Eric's Essays

 

A Bullet Finds Its Mark

by Eric Mayer

Davey Crockett is coming back. According to a recent news story a New Jersey author is compiling a book of coonskin memories. Since I lost my job during the spring, things haven't been easy and that perfect summer, three and a half decades ago, when my friends and I sported rabbit fur coonskin caps and plastic fringed buckskin jackets has no more substance than a vaguely recollected dream. 

Maybe that's why I wouldn't mind being able to hold my collection of Davey Crockett trading cards in my hand now. 

I collected the cards at a tiny neighborhood shop in Pennsylvania. My father was a high school art teacher, but when summer came my family packed up and moved from our suburban house to an unheated, two room cottage at the lake. For my parents "Mayer's Grove" was a business.To me it was a magical world. 

I ran through the picnic grove where the slender birches had been bent and twisted by an ancient ice storm and played ball on the big grassy field. Behind the cottage, through the fragrant bergamot where hummingbirds flashed and darted, was a stream where I turned over rocks to find crayfish or fished with a plastic cup for minnows and sometimes the tiny bullheads which gathered in dark clouds. I learned to spot the green turret of a frog's head among the lily pads and to make an open handed grab, giving the frog just enough time to leap, so I could close my fingers easily around its extended legs. 
We had a scrap of beach. At one end, where truckloads of sand had been hauled in, I could dog paddle and splash. The other end was muck and weeds. I had to float over that on a plastic raft to avoid the leeches. When thunderstorms rolled around the lake we'd sit outside under the big pavilion beside the cottage and my Dad would tell my younger brother and me it was the giants bowling and I nodded agreement so as not to spoil the tale for Todd. Sometimes, at dusk, when I should've been in bed because we got up with the dawn, my Dad would take me across the field to the fence where we could see the drive-in movie screen at neighboring Sandy Beach. The cartoon characters would jump around, bigger and brighter than life. But the tinny noise from the distant car speakers was drowned out by the sound of crickets and peepers. 

For a kid, it was just about perfect. Even using the outhouse at the end of the fieldstone walk was an adventure. And one summer I collected Davey Crockett cards. 

Then you had to collect them. One pack at a time. You couldn't (or at least I couldn't) buy the sets in a box complete with every card and checklist - with the mystery and romance left out. And they were bubble gum cards. It isn't so much the hard pink slab of gum I remember as the sweet smell and the way it hit your nostrils as you peeled open the wax wrapper to check your treasures - a smell forever linked to the delight of discovery. The gum coated the cards with fine white powder that you had to brush off, like an archaeologist might brush ancient dust from an Egyptian treasure. 

There were, I seem to recall, 72 cards in the set. I knew the story, having seen the tv series, but each card, a frozen frame, was a revelation. Each had its own look, its own personality. The words on the back, briefly describing the scene were less interesting, except for the name of the card and the note, on the bottom, naming the next card. 

Several times a week I'd take my allowance money up to the corner store where Jim would take out from the glass counter assorted licorice whips, candy dots on paper,and jaw breakers and, finally, always, a pack or two of Davey Crockett cards from the box he kept there. He'd reach under the counter and tap the exposed packs with his finger. 

 "Which one today?" 

 I tried to guess which of the packs might contain new discoveries and which only duplicates. 

All summer long my collection increased. One by one, from the mountain top in Tennessee to the Alamo, I filled in the gaps. But, as summer drew to a close and the cicadas of August buzzed, like the school bells they foretold, one card remained stubbornly unattainable. Card Number 68. "A Bullet Finds Its Mark." 

I raised money by selling crayfish and minnows to fisherman who came to the park. Every day I'd walk to Jim's store up the dirt drive past the entrance where my Mom sat on her beach towel, collecting fares, finishing off her tan, looking for four leafed clovers in the grass, and finding them. 

I opened pack after pack, only to find disappointment. 

"Good luck," Jim would tell me, as I left the store. "Hope you've got #68 in that pack." 

