Wednesday, September 28, 2011


In Northwest Illinois at this time of year the turning of the leaves and the dropping of the temperature signals the autumn season. It also flips the switches inside the pea-brains of the common squirrel and puts them in act-squirrelier-than-usual mode.

As if they aren't a pest enough throughout the summer with their cavorting around on telephone wires, barking at me when I'm sitting in the yard swing, and teasing the neighbor's dogs.

Our neighbor on one side of us has three dogs that go ballistic at the sight of a squirrel, so naturally the squirrels make their presence known. They take turns waiting until the dogs are laying down and quiet, then they make a mad dash for the tree, scamper up it in a flash, then park their squirrely butts on a branch just out of reach of the dogs and bark at them the equivalent of a squirrel "neener, neener, neener!" which makes the dogs slobber, bark, run around the tree, trying to climb the tree, etc. This can and has gone on for hours.  Just as the dogs finally settle down, the furry neighborhood terrorists climb down and scamper to another tree, and the cycle begins again. 

Our neighborhood is full of the chattering things, not least of all because the neighbor on the other side of us feeds them. All year 'round.  Last winter I looked out and saw an even dozen squirrels in a back yard in various positions of eating field corn off the cob and stealing food from bird feeders. A dozen fat, furry squirrels. As the neighbor said, it was a good crop last winter.

And talk about a sense of entitlement!  I'm really grateful the squirrels let the rest of us live in THEIR neighborhood!  I planted sunflowers, and the seed heads were stripped before they even got ripe, and the squirrels did it. I saw them. They hang upside down from the top of the big seed heads, and shovel in the seeds like there's no tomorrow.

I really think they are all in cahoots. They do surveillance, post their lookouts, then ransack the garden.  And not only sunflower heads. They also are partial to tomatoes, but only the ones that are red, ripe and juicy.  I didn't dare leave any tomatoes on the plants to ripen. As soon as they showed any color I picked them before the squirrels took a bite out of them. And that's exactly what they do, take one bite out of a ripe tomato and head for the next one.

And that bring me back to this time of year. The squirrels are running amok, digging up the yard, crapping all over and burying things for the winter that they'll forget all about. I had a lot of corn sprout last summer, and I didn't plant any of it. The worst is walnut seeds if they sprout.  It's got such a long tap root you almost have to dig them out.

They can be irritating, especially when you've got one eating on your house. But aside from that, they are just doing what they do best. So watch out for the critters this autumn season. You know they're not right in the head at this time of year especially. So when they dart out in front of your car, give them a break and brake. When they clean out your bird feeder, just fill it again. It's no use trying to stop them. They may have pea-brains, but they are persistent. One way or another, they'll figure it out.

They can be fun to watch,  even when they bark at you when your sitting in a screened in porch. And when the cats are sitting in the window the squirrels give them something to watch.  Like I said, they're just doing what they do best...acting squirrely.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where's The Elk?

A few years ago, my wife at the time (may she rest in peace) and I took an Amtrak trip to Flagstaff, Arizona to see my Big Brother. He moved out there after he retired from the local steel mill. It was a good trip, and we were in no hurry. Good thing, as it took 26 hours to get there from where we lived.  It was my first time on a long train trip, and I had enough strange stuff happen on the train that I could write a story about it. But that's for another time.

Big Brother was a great host, took us all over the area including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  He's also a gourmet cook, so we ate really well too. One day while he was driving us around Flagstaff I said to him, "I keep seeing all these BEWARE OF ELK SIGNS all over the place. We've been here three days and I haven't seen hide nor hair of no damn elk."

"What do you think, those signs are there for the hell of it?" he said. "There's more elk around here than you can shake a stick at."

"The proof is in the seein' and I ain't seen no damn elk!" I said as we passed yet another elk sign.

"All right, smart guy," said Big Brother. "You wanna see elk, I know a place where I guarantee you'll see elk.  Every evening the elk come to feed just outside of town. I'll take you there tonight, just as it starts to get dark."

