Emily and Alvin were escape artists, little hairy Houdinis, who made cage cleaning a much bigger chore than it had to be. The dogs, all three of them (we also had an Irish terrier), LOVED cage cleaning time, because that usually meant a wild romp through the house in hot pursuit of one or both chipmunks; that is, until we learned to put the dogs outside. Why is it so many things are learned in hindsight?
Cleaning day meant transferring the chippies from their cage to temporary quarters, and then back again, and we couldn't just pick them up bare-handed. They were wild animals, not the sanitized versions sold in pet stores, and while they looked perfectly hale and hearty, there was a chance, remote probably, but a chance, that they might harbor rabies.
Several months after I became a chippie buckaroo, I did get bit. As I recall, it was Emily; she was the more aggressive of the two. This posed a major problem: I was not keen on getting shots in my stomach, nor did I want Emily getting her head chopped off, so I said nothing to my parents about the bite. I figured I was pretty safe. The bite did not break the skin, so far as I could tell, and Emily seemed to be in perfect health; she was not slobbering, snarling, snapping, and staggering in circles, which might have been a tip-off. I did worry about it, and on a couple of occasions, I almost broke down and told my parents, but my greater fear of needles and decapitated pets kept me quiet. All these years later, and my parents still don't know. I Googled "rabies in chipmunks", and according to several sources, small rodents are rarely infected. It's usually raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes that are responsible for rabies' transmission to humans, especially bats. Hold that thought. We'll come back to it later.
Since the Internet and its wisdom was not widely available in the 60's (probably because Al Gore was hogging it all to himself), it was a challenge to keep body parts from coming into contact with the chipmunks. Heavy gloves were out of the question. They were difficult to fit through the small cage door, and the gloves made it hard to "feel" what kind of hold you had on the slippery, agile little varmints. So we brought a small cage up as close as we could to the larger one, doors facing each other, slid them up, and then herded Alvin and Emily into the small cage. Initially, herding involved a lot of banging and shaking to simulate an earthquake, but eventually they got the idea, and would dash for the other cage as soon as the doors opened. Ditto on the return trip. They say take-off and landing are the two most dangerous parts of air travel, and so it was with our chippie transfer process. THIS was when they were liable to escape.
I don't know how many times they got loose, but it was a lot. After much trial and error, the bathroom became the place to make the cage transfers. It was small, and so long as the toilet lid was down, the bathtub drain stoppered, and the space under the door blocked with a towel (this last was one of those hindsight things), they couldn't get very far.
After one such jail break and a long and thorough search, we gave up. I consoled myself that I still had the other, and life went on. About three days later, Daddy and I were in the den trying to watch Gomer Pyle. I say trying, because Biddy, our Irish terrier, had suddenly gone all OCD on the closet door. She'd scratch, whine and sniff all around the thing and just wouldn't leave it alone. My father told her sharply to knock it off, or he'd tear off her ears and stuff them down her throat. This threat didn't faze Biddy in the least; she'd been hearing it since she was a puppy, and so far, her ears were still attached to her head. Next thing I know, my dad has thrown the dog out of the room, shut the door, opened the closet, and is gingerly taking random items out. I couldn't imagine what had prompted the sudden urge to spring clean, and just as I was about to sidle out the door to join the dog, ZIP! a furry little cannonball shot out of the closet, caroming off the baseboards and furniture. Daddy grabbed a sweater off a hanger, threw it at the chippie and missed. He grabbed a jacket, tried again and missed. Eventually, he was able to trap the little blighter under one of my mother's sweaters, which later had to be pitched in the trash because it got peed on. This leads me to another story, one my father told many times over the years. The cage had been cleaned and pressed. I slid open the doors and both chipmunks lunged forward, promptly wedging themselves in the opening. Such a thing had never happened before, but there they were, stuck like a cork, and it didn't look like either was going to give quarter. ("After you." "No, after you.") Thinking I'd help things along, I gently (I swear!) pinched Alvin's tail in my fingers. My thought was that by holding him by the tail, he'd back off so Emily could go through. Alvin gave a little start, and the tail in all its bushy glory came off, just as neatly as stripping a glove off your hand. The tail twitched and jerked in my palm, and as bad as that was, it was nothing compared to the BONES sticking out of Alvin's rear end.
