Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pest Control

The place that my husband, Bev, and I call home is a farmhouse out in the country that we’ve lived in for the past 19 years. The house actually qualifies as a heritage home since it was built over 150 years ago. It’s a house that has character as a number of visitors over the years have pointed out. I have to agree that the tall ceilings, deep windowsills and spacious hallway give it a certain flair. The house doesn’t belong to us but we’ve always considered ourselves blessed to have the opportunity to live here. I do have to admit that there are a few quirks that go along with living in a home of such a venerable age. To say that it is well ventilated would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions.

A number of years ago a study was done to determine the efficiency of the heating systems in the various houses managed by the university. On the appointed day a massive fan was installed and sealed into our open front door. It was designed to suck air out of the house to lower the air pressure inside and determine how airtight it might be. It was an impossible task because as fast as the air was sucked out it was replaced by a constant and substantial inflow from nearly every direction. Curtains billowed in front of tightly shut windows while doors trembled on their hinges in the breeze. To open any one of the kitchen cupboards that sat against an outside wall was to be blasted by a veritable windstorm blowing out from among the canned goods. Even the plaster walls seemed to be oozing air. In the end they gave it up and concluded that at the very least we didn’t need to worry about being asphyxiated in our sleep by carbon monoxide poisoning. We resigned ourselves to wrapping up in comforters to watch television and occasionally wearing knee high felt boot liners around the house in winter.

The other problem with living in a house with more than its fair share of cracks and holes is that we have to deal with the pests that manage to find their way inside. Every spring and fall we have an influx of cluster flies that gives me a deep appreciation for what the Egyptians must have endured during the plagues of the Exodus. The first snowfall generally heralds the entrance of a few field mice looking to get in out of the cold and occasionally we get a visitor of a more alarming sort.

Our daughter, Lauren, found herself stirring out of a restless sleep in the middle hours of a warm summer night the year she was 12 years old. She lay in bed wondering what could have wakened her, absently noting that the rhythmic whirring of the ceiling fan sounded a lot louder than it ought to. Her eyes snapped open completely when she belatedly remembered that there was no ceiling fan in her room. Something was flying in circles in the darkness above her head! What else could it be but a bat? She snatched the covers up over her head and called out softly in an attempt to attract our attention without alerting the winged intruder to her presence.

Back in our room, Bev raised himself up on one elbow and cocked his head to listen.

“What’s wrong,” I muttered.

He was already getting out of bed and pulling on some clothes. “I heard someone calling Daddy,” he whispered. “It had to be Lauren. I’ll just go check on her.”

In the meantime, Lauren was convinced that no one could have heard her feeble cry. She decided she couldn’t stay where she was so she gently rolled out from under the covers and off the edge of her bed to a prone position on the carpet. Bats were supposed to have excellent radar but she wasn’t about to stand up and risk a collision. She began a slow torturous crawl along the floor while the whirring continued unabated somewhere near the ceiling above her. She’d almost reached the door when Bev arrived and pushed it open. He looked down in astonishment as she scooted past his ankles and pulled the door shut behind her.

“There’s a bat flying around in there,” she gasped.

Bev grabbed a towel from the bathroom and stepped through the door into Lauren’s room closing it firmly behind him before flicking the light switch on. Sure enough, there was a bat flying circles around the room at just above head height. Bev stood watching long enough to see that its flight path never seemed to vary. He simply stepped in front of it on one of its crazy circuits and caught it in the folds of the towel. From there it was easy enough to carry it outside and set it free…a classic catch and release. Lauren was mightily relieved. Her Dad had proved to be a most effective air traffic controller when it came to bats and she returned to her bed surrounded by the blessed sounds of silence. Still, I think she spent the rest of the night with the lights on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

School Days

My Dad never had much formal schooling when he was a child. He did attend a small one room schoolhouse in his early years in Northern Ontario for long enough to master the basics. When he was just going into Grade 4, his family moved to a cabin back in the woods and my Grandma Landry carried on with teaching the children their lessons at home. Eventually they moved back to a farm that was close enough to the school for them to join the other children but the teacher refused to recognize the work that had been done at home and Dad was told he would have to repeat the grade. It was to be the last grade he completed before he left school for good to work in the lumber camps with his father and older brother. In the meantime, he was placed back with the younger students and that was a serious blow to his pride.

Perhaps that explains why he felt the need to put on a little extra swagger when he was out in the schoolyard during the lunch break one frosty day in January. It just so happened that he was carrying a brand new pocket knife. It was his most treasured possession and he brought it out to carve himself a whistle from a twig he stripped from a tree in the yard. The other boys cast envious glances at that shiny new knife as they gathered around him to watch. He even consented to let one of them hold it for a moment before the bell rang to call them back to their desks. That was the beginning. That very afternoon one of the boys tried to buy the pocket knife from him. He offered him a whole nickel but Dad was adamant that the knife was not for sale. He didn’t reckon on how determined that boy was. He simply refused to accept ‘no’ as a final answer. He was convinced that if he kept at it long enough and tried every incentive he could think of Dad would eventually give in.

