A Fisher Story

It was a warm and sunny day in early summer about 20 years ago. Some of our woods roads were still blocked by trees and tree tops felled by the great ice storm of 1998, and we had worked for several hours, cutting up and removing the debris from one of those roads. 

Sitting on the large trunk of one such tree for a lunch break, we heard the sounds of animals “crashing” through the forest undergrowth and heading our way. As we watched, two young fishers romped into the clearing where we sat. Seconds later, they spied us.

One turned tail and raced back into the woods, but the other climbed a nearby tree that had lost probably half of it’s height to the ice storm – a sort of 20′ tall stump. It was soon pretty obvious that he had never climbed a tree before! We watched the mother pace back and forth in the woods, hissing and snarling at him, the translation of which was something like, “You damned fool child! Just wait until your father gets home and hears about this! Get down from that tree this instant!!!”

The poor little guy was scared out of his wits. He tried starting down head-first but quickly turned about and hung on by his claws. He tried backwards. He tried head-first again, and all the while his mother paced and snarled. It was such a treat to watch them.

Eventually – and gradually – the little guy made it to earth, and the trio exited Stage Left as we laughed and marveled at what we had been witness to.

Gramma Grew Up

Sarah Maud Pomeroy was born in 1884 in a small village in Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Henry Pomeroy and his wife Sarah Ann Webb.

When Maud was in her teens, her mother contracted Tuberculosis and died, leaving 14 year-old Maud to raise her younger siblings, 10 year-old Jessie and 3 year-old Grace. Her two brothers were “farmed out” to another family.

Maud contracted the TB and overheard the doctor tell her father that she, too, would probably die. Determined NOT to die, Maud moved her bed out onto the porch and spent as much time outdoors as she could, breathing the fresh air in deep breaths. She arrested the disease. (Lucky for me, eh?)

The brothers were unhappy in the family they had gone to live with, so one Sunday morning when the rest of that family had gone to church, Maud “kidnapped” her brother Harry and one other brother [although I can’t verify which brother that would have been, because the other boys were older than Maud] and brought them home.

Their father did not remarry, and Maud’s childhood came to an end before her 15th birthday. She raised her younger siblings and took over the household chores, but it certainly never dampened her sense of humor or love of a prank!

The Train

My grandmother, Sarah Maud Andrus, was widowed in 1945, two months after I was born. My parents and I were living in an apartment that had been created in the 2nd floor of my grandparents’ house. We continued to live there until our purchase of a house and 2 acres of land in a small town just east of Rochester, and when we moved there in 1950, Gramma came with us.

It wasn’t long before she was the most sought-after babysitter in the area. Kids loved her, parents loved her,and she drove herself to and from each job.  

On New Year’s Eve in 1958, on her way to a sitting job, Gramma’s car was struck by a freight train and dragged some distance down the tracks. The policeman who arrived on the scene took one look and concluded that there could be no survivors in the car – but when he ran a check of the license plate number, he realized that he knew Maud, and he made the extra effort it took to pry open one door of the car. There, crushed down under the passenger-side dashboard, was my grandmother.    

She was rushed to the nearest hospital, and despite breaking many bones – including many bones in her hands and fingers – and suffering a severe concussion, Maud lived to walk and laugh again.    A few years later, I would practice my driving skills in preparation for the licensing test by driving Maud and a couple of her friends around the countryside east of Rochester. She never drove a car again, but she maintained her sense of humor and was mentally keen until her death in 1966.

Tuberculosis

Recently I told the story of my great grandmother dying of tuberculosis, my grandmother catching it but “curing” herself by moving her bed out onto the porch and taking frequent deep breaths of the fresh air. Grandma survived TB, but if you survived it in those days, you would always be a carrier of the disease.
 
In 1974, my mother became ill. She was exhausted and became weak, yet she showed no other symptoms of anything until she began to run a fever.
 
Eventually she was admitted to Genesee Hospital in Rochester, her illness “TUO” – Temperature of Unknown Origin. Tests of all kinds were administered over the next three weeks, yet none showed any cause for her illness, and as she continued to get weaker and run a higher temperature, a specialist in infectious diseases was called in from Strong Memorial Hospital.
 
Her suspicion was that my mother had tuberculosis that was not in her lungs. Liver, bone, lymph – you name the organ, and they tested it for TB, yet all results were negative. Finally, without any obvious disease to cure, the specialist said, essentially, “If it walks like a duck and if it quacks like a duck, it has to be a duck,” and they decided to treat for TB. The test was to last a week.
 
After six days and no change in my mother’s temperature or overall state, her doc confided in me that if it were up to him, they would stop the TB drugs that night because they weren’t helping, but he couldn’t do that – he would have to wait until the specialist came in the next morning, because only she could order it stopped.
 