One of my favorite movie parts is the scene in The Sandlot, when James Earl Jones' character tells Tom Guiry's, "You're not in trouble. You're dead where you stand." This was me, and not just dead where I stood, but quite possibly earless as well, because my dad would have finally made good on that threat he was always yelling at the dogs. I dumbly walked into the kitchen where my parents were; I remember Mom was cleaning up from dinner. I had my hands behind my back, and I must have had a really stricken look on my face, because Daddy immediately asked me what was wrong. I didn't say a word, just held out my hand for my parents to see how I had mutilated poor Alvin. The damn tail was still twitching and jerking, although it had lost a lot of its pizzazz at this point. My mother took one look and went back to washing the dishes, rather forcefully, I thought. Daddy looked at the tail as it did its can-can across my palm. His mouth kept twitching, kind of in time with the tail. He asked me how it happened, and then we both went to see how Alvin was fairing.
Honestly, Alvin seemed totally unperturbed by his tailess state. He did look macabre with the bones sticking out of his rear, but they eventually fell off, and he was left with the tiniest of stumps. I knew the tail-losing gimmick was a defense mechanism, but until I skinned my pet, I had thought that talent was unique to lizards.*
I kept Emily and Alvin until we had to move to Texas, and I was forced to give them up. A friend, Jane, who had a poodle, several cats, a guinea pig, a duck, and a mynah bird offered to take in my chippies. I saw them installed in their new home. I don't know what became of them after that, and was afraid to ask, because one of the cats acted like Christmas had come several months early.
Back to bats, I caught one once. There was a creek that ran about four houses down from mine and one day, while my friends and I were splashing in the water, terrorizing the crayfish and frogs, I happened to spy a funny kind of fruit hanging from a low branch. On further inspection, the fruit turned out to be a sleeping bat, wings neatly folded around its little body. Hoping it was a vampire bat, because how cool would that be? I immediately ran home, got an old bird cage, and transferred the animal inside. It was easier than you'd think; I just brought the cage up around the bat, and gently slid the door shut, forcing it to let go of the branch. I brought it home anxious to add it to my motley, but ever-growing, menagerie that consisted of the aforementioned chipmunks, a couple of red-eared turtles (you could buy them by the score in pet stores back then, nobody cared about salmonella), a box turtle I found in my neighbor's front yard, some comatose crawdads I'd caught in the creek, the dogs (that were really my mother's), and a feral cat that skulked around each afternoon waiting to be fed.
My mother took one look at my prize, flopping spastically around the bottom of the cage (apparently it's difficult to walk when you have wings for forelegs), blanched visibly, and demanded I return it where I'd found it. I argued and pleaded, tried to point out that the bat would make me a legend in Show and Tell circles, but Mom was adamant. She could tolerate escaped chipmunks, but the idea of a bat flying around loose was more than she was willing to handle. I was allowed to keep it to show my father when he got home from work, but then it had to be released. I wonder how many fathers, Ozzy Osbourne's excepted, have had a cage with a live bat thrust in their hands by their offspring? I was disappointed to learn that my bat was not vampiric; hell, it didn't even sparkle, but was most likely a little brown bat, or maybe a Mexican free-tailed bat that had taken a wrong turn out of Texas.
Poor Alvin. I hope he and Emily are enjoying the big exercise wheel in the sky.
*Just last week, we caught Penny playing with a gecko tail on the kitchen floor, the tail flopping around like a beheaded chicken. We found the rest of the poor gecko in Phoebe's mouth.
So, I promised a blog about my experience as a chipmunk curator. Here ya go...
Our backyard in Atlanta was home to a couple of chipmunks. They dug chipmunk-sized holes all over the place, and I, in my feverish quest to capture the little blighters, made the holes even worse by trying to dig them out. The holes became so big and so deep, that our Yorkshire terriers, Trinket and Ber Bear*, would fall into them, and they were either too small, or too stupid to get out. Too stupid, I should think; the breed has never struck me as being particularly intelligent. The first time one of the dogs fell down a chipmunk hole --- Trinket, I believe it was --- my mother panicked, convinced a hawk had taken her, and it wasn't until my father started calling Trinket's name that he got an answering bark from somewhere near the gates of Hell. After that, when a dog or dogs went missing, we searched the holes before blaming the local birds of prey.
