I want to focus this column on thanking all of the dedicated litterers out there, who help to make our community a better place. I also want to apologize to you collectively. I must confess that in the past I have harbored ill will toward you. I considered you to be selfish, slovenly, inconsiderate slobs who bore no appreciation for the beauty of our state and who did not respect the rights and property of others. However, a series of recent experiences have shown me how wrong I have been and have helped me to understand your true selfless nature. I only hope that you can forgive me, and that future insinuations by uninformed people like me will not discourage or deter you from your noble life’s work.
The first event that triggered the beginning of my mental paradigm shift occurred just a stone’s throw up Tanana Loop Extension from my house. In that location yawns an old gravel pit. Concrete barricades have blocked off its two entrances. However, enough room remains before the barriers for a vehicle to pull off of the road, and at the entrance closest to my house, a vehicle can actually drive deep enough into the trees and brush to be nearly out of sight of the road.
Not long ago, it so happened that I had left my house and started for town. However, realizing I had forgotten something, I pulled into this particular gravel pit entrance to turn around. The shocking sight that met my eyes spiked my blood pressure until I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears. My head throbbed like a drumming grouse during mating season. Above the cacophony, I could barely hear my own voice shouting things in a distorted, strangled tone.
“What kind of an idiot would be so stinking lazy as to drive in here and dump a pick-up load of jumbo trash bags stuffed with garbage into the bushes? This is absolutely unconscionable! I wish I had been hiding behind this barrier with a baseball bat when they showed up! The unmitigated morons! Who do they think is going to clean this mess up…”
I said some other things too, which weren’t nearly so nice. However, once the flickering red haze behind my eyeballs had subsided, I was able to take a closer look. As I did so, the wisdom of the gravel pit dumpers began to emerge. I saw that most of the trash bags were torn open, and that the contents had been distributed in a wide swath around the area. From rosebushes fluttered plastic grocery bags. Soda cans glinted among the alders. Empty cereal boxes nestled upon the sphagnum. It was clear that some animal had torn open the bags and scattered the trash.
I knew that there were only two possibilities. The animal that had made this mess had either been wild or domesticated. Whichever was true the creature had been clearly hungry. It began to dawn on me that the litterers had served our community in two ways. First, they had provided a welcome dietary change for any poor little bunnies or squirrels or grizzly bears out there who were tired of eating their boring natural fare. Secondly, the litterers had drawn the roaming neighborhood dogs away from my trashcan, saving me many sleepless nights and the cost of several shotgun shells. Thank you, my littering friends!
The second event that continued to reshape my appreciation for our community litterbugs occurred on Community Clean-up Day. It was then that I with Boy Scout Troop 56 took a yellow bag in hand and walked the stretch of road between the Deltana Fairgrounds and Delta Building Supply. Oh the wonders we did meet! The variety and quantity of man-made debris that we encountered was humbling.
For instance, in a one-mile stretch we collected about 250 discarded foam coffee cups. A quick calculation reveals this number to be precisely the number of workdays minus weekends and holidays since Troop 56 last cleaned that stretch of street. I don’t know who you are, but out there is some honest workingman who every morning on his way to the job buys a cup of coffee, finishes it at a certain point in his commute, and chucks the cup out of his window.
I salute you, brave coffee drinker! Without your consistent and tireless effort, the Boy Scouts would be sitting around with no way to accumulate their community service hours. Without community service hours there can be no rank advancement, and with no rank advancement, they could never achieve Eagle Scout. In fact, it is because of unsung heroes like you, O anonymous coffee cup litterer, that the rest of the world has heard of famous Eagle Scouts such as William Bennett, Gerald Ford, Steven Spielberg, William Westmoreland, Neil Armstrong, Donald Rumsfeld and H. Ross Perot.
Another interesting and valuable piece of trash that the Boy Scouts were lucky enough to discover consisted of a large glossy picture which appeared to have at one time been stapled into the center of a magazine. This particular photographic representation captured the image of a healthy young lady who appeared to be relaxing in the privacy of her home.
I believe the young scout who discovered this was able to instantly check off several requirements for both his Family Life and Medicine merit badges, not to mention that it gave the other scouts a chance to practice their first aid skills when the aforementioned scout fainted dead away with the exhilaration of his discovery. With any luck, perhaps this young man will be inspired to go on to medical school and become a world-famous gynecologist. Thank you, litterers for making our scouting saga so rich and memorable!
The third litter experience became the final catalyst, which served to coalesce my evolving new appreciation for litterers into an inexorable worldview. On Memorial Day weekend, some friends and I took a little biking/camping trip. On Friday evening we topped the final rise before Meadows Road dips down into the camping area at Twin Lakes. It was a gorgeous day.
Before us, the white-capped mountains rose in rugged majesty. A light wind rippled the placid waters of the lakes. The fresh spring leaves fluttered in greeting. Birds chirped, squirrels chattered. An old pair of soiled infant’s pants welcomed us from the underbrush. The shredded remnants of somebody’s sweater added a festive touch of color to the mosaic of charred logs, half melted plastic containers and smashed beer cans in the fire pit. Rusted steel debris, broken bottles and food wrappers adorned the campsite. It made one proud to be an Alaskan!
Not only would we have the opportunity to enjoy the pristine Alaskan wilderness, but we would also be comforted by the sights and smells of civilization. Years ago when I was a kid venturing off on overnight camping trips in the remote country around Moose Hole, Alaska, there were times when the virgin wilderness could be downright scary. A mile from the road, raw antiquity swallowed you up. Except for the items you carried in, there was no way to tell that mankind had ever set foot in the place. It could have been 5000 years previous for all the evidence to the contrary.
That’s unnerving. It activates the imagination. I would sit on the moss in the lee of a massive ageless white spruce and almost believe that a saber-toothed tiger or a lumbering mastodon or a Hyracotherium might emerge from the willow thicket at any moment. There was no trace of smog in the air, and with the exception of the occasional distant drone of an airplane, the only sounds to be heard were those of wild animals and birds and 325.9 million mosquitoes.
How much better it felt now to be able to glance around and see confirmation that people did indeed inhabit this planet. It only took a half hour to clear away enough trash to have room to pitch our tents. Some items had to be moved a little further away than others since their particular smells of civilization seemed to be a couple of weeks old and had developed a full-bodied bouquet.
It took about an hour and a half to clear the campsite of broken glass. This provided a welcome bit of aerobic exercise after our relatively sedentary three-hour uphill bike trip. By the time we were able to begin preparing supper we had all sunk into the delicious bliss of fatigue. It was a good kind of tired. Only a person who has put in a good day’s work can appreciate the satisfaction of complete mental and physical exhaustion. We gulped down our Mountain House supper, drank some Tang, and then picked our way through the trash piles to collapse into our sleeping bags. We allowed sleep to abduct us.
When we awoke the next morning, however, our work had just begun. Being a strong advocate of the “Leave no Trace” philosophy of camping, I always strive to leave a campsite as close to nature as possible. This means, of course, that not only do we pack out everything we brought in, but we also pack out everything that anyone else has not packed away from the campsite within the past century.
Our daypacks and bike panniers were going to have to exceed their recommended load capacity. Our bicycle load tolerances would be over limit as well. What a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate the rugged quality of our equipment. What an excellent chance for a cardiovascular workout! I cannot thank you enough, all you litterers extraordinaire! Not only did you provide reassurance of humankind’s existence on our lonely vigil, but you also helped us get into shape. Not to mention the fact that you helped to stimulate the economy by keeping my chiropractor busy in the days since the camping trip. Kudos!
I only hope that someday I can return the sacrificial service with which you litterers have enriched our great state. Perhaps I will someday discover your identity. Maybe I will be driving behind you and catch you throwing a coffee cup or beer can out of your car window. Maybe I will arrive at a campsite just as you are breaking camp and can witness what you neglect to take with you. Maybe I will actually be hiding behind that concrete barrier with my baseball bat, waiting for you.
However it occurs, when I find out who you are, I will bless you and your posterity to many generations. I will pour out upon your property my bags of trash at every available opportunity. I will stack it on your porch and scatter it across your driveway. I will splatter it on your house and dribble it upon your car. May you experience in some small measure the joy and fulfillment that you have brought into my life and the lives of the Boy Scouts of America and other fine citizens of this community.
With America’s most recent election cycle recently behind us (depending on who you talk to), Americans once again have demonstrated the genius of the unmatched form of government forged for us by the far-reaching wisdom of our nation’s founding fathers. It is inspiring to know that we common citizens, no matter how insignificant we may think of ourselves, can actually help hire the next President of the United States. One person, one vote, one ballot—this is our inviolable right and sacred duty. By casting a secret and secure ballot, we can each have a voice in choosing the man or woman who most closely represents our interests…or something like that.
When I think of the flawlessly fair and consummately just election system that our nation has perfected over the last 200 years, it makes me grovel in embarrassment to think how we ran things back in Moose Hole when it came time to elect new officers to the Wolverines Club. My only defense of the Wolverines’ scandalous voting process is that we were kids and didn’t know any better.
The Wolverines Club was originally the brainstorm of Anika Van der Veen. She even typed the whole idea up on her mom’s manual typewriter. The way the smudged and heavily whited-out document explained it, the purpose of the Wolverine Club was as follows:
“We, the Kids of Moose Hole, Alaska, anorder to:
do ordane and istablesh this Contusion of the Wolverine Club of Moose Hole, Alaska, till death do a spart on are word of onner.”
Her “Contusion” went on for several long, boring pages, detailing the way the club was supposed to work. However, we had to admit that the idea of a club sounded irresistibly mysterious. Besides, it would be great to have reinforcements if “Armpit” Hodges caught one of us by the gravel pit and tried to throw us in. After a lively discussion, everyone signed the Contusion at the bottom–except for Larry Fred. Larry was the last to sign and there wasn’t enough space at the bottom because Walrus Fahnestock had scribbled his signature about three inches high in purple crayon…so Larry signed the back instead. Thus the Wolverine Club was born.
