Country Backyard Adventures

The Flushing Township home that I grew up in, as did my daughter, Tara, had a very wonderful backyard, full of fun and surprises.

We owned five mainly meadowed acres that adjoined in a row down Coldwater Road with many other five acre plots. All of these acres, including ours, had deep woods at the back of their property lines.

Across the road was a very similar situation except that part of the very long and twisty Anderson Creek ran across the middle of most of that acreage.

All around us there was an abundance of wildflowers, wild vegetables, different mushrooms, bees, dragonflies, birds of all kinds and a lot of different kinds of animals, both big and small, and the variety of everything changed with the seasons.

Deer and their fawn would come stealthily walking out of the deep woods and the denser parts of our acres at twilight to forage. Sometimes they would come right up to our patio doors and pick at the bird feeders’ spilled seeds. We would breathlessly watch them, so close we could almost touch them except for the glass doors in between us.

Rabbits would also come up to check out what was underneath those feeders and they would frequently play together. One game was so funny to watch!

A pair of rabbits would crouch, nose to nose, their whiskers madly wiggling. Then at some unknown or unseen signal, the rabbits would both jump up at the same time and leapfrog over each other. Then they would rapidly assume the same position as before, crouch nose to nose, and then the same leapfrog would occur.

Tara and I could spend hours watching the leapfrogging rabbits and they made us laugh and laugh. I never knew if that was a mating ritual or just a game but it was very entertaining to us!

When Tara became older, she had many a sleep-over at our house with her school friends. Most of the time they were held in her bedroom, or out in the living room, but during one summer sleep-over, Tara and her friends begged and begged for me to set up our screened-in gazebo out in what I called the “back-forty”.

The back-forty was the area I mowed that was between the garden and the meadowed part of our acreage. We played softball or baseball there, badminton or croquet, and Tara and I would drag our chaise lounge chairs out there to lay back and watch the August Perseid meteor showers or lunar eclipses. It was nice and dark and well outside the range of our big backyard light attached to the garage.

So Tara and her friends helped me take down the gazebo from the backyard, haul it to the “back-forty” and helped me set it up for them to sleep in and then be well-protected from the myriads of mosquitoes.

The kids brought out many of our extra blankets and pillows, as well as their own sleeping bags, and arranged them inside the gazebo. Meanwhile, I made lots and lots of popcorn that I bagged up and I also made gallons of Kool-Aid that went into covered dispensers.

Those treats, along with cookies and fruit and paper plates and cups were taken out to the gazebo by the girls as well. Despite additional begging from the kids for me to turn off the backyard light for an even spookier experience, I refused because I didn’t want anybody stumbling and falling on their way to use our small bathroom just inside the house through the garage.

So after putting fresh batteries in all of the many big and little flashlights we could find, Tara and her friends made their giggly way out to the gazebo.

I told them that the back garage door, as well as the back house door, would be left unlocked just in case someone had to go to the bathroom or got too scared to sleep out there.

Most of these girls lived in the city of Flushing and so they were not used to all of the weirdly different summer night noises out in the country. I figured one or two of them would stealthily make their way back to the house so I had blankets, sheets and pillows set up on the couches in the living room just in case.

I had turned out all of the house lights and I was in my bedroom, reading, with my north window open and the shade up. That window faced out onto the backyard so that way I could easily hear any commotion or problems from the girls.

I heard them shrieking and giggling for a while as they undoubtedly told ghost stories to each other. Then apparently a pillow fight broke out and the gigglings grew even louder. But eventually things began to quiet down as the night drew on.

I had turned out my bedroom light for only a few minutes when I heard ear-splitting screams and loud cries from the back-forty. I quickly put my jammies and slippers back on and ran towards the back door just as a stampede of frighten-eyed and still-screaming girls came running into the house.

The girls ran into the living room and grouped together on the couches, holding onto each other for dear life. I heard Tara behind me, telling them as she entered the living room, “You guys, it was just an owl getting a bunny, it was not a woman screaming! Come on back out so we can sleep in the gazebo!”

A chorus of frightened “no”s answered Tara. I asked her, “What happened out there?”

She told me that most of them had settled down and were going to sleep when a loud, frightening scream was heard very close to the gazebo. And that since they were out in the middle of fields and meadows, there should not be the sound of anybody screaming, especially a scream that sounded like it came from a woman.

Tara tried to explain to the girls that it was only an owl who had grabbed a rabbit for dinner and that it was the rabbit who had screamed, but the girls, in a mad panic, then ran yelling into the house.

