Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Massacre at the Zooseum

A hideous scream pierced the morning air. It sounded like Connie, and it came from the direction of the shed on the back of the Davidson’s property. Dan and I took off at the same instant, racing each other to the sound of the scream. Connie was his sister. I liked her, but she was a girl for one, and we were only nine and a half at the time. We were also first best friends, and it wasn’t cool to have a crush on your first best friend’s little sister.

When we got there, the door to the shed was open, and Connie was standing outside with her hand over mouth pointing. Not saying a word, just pointing at the door. A look of total shock and disgust registered on her pasty-white face. I looked inside first, taking a cautious step forward.

In the dim slivers of light passing through the cracks in the wall boards, what I saw was horrific. Oh my god, the butchery. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Heads, arms, and legs, strewn about everywhere. Blood covered the wood plank floor.

The frogs had clearly suffered a horrible death. The snakes didn’t fare much better. Dead frog bodies were everywhere littered with sections of garter snake. The bull snake was no where to be found.

“Danny, you have got to see this,” I screamed back through the open door. “I don’t see the bull snake.”

When we were kids, there never seemed to be a lack of interesting things to do. We didn’t have video games, computers, or cell phones and we only had three channels of television, THREE, (Yeah, I know, you’ve heard that all before), but somehow we were always busy doing something, inventing things, having adventures. I guess if you think about it, our adventures as kids ended up being the video games of the future. We’re to blame for it. Kids don’t have imaginations anymore because they don’t need one, we supplied it for them.

In the summertime, we were up and out at sunrise and tried to stay out even after the sun had been down for hours. Sometimes our moms would forget what time it was because they were involved in watching the Barbara Stanwyck Show or Bonanza. The rule was you could stay out until you were called in without penalty.

Baseball at the school yard was an every day affair, early in the summer. We had rafting adventures down the Big Horn River. We rode our bikes everywhere. Building soap-box racers and risking our lives rolling them down Thurmond Hill …in traffic, kept our attentions for a time. We flew kites and played hide-and-go-seek in the dark. We nailed our sister’s skates to the bottom of planks and invented skate boarding. (All right, we didn’t invent skateboarding, but we we’re on the cusp.)

We made submarines, and space ships out of refrigerator and washing machine boxes. We’d steal them from behind the Sears Outlet and Montgomery Ward, and the appliance dealer on Main Street. They were probably glad to get rid of them. Our parents, on the other hand, wanted to kill us because the garage would fill up with boxes connected together on the floor. In time they would be abandoned as we moved on to something else.

We turned the back stoop into a PT boat and played “PT109”. How do you turn a back stoop into a PT boat? With a refrigerator box and some imagination. “Combat” was a big show on television in 1962 and our prized possessions were tommy guns that you pulled back a lever on the side and locked it. When you pulled the trigger it would sputter like a tommy gun. If you owned a tommy gun you could play Vic Morrow’s character, Sgt. Chip Saunders. Or you could be the Lieutenant. They sold entire Combat “kits” at Woolworth’s, which included the tommy gun, a German luger, a grenade, a holster, and some other things. We couldn’t afford those although we wanted one. If you had a BB Gun you were just one of the squad or a sniper. We would kick open garage doors in the alley looking for Krauts and hang out in the trees as snipers. When you shot someone that didn’t know you were up in the tree, they had to be told they were dead. Then they were either out of the game or had to become someone else. Being a sniper wasn’t all that exciting, mainly because no one would agree that they were hit.

In the winter, we flooded our backyards and had our own ice-skating rinks, we built snowball forts and raged snowball fights for hours until our fingers felt like they were going to break off in our gloves and mittens. We would climb the snow mountain in the street left by the snow plows and the front loader at the intersection of Brooks and Works Streets. They hauled all the snow off of Main Street and piled it in the intersections a block behind. It was a great climb and you could see for blocks up there. But we weren’t allowed to be up there in the street with cars going by, and we always seemed to get caught. That’s the route my Dad would walk home from work, and he would inevitably get off early on the days we were climbing “Mt. Everest.” We never wandered far from home, but there was enough to do in a few block radius, that we didn’t have to. I hardly see anyone playing outside in the Winter anymore.

Earlier that summer of the massacre, we had used the shed at the back of the Davidson’s property to form a repretory company. First we had had to clean it out. I’m not sure we ever got permission to use it, but Danny’s mother wasn’t one to stop creative urges in their tracks. We turned a huge, old dresser on it’s side to make a stage, and hung curtains made from old blankets and rope. The theater was complete with a ticket booth and folding chairs for the audience. All things we had found in the shed in the first place. It had a door and two windows in the front for light.

We put together a musical, the five of us, using the lyrics from “Que Sera, Sera” a song from the 1960 film “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” starring Doris Day and David Niven. I’m not making this up. We probably had just seen the movie recently at the drive-in, and my mother had all the Patty Page and Doris Day records, so I knew the song by heart. Besides, all us little boys were in love with Doris Day.

