Night of the Raccoon
The morning of our community’s “Keep the Beautiful in Bonita” clean up this year, I thought that after a day of picking up assorted stinky discarded diapers and half consumed bottles of beer, it would be nice to be able to at least partially disinfect myself by taking a swim in our heavily chlorinated pool when we got home. Since my Floridian blood freezes solid in water anywhere below 87 degrees, I turned on the solar heater so that by the time we got home that night the pool would be just the right temperature for a quick dip. My wife Lori of course knew better. “You know you’ll never make it past the couch, right?”
And of course… she was right. That evening, as soon as I walked in the door I plopped my gross, garbage scented, exhausted body on the couch and in minutes was sleeping soundly… until I was awakened by the sound of the doggy door banging open on the pool deck. I sat up quickly… looked over at Lori and growled, smiling…”Raccoons!” You see, the Nelson family and raccoons have been feuding for decades and from the stories my father used to tell me about he and his brothers hunting the wily masked creatures… it’s fair to say that we had started it.
In the early 1900’s my grandparents had come to Florida to seek their fortune by homesteading on a section of prime water front property (swamp land) in southwest Florida. As it turns out, their fortune had a lot in common with starving to death so they would send their four sons out into the woods to forage for food. While the older family members were out looking for work, my father and his older, yet still preteen, brother Charlie were left alone in the woods to tend the cattle and to trap raccoons… by hand. To make things even more interesting the animals had to be brought in alive so everyone would know they were fresh. I guess the only thing worse than eating fresh raccoon was eating stale or rotten raccoon.
So, how hungry were they? This hungry… after a raccoon was spotted high in a cypress tree, my dad (being the smallest and easiest to bully) would climb up the tree with a stick. His orders were to convince the animal to jump 60 feet to the ground by swatting at it like it was a piñata. Sooner or later the raccoon would get tired of this and prior to doing a really bad flying squirrel imitation, the raccoon would first lighten his load by emptying the contents of his bladder, bowels and stomach… onto my father. This always delighted my Uncle Charlie who would be far below on the ground, laughing hysterically and shouting helpful encouragement to his little brother. “You’ve got him now Ben!”
Once the raccoon hit the ground, both boys would chase the dazed mammal until Charlie could bop it on the head with a stick, knocking him out cold. Being the big brother, he would grab the unconscious critter by its ringed tail and carry it proudly back home.
However, on this particular hunting trip, Mother Nature decided to show off her own sense of humor by waking up the boy’s un-amused captive. It immediately wrapped all four furry legs tightly around Charlie’s thigh and “commenced to chewin'”. The once proud hunter proceeded to try every dance, jump, roll, scream and evasive maneuver known to man in an attempt to dislodge the angry masked mammal from his leg. My father stopped laughing just long enough to put a hand on each side of his mouth and yell… “You’ve got ‘em now Charlie!” The raccoon soon lost his taste for the boy’s boney leg and took off for the deep swamp, leaving Charlie pretty much unharmed, furious, and running after his still laughing little brother.
So, in what could easily be considered raccoon karma, these hoodlums now tip over our garbage cans, slice through screens, eat the cat’s food and make funny faces and apparently insulting gestures at our dogs through the windows at night. This makes our dogs go crazy, and we of course then yell at the dogs, which delights the raccoons to no end, causing them to run away laughing their little raccoon tails off!
