A special Valentine’s Day-themed edition of my ongoing Tales of Regret feature:
As stated previously, I attended classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I went there because my gf was there, and I wanted to impress her. My moving impressed her, but she was rarely impressed by anything else I did. My gift-giving skills were particularly bad. For instance, one Valentine’s Day I cooked her a meal consisting of Smack Ramen and Spam, with conversation hearts floating in jell-o for desert (I was poor). The year before I presented her with a Bullwinkle T-shirt I had won by eating 40 Taco Bell tacos in a month (she gave it back to me).
Well, this particular Valentine’s Day, the one I’m discussing right now, I was determined would be different.
Being young university students we were both interested in multiculturalism. One of New Mexico’s great selling points is that it is a state full of representatives of other cultures, including Mexican, Native American, Spanish, African American, and White. There are ample opportunities to explore these cultures.
I could have taken her to see some Anasazi ruins. I could have taken her to Chaco Canyon, the center of the Native Heritage Trail Scenic Byway. We could have gone to the restored 1870s Spanish Colonial rancho Casa San Ysidro. I took her to a cockfight.
Up until 2007, Cockfighting was legal in New Mexico. For many years, animal rights advocates had tried to get it banned, but there was a great deal of resistance from legislators and from residents who claimed that the sport was part of their culture. The culture of New Mexico. The state in which we lived. The state I had moved to in order to be close to my gf. This was my thinking. By attending a cockfight, we would be learning about New Mexico’s culture.
It was difficult to learn the location of the cockfight, because New Mexicans are fiercely protective of their culture. Or they were back in the early '90s. It was only by chance that I came upon a tattered copy of “Grit and Steel,” the official magazine of game cocking, that had a list of February events. By luck, there was a Valentine’s Day special in a rural area about 30 miles from Albuquerque.
On that Valentine's Day I blindfolded my gf and led her out to my car. “Where are we going?” she asked, laughing.
“We’re going to have a special New Mexico experience,” I said, excited that I was finally giving her a gift that didn’t totally stink.
“Wow. Okay, let’s go!”
After we’d been in the car driving for about half an hour she asked me, a bit suspiciously, “Um, how much farther?”
I’d gotten lost on the country roads (they all looked the same to me) but I didn’t want to let her know that. “Not much father,” I asserted.
Not long after that I caught sight of a sleek, black truck with chickens in the back, and followed. Sure enough, within five minutes we’d reached our destination.
As soon as I’d parked the car I pulled off her blindfold and called out “surprise!” She looked around the dimly lit parking lot at the Hispanic, Asian, and white men (mostly men, but there were a few women), in cowboy boots, overalls and baseball caps, as they walked together in multicultural harmony toward the shabby corrugated metal building.
“Um, Richard, where are we?”
“We’re at a uniquely New Mexican sporting event!”
She gave me a cynical look. “That’s the kind of thing you say when you’re bullshitting me. Where are we?”
“We’re at a cockfight!”
“Oh my god, I cannot believe you brought me to a cockfight!”
“It’s New Mexican culture-“
“It’s barbaric! I can’t believe you thought I would want to see a cockfight!”
“You like New Mexico, and you eat chicken! What’s the big deal?”
“How can you be so dense? You actually thought this was a good Valentine’s Day present? This is your worst present ever!”
“Oh Jesus, you say that every year.”
“And every year it’s true! Take me out of here now.”
“Come on, let’s just go in for a little bit. A few minutes. If you don’t like it, then we can leave.” Sensing an opening, I continued: “You can’t judge something before you’ve actually seen it for yourself. That’s not very tolerant.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. It was pretty sweet reasoning. I was smiling when she turned to me. She was not smiling. “Fine. But you are an ass.”
Inside the building (there was a sign on the door that had been drawn on a small piece of cardboard that read “Jimmy and Juan’s Game Cockery Farm”) we discovered a world unlike any we’d ever before seen. The men milled around, loudly talking, making purchases of gaffs and penicillin, and examining the chickens that were in cages along the far wall. The smell was of mud and sweat, and a little blood and rust. At the center of the building was a large “pit,” which was approximately 15 feet wide and 15 feet long, surrounded by wire mesh. Around the cage were several rows of long wooden benches on risers.
We approached the cages and surveyed the animals. They were really quite extraordinary- lean and muscled, with elegant plumage. “Wow, look at that one,” I said, pointing out a particularly eye-catching chicken whose name was, according to the sign on its cage, “James Featherduster.” “He’s got a great looking, uh, whatever you call those things that dangle off their beaks.” (I didn’t know what they were called.)
“I just want to get out of here,” my gf whispered. I didn’t hear that at the time, though. She told me later that she’d said that.
“Ya’ll oughter put a few bucks on ol’ James here,” his owner asserted, his leathery face cracking into a toothy smile. “He’s got the real warrior spirit in ‘im.”
I looked at my gf, whose face had lost all color. “Let’s put a few bucks on him!” I said. It seemed like an important part of the experience, and I didn’t want to miss out on it. James Featherduster’s owner instructed me that bets were placed immediately before the fight, so we made our way back over to the risers and had a seat. My gf had her hand on my arm, in an ironclad grip, her body close to me. I must have been doing something right!
James Featherduster’s handler carried him into the pit, and on the other side another handler carried his chicken. As the two men began attaching the gaffs (small metal spikes) to the chickens’ legs, a man wandered into the crowd and we all stood and started placing bets with him.
When I handed over my five-spot and told the bet-taker that I wanted it all on James Featherduster’s nose, one of the other bettors laughed at me.
“What’s funny?” I asked, defensively.
“Cock-A-Doo is going to rip James Featherduster a new one, that’s all!” the man said.
“Cock-A-Doo is that good, huh?”
“James Featherduster looks good,” the man explained. “But Cock-A-Doo has won eight matches in a row. He’ll take the Featherduster down!”
“Okay,” I said. I had no idea what I was doing anyway. “Put that five on Cock-A-Doo.”
After a few minutes the betting was over and the match started. James Featherduster and Cock-A-Doo couldn’t wait to get at each other, practically flying across the pit. They met dead center, about two feet off the ground, pecking with their beaks. Their feathers flared, and a roar went up from the crowd as they hit the ground.
My gf buried her head in her hands, so she missed the best part, as the two chickens parried, thrust, and pecked, in movements both balletic and brutal. Feathers and blood flew.
The chickens were hooked to each other at one point, and had to be separated. Their handlers came out and pulled them apart. Then, each did something I thought was strange: they put their mouths on the chicken’s asses and blew. One of the other spectators helpfully explained to me that doing this helps stimulate the animals. I joked that blowing on my ass would stimulate me, too, and that got a laugh. I felt pretty good, like I was really connecting with these people.
I turned to look at my gf, to see if she’d appreciated my humorous remark, but she was turned away, dry heaving. “We can leave as soon as this fight’s over,” I reassured her. I thought Cock-A-Doo had a chance, and I might win some bucks.
Well, Cock-A-Doo didn’t win. At the end of the fight he was a broken, bloody mess; dead but still involuntarily pecking away with his lifeless head. “Well, at least he’s not a quitter,” I said as my gf and headed out.
“Why are you crying?” I asked my gf when we were back in the car.
“Because I love you,” she said. I thought that was the sweetest thing she’d ever said to me.
But I do regret taking that other bettor’s advice and putting my five bucks on Cock-A-Doo. I should have trusted my first instinct and bet on James Featherduster. You really should trust your instincts.