This morning between classes I drove to Halfway Park, parked near one of the little league fields and read for a bit. Squirrels everywhere. Skittering up tree trunks, leaping through the grass, criss-crossing the road in front of my truck. One of them ran out in front of me and I stomped on the brake to make sure I didn’t drive over him. I didn’t move until I saw him running away through the grass. After I parked, I watched at least four more playing in and around the trees at the edge of the parking lot. Who knows how many I would have seen had I taken a stroll through the woods.
My mother had a pet squirrel when she was a little girl. He lived outside, in a little cage made from wood and chicken wire that hung from the branch of a tree. Years later, when I would visit the turkey farm at Woodmont where Mom grew up, her younger brothers, my Uncles Joe and George, would have pet squirrels of their own in the cage from time to time. It was cruel, I realize now, to confine an animal like that, but never before or since have I ever been able to get that close to a living squirrel, to look in his eyes, talk to him, feed him out of my hand. The one I saw in the chicken wire cage had grown quite tame, was very trusting of people. I don’t suppose he had much choice.
I only have a clear memory of going squirrel hunting once as a child, though I must have gone a few more times. Dad, Pap and I went. I was eleven years old and carried my Dad’s old .410, a small shotgun that still kicked the hell out of me the first time I shot it. Pap drove us into the woods in his white Ford Explorer and waited there while Dad and I walked. Squirrels must be one of the easiest types of wild game to hunt. I remember it being far easier than deer hunting. How hard could it be? You walk around the woods in November, inevitably a squirrel runs across a log, freezes when he sees you, you get your shotgun up and blow him off the log. That’s how it went that day. Dad and I walked awhile, he heard something in the woods to the right, we stopped, looked, saw the squirrel, he tapped me on the shoulder, said, “Get your gun up.” I aimed, braced myself for the kick, and shot the squirrel. Dad exclaimed “You got him!” in an exhilarated whisper. We walked back to Pap at the Explorer. Dad carried the squirrel in his pocket. He let me hold it when he noticed me blowing on my hands. “Here, hold this squirrel,” he said, “it’ll keep your hands warm.” Pap and I watched while Dad gutted and skinned the squirrel right there. “Oh,” Pap winced as Dad removed the squirrel’s scrotum, “fun’s over.”
Two years ago I went hunting for the first time as an adult. I went squirrel hunting at Indian Springs with Jimmy. I borrowed my Dad’s 20-gauge. We walked into the woods and picked out places to sit, Jimmy going a few dozen yards further, on the other side of a hill from me. I sat down at the bottom of a tree, laid my gun across my lap and thought about taking a nap. The gun was loaded, extra shells in my pocket, but I had no intention of shooting anything. A squirrel ran across the top of a rotten log about twenty feet to the right of me. I held still and watched him. He leapt off the log and bounded away in Jimmy’s general direction. A minute went by and I heard the crack of Jimmy’s gun. Twenty minutes or so later, Jimmy walked over to me, holding his shotgun broken in the crook of his arm, and said, “I saw one, but I missed him.” We walked back to his truck. “Did you see him? He came from your direction.”
“No,” I said, shook my head. “I didn’t see him.”
“Oh, you just didn’t want to shoot a poor little squirrel,” Jimmy said. “You sissed around and let him go.”
I laughed, but I didn’t argue.