Recently, they discovered the doggy door into the pool area and how funny it was to make me run after them in my underwear. I do this for several reasons. Because I can’t let the dogs out with potentially rabid raccoons on the pool deck, because I’m not thinking clearly at midnight, and the ongoing feud between the Nelson’s and the much hated family of poop-on-your-head-before-they-chew-up-your-ankle-trash panda’s. So that night, I again exploded out of the door looking like a giant maniac baby, wielding the pool net high over my head as I ran after the masked bandit. As usual he ran into the bushes behind the spa, and as usual I jumped up on the edge of the spa and began poking the net into the bushes. As the dogs barked frantically from inside the house, I could hear Lori yelling really irritating logical good advice through the closed door, “Just leave the screen door open and he’ll leave.” But this, my friend… was war. Suddenly, the angry mammal shot up the palm tree and fastened itself onto the screen like Spider-Man just above my head. Without thinking (which actually, should have be the name of this story) I scooped the “much larger than I thought” raccoon off of the screen with the net like he was a giant pancake. As I watched him falling in slow motion directly in front of me into the spa, it dawned on me that the only way for the crazed mammal to get out of the spa was to climb over the top of me. And after hearing my father and my uncles stories I had no desire to have an angry raccoon crawl up my leg while I was in my damned underwear, so I decided on a different strategy. I turned and ran, screaming like an eight year-old girl. But just as I took my first step it became clear that I had, like a cartoon character, run out of solid ground and was for a split second running in mid air over the pool. Strangely enough, as I plunged into the dark black water of the pool my first thought was…”Hey, this water temperature is perfect!” followed quickly by… “ARRRGGH… AN ANGRY RACCOON IS ABOUT TO CLIMB ONTO MY HEAD!”
Fueled by fear, I quickly scrambled out of the water and grabbed my pool net again, and with my back to the French doors scanned the pool deck. “COME ON PAL! IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!” I bellowed mightily, standing there soaking wet in my now drooping “not so tighty whiteys.” As I stood there like the worlds worse Navy Seal, I heard a quiet “tap, tap, tap” on the window behind me. I turned to see my wife Lori silently mouthing the words “He’s right behind you!” Sure enough, there behind me was a wet, snarling raccoon with his back up against the wall. Our eyes locked for an instant and then we both came to the same conclusion… “RUN!” Luckily the masked intruder headed for the door leading outside where he belonged and I headed for the door leading to the couch where I belonged.
The raccoon has never returned to our pool deck, but as I nurse my pulled back muscles and suffer the disappointed looks on my dogs faces … I’m not so certain who won this battle. But I suppose that is the nature of a feud… no one ever really wins.
Look. I don’t want to come off like some guy who’s always doing battle in his underpants with some innocent mammal whose species has a vendetta with my family, but then… there’s bats. Yeah, yeah… I know. They are amazing animals (flying vermin) that eat… I don’t know… millions of tons of insects per day (suck your blood and give you horrible diseases) and are indispensable to the health and well-being of our ecosystem (and vampire movies).
I wasn’t born with this obvious prejudice against radar guided flying mammals. I remember a more innocent time when I was free of my preconceived notions about “winged rats”. I would sit in front of our family’s small black and white TV and watch The Andy Griffith Show as Barney Fife would get all bug eyed, freaking out about bats. He was certain that “Bats will lay eggs in your hair and make you go crazy!!” Yes… we all laughed and laughed. Ridiculous! Or… was it?
One evening, years later, I had just gotten the kids to sleep. As I lay there in bed, reading by the light of a small lamp, I kept hearing something… something fluttering. I sat my book down and looked suspiciously over my glasses around the room. Nothing. Then, I saw what looked like a large moth fluttering along the ceiling. I tried to ignore it, but finally as it flapped its way overhead, I stood up in bed and swatted the winged irritant off of the ceiling and onto the floor. After I jumped down off the bed and turned the main light on, I bent down closely over the moth so I could get a better look at it. “Hmmph!” I said out loud to no one. “What kind of bug do we have here?” I reached down to turn it over, but just before I touched it…
You never really know how you will react to unusual circumstances. But apparently, when a moth spins its fuzzy head towards me, opens its mouth and growls with a full set of nightmarish teeth, I jump back up on the bed and shriek like a little girl. Ok… It really wasn’t a growl, it was more of a sharp “ping”.
Fortunately… no… ironically, I keep a bat next to my bed (a baseball bat) so I snatched it up and stood like a samurai ready to do battle… with an animal the size of a large butterfly, in my underwear (of course!), armed with a Louisville slugger. It didn’t take long before a couple of things became clear to me. First, the miniature mammal wasn’t going to attack me and second, Barney Fife had been right! The Bat had obviously made me go crazy, even without laying eggs in my hair.
