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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 17: Critters #4, Ruby

Monday, October 1, 2018

Title:     An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 17: Critters #4, Ruby

It’s impossible to live in the woods and not make critters a part of your life, so I have made, and will continue to make them part of my blog.  To date I’ve written about spiders, roaches, bees, snakes, bats and mice as being unwanted critters (especially unwanted when they get into our house).  However, from this point forward my critter stories will be mostly positive as I share with you some of our experiences of how the wildlife share their home with us.  After all, it was the critters’ woods long before a house was built in it! 

For this first story I’m taking you back 46¼ years…

For as long as I can remember, Si, one of Dad’s University of Illinois Delta Phi fraternity brothers, would come to visit us every Memorial Day.  Cool things about Si were that he was a bachelor who spent a lot of time adventuring; he wore a large, deep green Malachite and gold ring; he had a neatly cropped bristly mustache; and he made his own fishing poles.  He gave to Kristen and me handcrafted “His” and “Hers” fishing poles as a wedding gift, and they remain prized possessions.

When Si would visit, our family would sit on the back screen porch (I call it the lanai now, but we didn’t know that word back then) and listen for hours to Si’s stories of fishing and outdoor adventures.  An extra highlight of those Memorial Days, in addition to Si, was provided by one of our woodland neighbors, a mamma raccoon that lived in the gigantic hollow oak “nursery” tree outside the master bedroom window.  Most, if not all Memorial Days, Mamma would bring her spring litter of kits out to sprawl on a branch of the Nursery Tree and watch Si – they loved his stories too!  Just before dusk, Mamma would lead the kits down the tree and parade her family to a larger, more hollow oak “family” tree on the opposite side of the yard where they would live for the summer. The Family Tree eventually died and rotted, and I just had it cut down this past spring (another story), but the Nursery Tree is still there, though not as regularly occupied since the branch fell in a snowstorm many years ago.

On Memorial Day 1972 Mamma didn’t bring out the spring litter.  As Si was regaling us with a story about trout fishing in a stream in Michigan a pitiful mewling began emanating from the Nursery Tree, growing both in volume and misery as the day progressed.  Dad offered, “I saw a dead raccoon on Black Road this morning when I went out for cigarettes.  Maybe it was the mother…”
My younger sister Helen, big hazel eyes moistening, sobbed, “Dad, what will the babies do without a mom!”
“Bob??”  Mom had a way of saying so much with that one word, but she seldom stopped with just one.
“I’ll get a ladder,” Dad didn’t want any additional words to be uttered in front of Si.

My brother Bruce was visiting that day with his wife Marsha and new baby Robbie. I don’t recall the details, but either Bruce, Si, Dad, or a combination, retrieved three tiny raccoon kits from the tree, each one crying louder than the one before it.  Mom made a nest of rags for them in a large cardboard box that we put in the garage. We fed them bananas, apples, ham sandwiches and a big pan of water.  Soon all three were fast asleep and purring.  There were two males named Gossamer and Bubbles.  The third, a female, had reddish fur and a diamond shaped blaze between her shoulder blades.  We called her Ruby.

Mom phoned our family veterinarian Dr. Attrill and made a Tuesday morning appointment for vaccinations and health checks.  The good doctor was not pleased that we had become a foster family for wild animals, but Mom was never a person to be argued with.  Plus, ever since Helen and I were toddlers, our family had spent hours reading and re-reading Sterling North’s book “Rascal” about his boyhood pet raccoon in Edgerton, Wisconsin.  So, a pet raccoon seemed very normal to us.  Hamiltons have a difficult time with “normal”…

Early Tuesday morning Mom made us pancakes and we were told that we had to eat before we could visit the raccoons. After I poured a quart of syrup and had begun inhaling my morning meal, Helen looked out the kitchen picture window at a giant oak tree in the front yard and asked, “Isn’t that Ruby?”  I glanced up from my sea of syrup and saw a trembling ball of reddish-brown fur clinging to the tree about 12’ from the ground.  I took a final slurp, wiped some of the syrup from my chin onto the back of my right forearm, and bolted to the door.

I arrived at the base of the tree and called for Ruby.  My nine-year-old brain could not comprehend why she wouldn’t come to the name that we had just given her the day before, but she was not going to budge.  I turned from the tree and headed to the side door of the garage to check on her litter mates, I wish I hadn’t.  I tried to open the door and it left a bloody smear on the concrete floor before it jammed and I couldn’t push it further.  I peered around the edge of the entry and saw a pile of fur and intestines against the back of the immoveable door.  I stifled a gag and a wail, “DAD!”

Dad’s forensic investigation produced the following facts:
• The garage door was not lowered all of the way, leaving about a 6” gap
• A neighborhood dog, or a weasel, or an opossum, or a male raccoon (notoriously vicious toward other male raccoons) had gotten under the door and wreaked havoc.
• Bubbles had been partially eaten and Gossamer was fine, but scared, hiding in the corner by the lawnmower
Dad grabbed a ladder and retrieved Ruby from the oak, handing her to Helen while I comforted Gossamer.  Then he buried Bubbles in the back yard and cleaned the crime scene.

Just as Dad was finishing the cleanup, Bruce’s friend Jay arrived to adopt Gossamer.  After Jay and Gossamer drove away, Dad went to the office and Mom, Helen, Ruby and I went to the Vet’s. 

Almost as soon as we entered Dr. Attrill’s waiting room on Republic Ave. the kind, snow-haired doctor wearing a white coat and stethoscope appeared with a stern look.  He beckoned Mom into his office, presumably to give her a lecture about keeping wild animals as pets.  He closed the door behind her.  A few moments later, Mom opened the door looking confident and content.  Dr. Attrill followed looking as if he had just been lectured.  We all silently entered the adjoining examination room.  The checkup and vaccinations were uneventful – Ruby was healthy.

For the rest of the summer, Ruby was a happy part of our family.  She would follow both Helen and me around the yard, was the trapeze star in our Hamilton Family Circus, and would play “Tag” with us in Mom and Dad’s bedroom.  For “Tag” you would dangle your feet over the edge of the bed.  Ruby would reach-out from under the bed, grab your ankle with both paws and give you a playful nip near your Achilles. You would scream and kick, often flinging her across the room and she would scamper into the bathroom and hide.  We’d call her, and she’d skitter back under the bed. 
We played Tag almost every night, and it was fun until blood was drawn, which usually occurred by the third or fourth round.  But every night we’d do it again.

By October, Ruby was close to full size and there were nights when she would stay out and not return to the garage.  We would leave plates of cat food and kitchen scraps out for her, but as the months passed we would see her less often.  We thought we saw her several times in 1973, but we had quit feeding her earlier that spring. 

Memorial Day 1974 a new Mamma appeared in the Nursery Tree.  At dusk this reddish raccoon with a diamond blaze on her back didn’t just lead her two kits to the Family Tree, she led them on a parade back and forth in front of the downstairs sliding glass doors to make sure that we saw her family clearly.  We thought we saw Ruby many times over the next years after that, but in reality, we were probably seeing her kits and grandkits.  I like to think that the raccoons that we have today are Ruby’s descendants, ready to play Tag if only I were to ask…

In 1972 Bruce took a movie of Ruby, Helen and me. 
The baby in the last frames is Bruce’s son, 5 month-old Robbie. 
Today this film would get the whole fam-damily put in jail. 
Life was more fun then...




 “I’m a Raccoon” written and performed by Nancy Stewart

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