Thursday, November 03, 2005
I am flipping through the nostalgia chronicles tonight. This sojourn was triggered by a movie on television in the next room. The movie, Pleasantville, is a fantasy about a brother and sister who get transported into the imaginary world of a TV show. Probably because of the similarity of the era of the show and of my youth, the transition from now to then was natural.
I remember the last time I saw Rocky. I certainly don't mean Rocky Balboa. (I will not see Rocky VI!) In fact, here and now I am making that an early New Year's Resolution. You know, for the first time in a long time, I am confident that this is a resolution that I will actually keep. Well, that's not exactly true, last year I resolved to make no resolutions.
....Rocket J. Squirrel is a significant part of my youth, but he isn't the Rocky I so fondly remember. When I last saw my Rocky, I was a young bean pole of a lad in the mid-fifties. I was a strapping fifty-pounds when soaking wet. My voice hadn't changed yet and girls were personae non gratis.
....Growing up in rural West Virginia in the shadow of the Appalachians, I like so many boys my age, often made pets of orphaned animals of the forest. It was not uncommon to see pet rabbits, raccoons, opossums and even skunks. By far, the most popular wild pet was a squirrel. The most desirable squirrel was a flying squirrel.
....I found a nest of three newborn flying squirrels in a hollow of an old sycamore tree. For two days I returned to that spot to check on the nest. Each day, however, one of them would be missing. I had avoided touching the nest for fear that my scent would disturb the mother and cause her to abandon her brood. On the day that I found only one baby in the nest, I was first led to believe that the mother had been moving her young to another nest. That idea was quashed when I heard flapping wings above and behind me. There was a red hawk sitting on a limb watching me. I realize that it had been raiding the nest, probably to feed her own young. Chances were good that the hawk must've grabbed the mother squirrel too.
....Call it interfering with the natural order of things if you will, but I climbed the tree to rescue the remaining baby squirrel. I carried it home in the pocket of my shirt. Stealing one of my sisters' Betsy-wets baby doll bottles, I fed it some milk as often as I could. I kept it in a bird cage in the basement for several weeks.
....By the time I was taking it out of the cage, I had already named it Rocky. He would come to me when I made clicking sounds. I had been feeding it unsalted peanuts and pieces of toast. I guess it recognized me as its "mother." I taught it to climb up my clothes and into my shirt pocket, at first by luring him there with the peanuts. Eventually all I had to do was to pat my chest and he would settle into his "nest." When I was sure he wouldn't run away or venture too far from me, I took him outside. He always seemed excited to go outdoors. It wasn't long before he was climbing up trees and leaping from branch to branch. I envied his athleticism. I took great pleasure when I called him from the trees. It was a beautiful sight to see Rocky leap into mid air and glide so gracefully to me. The flaps of skin running from his front legs to the back legs would be spread out catching the wind and holding him aloft. Like a rudder his tail deftly acted like a rudder steering him on his desired path. I could feel his little claws take hold as he landed on my shoulder. When I turned my head to him, he would touch his nose against mine. A kiss perhaps? Then he would scamper down into the pocket.
....We were inseparable for seven months. He would sit on my shoulder when I was riding my bike. When I was at school he would be in any one of the trees. He seemed to learn that the bell signaled that I would be coming out, and he'd be in flight the moment I came into view. This event always drew a crowd. The other kids would gather around me, fascinated by my little friend. Though I didn't like girls at that time, I would only later realize that Rocky was a chick magnet.
....Mothers Day was approaching that fateful spring. I was old enough to know that Mom would like a special gift from her kids. She hadn't been herself lately. She was sick. We were too young and naive to know what the word meant, let alone to grasp the concept of menopause. We just knew that sometimes she would be yelling. Other times she would be crying. One hour she was cheerfully humming as she prepared dinner. The next, she'd be sitting in the rocker on the front porch staring off toward the hills.
....I had been fondly looking at a bracelet in the department store downtown. Ten dollars was a lot of money to kid in the fourth grade. It was more money than we'd ever seen at one time in our whole lives. I remember telling the man in the store that that bracelet was my mother's. I begged him not to sell it to anyone else. I told him I was saving up to buy it for my mother for Mother's Day. I didn't give it a second thought then, but he had taken quite a shine to Rocky. Everytime I came in to see 'my bracelet,' he asked to see Rocky. Rocky had learned that no one was going to harm him, and as such had no fear of humans.