In the end, I simply scooped the hapless creature up with the same magazine that I’d smacked him with and then set him gently outside. After all… setting him free was good karma, right? WRONG! Not even a year later my mother called one evening from Idaho. She had been sitting in her easy chair, minding her own business, in front of the fire, watching Gunsmoke, when a rabid bat snuck up on her and bit her on the big toe! And you know those infamous multiple rabies shots you’ve always heard about? They’re REAL! So, Karma Shmarma! I don’t care if I do smack a random member of your freakish, rubber winged family with a Discovery magazine, you don’t get to BITE MY MOM ON THE TOE AND GIVE HER RABIES!
That was ten years ago. Ever since then I have watched the evening sky (and bedroom ceiling) with narrowed suspicious eyes. Even though the time has passed without any further bat related incidents, it has not tempered my mistrust… my dislike for the entire bat family. I continue to scowl at them as they flap and swoop around at night on their skin covered wings. And even though I know that I am irrationally judging the character of an entire species of millions, upon millions of law abiding, hardworking bats and that I’m doing so based upon the actions of two misguided hoodlums and the hysterical rantings of an infamously cowardly T.V. character… I find it hard to accept them as fellow productive creatures with nice little bat families and bat fears of their own. But since I do know that prejudice is based on fear, anger, mistrust and misunderstanding… and because my daughters favorite thing in the whole world is (ugh) Batman, I have promised her that I would conquer my possibly irrational prejudice with an open heart, an open mind…and at night… tightly closed windows and doors.
Law and Disorder
OK, I admit it. I seem to spend a lot of time running around in my underpants. But, in my defense, I believe I can provide evidence that wearing nothing but briefs can save your life!
Years ago I walked over to my neighbor’s house after work (NO, not in my underpants!) to ask him for a typical neighbor favor. “Hey Jim! I’m going to the Keys for the weekend. Could you keep an eye on my house while I’m gone?” Since my friend Jim is a one-man neighborhood watch and we suspect, peeping Tom, he was really happy to take on the responsibility of doing what he does all the time anyway. Spying on my house. Just ask any pizza delivery person… no one (not even me) gets down our street without an I.D., passport, a note from their mom and a thorough questioning. So I always feel secure about leaving our house when we go on vacation.
That particular night, after packing our bags and doing last minute preparation for the next mornings’ road trip, I put the kids to bed and walked around the house checking all the doors and motion lights before I set the alarm clock and settled into bed for the evening. I was just starting to doze off when I noticed a mysterious light moving around outside, shining through the curtains. I sat up in bed, completely awake. “What the fuck… there’s someone outside with a flash light walking around the house! Wait… there’s TWO people!” Moving like a ninja, I slipped silently out of bed. “BAM…FLOP!” (UGHHHH! YOU MOTHER FUCKER!) I whispered to the bottom drawer that was left open that I fell over. I slithered over to the window on my belly and slowly peeked out through the curtains. It was pitch black outside, so all I could see were flashlights. Then… I heard the screen door open. (Holy Shit… they’re trying to break into the house!) I was ready, because I’d been through this situation a thousand times. Well, never really… but in my head. I slowly backed away from the window, stood up and deftly moved through the completely dark house like a cat. “OWWW!” I quietly cursed as I hopped on one foot after stepping on a deadly friggin’ lego.
Limping quietly and quickly, I made my way over to the sliding door to the porch and then leaned back against the wall. The lights on the porch swept back and forth; searching… but they could not see me because I was like a shadow! A shadow camouflaged in (I looked down) bright white underwear? (OH GREAT! too late to put some pants on. Wait… I’m going to fight two burglars in my whitey-tighties!?) As I started feeling more and more vulnerable, my adrenaline fed ninja powers began to fade. But then, the intruder’s flashlights crossed each other’s bodies and I caught a glimpse of them. I stood up a little straighter. “They’re Sheriff’s Officers?” I recognized them both and was relieved, but apparently still stupid. So without thinking I turned the porch light on, shoved the sliding glass door open, jumped onto the porch and said cheerfully “Hey guys!” This was a REALLY bad idea. In the blinding light both officers completely freaked out, spun around and began frantically trying to get their guns out of their buttoned down holsters. Luckily for me, before they could get their guns drawn they got a good look at me and then froze. “Soooo… what are you guys doing on my porch?” I said, forgetting I was half naked. I have to admit, their next response was completely appropriate and I suspect, a little better than getting shot. They both started laughing hysterically. Sure, it might have been the sight of me in my underwear, but maybe they were just relieved that they weren’t going to be involved in a gun battle with a crazy half naked ninja?