The next step was to elect officers. Anika explained that we needed three different departments in the club. That way, each department could keep an eye on the other departments to make sure nobody cheated or got too bossy. The three departments would be called the Expletive Department, the Laxative Department, and the Prejudicial Department.
First, we were to elect two people to the Expletive Department, namely a “Grand High Muck-a-muck”, and a “Slightly Lower Muck-a-muck”. They were kind of like the official spokespersons of the Wolverines and were expected to have lots of great ideas for fun things to do on the weekends. If the Grand High Muck-a-muck’s mom grounded him or something, the Slightly Lower Muck-a-muck would fill in for him until he was allowed to come out and play.
To the Laxative Department we were to elect a “Centaur” and a “Reprehensible”. Their job was to make up the rules for any games, cook up fiendish punishments for trouble-making Wolverines, collect and plan how to spend the club money, and decide when it was time to break “Armpit” Hodges’ armpits. Oh, yeah! The Laxative department could also add a postscript to the Contusion if they were in the mood.
Finally, the newly elected Grand High Muck-a-muck was to appoint two “Supreme Court Jesters”. They had to memorize Anika’s Contusion. If a Wolverine was suspected of behavior prohibited by the Contusion, the Jesters would be consulted. After pondering the matter, they would either send the hapless victim to the Laxatives for a dose of punishment, or tell his accusers to stop being tattle-tales.
It was kind of like the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. The Reprehensible and the Centaur could “peach” the Grand High Muck-a-muck by pelting him with rotten fruit if he got too bossy. They could also give a random and unprovoked wedgie to any Supreme Court Jester to whom they took a dislike. To repay them for a wedgie given to his appointed Jester, however, the Grand High Muck-a-muck could turn around and cancel any punishment that the Laxatives were about to wreak on somebody.
In addition, the Grand High Muck-a-muck could “Vito” any rule the Laxatives made up by writing the rule on a piece of paper and feeding it to Felica Bianchi’s baby brother, Vito, who would eat anything you put in his mouth. In revenge, the Laxatives could un-“Vito” their endangered rule by tickling Vito until he spat it out. If it was still legible after being wrung out and air dried, then the rule stuck. Literally. Vito’s slobber was like glue.
By the time Anika got finished explaining all this, our eyes were crossed and we were beginning to pine for the good old days of oblivious anarchy. Larry Fred stifled a yawn and raised his hand. “Excuse me, but how are we supposed to know who to vote for?”
Anika rolled her eyes at Larry’s naiveté and answered with exaggerated condescension. “Somebody has to champagne, of course!”
That got Walrus Fahnestock’s attention. He belched and heaved himself to his feet. “That’s what I’m talking about! I’ll be a champagner! I’ll even vodka if you want me to!”
It took a while, but finally Anika was able to break it down into simple language. Basically, anybody who wanted an important job in the Wolverine Club had to brag enough to convince the majority that no one else could do the job as well as them. It seemed to be very similar to a game of “King of the Mountain”.
Champagning started the next day. Both Rory Smithers and Jerry Fendlin wanted to be the Grand High Muck-a-muck, so Rory quickly reminded us of his endless fountainhead of devious creativity which had kept us entertained for years. He cited the mud pie battles of ’81 and the time we snuck into Old Man Hanley’s cabin and shaved his cat bald. Both of these episodes of coolness and extreme levity, he proudly reminisced, had originated with him, and if we picked him, he could promise many more to come.
Jerry countered that such stunts were the last thing the Wolverine Club needed. Had we so soon forgotten the repercussions that had followed close on the heels of those particular incidents? It had been no thanks to Rory’s harebrained caper that any of us had survived the wrath of our mothers upon seeing our mud-encrusted clothing. Furthermore, did we not jolt awake every morning with a stark flashback of Old Man Hanley’s cane beating a tattoo upon our tender skulls upon discovering us in the act of shaving his beloved “Fluffy”? No, as Grand High Muck-a-muck, he would steer the Wolverines into activities far more fitting the dignity and decorum of this generation of promising young Moose Holians.
By the weekend, the champagne was heating up. Jerry began accusing Rory of being a Boogerhead, pointing out that only babies would be stupid enough to vote for him. In response, Rory produced Jerry’s family photo album containing a picture which seemed to show Jerry doing a pirouette while wearing a pink tutu. When Jerry’s little brother Petey protested that the picture was actually their cousin Doris at ballet class with Jerry’s face pasted on it, Rory offered Petey a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Petey suddenly came down with a bad case of indigestion and had to stay home in bed until after the election.
Elections were planned for a Saturday. In an unexpected twist, on Friday Walrus Fahnestock decided he was going to run for Grand High Muck-a-muck too. That split Jerry’s tenuous support base, which had suffered a rash of deserters after the tutu disclosure.
The same day, Anika announced at school that there would be a debate that evening. All of the aspiring Grand High Muck-a-mucks would sit on chairs in a row on her front porch, the Wolverines would gather in the yard to listen, and “Weasel” Conklin would ask the candidates a series of questions. It seemed like a great way to give them all a fair and equal chance to be heard.
When the time for the debate rolled around, everyone was startled to discover that Jill Smorkstini was sitting on the porch along with Rory, Jerry, and Walrus. Jill claimed that she had been champagning for the job of Grand High Muck-a-muck for nearly as long as Jerry. When we asked why she hadn’t informed us of this, she explained that she had tried to do so on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, every time she opened her mouth, Rory or Jerry would come charging up, shove her aside and begin champagning loudly.
She had put up posters on the bulletin boards at school and the post office, but they were torn down as soon as she turned her back. She had also placed hand-written notes on everyone’s desks, but had personally witnessed Walrus remove them. She stated that this had occurred immediately after a large cream-filled donut had been transferred from Rory’s lunchbox to Walrus’ mouth.
At that point, Rory grew indignant that Jill was “holding up the debate process with her petty allegations” and demanded she be thrown off the porch. However, Anika confirmed that Jill had indeed been an official champagner from the beginning, so she was allowed to stay. Weasel cleared his throat and began.
Most of Weasel’s questions were directed to Rory and Jerry. Regardless of the question, Rory and Jerry would answer by reading from one of a half dozen index cards they had prepared. They read something like this: “I’m glad you asked that, Weasel. This issue has always been important to me and my past performance clearly demonstrates that I have always stood strong on this issue. I promise that the trust of Moose Holians will not be misplaced if you give me the honor of becoming your Grand High Muck-a-muck tomorrow. My opponents, on the other hand, will stomp your pet kitty to death and throw your toys in the river if you vote for them.”
Near the end of the debate, Weasel had a single question for Jill. “Miss Smorkstini, do you think your bed wetting problem will hurt your chances tomorrow?” Jill opened her mouth to reply, but just then the buzzer went off and the debate was over.
Rory won. He received 12 votes. With 8 votes, Jerry became the Slightly Lower Muck-a-muck. Walrus had 4 and Jill had 0. Jill’s brother Jack, Felicia Bianchi, Donna Sam and Larry Fred all claimed to have voted for Jill, but even after Walrus recounted, he only found one vote for her. Of course he was so busy eating a huge donut that he might have missed a vote or two.
Yep, we were crazy when we were kids. I sure am glad stuff like that doesn’t go on it the real world. Wouldn’t that be a bummer?
Did you hear it? I was outside collecting a winter’s accumulation of trash that the melting snow had uncovered in my yard when I heard it. It was a distinctively metallic sound with a frequency lower than the bass limit of a humpback whale’s vocal range. It seemed to have its epicenter about a mile and a half directly beneath my feet. “SPROING!” There was no mistaking what it was. Spring had officially sprung.
Not everybody is lucky enough to hear Spring springing. In fact, I rarely hear it myself. That is why it’s a good idea to learn to recognize some other heralds of Spring’s arrival. In the Lower Forty-Eight, people depend on their calendar to inform them when Spring has sprung. I guess that’s because to them, Spring is mostly a formality—an honorary title bestowed on a quarter of their year to break up the monotony of a thermometer that never fluctuates more than a hundred degrees.
Well, Spring may arrive precisely on its Equinox to accommodate folks in Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Phoenix and Puyallup, but here in Alaska, Spring is a fickle and capricious guest. It is, however, accompanied by some unmistakable indicators, and once one has trained himself to recognize these, he can know when Alaska has sprung from year to year. Let me discuss three of the most obvious and accurate indicators. As a mnemonic aid, I’ll use the initials DWT.
“D” stands for the biggie. Daylight. It’s amazing how a little sunshine can change people’s personality. You can chart the amount of sunshine an Alaskan is getting on a Winnie the Pooh energy scale. Two months ago, my wife had all the spontaneity and vivaciousness of Eeyore. Nowadays she is Kanga. I anticipate that by June she will have ramped up to Tigger. Unfortunately by the end of January she will regress to a genuine hefalump. At any rate, when you begin to see that vaguely familiar yellow glow in the sky, you know that Spring is not far behind.
Then you have “W”. That stands for Waterfowl. You hear them long before you see them. “Honk hoohonk. Hohoohonk. Hoohonk. Hohoonk. Hohoohonk!” “Quack! Quack. Waaa-waak, Quawa-wa-wawack.” That’s the sweet sound of arriving Spring.
I like to talk to them as they fly over:
“Hey, guys! Welcome back!”
“How was your flight?”
