Squirrel Hunting

The man on his way out of the store did not hold the door for me. This was in spite of the fact that a one second hesitation in his step or a even a polite stretch back before letting go would have allowed me to catch the handle. Perhaps he was still starry-eyed over his purchase of a new quiver for his compound bow and oblivious or maybe he was too focused on repositioning the wad of tobacco in his jaw in preparation for releasing the gallon or so of spit that had accumulated in his mouth during his forty minutes of shopping.

I imagined a buzz cut, pimply-faced clerk in the camouflage t-shirt showing this shopper product after product:

“This one has a built-in reel for those fishing arrows you bought last season.”

“Hmm…”

“This one has the latest in silent, quick-release technology. Bow Hunter Magazine tested it in their laboratory tree stands and said that even the most sensitive bucks couldn’t hear it.”

Nod.

“How about this one here? The broad head guard over the top has a built in fox urine dispenser for masking your scent. Pretty cool, huh?”

Nod with thoughtful squint.

“This is the one I use. Just came out. The camo pattern comes from the military and that mounting bracket is carbon fiber. You ain’t gonna hurt it when you throw it in the back of the truck.

“Hmm…”

“Of course, this one here was designed by Fred Bear hisself. My granddaddy’s got one just like it. Been using it his whole life. It’s old school…”

Inside the store I found myself under the watchful glass eyes of scores of once-majestic animals—elk, bear, bobcats, bighorn sheep, antelope, and white-tailed deer—lots of white-tailed deer. In the back left corner of this fifteen-thousand-square-foot Mecca for those given to their primal urge (and Biblical command) to subdue and conquer the most beautiful of earth’s creatures was the department I sought: firearms.

This trip was one I had never thought I would make. I haven’t hunted since high school, haven’t handled a gun since I was in the Army and a week ago I couldn’t stomach the thought of anything but live traps for the eleven-or-so squirrels hell bent on the systematic destruction of the trees and shrubs with which I had so lovingly landscaped my yard this spring.

In the first day of my little rodent war, I easily trapped three squirrels which I quickly moved a couple miles away and released on the far bank of Chattanooga Creek in what I thought to be a cute, little, fuzzy rodent paradise of tangled honeysuckle, privet and riparian trees of all sorts. What I found myself unable to determine the following day was whether I had trapped the only three squirrels dumb enough to wander into my trap or the only three squirrels smart enough to figure out how to get to the peanut butter-laced corn cob in the end of the wire mesh box. Either way, in the ten days since, I had caught no more squirrels and one more tree had been attacked—severed just below the ground and left to die. They weren’t even eating their prey.

Then came the idea. I received, via email, a forwarded article from the online news source http://www.chattanoogan.com, which read: “City Attorney Randy Nelson said the city has not had an ordinance against firing a gun inside the city limits since the late 1970s or early 1980s.” He went on to say that “the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency has the authority to grant hunting licenses within the city.” Nelson went onto say that, “Nothing precludes a person from shooting a gun within the city limits. Just be sure you know what you are shooting at and aim carefully.”

I had made the decision to escalate the war. I would end the destruction. I would aim carefully.

Before visiting the firearm department I stopped at the information desk.

“Hey, Buddy. What can I do for you?”

“I need a copy of the Tennessee hunting regulations.”

“Sorry, they ain’t out yet.”

“Do you have a copy of last year’s?”

The young man searched through several file cabinets, detouring after each drawer to spit in a trashcan under the time clock (which was obviously dedicated to such action as every other clerk behind the counter did the same after each customer.) He then disappeared for several minutes to check in a back office, returned with an extra large spit and announced that they were all out but, he added, “Come back in July, Buddy. We’ll have one for ya then.”

I thanked him and headed back to the gun department. A long counter set six feet from the wall protected customers from yards of shotguns, rifles and pistols—bolt action, single action, lever action, single barrel, double barrel, over-under, side-by-side, rim fire, center fire, wood grain, camouflage, stainless, blue, automatic and semi-, designed for targets, clays, birds, mammals, collections and self-defense. In the middle of the counter, three salesmen were gathered with a middle-aged customer examining the custom stock on a double barrel twenty gauge which they all agreed was the perfect first shotgun for a twelve-year-old.