After about thirty seconds of them laughing uncontrollably, holding their chests and trying to get their breath I had had enough. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. “OK, OK… very funny! Now… what’s going on?” The one officer sighed a deep breath. “We’re sorry Mr. Nelson, but your neighbor called and said he heard noises at your house and that you were gone for the weekend. So, we came by to (he snickered) take a look.” The other deputy choked back a laugh, put his arm around his partners shoulder and just before they turned to leave said, “Well, I think we’ve seen enough here!” They both laughed again. “Goodnight Mr. Nelson! Sorry to disturb you!” I slid the door shut behind me, narrowed my eyes and sneered my neighbors name. “RENFRO!”
Anyway, white underpants… wear them! You never know.
Questionable Gardening advice
Speaking of helpful neighbors, when you’re new to an area, it can take a while to become familiar with the strange vegetation and creatures that inhabit your yard, so most neighbors will always be willing to help. Not necessarily because they’re nice people, but because it’s so much fun for them to watch you try to implement the screwed up bogus advice that they just invented.
Lori and I were just starting to fix up our little place in Georgia, planting trees, mowing and such, when our dog Molly, and I had our first experience with paper wasps. It took a while for my wife, who was watching us from the safety of the porch, to figure out what the hell was going on. All she could see was Molly and I running for our lives, spinning around, snapping and swatting at the air like cartoon characters. Of course, Lori’s laughter turned into sympathy and then anger when she saw Molly’s golf ball sized swollen, upper lip. “Ahhhh… Look at her.” She said looking right at me, ignoring my gigantic red ear. “You’ve got to get rid of that nest!” (YES, I thought… a mission!).
Three trips to the hardware store and sixty dollars later, the hornets were not only still alive, but really mad. Empty cans of spray were scattered everywhere and the pear tree was soaked with poison. Obviously I needed some local advice if I was to avenge our fat lipped Terrier and my damn ear and take back our yard from those flying fuckers. This, my friend… was WAR!
Since our cabin is in the wooded countryside in the mountains, our neighbors are pretty far apart, so I jumped on my four wheeler and began driving from neighbor to neighbor, taking a poll regarding the best way to get rid of a paper wasp nest. “Just sneak up on it and then slip a bag over it. Then you can just carry it away!” said one neighbor, who had obviously always wanted to see someone try it. “Just knock it out of the tree with a stick!” said another while partially covering his mouth with his hand to keep from laughing. “Oh, that’s hilarious!” I said in my best Pee-Wee Herman voice. “I’ll knock you out of a tree with a stick.” I mumbled to myself as I walked away. Neighbors!
Finally I went to see Old Billy, whose family had been in Georgia so long they had likely evolved there from the very possums they now hunted. Billy, whose favorite expression is “Right between the eyes!” leaned over and spit tobacco juice out, then, eased back in his rocking chair and said “Ben, you gotta’ put the fire to it! Wait til’ it’s good and dark out, then get a long stick with a kerosene rag on it, light it, stick it up under there and burn em’ up!” Finally!… an idea that made complete sense to the teenager that still resides in me. As I rode back to the house I thought how perfect this plan was. It involved fire, angry hornets, running around in the woods in pitch-black darkness while carrying a long stick and a can of kerosene. It was perfect! I mean… What could possibly go wrong?
When night fell… I was ready. Having already lost one battle and an ear to the wasps, I decided to wear protective clothing for the mission. No whitey tighties for this mission! I put on sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt (white), rubber boots and gloves. Then, I cinched the hood tightly around my face and put goggles and gloves on. Ready! After I got everything else together, I snuck up on the sleeping wasps, lit the torch at the end of a 12 foot long pole and then held the flame under the nest. It was soon engulfed in flames. Of course, so was part of the tree. “Collateral damage of war” I thought to myself as I watched it burn. Then I turned towards our house, hooting loudly and waving the still burning torch over my head in victory; my wife and our fat lipped dog watching in the darkness, both of them shaking their heads.
