Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Somebunny Needs Therapy

Pet rabbits fall into the category of “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. I was reminded of that this week because I’m in charge of taking care of my friend’s rabbit while her family is on vacation. She said I would probably only have to stop in one time during the week, on Wednesday, but on Tuesday I was worried because it had been hot, and what if their air conditioner stopped working? So my kids and I stopped by the house and went to check on the furry little bunny.

I had pet rabbits as a kid, but people who have pet bunnies these days have the more exotic, angora kind, not the run-of-the-mill rabbit I was used to. This bunny had a multi-colored coat that looked soft and cuddly, but every time we reached for him he freaked out and shot around the cage, sending his bedding and food bowl flying. When we first saw his cage, his placemat had been pulled out and looped over top of his food bowls. I wonder how long he’d had to duck his head under the placemat for the hopes of a meal. He had also kicked the “natural” bedding, which looked like ripped up insulation, so that it was covering all the food in his bowl.

I don’t know why I thought my neighbor’s bunny would be a cuddly bundle of joy, as I have never had good luck around rabbits. One of my early childhood memories involves a boy who lived across the street from my grandparents. There were lots of wild rabbits around their house, and one night this boy managed to capture one of the rabbits. As a harbinger of his future life as a serial killer, he then set the rabbit on fire. I didn’t see it happen, but the story became legend for two whole blocks of Monroe Street. If I remember correctly, the fire somehow went out and the rabbit was instead picked off by a waiting owl. (I saw a red-tailed hawk pick apart a rabbit in my yard just a few years ago. It is not pretty.)

Nearly thirty years after the “rabbit-on-fire” incident, I sat down at my computer one day to see I had a Facebook friend request from someone with a name I vaguely remembered. I clicked over to my email to send my sister a note and ask if this was the same bunny torturer from our youth, only to find an email waiting for me. My sister had written, “I got a friend request today from ____ ______. Do you remember when he set that rabbit on fire?” I friended him and scanned his info. He didn’t appear to have become a serial killer after all. He is in a band, though. Maybe he was just emulating Ozzy back in the day.

An even older memory I have also involves rabbits. One night I was at the golf course with my sister and parents. It was late on a summer night and getting dark out. My father had been on the course, picking up the flags after men’s day, and when he came back in he was very excited.

“Get in the golf cart, girls, I have something to show you.”

My father is not an excitable man. He is stoic. He is quiet. He does not draw attention to himself. So the little bit of energy bursting from him that wanted to show his girls something cool he had discovered drew the attention of other people who were in the club house.

I got in a golf cart with my parents and sister and a couple other members got in their carts and we all drove off across the manicured grass as the sky grew ever darker. My father led the way, crossing empty fairways and weaving around trees, finally taking us to a far corner of the course where the holes bordered a sheep pasture that led to forest and a high hill behind it. The hole he was aiming for was a par 3 in which the men’s and women’s tees are all cut into the side of a big hill, with the wild sheep pasture on one side and a thick clump of forest on the other. The loud putter of our engines slowed as my father tried to creep up on whatever it was he had seen that he wanted to share with us.

It was fairly dark by this point and my eyes strained to see. I remember one person having a flashlight and swinging it around the grass on the hillside between the two tees.

“The baby rabbits would be right there,” my father called out to the person with the flashlight, pointing at a dark form in the grass. “They had to have just been born when I passed them an hour ago.”

The flashlight caught the form in the grass, but I didn’t see any baby rabbits, or the mother rabbit, for that matter. All I saw was a big snake with a series of lumps in his body. Darkness pressed in all around and I couldn’t see the faces that cried out in disgust and horror. We climbed back in the carts and the loud rumble of the engine whisked us away from the carnage.

Despite my early bad associations with rabbits, somehow my parents thought it would be a good idea to keep them as pets. We had a hutch that my grandpa had made out of wood and chicken wire. Two-thirds of the cage was open to the air and there was a latch on top where you could lift the rabbits out, and the other third was enclosed so the rabbits had a place to hide when thunderstorms came. Or at least that’s what I imagined they did.

My sister and I took our rabbits out of the cage about every day. We would let them hop around the lawn and they would never go so far that we couldn’t catch them. Lots of times we brought them in the house, too, and let them roam around freely while we played in the basement with our Barbies. We would just have to pick up their trail of droppings after we put them back in their cage.

One time I was playing in the downstairs bedroom where I had a smaller doll-sized bottle that had been filled with some kind of liquid – maybe milk or juice or water, I can’t remember anymore – and it was positioned next to the open door. I heard a noise and turned around to see a nose sticking out from under the door and the mouth pulling at the bottle. I started to laugh and called to my sister, “Come over here! One of the bunnies is being so cute!” I assumed one of the rabbits was behind the door and had smelled the liquid and was giving himself a little treat. Then I looked into the living room to see my sister with the two rabbits hopping around her and looked back to the door. The creature was still there. Realizing that the door was almost completely open and there wasn’t much room for any animal on the other side, I slowly creaked the door away from the wall and sent the critter scrambling for cover. A vole had gotten into the house and was helping itself to my doll’s bottle!