The girls were all huddled together on the couches, looking at me with still-frightened and solemn eyes. I fought hard the impulse to laugh but these kids didn’t know that Tara was right, it had only been a rabbit getting nabbed.

One of Tara’s friends spoke up and said that she’d had pet bunnies all of her life and not one of them had ever screamed and, worse, screamed like a woman getting murdered and so why was Tara lying like that?

I told them all that Tara had not lied, that she was right, it had been a rabbit who had screamed. That rabbits, at least wild rabbits, will scream like a woman getting murdered if anything grabs at them.

I told them that I could not vouch for tame rabbits but I will bet that none of that girl’s pet rabbits ever had anything grab it with the known intention of eating it. And that would be why she had never heard any of her bunnies scream, if tame bunnies could even scream like their wild cousins.

I told them that owls and foxes also have to eat, and since they can’t go to Meijer’s grocery store or to McDonald’s, they have to hunt mice and rabbits for their dinners. Mice are pretty silent but grabbed rabbits will scream, and loudly too, as they had just found out.

Most of the girls had stopped their sniffling and were patiently listening to me explain about the facts of life that went on out here in the country.

I told them that as far as I knew, there was only the one owl in our area and since he had just ate, there would be no more rabbit screams and that they could go back out to the gazebo and have a peaceful good night’s sleep.

But nobody but Tara wanted to do that, which made her a little angry and a little sad. She had always wanted to sleep out there in the back-forty but I wouldn’t let her unless she had several kids with her and now nobody would go back out there with her.

So I tried to coax and cajole Tara’s friends that it was perfectly safe to go back out to the gazebo to finish their sleep-over but nope, I couldn’t get one of them to go either. I’m not too sure I blame them.

So Tara and her friends hauled all of their bedding, the snacks and the drinks and the plates and the cups back inside and made a big bed on the living room floor. Then I hooked up the Nintendo game console out of my bedroom to the living room t.v. and they all stayed up for a few more hours having gaming fun with no screaming bunnies to scare the crap out of them again!

Our neighbor across the road, Rhoda Cogswell, had a great-granddaughter named Ashley who was only a couple of years younger than Tara. Those two had grown up together and had formed a close friendship and so whenever Ashley visited, her and Tara were inseparable.

One evening as it was getting darker and darker, Ashley, Tara and I were sitting in the screened-in gazebo that was always set up every summer in the big backyard right behind our house under the huge maple tree.

Ashley suddenly jumped up, unzipped the screen door, and ran out, yelling back to Tara that she was going to pet that cute kitty she had just spotted.

People dropped off unwanted cats a lot around our area, so seeing a strange cat was nothing out of the ordinary. However, as I tried to see better in the gathering darkness, I quickly jumped up as well and ran out after Ashley, yelling at her to stop, stop! That’s not a kitty, Ashley!

Tara was right behind me, also yelling at Ashley to please slowly step backwards and come towards us because she had also seen what I had discovered. Ashley, who had, thankfully, stopped dead in her tracks, looked at us over her shoulder with a huge frown on her face. “Why can’t I pet that cute kitty over there?”

I calmly told her, “Because, sweetie, that’s not a cute kitty, that’s a skunk! You do not want to get close enough to it to pet it because it will either bite you or spray you with the most awful and disgustingly smelling stuff. So please, carefully and slowly, step back away from it, and come towards us, honey!”

Ashley began to slowly walk backwards towards us, trying to keep one eye on where she was walking, and one eye on the now not-so-cute kitty.

Halfway back to us, she tripped and the skunk looked up from its foraging. We all held our breath and waited and didn’t move a muscle until the skunk began to snuffle around again and Ashley then ran back to us as fast as she could.

We went back inside the gazebo, zipped up the door again, and watched as the skunk shuffled and snuffled all around us, its fluffy black and white tail trailing behind it like a dropped flag.

Tara giggled when Ashley half-heartedly insisted that that critter still looked like a kitty to her. I gave Tara a disapproving frown as I told Ashley, well, in the dark, skunks can look a little bit like a cat but see how they waddle when they walk? Cats don’t waddle like that. And cats sure won’t spray you with a horrendously awful stench either.

Then I asked Ashley, “Haven’t you ever seen a skunk, or smelled a skunk before, across the road at your great-grandma’s?” And Ashley said no, she’s pretty sure she would have remembered it if she had.