It was then, in mid celebration that I noticed there were several cars stopped out on the road, watching me. (Neighbors!) Torch in one hand I pumped my fist in the air and yelled (again… obviously without thinking) “DIE WASPS!” They all immediately sped off throwing gravel with their spinning tires. “Well that was kind of weird,” I said to myself, as I put down the torch, took my goggles off and slipped the white hood off. I looked over at our house and shrugged, but then turned to look at the pear tree. It was engulfed in flames right where the trunk and two branches intersected… in the shape of a burning cross!
Since that night, we get very few visitors in Georgia anymore… mostly just Billy. For some reason, he’s always ready to help.
For the Love of Cheetos
Which brings us to dogs. (Hey, keep up, Segway!) Every morning I wake up and let our dogs Molly and Winston outside. Not because I want to… but because they MAKE me! As I try to wring out an extra 15 minutes of sleep… Molly sits next to the bed… staring at me, growling. Then, every minute or so, she’ll jump up and punch me, kangaroo style with both her little Jack Russell hooves. Like any responsible pet owner I try to wave her away, my face still buried in the pillow. It finally takes Winston (a.k.a. Mr. Buzzard Breath), to wake me up. One lick on my face and a strong exhale from him and I’m awake… and nauseous.
As soon as my feet hit the floor both dogs become the happiest creatures on the planet… smiling little doggie smiles, spinning around in circles, running at full speed through the house. No, not because they have to go outside… but because they get two dog biscuits when they come back inside. Personally, I just don’t get. Dog biscuits are hard, dry as dust, and taste like they’re made out of dried mud and straw. (Yes, I tried one.)
But to our dogs, biscuits are ambrosia! They love and crave them beyond all reason, and without knowing or caring what they’re made of. As they come barreling in the house after their frantic tour of the backyard, they spin, jump, beg, walk on their front legs, do card tricks, ride unicycles… whatever it takes to get a biscuit from me. Once they snap the precious cardboard flavored bone out of my fingers they rush off to opposite sides of the house so they can crunch up their rock-hard cookies in private, all the while making little yummy noises of delight. It actually makes me a little envious. What must it be like to love and crave a treat that much? Especially one that’s not exactly food. You guessed it… this is where the Cheetos come in.
I suppose we all have our own ‘dog biscuit’, and yesterday, as I stood alone in the supermarket checkout line, I realized what mine was. Cheetos… the crunchy kind. I casually looked around. There were no witnesses. I snagged a bag off of the rack and quickly laid them down between the sad looking salad mix and almond milk. Once I was safely in the car I ripped open the bag and wolfed down crunchy, salt loaded handfuls of the florescent orange, extruded then fried…I don’t know… Corn guts? Whatever! I really didn’t care… they’re delicious! As I upended the bag and poured the tasty last crumbs into my mouth, I made a little yummy sound and then felt a twinge of guilt. I knew they weren’t good for me and that if my wife found out that I had eaten an entire bag of Cheetos… I was in big trouble! I stuffed the empty bag under the car seat and began licking my paws like a cat while driving down the road. I know… it’s disgusting behavior… but I also know that some of you understand and know that it was the right thing to do!
Pulling into our driveway, I quickly checked my clothes for orange crumbs, grabbed an armload of bags and then headed inside. “Hi Honey!” I said, plopping the grocery bag up on the counter. My wife Lori stopped folding our never-ending laundry and looked over at me. “So, did you enjoy your Cheetos?” My mouth dropped open. (I mean really! How the hell does she do that?) I started to protest, but then I realized that I was sporting bright orange fingers and lips.
Now, I can argue the merits of a case with the best of them, but trying to justify eating an entire bag of Cheetos, is apparently beyond my capacity, so all that would come out of my throat was a choked and feeble “errr…Ahhhh.” Of course our dogs… Mans Best Friends… were sitting there next to Lori (traitors!) with their smiley dog faces, anxiously waiting to see how I would earn my Cheetos.