That night – and never again for nearly six weeks thereafter – my mother’s temperature dropped to NORMAL for several hours. The specialist concluded that perhaps they were on the right track and ordered the treatment continued.
 
A month after her admission to the hospital, my mother was discharged to go home and continue the treatment for TB, twelve months of taking a combination of powerful drugs. She was finally given a definite diagnosis of TB when, months later, her eyes showed the telltale markings of the disease. She lived another 23 years.
 
Grandma had lived with us until I was in my late teens, so I, like my mother, have been well exposed. So far, so good, with me, but at least I know what could happen.

Our Children’s Children

Today my husband and my four-year-old grandson built an elaborate tower of blocks. Their building was many stories tall, and on it they perched hard rubber farm “amals,” matchbox cars and a couple of old Fisher-Price Little People. It was an impressive structure and they delighted in its construction.

After completing it, my grandson picked up one of his small, metal, toy airplanes and “flew” it into the building, knocking blocks, amals, cars and people asunder. He laughed with childish pleasure at the destruction, obviously thinking it was a pretty good joke on Grandpa (and that they could now repeat the shared enjoyment of creation).

Stunned, I asked him if he thought that airplanes ever really fly into buildings. “Yes,” he said, “in New York City.”

So many of us once thought we could make the world a better place. So many magnanimous speeches contain the words, “so that our children’s children may have…” I am now one of those who knows a child’s child, and this is his milieu: a world where hatred and mass murder (although not yet understood for that) has become the play of pre-school children.

Skunks and the Women Who Trap Them

My neighborhood – the large area between the Adirondack mountains and the St. Lawrence River – was wilderness until shortly after the Revolutionary War. People migrated through here, heading west; loggers came and some settled; small farms were carved out of the woods; trappers set their lines and sold their pelts; and all of these activities continue today.

The migration now is mostly our children seeking excitement or jobs in distant cities; machinery and fewer mills have reduced the number of jobs “in the woods;” small farms have become hobby or part-time operations or have been consumed by large free-stall milking parlor dairies; the trappers – at least the ones I’ve met lately – now wear bras (probably at least some of the time). Oh, sure, there are still the guys out there with their steel-jawed traps and their clubs, inflicting pain and death on the local wildlife population and presumably finding a market for the bloodied skins, but there are also quite a few women who have taken up the trade.

As you might expect, these women see trapping as part of their household responsibilities rather than some perverse or violent form of recreation or income generation: it’s a tough job and somebody has to do it. They usually start small, say with a mouse-size Havahart trap, but eventually they all move up to something that will catch a squirrel (the one who’s eating the birdseed in the feeders) or a raccoon who has become too fond of sweet corn. Of course, if you set a trap big enough to capture a raccoon, there’s a good likelihood that sooner or later you’re going to catch a skunk, and that’s why the conversation at an average cocktail party around here might run to discussion of what to do once that skunk is in your trap. So it was at the opening of the Frederic Remington Art Museum’s recent show: the curator (Laura), a past-president of a local theatre organization (Ellen) and I were discussing Laura’s post-opening chore of relocating the skunk that sat at home in the trap under her porch. We all know something about this.

It’s really quite simple. A skunk is a bit like a little boy with a squirt-gun: he’s loaded, and the first human being he runs into will be a target. With that clearly in mind, the skunk trapper holds up a good-sized blanket, being very careful to conceal hands, feet, and every other body part behind it as she SLOWLY approaches the trapped skunk. She gently drapes the blanket completely over the trap. Once under wraps, skunk, trap and blanket can be gently lifted onto the back of a pickup truck. In theory, you can now drive your skunk to it’s new home without incident, but good sense suggests that you probably don’t want to do this if your vehicle is the family sedan…

After driving to a suitable location (the yard of a good friend, the site of the church ice cream social, the wedding reception of your ex – there are lots of possibilities here…), it’s time to release the skunk. This will be made much easier if you had previously tied a long rope or rope/stick combination to the trap latch or door and practiced opening it from a distance… (I’ve found that rolling the trap onto its top allows the door to flop open, but I haven’t yet tried this with a skunk in it). Again, remember the little boy/squirt-gun analogy… Let no part of you be visible to the skunk!

And so Laura’s black and white friend has a happy home in a distant wood (twenty miles distant, that is), the porch smells like a rose, and all’s right with the world. Let’s sing a chorus of “I’m a WO-MAN, W-O-M-A-N! Say it again!”

I hear that Havahart has just come out with a husband/boyfriend size trap, and compared to the four-legged skunks, relocating those critters should be a piece of cake. The family sedan caveat won’t even apply.