But after thinking about that for a minute or two, I explained to Ashley that since skunks only come out at night, that she had probably already been in bed whenever one had nosed around.

But if she ever did see a skunk at her great-grandma’s, do not ever, ever, ever try to pet it! If she sees a skunk suddenly flip around, raise its tail and aim its butt right at her, to run away from it as fast as she could and hopefully she won’t get blasted with skunk juice.

Tara then told Ashley how horrible skunk juice smells and how hard it always was to get it out of her grandma’s dog’s fur every summer. Ashley still looked like she only half-believed what we were telling her.

So after our visiting skunk had waddled off somewhere else, Tara and I escorted Ashley back across the road. Sometime in the night, though, that skunk, or perhaps a different one, was hit by a car in front of both our places.

Tara called Ashley and asked her if she had had a whiff yet of that beautiful aroma of skunk juice and Ashley started to pretend to gag and puke.

Her and Tara laughed and laughed and after Tara had promised to come over and play with Ashley after breakfast, they hung up.

Tara, with all of her worldly 10 year old wisdom, just shook her head at me and said with loving contempt, “City girls, sheesh! Tryin’ to pet a skunk!”

My mom’s dog, Caesar, would get skunked at least once a summer for as long as he lived and he lived to be 15 years old. By the way, and trust me on this, tomato juice does not get rid of eau de skunk!

Only with repeated many, many washings with shampoo will the reek eventually get faded down to acceptable odor levels but the second the dog gets wet again, even many months later, that skunk smell will once again overpower your olefactory system. Skunk juice is potent stuff!

The one thing I could not figure out for the longest time was why Caesar always was skunked on just his face. He always got a direct hit on his face each and every time and that just did not make sense at all.

When I began to ask myself why Caesar would get his face that close to the behind of a skunk to get so potently sprayed on just that part of him, then the truth occurred to me.

I had a beautiful tuxedo cat, Kitty. A tuxedo cat is a black and white cat and she also had the most adorable black mask on her face as well.

When she was two years old, she made the acquaintance of my mom’s puppy, Caesar. He was the only animal that Kitty tolerated and I was always surprised at how well those two got along.

Caesar invented two games that Kitty went along with for awhile, but I cannot say that she really enjoyed them. One game was for him to grab at the ruff of her neck and then drag her along behind him on the slick wooden floors like a dust mop.

However one time, after the floors had just been polished to a high glossy sheen, Caesar was rapidly dragging Kitty around a corner when Kitty slid right into the wall and loudly bonked her head.

She reared up full length on her hind legs, grabbed Caesar’s head with one curled front paw and then proceeded to hiss and spit and bitch slap the shit out of him with her other paw.

After a few minutes of getting a kitty smack-down, Caesar went ki-yi-ing under the couch, shivering and whimpering, while Kitty paraded up and down in front of it, daring him to come out because she wasn’t done with him yet. That was the last time I saw that particular game played!

But another Caesar-invented game that lasted for many years between the two of them was what I called “The Wheelbarrow Game”.

Caesar would periodically sneak up behind Kitty, usually as she was eating, and he would stick his whole long nose up under her rear end. Then he would lift her hind legs up in the air and “wheelbarrow” poor Kitty around and around, with her front legs scrambling as fast as she could, while Caesar tried to steer Kitty where he wanted her to go.

She would eventually make a huge leap to get out from under Caesar’s nose and then they would chase each other back and forth until they were exhausted.

But after a few summers of trying to de-skunk Caesar’s face, it occurred to me that perhaps Caesar was a very confused dog. Maybe he had thought that the skunks were Kitty and he had tried to “wheelbarrow” the skunks.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Skunks are black and white; Kitty is black and white. Skunks kind of look like cats, especially at night.

And because Caesar kept getting sprayed primarily on just his face, that would make a lot of sense if he were trying to sneak up on a skunk so he could put his nose under the skunk’s rear end to play the “wheelbarrow game”.

I told my mom and Tara about my theory on why Caesar kept getting skunked on just his face. We all laughed and laughed as we imagined Caesar trying to “wheelbarrow” a skunk.

I’m pretty sure those skunks also had funny tales to tell their friends about Caesar: “I was minding my own business, munching on a delectable piece of lettuce in those people’s garden, when a long, cold nose suddenly lifted my butt up in the air!! Isn’t that the most bizarrely rude thing you’ve ever heard of in your life? So I squeezed my eyes shut and let go a big blast of our wonderful perfume and….”

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