We took the lyrics, “When I was just a little girl (changed that to boy since I was the lead) / I asked my mother, what will I be / Will I be pretty (changed that to handsome), will I be rich / Here's what she said to me. / Que Sera, Sera,/ Whatever will be, will be....which is the literal translation I guess. For the uninitiated it sort of sounds like “kay sa raw, sa raw.” We had a bi-lingual production. Trendsetters.

If you’ve ever heard the song, it has three distinct verses that match three distinct points in someone’s life; when they’re little, when they’re in love, and when they have children of their own. Perfect three scene musical, chorus in the middle for scene change. So we wrote the “book,” using the song, and voila, we had our own musical, “Que Sera.” I still have no idea how we came up with this, but I swear we did. We had a rope swing hung from the ceiling, we had “trees”, we had costumes for each scene,”casting” found us a couple of little brothers and sisters in the neighborhood for the final scene.

Remembering it now, it seemed like we were in pre-production for weeks, but in reality the show opened and closed the same day. We generally didn’t stay focused on any one thing too long. We started preparations, set construction, and rehearsal at around nine in the morning. We rounded up all the mothers in the neighborhood for the one o:clock show, and fifteen minutes later took the final bow to standing ovations, and closed the theater company. The next day we had a new idea.

My first best friend and I had been down in the Gully. Just in case you don’t understand what a “first best friend” is, I’ll throw in here that I had a “second best friend” and a “third best friend” for that matter, and so on. It was really hard to define, when you’re nine and a half, who your “best” friend really is. But it was somewhat of an honor to be a “first best friend”, although that designation could change quickly depending on which best friend you were with. If you slipped up and called your first best friend, your third best friend by mistake, you can see how that might be a problem.

I wasn’t allowed in the Gully, but Danny seemed like he could pretty much go where he wanted, or so it seemed to me then, so I always had to go. I couldn’t stand there and say something like, “I’m not allowed in the Gully.” That wouldn’t fly. They’d say something like, “I’m not allowed to go there either, but I’m going. Come on.” What can you say to that anyway?

Danny would ask to see your hands, and if they were smooth and soft he would call you a sissy. He’d show you his rough and calused palms and tell you that’s how a boy’s hands ought to look. He said it showed you worked with your hands. I used to rub my hands in dirt to get that rough and calused look. Now I kind of wish they were less rough, cracked and calused. Anyway, when you’re not allowed to go somewhere, and you’re a kid, you’re pretty much going to go there anyway. It’s an automatic. You don’t want to appear to be a sissy. When you’re a kid, you can’t see the dangers that lurk behind cool places like the Gully.

The Gully ran behind our houses and separated us from the cemetary on the far side. If you walked off our back yards down the hill, you would come to some thick vegetation created by the stream that ran through the middle of it. Once you got inside those trees and brush it was a like the Hundred Acre Wood. A totally different, wild, world, with a brook that ran through the center, gurgling and splashing over rocks. There were little ponds full of frogs, and garter snakes slithering along the paths. There were other more dangerous things too, like the stash of nudie magazines we had found and the packs of cigarettes, and once we even found cans of beer cooling in the stream. And sometimes, you ran into the owners of those things, and you had to hide or even run for your life. In short, The Gully, was a perfect place for adventure.

It was the morning following the Opening Day and Final Run of “Que Sera” that we decided to turn the shed into a combination zoo and rock museum. We could charge admission and make some extra money. I had a rock collection that I had gotten for my birthday, that consisted of a one inch thick black box that was segmented with little cardboard walls making an equal number of two-inch squares. Glued inside each of the squares was a small sample of a type of rock and a label. There was a small chunk of bituminous coal, for example, some red shale, a piece of rose quartz, an agate, a piece of iron ore, and others. Twenty in all.

The best sample was the fool’s gold, or the mineral, pyrite. That’s what the label said. It looked just like a gold nugget and we could easily see how a miner could mistake it for the real thing. We had each tried to bite on it like we’d seen in the movies. We didn’t have any idea what that was supposed to accomplish, but it had required me to break it loose from the box of course. Let’s just say the only thing left of the fool’s gold in the rock sample box was the label and some dried glue, having long ago disappeared into the alley gravel on my way home from school. We walked that entire distance, back and forth to the school, three times and never saw the fool’s gold again. We wouldn’t have been very good gold miners I guess. Or maybe not very good fool’s gold miners, which was okay.

So we had originally headed for the Gully to find more rock samples for the rock museum. Maybe a big chunk of granite, or……then Dan spotted the frogs.

“I got an idea,” he says, “we could make us a zoo and a museum. We’ll call it a Zooseum.” I could have been the one who came up with the idea to name it a Zooseum, but I’ll give Danny the credit. He caught most of the frogs.

So that is how the Zooseum came about. We headed back up the hill to his house to get us a couple of buckets and headed back down to the Gulley to catch us some frogs. Within an hour we had over twenty of the critters of different sizes in the bucket with a piece of wire screen and a rock over the top of one. And Danny was agile enough to catch two garter snakes, one of which wiggled so much to get away that a portion of his tail broke off. We re-captured him a little while later and he was immediately named “Tail-less Ted”. Then we spotted the bull snake, which had just moments before scared the shit out of me.