“He’ll remember this birthday for the rest of his life.”

Spit.

“I’ll never forget my first one. Still have it. The day I got that gun was the only time ever seen my old man cry—tears and all.”

Spit. Spit.

“I’ll take it.”

“You’re a good father.”

Spit.

“He’ll keep that thing forever.”

“Gimme a box of shells, too…and a cleaning kit.”

“Do you want it gift-wrapped?”

“Could you…”

The men behind the counter laughed and spit and laughed some more. The proud father joined in.

“You got me with that one.”

One of the younger salesmen peeled away from the group, spit in the can behind him, and turned to me.

“Can I help you, Buddy?”

“I need a pellet gun.”

The salesman (I guessed him to be seventeen) came out from behind the counter and led me down an aisle. Along the way I explained my need, having to convince him that I really didn’t need a .22 or a .410 and that no, I wouldn’t be better served by something I could also bird hunt with.

At the end of the aisle was a dizzying array of pellet and bb guns ranging from 450 to 1200 feet per second (fps). Some came in kits with targets, shooting glasses and ammo. Others touted greater velocity than a .22 short. I was drawn to the classic Daisy Red Rider but the salesman convinced me that at 450 fps I would only “piss off the squirrels, and wasn’t accurate enough to hit them, anyway.”

He recommended pellets over bbs and showed me hollow points for greatest damage and gold-plated ones guaranteed to “increase my velocity by up to 350 fps.” I finally settled on a simple Daisy gun that boasted a respectable 750 fps and a box of the least expensive pellets offered. As the salesman hurried back to the spittoon, I made my way toward the checkout lines at the front of the store.

Pausing at the knife counter to look at sharpening stones for the kitchen, I set the gun and ammo down on a nearby bench facing the women’s hunting apparel department. As I perused the sharpeners, I pictured myself taking a bead on one of those squirrels and squeezing the trigger. I remembered the salesman’s words: this one will have plenty of punch to stop it in it’s tracks as long as you hit it in the head. Of course, a good body shot will eventually kill it, but it might take a while…

Looking back at the gun on the bench, I struggled with the image of a suffering squirrel, gasping for breath as it feebly climbs the hackberry to die in its nest. And what if I did make a head shot? What then? Do I bury it in the yard? Do I eat it? I knew I couldn’t bear to clean it. I took a look around the room at all those animals on the wall then glanced back at the gun on the bench. I surveyed the customers around me—fathers and sons testing tree stands, teens with confederate flags on their shirts dreaming of ten point bucks and ten pound bass, men in black boots wondering how fast they could empty and replace a fifteen round magazine.

Heavy hearted, I walked to the front of the store empty-handed. I paused to hold the door for a thirty-something sporting a mullet and a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. A few feet outside the door, I felt a splash on my sandaled foot and looked down to discover I had stepped in a dark brown puddle. I wiped my foot with the handkerchief in my pocket and got in the car.

Someone once said that, “the best offense is a good defense.” I don’t who that was but I’m guessing it probably wasn’t somebody wearing camouflage and looking for a place to spit.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I found myself behind a truck with a bumper sticker that read: “Gun Control is Being Able to Hit Your Target.” There must be a better way, I thought. On the trip home, I stopped at the store and bought some peanut butter. 

Two Knucklehead Theory

I believe that two knuckleheads are better than one knucklehead. I often share this theory with someone after working together to solve a problem.  For the two mail carriers on my route, however, the theory doesn’t seem to apply.  Despite numerous attempts to correct them, they brought me yet another bill from the gynecologist today.  Like the others, I wrote “not at this address” on the envelope and put it back in the box. 

Several years ago my Dad, an undisputed tough guy, was out fishing by himself when he got a treble hook in the quick of his thumb.  It was in past the barb.  Being in a pretty remote area, and wanting to deal with it right away, he didn’t go to a doctor.  Instead, he stopped at the first grocery store he could find.  Luckily, in the parking lot was another tough guy.  They put their heads together and soon the guy was pulling out the hook with a pair of pliers.    And how fortunate to be so close to a place that sold bandages and triple antibiotic ointment!  Two knuckleheads.  Problem solved.  Theory proven

Today, my dad called to say that he had cut his hand at work on Saturday and wouldn’t be able to go fishing as a result.  “But don’t worry,” he assured me, “I stopped by the ob-gyn and had it sewn up.  It only took three stitches.”  I was a little confused and asked him to clarify.  “It’s ok,” he reassured.  “They were very nice.  And they didn’t even have to put me in the stirrups.”  I wondered where he would have gone if his tooth hurt.  The proctologist?

