Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Walking a Trapline With Your Pals the Other Day…
Trapping was a fine old pastime for me and my friends back in the day. Through most of my teenage years proceeds from my winter trapline kept me in pizzas as well as shotgun and .22 shells most of the year, although around the age of seventeen I gave up the trapline in favor of more consistent and better-paying work on local farms and in town. I do still have all my traps and some day may take the hobby up again, but for now, my traps are idle.
My old buddy Jon, on the other hand, went to great lengths to keep his trapline active until he was in his twenties, when a new wife objected to his having to run the line twice a day all winter. But when we were in high school, he still ran the line, and his trapline was the location for many a city kids’ outdoor education. On one Sunday when we were seniors in high school, it was Jon’s cousin Albert’s turn.
Albert had already been introduced to late-night cat fishing on the Mississippi. For our crew of outdoor bums and misfits, this mainly involved running a trotline between two backwater islands, retiring to one island, and sitting around a bonfire drinking beer all night. (This was back in the days when the drinking age was 18, and many a high school senior was legal.) He had earned our respect by his sporting acceptance of his introduction to that inveterate outdoor tradition, the Snipe Hunt.
But on this sub-zero January Sunday at 6AM, the three of us – Jon, Albert, and I – were out running Jon’s trapline on the upper reaches of Waterloo Creek.
The morning was frigid, but as veterans of the Northeast Iowa winters, we were prepared for it; and the bag already contained two raccoons, a mink, and four squirrels brought down by the inevitable .22 rifles we carried everywhere. We were walking towards a fox set Jon had set in a fencerow, talking about crows and laughing over the occasional crude joke, when Jon first spotted the skunk.
Mephitis mephitis, the Striped Skunk
“Hey, guys, I think I’ve got a skunk in my fox set” Jon warned.
I peered ahead, made out black fur against the snow, and the telltale white V was moving. “Yep, you do,” I replied, “And it’s still kicking.”
“Know what my Dad told me about skunks?” Albert asked. Jon and I both gave him a blank look. “He says if you grab ‘em by the tail and hoist ‘em up fast, they can’t spray you. Ever try it?”
I immediately saw the opportunity to test that assertion. “I never heard that, but heck, Jon, if Albert’s Dad said it’ll work, I think you ought to try it.” Jon gave me a baleful look – Albert’s Dad ran a hardware store in town and wasn’t exactly renowned for his vast knowledge of wildlife habits. “What’s more, you’ve got the perfect opportunity right there. That skunk’s still alive, and he’s facing the other way – you can probably sneak right up on him down the fencerow. And we can put him in your trapline sack. Here, I’ll put your ‘coons and the mink in my coat.”
“I think you ought to do it, man.” Jon replied. “You’re a lot better at sneakin’ than I am.”
“Can’t do it, sorry” I answered with a grin. “New coat. If I get skunk on it, it’ll be my hide.” That was a good dodge – I made a mental note to always wear a piece of recently purchased clothing when on Jon’s trapline.
“Go on and try it, Jon.” Albert persisted. “Otherwise we’ll never know if it works.”
Jon was hesitant, but on some instinctual level he knew his reputation was at stake, such as it was. With a frown, he handed me his .22.
“Hold this. I don’t want skunk all over it, too.” I guess he wasn’t too optimistic.
To give credit where credit was due, few people were as sneaky as Jon, and on a skunk hunt, his sneakery was unsurpassed. He drifted down the fencerow like a puff of smoke on the breeze, placing each foot with great care, freezing every time the skunk lifted its head. He worked his way right up behind the skunk, and in no time, he was impossibly close, the skunk still oblivious; and then Jon’s gloved hand flashed out, grabbing the skunk’s tail and yanking it skywards.
Wonder of wonders! It worked!
The skunk dangled, popping its teeth and growling. A faint drift of odor escaped, but no more. “Get over here!” Jon shouted, “And bring that sack! I don’t believe this works!” We ran to his side, hooting with praise for our hero of the moment, and Jon grinned broadly in triumph. We removed the #2 fox trap from the skunk’s front leg – there was nothing but a little bruising on the skunk. And then, into the sack he went.
Amazingly, the skunk settled down in the sack, facing his predicament with a certain philosophical air. After we finished the morning’s run, we took the skunk to Jon’s parent’s place. Jon had an old abandoned rabbit hutch, and the skunk went into it. A pan of water, a little dog food, and the hutch was hidden in the back of the Hooper’s machine shed. After a day or two he became quite reasonable, only threatening for a moment with his upraised tail when Jon came in with more dog food.
But a captive skunk, weaponry intact, was too good an asset to go unused. In those days, “de-scented” skunks had a certain popularity as pets and could be quite tame and gentle if raised from kits. Our skunk, though, was an independent, tough old male, and all his natural defenses were in place – which, after a few days, began to tell on the back end of the machine shed. Jon knew that only a matter of days remained before the skunk was discovered. We had to come up with something good, and fast.
It came to us one day at school, as Jon, Albert and I were hanging out in the parking lot behind the school building.
“You guys going to the dance this Saturday?” Albert asked. Jon and I responded with amused snorts – we weren’t the kind of guys who went to school dances. “Well, I’m not.” Albert continued. “I got no date, and I don’t care anyway. Nothing there but bad disco music and the school gym full of all the “popular” kids talking about how great they are.”
Jon’s expression changed, suddenly; I could almost see the light bulb go off, right over his head.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked him.
Jon grinned back at me. “You bet I am! You think we can do it?”
“I think so.” I answered, feeling the beginnings of a plan. “You know what, Albert? You’re going to the dance after all. You don’t need a date. It’ll be worth it.”
Albert looked skeptical, but I won him over with the immortal words that would have immediately spelled GREAT DANGER to anyone who knew Jon and I a little better. “Trust me!” I assured him.
He really should have known better.
The night of the big dance, Jon and I saw to it that Albert was all fitted out – shiny blue disco shirt, gold chain, white pants, white shoes. “How do I look?” Albert asked.
Jon and I looked at each other, both of us clad as usual in worn jeans, engineer boots, black t-shirts and denim jackets. “Uh, you look great, Al, no kidding” we assured him. “You’ll be a chick magnet. No fooling,” Jon added.
“Now,” I reminded Albert, “Remember – at exactly ten-thirty, you’ve got to go around and open the back door next to the bleachers.”
“I don’t know about this, guys. Are you sure this is a good idea?” Albert’s second thoughts threatened to ruin our whole evening, so Jon and I jumped on it hard. “No, it’ll be great! Trust us!”
Albert looked skeptical. He wasn’t a complete fool. Still, he went off to the dance, ticket in hand, doubts about his sanity in mind.
Ten-thirty eventually rolled around. Jon and I were waiting silently outside the back door to the gym, using the dumpster for cover. In Jon’s hand was the original trapline sack, once again containing the skunk. Right on time, the door opened, and Albert strolled out.
“Look, guys, I don’t think…” Albert let out a “YOWP” as I grabbed his arm, pulled him out of the way, and caught the door before it could swing shut. Jon, reacting with a speed rarely seen in him at any time, reached in the sack and grabbed the skunk’s tail. The skunk came out of the bag enraged and was immediately tossed in through the open door. I slammed the door home, hearing the latch click into place.
“Oh, boy!” Jon exulted. “This oughtta be good!”
For a long moment, nothing happened. We heard the faint strains of the Bee Gees stop suddenly. There was silence, a moment of silence, but only that brief moment.
Then, as the saying goes, all Hell broke loose.
“SKUNK!” came the shout, form a dozen or more teenage throats at once. The sound of pounding feet roared inside the gymnasium, all headed for the front door on the opposite side of the building.
“Suppose we better get the hell outta here, huh?” Jon noted, and we all thought that a wise idea, so we legged it on away form the door and up to the shelter of a row of shrubs on the edge of the school property. From there we were treated to a rare live-action re-enactment of a Pepe LePew cartoon.
