photo by Steve Penland

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Of Mice and, well, Pre-Adolescent Girls

OK, this one's by special request, and has nothing to do with skating (except that my skating friends requested it)...

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a "girly" girl.  (This should be abundantly clear to those who read my previous post).  Fashion doesn't intrigue me, jewels don't entrance me--and vermin don't panic me.  Bugs, mice, snakes, spiders--bring 'em on.  I had pets ranging from rats to skunks to goats as a kid (heh, heh), and grew up spending a lot of time at our cabin, a place which played informal host to a number of other small crawly critters.  I fed chipmunks by hand off the back cabin deck; tried to "tame" the eel pout (we called them "lawyers") that my dad caught while he was netting edible fish and then tried to throw to the gulls (my sister and cousins and I would rescue them from the beach, put them in pools on the rocks, and pet them--before surreptitiously tossing them back into the lake to freedom when no adults were looking); and I once had a wild mouse that I was trying to feed crawl halfway up my leg before his nerve broke and he scampered away.  And, I'm afraid I inadvertently horrified some (female) college friends on their first trip to our cabin by casually brushing mouse poop off of a bed as I showed my friends their room and invited them to plop their sleeping bags down onto the (now poop-free) mattress.
That's me in the middle, age 11, with my pet skunk.  Did I mention that I wasn't a girly girl?

Being a fairly durable child had its advantages in our family.  My parents are both very down-to-earth and rugged people, as well as being extremely tolerant (they let me get a skunk, didn't they?).  They also have rather unique senses of humor...once, when I was in high school, my parents and sister and I spent the (TV-less) evening at our cabin watching our cat pursue and fail to capture 3 different mice.  Or maybe the same mouse 3 times.  Either way, throughout the course of the pursuit we named the mice Ralph, Frank, and George.  My sister and I awoke the next morning to find that the cat had been busy later on that night, and so had our dad.  On the breakfast table, just in front of the cornflakes and slightly to the right of the orange juice, he had placed a piece of paper.  On the left side of the paper was a small bit of mouse--a liver, perhaps--with the name "Frank" neatly lettered below.  In the center was another mangled mouse-bit--perhaps a heart?--with the label "George."  The right side of the paper was empty, and contained the notation "Ralph got away."  My sister and I thought it was hysterically funny, if a little gross.  

So you can see how I ended up the way I am.

In addition to having an interesting sense of humor, my dad is the consummate self-made man.  He started his own woodworking business when I was 7, and did all steps of the process himself, including going out into the woods with his chainsaw to get the logs.  This, coupled with his time spent hunting and fishing in the north woods, meant he was also the consummate outdoorsman.  Whether he was leading us on a hike through the woods to look for trees for his business or captaining a camping trip in the Boundary Waters, he always knew exactly where he was in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, that's all he'd tell us when we plaintively queried our whereabouts or the distance to the truck, the portage, or the next meal--"I know exactly where I am."  And he always did...we'd emerge from the woods right at our truck, or our canoes would run aground right at the 10-foot wide portage landing in the middle of an otherwise unbroken stretch of trees.  However, despite evidence that my dad did, indeed, always know exactly where he was, his reluctance to let us in on the details always alarmed us a bit--and never more so than on a particular cross-country skiing trip.

My sister and I liked cross-country skiing, as did our parents, but to me and my sister "cross-country skiing" implied "on a groomed trail, where you know where the end is and how far you'll be going, and where a certain amount of speed and gliding is to be expected."  To my dad, of course, "cross-country skiing" was synonymous with "breaking trail through the wilderness on what are essentially really skinny snowshoes, looking for trees/hunting spots/other cool stuff,--and what is this "glide" thing you speak of?"  My dad called it "bushwhacking."  My sister and I had other names for it.

Still, there we were on a beautiful January day, skiing with our parents in the middle of the Northeastern Minnesota woods with no idea where we had come from, how far we were going, or how to get back to where we started.  Sure, I appreciated the beauty of the snow-covered spruce trees against the sparkling blue sky, but the repeated "I know exactly where I am," coupled with the standard refusal to tell us just where exactly that might be, was beginning to make the whole affair seem a bit Jack Londonish to my 13-year-old brain.  I glanced nervously at the surrounding woods ...what if my dad really didn't know where we were...what if we had to spend the night there...did I just hear something moving behind that tree...

And then I felt it.

Something was crawling--no, scampering--across my stomach.

Several thoughts sped through my mind in rapid succession: "Oh my god, there's a bug in my shirt!  A really big bug!  Wait! It's January!  There are no bugs in January!"

And then, right there in the middle of the pristine wilderness, I dove headfirst into "girly girl."

I screamed, probably the first--and thus far only--actual "scream" of my life.  I'm guessing I was still screaming as I wrenched my hands from my pole straps, flung the bamboo poles into the snow, and began frantically stripping.

Off with the down vest.  Off with the pull-over hooded sweatshirt (this was the 70's--we called them "hooded sweatshirts" back then).  As I was clawing at the straps of my corduroy overalls (don't ask--as I said, it was the 70's; it seemed like a good idea at the time) my sister paused in her chant of "It's trail fever--she's gone mad!" long enough to scream "Oh my god, a mouse!" I looked at the pile of clothing I had flung off, just in time to see the tail and hindquarters of a mouse dive from my vest and into the snow.

Maybe the mouse crawled into one of my pockets while my vest and sweatshirt were hanging in the cabin closet, then didn't see a chance to make a break for it until we were out in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe he jumped onto me during the ski and climbed up my corduroy until he got to my stomach.  Maybe...well, I really can't think of any other possibilities.  All I know is that, 34 years later, I can still vividly remember the sensation of the mouse trundling across my equator.

So, Melissa and do you see why I didn't want to condense this story into a Facebook post?

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