I even tried talking in Goose once, but I don’t think I got it right. Goose has a peculiar nasal quality, and it requires some practice to get the accent on the right syllable. On the Spring in question, I was out in my field when a squadron came flapping over, just clearing the treetops. I introduced myself. “Hoohonk!” The lead gander jerked and skipped a couple of wing beats, causing the geese at 5:00 o’clock and 7:00 o’clock to spin off into a barrel roll to avoid a collision. He snaked his long neck around to peer down at me. As he did so, the rhythm of the call began to falter. It started to sound like a traffic jam on a Manhattan expressway instead of a flock of Canadas. Soon the crisp, streamlined “V” had disintegrated into something that looked more like a paragraph of Braille profanity. I hadn’t realized before that the noise geese make is a cadence which keeps them flying in formation.
I don’t know what I had said in Goose, but in retrospect, I guess it had something to do with the lead gander’s resemblance to a raven with avian mange. He uttered a single commanding honk and a scruffy little gander, hardly bigger than a gosling, peeled off and dove toward me. Just when I thought he was going to crash into my face, he deployed his airbrakes and released his payload. Then he climbed back to rejoin the formation. The whole squadron was back in cadence by the time they disappeared beyond the treetops. As I wiped the payload off of my chagrined visage, I determined to copy no more bird noises. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that Spring had sprung.
Finally, I feel compelled to point out the most reliable Spring indicator of all. “T” stands for “tourons”. “Touron” is not a term original with me. I first ran across it in a paper stapled to a wall in Denali Park. Evidently a touron is an odd breed of creature that migrates by means of a motor home or a tour bus. The female of the species can be identified by a frizzy blue perm, while the male adorns his chest with a collection of cameras hanging from his neck. They seem to feed on souvenirs and their summer plumage consists of baseball caps and T-shirts with Alaska-themed logos. The most memorable characteristic of tourons, however, seems to be their inability to mentally process reality.
It is important to note that tourons must not be confused with tourists. Although tourists may look similar to tourons, and even may migrate together, they are not even the same species. Close observation will reveal that tourists exhibit social behaviors consistent with courtesy and respect. Tourists also possess common sense and the capacity for intelligent conversation. Tourons, on the other hand seem to believe that anything outside of the tour bus is their own private theme park, and that they are entitled to behave in any way they see fit, because: a) they paid for the ticket, and b) everything they encounter is a prop, set, or actor, placed there for their own private amusement.
With a straight face, a touron will ask something like, “Where do the Rangers keep all the animals in the winter time?” or, “Why doesn’t the administration clean that glacier? It has dirty streaks on it”. At first I thought they were simply uninformed and naïve people who were honestly seeking information. I would try to clear up their confusion for them, but the conversation would always deteriorate. I would end up drooling and twitching, whereupon the male would snap a picture of me with one of his cameras, and then walk off commenting loudly to his wife, “See, Ethel, I told you only a loony would live in Alaska on purpose!” Whereupon his wife would reply, “Why do you suppose he started shouting about four hundred and fifty-four castles when I showed him the photo you took of me petting that cute bear cub?” I used to scream after them, “That’s .454 Casull, you…you, tourons!” but I don’t bother anymore. I’ve come to a grudging appreciation of tourons. I acknowledge that at least the early arrivals are of value as harbingers of Spring.
I encountered my first touron of the season the other day. He was seated on a camp chair beneath the awning of his motor home. The motor home was parked beside a gravel pit, and he was holding one of those little collapsible fishing poles that you can fold up and throw in your back pack for emergencies. His bobber was floating in a skinny crack of open water between the ice floes in the pit.
“How’s the fishing?” I asked him.
“Not much biting yet, but I had a nibble. You catch many King Salmon outta here?”
I expertly masked my guffaw with a sneeze before replying, “Not lately, but I haven’t fished here much.”
“I heard that they really strike on pork rinds soaked in WD40.”
“Yeah, but you need to squirt the WD40 in your right eye first. It improves your casting aim.”
The touron brightened. “Hey, thanks for the tip, buddy. Say, are you an Eskimo?”
My blue eye winked conspiratorially, and I ran a hand through my wavy brown hair. “Yep. 6th generation. My ancestors came over on the Oomiak.”
He nodded knowingly. “I could tell.”
When he reached for his WD40 I knew it was time to leave. I was almost out of earshot when I heard the hiss of the release valve on the WD40 can. I couldn’t resist a glance over my shoulder. The cloud of lubricant mist was refracting the evening sunshine into a perfect rainbow. A startled flock of Canadas took off noisily from the far side of the gravel pit, startled by the touron’s sudden screams. I sighed with satisfaction. Yes, indeed. Spring had truly sprung.
Ah, Breakup! My favorite season of Alaska’s year. How oft during the tedious months of winter have I pined for these halcyon days? Now the time has come for long lost treasures to be relinquished from the icy talons of winter’s merciless grasp. Viruses, long dormant, can now be released into my bronchial passages to test the mettle of my immune system. The unyielding ground, softening beneath my feet, tenderly draws my finest dress shoes into its embrace until I find them enveloped in an undulating ocean of glistening mire, sloshing and gurgling in rapturous celebration of its emancipation.
My yard blossoms luxuriously with toilet paper tubes, discarded Kleenexes and utility bill stubs that had been sown to the arctic wind by a frostbitten raven rummaging for a snack in my burn barrel. These assorted relics of a bygone season had been imprisoned for five interminable months in the snowdrift that entombed them. As they unfurl to greet me now, I experience an unexpected surge of nostalgia. I look fondly down with a tremulous smile of reminiscence, my feet softly making rude noises in the goop of my yard.
That crumpled Kleenex represents the sinus infection that kept me in bed on Christmas Eve, trembling with the desire to throw a pillow at my guests whose boisterous guffaws around a game of Balderdash were robbing me of much-needed sleep. Yon Q-tip with the lingering orange-ish residue still discernible upon one cotton-swathed end had formerly daubed the cat scratches on my arm with Mercurochrome after Fluffy expressed her reluctance to be shaved into a Mohawk for her YouTube debut.
There’s the empty bubble card that I bought at the airport shop. It had contained two of the finest Ibuprofen tablets that $6.95 can buy. They had been imbibed in an oblation of appeasement to an airplane seat, who, angered that my somnolent drooling had stained its upholstery, had retaliated by using my neck as its own personal wad of Play-Doh. Ah, here’s an IGA receipt with blue plumber’s goop on it. That was the only scrap of paper I could find on which to wipe up my smears while attempting to restore burst water lines to functional status at –50o F.
Affectionately, I stoop to touch these mementos from the past. It troubles me that the sanctity of their funeral pyre had been so callously disturbed, but now I can give them a more appropriate farewell. They shall be borne back to the burn barrel to be cremated with great pomp and ceremony at the appointed time. But wait! It is not destined to be. Not yet. A Kleenex, saturated by breakup mud, smears into slime under my fingers. A packing peanut, degraded by Spring’s ultraviolet sunbeams, crumbles into grainy crumbs. The toilet paper tube rips soddenly as I tug on it. With its bottom side still frozen into a slab of ice, I am only able to retrieve a tiny flake that dangles moist and flaccid, pinched between my thumb and forefinger.
I am not disheartened. Breakup is upon me and the invigorating smell of Spring wafts joyfully into my flared nostrils. It smells like seven months worth of dog, horse, goat, and moose turds beginning to ripen upon exposure to the balmy air. It smells like the vast bog of accumulated motor oil, power steering fluid and radiator fluid that has formed in my parking spot, since being released from their cover of snow and ice. It smells like the revived decomposition of freshly thawed moose offal and fish guts and every small animal that died on my property during the long winter.
A pair of birds flies by, warbling a love song in two part harmony. They land on a birch branch and begin preening each other. Their courtship ritual fans a romantic ember in my breast. Their music reminds me of the lyrical melody of my own wife’s voice. I must go to the house and find my sweet, gentle spouse. I must bring her out here, and we must share this time together. Hand in hand we must slosh through the muck. We must inhale the pungent air and shiver enraptured under the spell of Breakup. Yes, I must Breakup with my wife, and I must do it now.
I turn toward the house to fetch her, but my way is barred by a puddle formed by run-off from the pasture. There is so much horse urine and goat berry tea in it that the nitrogen and phosphorus content is probably high enough to turn my forty acres into a smoking crater if somebody were to set off a blasting cap in that puddle. I chortle in anticipation of the lush dark green grass that will flourish on the site in a few weeks.
The bottom of the puddle is obscured. This is partly due to the murky brownish-amber contents. It is also due to the ammonia vapors rising from its surface which are burning my eyes. Undaunted, I respond to Love’s summons. I step carefully into it and begin my wade.
I had not anticipated that the bottom was still a sheet of ice! Suddenly, I become a cartoon character. My legs are churning madly as I sprint in place, futilely attempting to maintain my balance. My arms flail like windmill blades to no avail. I feel myself tipping backwards, yielding reluctantly to the demands of gravity. I throw myself sideways toward a small tree that stands barely within reach. My left hand closes around a branch just as the rest of my body does a spectacular triple backwards summersault.
My humerus head becomes a pestle, grinding my supraspinatus muscle into hamburger against the mortar of my scapula. That vivid moment of sensory input is enhanced by three or four audible reports, like rifle shots, each followed by a fading thrumming sound. It is the unmistakable sound of shoulder ligaments snapping in quick succession. Eager to put my college anatomy class to practical application, I identify the severed ligaments as corocoacromial, acromioclavicular, and glenohumeral respectively. My rotator cuff feels like a truck tire looks after a blowout on the Dalton Highway.
I decide to stop holding onto the branch. It doesn’t seem to be worth the effort somehow. The timing could have been planned more carefully. I happen to be in the phase of my summersault cycle in which my body is inverted in relation to its natural orientation. In short, I am upside down. The angle of landing strikes me as less than optimal. With cat-like reflexes I spin in midair so that I gracefully land on my face instead of the top of my head. The viscous puddle splashes spectacularly with my impact, and then falls back, molasses-like, to engulf my prostrate form.