Later, at the store, I ran into my good friend Karen.  When I asked her how she was doing she replied, “I’m Ok.”

Her reply lacked conviction, so I asked her again.

“How are you really?”

This time she opened up.  It had not been an ok day.  It had been a day that began with a delivery driver jumping off the loading dock and sticking a nail through his foot.  It was early and nobody was there to help him.

“But everything worked out,” she said.  “The veterinarian next door pulled out the nail, cleaned him up and gave him some medicine.”

I didn’t ask, but couldn’t help wondering if the poor guy was instructed by the doc to hide his pills in a ball of dog food and then mix it in with the rest of his supper.

I guess that sometimes, knucklehead or not, it’s just a good thing there’s more than one of us on the planet, even if the other guy doesn’t practice the exact medicine you think you need at the moment.  Like Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some times, you just might find… you get what you need.”

Next time I’ll double-check the name on that ob-gyn bill in the mailbox.  You never know, it might be for my dad.  And I just might be the knucklehead who needs to deliver it to him.

Cockroach Hunter

It’s remarkable how convincingly, at 3:30 in the morning, a dead, brown, rolled up leaf can pass for a monster cockroach – complete with layered, translucent, glistening wings; curiously twitching antennae; flexed and ready legs prepared to jet across the floor in search of my bare foot or the nearest crevasse.  Even more remarkable is how quickly my heart leapt into my throat at the first sight of it.

But more amazing still is that less than three minutes after my first encounter I returned from the kitchen with a glass of water and suffered the exact same reaction to the exact same leaf.

Now, at 3:45 in the morning, with my heart racing but my thirst quenched, I sit at the computer writing rather than sleeping because it will be a while before my pulse quiets enough for me to resume sleep and laying awake in the dark thinking about roaches just ain’t my cup of tea!

I will remain awake, probably for the remaining 105 minutes until my alarm goes off because I can’t stop thinking about a non-biting, non-stinging, nonpoisonous and by all accounts harmless insect.  Which, as far as I know, isn’t even in my apartment.

When I was 16 years old I worked for a short while in a to-remain-unnamed fast food restaurant in Chattanooga – one of a young, growing southern chain specializing in chicken filet sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade.  Our store prided itself in its cleanliness and was particularly sparkling on this particular week as we had just scoured the entire place in anticipation of a visit from some of our company honchos from down in Georgia which had at the last minute been cancelled.

It therefore came as quite a surprise when Will, my best friend and one of the closing crew, spotted a medium-sized cockroach on the wall in the back room, right next to where we breaded filets for frying.  Had our manager been there, I’m certain we would have quickly killed the intruder and alerted the captain, but on this night the closing authority was Michelle – a young girl no older than myself who was new to the job and not one we saw any need to impress or brown nose.  So, rather than kill it, we decided to catch it.

I approached the roach with a cup my hand, thinking that I would trap in against the wall, slip a piece of paper underneath the cup and then pull the cup and paper away from the wall with the roach safely trapped.  The first part of the plan went as prescribed and the roach was swiftly and easily trapped, but as I was about to slip the paper underneath, I realized that  the roach had never moved – not at my approach, as the cup came down around it, not even now that it was trapped. This, of course, raised several questions.

Clearly a great deal of air pressure would have been created by the slamming of the cup.  Could this pressure have squeezed the exoskeletal armor of the roach enough to have caused internal damage, killing the roach instantly?  Could the trauma induced by the simple knowledge of being captured been enough to cause cardiac arrest and death?  And if either of these things had happened, wouldn’t a dead roach fall off the wall?  And if a dead roaches don’t fall off walls, was the roach dead when we discovered it and if so, why don’t we see dead roaches all over walls everywhere roaches live?  And, perhaps most importantly, if it was already dead, did it die from eating the chicken?