The lesson I learned from this is that cats make better pets because they will take care of unwanted critters for you. Rabbits could care less.

We went through a number of rabbits each year. We didn’t keep them in the winter, but when spring came we would get our first rabbits about the same time as we got our Easter baskets. At first my sister and I would pick the prettiest rabbits that were available, black or grey or mottled, but after a while I started picking only white rabbits with red eyes. And I quit giving them different names, like Tinkerbell and Fluffy. They all became Whitey.

We got our rabbits from a man who lived a few blocks from us. He had multiple rabbit cages in his backyard and he would let us know when babies were available so we could come pick them out. We didn’t have to pay him for the rabbits, because we would give them back after a few months once they got big … and fat. I asked my mom once what he did with the rabbits after we gave them back. To her credit, she did not sugarcoat it. “He eats them.”

This is why they all eventually just became Whitey. I didn’t really understand what I was doing at the time, but I can see now it was my coping mechanism to believe that my pets were really all just the same animal, or maybe Whitey reincarnated again and again.

I had friends who also got pet rabbits from this man. Their mother told them that when they gave the rabbits back, he released them into the forest. I don’t think I would have believed this lie had my mother tried to pass it off on me. I’d rather know the truth, even if it hurts, than to live in a world fabricated for my protection.

Me and Whitey.
Note the extinct features in the background. They are called a "clothesline" and "gas tank"
(also known as the silver horsey).

Whitey was small enough to fit in my Easter basket when we first got him.
He would be much plumper when I said good-bye to him.

My sister's rabbit, and her rad sock.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The End of the World

I would hear the mournful wail of the siren and hold my breath, not moving a muscle, and listen intently to the sound. Would the whine of the siren fall after rising, and then rise and fall again? If so, then everything was okay. That was just a call for the volunteer fire department to respond to a fire or maybe an accident out on the highway.

If the siren rose and didn’t fall again but persisted in a steady, high fashion, I would have to mentally time it while scanning the horizon. Was it a summer day with dark clouds approaching? A tornado warning for our town meant the siren would blow continuously for a couple minutes before the whine quieted down and would be replaced by the roar of the oncoming storm. Recognizing this siren, too, would calm my fears. A tornado wasn’t a big deal in comparison. It was the third siren I dreaded hearing.

My grandpa was the Fire Chief in town, so I knew there was another siren that could sound. It would rise and then blow steadily, not for just a couple minutes, but for one hour straight. Or at least it was supposed to scream for one hour straight to sound the proper alarm, but I knew that if it ever happened, it would be silenced within a half hour, after the first nuclear bomb wiped it out. The siren I lived in fear of was the one that signaled war.

Yes, I was a child of the 80s. I know all about Flock of Seagulls haircuts and Rubik’s cubes and the Don Johnson white jacket. But what really defined the children of the 80s, in my opinion, is our living in fear of a nuclear holocaust.

It wasn’t just me who had this fear. I remember my sister and her friends about to leave the house one day (with their feathered hair and jean jackets, no doubt) while I was watching TV, and suddenly the show was interrupted by the Breaking News music and a stationary graphic. They all stopped dead in their tracks and waited to see what the news would be. Dan Rather came on and began saying something that I can no longer recall, but it was not a declaration of nuclear war. My sister made some excuse along the lines of, “I just had to stop because I love to listen to his voice,” and the other girls made up similar lame excuses. Nervous laughter floated through the air and then they were gone.

But we were all on edge, waiting to hear that President Reagan or perhaps the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev had pushed the fictional “red button” and begun the Armageddon. (Def Leppard’s Armageddon It, anyone?) At some point I had heard that it would only take 30 minutes for the first Soviet missile to reach the United States, so I would mentally tell myself that when the announcement finally came, whether via local emergency siren or Dan Rather, I would have a half hour left to live. I don’t know anymore what I planned to do with that half hour. Make sure my parents were home, I suppose. Or grab my cat and hide in the basement. Or maybe I was finally going to unleash my wild side and eat Pop Rocks while drinking Coke. There were a few buildings in our town that had those black and yellow signs with the triangles that indicated “Fallout Shelter”, but I don’t think I ever seriously planned to go to one of them. Watching other people’s hysteria would be worse than just dealing with my own.

Being a true child of the 80s, I framed this 30 minutes I had left to live by thinking of it as the time it takes to watch the Cosby Show. I remember once being at an outdoor theater watching a Shakespearean play and seeing planes fly over and wondering if it had started and none of us knew yet, because none of us were watching TV or listening to the radio and we were out in the countryside where the sound of the sirens might not reach us. I started picturing an episode of the Cosby Show, wondering how far I’d get through it before the blinding flash of light would signal the end, when my mom nudged me. “Look at that guy with his Walkman,” she whispered. “He must be listening to the Brewer game.” I immediately relaxed. He was piped in to the real world. If the war had started, he would know. I was safe. For now.

