Critters

Wrigley Birong

I grew up in a dog family. My father was particularly fond of German Shepherds, so it seemed we always had at least one in the house at any given time over the years.

Dogs aren’t the only pets one might find in a typical American household, of course. Felines are in abundance (cat families—although I seem to recall Mom owning a cat at one time, but it was after I had grown and moved out. Wait, though, it might have been a Chihuahua), but we also share our respective living quarters with everything from chickens to ducks to baby piglets to anacondas to tarantulas (tarantula families—I suppose they don’t get much in the way of company dropping by). Consequently, our homes become the primary training ground for teaching our kids how to get along with the all these animals with whom we share this world.

But even if one were fortunate enough to be raised in a family that enjoys the company of various family pets, understanding the nature of some of these creatures and learning how to deal with them can still be a challenge: For example, have you ever wondered which end of an octopus is the front? Is that enormous bulge his nose or does he just have a really big butt? I have a gaze of raccoons that live in the woods behind my house. They saunter up onto the patio from time to time and peer curiously through the sliding glass door.  Apparently casing the place. I am hoping they don’t figure out how to climb up on the roof. This concern is borne from the fact that they did learn how to climb up on the roof of my shed out back and apparently being too lazy to do in the woods what a bear does, choose to do so on the roof of my shed (this behavior becomes particularly annoying if one has the need to enter the shed shortly after a rainstorm).

As an aside, I recently learned that having sex with a dog in North Carolina is considered a crime of nature and is officially against the law there. One can only speculate as to why the state legislature felt it necessary to carve out that particular activity. But then, one never knows what North Carolina’s lawmakers are going to come up with next.

Hooked

It’s my dad’s fault: When my younger brother John and I were kids he decided to keep a bag of chocolate covered peanuts in the fridge. He made it clear to us that those little gems belonged to him and we were to keep our hands off. So that meant we had to sneak them.

But we had to be careful. No opening the bag from scratch. We had to wait for Dad to do that. But once he did: game on.

It was usually a pretty good-sized bag, so I surmised that two or three or even four nuggets at a time were unlikely to be missed. Thus, early on, Dad was probably amazed at how many peanuts he was pounding down in a week, which, in the beginning, was about how long the bag lasted. And then, one week, the bag was nearly depleted by Thursday. And then, the next week it almost empty by Wednesday.

Eventually, Dad put two-and-two together and John and I found ourselves called on the carpet. We, of course, denied absconding with his candy and teased him about his chocolate/peanut habit: “Dad, how can you eat a whole bag in five days?” which, of course, is exactly what he was thinking. We then proceeded to continue snitching from it, making sure we never, ever took the last ten or so. That would have been a dead-giveaway (not that it mattered by that point).

But, in any event, it was too late for me. I was hooked.

The sharing of that story was inspired by my recent craving for a Mr. Goodbar. [In case you didn’t know, a Mr. Goodbar is a milk chocolate candy bar jam-packed with peanuts.] That craving was likely triggered by my sudden realization, for some unknown reason, that I didn’t have one. But I also knew that if I did have one I might not eat it right away. But I would know it was there. Just in case, you know, I needed one.

After obsessing on this for a bit, I finally gave up on “just say no…” and headed for the nearest quickie mart. But all they had were those huge, half-pounders (let’s not get crazy). Rats. So, I drove on to Publix: they didn’t have any at all! Gah! Next: stop for some gas and head for Winn-Dixie, fingers crossed.

Aha, finally, in one of the checkout lanes. At $1.19 apiece. Plus, tax. Jeez, one would think there would be a black market for these things.

I scored four and polished off one as soon as I got home. I stuck the other three in the fridge, where they have remained for the past couple of days. I don’t really need one right now. But I know they are in there. Just in case.

Hard water

See James Spier’s blog “Birding the Bend” for more. Link below.

For many years, my paternal grandparents resided at the corner of Arctic Street and Red Bud Trail on the north edge of Buchanan. As I mentioned in my preceding post, I was fortunate to often have the opportunity to spend time with them when I was a boy. And during those visits, in addition to the occasional fishing trip, my grandfather would sometimes take me for a summertime walk a mile or so down Red Bud Trail just beyond the city limits to visit the site of an old artesian well. (Artesian wells are those where geological strata, such as rocks and gravel, confine the groundwater. Thus, a spring will flow from such a well under natural pressure without need of a pump.)

It was always a pleasant stroll along that stretch of Red Bud. The steep hills on the west side of the road are heavily forested, and looking up to the canopy of the towering hardwoods one would see the afternoon sunlight filtering through the verdant foliage in flashes of sparkling fluorescent greens and yellows. Ahead, narrow shafts of light would blink through the lush overhang providing spotlights for flitting insects and dancing particles of dust.