If I had to break my nose, I am grateful to be able to do so on a slab of ice that therapeutically begins reducing swelling at the moment of impact. Many unfortunate people have to waste precious moments running all the way to their freezer to retrieve an ice pack for the same purpose. The downside, of course, is that the ice slab is submerged. Goat berry tea, while extremely healthful to plants, is not formulated to deliver nutrients effectively to a human when administered nasally. It also interferes with one’s airway, rendering it difficult to maintain one’s normal respiration process.
I decide that a brief application of ice is sufficient for the moment, and that I should perhaps move on to the next phase of trauma care, namely, elevation of the injured body part—at least above the surface of the water level. Precious air whooshes into my lungs.
My abrupt wheezing, whistling, screeching intake of this underappreciated commodity startles a flock of swans whose northward course happens to have brought them directly above my location at this precise moment. Like a squadron of Heinkel He117 Greifs over London, the swans release their payloads. The ammonia level of the puddle instantly spikes by 450%, and I begin to feel like a giant cupcake frosted by a diabolical 3-year-old with a slingshot and a bad case of attention deficit disorder. The frosting smells overpoweringly of extra-concentrated Spring!
By now there is nearly more magic in the Spring air than even I can stand. I drag myself to the edge of the puddle using my right hand and knees, my left arm trailing limply in my wake. Safe at last, on relatively dry land, I lay upon the squishy sod panting from the effort. Vaguely, I hear my son calling me.
“Hey, Dad! Catching some rays, huh? Look what I found. It’s left over from our New Year’s party.”
Ratcheting my wobbly head toward him, I attempt to focus on what he is brandishing. I’m not sure, but it appears to be a long skinny lollypop of some sort. “Watch this!” he whoops. A spark gives birth to a spurt of flame. Then a little string near the base of the lollipop begins to sputter with a hissing orange glow.
“I didn’t know we had any bottle rockets left.”
In slow motion I watch the hand with the match in it flick upward in a backhanded toss. The still burning match traces a trajectory over his shoulder and begins its descent toward the high octane puddle. As I will my mouth to work, a deep reverbrating bass tone, like a whale’s call oozes imperceptibly from my mouth.
…Ah, Heaven! My favorite destination. How oft during the tedious years of life have I pined for this halcyon place…
One of the perks of living in the beautiful, savage State of Alaska is the opportunity it affords me to sample a wide variety of exotic skin care products. The unique combination of low humidity, high wind and severe cold has a way of instantaneously freeze-drying my epidermis. Guys are supposed to scoff at the use of lotions and potions, but I don’t. I crave the stuff.
For a while, I too was afflicted by the macho mentality. Whenever my wife told me that I should take care of my skin, I’d shrug her off: “I’m fine. Just a little chapped, that’s all. I’m not going to rub any of that slimy stuff on me and walk around smelling like a giant peach.” Although I secretly craved relief, the thought of using a skin moisturizer felt like a betrayal of my masculinity. I would have sooner worn a scrunchy in my hair, or gotten a manicure.
Even when my fingertips cracked open and I began leaving bloody fingerprints on everything I touched, I refused to come to my senses. Eventually, I began to hear little tinkling sounds whenever I flexed my skin. I could hold my hand up to a bright light, make a fist, and watch a puff of dead skin cells explode in a veritable blizzard from my hide.
For a while it was a great gag. I would invite some friends over for an old black and white comedy-watching marathon. My wife would whip up a stock pot of spaghetti, and I would wait until everyone had settled around the boob tube with a plate full. Then as the tinny, old-fashioned theme music played on the opening credits, I would poke my hand in front of the screen and intone “…and now, ladies and gentlemen, we present the Hal Roach feature film, ‘Laurel and Hardy, lost in Antarctica!’” Then I would clench my fist.
My guy friends loved it, although their wives were less than amused. My wife, spoilsport that she is, put an end to it when everyone started complimenting her on the Parmesan cheese.
She didn’t serve any Parmesan cheese.
Wives have no sense of humor.
I didn’t start using lotion, though, until the Chihuahua and woodpecker incident that happened when I was Outside a number of years ago. It was a quick trip, while I was at the peak of a full-fledged flare-up of Winter Skin. The pivotal incident occurred as I was standing out behind my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania admiring the distinctive thick flaky bark that hung in peeling strips from their beloved stand of shagbark hickory trees.
I have a vague memory of hearing the hinges squeak on the back door of the house, simultaneous with the flutter of wings above my head. I had just begun to register a warm flowing sensation in the vicinity of my ankle when fireworks exploded in my head and I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, I was laying on Grandma’s claw-legged, wing-backed davenport with my head on a rolled up afghan, and she was pouring a bottle of cod-liver oil down my throat. My pounding head was swathed in a comfrey poultice, and Grandpa was talking.
“…now, Gertrude, you’re getting yourself too worked up. Why don’t you just give Georgie a chance to rest, and I’m sure he’ll be ok.”
“Elmer! How can you be so calm? Land Sakes, did you ever see anything like it? What do you suppose came over Taco? Bad, bad Taco! Bad doggie!”
Grandpa snorted. “Hah, nothing your spoiled mutt does could surprise me, but the thing that has me buffaloed is that bird! I have never seen a woodpecker light into a person before. The crazy thing just landed on his shoulder and started pecking at Georgie’s face like he thought he was a tree or something!”
My grandparents never have figured out what happened–but I knew. It wasn’t the animals’ fault. Standing there among those shagbark hickories with my winter skin, I must have looked like just another tree. Taco and the woodpecker were only being true to their instincts.
It was at that moment that I came to the realization that I had two options. I could audition for a movie role as Treebeard the Ent, or I could use some lotion. I figured that since Peter Jackson finished filming the Lord of the Rings movies years ago and probably won’t be making another version until they come out with holoprojector technology, I was fated to apply some skin moisturizer.
As soon as I had recovered from Grandma’s cod liver oil sufficiently to drive, I mumbled an excuse and drove up the road to the 7-11 convenience store. I grabbed a shopping basket and sidled over toward the health and beauty shelf. On the way, I snatched a Guns and Ammo magazine from the bookrack and made a show of thumbing through it. When I felt certain nobody was looking my direction, I backed up to a bottle with a picture of an aloe vera plant on it and nudged it with my elbow until it toppled into my basket. Quickly I dropped the magazine on top of it and headed for the Slim Jims and Twinkies as if that had been my original destination.
At checkout, my face flamed with embarrassment when the clerk lifted my magazine to reveal the telltale bottle of moisturizer. I stammered something about picking it up for my wife, threw a fifty on the counter and fled without bothering to wait for change.
My hand was shaking so badly, I could hardly slip the key into the ignition. My mouth was dry, and my heart pounded as I pulled out of the parking lot. Shifty-eyed, I searched for a secluded place to experience my first hit of skin lotion. About a quarter mile down the road I found it—a pullout behind a billboard, shielded by overhanging shrubbery.
I reached into the bag, took a deep breath, and drew my purchase into the open. I unscrewed the cap and tore off the safety seal. The bottom of the seal was coated with a layer of a smooth creamy substance that emitted a slightly herbal scent. It was nothing like the cheap perfume smell I had dreaded. Hesitantly, I touched it to the back of my hand.
The reaction was instantaneous! There was a sharp hissing sound as the lotion met my skin and evaporated in a geyser of steam. The little foil seal shriveled and writhed, and before my eyes tarnished to the color of a blued gun barrel before leaping out of my hand and bursting into flame. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I noticed a faint soothing sensation in my hand.
With a sudden resolve, I tilted the bottle above my hand and squeezed. My skin became a gluttonous sponge that sucked in the lotion faster than I could pour it on. Before I knew it, I had dumped the entire bottle into one spot on the back of my hand the size of a quarter.
When the tingling and the steam had subsided, I became aware of a luscious new sensation. It was the amazing, exquisite luxury of hydrated skin. There are no words to describe the euphoria I felt as I peered down at the moist, pink oasis of health surrounded by the parched, dusty desert that was the rest of my hand.
As I burst back through the door of the convenience mart, the clerk flapped a fistful of bills at me:
“Sir, sir? Excuse me, you forgot your change, sir!”
“Keep it. Can I get a case of that lotion stuff? My…uh…wife…no, you know what? Scratch that. It’s me, actually. I proudly admit it. I want some skin lotion! Do you hear me, world? Hahahaha! I USE SKIN LOTION! ANYBODY GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?”
Some people may think I’m a wimp, but let me tell you something; no critters have confused me with a shagbark hickory since I started moisturizing. However, just in case you happen to be one of those hardcore holdouts whose ego prevents you from treating your winter skin, here are a few suggestions that I have come up with to make the best of your situation:
There are many other profitable ideas that a creative entrepreneur could exploit, but these examples should get your creative juices flowing.
Either that or you could break down and apply some lotion.
I peered dubiously into the depths of the Styrofoam cup clenched in my 14-year-old hand. Experimentally I dabbed at the contents with my flimsy plastic spoon. I could identify a thin broth with globules of grease skating on the surface, a few grains of white rice, and some shreds of meat. But what was this other stuff? Some of it looked like wide, small diameter rubber bands. There was also a quantity of an amorphous, porous gel-like substance. At my elbow somebody was talking. Nearly hypnotized with morbid fascination as I was, it was difficult to tear my gaze away from the Styrofoam cup, but when I managed to do so, I beheld Moose Hole elder, Jacob Thaddeus grinning at me. The beating of drums and Athabascan singing that accompanied the current dance made it difficult to hear what he was saying. I leaned closer.
“Moose nose stew.” He jabbed a finger at my Styrofoam cup. “Eeee, so good! My daughter, he cook for potlatch. Make you strong!”