But I never did. The card, I knew, must memorialize the death of the gambler at the Alamo. I dreamt of finding it, but when I awoke, though I remembered my elation, I could never remember what the card looked like. 

It was the last week of summer - we'd already made the dreaded trip to town for my school clothes - when I walked to the store for the last time. I slapped my nickel down on the counter and Jim reached toward the box of cards like he always did. But this time his finger tapped one pack. 

 "Try this one," he said. 

I left the store, walked back toward the park, across the hot macadam of the highway. I opened the pack. The wax paper came off with unusual ease. Before I lifted the gum, I knew I had it - just by the narrow strip of unfamiliar, and oddly unpowdered, picture visible around the pink slab. 

It was a dark picture. A clasp of the gambler, dressed in black, turning slightly, half surprised, not yet in pain, as the bullet found its mark. 

My set was complete just as the summer was complete. 

It was long afterwards I learned that Jim had spent hours rifling through every pack in the cartons in the back of his store until he located the card I needed. 

The next year I traded the set to a friend for some plastic trucks (I think) which are long gone and hold no memories at all. 

Now, in the middle of a Rochester winter, with hope running low, still looking for someone who might consider my abilities worthy of a living wage, I wish I could feel the real weight of those cards in my hand again, to reassure myself of the reality of that perfect summer. 

Copyright (C) 1994 Eric Mayer 
 
 

  

The Day the Cows Got Out

by Eric Mayer

One July my then-wife and I took our kids to the small amusement park up the road by Lake Ontario. It was one of those days when the faint breezes and the hot, insubstantial sunlight lie against your skin like a memory of summers past - summers when, in another place, you played the child's part in the same yearly ritual. 

This time Fleur, who was four and a veteran of the children's rides, was impatient to become an adult. She tugged me toward the tilt-a-whirl and then toward the Jack Rabbit roller coaster. 

"Not until you're older," I said. 

"When? Next week?" 

Two-year-old Tristan balked at first, while Fleur traveled nowhere by car, plane and caterpillar. But eventually his curiosity overcame his fear and he let me lift him into a boat ride. The circle of wooden boats, moved by spokes through a shallow concrete pool, went round and round at a slow walk. Tristan, at first wary and then grinning hugely, hauled at the steering wheel, unperturbed, or perhaps unaware that his efforts did nothing to divert the boat from its predestined course. 

Looking down at my son I remembered taking the same ride 30 years before. I remembered things that disappear from the adult perspective - the slickness of the worn black wheel and the way it squeaked when turned, the sensation of coolness and of nearness to the water, where small waves folded and unfolded bright swatches of sunlight. The inch-wide gap between the hull and the concrete wall seemed portentous then. 

These sensations returned wordlessly, as I must have experienced them. But as I reflexively touched each with a word - "coolness" or "nearness" - it vanished like a touched soap bubble. 

After we got home, Tristan wandered around the house repeating, "Go on boat, Daddy. Go on boat., Daddy, " in various inflections of wonder. It was not, I realized, a maddening repetition of words; it was an incantation that called forth all the wordless joy of his ride. 

When it was time for me to read to Fleur that evening, she chose "Rabbit and His Friends" by Richard Scarry, an old favorite of mine about a "roly-poly platypus" who finds his place performing at a circus. 

"Roly-poly," Fleur repeated, her eyes widening, a smile working behind the favorite blanket she had stuck under her nose. 

I knew she was savoring the new word, just as I had, as an entity with a shape and sound as peculiar and amusing as the creature it described. At first we expect so much of words, expect that they will capture the wordless mysteries we sense all around us, but then we learn to use words in narrow ways. The verbal tangle of civilization obscures whatever deeper meaning lies beyond. 

Fleur went off to sleep and left me recollecting one of the last times I found myself surrounded by the unspeakable strangeness through which the very young move. 

