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Dad: "Now here's what we're going to do..."
Seems mice get territorial when cooped up seventy-five to a cage and begin to eat the newborn offspring of competing mouse clans.We kids never saw them do it, but dad did.
It must’ve happened as soon as each baby was popped out, dispensed like PEZ into the waiting jaws of a dominant marauding mouse lord.
The Great Mouse Experiment became a two-tiered teaching opportunity on a sociological level as well as biological.
Population explodes, things get sketchy. Take note.
“No problem,” announced dad, undaunted by the sheer surreal horror of it all.
And the “Maternity Ward” cage was instituted.
New litters went there until everybody calmed down.
Awww.Jump cut: One Saturday morning. The Time of the Mice.
“AAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! John! JOHN! Come quick, come here!”
Mom screamed gloriously while running down the hall with her bathrobe flapping and her coffee and pink sponge rollers spraying everywhere.
“Whu? Huh?! What the hell? What’s the MATTER, damn it?”
“There’s a snake on the counter! S-S-SNAKE!”
He stomped to the laundry room in his saggy boxers grumpy from the “screaming mom catapult express” that launched his half conscious body out of bed.
He looked at the spot where she swore she saw a giant coppery red snake coiled on the counter top.
“It was staring at me!”
Just the busticated clothes dryer and the Big Mouse Cage.
But the door on the Maternity Ward cage was nudged up slightly, and three new mom-mice and their pups were gone.
“I swear to GOD there was a snake, John!!”
Mom was quickly triaged and diagnosed with anxiety of some sort and got the day off with cool cloths on her forehead. She received a little help from dad’s doctor bag to calm down and she carried on nice long one-sided talks with us all day long from a reclining position as I recall…And dad finished fixing the clothes dryer.
We, the boys and I, were thoroughly blamed and shamed for allegedly leaving the Maternity Ward cage open. We were tasked with tossing the entire house to find the missing mice. They never reappeared. Oh well.
Later that night, mom and dad returning from a dinner party greeted me in the foyer and were less than happy that I was still up and awake past the usual bedtime. But they put a hold on discussion of the matter until they paid our sitter, Mrs. Jackson, and walked her to her car.
I stood like a soldier in the foyer as I had been told to do, readying the half dozen or so excuses for defying the bedtime order. What could I yank out of my butt before they came back in?
Improvisation is a skill, and I revelled in it.
Just wanting to watch “Bewitched” to prepare for Halloween wasn’t going to cut it, however.
It had to be good.
All kinds of things danced in my fevered little head: Monsters , aliens, chocolate ice cream, the devil, growing pains in my legs, cat puke under the pillow – They were all at the tip of my tongue.
Never got to use a one of them.
Mom’s eyes, which started out squinty as she readied her signature barage of lambaste on me, suddenly bugged out on stalks like a cartoon.
Her mouth twisted to a hissing fissure of fear:
“John, look above her head! ABOVE HER HEAD!!”
“DON’T. MOVE. DAMN. IT.”
Of course I moved.
And above my head draped across a slat in the room divider was a thick full grown coppery red snake. It was about four feet long with silky black diamond-shaped markings, a flicking tongue, and flaunted three distinct lumps at intervals through its body.
It was sleeping off the mouse pup appetizer and the mice-mom meal of that very morning. Mystery of missing maternity mice solved.
“I told you! I TOLD you! I TOLD YOU!”
“You sure did, Lois. Now here’s what we’re going to do –“
Moving in slow motion like those guys on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, dad eased out the door to the garage to get a cage. Check.
I was to watch the snake closely so it didn’t get away. Check.
The boys were to continue sleeping like they’d been knocked out by cough syrup. Check.
Mom was to go sit in the car. Check.
We worked out our tactics carefully. Dad was still sore and fragile from a painful slipped-disc surgery and we didn't want anything to mess with that. So...
“Ok now, I’ll hold the cage, and you grab the snake behind its head and put it in. On my count…1-2-…”
“Oh, come on let’s go! “
“Is it poisonous?”
“1 – 2 – …”
“How do you know?”
“It doesn’t have a triangular head. No venom sacs. Non-venomous. I think.”
“Ready? 1 -2 -…”
“What if I miss?”
“Run. Away. Now let’s DO it. – 1 – 2- 3 GO!”
I grabbed that snake behind its head and I felt it wake up. It whipped its tail around my arm, the tip of it went right down the front of my nightgown and emerged out the right sleeve, thrashing. The snake was beginning to constrict my arm!
It felt like an Indian Burn expertly delivered by that bully David Dunmar at school.
Dad was dancing around with the cage but I couldn’t put the snake in until it was unwound from my nightie.
So I shifted the snakes head, all flickery tongued and glarey eyed, from my right to my left hand and pulled the thing out of my sleeve like loose yarn on an unraveling sweater. I caught its flailing tail and shoved it and the head of the snake into the cage. Its coils followed. Dad snapped it shut at the speed of light.
“Ok. Time for bed!”
Ssssooo, what's for brunch?
“Huh? Wha? Son of a…“
“Sorry to wake you, but there’s another snake.”
“No there isn’t. You’re just all excited about the one we caught. Go to bed.”
“Yes. There is. She was in my room. I heard her.”
“You know lying is a sin…?”
“Stack of Bibles.”
“Damn it, girl! You better be telling the truth!”
“Here, want to see?”
And mom took her pillow, a generous shot of Wild Turkey (No. Really the whole bottle...) and slept in the car.
Family Wood Panel Roadster. Yes. We had one.
Here’s how this happened as far as we were able to figure out.
Dad’s clothes dryer project necessitated pulling the machine away from the wall leaving an open vent to the outside of the house.
The rat snakes, which incidentally mate for life and travel in pairs, smelled the bonanza of mouse meals wafting by from the Great Mouse Experiment and just slithered in through the hole ecstatic, no doubt, for the gourmet windfall.
They hit the least difficult target first: The Mouse Maternity Ward.
Turns out red snakes (corn snakes if you are from Iowa) make great pets, don’t bite unless provoked, are silky smooth to the touch and beautifully marked.
We gave them to a nice young man, along with the mice. To keep.
Mom subsequently moved back into the house.
Stack of Bibles.
Photos: Serious dad - personal collection, mouse mom & pups - U of Wisconsin-Madison, red snake - Eckosnake at Flickr creative commons, family roadster - www.classiccars.com
Click on titles for more family stories starring Dr. Dad:
Dad Creates a Stir
Golf Course Gorts
Dad and the Purple Schwinn
And from Dr. Dad’s sister, Aunt Polly: