THE PACK RAT
A.K.A. WOOD RAT
Peering down at odd bluish chunks in the graveled driveway, I say to the real estate agent, “That’s soap! Why is Irish Spring bar soap trash out here?”
“Oh, that wards off packrats,” she replies. “They can be annoying – everyone has them out here, but they can be controlled; they hate Irish Spring.” (Later we learned otherwise, when a neighbor snorted and told us they love to line their nests with it.) Seeking to distract us, she gestured over to some admirable cactus groupings, popular xeriscaping. Not much water out here, and one makes do with Mother Nature. Best to use what the desert offers to enhance your property. The owners here had done a splendid job. “The saguaro cactus, whose bloom is the Arizona state blossom, is a dramatic icon out here,” she said. “See how many this property has?”
But I was too dismayed, appalled, viewing the blue bits with alarm, to be so easily diverted, as impressive as the monumental cacti were. We were besotted with the property – wonderful view of the city spread out in the distance – and intended to make an offer. But what were we getting into? Packrats so rife you needed to sow soap in the driveway? Good grief.
Images from childhood flickered through my mind. I again hear my Dad bellowing about finding acorn bits on his dresser right there where his money clip had been. The critters steal and swap. One imagines a little wee conscience plying payments for thievery. I envisioned vermin scurrying with bright shiny things in their paws and teeth, stuff they’ve stolen and are hauling back to their nests. Keys, buttons, bits of foil from gum packets – a diamond ring? – like magpies, any shiny thing that hits their fancy – leaving maybe a discarded nut as payment. Strange varmint. In my childhood home, rustlings in the walls and on rooftops turned out to be, yes, packrats.
I didn’t wish to have any on my beat. And I knew they were already there, as witness the messy display of Irish Spring. We bought the house and called in Mr. Pack Rat, ecologically kind capturer and releaser of the furry, furtive, little beasties.
He educated us: Prevention is kinder, cheaper and more effective than extermination. He pointed out bits of trash collected in one little area around a prickly pear. “That’s a sign to look for,” he said. “They nest in cactus root systems, making walls of thorny spines for protection. Pretty smart, these guys.” We nodded, glassy-eyed. “And you must clean up piles of brush debris around your acreage. They love those for nesting.”
He rid us of all nests he could find, and we carefully did what he recommended. Then found more. The previous owners were a combo couple of artist and professor, minds adrift on other than packrats. Would you believe the rascals took over an outside barbecue grill? And in the nighttime we heard scuffling sounds over our heads. Maybe bobcat? More likely pack rat.
What to do? Prevention is best. But forget the Irish Spring.
Our patio fountain, home to a few flitty goldfish (not koi, no chin whiskers) is a big draw for the Cooper’s Hawk. This fly-in hunter regards it as his private buffet. The fish, on the other hand, do not – and are uncooperative. They flee into shadowy hide-outs under lily pads and tumbled pots; they must detect his approach from way off. Coop soars in and lands on the top of the fountain. From this perch, he scowls intently down at the water, hoping, hoping. In vain. Frustrated, he settles his bottom half in the second tier of the fountain, and dips himself repeatedly, bobbing up and down in the water, fluffing and flapping his tail feathers in a whimsical cooling cleansing. It’s his spa.
When he’s done, he flies aloft and dries himself on the roof, whence he sorties to the neighbors’ to check for edibles. He’s handsome; I’m glad he considers us worthy. But I, the finches, and the goldfish are relieved to see him go. At his approach, the smaller birds had flown away in a frenzied startle, fanning out to make poor targets. Now they return to the thistle and sunflower seeds, doves too, to their ground level pickings from the feeder debris. And all take their own turns at the fountain. Late afternoon comes – the desert sun’s rays angle in to light up the red and yellow breasts of their last sips before they drift to the trees for the night.
Then, in season, comes the cautious single-file parade of hatchlings up from the lower garden, next to the grape arbor. Under the cumquat, just under the comforting edge of a spreading juniper, quail positioned their nest. The eggs have popped out tiny teetering fluff-balls, chicks who by are now are ready to move up into the larger world of the patio. The black-plumed caps topping adult heads jiggle like antennae as they lead their babies from the protected nursery, ultimately guiding them into the daunting vastness of the Catalina Foothills preserve. That will be their new home, where by instinct all quail belong. They carefully pass by the patio ramada, disappearing into the dense hedge haven of oleander bushes, exit route to the Great Outside. We will see our quail again later on, down on the road, busy crossing from one cactus patch to another. The chicks lose their adorableness – they’re entering their teens, bigger each day, skilled at ducking predators.
That garden exit path alarms me, because the occasional transient bobcat also pads into that floral dimness. It’s every animal’s covered departure path from our walled garden. He doesn’t come often – just checks in now and then for small live stuff. And so comes the bobcat. We sneak hushed to a window to observe his arrogant strut across the bricks. He is muscled, strong, catlike but not – and handsome. When my husband first saw him he said, “Come here! Look at that huge cat out there.” But the short, curled tail identified him as not a house cat…and he was big. He comes around looking, I think, for the odd prowling rabbit. Senor rabbit finds cover under long leaves arching out from our tropical bird of paradise. The bobcat wanders on to the neighbors, dissatisfied with us.
But to me, the most surprising drop-in was the roadrunner. The chaparral. He advanced slowly, placing one dainty foot in front of another, his spikey black crest leading his speckled body, trailing his long tail. Cocking his head, beady eyes checking side to side, he made his way to the water source. A quick hop, and up he went to the bottom lip around the fountain. A few dips and sips, and when I turned back – he was gone. Never to return. At least not when I was looking.
Owls perform at night, hooting from their high watch on the iron gate. A flashlight illuminates their eyes… they glow eerily. Annoyed, the owls silently flap off, insulted. Our cookout guests have been entertained. They head off into the desert nighttime, saguaros looming like guards. We go in to bed.
I love Tucson.
THE COCKROACH – but who doesn’t know that?
The American cockroach that lurks in our kitchens and forages through our trash bins is about an inch long; it’s just one of thirty varieties that plague us. There’s also the creepy large version that lumbers about on longer legs throughout the South. Nearly mouse-size, they look possibly edible (if you’re desperate enough). Scary things, those.
And smart. There was one whose movement caught our eyes at the El Paso airport. He was scurrying intently across the terminal floor, skillfully avoiding large feet, aiming at the automatic door. Arriving at the exit, he paused to one side, seeming to wait for a human to activate his egress. We were fascinated. Someone came; he made his getaway. Clearly it was a process he’d used before.
A droll ditty exists about the cockroach, the popular toe-tapping Mexican “La Cucaracha” (origin unknown), the critter that doesn’t get around because he’s out of marijuana. For an entertaining summary of its lyrics and history, click on:
The ubiquitous cockroach, brown insect of the 4,600-member order Blattodea, is a survivor of everything. He’s known to have existed through life-threatening perils for 350 million years. The insect shifts its venue at will, living on dribs and drabs of anything. The cockroach has been known to lodge in furniture, even in a clock, and thereby change its residence with a cross-country move. They’ve been known to hitch a ride all the way from New York (big center of infestations) to a new dwelling thousands of miles away. The unsuspecting homeowner dreamed of being rid of them, to have left them behind in his now abandoned dwelling. Silly twit. If the cockroach can live for years behind wallpaper, what’s a clock to conquer? Its life, though threatened in today’s world by countless poisons, continues undiminished.
It knows only to scour for food – and propagate. Which it does abundantly. At night, mostly, furtively scuttling in dark places to nosh and poop, leaving behind its e. coli and/or salmonella tainted feces. Oh – and dysentery, among countless other contagion. Even dusty dried up cockroach poo can cause annoying issues, like asthma and allergies. It has no social bias. It burrows in slums on neglected garbage; it lives in kitchen cabinets of elegant homes in upscale neighborhoods.
Once years ago, at a League of Women Voters meeting in the most upscale town outside of Boston, I was asked to please look for coffee sugar in our leader’s kitchen cabinet. Dutifully I went to the kitchen, opened a cabinet, throwing light suddenly onto open boxes, marmalade jars and cans – and an alarming, writhing blanket of small brown cockroaches, their antennae waving inside those gaping cereal boxes.
I shuddered, closed the cabinet door, returned empty-handed to the living room, and avoided my hostess’ inquiring eyes.
Faces turned towards me. I announced to the group that she was out of sugar.
Our cockroaches? In Alamos Mexico, our home is free of them. Mirabile dictu. If you are anti-pesticide, I hang my head in quasi shame. But they are rife there, especially that big black tropical one – and it’s them or us.
In drier Tucson, the moisture-seeking insect tries to access our house through drain pipes, an age-old sneak, probably since the advent of lead pipes in ancient Rome. We foiled that by putting borax in drains, a desiccating and poisonous item for them; they collect and carry the powder away on their little hairy leg bristles where ultimately it dispatches them.
Our Tucson house sits in a covert but busy wildlife haven, an area designated eco-friendly to the desert plant and animal. The street is even an uncivilized, unimproved dirt road. Coyotes yelp in groups in intense southwest sunshine, sounding just like kids laughing as they scramble up the sides of the neighboring wash. Not kids – danged coyotes. But in the night, the bad-tempered, fanged javelina also comes poking about, trailing its young – if it’s that season. No denying they are incredibly cute in their warthog ugliness.
This tusked beast likes to patrol en famille, sharp little hoofs tripping across the road between washes, cruising warily between properties, sniffing for nice dead rats, foraging truffle-style with earth-moving snouts for tasty roots. We’ve seen their hoofprints left from furtive foraging in the dark of night. They’re unbelievably tough, blissfully munching on heavily thorned barrel cactus fruits.
They’ll also check trash bins for leftovers. My friend and neighbor once raised her garage door to a family of five. They froze in place while rummaging through her rubbish. They locked eyes. She said a hands-on-hips “Beat it,” and they obliged. She was lucky. They are known, when challenged, to offensively charge and gore with their impressive mouth tusks. You see, like famous Rupert the Rhino, they’re quite near-sighted. Probably they really aren’t so fierce, but they can’t see for their sniffing. Great olfactory glands.
Those who know say they’re as toothsome as the wild boar. In Mexico, local hunters of the countryside consider them a delicacy. Like pork. But know this – though variously called “wild pig” and “skunk pig,” they are not any type of pig. They are a variety of peccary.
This saguaro-festooned hillside neighborhood, sloping upward from north Tucson’s busy avenues, is a special place. When, years ago, entreprenurial builders decided to create an architect-designed housing development, it was immediately designated by its home-owners association as a de facto wildlife preserve. That is still in effect. And although the original houses may be way behind the times in modern accoutrements, they carry the cachet of history. And the nighttime view of the city is breathtaking.
The wildlife, of course, including the near-sighted javelina, is unaware. They’re low-movers patrolling close to the ground. (Occasionally we hear the bobcat on the roof – another story. Might he appreciate those distant city lights shimmering in the vast valley between far off mountain ridges?) We watch for headlight-lit eyes as we slowly motor the road, being careful not to run into any trit-trotting family parade as we wend homeward.
Oh. Do not try to tame or feed them. Because of their unreliable natures, you could jeopardize your well-being. Their near-sightedness could cause them alarming confusion. A good-hearted animal lover in the Phoenix area is trying to recover from deep slashes to her legs, which her neighbors attribute to her feeding the ungrateful javelina, and which she does not deny.
The Wily Coyote
The city of Tucson, Arizona’s ever-growing interloper of the plains, stretches out across the curious Sonoran desert. Its reliable sunshine and warmth, so kind to aging joints, has called to seniors across the nation, its subsequent accommodating buildings of home and hospital creeping relentlessly out across the desert. It has encroached on the wildlife, ergo has its share of ferals. They were here first.
Of the desert menagerie, to humans coyotes probably are the most obvious. The scruffy dog-like hunter slyly slinks around housing developments. Dog-like maybe, but not our kind of dog. Beware – he’s not looking to merely riffle through your garbage – he’s searching for meal-sized cats and dogs.
Few pets are equipped to match this hunger-driven ur-dog. Our neighbors guard their fluffy yappers carefully. If one should sneak out, its fate would be written. Canis domesticus has a sad instinct to rush into the chase of a prey… to its doom. Especially frenzied lapdogs. We have, in our eco-protected area, a few handsome tawny coyotes who brazenly patrol our yards and driveways, occasionally catching a human’s eye before fading into the pucker brush. They are fearless, but non-confrontational. And then some are leaner and hungrier, more determined?
One evening, not long ago, a friend’s smallest member of his pet trio, a sleek dachshund, naughtily whizzed out between his master’s legs, joining his larger buddies for a night’s prebedtime widdle. He normally was never ever allowed out off-leash; he saw a gleeful chance at liberty and grabbed it. His buddies were big German shepherd bruisers, well-fanged males capable of conquering any feral encountering. (Well, maybe not a puma. We have the odd puma, too.)
Joyful, brave, naive and foolish little dachsie. He did not return.
At four in the morning, his master was slowly searching the streets by car. Suddenly a coyote trotted across his headlights’ beams. To our friend’s horror, he saw his feckless pet’s body-less head and chest gripped in its bloody fangs.
They are surely there, eyes gleaming and focusing in the underbrush, looking and awaiting the careless move of an untended pet. Thus the wily coyote survives.
They roam nationwide, this wild dog. Years ago in San Antonio, place of my birth, the local paper’s police log reported a call from a woman in an upscale residential area. She, a warm-hearted animal lover, was not having success feeding and bathing a homeless dog and could the police come get him. “He is just so uncooperative,” she said.
The police snickered upon their arrival. “That ain’t no dawg, lady – that’s a coyote.”
Similarly, in rural Massachusetts, I was idly motoring home when suddenly a dog hurled itself off an embankment, just missing its opportunity to cross safely, whanging itself into my right front wheel. It spun through the air and landed, twitching, roadside. I quickly stopped, everyone stopped, and we looked at the handsome beast as he convulsed his last breath. No collar.
“You’re going to have to call that in to the animal control, lady” said one oh so helpful bystander.
“Hell, lady – that ain’t no dawg, thassa coyote,” authoritatively pronounced another.
The woman in the car right behind me said, “Coyote? Can I have it? My husband is a taxidermist.”
Nonplussed, I shrugged and said “Be my guest.”
She snatched a large trash bag out of her trunk and with bystander help, stuffed the corpse in. He was thick-coated, handsome, muscular and deep-chested. No wonder we figured him to be a pet.
The excitement over, the kerfuffle resolved, the dead animal pulling away in the taxidermist’ wife’s car, I too departed.
What an odd day.
From New England to Texas, from there to Arizona and beyond, the wily coyote prowls our neighborhoods for morsels. They eat our mice, rats, squirrels – and our pets. Don’t even think about trying to woo and tame one. They are not our kind.
My tensed body on the qui vive, I panicked, shaking my husband’s sleeping form.
“Eeeeeek!” I hissed at him. “There’s a snake in the bathroom. He’s essing himself across the bathmat.”
My groggy mate raised his head, in a “what now?” configuration.
It was midnight, we were in our new-to-us Tucson house. It is a 1950s vintage structure, apparently with the odd tiny hole making a come-hither entry for a wee thirsty beastie prowling for water. We are, after all, in the crackling dry Sonoran Desert. Daytime brings a pot pourri of needy birds to our patio fountain – even quail and a road-runner and a Cooper’s hawk. (And a stalking bobcat). The pool (it came with the place)? Doves have learned to use the Creepy Crawler float as a perch to sip from. Saguaro cactuses loom around the house, magnificent in the daylight, other-worldly in the dark of night.
Our house is in a well-established wildlife area. Packrats creep about under the prickly pears, tunneling cozy nests as home base for foraging. The furry pests particularly like tasty car engine wires. No garage? Hang a work-light under the hood as a “Keep off” sign. Funny how rodents world-wide like engine compartments. (Our erstwhile Martha’s Vineyard junker grew stinky over the winter, to the point that we simply gave it away to a mechanic.)
“What can we do? I don’t want a snake in my bathroom!” I shuddered.
“Well, we can go back to sleep,” growled my unenthusiastic mate, dropping his head back onto the pillow.
“Bloody hell, I’ll not close my eyes with that thing slithering around who knows where.” I glared at him. “Maybe it’s poisonous.” That got him up to look.
“It’s gone,” he said. I peered in after him. Uh-oh. He was right; it was gone. But where had it gone?
It was a little thing, a small stripey pretty snake, it could hide anywhere.
I carefully, quietly, peeked around. Aha. There it was! It had made its way behind the toilet. I didn’t want to rile it – but I also did not wish to have it near my precious pink parts, nor my toes nor my rump.
Burrowing back in the bed, I grabbed up my source of information, the dizzying data-driven IPhone, and typed into Google “How to get rid of a snake in the house?” To my amazement “Arizona Wildlife Protection, 24-hours” (or something like that) and a telephone number floated up in front of my eyes. I called.
A groggy male voice answered, and I explained my problem. He gave me another number.
Another less groggy male voice answered and explained that yes he could remove the snake – for $110.00. Or, he said, we could just ignore it and it might go away. Probably would.
Oh no… not an option.
My sweetie agreed that I should cater to my fears and hire the guy to come out. (He can be such a mensch.)
In no time at all our expert appeared at the door. A tall, rangy, blue-jeaned fellow with piercing blue eyes and a shock of white hair ankled in, a remarkable Ted Danson dopple-ganger, bringing a simple empty gallon jug and long-handled pincers. A stethoscope hung around his neck.
But where was snakey? Oops… no snake. Not behind the loo, not anywhere.
“You cannot take your eyes off the animal for an instant,” he tut-tutted. “He could have gone anywhere at all. “Looking around he said, “Baseboards are the most likely places.”
He knelt on the floor, folding himself up like a grasshopper, and with flashlight in hand scooched around on his knees. I envied his flexibility and said so. “It’s genetic” he replied, grinning.
Perseverance paid off. With a stethoscope he detected movement under a baseboard. I got a pry bar from the tool supply, and off he pulled it. Little snakey (a harmless and useful mouse-eating king snake, but what did we clueless imports know?) quickly wriggled across the floor. Our herpetologist snapped it up with the pincers and coaxed it into the jug. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds; senor snake was not cooperative, his wee head writhing vigorously away from the opening.
Once the scare was safely contained, our Ted Danson look-alike rocked back on his heels. He pointed at my book posters. I explained. He smiled delightedly and remarked that he too had once taken up flying.
The hunt quickly turned into a jovial “did you know” and “were you ever” party right there on our bedroom floor, in the quiet Arizona night under millions of stars, surrounded by desert varmints snoozing in their hidey holes – or not. We knew the vicious fanged havalina liked a nighttime scrounge about. But at least one adventurous serpent was no longer a threat.
We paid our fee gladly and saw the white hair off into the darkness, his figure lost against the saguaros as he climbed into his jeep.
Who’d have figured that curious thread would be woven into my life tapestry?
BALLOONS, the Hot Air Kind
“Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon…” The Fifth Dimension musically wooed us to soar high and wide. Marilyn McCoo’s crooning pulled our hearts into the sky, triggering a yearning to throw off gravity, that force pithily called “surly” by a young John Magee, student pilot. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” he wrote, in his poem, “High Flight,” decades before. (There were “laughter silvered wings” in there, too.)
It’s just that. And beautiful? Today, balloons strive to be just as splendid as the silk and paper wonder that carried the French Mongolfier brothers’ experimental balloons aloft. Not that the brothers themselves had the nerve to take that initial test flight. They planted a chemistry teacher in it, Professor Pilâtre de Rozier, shouting a loud and hopeful “Bon voyage, mon ami!” to the brave volunteer rising above them.
Before him, there had been an aeronaut trio team of chicken, duck, and sheep. They’d had a four-minute ride, coming down with a harmless bounce. That cleared the way to send a man aloft. There are no notes recording a clucking or quacking riffle of feathers, or a panicky bleat from the sheep, but one assumes a gratitude to be back on terra firma.
A balloon festival should be on your bucket list. Maybe a ride? They sell rides at festivals. Balloons range from whimsical to stellar – “Pigs Fly” is my favorite, a building-size pink piggy. The most dazzling hot air balloons are stitched from a rainbow array of nylon. From Abilene to Albuquerque to Quechee Vermont, there are a plethora of colorful fiestas.
I caught a ride in Albuquerque, covering the event for our Aero Club of New England. That gave me a press pass to go aloft, gratis. But it also plopped me too firmly on the ground, flopping the balloon over into dragging mode in a wind beyond the capabilities of the pilot. I still can see grasses whizzing by my eyes – and feel my sternum go “pop”. Never mind. I got great pictures.
It seems to be my karma to get pilots who land hard. Turkey was another bust, over Cappadocia, banging down hard on a hillside and putting me into a wheel chair and early flight home. Was it worth it? You betcha.
It went like this. Up at dawn in still air at a quiet valley bottom, we eagerly scrambled into a ten-passenger basket. But wait. A hailing jeep burst around a boulder into our gathering, and the driver jumped out. “It’s looking breezy up there!”
A preflight observer had driven up to the plateau to see how things lay. He looked gloomy. The air was stirring up. There was a storm in the offing. Far away as yet, on the horizon.
“How many knots? If ten or less, we can go.” Our pilot was a swarthy, studly commercial pilot with Turkish Air. He was greedy?
“We’ll be fine.” he mused a moment, then announced a “go”. Going adrift, viewing the ancient wind-and-water-carved hoodoos of the Capadoccian terrain, was good moonlighting duty for the underpaid captain. He didn’t want to lose this chunk of money.
Over three hundred churches and chapels lay below, carved out of ancient volcanic rock, “tuff.” It was believed that if you built a church, paradise was guaranteed. Christians occupied the valley back then. There’s a complete multi-level town tunneled under there, with a giant passageway wheel that when activated, rolls and rumbles across to stymie raiding invaders. Claustrophobic for me, but a fine hideout with escape routes for the persecuted. Five levels they said. I could only handle two. It was a loopy rabbit warren, not nice level floors.
The Turk stood beside me; we compared notes while he handled the gas flames and control lines. I had more air hours than he, but none piloting a balloon.
Ahead, distant massive purple clouds threatened our path, and being a hot air vehicle, we had no motor to change course. Dark and ominous, a horizon-wide storm drew nearer; the ground below was scooting by alarmingly. Our lighter-than-air vehicle was being pulled uncontrollably; we were being sucked towards those clouds with a guarantee of being drawn up into them and pitched about mercilessly. Winds, air currents, had been formed by rapidly building, rising, cumulus storm clouds.
Suddenly the sweat in the Turk’s arm pits turned rank with fear. Uh-oh, thought I.
Suddenly he bellowed, his face a mask of fear, “Crouch down! Squat! We have to land now! We’re going to head for that hilltop patch there to avoid power lines.”
But not. We were sinking… a forceful orographic valley downdraft made sure he didn’t quite make it to that target hilltop, despite all the flaming heat he fired up into the balloon. It hardly rose an inch. As we watched, cowering and crouching, the hillside chillingly ran at us. He came in too low and missed the field, thereby, happily, missing those wires, thank God. But the struggling ten-passenger basket abruptly, briskly and meanly, whanged sideways into the slope.
We were shaken but mostly unhurt, and scrambled out into steep dirt, grabbing grasses to hitch ourselves upwards. The chase crew met us at the edge. We cheered and applauded our survival. But – we should not have been taken up in the first place.
I don’t crouch or squat too well, and ended with a chipped patella. That was my third flight.
The first of my four balloon rides (so far) was a perfect tiptoed sunset landing, swooshing between someone’s backyard willow trees, in central Massachusetts. The next, a dawn landing in a gentle pasture, near Brisbane Down Under, surrounded by curious horses. A curious, warbling currawong came to greet and perch on the basket.
Two out of four, perfect. Fifty percent perfect isn’t bad.
Death in Alamos.
Yes, like everywhere, some die in car crashes, and sadly some O.D. But some just choose to run out their days here, finding kindness and solace in gentle hands.
And if you’re connected, a bartender will send a margarita to your bedside, something to ease you through those dying weeks or months. I swear, only in Alamos.
She was a beauty queen in her youth, all traces now erased by time and tequila, leaving a sagging face and limp hair. She was ill from… something. Maybe cirrhosis? Whatever. Like many, she had been a nightly habitué of the local watering hole. She had a history in the town, and was a favorite of the cantinero (bartender). He would not let her down in her end days. She was a renter in the complex where we were staying. One day I asked where she was. We hadn’t seen her for several days.
“Oh no se’ senora, no le he visto tampoco.” (I dunno ma’am, I haven’t seen her either.) “No contesta cuando toco.” (No response when I knock at the door.)
“Oh oh, check her room. Maybe something happened to her.” I severely admonished the sweet but not too motivated domestic. “Let’s go see,” said I.
Poor woman. She had finally deteriorated to the point that she was unable to arise to relieve herself, and had lain for days in her own filth. The stench was pitiful. She was their tenant; they knew she was failing. Why had no one checked on her?
Incensed, I called the apartment owner.
“Senora, a dreadful scene here – not to be tolerated.” I bellowed into the phone – sometimes righteous anger works best. I demanded a massive in-house cleanup of the bed-ridden and her room, then advised the local doc of what I had found and asked him to please find her a visiting nurse immediately. If necessary I would pay for it. I personally did not particularly like the woman, but humanitarian attention was required.
She lasted a few more months. One afternoon I was greeted at the building’s entry by a hand-wringing helper. “She is gone, senora.”
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked.
“Se murio” she said. (She died.)
I bustled to her room to see. She looked plenty dead. But I asked for a mirror to check for breath. No breath. She looked horrible, mouth hanging open like a dead carp. She’d have been as appalled as I.
“Quickly – get me something to push up her chin to close her mouth,” said I, to the hapless attendant. “She mustn’t be allowed to stiffen up like this.” I had zero experience with corpses, but logic told me this was so. “And get me her lipstick – she needs to be fixed up a little.”
My instincts were on target. When her wake was held the next evening, she had been fluffed up to be as beautiful as when she a young woman. Angelic, actually. Candles were lit around the coffin. The little church choir sang at her side. Those who took the time to come to view her were astonished. She hadn’t looked so good in years.
You do what you can, when you can.
GOOD OLD TERRA FIRMA
Oceans are bulging and swamping coastlines. Floods fill cities. Winds are whipping landscapes into flatness. Man is frail, and so are his works. Earthquakes crush what the winds don’t reach. Mankind struggles to help itself, wailing over its terrible losses, reaching out helping hands however it can.
When I was a child in far off Luzon, I noticed a decorative doo-dad of little glass pieces hanging down from the living room ceiling. The hand-painted glass clinked sweetly when I jiggled it. “What’s this, mommy? Is it a wind chime? Shouldn’t it be outside?”
“No Spookie (my nickname from Halloween) – that’s an earthquake detector. If the earth deep beneath us begins to tremble, long before an earthquake gathers force, it tinkles a warning – it senses vibration – transmits it through the silk threads holding those glass bits, making them move and touch each other, tinkling. Those little gadgets are all over this area, all over Japan and the Far East.”
I thought about that, and looked at it from time to time, in my childlike way almost willing it to clink. Kids can be moronic like that. What did I know of earthquakes? Just sounded exciting.
But then came the typhoon, sweeping through the nighttime, ripping half the roof off our house. Mama and I hunkered in cots in our dry closet, a central walled location. No room for Daddy… he put his cot in the living room. He’d been through worse during the recent conflict. Luckily the flooding only rose halfway up its legs. Mattress spared. During the calm, along with neighbors, we poked outside for a moment to peer at the impressive wall of its passing eye. Next day, we were astonished to find our first survivors – wet chickens, bedraggled but unbroken, clucking in sunlight. Besides removing our roof, 120mph winds had shredded banana tree leaves to feathery fringes – how had the chickens come through alive?
Time catapulted us to Los Angeles – I was now fourteen. At five twenty-in the morning an odd cacophony of clattering awakened me. A massive wave of rattling, like thousands of venetian window blinds. The ever-increasing noise swept towards our home, wave-like across the city. It hit my window. My bed began to pitch. I scrambled up and streaked in a wobble down a rocking corridor to hop in bed with my parents. Like the Fun House on the Pier, it rocked and rolled, then quit. I knew exactly what it was as soon as I heard it. Funny how there’s no question. You just know. The noise, the clatter – emphatically broadcast it. It was an earthquake, pitching the city into dismay.
Now decades later, I watch the media-reported horrors of nature from a temporarily safe place. Nice day. Clouds forming up over the mountains though. I remember our own 2008 Alamos calamity, when Hurricane Norbert stopped to squat on those scenic mountains, dumping over twenty inches of rain and sending avalanches of historic proportions down on this little town. Boulders were loosened and sent tumbling like marbles down the mountainsides, creating tell-tale scars on forested slopes and forming debris dams, killing the unlucky in its unstoppable tide of mud. Bridges were swept away, stores and homes filled with watery muck.
The first we knew was when a huge vibration shook and rumbled up through our pillows to our heads. Not wind, but what? All I knew was I surely toast. Fatalistically I sent prayers and love to dear ones, and then grabbed my husband saying: “Wait! What was that? Someone is calling to us!”
Our neighbors were at our window hollering “Michelee, Hal, wake up, see what’s happening to your property!”
A flashlight beam revealed a dramatic surging waterway…. arroyo floodwaters had burst and leveled our property walls, bucking and plunging just beyond the house – we were on higher ground. Upshot: We were marooned for 3 days, the whole town for a month. Via our little airstrip, supplies and help arrived and bailed out the town. Today there are no signs or traces.
It will be that way someday, for Mexico. But we must help.
It was my first time to drop a jumper from my plane. To chunky balding Andy, a man with many jumps “under his belt” as they say, I sang out a hopeful “Adios, amigo”’ as he traded a Perfectly Good Airplane for leg-flailing insecurity, hurtling earthward through unforgiving air.
I watched intently, waiting, expecting, to see his parachute open.
I didn’t see it. I kept on not seeing it. No billowing rainbow-hued poof, no swinging man hanging from a multi-colored fanciful shade – no Andy at all, in no quadrant of the sky. I circled and scoured the landscape, goose bumps crawling up my arms. I clutched the yoke anxiously.
Oh dear God, what do I now? I asked myself. Urges to just keep flying away, far far away, like even disappear into the wilds of South America, were invading my brain. Someplace where I wouldn’t be found and blamed for Andy’s splatting bone-snapping bloody death against the ground. The air turned sinister, I heard terrible music…
I shook my head. NO. Andy was highly experienced at this killer sport. NO worries.
I headed back to base. I landed, taxied up to the building, shut down the engine, and collected myself. The guys who had seen us off trotted up to greet me. They had helped extract the right front seat so the crouching jumper would have a launching site.
“So. How’d it go?’
I gulped, quavered, and looking pale, tremulously spoke from my pilot seat:
“I never saw his chute open. Never spotted his parachute.”
They looked at me, chewed that over, then shrugged, snorted, and said, “Oh well, easy come easy go!” True airport characters.
I climbed out, went to the office phone, and shakily contacted the people into whose party he was jumping (they were into drama and entertainment). “Has Andy arrived yet?” I casually inquired.
“Oh yes, it was so exciting! Just a while ago he landed smack on target.” (Earlier in the afternoon, Andy had laid out a sort of bulls-eye on their lawn, a large white crepe paper circle, crisscrossed with a giant X to aim for). My legs stopped trembling.
The airport manager had long-since pegged me for what I was, a clear-eyed adventurer. Of other people’s exploits. That is, I was mighty good at aiding and abetting the thrill-seeker, just not exactly one myself. He knew I could be counted on to cant my wings to accommodate parachute jumpers, to slip through the airstream so they wouldn’t tangle themselves on the control surfaces. It was a New Thing, and I was into New Things. I had learned to fly and to soar, hadn’t I? He figured that had to qualify me as Patsy-to-the-Ready, for ‘chutists looking for a hike up.
Ultimately I did that, while hollering out at their downward hurtling bodies, “Bye Fools!” (I could take four at a time.)
I mean, really. How could anyone leap out of a perfectly good airplane?
So the permit to change my plane’s configuration by removing a seat and door, to allow jumpers to eject from one’s Perfectly Good Airplane, went like this.
First, I had to pull together all its certifying documents – and mine – and trot them to an area FSDO (Flight Standards District Office). That’s a government agency that hands out all sorts of permits, if you pass. If you don’t, you’ve got a problem. That means you’re missing proper airworthy documents, or your own., and you have to get the missing item (s) in order to ever fly again. The gov loves paperwork and documents. Someday they’ll sink under the weight of it all. But we got ours, and copies thereof joined the tons of their ilk in those vast FAA archives. And we were good to go.
We made our flight and the jump. I hied myself to the party for the cheers and accolades along with Andy, recounting with humor not being able to see his chute open (keeping the part to myself where I’d been scared witless) – and drank the champagne toasts – smiling to myself.
Jumping thrills? Not me.
I like a reassuring solid surface under my behind.