He was right. It did make me strong. Just hearing the stuff identified was already having that effect on me. I felt my abdomen muscles tighten. I found myself clenching my teeth together with a strength I did not know I possessed, as I held back an undeniably strong impulse to gag.
As a young feller growing up in Moose Hole, Alaska, I attended quite a few potlatches. I will never forget the experience. Very few white men have even heard of a potlatch, even fewer know how to spell it, but it is a miniscule percentage of modern white guys who have actually had the privilege of attending one. I hold my head high today, proud to be among the initiated ones. Of course, when I first came to Alaska, I didn’t know what a potlatch was either. The first time I heard the word, I assumed it was something that kept a honey bucket from accidentally popping open. Boy was I wrong!
It turned out that a potlatch is a North-Western Native American tradition that involves a lot of food, gifts, food, singing, food, dancing, food, speechmaking and more food. A potlatch can go on for days. In spite of the description at the beginning of this article, some of my most vivid gastronomic fantasies are rooted in the memories of those potlatch feasts. If it wasn’t for the dancing, I think every participant would gain 15 pounds during the course of a ceremony.
Nowhere before or since have I seen a row of tables groaning under the weight of such a smorgasbord. It was the best food Alaska has to offer, all in one spot—for three days straight. At the time I found it bewildering and cruel to be expected to choose between moose liver, caribou stroganoff, grizzly chops, Dall sheep roast, alder smoked salmon, bison sausage and deep-fried ptarmigan. Of course, that’s not even counting the washtubs of potato salad, baskets of fry bread and five-gallon coolers of red Kool-Aid. For condiments and side dishes we could fill in the cracks with crowberry jam on sourdough biscuits, low bush cranberry and orange salad, currant and rose hip chutney and a steaming cup of Labrador tea! Excuse me for a moment while I wipe the drool off of my keyboard.
Now, believe it or not, the purpose of this article is not to wax loquacious about five-star potlatch dining. There are other more sinister aspects to potlatch eating. You see, alongside all of this trusted and lip-smacking food came other dishes. These were traditional foods borne reverently to the table by grinning Athabascan women, accompanied by a laughing, chattering, leaping, wrestling knot of kids. The arrival of these dishes, however, did not provoke quite as much enthusiasm among we descendents of those pale-faced interlopers who had stumbled upon the Great Land only yesterday as Raven calculates time.
There were delicacies such as roasted porcupine, boiled beaver tail, salmon head soup, baked lynx, and fried muskrat. Everybody who tasted them lapsed into a raving monologue about how delicious they were. Clearly, the flesh of these animals contained some sort of neurotoxic alkali, which induced instant insanity. I vowed to avoid them.
In spite of myself, one potlatch I narrowly avoided becoming a victim when I was offered a cup of Eskimo ice cream. “Ice Cream”. The name sounded so innocent and all-American; deceptively evoking nostalgic memories of birthday parties and Fourth of July celebrations. Flavors like vanilla and cookies ‘n’ cream and raspberry ripple flooded my mind at the mention of the term. Around me, giggling Athabascan kids were gobbling the Eskimo ice cream out of Styrofoam cups.
Hold on! Styrofoam cups? That was a red flag! Jolted out of my nostalgic coma, I shook my head to clear it. All my senses klaxoning a code red alert, I tiptoed to the table where the Eskimo ice cream was being served. I tried to appear nonchalant as I stole furtive reconnaissance glances at the concoction. The best that I could determine, it was not icy, and it didn’t appear to contain any cream. Suddenly, a cute little girl loomed before me, thrusting a Styrofoam cup in my face. Graciously, I flailed out at her, sending her sprawling before fleeing to the opposite corner of the community hall to cower, trembling, in the corner.
Gradually, my blood pressure began to subside, and I became able to hear something beyond the jack hammering of my own heart, and the gasping rasp of my breathing. What I began to hear was a slurping noise. It came from Klondike Clancy who happened to be sharing my corner. He was a bear of a man swathed in furs and beadwork and beard hair, packing a Ruger .44 magnum and 14-inch Bowie knife on a gun belt. At the moment, he was meticulously spooning the last dregs of Eskimo ice cream from a Styrofoam cup.
“What is that stuff?” I shuddered.
A couple of decayed teeth appeared within the tangled thicket of his beard, and his eyes twinkled. For Klondike Clancy, that was as close to a big grin as it got. “Agaduk.” He warbled. For such an imposing hulk of a grizzled mountain man, he sure had a disconcerting voice. He sounded like a Vienna Choir boy. Rumor had it that he had talked like that ever since a hunting accident years ago. Something about his .44 firing before he had gotten it clear of its holster.
“Yeah, I know it could gag a duck, but what is it?”
“Agaduk! Aqudak! Akutaq! However you say it, it’s Eskimo ice cream. You should try some. It’s delicious.”
“But what’s in it!”
“Traditionally, the Eskimo cook whips seal oil until it is creamy and then folds in freshly fallen snow and tundra roots. Aqudak was served on festive occasions, such as a young man’s first successful polar bear hunt or wedding.” Clancy fancied himself to be a historian.
“You’re telling me you’re eating seal oil, snow, and tundra roots?”
“Oh, no, no, no! The Athabascan version was made from whipped caribou-leg marrow, cooked meat flakes, and berries.”
I felt myself getting strong again. “Oh, that’s much better.” I paused a moment to allow my gag reflex to subside. “So you’re eating whipped caribou-leg marrow. Nice.”
Klondike Clancy laughed, then. It was a sound like wind chimes being batted by a kitten. “They don’t make it that way anymore. Not at all! Nowadays, you just stir frozen berries into a mixture of half sugar and half Crisco. Very Fred Meyers. You better get yourself some before it’s all gone.”
I just stared at him, speechless for a moment. Finally, I stammered, “Well, it certainly sounds healthy enough. They say that berries contain lots of antioxidants.”
“Yep. I see they have a couple of cups left. You better grab some before I do.”
“Aw, no, really. I couldn’t. You go ahead and help yourself. I think I’ll just have me one of those delicious cups of moose nose stew.” It was a desperate ploy—a last ditch attempt to fend off a cholesterol and glucose overdose.
The moose nose stew wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. There were subtle nuances to its flavor—some yummy, some yucky. For instance, it tasted like the result of somebody putting rice in a kettle, adding water, dropping in a fresh moose nose and boiling the daylights out of the whole mess until the meat fell off the nose and the nasal contents dissipated into broth. Although not all of the nuances of flavor were this delicious, I ate the whole cup full. I felt like I had just experienced a rite of passage. Picking a moose hair out of my Styrofoam cup, I used it to floss something rubbery that was stuck between my teeth.
Jacob Thaddeus sidled up. “I thought you not like moose nose! Soon you learn to cook old way. Snare link. Make basket from birch bark. Put him in. Cook him with hot rock. You goin’ to try him now?”
I explained to Jacob that I was stuffed. I couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Perhaps I could sample the lynx in a few hours after my digestive system had finished rejecting my moose nose stew. Hastily I excused myself and found a quiet place under a spruce tree to commune with the Sphagnum Spirit that we white men call Ralph.
I never did find out what lynx tasted like. When I was finally able to tolerate the thought of food again, I couldn’t bring myself to pass up the smoked salmon in favor of burnt dead cat muscles. A very insignificant and disowned part of me regrets my weakness; berating me that now I will never know if lynx tastes better than moose nose. To this charge, the rest of me replies, “All I know is that cooked lynx looks and smells like turkey.
That’s a fairly pleasant memory. Why don’t we leave it there? Let’s allow the Athabascans the dignity of keeping some of their customs undigested by white bellies, shall we?”
Alaska is a beautiful place, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but the arrival of the annual spring mud bog always complicates my barn chores. It’s grueling enough to have to master the sports of long distance swimming and professional mud wrestling just to reach the barn alive, but this year the paranormal activity among my livestock has been giving me additional stress. Let me elucidate.
I have 20 acres, 13 acres of which is field. A field just doesn’t look right without a crop growing in it or livestock grazing on it, so I naively decided to acquire a horse and a few goats. The really spooky part is that a month ago I had exactly 4 goats—a tidy, manageable quantity. Today I have 7, but by the time this column goes to press, the size of my herd may very well have exploded exponentially.
Don’t get me wrong. I like goats. They give me milk, cheese and goat berries. They attack any brush that attempts to trespass onto my field. They also eat any of the neighbors’ dirty laundry that blows off of their clothesline and into my mud bog. This saves me the time and embarrassment of having to return the neighbors’ prodigal underwear. As a way of saying thanks, I try to keep my goats well fed. But about the time I thought they were starting to get pleasantly plump, I began discovering that at random times, within a matter of literally minutes, my fat goats were becoming skinny again! Boom! Just like that.
That’s not the most unsettling part, though. Not only are they performing a mysterious instantaneous weight loss thing, but each time one of them shrinks, I wind up with extra animals! Not big fat healthy ones, mind you, but tiny, little, scrawny things. I don’t know where they’re coming from. At first the supernatural connection didn’t occur to me, and I took them for some sort of a dwarf or pygmy breed. Now, I suspect far worse.
The first time I realized there were more bodies in the barn than normal was while I was examining Ruth, my gentle Toggenberg, to determine how she had lost 30 pounds since morning feeding. As I was trying to coax her to eat some grain, I almost stepped on what I thought was a damp bundle of rags. Upon closer inspection, I screamed like a woman to discover it was a goat-like leprechaun/creature/entity/thingy! It lay in the straw beside Ruth, like it thought it belonged there.