Most bullsnakes have a bad attitude. When encountering something as large as a human, they will go into attack mode, raising up and back tracking in a menancing way. In fact they look a lot like a Diamondback rattlesnake. And while all of that is happening and you’re waiting to be bit and die, you’re not listening for the telltale rattles. Danny came in from the back and snatched the snake up off the ground holding it up and and away from him. Now a bull snake can, and often does, exceed 8 feet in length, but this one was a youngster, maybe three feet long.

“Man, how cool. Now we have a bull snake for the zooseum,” he said.

“Yeah, I said, “what are ya going to put him in?” One bucket had the frogs and the other bucket had the two garter snakes.

“You carry the buckets and I’ll carry the snake. Or you can carry the snake,” and he thrust it out towards me. I withdrew, trying not to act to fearful (that would be sissy) and picked up the buckets.

Bull snakes eat by constriction. In layman’s terms, they choke the shit out of their prey, then swallow it whole. They have this lump the size of whatever they’ve eaten, a short distance down from their heads, that stays there until the snake digests the food. Pretty cool process for a zooseum. You could throw a frog into the cage with the bull snake and watch him murder and eat the thing……for a small admission fee, of course. Bull frogs like small mammals too, like mice, and rats. One of the reasons it’s probably a good idea to keep one around your yard.

We had the materials from the shed cleaning earlier, to build a cage with wire mesh and some scrap lumber. We even found some hinges to hinge the lid, and soon we had our live snake display. “Sammy” was in a bucket with a screened lid waiting for his new home to be finished. I’m not going to take credit for naming him Sammy, but I’m sure I did. Tail-less Ted and Gertie (Get it? Gertie the garter snake.) were in the other bucket waiting for a cage completion, and the dinner (the frogs), were in yet another bucket. We hadn’t figured out what type of display we were going to build for them yet. It was going to take more than some wire mesh and two by fours.

Now with the igneous rock display (those are fire-formed rocks like obsidian, rhyolite, basalt), some minerals, a few arrowheads, and the “zoo” animals, or more accurately reptiles, we were ready to open for business. Same ticket window as the one-run musical.

But by the time we had finished the snake cages, we heard the shrill of the whistle. The whistle was the neighbor kids’ father. They were too young to play with Danny and I, (although they did have that supporting role in the musical production) and we didn’t want to get too friendly with them anyway because they were just going to be there for the summer. The neighbor and his family were from Champaign, Illinois. We found that weird because he was only renting the house from the real neighbor, some grumpy old guy, just for the summer. We weren’t versed on time-shares, or house-swapping, or whatever they were doing, we just knew the summer family wasn’t related in any way to the grumpy old guy and we had no idea where he had gone for the summer. We didn’t think Sheridan was all that wonderful of a place to spend a summer anyway, if one had a choice.

Anyway, blowing the whistle was how he signaled for them that it is was time to come home. He would blow three times on the silver whistle and they would come running within seconds. For the rest of us it became kind of a warning signal that our moms would be calling us soon. So when we heard the whistle we started packing up and securing the zooseum for the night. And by securing it, I mean we pulled the door shut, put the clasp on it and put a padlock on the door. Danny had the key around his neck on a shoestring. Minutes later my mom called us in for supper.

What suddenly became the biggest mystery, while we were standing there trying to calm Connie down and figuring out how we were going to dispose of the bodies, was how did the door get open. We had both seen to the locking of the door and there was no way to get in otherwise, even for a cat or whatever else might want to tear apart a frog for fun.

“Who unlocked the door?” I asked nobody in particular. “Didn’t we put the padlock on it last night?”

“What’s going on out here? What’s all the screaming about?” It was the older sister. Two years older than me and almost a teenager at 11 and a half.

“Mom sent me to find out what’s going on.” She added that as though it gave her some authority to be there, even though, most of the time, we didn’t want her to be there and Mom never sent her.

“Somebody killed the frogs,” Danny said.

Her surprise response, “What frogs?” So we showed her, and she screamed. It was a sissy scream. Which was fun. And then she ran off to report to Mom what we were doing, which would surely be embellished.

Danny and I examined the clasp where the padlock was still hanging and locked. The other part of the clasp was on the open door.

Later, much later, after thorough discussion, we surmised that, although we had closed the clasp, we inadvertantly had slid the padlock behind the hinged part of the clasp and locked it without really securing the door. So any bump against the door, or even the wind, could have forced it open easily. Maybe. It wasn’t concrete evidence, it was clearly circumstantial. (By “much later,” I mean, High School.)

The murder, though, was never solved. We suspected Connie’s cat, Muffin, but there was no blood evidence. Cat’s clean themselves pretty good so the lack of evidence wasn’t all that surprising. It would have taken her a while to commit the slaughter so we figured the time of death to be somewhere around 1:00 a.m and 8:00 a.m. when the carnage was discovered. Sammy, the bull snake, was never found. He probably took the opportunity to escape his captivity and headed back to the Gully where he lived to be eight feet long.

We shoveled and swept the bodies into the trash and closed the Zooseum for good. The summer went on and we moved on to other adventures.

Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” Back on those summer days, I think we should have saved up some of that talent to use later on.

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