Sunday, January 29, 2012

Soothing Savage Beasts, or Why I Was Late to Class

You don’t always get to choose the theme of your life. Sometimes it chooses you. So it has seemed for me this past year, which I have dubbed The Year of the Squirrel.

Upon reflection, I have a surprising number of memories over my lifetime involving squirrels—the black ones, the white ones, the red ones. Now it seems they’re all grey, like Stubby.

When I was a kid, my grandfather “talked” to squirrels, who would trot right up to him to be handfed a tasty snack. My grandfather seemed part Dr. Dolittle to me, and I dreamed I’d be just like him one day. Of course, the Universe had other plans.

Years on, when I lived in the Windy City, I was racing against the clock one day to get to a class. The college was downtown and after parking my car, I knew I could make it if I took the shortcut bridge that arced over the expansive park standing between me and music theory. I was on edge about this plan, though, because the park was full of panhandlers and ne’er-do-wells, either of which could easily waylay me. (I’m a sucker for sob stories and when in danger, my fight-or-flight response goes dormant—I freeze.)

I started across the bridge at a brisk pace, my eyes scanning the horizon for potential trouble ahead. As I reached the top of the arc—halfway across, another half to go—I started to relax a bit. It looked like my plan was going to work.

Then I saw them. I thought trouble would come at about my height; I’d failed to consider ankle-high trouble.

There were five of them, maybe more, and they stood in a semicircle in front of me, blocking my route across the bridge. True to their Windy City roots (Al Capone territory, you know) they were the definitive gang—a gang of bushy-tailed squirrels.

Now you may have read, as I have, that squirrels are solitary creatures—they don’t colonize or have a social structure. But I know what I saw and I saw a GANG.

“Hello, everyone,” I squeaked out. “I’m afraid I haven’t time to chat with you today. I have to hurry to class.”

They didn’t budge. The gang wanted something and I knew that if I didn’t come through fast enough, they’d think nothing of leaping onto my shoulders or head to “encourage” my compliance.

I opened my purse, hoping to see a granola bar or maybe a package of crackers from a restaurant. Nothing. I had nothing for them.

“Shoo, please,” I ordered, unconvincingly even to me.

They shuffled a bit, closing in on me. I dug deeper into my purse. Desperate, I brought out the only edible thing in my possession: a mentholyptus cough drop.

“I’m sorry, but this is all I have.” I unwrapped it and set it on the ground.

A scramble for the treasure ensued. A couple of the squirrels gave up quickly, probably because after one sniff, they didn’t want to waste their time.

It came down to one squirrel, with two of his buddies intently watching. He (she?) took one lick and vigorously shook his head. He tried it again and then set it down, bewildered, it seemed, about how best to eat the thing. He circled it, picked it up and, finally, popped it into his mouth.

His friends craned their necks in anticipation of what would happen next. The squirrel drew the cough drop from his mouth and shook all over.

At this point, of course, I was not only late to class, but also worried that I’d caused the squirrel to have seizures and I didn’t know the first thing about squirrel first aid. The squirrel’s buddies, on the other hand, weren’t so concerned. They scampered off to catch up with the other gang members.

But the lone squirrel persisted. Once he got past the unusual nature of the cough drop, he began licking it in earnest. It made him giddy, maybe even a bit high. He seemed to enjoy it.

I stayed with him until I was convinced he would survive the ordeal. I may not have been Dr. Dolittle, but I wasn’t heartless.

When I at last reached my class, I didn’t reveal why I was late. The experience still felt mystical to me—something to be protected. And I was pretty sure no one would buy the gang-of-squirrels story.

[Photo of Red Squirrel adopting a baby by Ryan W. Taylor from The Nature Files. Black Squirrel photo by James Marvin Phelps. I’ve not been able to identify the photographer of the other photos.]

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