The road is similarly forested on the east, where a steep embankment leads down to the meandering waters of the St. Joe River. And if our timing was right, we would find both sides of the road festooned with blooming red bud trees. As we make our way deeper into the wooded section of the road, we become enveloped in the humid, musky smells of virgin woods mingled with an occasional wisp of Grandpa’s Prince Albert pipe tobacco, until we finally reach our destination.

The well was not particularly impressive though—no circular stone base with a hanging wooden bucket or anything like that. In fact, it consisted of a rusty three-quarter inch steel pipe that someone, many years previous, and for reasons unknown, had driven horizontally into the side of a steep hill just off the shoulder of the road. Ice-cold, crystal clear water flowed from that pipe as it no doubt had been doing for countless years.

My grandfather would capture some of the water with the Mason Ball jar he had brought with him and we would each take a long slug to cool us off after our walk. That water, with all its minerals, could slake a thirst like none other. Once we were rested, Grandpa would fill the jar one last time to take some back to Grandma.

Back in the eighties, my wife and I decided to build a house here in Florida. We were pleasantly surprised when our builder informed us that, coincidentally, the well he had just driven for us was artesian. But be assured, the taste of the water from our new Florida well was no match for the crystalline outflowings from that simple spring well on Red Bud Trail.

And be sure to check out James Spier’s blog, Birding the bend, for more beautiful photos like the one above of our avian friends who hang out in the red bud trees along the St. Joe River.

* * *

[For those who are familiar with the area, the well was located on the west side of the road just north of what in those days was a forty- to fifty-foot hillock of sand that had been largely cleared of trees and brush. Folks from all over the community harvested clean, white sand from that location for use with everything from do-it-yourself concrete and mortar mixing to children’s sandboxes. The dune is long gone now, and the site is currently home to the Wheatberry Restaurant and Tavern.]

Cane poles and bluegill

Ready to go…

When I was a boy, my paternal grandparents lived in a tiny, 100-year-old house on the outskirts of Buchanan, Michigan. It was here where Grandma and Grandpa would often look after me on those occasions when Mom and Dad had things to do. And one of my favorite summer adventures while spending time with them was a cane pole fishing trip out to Weaver Lake. Now, with the warm days of summer fast approaching, I thought it might be fun to share with you some of my recollections of those trips. So, let’s see how well my memory works here. (That’s a joke, of course; we all know how well my memory works.)

Okay, picture this: it’s an idyllic summer afternoon, circa 1956. I am about ten years of age and spending the day with Grandma and Grandpa. I’m perched on the steps of the porch with elbows resting on my knees and my chin in my scruffy hands, idly watching popcorn clouds with flat bottoms slide slowly across the sky. The heat of the day is tempered by a light breeze that tousles my hair on its way to the open windows of the old house, where it gently ruffles the sheer white curtains inside. It’s just another lazy, hazy summer day.

And I’m bored.

My elderly grandfather, seated in his porch chair puffing on his ever-present pipe, notices my deep sighs and pops the question: Would I like to go fishing?

* * *

These trips typically began with the harvesting of a coffee can full of nightcrawlers from the soft, loamy soil around the perimeter of the old, dirt-floor garage out back. Then, Grandpa would organize our gear and load us up in his big, four-door Buick for the ride out to the lake. I would usually be assigned shotgun (with Grandma in the back seat) so that I could stick my arm out of the rolled-down window and hold onto the fifteen-foot cane poles that were roped to the side of the car.

And off we would go.

Weaver is located just east of Clear Lake Road. Back in those days, a rutted, dirt drive led up to a seemingly unoccupied old cabin situated on its southwest bank. Walking onto the porch, one would find the dried and dusty heads of several large-mouth bass tacked to the exterior wall, presumably hooked in those very waters long ago, along with a wooden box with a slit in the top for our honor payment. The payment was for the use of one of the rowboats tied up to the narrow, dilapidated dock behind the house.

It’s well-known that the scariest parts of flying in an airplane are the takeoffs and landings. And, so it was on these fishing trips, where Grandma’s ingress and egress from the vessel were, often as not, heart-pounding events. Grandma, who was getting up there in years and had put on a few pounds, was a little unsteady on her feet. So, standard procedure was for me to get into the bow and hold the boat steady as Grandpa helped her step down from the wobbly dock into the wobbly boat (tough enough even when not wearing a dress—grandmas didn’t wear pants in those days. At least, not my grandma).

Once everyone and everything was situated, we would shove off. And with the rhythmic squeaking of oarlocks and the occasional splash of an oar, Grandpa would propel us across the lake in search of a suitable fishing spot.