As little as it was, my first impression was that it must have crawled in under the fence, but I quickly revised that theory when it became clear that the being didn’t seem to be very good at walking. In fact, when I attempted to shoo it away, it took a good ten minutes before it ever managed to stay on its feet. It would get its front end up, but when it tried to get its back legs under it, it fell forward on its nose! Then it would get its rear in the air, but the front legs couldn’t get traction.
When the puny little creature finally did stand on all fours, it was weaving and wobbling like a wino on a binge. Then the thing took a single, tentative step and toppled onto its nose again. You talk about frustrating! I was nearly frantic with worry. The trespasser was obviously diseased. In fact, it was in such bad shape that both of its horns had fallen off! I already had one sick goat. I didn’t need another—especially one that didn’t belong to me. I just wanted to get the stunted aberration away from my healthy stock and Ruth, poor girl.
I was not inclined to make physical contact with the stranger, for fear of contracting mad goat disease or something. However, it broke my heart to see Ruth bravely trying to chase it away by repeatedly spanking it with her tongue. I knew that eventually I would have to pick the creature up and physically remove it.
As I was summoning my resolve to touch it, the unthinkable happened! It attacked Ruth! Boldly and shamelessly it plunged its fangs toward her unprotected underside, and with blood-curdling slurping and grunting sounds began viciously savaging my best milker’s valuable and vulnerable udder. In that instance, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck leap erect. A cold sweat trickled down my back.
Was this the terrifying chupacabra; that paranormal apparition of Latin American legend and worst nightmare of Mexican goat farmers everywhere? Ignoring the danger that I might be abducted to a mother ship, I leaped to the rescue. With a desperate yell, I snatched up the little monster and dove for the door.
What happened next will live forever in my nightmares! From just behind me erupted an unearthly ear-splitting shriek. It was raspy, quavering and full of unbridled rage. Before my heart could extricate itself from my Adam’s apple and resume beating, I felt a sharp blow from behind that knocked me face first into the mud bog.
I rolled into the fetal position, arms thrown up to protect my face, ragged hyperventilated breaths tearing at my lungs, heart thrashing around in my chest like a 3-pound grayling. I knew that death was upon me. I squeezed my eyes tight and waited for the chupacabra to devour me. The quavering shriek continued, persistent and very close, but I felt no more pain.
With great trepidation I allowed one eye to squint partially open. Ruth was standing over me, a shred of the seat of my pants dangling from her left horn. Between quavering shrieks, she was nuzzling the chupacabra that I had dropped in my terror. Clearly, the thing had bewitched her. I felt blindly about in the mud until my fingers closed on a broken pitchfork handle. Trying not to attract attention, I slowly tightened my grip. Ruth and the chupacabra watched me suspiciously.
Then my chance came. The evil little interloper attempted to disembowel Ruth again. Ruth swung her head around and nuzzled it, no doubt pleading for mercy, or at least a quick death. For the instant, neither of them was looking at me. Coiling myself like a lion, I sprang to my feet, brandishing my makeshift weapon.
At least I attempted to. Embarrassingly, I had lain quivering in the mud bog so long that it had quietly sucked me into its oozing embrace. I was stuck like a fly in molasses. When you’re in a vulnerable position like that, I’ve read that you never want the enemy to see your weakness, so I assumed the most intimidating expression I could muster and in a ringing tone of authority, barked out, “Help! Somebody please heeeeeelp meeeeee!”
It was a tremendous relief to hear my wife respond. She had just arrived at the mud bog, her curiosity aroused by all the strange sounds.
“What on earth are you doing, George? I certainly hope you don’t thing you are coming in the house looking like that…OH! A baby goat! Isn’t it precious? Ruth, what a good mama you are! Yes you is!”
I shouted a warning. “Gaylene, stop kissing that thing. Put your hands on your head and slowly step away from the chupacabra.”
She gave me a weird look. “Yeah, whatever, Mr. Rolling-around-in the-mud-when-you-are-supposed-to-be-doing-barn-chores. Why didn’t you tell me Ruth had her baby? Is there only one?”
“A baby? Oh, a baby! A little baby goat. Yeah, isn’t it a barrel of monkeys? Cute as a curtain, that one. You know, Darling, I was so overcome with the miracle of new life, and the wonder of its delicate trusting nature, that I became weak in the knees and collapsed blissfully into this soft bed of mud here. Uh, not to interrupt your cooing and cuddling session, but when you get a spare minute do you think you could help me out of this mud? I think I’m still sinking.”
You know how women are. Some facts are just too harsh for them. I learned a long time ago, that it’s better to cater to their whims and fancies than to try talking cold, hard logic to them. She still thinks the creature is a baby goat.
I’ve decided not to push the issue for now. It seems that the chupacabra’s enchantment has convinced even Ruth that it is her newborn goat kid. So far, the udder wounds seem to be superficial. Evidently the chupacabra has taken a liking to milk and is actually drinking more of that than Ruth’s blood, so Ruth’s okay with it, and my wife is okay with it. The only one that isn’t okay with it is me.
The writing is on the wall. Each week, the imposter summons more of its kind, and another fat goat goes skinny. I think they’re settling a colony in my field. The human race is doomed. Skeptics cannot be reasoned with, however. My only hope is for undisputable proof that will convince my wife before it is too late. I know what to do. I’m sleeping in the barn these days with camera and shotgun at the ready. I want to be there when my Billy goat goes skinny.
As soon as he does, I’ll take a picture of it and show my wife. Then I’ll shoot all the little chupacabras with the silver bb and garlic clove shot shells I’ve loaded. Finally I’ll send the picture to the National Enquirer. When I get rich from my brilliant photojournalistic coup, I’ll buy a real farm without a mud bog. Then I’ll grow old, happily breeding a fine line of champion sasquatches.
“Hey, Dad! Can I borrow your drill?”
The unexpected sound of my son’s pubescent voice derailed my concentration from the excruciatingly maddening task of replacing a fluorescent bulb in my bathroom. I had ignored my wife’s pleas for several weeks in the hope that the bulb would magically revert from a hypnotic strobe to the steady warm glow that my wife so missed. I had missed it too, but not badly enough to attempt to change the malicious thing. Whoever invented fluorescent lights makes Josef Mengele seem like a sweet old lovable grandpa. Only after I had amputated the left half of my face attempting to shave by the photonic sputtering of the offending light, had I realized I could no longer procrastinate my fate.
I no longer stress myself over getting old bulbs out. I learned many finger lacerations ago the trick of just wrapping a towel around the bad bulb and giving it a brisk smack with a hammer. As long as I’m not changing it in my bare feet that seems to be a relatively painless solution. The part that drives me insane is trying to install the new one. So there I was, teetering atop a dilapidated step stool, sweating and snarling at the flimsy glass tube I was attempting to pry into a fixture that had to be at least four inches too short. I had just gotten one end up inside the fixture and was at the point in the process where you grab the laws of physics in a headlock and pummel them until they temporarily suspend themselves, when my son spoke.
I hadn’t heard him coming, so fixated was I on the pummeling process. I admit that he startled me rather severely. My body reacted to the sudden surge of adrenaline in three very typical ways. First, I vocalized. Loudly. In the falsetto range. Second, I leaped high into the air. Last, but quite significantly, my hand and arm muscles tensed. In effect, I ejected from the step stool while bending the brand new fluorescent bulb as if it was a raw breadstick. Sadly, fluorescent bulbs are a bit more brittle than a breadstick.
My body defined an arc through the air that was suddenly alive with a flurry of glass shards until my head encountered the fixture. At that point the second bulb joined it’s partner in a glittering shower of glass confetti which tinkled mockingly down upon my form that had come to rest, draped at an unusual and not entirely comfortable angle across the toppled step stool.
“Knock it off, Dad! Stop clowning around. I’m trying to ask you a question.” I barely heard his voice through the throbbing haze in my head and the white noise of bulb fragments impacting the linoleum around me. Somehow the pain, the noise, and the adrenaline surge triggered old memories.
I was twelve. My dad had a workshop full of a wondrous plethora of tools. They captivated my imagination. Tools were so cool—so macho—so adult. I would sneak in the workshop just to wrap my Dad’s tool belt twice around my waist and load it up with a hand-picked assortment of the my favorite tools. I had no idea what most of them were for. I selected them based on a number of factors including coolness, machismo, and their taboo rating.
For some reason, my Dad got weird whenever he discovered me touching his tools. He even displayed certain schizophrenic symptoms upon his first contact with his tools after I had touched them. He had some kind of sixth sense about these things. I don’t know how he knew. He could just tell.
“Georgie,” He would call out through clenched teeth, his left eyelid twitching, “The funniest thing just happened. I found my chalk line lying in the mud puddle behind my shop. Do you have any idea how it got there?”
I jammed my hands deep into my pants pocket so that he wouldn’t see grid of blue lines that criss-crossed my palms and fingers. I opened my eyes as wide as I could to communicate innocent sincerity as I shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s a chalk line?”
I didn’t really like lying; but I was backed into a corner. It was impossible to make Dad understand the brilliant logic of the thought processes that motivated my actions. Inevitably he would misinterpret my motivation as laziness, carelessness or disobedience. Sometimes I could tell by the baffled look in his eye and the way he shook his head, that he considered my behavior to be something in the realm of inexplicable paranormal phenomenon.
Trying to explain only made things worse. If he had been a reasonable human being, Dad would have congratulated me on my ingenuity with the chalk line, of course. I bet he never would have thought of tying the end to a kite. The chalk line reel gave me excellent control, and if Dad had seen the way the wind strummed the taut line, releasing a beautiful blue haze of color in the crisp spring air…my, my! It was almost a spiritual experience.
All Dad seemed to be able to focus on, though, was the fact that his chalk line got wet. Well, I’m sorry, but things happen. When a gust of wind grabs your kite and slams it into a nose dive toward a spruce tree, you have to act fast. The last thing on your mind is finding a velvet pedestal on which to carefully place the reel. You just drop it, if you have to, and haul on the string hand over hand it until you regain control of your kite.