Coyote Call

I’ve lived in the North Country for thirty years, and during that time the howling of coyotes has become one of the common night sounds – a chorus of varying voices. It wasn’t always so, and in fact it was such a thrilling novelty back in the 1980s that one winter evening we hosted a potluck supper and invited John Green, biologist and coyote expert, to give a short lecture to the assemblage and then take us out into the woods on a “coyote call.”

John brought tape recordings and explained the different voices the animals use to communicate. We listened intently and several of us took turns doing vocal imitations before donning parkas, hats, mittens and boots and setting out for the hilltop (which seemed an appropriate howling location). Surely Sherman’s army was stealthier than we, and if Wiley had been anywhere in the vicinity, he wouldn’t have stuck around to find out what this gaggle of wise-cracking, flashlight-bearing, two-legged amateur naturalists was up to. Although it was a rip-snorting good time, no canines returned our calls that night.

In the years since, I’ve occasionally made efforts to commune with the coyotes. Sometimes I’ll try to initiate something by stepping onto the cold, open back porch and howling into the stillness of the night; other times I attempt to join in a conversation of nearby wails and yips that’s in progress. In the first case, sometimes my neighbor (who attended the potluck…) howls back; in the second, the woods immediately go silent.

I can only guess at how my efforts might translate, but it’s probably something like the time the sheep got into the carrots. I was staying with friends in Costa Rica and early one morning discovered the small herd munching happily on garden produce. Not knowing quite what to do, I grabbed a half-eaten carrot (because I didn’t know how to say “carrot” in Spanish) and ran to the kitchen waving it and yelling, “Las viejas!!!” The cook gave me a very baffled look… and then began to laugh heartily. I had informed her that “the old ladies” (viejas) – not the sheep (ovejas) – were into the carrots! And so it must be with the coyotes: I think I’m yelling, “Hey! How are you? Gather ‘round here!” and they hear, “Ich bin King Kong!! Run for your lives!!” Like the cook, Wiley has probably had a few laughs. He has never answered my calls.

Last night, in the heat of a passionate rendezvous, my mate emitted several fairly loud erotic moans. There was a “beat” of silence, and then suddenly through the open windows came a deafening and enthusiastic chorus of canine wails, barks and yips. Passion gave way to uncontrollable laughter as we realized we had finally communicated something our wolf-like neighbors could understand.

Is it not possible that all animals may share a language of passion, of fear, of need; of hunger or joy or anger – a language that transcends syntax? Humans have simply lost the ability to understand it. The coyote love song may not be very different than our own, and “calling” to them from a warm bed is much more pleasant than those old back porch efforts. John Green probably knew this, but he didn’t tell us.

But First This News…

Yesterday I received an interesting piece of mail from my hairdresser. It began:

A person can hear,
But a friend listens for the meaning
A person can look,
But a friends sees the heart
A person can know
But a friend understands your path
Thanks for listening, seeing, and understanding!

Okay, so far so good. It then went on to say:

“[We] would like to take this opportunity to announce our success in our criminal trial in Chicago. We were exonerated and found not guilty on all counts, as well as announcing the complete eradication of the cancer that [one of us] was diagnosed with.”

“We will be pursuing civil suits against all of the people who were responsible for this gay hate crime, as well as the Archdiocese of Chicago, the individual police officers who lied and propagated this farce, the Oak Lawn Police Department for false imprisonment, the Oak Lawn Village Hall, and the State’s attorney’s office for malicious prosecution.”

“At this point in time we will be able to finally say Business As Usual and open our doors again regularly at our current location… Thank you for your patience, patronage, and cooperation during the past year and a half.”

Say what??? Am I so far out of the loop that I missed all this??? This guy is a prima dona, and – about a year ago – I went grumping off to another hairdresser because he was always rescheduling me. I hated to do it, because he’s as good as any big city stylist (a rare gem in this rural area filled with hair cutters who went to beauty school and learned the difference between a comb and a pair of scissors…) But is this for real? You have to admit it’s a unique way of saying you’re accepting clients. I think I need a haircut.

Cheers!

I live in New York State’s North Country.  Most people think that means Poughkeepsie or maybe Syracuse or some other place they consider to be the state’s outback, to which I answer, “No, north of that.”  If they persist in naming someplace considered, in their opinion, to be far north, I eventually reply,  “You know Canada?  Well, I can see it from there. Ottawa is the closest city.”

I like where I live, but it does impose some difficulties, such as getting good medical care.  After a number of upsetting experiences with the local hospital, I transferred the care of my body to a wonderful family medicine practice in Burlington, Vermont.  It’s a six-hour round-trip involving 250 miles of driving 2-lane roads, and crossing Lake Champlain by ferry twice.  Yesterday was one of those Burlington trip days.