Come with me, Kitty, and I will protect you from the nuclear bombs! And that wallpaper.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Fear of Flat Tires

Maybe I hear the “thwap thwap thwap” from loose concrete slabs under my vehicle. Or maybe it feels like my car is pulling to one side. Or for some reason the front left corner of the car seems as if it is riding lower than the rest of the car. Whatever it is that convinces me that I have a flat tire, I pull over to the nearest parking lot or even on the side of the Interstate if I worry the next exit is too far away. I jump out of my car and check each tire, sure that one of the rims will be twice as close to the ground as it should with the black rubber slumped against the pavement. But it’s not. I get back in my car and forget about it for a time or, if I feel particularly unnerved for some reason (maybe I’m alone and far from home), I’ll pull into a gas station and add a little more air to my tires. (But not too much. I was with a girlfriend once when she was pumping air into her bike’s tire and she overdid it, exploding the tire with a bang that reverberated through the whole town and nearly popped my eardrums and stopped my heart.)

My fear of flat tires didn’t begin until after I had my first flat tire. I was on the highway, not far from town, but suddenly the car made that telltale “whump whump whump” sound and was most definitely lower on one side. I pulled off the road immediately because I’d seen what can happen to cars that try to push it. A broken axle was not worth trying to make it to the closest business.

I was a freshman in college at the time and my boyfriend was in the car with me. We were coming home from a date, the details of which I can no longer recall. This was in the days before cell phones (yes, I’m that old), so we had no choice but to walk to the closest farm house.

After locking the doors to the car I’d borrowed from my parents, we walked a few yards to the driveway of a little brick ranch that looked exactly like the little brick ranch just next door to it. Fields stretched all around the houses, but we were not alone, as hundreds of cars kept screaming by us on the busy highway.

We walked past a sign in the yard protesting highway’s upcoming expansion into four lanes and rang the doorbell. After a brief wait, an old man answered the door. We explained the situation and he let us inside to use his phone. I called my dad and he said he would be right out to help us. Then we stood in the middle of the nice man’s living room and made small talk while we waited. The man lived there alone, but one of his relatives lived in the matching house next door. We told him who we were and who our older relatives were, and he said he knew my grandma. Everyone in town knows my grandma. She has lived there since she was a young girl and has always been a social butterfly. At the time of the flat she was still pretty active, checking in on her friends and dutifully delivering meals on wheels in town.

The only thing I remember about the inside of the man’s house is that there were two large, oval-framed pictures on the wall of his living room: one of Jesus and one of Mary. I told my boyfriend later that when I saw them I immediately relaxed, thinking that at least this stranger wasn’t going to kill us. My boyfriend told me he had the exact opposite thought.

We listened to the old man rant a while about the busy highway and his opposition to the four lanes. (Why he didn’t want more lanes to make the busy highway safer he was never able to express clearly. Something about how most of those people out there weren’t from town anyway, just passing through. I guess he thought they’d eventually go away? Also, I’m glad I was town folk.) Soon my father pulled up and helped us put the spare tire on and we thanked him and were off. Overall not that traumatic an experience, but certainly not a very comfortable one either.

The only other distinct memory I have of having a flat tire was in Orlando with my husband. We were still relatively newlyweds, and we were exploring the amusement parks together for the first time. We had just taken advantage of the profusion of restaurants available in this tourist mecca by eating at the Olive Garden, and then we left to go back to our hotel and get some sleep so we could get an early start at Epcot the next morning.  I was driving (again is that a sign that I’m a bit of a control freak or that the person with me, who was the same in both stories, is a bit of a freeloader?) when I felt the distinctive lunge of the car to one side. The roads in Orlando were jam packed and all I could do was look around for the nearest side road so I could pull over. I found an exit off the main road, not really paying attention to what it was, and pulled over to the curb. Unfortunately it was a two lane road with no cushion on the sides, so we were basically blocking a lane. To make it worse, it was one of the entrances to all the Disney hotel properties. There was no hotel or driveway within sight, however, and my husband wouldn’t let me move the car at all for fear that we would do more damage, so we just got out of the car and I stood in the grass and tried to motion for people to go around us while he ran back to the nearest phone to call AAA. We got going relatively quickly and only spent part of our next morning at the local Walmart tire center instead of Epcot center.

There probably isn’t an ideal situation in which to get a flat tire, but the two that I have experienced have made me a bit jumpy on the whole subject. If any of you are in the market for a gift for me, one of those cans of air that can temporarily mend your flat tire until you get to the nearest gas station would be nice. And while you’re at it, I’d also like one of those seatbelt cutter/window hammer combination tools for escaping my car when it goes off a bridge. Come to think of it, maybe I should go back to biking.

Does my tire look flat to you? Maybe just a little?