Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bellah Mine Woodchuck

One day last week, we saw a woodchuck on the side of Bellah Mine Road nonchalantly nibbling a nettle. At first we thought we were seeing a groundhog, but then noticed the furry tail. Those groundhogs we used to see in Ohio had only little nubs for tails, like rabbits. I rolled down the window and yelled, “Hey, you woodchuck, quit chunking my wood.” At that, he stood up on his hind legs and grinned at me, making some kind of strange rodent salute with his right front paw before he eased off down to the shade where the creek used to be before the drought.

I googled images for muskrat but he was no muskrat. I googled groundhog, even though I was familiar with these creatures, but he was definitely no groundhog. I googled woodchuck and there he was, as if someone had photographed the very Bellah Mine resident we witnessed. He was a handsome fellow, just like the one in the picture, with the most relaxed demeanor I’ve ever seen in a rodent.

The groundhogs in Ohio were not nearly that relaxed. They were downright fidgety, as if some human was going to make groundhog stew out of them. Several nice plump ones lived in the cemetery I used to cross to get to the bicycle trail and when they saw me coming they always dove for cover. Some lived in drainage ports, some in holes beside gravestones and some under piles of discarded artificial flowers. They seemed legless as they glided along across the well-manicured Good Shepherd Gardens.

One day I got a close look at one of the larger ones as I approached on my silent bicycle. The creature munched on something at the edge of the woods. He didn’t hear me coming and I got really close before he floated fatly into the forest in a rat-like panic. What I observed in my close encounter of the groundhog kind was that he looked terribly sad, as if living there in the cemetery had left its mark on his psyche. In my mind’s eye I seem to remember dark tear stains streaming down his facial fur, though that impression may have been false in the dismal shadows of the graveyard. Surely groundhogs don’t cry.

If I were a groundhog, or a woodchuck for that matter, I’d make my home far away from human habitation. In a big city such as Columbus, I suppose a cemetery seems to be a vast expanse of open space, inviting to wild animals that wish to avoid human contact. In fact, two or three late evenings as I sailed wearily through the cemetery on the way home from a bicycle ride, I saw not only the plump, morose groundhogs scurrying around, but a downcast rabbit or two and some depressed deer. The only humans besides me in the place were down in the ground, mere earthen and anticipatory vessels of their fled spirits.

On resurrection morning, the groundhogs and their animal companions at Good Shepherd will have reason to be startled. But not sad.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Clarence's Turn

Pop never learned to ignore advice from Mother, especially while he was driving. Once when we were on the way home from the old farm place, we approached a house Mother always referred to as that of the Old Grey Goose. I had never seen her, but I imagined her to be a gangly, goose-like woman dressed in old fashioned clothing. Just as we got near her house, we were in a long line of traffic and Mother said, “Why don’t you pass them?” So Pop started to execute the maneuver just as I observed from the back seat that the slow driver three or four cars ahead of us was turning left.

“He’s turning, Pop!” I exclaimed with some urgency.

“Huh?” Pop replied, turning around to look at me.

At that moment, our vehicle clipped the back bumper of the turner, pushing it off the highway and into the front of the Old Grey Goose’s house. Mother screamed, Pop swore and I waited to get my first glimpse of the Goose. She came out immediately, yelling at the driver of the car intruding through her front porch and into her living room.

“Clarence, you have ruined my preserves!”

Clarence retorted, “They pushed me into your house!”

Mother said shrilly, “We did NOT push you into that house. Get me some water. I have a heart condition (news to us) and I have to take a pill (it was an aspirin).
The Goose went into the house and returned with a glass of water and things calmed down a bit. The Goose did indeed resemble some kind of waterfowl. She had a very long narrow nose, a gangly neck and she wore a grey smock with intricate tatting around the neck and sleeves. She was barefooted. I saw no webbing.

When the deputy arrived, he began questioning the crowd of motorists who had stopped. He asked the first man in the little circle that had formed on the ruined porch, “Did Clarence have his blinker on?”

“I can’t say. But I knew Clarence was going to turn.”
The deputy asked the second driver gathered there, “Was Clarence signaling to turn?”

“I’m not sure, I was two cars back, But Clarence turns here every day at about this time.”

Each witness testified to the same thing about Clarence‘s daily routine. But when the deputy got to Pop, his reply was, “I didn’t know Clarence was going to turn. I didn’t see a blinker.”

When the deputy asked Clarence if he had his blinker on, he explained, “I don’t remember, Doyle Wayne, I just remember hollering ‘whoa, whoa’ and trying not to hit Maudine’s house.”

