Johnny Cash And The Ostrich Attack

How A near fatal encounter with his Ostrich 'Waldo' almost cost him his innards and sent him back into painkiller hell...
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How A near fatal encounter with his Ostrich 'Waldo' almost cost him his innards and sent him back into painkiller hell...

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Musicians, actors, and persons of other various talents often seem to have a plethora of strange and almost implausible stories. Perhaps fame reveals opportunities that would rarely be available to ‘normal folk’ or perhaps the often lengthy periods of down-time lead creative minds to extreme and unusual pastimes – probably both. In this story, we’ll hear how the amphetamine-loving country music legend Johnny Cash was led back down the road to addiction by one of the most unlikely sources: a large, African ostrich named Waldo.

This story starts in 1981. Cash is now equidistant from both his 1960’s stardom and his mid-1990’s Rick Rubin-induced comeback. After finding it difficult to repeat the success of his earlier hits, throughout the 1970’s he turned his attention to presenting a TV show and film-making, and moved his musical focus away from outlaw-country and towards gospel music. Despite his widely publicised abuse of amphetamines throughout the 1960’s, he’s now considered a reformed man, a devout (if troubled) Christian, and sober. However, as most drug users will tell you, you never stop being an addict; you just stop taking drugs, and after being prescribed painkillers following eye surgery early in the year, by 1981, he was starting to feel the cold embrace of addiction once again.

Near to his home on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee, about 25 miles from Nashville, he had built the ‘House of Cash’: a recording studio, museum and gift shop, and office for everything ‘Cash’, at the back of which an exotic animal park had been set up. Just why he needed an exotic animal park is unknown, but we’ll chalk it up to the eccentricities of a man with enough money that he was worried about how he could possibly spend it all.

The winter of 1981 had been particularly cold that year and he had been forced to move most of his animals into shelters to keep warm. Half of the ostriches in the park had already died and the remaining birds proved too stubborn and difficult to move. Despite this, when one of the females froze in the cold Christmas weather, he made one last-ditch attempt to bring in its mate, Waldo.

When the day came to move the animal, the ostrich was visibly angered, which Cash later ascribed to him having recently lost his mate. As he entered the park, Waldo confronted him, hissing and spreading his wings aggressively. Cash, playing it cool, stood there unfazed and waited for the animal to calm down before manoeuvring around it and continuing his walk. Had he decided to leave the park then, things would have turned out very different. Some accounts suggest that he had been drinking that day which would partly explain why, despite knowing the immense physical power Waldo held, he then decided to return to the enraged animal.

Waldo was even less welcoming on the second visit. Cash had already prepared himself with a large stick with which he would beat the animal off during the inevitable man-versus-nature battle, but when Waldo lunged at him, his swing hit nothing but air: Waldo was already at the pinnacle of a large jump up and was coming down fast on his confused opponent. Landing foot first onto his chest, Waldo, using his razor sharp toe, ripped Cash’s stomach wide open down to his belt, breaking two ribs in the process and a further three when he hit the ground. As he remembered in his autobiography, “if the belt hadn’t been good and strong, with a solid buckle, he’d have spilled my guts exactly the way he meant to”. Luckily, his second desperate swing from his new position on the ground made contact and the bird ran off with Cash escaping with his guts still on the inside.

While his wounds slowly healed in hospital, the immense pain Cash felt justified his continuing use of painkillers, but now that he was being endorsed by doctors it became all too easy for his habit to turn into a full-fledged addiction. As soon as he was discharged from hospital, he began actively seeking out prescriptions from several different doctors to satisfy his new tastes. Eventually the painkillers started to affect his digestive system and he resorted to drinking copious quantities of wine in order to cope and it wasn’t long until he had rediscovered his taste for amphetamines and began adding that to his new diet as well.

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Things continued like this for the next couple of years until all of the abuse finally took its toll. On the final date of his 1983 UK tour, Cash, now into his fifties, ended up trashing a hotel room in Nottingham while experiencing a particularly bad hallucination, cutting his hand to shreds in the process. In the hospital later that week, doctors realised that his health problems were far worse than just a swollen, infected hand: the past two years of extensive drug use had left him with severe internal bleeding.

After he underwent major surgery to remove several feet of intestine from his stomach, his duodenum and parts of his spleen, none of which hampered his drug abuse or hallucinations in any significant way (in fact he even accidentally overdosed on Valium after deciding that the best place to hide his personal stash was underneath his surgical dressing), his family and friends decided that they had had enough. While lying in a hospital bed, an intervention was called and - as soon as he was able to leave - he was entered into the Betty Ford Clinic for rehabilitation. He entered willingly.

Johnny Cash spent six weeks at the Betty Ford Clinic and left a happier, healthier man. He remained relatively sober for several years, but did occasionally slip back into addiction and would spend two more stints in rehab over the next decade. By the time of his death in 2003, his fondness for prescription drugs was well known and he wore the scars and wrinkles on his body to prove it. The biggest scar of all, however, was hidden underneath his black shirt, just above his belt buckle.