Once I realized that digging to China wasn't going to snag me some new pets, I constructed a trap made out of a plastic washtub, a forked stick, a long length of twine, and a blob of what I considered to be the epitome of rodential delicacies: dog food and bologna, which are pretty much the same thing. The tub was propped up in the "Y" of the stick, with the twine tied around it, and waiting impatiently at the other end of the twine was me. The few times one of the chipmunks would get within smelling distance of my contraption, it would glance back at the house with a look that clearly said, "You think I'm gonna fall for this crap?"
One afternoon, I was met with success: one of the animals edged its way warily under the tub, sniffing at the revolting blob of food, and BANG! down came the tub, with the little sucker neatly trapped underneath**. Flushed with success, feeling like Marlin Perkins from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, I ran out to the overturned tub. But how to get Alvin (duh!) out from under the tub and into his cage? My 8-year-old thought processes had not taken me that far. While I contemplated this conundrum, Alvin was banging around like a deranged pinball inside the tub, wild to get away from either 1) the human girl who was probably, at that very moment, plotting some weird Satanic ritual involving his head and liver, or 2) the aroma of the dog food/bologna mix that had gone over from too long in the sun. Or both. Every collision with the tub moved the thing an inch or two; it was only lightweight plastic, afterall, and even a little chipmunk, especially one fueled on terror and adrenaline, had the strength to move it. As I scratched my head and tried to think of a way to safely transfer my new pet to his cage without contracting rabies, Alvin, to my chagrin, managed to maneuver the tub over one of the many holes that dotted our backyard, and FLOOP! he was gone, down into the dark recesses to safety. If only I had placed something heavy on the tub to keep it from moving; if only the yard didn't have so many holes. If, if, if. Score: chipmunk - 1, human girl - 0.
After this fiasco, my parents took pity on me and bought me a Havahart trap for my birthday. How many little girls can truthfully claim to be the recipient of a live animal trap for their birthday? The one pictured above looks very much like the one I had. You placed the bait on the small metal plate in the middle, rigged opened the doors, and set it outside. The unsuspecting animal would enter, and as soon as it put any weight on the plate the doors would crash down and trap the critter. I was thrilled with this present, and with my father's help, immediately booby-trapped it and set it out in the front yard just before nightfall. I can't remember why we elected to set the trap in the front yard, when it was the backyard that was slowly becoming one big sinkhole, but that's what we did. Maybe because it was a test run. Or maybe because my mother didn't want to add more trauma to the dogs' already fragile psyches.
Anyway, as the story goes, my parents awoke in the wee hours to an ungodly screeching coming from the front yard, and it must have been loud considering their bedroom was in the back of the house. (Mine was in the front, but being mostly stone deaf, I didn't hear it.) It turns out I had caught my first Havahart victim: the neighbor's cat. In quick succession, I also caught a squirrel and a crow. The squirrel, I vividly remember, had gone totally nucking futs from spending the night within the small confines of the trap. Until that moment, I never realized something as small and skittish and prone to car accidents as a squirrel could look and behave like a honey badger. This one, for sure, didn't give a s*** if it gnawed our faces off, if that was what it would take to escape to freedom. Daddy parked me at what he judged to be a safe distance away from the snarling grey dervish, put on some heavy gloves, and gingerly opened one of the doors, pointing it away from anything remotely human. The squirrel bolted for the trees, but not before I was sure it was going to turn and attack my father, and then me, leaving us both in bloody little pieces. Ever since, I have been extremely respectful of squirrels; they have a very dark side.