From what we were able to find out later, Monsieur Skunk hit the floor in the gymnasium in a state of confusion. That didn’t last long – his confusion turned to rage, possibly at being subjected to bright lights, loud disco music, and around fifty teenagers dancing to the questionable talents of the Bee Gees. (I can’t blame him for being enraged at the disco music, myself.) Being a skunk, he reacted as skunks do. In fact, he reacted with great abandon, casting all restraint to the winds and firing wildly in all directions; no skunk had ever found himself faced with a more target-rich environment. His reaction was so profligate, in fact, that the entire gymnasium had to be repainted and the wood floor re-varnished. The school’s janitor resigned in protest; contract workers had to be imported from Waterloo and lavishly paid to restore the gym to some semblance of usability, although the odor lingered for months, maybe years; in fact I would not be surprised if one could still detect it today.
But back then: as we watched from the safety of the bushes, the doors were thrown open and a flood of teenagers, teachers, and chaperons flooded out of the building and onto the snow-covered lawn. Gagging, screeching, and retching, the flood of bodies continued for several seconds.
We observed several notable performances. One such was particularly satisfying. My old girlfriend, Rhonda Walters, staggered onto the lawn clutching the arm of her latest, one William Jeffries. Master Jeffries came from a family with money, and so was enthusiastically approved by Rhonda’s father as being a much better companion than a certain longhaired woods bum. So, it was with a certain vengeful glee that I watched Will turn to Rhonda, adopt a thoughtful expression, and then suddenly throw up on Rhonda’s white strapless dress.
Nasty dousings in skunk spray have been known to have that effect.
Being vomited upon tends to exacerbate the effect. Rhonda threw up in return, right onto Will’s shiny red shirt.
Jon nudged me in the ribs, grinning. “You see that? Watch ‘em all go now.”
All around the unhappy couple, teenagers looked upon the spectacle and reacted in kind. Even the kids who hadn’t been hit directly were caught up in the wave; when everyone around you is discharging their latest meal into the snow, it becomes difficult to keep from following suit. The sounds of retching reached us in our hideout. We did our best to keep from laughing, but the crowd below us wouldn’t have heard a 747 revving its engines in our hedgerow hideout. The school lawn was littered with bent, retching teenagers.
Several started scrubbing themselves frantically with snow; the temperature being right around ten degrees, the snow didn’t have much effect. Several others abandoned the scene to race for cars and pickups, presumably in search of large cans of tomato juice. A few who lived nearby just plain ran.
The back door stood open now, where several people had crashed out. The skunk, his anger discharged in spectacular fashion, strolled casually out and made his way into the nearby woods.
Then, through the chaos, came the imposing figure of Mr. Dean, the vice principal. Seemingly immune to both the skunk stench and the display of serial vomiting, Mr. Dean strode through the spectacle like an avenging angel, shouting, “They’re near that back door someplace!” Pointing to three of the larger teen boys still on their feet, he ordered, “You, you and you! Come with me!” With uncanny instinct, he headed for our row of shrubs.
“Time to go!” Jon and Albert were of a similar mind, and we slipped quietly down the slope of the hill to our rear. With all the skill gained in a lifetime of stalking sharp-eyed squirrels and wary, wily deer, we evaded our pursuers and arrived back at Jon’s van an hour later.
The best part of the entire exercise was our satisfaction in having completely one-upped the previous year’s senior class, who had only managed to turn loose a half-grown feeder pig into the same dance.
It’s fortunate that a certain burden of proof is required, even for school systems that suspect a certain pair of young miscreants in the commission of a heinous act. It was widely known that Jon ran a trapline, and skunks will get caught in traps; it was widely known that the two of us had what were at best twisted senses of humor. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together, but the only witness that could place us at the scene – Albert – was likewise incriminated, and there’s no Fifth Amendment in detention proceedings. Albert kept his mouth shut. Reprisals from our classmates were limited to a few hallway scuffles; for good or bad, we were a pair of big, tough country kids, and that discouraged physical confrontations. Mr. Dean insisted that he’d get even with the culprits if it took him the rest of his life. At this distance in time, forty years later, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he’s still looking for evidence of our guilt.
And so, eventually, the whole thing blew over, at least until the following winter, when Jon managed to capture a badger. But that’s another story.