After pondering these questions for a minute or two, we decided to remove the cup and see for ourselves if the roach was alive or dead. Expecting a mad dash behind the shelves, I was flanked by Will and Kevin, each double-fisting cups  and prepared to quickly re-contain the prisoner should it escape.

Slowly I lifted the tomb.  The roach remained motionless on the wall.  A ploy?  We watched it for a few seconds then Will poked it with one of his cups.  It took off running.  And fast.  Luckily, Kevin was there and slammed another cup down over her.  We could hear it scurrying around the perimeter of her cell. One lap.  Two laps.  Three. Four. Then silence.  After a minute passed without any movement, Kevin lifted his cup.  Once again, she did not move.  Then I got a great idea.

“Let’s tape it to the wall.”

We didn’t discuss my proposal.  We didn’t need to.  Will went to the desk and found a roll of packing tape then came back to the wall where Kevin had replaced the cup just to be sure and I was standing guard in case… well… just in case.  Will tore off a piece of tape and handed it to me.  Kevin lifted the cup.   In one swift motion I placed the tape over the roach, sealing it against the wall on all sides.

We stood silently and proudly over the victim of our prowess for a moment until Michelle looked around the corner and suggested that we get back to work, which we did.

This all happened on a Saturday. The restaurant was closed on Sunday and Will, Kevin and I were off on Monday and Tuesday.  Now one might expect that the Monday morning crew, upon seeing a roach taped to the wall in the back room would take appropriate measures to remove the offense.  One might also think that our boss would have had questions for us.  But on Wednesday, when the three of us returned to work, the roach was still taped to the wall and there were no questions, no comments.

Now there were several possible motivations for why none of our coworkers removed the tape and the roach – curiosity, fear, entertainment value… just to name a few.  And it is entirely likely that our boss simply never noticed the tiny transparent tomb given that his job did not frequently include breading filets.  Whatever the reason the others had for leaving it, we decided for the same reason that led us to capturing it that we too would leave it there.

A week after the night of the capture, the roach was still entombed (and presumed dead) and Michelle strongly suggested that we remove it from the wall.  The dignitaries from Georgia had not come the  previous week as expected, she explained, and it was rumored that they had re-scheduled for the following Monday.  We agreed that we did not want them to arrive and find a dead roach taped to the wall above the breading station and I volunteered for disposal duty.

The tape was still sealed on all sides of the roach, just as when I had applied and there was no sign of any struggle.  The roach was perfectly archived there and I assumed that removing the tape would remove the roach as well and then I could just toss the whole lot into the trash.  But to my surprise, the tape came off smoothly and the roach stayed on the wall…  and then… began… to run.  After a week of food and oxygen deprivation, the roach was alive, aware, and off to the races, moving faster and straighter than I had ever seen (or have since seen) a roach or any other insect move.  This time, unfortunately, I had no protection on my flanks and no cup of my own and the roach made a beeline for the shelves, behind which it disappeared, never to be seen again.

Two years after my roach encounter, I found myself living for one semester on the campus of Tennessee Technological University where my dorm held the distinction of producing for several years running, the winner of the all-campus cockroach race.  I suggested to the captain of our team that research I conducted while in high school, uncovered the secret to cockroach training and I thereby guaranteed that if given the opportunity, I could produce the fastest cockroach TTU had ever seen.  But I was a freshman, he was an upper classman and my chicken-feeding-followed-by-deprivation training regimen would not be followed.  So our cockroach was trained without my assistance or advice and finished third – breaking our string of victories.  And although my dorm-mates were humiliated, I was somehow satisfied with the knowledge that, if given the chance… just maybe… I could’ve won that race.

Now, almost exactly twenty years later, I’m reminded of all this at 3:30 in the morning because I was frightened by a dry, brown, rolled up leaf on my dining room floor and more questions are surely begged.  Had that leaf been a roach, what was there to be afraid of?  Perhaps the idea, twenty-two years ago, that a roach was able to defy death and live to be a champion is somehow frightening to me – that any creature could exhibit even the possibility of immortality.

Or maybe roaches are just plain creepy and I don’t want them creeping around my house, in the dark, when I’m usually asleep or, if awake, barefoot!  But now it’s morning and the sun will be up soon so I’m going to put on my shoes and make some tea.