As the boat cuts through the mirror-like surface I reach down from my post in the bow and drag my fingers in the warm water, mesmerized by the wake until Grandpa finally slows our progress and nestles us into a small clearing near the lily pads. Time to drop anchor.  Next, we break out the poles, bait our hooks (I had to do Grandma’s—she did not like those worms) and, in eager anticipation, drop our lines into the calm water. Then all is quiet for a while, except for an occasional splash—probably a frog leaving his perch on a lily pad—and the eerie murmurs of conversations from other anglers, wafting across the water on the still air.

No action. Lift and try another spot. Still no action. Lift and reset the depth of the float. Nothing.

And then, suddenly, a bobber begins to bob, pushing concentric ripples across the surface and causing a heart to race. Then, with no warning, another bobber is suddenly dragged completely under, triggering a reflexive and unnecessarily strong jerk of the pole to set the hook. What fun. And even with all the wild swinging of poles, tangled lines, hooks lost to the lily pads and yet other hooks attached to lines flying precariously around the boat, no one gets hurt and Grandpa never once loses his pipe.

These trips almost always resulted in a catch sufficient in number to earn a skillet-fried fish dinner that evening. Grandpa would scale and clean the fish while Grandma readied the kitchen. There is no tastier fish than Bluegill.

As a side note, I don’t recall how or where, exactly, Grandpa cleaned our catch. But I do remember that when my dad would take us out to one of the many lakes around Buchanan, upon our return he would carry the pail of fish into the garage and place a board across the top of it. He would then take another pail and turn it upside down, where he would sit, shirtless, while scaling and gutting our catch on that board. I was only as tall as he was when seated, so my job was to stand behind him and smack the mosquitoes on his back as he worked. Funny the things we remember. Assuming my memory works at all.

Whiskers

Hmmm…not bad. This could be a Cubs rally beard.

“I hate it when you offer someone a sincere compliment on their moustache and suddenly she’s not your friend anymore.” (Source: Someone who rarely finds the opportunity to enjoy female companionship.)

Over millennia, the act of men cultivating various forms of facial hair has ranged from being a hobby (for those competing in handlebar moustache contests, for example) to a religious act (such as those associated with the Amish, Sikhism, Islam, certain sects of Judaism and major league baseball, for example).

In the days of my youth, my recollection is that it was uncommon to encounter someone with a full-blown, bushy beard (or, at least not in my small corner of the world). And those who did choose to sport a moustache, goatee or beard usually kept their affectations mostly short and well-groomed. Going around with a one- two- or even three-day crop of stubble evoked suspicions of undesirable personal hygiene.

No more: The three-day beard has become socially acceptable.

This trend seems to have been be fostered primarily by millennials. And I think the reason is two-fold: First, we’re seeing a lot more men with facial hair on television and other media due to, among other things, the attention being bestowed upon our friends (and others) from the middle east as well as other far-away locales where beards are simply more commonplace. As a result, the sight of an unshaven male has become more acceptable here as well.

Secondly, the cost of wrangling a face full of bristles every morning has gotten entirely out of hand. I believe this is due, at least in part, to a devious pricing tactic employed by the manufacturers of shaving products, which was apparently adopted from the manufacturers of computer printers and copiers. Regarding the latter: One might notice that the various computer peripherals on display at your local office supplies store may be acquired at suspiciously low prices. We eventually learn that the reason for this is that the toner and print cartridges required for their operation are NOT available at low prices. Case in point, I bought an inkjet printer for my office a year or so ago for about four hundred dollars only to find that the starter set of ink cartridges that came with it ran out in two weeks. A full pack of replacement color cartridges? About $65.

In further support of this theory, I submit my recent experience at the local grocery store. As is often the case on any given Saturday afternoon I found myself standing in the checkout line keeping myself amused by reading the covers of celebrity magazines (that’s how I keep up with these people). I eventually worked my way up to a rack of shaving products. And on that rack was a name-brand, new-fangled super razor for $9.99. And right next to it was a packet of four replacement blades for said razor listed at $17.99.  I rest my case. (Personally, I have been using the same Trac-II for decades, which works perfectly well when used in conjunction with bits of toilet paper to stop the bleeding. Generic blades are still available at reasonable prices for some reason).

And then, of course, there is the simple fact that many young men are inclined to provide observable validation of their virility by growing some manly facial hair just like they see in TV ads and on the covers of those celebrity magazines. Some of these youngsters have more success with this than others.

Okay, well, us boomers can ride that train, too. Now that I am retired I have taken to shaving only once per week; and also on those rare occasions when I find it necessary to get off the couch for some reason (other than going to bed).