Unlike the dogs, (which I’m not able to say very often)I am no longer capable of walking on my hands or ride a unicycle without serious injury to myself, or the furniture, and since I seriously suck at folding clothes… I got to make supper and empty the dishwasher. An impressive trick to the only person that counts. Lori.
So far as I can remember, my addiction to salty treats started in elementary school. Not far from my house on Old US 41 is a building that used to be a Standard Oil gas station. It was my and my buddy’s bus stop and favorite place to hang out after school. We would each scrape up enough money to buy an ice cold coke and a package of peanuts, then sit together on the raised concrete stoop in front of the station and watch the world drift by while we goofed on each other, laughed and prepared ourselves for home.
It was the fall of ‘63 and as I plopped down next to my friends it seemed like just another typical day after school. I ripped a corner off a package of Lance peanuts, dumped a dose of salty deliciousness into my mouth and closed my eyes as I quickly crunched them up, chasing them down with the ice-cold tangy sweetness of a King Sized Coke. I swallowed, savoring the fizzy combination of flavors. “Ahhhhh…” I said looking over at my buddy Paul Fisher. As usual, he had immediately gulped down half of his coke, tore open his bag of peanuts and haphazardly poured them into the bottle, like he was loading a BB gun. I shook my head and wrinkled up my nose. “Man… are you friggin’ strange!” Billy, sitting on the other side of him agreed. “Yeah, what the hell’s wrong with you Fish Lips?” Paul put his thumb over the end of the bottle, frowned and began shaking it vigorously. “Shut up!” Paul said without looking up. (He was pretty damn cool.) He then held on tight as the coke went through a controlled explosion, spewing some of the soda and peanuts all over him. As soon as it stopped fizzing he tilted the bottle up, poured whatever the hell it had become into his mouth and then chewed calmly while he sat there staring straight ahead. “You guys just don’t know what’s good.”
Although the station was owned and operated by Mack Alverez, an old fart named Ted seemed to be there all the time. He occasionally pumped gas for people, but we couldn’t tell if he actually worked there. He mostly sat around telling bad jokes and attempting to freak us out by saying weird shit. This particular day, Ted, who was the oldest looking person I had ever seen, hobbled over and then just stood there hunched over looking down at us. We all stopped talking and stared up at him. He had about three teeth, so it was always difficult to tell if he was grinning or sneering. (I think he was sneering this time.) As he looked back and forth at us, his freaky little fishing hat pulled too far forward on his head, he pulled out a tiny little pocket knife, opened it and made what were evidently meant to be threatening gestures at us. Then he turned towards me. “You want me to slice your tongue and run your leg through it?” Because he wore old bent up wire rimmed glasses that were about an inch thick and you couldn’t really see his eyes, I wasn’t all that sure he was talking to me, so I swallowed my last sip of soda and pointed my thumb at my chest. “What…you mean me?” He made a lame little lunge towards me and swiped the two-inch long blade in the air. “YEAH, I mean you!” I stared at him for a moment with a puzzled look on my face then shook my head. “Nope!” Then I turned towards Billy and casually motioned towards him with my empty bottle. “But Billy was just talking about how much he wanted your knife!” “WHAT???” yelled Billy, immediately jumping up. Paul started to laugh, which would have been fine except his special snack mixture hadn’t quit made it to his stomach yet and as Ted began making his way towards Billy a stream of coke and peanuts suddenly began fire-hosing out of his nose.
Apparently, this took the old man by surprise, because he began stumbling backwards… a look of horror on his face that even his hat, glasses and lack of discernible teeth, couldn’t hide. Neither Paul nor Billy got to see Teds reaction, because Billy was already half way home and Paul was in a panic… frantically trying to dislodge the jet propelled peanuts that had lodged themselves in his nose.
I don’t doubt that Paul and Billy remember this story differently, but Paul has had sinus and migraine problems his entire adult life. I’m betting they are peanut related.
I absolutely loved reading these stories. I can hear your voice as I read the words. I think that’s a compliment! You’re a wonderful storyteller!.
Great stuff, Ben!
“Their fortune had a lot in common with starving to death” is a classic!
I look forward to more stories.
It is he details and the self effacing humor that works so well. Keep it up.