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The Rage of the Raccoon

by Bill Metcalfe


 

       When you settle into a house which is new to you but ancient to its neighborhood, you can expect to encounter misunderstandings. Doors that will only close firmly for you when they are lifted slightly, only slightly, by their knobs while you gently nudge them into place. To open some windows, they must be tenderly shaken as you push them upwards. There is the alarming whistle within when the house joins in the chorus of winds rocking the building. The creaking boards that bespeak of the presence in the house of a stranger who is eight feet tall or wide and over 320 pounds. And what about that dark patch under the old carpet, which may have revealed a history of an animal sacrifice by a past inhabitant. But as your residency ages, the oddities of your house become that of old friends and are even treasured.

       This brief meditation has reminded me of the first time we built a fire in our fireplace. For my children that nightís entertainment began with my solemn promise to teach them how to cook. In our fireplace! Before dinner we had collected fragments of a weeping willow from the back yard. Because it had been cut down long before we moved into the house, the wood was dry and would burn well. Being aware of their level of enthusiasm, I carried enough wood into the house to make toast. The two boys trudged back to the house with enough accumulated wood scraps to roast a lamb.

         The boys were perplexed when I told them that we would cook our share of the meal only after we had eaten the supper their mother had worked so hard to prepare. For once the younger, fussier eater cleared his plate. First! Both watched me eat with the intensity of feral cats sizing their prey. They strained to be freed from their places and empty plates. Their anticipation was so intense that I doubt that either knew what he had just eaten. The smaller boy didnít realize that he had slid so far off his chair in anticipation that his entire upper body was being supported by a small part of one buttock.

         When I had cleared my plate I announced that we would need green sticks because we were going to roast marshmallows. The boys were puzzled. Roasting always meant that a featherless fowl was secluded in the hot oven for several hours. Marshmallows were a mystery to them. They began to suspect that their introduction to the culinary arts would be a cruel, paternal joke.

         I collected some of the dry wood and walked into the living room with my arms full. After removing the screen from the fireplace, I arranged the wood on the rack. Then the boys and I hastened to the back yard and clipped three long twigs from a lilac bush. As soon as we returned to the kitchen I reached into a deep cabinet and removed a bag of snow-white marshmallows. This was their first exposure to them. Their surprise and dismay was evident when I let them know that these white blobs that looked like inflated packaging material would be the eveningís desert.

         The next step was to ignite the wood. I abandoned Boy Scout methods for the tried and true, compressed newspaper. It only took one match to ignite the paper and the dry wood began to burn immediately. Everything was running smoothly, until the wife shouted that smoke was drifting into the kitchen. She hollered something about a damper. When I looked into the fireplace, I saw a curling cloud of smoke thickening about the damper. Quickly, I clutched its knob and cranked it open. The sharp scrapping of metal was startling to all. The boys even edged back from the fireplace.

         While watching the smoke being sucked up the chimney, an apparition appeared that was so startling we all jumped backwards. For a few seconds, a hairy, snake-like thing dangled over the flames, as though teasing them to attack. It twisted and writhed in the fireís light before vanishing swiftly. When I realized that it was just a tail, I knew it wasnít a part of Santaís anatomy. After it disappeared upward, we heard the sounds of scrapping as the creature clawed its way up the chimney. I enlightened the kids by explaining that they had just seen the tail of a wild raccoon.

        When quiet returned, I demonstrated to the boys how to roast a marshmallow. They were quick learners and soon each boy held, at a stickís end, a ball of flame. Some were eaten, others dropped into the flames to burst into smaller fires. As the flames died down, the young cooks quieted. Our unexpected guest and the balls of fire had made the evening a total success.

         Several days later, my wife and I drove to the animal shelter to borrow a trap to catch our resident raccoon. The woman who loaned us the trap recommended using a can of tuna fish for bait. We thanked her and returned home with a can of cheap tuna for our guest.



 

        
       
         Assuming that raccoons were nocturnal, I didnít bother to open the can until after dinner. An unwanted guest is fed last? The baited trap was set next to the tree the raccoon would use as his stairway to our warm chimney.

         Back in the kitchen, I began to brew a cup of coffee. As the children were quietly playing upstairs, I heard the clang of the trap slamming shut. Instinctively I checked the time. The impetuous raccoon had sealed his fate within 15 minutes.

         As the night was cool, I slipped on a jacket to check on the contents of the trap. There might be other creatures out there besides the raccoon, but they wouldnít be in the trap. The raccoon could only pace in tight circles within its confines. For a while, I watched as his gyrations rocked its new house from side to side. Even with a jacket, I could not ignore the cold. My conscience appeared with the hint that my snared prisoner would suffer.

         The trap, with the raccoon, was lighter than I had assumed. Fearing his sharp claws, I held the trap away from my body but the desperate struggle of the raccoon caused it to continually swing at the end of my arm. I hurried to our garage and opened the battered door. The floor was concrete. The wooden sides would block any cold winds. The raccoon should be reasonably comfortable, but he was my unwilling guest. Surely, I could do more. I thought a bit until I remembered an ancient blanket that we used for yard work. After retrieving it, I careful covered most of the trap except for a small opening at its door. I couldnít know if he would sleep, but I was ready for bed.

         After breakfast the next morning, my wife and I prepared to return the trap with its new tenant to the animal shelter. While she warmed up the car, I hurried to the garage. When I tried to lift the blanket off, the cage also rose. It was surprisingly much lighter than it had been the night before.

         After setting it down, I tried to pull the blanket free, but I couldnít do it. During the night, it had been welded to the cageís iron bars. After a hard struggle, I managed to pull enough of the blanket free to peer inside. The trap was now empty. The raccoon had escaped? The trap was still locked, but it was vacant.

         After telling the wife, I went back to the garage. Freeing the trapís gate was relatively easy; freeing the blanket proved almost impossible. The trapís meshes, the size of playing cards, were made of strong wires. The blanket had been pulled through most of these openings. Looking in at the door, the interior reminded me of a childís toy, a rubber ball with a hole that revealed an interior of pointed cones.

         This creature that weighed a bit more than a gallon of milk had tugged and tightened the blanket so thoroughly, so strongly, I couldnít loosen it. Finally I gave up on strength and resorted to technology. In the house was a box cutter, which I brought into action. An hour later, the raccoon and I had reduced a double bed sized blanket into a sizable pile of green scraps.

            When I told the man at the shelter about the ruined blanket, he was stunned and amused. I donít know which he found more incredulous, that the raccoon could free himself, or that I was so naive as to feel a furred creature would need covers for a cold night. I should have called him weeks later when it became evident that the raccoon had moved on to more hospitable lodgings.


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