Eventually, the trap was reassigned to the backyard and in a matter of days, I became the proud owner of two chipmunks: Alvin and Emily. I have no clue what their real genders were; they could have been Alvin and Emilio, for all I knew, although a Mexican of any species in the 1960's deep south was a rarity. In fact, my grade school Spanish was taught by Senorita Rothstein, who later married and became Senora Zablonsky. Her lessons were often sprinkled with Yiddish, and those of us who weren't raised on matzoh and latkes, which was about half of the class, would get confused. Like the time Bobby Barr blurted out "Mazel Tov!" instead of felicidades. Senora called us her bubbelehs, was easily farklempt, and said oy vey! on days when we were being particularly dummkopf, which was most of the time. The upside to this weird bilingualism was that I knew what schlemiel and schlemazel meant when Laverne and Shirley hopscotched their way onto the boob tube.*** It wasn't until we moved to Texas, that I was taught Spanish by actual native Spanish speakers with actual Spanish surnames.
But I digress.
My new pets were installed in a wire cage placed on top of a TV tray that, in turn, was placed next to my bed. The cage had a water bottle, food bowls, and an exercise wheel. Later, we added a small wood house that was supposed to be for the both of them, but Emily had other ideas, and turned it into her personal clubhouse. Poor Alvin; he would sneak in when she was busy gorging on trail mix, only to be chased out a few minutes later. I felt so sorry for him, I convinced my dad to build another and stacked the two, one on top of the other, like a kind of rodent condo. They each had their own bungalows, and it was apparent there weren't going to be any babies, even to me, who didn't know diddly about such things at the time.
*Ber Bear's name came from Br'er Bear, a character from the Uncle Remus stories; this WAS Atlanta.
**I have since learned that this kind of trap is called a drop trap. They are used in TNR (trap, neuter and release) programs on feral cat colonies. They are manually-operated traps, requiring a human at the other end to yank on the cord. Obviously, I was waaaaaay ahead of my time.
***Some other Yiddish words I remember: schmuck, dreck, spiel, goy, nebbish, shmooz, shmeer, plotz, maven, mensch, kvetch, gelt, meshugge, chutzpah, nudnik, shlep, schmaltz, shnoz, klutz, and schlock. It really is a fun language!
Havahart trap: http://www.biconet.com/traps/xlLive.html
Right now, I am mad at my parents.
I'm mad because they gave me a totally normal childhood. Normal is boring; it cannot be parlayed into a best-selling book and a fat bank account. I am currently reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson. Ms. Lawson is a blogger and columnist for the Houston Chronicle. She is recognized by both Nielsen and Forbes as one of the top female/mom bloggers in the United States. Her personal blog, The Blogess, averages over 83,000 page views a day. By contrast, the first 15 days of this month, I averaged a paltry 20 page views, not counting a really weird spike on May 11 of 705 page views, which would make my daily average a much more respectable 500 views. On either side of May 11 was 23 views the day before and a miserable 2 the day after. The 705 has got to be some kind of freakish mistake, unless my rant on May 7 made the rounds on Texas Tech's Greek Circle.
2,500,000 page views a month and a best-seller, all thanks to growing up poor in a small west Texas town with a taxidermist father who made hand puppets out of roadkill, and tossed live bobcats on unsuspecting people. Not to mention the author's depression, anxiety disorders, and a propensity to fling F-bombs and talk about her vagina like it is her next door neighbor, which I suppose it is, anatomically speaking.
Another big best-seller about family dysfunction was Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. I bought this book because I was amused by the title, and because the cover photo, a picture of a little boy with a box over his head, duped me into thinking the story was going to be a millennial version of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, only written from a boy's point of view. Geez, was I wrong. Both books feature rape, but while Mockingbird merely dipped a foot in that pool, Running was a full-on cannonball into the deep end.
Still another author who was able to morph her lousy childhood into a book is Monica Holloway in Driving With Dead People. I don't know if her book cracked any best-seller lists, but she, at least, managed to get published; a feat I still fantasize about, unless you count the two times I got letters to the editor printed in the Dallas Morning News, which I don't, although the second letter did generate some replies from other readers that were printed a few days later.