"Yeah. Sure!" I said.

"Just you wait. You'll see!" he said as he wagged a finger at me.

Segue to after supper when dusk was slowly starting to fall. "Get your ass in the van and take your camera!" he said, "And you'll see an elk!"

My wife and I got into the van. She sat in front and I rode in the back. We drove for a spell and came to a turnoff onto a dirt road. We went down it, and as we made the bend in the road Big Brother gently brought the van to a halt at the side of the road.

"Okay smart guy, where's the elk?" I said.

"SHHHHH! you'll scare him off!" he said in a whisper. "Their hearing is really good! Keep your mouth shut and look over there," he said as he pointed out the window.  My eyes strained in the coming darkness, and then I saw it. "There it is! I see it!" I whispered. An elk as big as you please!
"Told you," said Big Brother. "If you move real slow and don't make any noise you might be able to get out of the van and take a picture of it."

I opened the door of the van and slowly slid out of the seat. I walked on the dirt and rocks of the road like it was egg shells so as not to make any noise. I circled around the back of the van and leaned up against the back of the van to steady my hand to take a picture. It was then I noticed the van was moving so slightly. I looked through the back window and saw Big Brother bouncing up and down in the seat. I crept up to his side window and looked in and saw that he was pointing at the elk and laughing. And so was my wife. I looked at the elk again, and it was standing as still as a statue. It took me a minute to soak it all in before I noticed something:

I've seen elk before, but doggone if this wasn't the first one I'd ever seen that had a SEAM going around the middle of it!  Big Brother rolled down his window and couldn't control himself. "You dummy! BAW HAW HAW! You fell for it! I don't believe you really FELL FOR IT! You took the hook, line, sinker, pole, boat, anchor and half the lake! BAW HAW HAW!!!"  I looked over at my wife. Her face was red and tears rolled down her cheeks as she tried to catch her breath between the giggles.

There was nothing left to do but get back in the van. Big Brother said, "Did you see the bear, wild boar, turkey and deer too?  They're practice targets for bow hunters, bone-head!" Sure enough, I looked out the window and saw the other fake critters.  They both finally quit laughing after what seemed to be a long time, and we went back to Big Brother's house.

That all happened a long time ago. I don't get a chance to see Big Bro much anymore, but I'll be darned if every time that I do, I get reminded of all the elk that are in Flagstaff, Arizona.  I'd like to say that I'll never trust Big Brudder again, but after all these years of being duped I can't honestly say he won't 'get' me again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Shocking Childhood

There's one thing about growing up in a family of seven kids. There was always something going on.  That's not to say that was always a good thing, but it was seldom boring.

I was the next to the youngest, with my younger brother being sick a lot and everyone else quite a bit older than me except for the next oldest brother to me. He's five years older than me. Yes, the same one that's  in the Bats In My Belfry story.  And it's strange how things worked themselves out when we got older. We're pretty close now, probably because we finally quit messing with each other long enough to realize we've got a lot in common.  But it sure wasn't that way when we were younger.  He used to pick on me something fierce. He would hop out of the top bunk in the middle of the night and scare the bejeezus out of me. Throw me in the pitch-dark closet and lock the door and not let me out for awhile. I was afraid of the dark until I was in my twenties because of that.  But I'd get even.  I'd do things that I knew he'd get blamed for because Mom and Dad would NEVER suspect ME. So I'd take sweet revenge watching as Dad would holler and sometimes take off his belt and whack him on the ass with it.  But in the long run, I'd pay for whatever revenge I got. Big Brother was pretty creative and definitely conniving, and with five years on me, I didn't have a chance.

On one particular Saturday afternoon, all of my siblings were outside or gone except for Big Brother. He was sitting in the living room on the floor with a contraption in front of him on the coffee table that looked something like the thing in the picture above. But instead of the light bulb, there were two long wires attached to it.

