True exploits of a youth during the 1950s.
THE GROUNDHOG WHO HATED ME
By Ron Kruger
Groundhogs were thick back in the 1950s. We hunted them back then–even barbecued a few.
Ronnie Tebbe and I hunted them more than most. Of course, we were always hunting something, building something, or planning something grand, which made our mothers nervous and our neighbors cautious.
Ronnie had most of the bright ideas. In fact, he usually announced them by exclaiming with his eyes widened and his voice elevated: “Hey, I’ve got a bright idea.”
We weren’t even teenagers yet, but we were always looking for ways to make a little money. Most of these grand schemes centered around outdoor pursuits, but they never produced much beyond the price of more shells.
Groundhog hunting along the Shoal Creek Bottoms, however, was most lucrative.
Shoal Creek was a flat-land drainage that jumped its banks with a muddy torrent every time a few drops of rain fell. Along portions of it, however, farmers had hired bulldozers to build long, high levees. These were expensive projects, but the fields they protected contained rich, dark soil that had washed in over the ages. They were some of the most fertile fields in the county.
Unfortunately for the farmers, and fortunately for us, groundhogs loved these earthen levees. Burrowing was a breeze, and the fertile fields made them fat and prolific. The problem was that the burrows eventually caused leaks. A farmer could loose an entire crop to groundhog excavations, so they were willing to do almost anything to get rid of them, including letting a couple of wide-eyed kids hunt them.
Much to my surprise, Ronnie convinced one of these farmers to pay us 25 cents for every groundhog we could collect. This was back when candy cost a penny and a bottle of Coke cost a nickle. We were nearly rich after the first day of hunting.
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” I told him. “This was a bright idea.”
A couple of weeks later the rains came and the creek rose high behind the levee. As soon as the weather cleared we hid in a blind we had made from cut branches and waited for a groundhog or two to appear. By then we had thinned the population considerably, but we were still making good money.
I was wondering what caviar might taste like, when all of a sudden Ronnie’s eyes got wide and he said: “I’ve got a bright idea. We can get a couple of buckets and drown ‘em out.”
“Lower your voice, will ‘ya. You’ll scare the groundhogs.”
“It ‘ll be easy,” he exclaimed. “The water’s close. In no time we’ll have more groundhogs than we could get all summer.”
We hid our guns in some brush, jumped on our bikes and sped back to town.
After hauling and pouring dozens of buckets full down a burrow, I was beginning to tire and to think this wasn’t such a bright idea. Then the first groundhog popped out, looking like a giant drowned rat. Then another.
Then something happened that eventually put an end to our groundhog hunting careers.
Baby groundhogs started pouring out of the hole. We weren’t expecting this. Up close, a full-grown groundhog looks menacing, but these babies were helpless–even a little cute. So we simply caught them alive and put them in the buckets.
“Do you think the farmer will pay a quarter for the babies, too,” I asked.
“Hey, I’ve got a bright idea,” Ronnie said.
“We’ll take ‘em home and raise ‘em. We’ll breed ‘em. You know yourself that the groundhogs is startin’ to run out ‘round here.”
He quickly counted the contents of the buckets. “These two made nine. If these nine make nine, that’ll be...well, it’ll be a bunch. All we have to do is shoot some of ‘em when they grow up, take ‘em to the farmer and tell him we killed ‘em on the levee. It’ll be like a gold mine that keeps growin’.”
Something bothered me about the idea, but Ronnie always presented his brainstorms with contagious enthusiasm. He was an adolescent entrepreneur, and if Nam hadn’t claimed him, there’s no telling what company he’d be running today.
We both had some old rabbit hutches (another bright idea) that we now used as groundhog hutches.
Within a week, all of our brood stock died, except one. They just wouldn’t eat, except for the one I called Max. He not only ate well, I got the impression he’d like to eat me.
I’d lay by his coup and talk softly to him, trying to make friends with carrots and apples that I’d poke through the chicken wire. He would seem totally unconcerned. Then all of a sudden he would lunge for the carrot and my fingers.
Max was fearless and ferocious–more like a bull than a “little pig of the woods.” He grew fast, but with each ounce he seemed to become more possessed by some evil force straight out of Tasmania.
Early that fall, as I was walking home from school, I heard the neighbor lady scream and saw her running for the house with Max on her heals.
I grabbed one of my mother’s cloths line poles and went after him. At first it didn’t take any prodding. As soon as I got anywhere near him, Max would rear up on his hind legs and charge me, hissing like a demon. I don’t know why they do this, except that it makes them look bigger and meaner. But they can’t run very fast on their hind legs, and it was easy to stay ahead of him while at the same time leading him toward home.
A few prods and sprints later, I had him in front of the hutch and used the pole to push him back into it. I slammed the door, patched the hole and reinforced the whole thing.
A few days later, however, he got out again. This time Max scared the wits out of another neighbor lady while she was hanging out cloths. She called the police, and when I got home from school the Sheriff was sitting at the kitchen table drinking sun tea with my mother.
I could see right away that they had formed a committee, and they informed me that I had to do something about Max.
I didn’t really feel like shooting him as they suggested, so I stuffed him into a gunny sack, tied it to my handle bars and dumped him in the country about mile out of town.
The next day at school, Ronnie came rushing up with his eyes bugging out. “I’ve got a bright idea,” he exclaimed.