Tuesday, June 10, 2008

You're not kitty!

It is a hot muggy night here in Boston. It is reminding me of high summer up in the Green Mountains when I was a kid.

People wonder at the wildlife that has found it's way into urban areas. Raccoons, skunks, wild turkeys, coyotes, I have even seen a fisher cat here in the Fenway!

Skunks however are the animal I remember most. While we would occasionally see a raccoon or fox, skunks were the pest of pests. Every dog we ever owned had at least one run in with a skunk and on a couple of memorable occasions, so did members of my family.

When I was about 12 we got a cat, who my father insisted on naming Boots. Boots was a black and white cat, mostly black but with as you may have guessed, white boots and a white chest. Even as big tomcats go, he was something of a monster. When he was fully grown he weighed about 20 lbs. He was not one of those enormously fat housecats either. Boots was the master of his territory around our house and spent much of his time outdoors, slaughtering the local wildlife. He was big and cantankerous and would attack any of the neighbors dogs that came into our yard.

He did not like being held, though if someone who didn't like cats came into the house he would immediately jump up into their lap, curl up and start purring like a diesel truck.

The old man, in those days was really a dog man and did not particularly like cats but he and Boots bonded. Dad would be in his recliner and Boots would jump up and settle in next to him and they would watch TV together.

Even Doris, who has no patience with pets or children unless they are clean and well behaved had her own special relationship with the beast.

I think it was because the cat had a sense of humor. Kind of a nasty sense of humor, inclined to practical jokes in fact. I still think back on the day when he carried a live snake into the house. I am not much of a fan of snakes, but it was worth it just to hear the screams that came out of Doris. There was the cat, gripping the snake by its middle in his mouth, with both ends wriggling wildly and Doris screaming at me and my brothers to get that damned cat and its snake out of the house. The 3 of us are still laughing about that one. Yet in spite of all this, Doris had a soft spot for Boots and probably liked him more than any cat the family owned before or since.

One summer we were having a skunk problem. Skunks for those of you who have never lived out in the country might look sort of sweet and cute, but they can be pretty nasty and with very sharp claws for digging up grubs and some equally nasty teeth, they are not an animal you would want to get into a fight with. Their first defense is their spray however and it is quite effective as a defense, consequently very few animals will attack a skunk. One of the few animals I know of that prey on them are great horned owls, and I gather that is only because they have no sense of smell.

My mother however, worried that Boots would get into a confrontation with one of the skunks and might not simply get sprayed, so she dictated that the cat was to be in the house every night.

I think what she was most concerned about however was that the cat might surprise a skunk close to the house and we would have to close the windows until the smell of skunk died down.

Back in the 60's, at least out in the middle of nowhere, air conditioning was still considered a luxury and people relied on fans and open windows for cross ventilation to keep the house at a livable temperature. Having to close the windows in an old house in the middle of July was like turning your living room into a Turkish bath. All the windows were kept open as well as the doors. Those were the days when screen doors actually served a purpose.

One evening, it was my younger brothers turn to take the trash out to the incinerator in the back yard. People still burned their garbage in those days. Out near the back of the barn my old man had put a 40 gallon oil drum up on bricks and punched some drainage holes in the bottom. In some attempt to beautify this piece of rural domestic furniture, he had planted rhubarb for reasons known only to my father. It wasn't until we were able to reflect on this at our leisure afterwards that we thought that having a tipping area which attracts skunks, since there is always some sort of household waste treat just waiting to be eaten, and a large leafy plant, perfect for seeking cover under might not be such a great combination.

My mother's parting words to Mike as he headed out the door were, "and if you see that damned cat, bring him in! Those skunks are still hanging around."

Mike headed across the yard and the family settled in around the TV, the windows open letting what breeze there was waft through the living room. We heard Mike dump the trash in the barrel and then we heard him say, "C'mon Bootsie. You gotta come in the house."

Then there was an explosion of skunk.

Mike started cursing as only someone who has just been sprayed by a skunk can curse. Even at the tender age of 11, Mike could make a sailor blush and this was beyond the beyond, this would have blistered paint. I can't blame him. I would have given my vocabulary a good work out too, had it been me.

The living room was alive with the smell of startled skunk and everyone frantically began closing windows. Doris, every quick on her feet, closed an locked the door.

"Anthony, go upstairs and get your brother some clothes!", I was ordered.

By the time I got downstairs, Mike was furiously demanding to be let in the house. My mother had thrown open one window and was informing him he was not going to be allowed back in the house until he had, a.) buried his clothes and b.) hosed off. He would then be c.) marched directly to the bathroom where there would be tomato juice waiting for him.

I was then told to go down cellar, where we stored all of the canned goods to bring up some cans of tomato juice. Clean clothes were tossed out the window and Mike went off to bury his current fragrant apparel behind the barn. He was then escorted to the bathroom where there was tomato juice waiting for him and instructed to scrub.

If I remember correctly, the tomato juice didn't do much other than make everyone feel like everything that could be done, had been done.

I should also mention that the author of this mishap came lounging up the stairs from the cellar where he had been beating the heat, as only a cat can, by lying on the slate flags that our cellar was floored with.

My poor brother took an awful lot of teasing from my father and we boys for not being able to tell the difference between a skunk and a cat and my mother, who has a habit of taking every mishap in life as a personal affront that was somehow planned to make her life miserable rode poor Mike's ass for what seemed like weeks about how hot the house had become and how long it took to get the smell of skunk out of the house. What was the matter with him that he didn't know a skunk when he saw it and when he tried to defend himself by pointing out that it was dark out and that the cat was the same general size and color of a skunk, Doris informed him that she didn't care how dark it was, he should have been able to tell the difference between a skunk and a cat, with his head in a sack.

As the summer wore in both the heat and the skunk population began to dissipate. Though the evenings started to cool, we still kept the windows open, a welcome relief after the still hot days.

In spite of the growing absence of any members of the Mephitidae family, Doris had remained obsessed with making sure Boots was in the house once evening had fallen.

So is was that one evening Doris discovered for herself the difficulties in species identification in low light conditions.

"Has anyone called the cat?" she demanded.

There was a general murmuring that we thought he was in the house, he had probably snuck down cellar where it was cool and a demonstrated a pretty decided unwillingness to uproot ourselves from our spots in front of the TV.

Radiating self righteous indignation at the laziness of her male offspring, Doris marched to the back door in a spirited attempt to shame one of us into persuading Boots to come in, when he would in all likelyhood much prefer to stay outside and hunt down any small nocturnal creatures that were foolish enough to enter our yard.

We could hear Doris standing at the back door, calling kitty, kitty, kitty. Eventually we heard her say, "There you are! Come on, get in the house! There was a pause, and then we heard our mother say in very careful measured tones, "You're not kitty..." and simultaneously the back door slammed and the house filled with the odor of frightened skunk.

I have to say, for a woman that was not big on exercise, Doris could move like lightening if she needed to. Those reflexes served her well in that she managed to get the door between her and the skunk before he let loose.

This resulted in her progeny having a field day for some time pointing out the numerous ways in which one could distinguish a skunk from a cat, even in the dark, and saying "You're not kitty!"

The whole joke would have had much better legs, but Doris can unexpectedly have a sense of humor about her own mistakes and instead of trying to defend herself, joined in and thought her near miss was a riot and laughed louder than anyone about it.

I have a feeling she would have found it a lot less humorous and we boys would have found it even funnier if she'd been the one burying her cloths in back of the barn, but you can't have everything.