I guess Maudine is a good name for an Old Gray Goose, one with ruined preserves and a torn up porch and living room.

Anyway, our car was still drivable. There was just a little damage to the front bumper and fender. Clarence had to call a wrecker. Mother drove on home after the wreck, her heart having settled down. To her lifelong chagrin, the accident was adjudged to be Pop’s fault.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Walking to St. Louis

When my recently widowed mother moved to town from the country, she had to hire someone to stay with me while she worked to bring home the bacon. My favorite caretaker was, we’ll call her, CeeCee Lee, who was full of adventure stories such as her memorable “Rutabaga Man” that made no sense whatsoever. She was also very unorthodox in her idea of entertaining children. For example, she spent hours spitting Sweet Garrett spurts at ants and any other insect that ventured by in the back yard. She was grumpy in the morning but she got friendlier as the day went on.

Ceecee Lee liked beer so much she could hardly make it through the day without a cool one. Often, after my nap she would take my hand and off we would go, walking to St. Louis, which is what everyone called her part of town. Most of the time we went to the dark, humid Hilalli Bar, where perfumed women in bright clothes played dominoes with enormous men flashing gold teeth.

Ceecee Lee and I went there so often that I was considered a regular. The emaciated old bartender gave me ice-water and Safe-T-Pops (those penny suckers with limp loopy stems) every visit and he called me Danny Boy. In that culture, everyone had two names and if you didn’t have two they supplied the second.

When Ceecee Lee mellowed out, having polished off a beer or two, we’d head for home. Every time, just before we arrived, we had the same conversation:

“Is that a good sucker Dennis Dale give you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I bought that sucker for you, you know.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You are not going to tell your mamma we went to St. Louis, are you?”

“No, ma’am.”

“That’s good. You so sweet. You don’t want to get your Ceecee Lee fired, do you?”

I didn’t know at that young age what getting fired meant, so one night I asked Mother about it.

“Where did you hear about someone getting fired?” Mother wanted to know.

“CeeCee Lee.”

“Does she think I’m going to fire her?”

“I don’t think so.”

Mother could tell I was leaving a lot unsaid, so she undertook an investigation, involving my aunt, her sister, as a spy. When Aunt Sis reported one of our afternoon jaunts, CeeCee Lee was history. I hope she knew it was not I who betrayed her. I lived in that town until I was grown and I never saw her again. One of my friends from her part of town said word was she went to California with a gambling man.

I missed her and I missed my Safe-T-Pops. Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted or forgotten. Although Mother disapproved of our outings, and I appreciate her caution, the deep entertainment and acceptance I felt abides. Intercultural awareness is best introduced early in a child’s life. Every time I hear dominoes shuffling or see the sparkle of a gold tooth, I feel a benign chill like ice-water and a Safe-T-Pop craving follows.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hearing Test

I thought I wanted to be a chief academic officer at a college until I became one. Then I started having thoughts about leaving higher education. Those thoughts came at about the time the De Queen Bee was looking for a writer. I drove to De Queen, talked to the publisher and editor and took the job.

My first task after joining the paper was to cover an important trial. I had just received two new digital hearing aids from the VA. The busy, loud, clackity-clack of a newsroom makes it the world’s worst place to get used to new hearing aids, so it was a relief to go to the relative quiet of the court house to cover the trial.

When testimony got underway, I turned the volume buttons up high so I wouldn’t miss anything, causing the devices to squeal at a pitch above my capacity to hear. I noticed people, including the judge, looking in my direction. Finally, a policeman I knew came over to me and said, “Dan, your ear piece is making a noise.” Embarrassed, I turned the volume down and then it seemed as if the hearing aids were blocking my hearing, so I removed them and found a way to move closer to the front.

I simply could not get used to the things stuck in my ears, so, I don’t use them anymore and I think my hearing has improved. Just this past week, for example, I was driving down the road with my wife. She asked, “The VA doesn’t do an annual urine test any more, do they?” I heard the word “urine” as “hearing” and replied, “No, my hearing is a lot better than it used to be.” I didn’t know why my wife thought that was so funny until she said, “URINE test, Danny, not hearing test.” Then I saw the irony. My delusion that I am hearing better was shattered in one fell swoop.

That misunderstanding reminded me of the hot summer day years ago when I was riding my bicycle way out in the country. As I passed a little boy leaning on his mailbox, I thought I heard him say, “Hi, Danny.” I stopped, wondering who the kid was as only my loved ones call me Danny.

“Where do you know me from?”

“I don’t know you from nowhere.”

“Well, you called my name when I rode by.”

“I didn’t, neither.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Hot, ain’t it.”

It sounded like “Hi, Danny” to me.