Tinker’s fighting style was to hold back and lay low while the other tomcat would spit and spar and jab and get overconfident and take one swipe too many. Then Tinker would come out smokin’ and get hold of him and the fight was all over in about 30 seconds. The lucky ones got loose and got away. The unlucky ones were never seen again.
Tinkerballs has been dead for several years, but the legend of that old tomcat will last forever because of his epic battle with Stubby Osterdovsky and Hooter Hutan the night those two model citizens of Minnesota got roaring drunk and decided to save themselves an $80 veterinary fee by doing their own feline surgery: namely castrating Tinkerballs.
There are several versions of this story, so the one I am about to relate is a compilation and distillation of everything I heard first-hand from Stubby and Hooter, with some additional information provided by the nurse and intern on duty at the emergency room that memorable night. Having heard the story six or seven times from these principle parties, I am satisfied that they were telling the truth. For the most part.
The Tinkerballs saga began when Stubby’s daughter Elizabeth was in fifth grade and one spring day decided she had to have a kitty. Stubby tried to talk her out of it because at that time he had a redbone coon hound named Lucky who was a natural born cat killer, and there was slim prospect that a kitten would survive its first encounter with Lucky. Elizabeth pouted and cried and said she wouldn’t eat and would starve to death or would run away from home, and she promised she would always keep the kitty in the house so that Lucky couldn’t get it.
Stubby stuck to his guns and said, “No cat,” but one day his wife Edna was grocery shopping with Elizabeth and they saw a notice on the community bulletin board that someone had kittens for sale at a farm two miles south of town. Elizabeth begged and Edna gave in and bought her a gray-and-white female kitty that Elizabeth named Tinkerbell after the little pixie in the Peter Pan movie.
Unfortunately Tinkerbell was not a female kitten, which Stubby could see as soon as he came home from work that night and looked at it, but Edna and Elizabeth said the woman at the farm assured them it was a female so Stubby must be wrong. He gave up trying to explain how you tell the sex of a kitten and went to the Main Street bar to meet his best friend Hooter for a couple beers and some consolation. That was when Stubby started calling the cat “Tinkerballs.”
By the time Tinker was three or four years old he got to be one huge, bad-ass tomcat and probably sired as many litters of kittens as all the other tomcats in town put together. Elizabeth had moved on to wanting a horse so she did not have much interest in “Tinkerbell” anymore, especially since he was no longer a cuddly little kitten but had grown to be a 14-pound tomcat with the personality of an alligator with hemorrhoids. The first time she shut him in her room he chewed the hair off several of her dolls, and he had a habit of spraying any clothes she left laying on the floor, so their relationship was strained.
Tinker became an outside cat living under the deck in the summer and in the garage in the winter, and any chance that Stubby’s coon dog Lucky would kill him had long since passed. On the occasion of their first meeting Tinker bit a couple of nickel-sized chunks out of Lucky’s face and sliced a three-inch gash in his left ear. After that Lucky pretended that Tinkerballs did not really exist and gave him a wide berth whenever he saw him.
For three years Tinker had a four-square-mile breeding range on the northeast side of town which he patrolled regularly to make sure that every female cat in season got bred properly. If any testosterone-juiced male cat came into his territory like a young gunfighter wanting to try his luck by going up against Wyatt Earp, it got its ass torn to rags as a reminder that Tinker was the stud tomcat in Tombstone. Tinker’s fighting style was to hold back and lay low while the other tomcat would spit and spar and jab and get overconfident and take one swipe too many. Then Tinker would come out smokin’ and get hold of him and the fight was all over in about 30 seconds. The lucky ones got loose and got away. The unlucky ones were never seen again.
Tinker was the undisputed heavyweight champion tomcat but those years of the breed-and-fight life were taking their toll on him. Both his ears were chewed down to stumps, the left side of his nose was dished out, his right eye was milky, he had a permanent crazy-cat smile where a piece of his lip was bitten off, he was missing a toe on his right front paw, and his head looked like a puffball mushroom slashed with claw scars and pock marks.
This beat-up appearance worked in his favor, I suppose, because any cat that looked at him with a fighting eye had to realize this would not be an amateur golden gloves bout. But Tinker’s attitude did not get any better with age, and he would yowl and swat at people who came around the house.
So one Saturday night at the bar Stubby told Hooter that something would have to be done about Tinkerballs. Hooter said if Tinker was castrated he would lose his drive to roam and breed and fight all the time and maybe stop swatting people and spraying the furniture. Stubby thought it over and asked Hooter if he would do it, and Hooter said, “Yes, for $25.” Stubby figured that was a lot less than the vet would charge, and this might be the night to do it because Tinker had just come dragging home a couple hours ago from what must have been another championship fight. He was under the back porch cleaning himself up and looking wrung-out and probably could not put up much of a struggle.
