W.E. "Gene" Fleming, Friend to Lame Geese

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:50

    Fleming went to work. Drawing on his experience as an inventor, he devised a kind of goose skateboard: One of Andy's?for by now he was Andy?stumps would be secured in a groove on the board; he'd use the other to push off the ground, setting himself in motion. In theory, a fine idea; in practice, a bust. Then a brain wave: shoes! Fleming fitted Andy with a pair of $13 size-0 white leather baby shoes, filling them with foam rubber to prevent them from rotating and to provide as much comfort as possible. Patiently, Fleming held Andy upright so he'd get the hang of standing, and with the aid of a leash gradually taught him to walk. At first Andy kicked backward, trying to fling off his shoes?Fleming theorized the goose thought he had mud on his stumps?but soon he grew accustomed to the shoes, not only walking, but flying, running and even swimming in a half-acre pond on Fleming's pastureland, with holes in the soles allowing water to drain. Andy wore out that first pair in a month.

    "Of course my dad wouldn't sit still for just one pair of shoes," recalls Steve Fleming, Gene's son, speaking over the phone from his home near Republican City, just north of the Kansas line. Gene fashioned cowboy boots for Andy, and flippers, but mostly the gander wore sneakers, with Nike donating a shipment when it learned that Andy preferred its brand.

    Local news items engendered stories in People, Reader's Digest and numerous newspapers, plus an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Fleming and Andy were deluged with fan mail. The curious and the inspired, including disabled kids and adults, flocked to Fleming's spread to see and photograph Andy and Polly. Invitations for personal appearances by Andy at south-central Nebraska schools, fairs, parades and store openings followed, and Fleming honored them whenever possible. The Andy juggernaut just mushroomed: t-shirts, posters, postcards, keychains.

    Fleming couldn't sit still. He attached teeny-weeny cleats to a pair of sneakers, hoping this would enable Andy to maintain a grip when he mounted Polly. When that gambit proved unsuccessful?"He never even tried," Fleming observed?he obtained two goslings for the pair to adopt, then turned his energies to building a low-slung vehicle for Andy. "He whipped up a little two-wheel kid's bike," remembers Steve, "attached a baby seat to it and put on training wheels. Andy liked it just fine."

    Fame did not swell Andy's head. "Geese are mean creatures that like to sneak up on you when you're bent over and give you a good bite in the you-know-what," Fleming once told the Chicago Tribune. "But Andy was so grateful for what we'd done for him?he was the nicest, sweetest guy you ever met."

    Many folks felt the same way about Fleming. Born on July 30, 1922, in Beaver City, NE, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, and married Nadine Loffer in 1944. The couple moved briefly to Portland, OR, where Fleming worked as a shipyard welder, then returned to Nebraska in the mid-40s, settling in Hastings. After stints welding together grain boxes and selling clothes?"My dad was an awful good-looking man," says Steve, "and they'd take pictures of him in different suits and put them in store windows"?he signed on as a salesman with Liggett & Meyers, makers of L&M cigarettes, in Hastings, Omaha and Sioux Falls, SD. He established his own company, Fleming Manufacturing, in Hastings in 1960, concocting livestock-related equipment, most significantly the Rol-Oyl Cattle Oiler, a large, triangular-shaped, parasite-fighting contraption that dispensed a chemical-laced substance to the skin of cattle?"from the top of their head to their butt," Steve explains?that wiped out grubs, flies, mites and ticks. "By golly, it just pretty well cleaned house."

    Fleming retired in the late-80s, continuing to make fishing lures and whatnot, before meeting Andy. Life was swell until an Oct. 19, 1991, phone call jolted the Flemings. A mutilated goose?headless, wingless, skinned?had been found in a nearby park. Gene and Nadine hurried to the scene. It was Andy. With a deputy sheriff in tow, the Flemings drove back home, where they discovered two sets of fresh footprints (one large, one small) in the goose guano around the now-open outdoor pen where Andy and Polly lived. Polly had vanished. "No sign of her ever," Steve states. "It made my dad madder than hell that somebody would break in there and do that to an animal, much less Andy and Polly."

    Reward money poured in. Fleming put up $500, and the sum snowballed to nearly $10,000 after the Associated Press ran a story about Andy's death and radio commentator Paul Harvey, who contributed $2000, fumed about Andy's senseless murder during one of his national broadcasts. Fleming buried Andy's remains beside his house, commemorating the spot with a monument that features an etching of the goose and an encapsulated inscription of his saga.

    Andy's case was still unsolved when Gene Fleming, 77, died in his sleep in a Grand Island nursing home on Dec. 31 from complications related to Alzheimer's disease. "The sheriff told me he'd had various leads through the years when somebody tried to get the reward money," notes Steve, "but nothing ever came of it."

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