“You don’t know, huh?” Now Dad’s right cheek had joined his left eyebrow in the twitching thing. Except they were twitching at different speeds. His face reminded me of a cartoon character in a badly done Claymation movie. It was the funniest thing I ever saw. I suppressed a giggle.
“Oh, you think it’s funny, do you, young man? You think you can fool me? Well I wasn’t born yesterday. Perhaps you’d care to explain the fine blue dust in your hair?”
I scuffed the ground with my toe. This conversation was hopeless. Now Dad thought I was laughing at my cleverness in fooling him. He’d laugh too if he looked in a mirror. “Sorry, I was just goofing around.”
The twitches became tremors. “You were just goofing around, were you? How many times have I told you not to goof around with my expensive tools?”
“You forgot!” Here came the baffled paranormal phenomenon headshake accompanied by a sobbing laugh. “Like you forgot yesterday when I found you using my six-foot level to bust rocks, or last week when you were shooting metric sockets out of your slingshot, or the week before when you were chasing the cat with my cordless jigsaw? When are you going to grow up?”
Ok, fine. If Dad didn’t want me to find a priceless fossil that we could sell to the Smithsonian for a billion dollars, I wouldn’t touch his stupid level. The squirrels could eat every speck of insulation out of his workshop attic too. A lot of good his precious sockets were going to do him with frostbitten fingers. No wonder I had to chase cats. I guy has to have some way to relieve his stress!
I felt Dad’s callused fingers grip my ear like a vice and found myself being propelled on tiptoe toward the interior of the workshop. This wasn’t a good thing. Dad had an endless supply of spanking devices in that workshop: lath strips, extension cords, wood scraps…
“Noooo, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I won’t do it again! I promise!”
Dad was done talking. With the hand that wasn’t clamping my ear he cleared the wood chips and woodworking plans off of his workbench with a backhanded sweep. Then he picked me up and laid me face down upon it. I felt like Isaac on Mount Moriah. The sacrificial 1×4 scrap rose high in the air and time stood still as it hovered ominously above the seat of my blue jeans. I waited in vain for a rich baritone voice with lots of reverb to boom from above,
“AbraDad! Lay not thine hand upon thy son, thine only son. Neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that he fearest what thou art about to perform, and verily he didn’t mean to ruin your stupid tools. Look behind thee and thou will find a ram caught in a lathe by his horns. Take him and spank his bottom in the stead of thy poor misunderstood son.”
Alas it was an empty hope. The paddle descended repeatedly and with such gusto that a backswing clipped the fluorescent lamp above my Dad’s workbench showering us both with a flurry of glass shards. That day as I lay there amid the tingling in my bohunkus and the blizzard of glass confetti, I swore through my tears that if I ever had a kid I would never forget what it was like to be one.
“Come-on, Dad.” It was my son again jolting me back to the present. “Can I borrow your drill?”
“I gave you my old brace and bit.” I winced as I spat out some glass chips.
“Dad, get real! I’m talking about your Makita.”
I felt something begin twitching in my right eyelid. “What in the world do you want my Makita for?”
“I’m going to mount a piece of copper tubing in the chuck and use it as a mandrel to coil wire so I can make some links for weaving chain mail.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a great idea! A piece of wire whipping around on the end of a power drill. Are you crazy? The answer is NO!”
Maybe someday my son will grow up and become a father. Then he’ll know what it’s like to be one.
A grey September moon hung suspended above the mist-shrouded tundra. Gnarled black spruce, like wary sentinels, defined the twilit horizon. Knowing the treachery of the times, I cleverly traced a circuitous route toward the secret trysting spot, doubling back several times, and moving in a zig-zaggy motion to confuse any of Karnal Wretchedloo’s spies that might be following, bent on ferreting out the location of the carefully guarded secret moosketeer camp.
At a certain point, I stopped, removed my shoes and put them on backwards in order to confuse any pursuers into believing I had been coming instead of going.
All my precautions, however, seemed to no avail, for in a single dreaded instant, I heard a stick snap behind me. I froze in terror…I mean…suspense, my heart hammering at the back of my throat with a dull shovel. My hand went to the hilt of my Rapier brand hunting knife, as I melted into the shadow of a massive, reeking, furry lunk of something that happened to be standing nearby. There I waited, Rapier in hand, until the distinct crunch of approaching footsteps became unmistakable. Within a couple of minutes, a pair of forms appeared, heads down, eyes and snouts tracing the very path that I had just trod. They appeared to be miniature versions of the reeking furry lunk in whose shadow I had sought concealment.
Indeed, at just that moment, my shelter emitted an enraged grunt, popped its teeth and swatted me such a mighty blow in the seat of my mossy-oak pants that I found myself propelled halfway to the trysting spot before I had stopped tumbling. Behind me lay several hundred yards worth of scattered hunting gear, and I noted with great interest a sow grizzly and two yearling cubs that were closing on me in a dead charge. This upset me greatly, because they were stomping all over my hunting gear, rendering it useless.
I instinctively assumed a swashbuckling stance and lost bladder control. Furthermore, my toes had begun to cramp agonizingly from being stuffed backwards into my shoes. Nevertheless, disregarding my pain and humidity, I braced myself as best I could to meet the onslaught. They were upon me then, and I heard myself breaking into a quavering battle song as my naked steel bit into bruin flesh. I sang in tribute to the raven-tressed mother who had raised me, and I taunted the enemy to slink back to the foul lair from whence they had come. Finally, I sang with keening yearning for the years I yet might live.
Then it was that something brushed my shoulder, and welcome whoops of “All for one, and one for all!” echoed in my ears. I grew aware that my companions, no doubt alerted by the noise of my valiant resistance, had joined the fray. To my left I made out noble At-Loss, whirling his knobby walking stick above his head like a dervish. To my right, Poor-Thoughts clubbed merrily at a snarling beast with a half-empty canister of butane camp stove fuel. And weaving among us all, hatchet flashing, darted Nary-Miss, striking out again and again with unerring blows. Soon, outnumbered, demoralized and sorely wounded, the fiends fell back, yielding the field before the peerless skill of the legendary moosketeers.
Panting, I sheathed my Rapier.
“I thank, thee, sturdy comrades for thy assistance. Though ‘strooth, an’ I had been left to my own devices, methinks yon skulking blackguards had learned their manners, ere sunup.”
Poor-Thoughts slapped me on the back, as his great voice boomed from behind his beard: “Forsooth, Duh-Ten-Yawn. It seemed the rather that thou wert bested.”
“Bested? A pox on thy knavish wit, Sirrah! Verily, I had scarce begun to limber up my tendons.”
Nary-Miss snorted dourly as he wiped the gore from his hatchet. “Mayhap thou canst then explain how cameth it to pass that we heardest thy voice with great lamentations proclaiming, ‘Mamma, make them go away! I don’t wanna die!’”
“Aye,” At-loss affirmed. “Thy voice didst well-nigh deafen me, whilst I was yet fourscore furlongs off.”
They were exaggerating, of course. We moosketeers jest with one another like that. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our tightly knight brotherhood. Only men who have faced death together can comprehend such camaraderie. Only men who, eyes streaming and nostrils quivering, have slept in the same tent after sharing a mutual pot of campfire chili can truly appreciate the bond that is formed between brethren in adversity.
Laughing now, arm-in-arm, the four of us strode toward the trysting spot. Well, they were arm-in-arm, anyway, I was in more of a full Nelson. Just as we had persevered against great odds in times of yore, so we had sworn a solemn vow that we should do so again in the hours that lay ahead. We would track a great moose, bring him to bay, slay him and feast upon his flesh. For is this not the way of mankind? Men shoulder their weapons and sally forth to secure meat to feed their families. Thus it has been since the beginning of time and thus it will be at the end of time after oppressive taxes and tyrannical regulation have reduced our economic and commercial infrastructure to rubble. But, alas, those unaccustomed to pursuits such as hunting, soon find themselves bereft of sustenance. Only the few with the camaraderie, the resolve, the experience, the sheer madness of the moosketeers are destined to bask in sweet fortune’s smile.
I, for one was pleased to see the flicker of the campfire at the trysting place, for in truth, my nether regions craved a soothing swab of triple-antibiotic lotion on the place where the Grizzly’s claws had raked my dimpled self. As I eased myself into a southeasterly cant upon a stump, it struck me that I no longer was equipped for the hunt. My gear had been laid waste by the ravaging marauders. What then could I do to recover from this infamy? A moosketeer without moosing gear is like a green and orange tie-dyed penguin!
I need not have been alarmed. Dire circumstances such as these, serve but to demonstrate the steadfast fidelity of the moosketeer adage, “All for one and one for all!” No sooner had my comrades been apprised of my destitute straits, than each one, in a mutual gesture of spontaneous magnanimity, scooped their gear into a small heap and straddled it. My heart stirred within me to behold their fond devotion, each one standing grim guard over his own bundle, undoubtedly to fend off any further bear encroachments until I had been afforded ample opportunity to select from their choicest accouterments to replace the ones which I had lost. More jesting followed, as I began to examine their profferings. Feigning indignation, they threatened by turns to bind me hand and foot, smear me with honey, and abandon me upwind of the bear trio.
I guffawed in hearty appreciation of their drollery, then managed to distract Poor-Thoughts long enough to appropriate a bag of jerky from his pile. My ribs fairly ached with laughter at his roaring when he discovered my shrewd subterfuge. Soon, I imitated his roaring, for he picked me up by an ankle, held me upside down, and drubbed my aching ribs until the jerky fell from my flaccid fingers. I had quite tired of the sport by the time he let go of my ankle. I landed on my head like a bag of flour and toppled slowly sideways until I measured my length upon the greensward.