Over the next few days his dogged persistence became a form of exquisite torture to Dad. It seemed that no matter where he went he couldn’t escape that wheedling voice. Telling the boy to quit did no good at all and attempts at ignoring him failed utterly. He almost regretted ever bringing the knife to school in the first place but what was the use of having a treasure if you couldn’t show it off from time to time. He couldn’t even walk home in peace with his young schoolmate trailing along behind him offering in his most coaxing tones to do whatever Dad asked if only he would give up his pocketknife.

Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Dad stopped in the middle of the snowy road and turned to his tormenter who skidded to an eager halt beside him.

“So you’ll do whatever I say will you?” he shouted. “Well then…eat that!” He pointed to a pile of horse droppings that lay frozen on the ground and then stood scowling his most formidable scowl with his arms folded across his chest as he waited.

Now horse droppings, sometimes known as ‘road apples’, could hardly be termed an appetizing prospect even in a frozen state. Dad was fairly confident that his demand would be the end of it once and for all. It wasn’t his fault that he seriously underestimated the strength of the boy’s resolve. He must have wanted that pocketknife in the worst way because he only hesitated for a moment. He snatched up one of the hard brown lumps, screwed his eyes tightly shut and sank his teeth into it before Dad could even think about saying he changed his mind.

It was inevitable that a fight would ensue. The boy loudly insisted that he had fulfilled my Dad’s terms and the knife was forfeit while Dad just as loudly proclaimed that one bite most certainly did not constitute eating, especially since he’d meant for him to eat the whole pile. There was no way that he was going to hand over his precious knife. What began as a shouting match quickly degenerated to the two of them rolling around on the ground pummeling one another for all they were worth.

In the end, Dad emerged victorious. His shirt was torn and his nose bloodied but the knife still rested where it belonged…in his pocket. He smiled to himself when he thought of how the boy finally cried mercy and promised to give it up for good. ‘I should have done that in the first place,’ he thought. The smile slipped a fraction as he pictured the tanning he would get from his mother when she saw the state of his shirt. Ah well, it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When in Doubt...Run

One of the things my husband, Bev, loved about growing up on a farm was the freedom he had to roam over the expanse of their 150 acres when the work was done. Our own children loved to visit the farm where he grew up for the very same reason. The rolling hills and sun kissed fields offered endless possibilities for adventure. There was a stream at the back of one of the farthest fields and close on its banks was a stack of cedar rails left over from the dismantling of a rail fence. We called it the teepee because that’s what it resembled with the rails all standing on end and leaning together at their apex to form a rough circle. It was the perfect destination on the day when Jason and Lauren decided to hike to the back of the farm to pass the time while their older brother, Daniel, was away with the men getting a load of wood. I wasn’t worried about letting them go off on their own. Our dog, Brownie, would stay with them and there was nothing dangerous out there anyway…. or at least that’s what I thought.

I might have been a little less complacent if I’d known that the first thing they would attempt to do on reaching the teepee was to climb it. I must have forgotten my own childhood and the irresistible power of those three little words ‘I dare you’. It was no surprise that Jason managed to reach the top of the stack but Lauren, not to be outdone, also managed to pull herself up the steeply tilted rails. Brownie was intent on her own pursuits. Her keen sense of smell had picked up the scent of some creature hidden away inside the teepee and she was busily nosing around its base looking for some way to get in. She eventually found what she was looking for and immediately squeezed herself into the small opening in an excited attempt to reach whatever animal had its den in there.

The children looked at each other in considerable alarm when her barking changed to yelps of pain and there was a frantic scrabbling that set the whole stack of rails to trembling. The animal she’d cornered in the teepee turned out to be a porcupine and the encounter was an agonizing lesson for Brownie. She managed to get herself turned around in that small space but that just meant that she got hit both front and back. By the time she emerged she was fairly bristling with quills from one end to the other.

Jason had climbed down by then and he could see for himself what had happened. He didn’t know much about porcupine quills and he was convinced that if Brownie brushed up against him those spiny darts would stick into him as well. There was only one thing to do….run.

“You better get down,” he shouted over his shoulder to Lauren who was still up on the teepee. “Porcupines can climb trees!”

With that parting bit of sage advice he lit out for the house as fast as his legs could carry him. Much to his consternation, Brownie tore off after him and no matter how fast he ran she was never more than a few steps behind him. We could hear him screaming long before he appeared in the yard, feet flying and arms pumping wildly with the dog racing at his heels. I couldn’t believe he’d run all that way without stopping or slowing down and I wasn’t too happy that he’d left his sister back there by herself. Then again, under the circumstances I could see that he felt he’d had no choice. He was only too happy to go back for her once we had Brownie firmly in hand and there was no further danger of her touching him with the formidable array of quills sticking out of her. As it happens Lauren was already well on her way back to the house by the time he reached her. Jason’s warning about tree climbing porcupines was a good incentive not to dally anywhere near the teepee.

