Smokey the Squirrel

Early spring on the Bay brings high tides and wet, windy weather like a fitful ending to a nasty winter. But to an 8-year-old boy in Point Clear, all the seasons presented their own unique opportunities to be had.

One blustery March afternoon, my next-door neighbor walked over and told me that he’d found three baby gray squirrels blown from their nest. One of them was already dead, but the other two were still alive. He said I could have them if I wanted.

The squirrels were pink and hairless and fit side by side in the palm of my hand. They had suffered exposure and ant bites, and Mom told me it wasn’t likely that they’d live. Even so, she got down the chicken egg incubator, put some dishrags in the bottom and plugged it up on the kitchen counter.

Sure enough, one of the squirrels died within the first day, but the last one continued to hold on. After a few more days, he was taking milk from a rabbit bottle and squirming about. A soft layer of smoke gray hair began to appear on him so I called him Smokey the Squirrel.

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Smokey stayed in the incubator, wrapped in warm blankets, until he opened his eyes a couple of weeks later. Once he was strong enough, he found a home in a cardboard box in my bedroom. Soon he accompanied me about the house, clutching my shirt or locked onto the top of my head like a toupee with a face and tail.

It wasn’t long before Smokey was able to get out of his box and explore the house, but it was no problem finding him; all I had to do was whistle, and he would scramble across the carpet, up my leg and onto my head. But as Smokey grew more curious and rambunctious, Dad suggested I teach him how to be a real squirrel.

I began taking him outside and holding him up to see the other squirrels in the yard. Then I stuck him to pine trees where he clung like Velcro. Despite my poking him in the rear, he was reluctant to go any higher. As further encouragement, I made a squirrel-like nest for him in the flower box beneath my bedroom window. From then on, he slept outside, but I woke each morning to him exactly where I’d left him, staring at me through the window glass with eager anticipation.

While Smokey wasn’t interested in climbing trees, he seemed more than eager to help me test my critter traps. Well, for some time, anyway. I had a variety of box traps I’d made out of plywood. A wire trigger in the back of the box served to release a trap door on the front. While I was testing one of these, the door slammed down on Smokey’s tail and broke it. It eventually rotted and fell off, leaving him with a two-inch nub that twitched and wagged like that of a miniature Greyhound. From then on, Smokey was scared of my critter traps, but he didn’t seem to mind his new tail. And I got to put the rotten piece on a string and wear it as a necklace.

After a while, Smokey began to venture out of the flower box and explore the yard while I was at school. Mrs. Brodbeck was a kind, quiet lady who was about my grandmother’s age and lived two houses away. She wasn’t aware of my pet squirrel. One morning, Smokey spied her sweeping the back porch in her nightgown. Always eager for human companionship, he sprinted across her yard, ran up her leg and sought the familiar comforts of her head.

When I returned from school that afternoon, Mom reported that peaceful Mrs. Brodbeck had almost flogged herself to death with a broom trying to get a crazy, tailless squirrel out of her nightgown. Dad suggested I make another attempt at encouraging Smokey to adopt the ways of other squirrels.

We began our training again, and this time Smokey seemed more willing to participate. After a couple of days, he’d climb several inches up a pine tree, turn a few circles and go around the side. After a week, I could stick him to the tree and release him like a racing hamster. He’d shoot 20 feet up in a rain of pine bark and run out on the first limb he came to. Then I’d whistle, and he’d turn around and come back to my shoulder.

Once Smokey grew comfortable climbing trees, he began to spend even less time in the flower box. Until one morning I awoke to find him gone. I came out of the house and whistled for him. To my relief, I heard branches swishing and bark flying and hickory nuts falling. He was soon on my shoulder where I let him stay a while before sticking him to a tree again and watching him race away.

But, gradually, his mind grew foggy of me and clear with his inclination to become a real squirrel. At first, I noticed he took longer to come when I whistled. Then, he would come halfway down a tree and stop and get confused. Finally, he stopped coming altogether.

For years afterward, I stood in the yard, whistled and watched the squirrels in the trees. They all looked the same, but sometimes Smokey would twitch a little at his memories of me and give himself away. Then, I would study him until I saw the nub tail and knew for sure that my friend was still with me.

Text by Watt Key

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