I was probably around eight or nine, and I had no idea what it was. "What's that thing?" I asked.
 Big Brother stared at the thing and said, "It's a worm shocker."
"A what?"
" A worm shocker, stupid. Don't you know what a worm shocker is?"
"No. What is it?"
He rolled his eyes, put his hands out towards me with impatience and said, "You know, worms? What we go fishin' with? I'm making a machine that will make them wiggle out of the ground so we don't have to dig them anymore. Give 'em a shock of electricity and they'll wiggle out of the ground and jump right into our bait box."
"Naw. You're lyin'," I said. It wouldn't have been the first time he had told me a whopper, that's for sure.
"Ain't lyin', and I'll prove it." He grabbed one of the long wires in each hand and said, "Here. Grab this bare part of the wire in each hand, hold your arms as far apart as you can,  and I'll show you!"

I should have known better, even if I was only eight or nine. As soon as I grabbed the wires and held my arms apart, he started cranking furiously. I felt the jolt of electricity run through each hand and arm and it met in the middle. It was the first time I had ever gotten any kind of electrical shock, and I thought I was going to die.

I fell to the floor, crying and screaming. I tried to let go of the wires, but I couldn't. I was writhing on the floor and through my teary eyes I saw Mom run into the living room. She had a broom in her hand and she yelled at Big Brother, "Stop it! You're killing him!"

But Big Brother cranked like a madman, his tongue sticking out in grim determination. Mom started beating him with the broom and continued to yell at him. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally quit cranking the hand generator, I finally could let go of the wires. My face was red, wet with tears and snot, and it was all I could do to crawl up on the couch. My body felt like all my bones had turned to mashed potatoes.  Mom kept hollering at him, and I heard, "Wait until your Father gets home!" But I don't remember much else that happened after that. But I do know I never saw the hand generator again.  Either Big Brother or one of the others finally did build a worm shocker out of a steel rod, lamp cord and electrical tape but Dad found it and threw it away which was just as well.

I've told this story to many people, and some that know me have had a look of  discovery on their faces after the telling.  No doubt they thought I got the way I am because I was dropped on my head once too often but no, it was something even more shocking than that...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bats In My Belfry

Bats are a most valuable creature of nature. One single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in a night. Imagine how many more bugs there'd be on those hot summer nights without bats.  A small colony of 150 big brown bats can keep in check over 33 million root worms every year, making them an asset to farmers. Bats are also pollinators of many different plants around the world, such as the barrel cactus and saguaro cactus of the American southwest. Professional growers depend on bats to pollinate bananas, almonds, peaches and other crops. And let's not forget a most important 'product' of bats: bat crap! Entire ecosystems thrive at the bottom of bat caves in the guano (it's such a special crap that it even has its own name), and it has one of the richest nitrogen counts of any fertilizer. Having said all of that, let me also say I hate the little bastards!

Let me explain. As long as the little devils stay outside, they're great. The minute they get inside of a house I'm living in, they're not!  I was raised in an old two-story house that no matter what my Dad did to repair the place or fill in any possible ways of entrance, there was at least a bat or two in the house every year. Of course the fact that the house was surrounded by bat condominiums, big elm trees (before dutch elm disease killed them all) made sure there were a lot of bats in our neck of the woods. We'd sit outside at night in the summer to beat the heat and watch them swoop down to catch the bugs and all. My older brothers would get brooms to try and catch them, but bats are real good about avoiding brooms.

That's one reason why they're so hard to catch when they get in the house. Almost impossible to do when they're on the fly. When they roost on something is when you can nail 'em. That is if you're not like me and peeing down both legs. I admit, I hate them in the house. Scared to DEATH of them in the house. Despite me being a big man, despite my Dad telling me they were more afraid of me than I was of them (a total impossibility I might add), and no matter how much logic I use on myself, I've finally decided to just admit my batophobia. Everyone's afraid of something, I suppose.