Getting off the dysfunction train is Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy. This book actually does have Mockingbird's charm and innocence. Kimmel's childhood was merely different, but different enough to give her a wealth of off-beat experiences and oddball characters. Unfortunately, I cannot come up with anything truly off-beat in my own growing up years. Well, there was the time when I had chipmunks for pets, but no way I could make an entire book about that experience, as smelly and tiring as it was. Smelly, because rodent urine is potent, as anyone who's kept mice or hamsters would know, and tiring because the little buggers escaped all the time.
Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change what I had for anything, but it's aggravating to know that if I penned an autobiography no publisher would touch it because it would be too boringly vanilla. Actually, let's be honest here and say it wouldn't get published because it wouldn't get written in the first place: just the writing of it would put me to sleep. Except for the chipmunks. Look for that in another blog.
I am in an anti-Greek mood at the mo'.
I did not pledge a sorority when I was in college, so I am on the outside trying to look in, and what I see doesn't impress me very much. This is especially irritating considering the amount of money we've plunked down on several kinds of fees, insurance, tickets for various functions, clothes and assorted gewgaws, and "special projects", whatever the hell those are. If I wasn't 100% sure that it would break my daughter's heart to quit her membership, I'd ask her to consider it.
Every sorority's mission statement emphasizes friendship, sisterhood, service to others, leadership, academic achievement, and a whole bunch of similar positive attributes. Somehow, these noble ideals get lost in the annual no-holds-barred drive called Rush to attract the prettiest, most popular girls. It's their lifeblood; sororities that have a reputation for being the hangout for losers don't get the pledges, and eventually wither away from lack of interest. I hear that is the case with a particular sorority at Texas A&M; it is in danger of closing shop because it can't attract enough members. The consensus is that the girls in this group are "the nicest", "the sweetest", "the smartest", "the most hard-working", when anyone with half a brain knows that is Greek for overweight and unattractive. It's like your best friend telling you your blind date has a really nice personality.
Rush, or recruitment as they call it these days, isn't until August, but sororities have been prepping for this for weeks. The first clue I had that recruitment borders on outright ridiculousness was when my daughter told me that all her clothes for recruitment had to be bought and approved by April 30, and she even sent me a PowerPoint presentation someone had made up showing what was acceptable and what was not. Here are some screen grabs from that PowerPoint:
Get the picture? Jeans have to fall somewhere between skinny and flare-y. Dresses can't be too cottony/beachy, but they can't be too satiny/prom-y, either. Dresses also have to match the paint chip samples that were passed out at a chapter meeting. Teal can't be too blue or too green; grey can't be silvery. Even shoes have to meet standards for color and heel height. God forbid you get anything other than leather or patent leather, or shoes with kitten heels. Really, what is so awful about kitten heels? One can walk about on those during a party, and not worry too much about an impromptu face plant from five-inch spikes.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for dressing as the occasion demands, but this has a creepy Stepford Wives mentality. And on practical terms, I can't help but wonder how many girls might find themselves no longer fitting into the outfits they bought in April; there's a four month lag between purchase and wear, after all. I suppose that's an incentive not to gain weight over the summer, but...wait, what if that is precisely the reason? Clever, very clever.
On another front, my daughter, bless her heart, is caught smack dab in the middle of a tug-of-war between me and the young lady who is serving as recruitment chair. The problem is that my other college kiddo is on track (fingers crossed) to graduate from Texas A&M in August, and this milestone and our family celebration of it conflict with the first few days of the two-week recruitment period. When my daughter tried to explain that she would be absent those days and why, the recruitment chair told her 1) she had to provide proof of the upcoming graduation, and 2) demanded that she return to Lubbock ready to work on August XX, otherwise she would be fined for "unapproved absences" to the tune of $100.00/day.
This is the sort of thing that lights my fuse like no other; the nerve of her thinking a membership drive takes precedence over a college graduation! I fired off an email to the young lady, and told her she was in no position to make demands. The only thing that kept me from telling her she could take her "proof" and stuff it where the sun don't shine was my daughter's panicked request that I not be too rude. "I know how you can be, sometimes," she texted. Boy, she knows me too well.
Is it any wonder I feel a certain kinship with the long-ago citizens of Troy?
Trojan horse: http://sonyaandtravis.com/tag/trojan-horse/
Jeans and shoes: credits not available
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