....It was a Saturday, the day before Mother's Day when I returned to the store. I had amassed a small fortune in half dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies and carried it in with me in a sock. When I emptied the sock onto the counter, I was grinning from ear to ear and demanded my bracelet. I was heart broken when he counted out a grand total of $8.75. He must have seen the tears forming in the corners of my eyes. He said he had an idea that would work out for both of us. When he offered to give me the bracelet for the money on the counter and Rocky, I backed away in horror.
....I looked down at the little gray and white creature poking his head out of my shirt pocket. Then I thought of mother's words that morning when she was crying. She was certain that she would not be remembered on Mother's Day. Even in my tormented state, I knew I couldn't let my mother down. That bracelet would assure her that someone remembered. I stood in the doorway, wishing to be alone with Rocky when I said goodbye to him. When I left, the bracelet in hand, I turned and looked back. Rocky was sitting on the counter eating a peanut the man had given him. Neither looked up as I walked forlornly home.
....I barely slept a wink that night. I even got up once and slipped into the basement to check his cage. I must have been thinking that maybe it was a dream. The next morning, I couldn't wait to give her my special gift. She would never know just what that bracelet cost me. You'd have thought that I had given her gold. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. As it turns out, my Dad didn't forget her. I cannot remember what gift he gave her that day, I was too wrapped up in both my own joy and sadness.
....The next day as I about to leave for school, Mom noticed that I didn't have Rocky. Try as I may, I couldn't hold back the tears, but I managed to tell her that he'd run away and didn't come back. It was a lie, but I just couldn't tell her the truth. She went in the kitchen and came back with two dollars. She said I could spend it on anything I wanted. It was the first time I had ever been given money without the caveat to bring back the change. After school I raced to the department as fast as my legs could pedal my bike. I had it all figured out! I would offer the man the the two dollars for Rocky!
....My heart fell to my feet when he informed me that somehow Rocky had escaped. He couldn't find it anywhere. I searched all the trees near the store. About a hundred yards in back of the store was the start of a wooded hillside. It was almost dark as I frantically looked up into tree after tree, after tree to no avail. With all the dogs, cats, and that hawk, I felt that I would never see Rocky again.
....The fall turned to winter, and when winter gave way to spring I had begun to think of Rocky a little less each day. Dad brought home a puppy for Christmas. Poochie was a beagle that gave the four of us kids many hours of fun. At times, my dad regretted bring home that dog, especially on nights with a full moon. Poochie was a bayer!
....It was autumn, and I was outside raking leaves to earn my allowance, when I heard series of chirps and clicks from a tree behind me. I froze for a moment as I spotted a flying squirrel on a limb almost over my head. I made a few clicking sounds, and when it sat up, right and started clicking I dared to think the impossible. Rocky? Could it be Rocky? Excited, I patted my chest in vigor. A smile of hope came to my mouth when the squirrel began to scale down the trunk of the tree. There was another set of clicks and chirping sounds from higher up in the tree. There was another Squirrel. The first one stopped its descent and let out a few chirps of its own. For but a second or two, I swear we made eye contact. Then it turned and hurried up to a bough where the second one waited.
....For three days the pair played in the trees in our back yard. For three days, peanuts I had left on a tree stump were gone when would return. Neither of them would come any nearer than halfway down the trees. Even when I called out "Rocky," there was no reaction from them. On the evening of the third day, I was in bed when I heard a scratching at the bedroom window. When I raised the shade, I was surprised to see a flying squirrel sitting there. From its cheek pouch, it pulled out a peanut and laid it on the window sill. It chirped and clicked a few times before leaping into the tree near the window. It was the last time I ever saw either squirrel.
....I held onto that peanut in my sock drawer for a long time. Although I never knew for certain, I will never be convinced that it wasn't Rocky and his mate. With winter coming, that peanut could prove to be dear and expensive, but it was a gift of gratitude. It was as dear to him as a certain flying squirrel had been to a young boy, given up in exchange for a gift for his mother.
Rocky had come back to say goodbye and to thank me for the warmth and safety he experienced ... In a boy's pocket.
Curmudgeon responsible for this post: Hale McKay at 10:50 PM