Stubby ordered another round of shots and beers and Hooter’s plan seemed better and better the more they drank. Stubby asked him if he had ever actually castrated a tomcat before and Hooter said technically speaking no, but he had cut a whole lot of feeder pigs and how much different could a cat be?
At the next table was Cliff Anderson, who raises sheep south of town, and he overheard them and said he would suggest they ring Tinker’s balls the same way you ring a ram-lamb’s balls with a rubber band that you put on using a tool that looks kind of like a pliers. Cliff said it takes only two seconds to get the rubber ring on, and then you let the lamb go and the ring cuts off the blood circulation and in three or four days its testicles drop off. No cutting or blood, and the lambs don’t put up any fuss, at least not like they kick and fight when you use a knife.
Hooter asked Cliff where he could get a ring and an applicator pliers, and Cliff said he had a kit in his pickup tool box they could use. After one more shot and beer the plan was settled. Hooter got the ringing kit from Cliff’s pickup while Stubby called home and told Edna to make sure Elizabeth was asleep so she wouldn’t see them grab her cat from under the porch.
They parked in the driveway of Stubby’s house and sat there a few minutes to make sure the lights were out in Elizabeth’s bedroom. Stubby told Hooter to get the castration ring pliers ready while he caught Tinker and they would get this done quickly. Hooter had the ringer ready, but when Stubby reached under the porch and picked up Tinker, the old tomcat realized something was up and he made a low growling sound.
Stubby tried to turn Tinker belly-up so Hooter could snap the rubber band around his balls, but Tinker was squirming like an old man trying to hold back a fart in church so Stubby said, “There is no way in hell we are going to get this done out here in the dark, Hooter, so let’s take him into the garage and turn on some lights.”
They went into the garage, turned on the lights, and shut and latched all the doors. Stubby wedged Tinker’s head and shoulders under his arm and turned him over. Hooter grabbed his hind legs and tried to get the ring on, but the second Tinker felt his balls touched he decided he wanted no part of this business. Tinker lashed out and gave Hooter a deep scratch down his right arm, twisted loose, ran under Stubby’s boat trailer and hunkered down snarling.
Hooter wrapped his bleeding arm with his handkerchief and told Stubby if they gave it one more try he was pretty sure they could get the job done. He put on a pair of heavy leather work gloves and reached behind the trailer tire to grab the cat. The way Stubby explained it to me, Tinker started making sounds he never heard from a cat before, sort of like the noise an empty 18-wheeler makes when it goes too fast over brand new rumble strips on the highway. Hooter managed to catch Tinker by his right hind leg as he ran out from under the trailer, but Tinker whipped around and bit his left forearm, Hooter gave a yell and let go, and Tinker scooted under the work bench.
Blood was running down Hooter’s arm and Stubby could see that catching Tinker bare-handed was not going to work, so he climbed into the boat to get a landing net. He handed Hooter a broom and said, “You poke him with the broom handle until he runs out from under there and I’ll scoop the little bastard up in the net.” Hooter said later that this was completely Stubby’s idea, and Stubby has never disputed it.
Stubby held the landing net ready for a quick scoop, Hooter was poking away under the workbench with the broom handle, and Tinker was yowling and spitting and swatting at the broom. He hunched up against the wall and Hooter yelled, “Here he comes, Stubby!” but instead of running away from the broom and into the net Tinker ran up the length of the boom handle and along Hooter’s right arm, clawing all the way.
He vaulted over Hooter’s shoulder and down his back, and Stubby swung the landing net and pinned Tinker against the seat of Hooter’s pants, which the cat began tearing to shreds with claws and teeth. Hooter screamed like a little girl and tried to knock Tinker off with the broom while he performed a series of hops and jumps across the garage floor with Stubby running along behind trying to flip the net and get Tinker trapped inside it.
Stubby finally got Tinker netted about the time Hooter slipped on the ring applicator that was lying on the floor and went down flat on his back with the wind knocked out of him. This left Hooter incapacitated for a few minutes, moaning on the concrete floor, while Stubby was engaged in solo hand-to-paw combat with Tinker to keep him in the net. He said it was a lot worse than netting the most bad-tempered Muskie you ever caught in your life except, as he explained it, “considerably more challenging, because the Muskie is trying to get away but at this point of the fight Tinker was taking on all comers.”
Stubby said it looked like that damned tomcat was going to squeeze out under the hoop of the landing net so he put his knee down on the handle to hold it against the floor, which unfortunately put his leg close enough for Tinker to reach with the claws on both front feet, pull himself up Stubby’s thigh, and sink his teeth into his belly. Stubby jumped up ran in a little circle with Tinker and the landing net hanging from his belt while he swatted and slapped at the cat’s left front paw which was clawing through the fly of his jeans in an apparent attempt to reverse the tables in the castration game.