I was not yet ten, and lived in a small town. If you turned up my street, it took you to the center of town - the drugstore, the bank, Tony's barbershop - and beyond that to the white wooden schoolhouse. 

But if you turned down the street you reached another world. Abruptly you were on a country road that wound past a shady cemetery and over the tracks where a passing locomotive could transform a penny into a flattened, gleaming, talisman. Further on, the road led through pastures on its way to that other amusement park, where I had ridden those other boats. One pasture held a pond; in winter the goldfish trapped in the ice glimmered beneath our skates. I heard that they resumed swimming, magically, when the pond thawed. But I never checked, because in the spring the cows were let loose in the pasture. 

The worlds at either end of that street - the real and the fantastic, the world of childhood and adulthood - coexisted and never impinged on one another. Except for the day the cows got out. 

There's little to say. At ten, more often than not, I turned up the street and into town. That day I was doing my homework in my bedroom when I heard lowing. I looked out my window and saw the cows in the driveway. They must have found a hole in the pasture fence. My friends and I met outside and ran from yard to yard shouting, "The cows are out! The cows are out!" Our parents already knew. It was no picnic for them, having cows in the rosebushes. 

The cows moved slowly through the suburban neighborhood, their ponderous hooves leaving gouges in the carefully rolled lawns. We kept our distance as we followed. Out of their place, they looked huge. We were all giddy with the strangeness that had invaded our world. By nightfall the cows were rounded up, but for days afterward we searched out signs of their visitation - backyard gardens where cabbages had been chomped off like brussels sprouts, hoof prints behind swimming pools, piles of manure next to the breezeway. 

When I re-enacted with Tristan and Fleur the everyday rituals of my own childhood - the amusement park visit, the bedtime story - I sometimes had a glimpse of their world, a world perhaps closer to reality than the one invented by adults, a place perpetually illuminated by the preternatural twilight preceding the storm. 

Watching their wonderment, I sometimes heard a lowing at the edge of consciousness and felt passing nearby those shapes too large to be comprehended by the words of maturity. 

Copyright (C) 1996 Eric Mayer 

 

SQUIRRELS I HAVE KNOWN

by Eric Mayer
As winter winds down many of us will have to admit defeat. Once again we failed to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeder. I've had my fill of squirrels - quite literally when I was a kid and my parents hunted. I still recall how they used to sneak the stuff onto my plate. 

"What's this?" I'd ask, tentatively prodding a succulent chunk of rodent with my fork. 

"Looks like liver," offered my father, ingenuously. 

"It's black," I noted. "And it smells funny." 

I turned the horrid slab over, until it fell with a greasy plop amid my peas. As I forked the stringy, 
glistening flesh and raised it toward my face I could see black spots in the dark meat. Could I be imagining things? They looked like entrance wounds. 

"It's been shot," I said. "Shot and sliced." 

"Oh go on, " said my mother. "Why don't you try some?" 

 "Because," I said, my ten-year old brain reeling with horror, "...It's SQUIRREL!!" 

"Well, try some with the mint jelly." 

How can I describe the sensation of sinking my teeth into a piece of juicy squirrel? Let me put it this way...rabbit might not sound appetizing but it just tastes like chicken. Frog legs, they say, taste like chicken. Iguana tastes like chicken. Even rattlesnake meat tastes like chicken. I'll bet giant crunchy locusts stuffed with fried ants taste like chicken. 

Squirrel doesn't... 

Even with the mint jelly... 

The last house I lived in had squirrels in the walls. 

The previous tenant had mistaken them for burglars. To me they sounded, at night, like very agile and angry sumo wrestlers. Though I doubt sumo wrestlers could have survived falling two stories from the attic to the basement 234 times every night. When it came time for me to move the squirrels had to go first. Bill, the exterminator, was a real pro. His beady eyes fixed quickly on the gaping hole under the porch roof where the rodents entered . Smiling a sharp toothed little smile he set several traps along what he calculated to be their preferred route across the roof. 