I've got many a tale to tell about bats in the house from my childhood. But with my Dad home, I knew that the most fearless bat-catcher in the world would save me. I can remember the hot summer  nights, tossing and turning in the sweat-dampened sheets trying to sleep, when I'd see a bat flitting over my bed.  I know  the common little brown bat is small, but when you're a kid scared to death of them and one flits over your head in bed they look as big as a buzzard.  I'd pull the sheet over my head, and scream bloody murder. My Dad would holler out of their bedroom "What's wrong?" and I'd holler back, "It's a b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bat!"

So Dad would mutter a cuss word or two, get up out of bed and grab a pair of pants or blue jeans draped over the foot board of my bed. He'd stand in the hallway in the dim light, waiting for the bat to fly by. As soon as the bat showed up, Dad would knock him down with the pants or shirt, usually on the first try. He'd throw the shirt or pants over the bat, reach in underneath it and grab the bat. The damned thing was screeching and making clicking noises that sent chills down my spine. He'd take the bat downstairs, go outside, put the bat on the sidewalk with a brick on top of it and step on it to kill it. This was way before the days of bat-protection laws. He'd then come back upstairs and go to bed. As for me, I'd lay in bed bug-eyed and wouldn't sleep for a week.

The most embarrassing bat incidents happened when I was a teenager.  The house I grew up in had no bath tub, but it did have a shower in the basement. I would shower down there, and every once in awhile there'd be a bat in the basement. It usually happened in the winter. Dad told me that the bats would come in from outside for the winter and roost in the basement, kind of hibernating, and the warmth from the hot shower would wake them up. Whatever the reason, the results of a bat in the shower were always the same. A mad, dash up the basement stairs, sometimes with a towel, sometimes bare naked.  I had no choice in the matter. The tell-tale outlines of bat wings made my feet move a lot faster than my brain.

But without a doubt the strangest bat incident happened when I was out of school and working. My parents and little brother went on vacation, and I had to stay home because of my job.One day there was a knock at the door, it was my older brother. To make a very long story short, seemed he got into a little mischief, wrecked his car and needed a place to crash for a few days while his wife got over her angry.  I agreed as long as he promised to mind his p's and q's and stay out of 'mischief'.

A few days later I came home in the evening, opened the door and went into the living room and turned on the light and the TV.  As soon as I did, a bat swooped out of the darkness of the kitchen. I ran out of the house as fast as I could, and went to my sister's house. I picked up my brother-in-law and we went back to catch the critter, but he was just as scared as I was, so he told me to spend the night with them and we'd take care of it in the morning.

After I'd been at their house for awhile, I suddenly remembered my brother. He was working second shift and would be home at 11:00 PM. It was a quarter after eleven, so I figured I best call him and tell him about our 'visitor'.  He answered the phone and I asked him, "You see our visitor yet?"  He didn't know what I was talking about, but then I heard him cuss and heard the phone hit the wall. So now I had no choice. Leaving my brother alone in a house with a bat was not a good thing. I had to go home and make sure the house was still in one piece.

When I turned the corner to get home I could hear a racket all the way down the street. It was coming from our house.  Every light was on in the house. The TV, radio, stereo, were all going full volume. My brother met me at the door with an old German army helmet on, a fish landing net in one hand and a badminton racket in the other.  All the noise was to "mess up the bat's radar",  the lights were to blind it, the net and badminton racket were to try and catch it, and the helmet was to keep the bat out of his hair.

We searched the house for awhile with no luck. Then my brother found the bat hanging on the bathroom light fixture and with one swoop of the landing net caught the devil! He took it outside and put it under an old washtub until morning. By this time it was past midnight, and we both went to bed.

My Dad was a wise man in a lot of things, and one of the bits of wisdom he gave me was that when you catch a bat that's been in the house, don't let it go. It'll find its way back in. My brother helped prove the validity of that when he got a twinge of sympathy for the bat and let it loose the next morning, because a few weeks later it was back in the house. This time, Dad and Mom were back from vacation, and old dead-eye Dad caught the creepy thing and disposed of it.  Now you may ask how I know it was the same bat. Could've been another one, right?  Nope. It was the same one. This is my story, and I'm sticking to it...

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