Nary-Miss eyed me speculatively for a long moment, and overcome finally by the compunction of the abbot he someday aspired to be, reached into his stash and withdrew an MRE. With a beneficent smile he cast it with a plunk onto my heaving chest. Still spent from the boisterous fun I had undergone, I feebly lifted the military surplus meal packet with tremulous hand and read its label by the flickering light of the campfire. “Vegetarian” it said. I didn’t find that amusing, but I was too tired, sore and hungry to protest.
Eventually, At-Loss relinquished one of his crinkly silver survival blankets which I expertly rigged with duct tape and spruce limbs and rocks and chewing gum and shoelaces as an improvised lean-to shelter. Not to be outdone by the generosity of the other two, Poor-Thoughts vouchsafed me the use of a couple of his water purification tablets with which I sanitized an empty chili can full of swamp sludge. That provided more than enough water to activate the MRE heater, even leaving a couple of generous gulps extra to quench my…er…at least…dull the edge of my thirst.
Heartened by my friends’ display of compassion, I savored my rancid MRE supper to the aroma of their beef stroganoff, cinnamon bannock, and peach cobbler. While sucking the final drop of stale hot sauce from the MRE’s mini Tabasco sauce bottle, I was filled with a sudden surge of gratitude that I had fallen into the company of such a band of stalwart cavaliers, so true of heart and staunch of courage. Either that or it was a surge of heartburn. I couldn’t be certain which.
Later, as I reposed beneath my survival blanket lean-to, hugging my knees for warmth in the brisk autumn air, I listened to the stentorian snores issuing from my companions’ tent and my gratitude yielded to the certainty that our moosing quest would be a successful one. If the nocturnal racket had not by now betrayed the whereabouts of our enclave to the dark agents of the fell Karnal Wretchedloo, nothing would.
An even happier thought followed. Perhaps the snoring had, indeed, attracted the spies, but the bears had intercepted them and swallowed them whole. Now, satiated for several days, the bears would pose no further threat to we moosketeers nor our hunting gear. The only question the remained was this: How many moose would we bring home? One for all, or all for one?
“Good morning, handsome!”
It was February 1, and my alarm had barely stopped beeping. With a groan, I pried apart my heavy eyelids to peer blearily at my wife who was hovering over me with a cherubic grin. She planted a big juicy smackaroo on my somnolent physiognomy.
“What’s going on?” I muttered.
“Nothing particular. I’m just excited! It’s February.” She raised her eyebrows and her eyes took on the look that every husband dreads. It was the look that meant she expected me to be reading her mind.
I tried to stall for time. “Whad’ya know? February already. Isn’t that something? Where does time go?”
She inclined her head slightly and bored into me with those eyes. Evidently my stalling was not doing the trick. I needed to carefully attempt to milk a hint from her while simultaneously bluffing that I had some clue what she was talking about. I winked conspiratorially. “Hey, you know what February means.”
Her eyes twinkled with what I desperately hoped was not mockery. “Yes I do. Do you?”
“Do I? Oh, do I ever. Yes I do. You betcha.”
“Good, I wouldn’t want you to forget this year.”
There was a useful hint. It meant that some event was coming up which I was expected to remember. A recurring annual event. It must be a special day. February. Hmmm. A special day in February that would prompt my wife to wake me in a flirtatious mood. The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Now I saw what she was driving at.
I assumed my most wounded look. “Sugar dumpling, I’m hurt. I would never forget such an important day.”
“You forgot last year.”
“Did not. I just didn’t make a big deal out of it, because I wasn’t sure it was something you took an interest in.”
She bopped me with a pillow. “You weren’t sure I took an interest in it? What on earth would give you that idea?” She bopped me again. Repeatedly.
I fended off the flurry of blows as I tried to explain. “I just didn’t think it was necessary to expend a lot of time and money honoring a short fat hairy creature whose cuteness is overrated.”
The flurry became a blizzard, complete with howling wind. The howling wind was emanating from my wife’s mouth. Her romantic mood seemed to be deteriorating.
“Thanks a lot, Valentine! You really know how to make a girl feel special!”
“Ok, OK! I’m sorry. Ow! It wasn’t personal.”
“It wasn’t personal!? It wasn’t PERSONAL! Oooh! You…. you… insensitive BRUTE, you!” Visibility in the bedroom dropped to near whiteout conditions as the pillow broke open and began disgorging feathers. “How is it ‘not personal’ to call your wife a — How did you put that? — ‘a short fat hairy creature whose cuteness is overrated’?”
I wasn’t sure what was happening, but it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. “I was just kidding.” I wailed, “Yeah, yeah, that’s it! I was kidding.”
Since the feathers had all been beaten out of the pillow by now, she punctuated each word with a surprisingly painful lash from the limp pillowcase. “You… Were… NOT… Kidding! You… Did… Too… Mean… It! I… Saw… It… In… Your… Eyes. You… JERK!”
Oh, so now not only was I supposed to read her mind, but she was claiming to be able to read my mind, too. She was right, of course. I hadn’t been kidding, but that was only because I hadn’t been talking about her at all! Covering my head with my arms, I tried to escape her wrath by burrowing under my covers reminiscent of Punxsutawney Phil, the short, fat hairy creature, to whom I had been referring.
Good grief! Such a fuss over Groundhog Day. We don’t even have groundhogs in Alaska.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this great American tradition, let me fill in the blanks. What happens at about 7:30 in the morning at Gobbler’s Knob, just outside Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is that the behavior of an esteemed rodent, one, Phil the Groundhog, holds the fate of Spring in his fuzzy little paw. Everybody gathers around the critter’s den with whetted anticipation, wondering if Punxsy Phil will announce that winter is over, or if it will hang on for another six weeks
Phil’s prediction is based on whether or not he can see his shadow when he pokes his head out to determine what all the ruckus is about. I never could understand how they know if Phil can see his shadow or not. Just because the crowd can see his shadow doesn’t mean Phil can. Does Phil have his own personal optometrist on staff? I doubt it.
Anyway, the legend of Groundhog Day is based on an old saying:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
I am one of probably 300 people on the planet who have actually been to Punxsutawney. It’s an understated little burg with its most prominent feature being Gobbler’s Knob, where Phil lives. Gobbler’s Knob consists of a gaudy green and red sign in front of a big tree stump with a door cut into it. This stump serves as Punxsutawney Phil’s front door. When he’s not hiding inside, he lounges around, looking bored and eating peanuts that tourist throw him. The only tourists that visit Gobbler’s Knob are eclectic, pocket protector wearing fans of Bill Murray’s 1993 comedy about a meteorologist and his producer caught in a time loop.
The film doesn’t appeal to everybody. Most people would be embarrassed to admit that they watched it. You have to have a very sophisticated sense of humor to appreciate it. So on my visit to Punxsutawney, I made sure I threw Phil an extra peanut to compensate for all the bad jokes that have been made at his expense. Let people laugh. At least Phil’s forecast is more reliable than the National Weather Service.
Furthermore, anyone who inspires a raft of imposters must be doing something right. Some of Phil’s imitators include Dunkirk Dave, Peewee the Woodchuck, and Staten Island Chuck. There’s also “Balzac Billy, the Prairie Prognosticator”, a young upstart groundhog in Alberta Canada. Buckeye Chuck is from Marion Ohio. General Beauregard Lee makes his home at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Georgia. Shubenacadie Sam prognosticates from Shubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park in Nova Scotia. Smith Lake Jake searches for his shadow at 10 am every February 2 at the Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Alabama. Sir Walter Wally and several of his friends emerge from their winter hibernation each Groundhog Day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Oh, and we must not forget Wiarton Willie who hails from the South Brice Peninsula in Ottowa, Canada.
When I was a kid in Moose Hole, Alaska, we couldn’t find any groundhogs, so we had to settle for a ground squirrel that Rory Smithers caught in his live trap. We named him “Moose Hole Monte”. We built a little house for him out behind Jerry Frendlin’s dad’s shed and sold admission tickets for the big prognostication ritual on Groundhog Day.
Disappointingly, on February 1st, Mr. Frendlin accidentally backed over Monte’s house and squished him. We held an emergency meeting. Having already spent the money from the tickets we had sold, it was imperative that we come up with a prognosticator. Weasel Conklin offered to lend us his pet snake, Slinky, but that offer was vetoed on the grounds that snakes don’t cast much of a shadow. Even if they did, I don’t think Slinky would have been cute enough to maintain a fan base.
In the end, we used our Groundhog Day crowd to hold memorial services for Monte, and then Rory, Jerry and I had to work all summer peeling logs for Walrus Fahnestock’s dad to earn enough money to pay back the ticket purchasers.
All of this I tried to explain to my wife as the last of the pillow feathers settled from the air around me. It was like talking to a brick wall–a brick wall, mind you, that can make the most intimidating faces, and dismissive little snorts. It turns out; she didn’t have the slightest interest in Groundhog Day. She was obsessed with Valentine’s Day, of all things! Perhaps someday if I can trick her into watching the movie, she might change her attitude.
I finally had to abandon pointing out the reasons why Groundhog Day was a much more enriching tradition than Valentine’s Day. The rest of the day didn’t go so well. We didn’t talk much. Of course I wouldn’t have had much time for conversation anyway when I was concentrating on picking 5 million feathers out of the bedclothes and carpet.
I was happy to get to bed that night. My neck and low back were killing me. Before my head hit my repaired pillow, I was asleep.
As the alarm clock beeped me awake the next morning, I sensed someone standing over me. With a groan, I pried apart my heavy eyelids to peer blearily at my grinning wife. She planted a big juicy smackaroo on my somnolent physiognomy.
“Good morning, handsome!”
This was going to be a really long day!