The idea was to trap them and then transport them. "At least five miles, or they'll come back," he said. 

Within days he had coaxed and caged several overweight sluggards. Then the real test of wits began. One squirrel was quick and smart enough to scamper up the teeter-totter device at the front of the cage, snatch the peanut butter bait and escape before the device tipped enough to let the cage door slide shut. 

Bill began adjusting the length of the teeter-totter. He tried buttering crackers and tying them with string. The idea was to slow the squirrel down. Day after day he would pull up in his van and climb his ladder onto the roof to find he had been outwitted again. I soon learned all the newest advances in squirrel entrapment technology. Unfortunately the people who make a living figuring out how to kill squirrels hadn't progressed to satellite guided lasers so eventually Bill turned to psychology. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to get into a squirrel's mind. 

"What I'll do," he explained, "is leave the trap baited but not set for a few days, until he gets used to it. Then...bam...I'll surprise him." 

The squirrel however had long since learned that there ain't so such thing as a free lunch and this stratagem also proved unsuccessful. 

I don't recall how the squirrel was finally captured, after almost a month. I suspect it simply got fat and slow on all the peanut butter. 

Usually, with squirrels, it's a matter of getting them out of the house (or bird feeder) but when I was a kid we took one in. (I can't recall whether this was after or before I was asked to eat its relatives). The baby squirrel had been abandoned. Why else had it run up to me as I crossed the lawn one rainy afternoon? Wet and bedraggled, it was a pitiful sight. When I scooped it up it barely bit me. 

My parents placed the squirrel in a cardboard box next to the table in our dinette. I added a bit of a branch for it to climb. We gave it a bowl of water. Having done our best we waited for it to die, like the wounded birds, rabbits, mice, moles and so forth always did. All the squirrel did was lose its fur. 

A bald squirrel is not a pretty sight - grayish skin stretched over a bony shriveled body, the sharp rat tail sticking out like an exposed bone. 

The vet my parents consulted was not alarmed. "Squirrels always lose their fur indoors," he told them, matter-of-factly as if it was a natural part of a squirrel's life cycle to take a hotel room for the winter. He suggested protecting its naked skin with calamine lotion. 

If there is anything uglier than a hairless squirrel it is a hairless squirrel caked in thick layers of pink calamine lotion. 

As the squirrel grew, so did its home. A four foot tall branch sprouted upwards, along with a crude cage of chicken wire. Bored with its diet of protein supplement from a baby bottle, the squirrel would sit on the top of the branch and chatter and flake as we ate. Sometimes it escaped the cage and scrabbled wildly across the table, knocking over salt shakers and scattering silverware, leaving pink paw prints in the mashed potatoes. "Quick, grab your milk glass, the squirrel's loose again!" It's remarkable how soon you get used to such things. (I don't recall having anyone over for dinner during this period, however). 

Once free, the rambunctious rodent careened through the house, under, around and over furniture. The living room curtains hung in shreds. Catching it was difficult, especially since the reward for success was a set of razor edged incisors on your thumb. Not that the squirrel wouldn't come to people when it wanted. What it liked to do was climb. If you have ever been climbed by a squirrel, from pant cuff, to belt, up the back of your shirt to your head, you know how it is that squirrels can climb vertical tree trunks - they have very sharp claws which they dig in. It is one thing to know this theoretically, quite another to live it. The best thing to do was to stand still as a tree on a calm day and hope the squirrel didn't decide to tighten its grip. I can remember making the mistake of grabbing the squirrel by its back and pulling as it clung to my skin for dear life. 

But the days of bandaged thumbs and lacerated calves couldn't last forever. The squirrel regrew its fur and we set it outdoors. It survived. For several years afterwards it occasionally came across the lawn to receive a peanut. 

I suppose, when it comes right down to it, we could all learn a lot from our experiences with squirrels - but I'm not sure what. 

Copyright (C) 1999 Eric Mayer 

 
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