Hooter was finally getting his breath back and wanted to call off the whole program, but he said he took one glance at the situation that had developed between Tinker and Stubby and was convinced that the crazy tomcat was possessed by the devil and was going to kill both of them. “I decided not to run and to go down fighting,” Hooter told me, but he admitted that might have been a bad decision due to the night’s drinking.
Hooter hoisted himself off the floor of the garage, grabbed one of Stubby’s rubber pac boots from along the back wall, and as Stubby came dancing and spinning and swatting by, Hooter got hold of Tinker by the shoulders and stuffed his head into the boot. Tinker doubled back on himself and tried to bite Hooter’s hand but he was tangled up tight in the mesh of the landing net and his mouth was full of shredded blue jeans and some of Stubby’s belly fat so he couldn’t bite through Hooter’s heavy leather work gloves.
Hooter threw himself forward onto the floor with the pac boot and Tinker and the landing net pinned under him. He got his left hand around the back of the cat’s neck and pushed him farther down into the boot until just his tail and back legs were sticking out. Hooter yelled at Stubby, “Get the f*^#king applicator and get the f*^# over here and put that f*^#ing rubber ring around his f*^#ing balls!” which he probably would not have said if he had realized the whole house was awake and Elizabeth was standing in the garage door watching the excitement. Stubby yelled, “Jesus H. Christ, Hooter, I’m bleeding to death!” And Hooter hollered “Well you’ll have to do that later after we castrate this son-of-a-bitch tomcat from hell!”
Stubby picked up the applicator, put one knee on the pac boot to stop Tinker’s squirming and twisting, and snapped the ring around his balls. Hooter hollered, “Okay, now! On the count of three!” and they braced themselves while he counted “One-Two-THREE!” and they both let go and leaped back.
Stubby said everything calmed down for about three or four seconds and then Tinker came out of the boot, thrashing and squalling like a gut-shot cougar. While the cat was chewing and clawing his way out of the landing net Hooter and Stubby both scrambled up into the boat and grabbed life vests to fight him off if he came after them. But when Tinker got out of the boot and net, he gave one final yowl and leaped out the back window of the garage.
This was when Hooter and Stubby saw Elizabeth standing there, and the garage got real quiet.
“You know, if you wanted to neuter him, you could have just taken him to the vet and it would have only cost about $80,” Elizabeth said, “ because that’s what Caroline’s mother did with her tomcat Sprinkles.” Then she turned and walked back into the house.
Edna came into the garage wearing a housecoat, took one look at Hooter and Stubby in the boat holding the life vests in front of them, both of them cut and scratched and bit and bleeding from 20 different places, and said “You two better call someone to take you to the hospital emergency room to get stitched up and get tetanus shots, because I’m sure as hell not doing it, and you’re not getting in my car either.” Then she went back into the house and slammed the door.
Stubby and Hooter called Cliff Anderson at the bar and asked him to take them to the clinic. When they climbed into Cliff’s pickup he asked, “Holy shit! Did you two get in a knife fight with the whole Ojibwe tribe?” and Hooter said, “Just shut the f*^# up and take us to the emergency room.”
The EMT on duty washed them all over with disinfectant, gave them each a tetanus shot, taped a big bandage on the front of Stubby’s belly and another on his thigh, packed and bandaged three or four bite holes in his arms, and then did the same for Hooter’s bites and scratches. He also put four stitches in a cut over Hooter’s eye which neither of them could explain, but Hooter said Stubby may have hit him in the face with the ring applicator at the moment they both let go of the boot and jumped back. Stubby said he does not remember doing that and thinks it was the handle of the landing net.
The clinic’s bill was $1,628.
That isn’t the end of the story. The next day, everyone in town had heard about the cat fight, of course, including Stubby’s neighbor Roy Mulholland. Roy called him on the phone and said, “You know that cat whose balls you ringed? Well you only ringed one because he’s lying under my firewood shed and the other one looks just fine.”
So Tinkerballs became singular Tinkerball and went back to his breed- and-fight ways for two more years until one hot July night when he was coming home from his regular beat. While crossing Main Street, Tinker was run over by Karl Wilkins who was 16 years old, driving a stick-shift pickup for the first time, and simultaneously trying to unbutton his girlfriend’s blouse for the first time. He veered way left on the road and nailed Tinkerball with the left front tire and smashed him flat.
He stopped to see what he had run over and of course he recognized Tinkerball and realized he had killed a legendary tomcat. Karl called Stubby, and Stubby drove over to get what was left of Tinker. The next day he and Hooter buried him in the back yard in a .50 caliber ammo can.
Stubby said it probably seems a little crazy, but he and Hooter both felt bad about Tinkerballs. “But you know,” he told me, “that’s probably the way that old tomcat would have wanted it – quick and painless and just an unfortunate accident connected to somebody’s best attempt to get laid.”
That’s probably true.
More stories about life in the North Country, hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my books Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.