I had a late afternoon appointment, and after leaving my doc’s office, I headed home, taking the ferry across Lake Champlain. There’s a good Mexican restaurant in Plattsburgh called The Pepper, and I decided to have a light dinner before embarking on the rest of the trip. The place wasn’t crowded, and I took a seat at the bar.

Over the course of my dinner, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and then a man two stools away. He was quite an interesting fellow: a Plattsburgh native who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Clarkson in 1968, worked in Massena for a couple of years but left because he couldn’t stand the town (“I’d have become an alcoholic if I’d stayed there.”).

He became an auto racer – something I know a bit about because of a previous marriage – and did that until he was forty, worked at a variety of jobs, and then he took up sailboat racing. He has won titles in the U.S., South America, and Europe, keeping a boat in each location. Before you tell me he was bull-shitting me, I am familiar with the area in Germany where he keeps his boat. His wife is the SUNY Plattsburgh physician, so she has summers off and they can be in Europe.

We gradually swapped life stories, and I stayed in Plattsburgh longer than I’d intended to. (He was waiting for his wife). As put my credit card on the bar and asked for my check, my bar acquaintance caught the bartender and said, “Put hers on my bill.” I objected, but he was insistent, so finally I thanked him and told him that I will “pay it forward.”

What a surprising, interesting, and uplifting little encounter! Having been in what seems like a Dead Zone for the past month, this experience was probably just about what my doc would have ordered in addition to the stuff that’s going to clear out my sinuses.

 

And Things That Go Bump in the Night…

My basement is a bit funky. There’s the usual cellar stuff: bags of potatoes; shelves of canned tomatoes, jam and such; two freezers; woodworking tools, extra plumbing and electrical supplies; an old mini-port-a-potty; a retired foozball game; the water pump; clay pots and potting soil; a washer and dryer and – this time of year – about six inches of water in the low end that was created by pouring a level concrete floor across the cellar’s higher parts.

I don’t give the water situation down there much thought. Usually I pump it out, but if ignored, eventually the water seeps back through the cracks in the bedrock from whence it came, and things dry up. This is an owner-built-home, and we owners are pretty tolerant of its idiosyncrasies.

Last week I went down there to fetch a few potatoes for supper and was startled by the kerploosh of some fairly sizable critter doing a running swan dive into the deep end. “Holy shit. What the hell was that?!?” I wondered aloud. The red squirrel that’s been coming to the bird feeders crossed my mind, but as much as I scanned the water for waves or movement, nothing further happened. There is a sort of platform above much of this low area, and the mystery diver must have quickly found a good hiding place (or maybe – I hoped – an exit), so I took my potatoes upstairs and started dinner.

For the next several days, whenever I needed something from the depths of the cellar, I would quietly sneak down the stairs, hoping to get a glimpse of the invading creature, but no sightings rewarded my stealth. The furry Greg Louganis had apparently moved on, and I forgot about him.

Last night, tired and hoping for a good night’s sleep, I worked a crossword puzzle until my eyelids drooped, and then turned out the light. At that moment, all was peaceful and quiet.

Some little time later, I was startled wide-awake: there was an animal – a fairly large, gray animal – walking along the edge of my mattress!

Now you who read here often know that I like animals; I respect animals, but I don’t fear them. Even so, let me tell you that the unexpected presence of a critter about the size of a small beagle strolling along the edge of your mattress in the middle of the night is a pretty unsettling sight!

I grabbed the sheet with both hands, creating a sort of barrier between the critter and my bare hide. “Omigod!! Bob!! Turn on the light!! There’s an animal in the bed!!” I screamed.

Bob (never at his best upon awakening) eventually noted that something was amiss and mumbled, “Can’t you turn the lamp on?” to which I answered with the obvious – and high volume – reply: “I’ve got both hands on the goddam sheet!!!” Finally he managed to turn on a flashlight and then eventually an electric light, but by then there was nothing four-legged in sight. It was as gone as last week’s diver.

I reiterated that there WAS an animal “right there on the mattress beside me!” to which Bob asked (with a measure of concern appropriate to such a dire situation), “What kind of animal was it?” and I say (still a bit wide-eyed), “An armadillo!… then realizing how nuts this sounds, “…or something that LOOKED LIKE an armadillo. My husband, reasonable to a fault, asks, “You saw it in the dark?”

“Uh, hmmm, uh, gee, I don’t know… uh… good point…” and suddenly it dawned on me that I must have dreamed the whole thing. Nevertheless, remembering the basement diver, we did a thorough search under the bed, finding nothing.

Eventually the whole episode began to strike us very funny and soon we were laughing hysterically. It took another crossword puzzle and at least an hour before I was sleepy again.

All this “wholesome living” sometimes gets under your skin, I guess, but this is the life we chose…

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Scottish Prayer (traditional)

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
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