I can t do it. The rabbit looked up at me from his box with pleading, sad eyes. So, for another two calls the rabbit made ambulance calls with us. Art and I argued about what we were going to do with the rabbit. We tried to put the rabbit in another ambulance at the hospital but got caught. I tried to give it to a police officer, who then would not stop laughing.
Finally, at about 4 in the afternoon, we made a seizure call. The patient was an 8-year-old boy who had a history of seizures. When we arrived he was post-ictal but clearing. The family was from Mexico and living in a ramshackle house — barely getting by. They had a miserable looking Christmas tree and no decorations or presents that we could see. After the mother saw that her son was going to be OK, she decided not to have him go to the hospital. Although she did not have much, she offered Art and I tamales. Tamales are served around Christmastime, and require a lot of labor to make. It was a generous gift. We both ate the tamales, and they were excellent.
Then, a thought hit me. I said to the mother, Tenemos un conejo en la ambulancia. (We have a rabbit in the ambulance). A puzzled look immediately came to the mother s face. She was sure that she had misunderstood me and said, Perd n Se or? (Excuse me?) I said, Se ora, tenemos un conejo en la ambulancia. Puede su hijo tener un conejo para Navidad? (We have a rabbit in the ambulance. Can your son have a rabbit for Christmas?) She still was puzzled. Art went to the ambulance and got the rabbit. The boy, now totally clear from his seizure, opened the box. He was so excited. He asked his mom if he could keep the rabbit, and she smilingly agreed. About this time the father arrived home and saw that his son was fine. His son showed him the rabbit, and you could see the joy spread across the faces of the entire family. He said to the boy, We have some screens in the back. We can make a cage.
Happily, we solved the rabbit problem. The mother, overwhelmed at our perceived kindness, brought out a dozen tamales — hot and wrapped in foil. She did not realize that she was doing us a much greater favor than we were doing for her. We went back to the station and had a great Christmas dinner of fresh, spicy tamales. It was a good day.
Several shifts later we responded to a traffic collision on Interstate 35. Engine and Ladder 17 were on the scene. Fortunately, there were no injuries. The captain, who 10 days before had given us the rabbit, walked up to the ambulance where I Art and I were completing the paperwork. He said, How d you boys like that rabbit? I sheepishly looked at Art and said, Great! It was really tender — quite good. The captain asked, How d you boys cook it? I said, Oh, we broiled it slow over charcoal. It was very tasty, Thanks! The captain looked at both of us with a stern look and said, That rabbit is still alive isn t it? I had just taken a swig of Diet Dr. Pepper, choked and proceeded to spit it all over the dashboard of the ambulance. The captain began to laugh and laugh. Before long I realized that money was changing hands between the firefighters. It seemed there was a bet as to whether we EMTs would actually kill the rabbit. They knew us well.
Sometimes things happen in our lives, and the reason is never clear to us. For some reason, good things happen around the holidays whether we plan them or not. What started as a lame idea and a bet ended up making a young boy very happy on a Christmas Eve many years ago. I later found that Christmas of 1975 was the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. When I learned that, a chill went down my spine. To me, it was indeed a miracle. It may have been a little miracle — but it was a miracle nonetheless. So, for 2007 I wish each and every reader peace, good will, and a happy and miraculous new year. (Feliz Navidad y un A o Nuevo pr spero).