Unusual animals attracted plenty of attention on the farm I grew up on and many left lasting impressions.
One crisp school day morning in late November my older sister Patrice came in from doing her morning chores. As she closed the door and looked back across the yard, she saw a red fox standing in the open and watching her. The fox was in the pasture, near the gate.
“Hey, look at that fox!” she announced to the rest of us. My twin sister Amy and I looked at each other across the dinner table and raised our eyebrows. Our father was at the end of the table, having his coffee and listening to Bud Guest on WJR radio. He reached to the radio, turned down the volume and got up from his captains chair that creaked loudly in the sudden silence. “Let’s take a look, have the dogs seen it?” he asked. The fox was only yards away from the dog pen holding two of his bird dogs. Our yard dogs, left unleashed, were curled up outside by the same door Patrice came in. They had followed her up to the house and were waiting to escort us to the end of the driveway when the bus arrived. It was part of the regular routine on school days.
Dad looked out and sure enough, a red fox was standing there, tail down and head held low, just below the shoulders. “That’s not normal for a fox to do that, something’s wrong with it,” observed Dad. Mom and the rest of us crowded behind dad to see it.
Being almost the end of deer season, it was not uncommon for a 12 gauge shotgun to be at the ready by the back door. The slugs were kept on a shelf above the coat rack, the brass, red and black shells lined up like soldiers waiting orders. No sooner had he finished speaking when he grabbed two shells and loaded his Remington, closing the pump action in a smooth and fluid metallic “schlick.” The dogs outside heard the familiar sound and jumped to their feet, looking up at us. Dad opened the door halfway, and then elbowed his way onto the porch, pulled up and without hesitation shot at the fox. The blast fractured the quiet chill of the morning and echoed from the pole barn siding. The dogs still hadn’t seen the fox, but started barking anxiously at the discharge as were the two bird dogs, now leaping about in their pen. The roar of the school bus downshifting for our stop added to the sudden eruption of noise. Dad held the door for us in one hand, and his shotgun in the other. We raced down the flagstone walk and looked back to see the fox, laying dead behind the fence.
After school I got off the bus and ran to where the fox was shot, but it was gone. Dad had taken it away from all the other animals and buried it. He said it looked healthy but may have been infected with rabies. I walked off the distance, it was 85 yards, a shot worth bragging about, but Dad never mentioned it again.
Dad had a couple of encounters with flying squirrels in our farmhouse. One time, he loaded his semi-auto .22 pistol with rat shot and went after one in our only bathroom. Rat shot was used because it wouldn’t put a hole in the wall or a family member on the other side of it. The crimped end of the .22 shell held lead shot the size of sugar granules that kicked up a lot of plaster dust. About five generations of Flying squirrels after that showdown, the man woke up from a deep sleep to have one under the covers with him.
The squirrel escaped the ensuing thrashing counter-attack, but managed to deeply bite him in the chest. A series of anti-rabies injections followed. They were so painful, Dad stopped after four of them. We had all read the book and seen the movie “Old Yeller” and were convinced we would have to chain Dad in the corn crib for two weeks just to be sure he didn’t come down with the foaming mouth delirium. It was an anxious few days until he declared himself in the clear.
A groundhog fell to the sword by the front porch after being cornered by one of our smaller dogs. The rodent was not taking the annoying yapping and snapping lightly. Dad, after judging that his pet was about to get a mauling by a ground hog, stepped back into the parlor of the house and grabbed the first weapon available, a WWII German blade in a ceremonial scabbard. A parry, then a thrust and the threat was kaput.
A large bird escorted me from the farmhouse to the woods a half mile away at the north end of the property. I was standing on the front porch, preparing to go for a hike and saw it walking up the driveway. I thought it was a guinea fowl, but the thing was almost as big as a hen turkey. I left the porch to investigate and the bird disappeared into the weeds by the garage. Off I went on my walk. Twenty minutes later I was sitting at a favorite spot in the woods and almost came out of my skin when this raucus crying came from a tree thirty yards north of me. I may not be able to identify all the birds and animals that call the wild lands on our farm home, but I am familiar with them and this was something I had never heard on the farm before, but I had heard it at a zoo. It was a peahen, and she must have been passing through because I never saw her again.
A number of animals remain mysteries. One I didn’t see, but felt in the blackness of the night in my bedroom, crossed my bed and legs. In my semi-dream state, I decided it was a kitten and slipped back to sleep. The next morning, after a moment of clarity, I realized that we had no kittens, or even cats currently extant in the house. My fear was tempered by recalling how I felt each step cross my bedspread, it was for sure not a slither.
A UFO, or unidentified frying object, lit up my bedroom one warm fall evening. I had just clicked off my reading lamp and was settling in to sleep. Mom, Dad and my two sisters were watching TV downstairs. I had my window open and was lying on my back watching the single light bulb in the ceiling change shapes in the near darkness and listening to the night sounds of the farm. A noise I focused on was an irregular scritch, scritch. “That’s claw on bark, “ I guessed. It was coming from just across the road.
One more scritch and my room lit up in a blue-white flash, followed by a crack like a rifle shot. A gutteral cry and yowling that sounded eerily human went on in a rising pitch, then a vicious growling noise as it fought something. Darkness and quiet closed in. My fear splashed mind was sure that a beast was now climbing to my second story window. I beat a hasty exit down the stairs and to the dark living room and rest of the family.
“A raccoon must have climbed the utility pole and crossed the transformer wires,” assessed dad. We lit candles and waited for the power company to come restore the connection to our home. The men never found the ‘coon, so it could have been one of those flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz for all we knew. For years after that, when crossing the road and passing the pole, I feared encountering a partly fried chupacabra, its blackened skin drawn taut on the skull, stretched into a grinning horror.
As a closing lesson to never eat food in your bedroom, I offer this equation. The formula goes something like this: eating food and not cleaning up equals crumbs that attract bugs and mice. Moving up the food chain, we find that those are enjoyed by, among other predators, snakes. The resultant product in our farmhouse was a well fed three-foot-long milk snake that lived upstairs long after we emptied the nest.
To be fair to my siblings, recent onsite discoveries indicate the triggering food source not to be crumbs or leftovers, but dog food nuggets stashed away upstairs and enjoyed by not so unusual rodents.