Meanwhile, poor Brownie was in terrible pain. Even her eyelids were covered in quills. Bev’s sister and I donned heavy gloves and worked together to hold her securely while we used pliers to try to pull out the ones nearest her eyes. It wasn’t working very well. We couldn’t do it without hurting her and she kept snapping at the pliers. In the end we made a quick phone call and bundled her off to the vet in town. He gave her an anesthetic and was able to extract the quills while she slept. He removed over a hundred of them. She wasn’t too lively for the next few days but it wasn’t long before she was back to her usual rambunctious self…a little older and a little wiser about what sort of animal to leave strictly alone.

Brownie has been gone for a number of years. She lived long enough to have been considered eligible to vote which is a great old age for dogs. She was a constant companion on many adventures and saw all our children grow to adulthood. She never forgot the lesson she learned that day on the farm and neither did we. We still have a plastic bottle filled with quills as a memento.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Home Again and Still Afloat

It was the summer of 1981 and the fishing was good in the French River district in Northern Ontario. When my Uncle Pat and Aunt Lilianne offered to take us on a weekend fishing trip we jumped at the chance. Bev and I had only been married a few months and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for one of those family bonding times. My Mom and Dad were planning on coming along and in a burst of happy inspiration we invited my brand new parents-in-law to join us. That meant there would be eight of us and we would have to do some fancy planning in the logistics department to make it all happen.

Uncle Pat was an experienced guide and he meant to take us down the French River to its outlet in Georgian Bay. We could set up camp on one of the islands there and he was confident that we would have no trouble catching our quota of pickerel in such choice fishing grounds. He offered to take Bev’s parents in his own boat along with Aunt Lilianne and most of the supplies. Mom and Dad had a 16 foot aluminum canoe with a little 3 hp gas motor on the back and Bev borrowed a 14 foot aluminum boat and a motor from a friend for the two of us. The weather was perfect and our spirits were high as we set out from the dock at the marina with our little fleet. Life just couldn’t get any better.

There was one point on the journey that offered something of a challenge. The river split into two rocky channels and the currents were tricky. One channel was navigable if you knew what you were doing. The other was too dangerous to attempt with a boat. We pulled in to shore and disembarked to walk along the rocks to the lower end of the fast water. Uncle Pat planned to take the boats through one at a time and meet us there. Naturally, my Dad insisted on taking his own boat through. He would follow closely and didn’t expect to have any trouble. Mom didn’t even bother to get out. Her confidence wasn’t misplaced and the whole transit was accomplished without a hitch. She looked a little smug as she sat there waiting with a smile on her face while the rest of us sorted ourselves out and climbed back aboard to continue down the river.

In due time, we arrived at our destination and chose a likely spot to pitch the tents and establish our camp. The fishing was all we could have hoped for and we feasted on fresh pickerel the whole time we were there. Not even sleeping on the ground could dampen our enthusiasm. We were all a little sorry to see the weekend come to a close when the time came to pack up and head home.

By the time we reached the spot where the river divided I was glad of the chance to get out and stretch my legs. Uncle Pat proceeded to take the first of the boats up through the channel and the rest of us started walking. Mom and Dad, predictably, didn’t wait for his return but decided to head up on their own. The first intimation that something was wrong came when we saw my uncle running along the rocks waving his arms above his head and shouting.

“Nooo! That’s the wrong way!” He turned to us as we scrambled to join him, his alarm all too evident in his clenched fists and tight face. “They’re in the wrong channel.”

Of course, by that time Dad was well aware of the mistake he’d made. Unfortunately it is quite impossible to turn a 16 foot canoe around once you’re caught in a tight place. He had no choice but to go forward and hope that his little motor would be up to the challenge. It was a wild ride with Mom clutching both sides of the canoe in a white-knuckled grip while the churning water tossed them around and threatened to swamp them at any second. One quick glance at my Dad’s grim face was enough to cause her to swallow the scream that was threatening to erupt at any moment. She didn’t dare distract him. His blue eyes glittered with a look of fierce determination and his mouth was set in a thin line as he worked to keep them from capsizing in their struggle against the current.

The tension on shore was palpable as we held our breath watching the drama unfold. My uncle was practically jumping up and down as he alternated between muttered curses and shouts of encouragement. It was with profound and heartfelt relief that we saw them emerge from the upper end of the channel, drenched but still afloat. We met them at the shore with cheers and many a “Thank God you’re safe!” Gone was the look of smug satisfaction that Mom had sported on the trip downriver. She looked decidedly pale.

“I think I may have peed my pants,” she croaked.

That was one unforgettable fishing trip where the ensuing stories had nothing to do with the size of the fish we caught.