In their fifteen or so years of marriage, most of it spent in Memphis, Tennessee, Ralph and Edith Waldrip became parents to three boys and a girl that they watched being shaped by life in the city. They didn’t much like direction their children’s lives were taking, so made a decision to return to generational roots still buried deep in the rich brown loam of Mississippi farmland. This decision was made precisely in the middle of the twentieth century.
During his time in Memphis, Dad held a series of jobs that included working at a dairy. I can only surmise that he went there thinking it was a link to his farm experiences. But there were no cows to be milked at this dairy, only a receiving dock where transported steel cans were offloaded from trucks that daily returned from forays into the outlying dairy farms. These containers were poured into large vats where their contents was pasteurized and fed into assembly lines of round returnable quart bottles made of glass, with tabbed cardboard seals in top.
I remember being a little put off when I learned about some of the processes used to prepare some of the ingredients for my favorite snack: cornbread and buttermilk. Some of the milk would be treated with an enzyme (called rennin) extracted from a sheep’s stomach. This caused the milk to artificially “turn,” or sour, so it could be churned into butter and buttermilk.
I was very small at the time but it is my impression from later conversations that Dad was largely involved in keeping the vats and conveyors clean and operational. He was looking to improve his income and eventually took a job with the U.S. Post Office. With that move, our prospects for new vistas in residential scenery markedly improved and we would soon be moving from Memphis.
I’m sure the disposition of my genes led me into early agrarian pursuits. My attraction to nature’s creatures proved strong even as a city kid and I homed in on the wildlife that was available in my environment. At about eight years of age I raised pidgeons from squabs that were the booty from raids on nests found under sloping roof eaves in our north Memphis neighborhood. I remember force-feeding the little half-naked birds small balls of kneaded loaf-bread until they got the idea to eat on their own. They would soon be eating cracked corn and bird feed.
It was a thrill to watch them learn to fly, to have them eventually leave their cage, fly around a while and return. Eventually, my “homing” pigeons didn’t come home though, and that was the end of my involvement in pigeon husbandry. But it was far from being the end of my attraction and attachment to animals of all kinds and to their natural environment.
Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrel
The spring when I was ten years of age I found a storm dislodged squirrel nest of dead leaves on the ground in the front yard. Of course my curiosity drew me to pull it apart to see how it was made. And there in its hollowed out middle were three almost hairless babies that were soon deposited into a rag-padded shoe box. A medicine dropper repeatedly syringed from a cup of warm milk was the key to the thriving health of what would prove to be lively little acrobats in a few weeks.
Dad had figured the shoebox would be temporary at best, so began fashioning a more permanent home for them under a shade tree in the side yard. It took the form of a tall cube frame covered in hardware cloth, with a door at one bottom end, a wooden box for a comfortable den, a couple of big tree limbs to climb on and a wire mesh exercise wheel.
Before long the three were scampering around on my young neighborhood companions and me, looking for peanuts in our pockets, and in their cage, running the wheel and climbing all over, doing their squirrel thing. We spent many hours playing with Squiffy and his two sisters, but even though they were tame, they were not exactly happy to stay in their cage after they matured, particularly when other squirrels came around.
They watched for a chance to bolt outside when the door was open. When that happened, a few times we were able to entice them back into the cage with special treats, but one by one they escaped the physical constraints of the steel mesh and the psychological confines of our control. In the span of a few weeks all three squirrels had integrated back into the local population of squirrels in the neighborhood.
The next September I and two of my friends bicycled to whatever adventures we could find in the wooded Wolf River bottoms north of Memphis. In exploring the woods we heard a loud squeaking, squealing noise repeated again and again from a short distance through the trees. We located the source of the sounds in a large wild pecan tree with an open split about eight feet up. Three baby fox squirrels were crawling around on the tree near the split, crying. The two reddest ones were on the outside of the split and when we approached, they climbed right down to us. The third one was a darker red, almost black. It was doing most of the crying but wouldn’t leave the split. With the help of a long stick I was able to gently nudge him out of the split. He quickly came down to me.
As the season was early fall, we concluded that the babies were orphaned due to the open hunting season on squirrels at that time. They were starving and willing to accept nourishment from any quarter, even from three sub-teen boys. As it happens, they were right on target.
We each tucked a squirrel inside our shirts and bicycled the two miles back home. Of course I was already outfitted with all the accoutrements required to raise baby squirrels so they all found warm milk and a ready-built home at the Waldrip house. And these large red squirrels were every bit as much fun as the gray squirrels we’d had before.
Dad wanted to make his move back to farm life in a couple of steps. He found a small farm to rent just across the Tennessee-Mississippi border. When moving day came around, the squirrels, cage and all were moved as well. They occupied a spot in the sunny side yard for a while, but, as with the gray squirrels, the call of the wild eventually erased the captivity of each one. Within a month of our move, all three had escaped to the nearby woods, where they apparently found happiness — or some rodent approximation of that pursuit.
As a side bar, I’ll say that all this squirrelly orientation was background for the situation I found myself in later in life as a young man when I was newly married and living in Charlotte, N.C. Another storm-dislodged squirrel nest in the front yard yielded a baby gray squirrel that would set out on the same track that those other baby squirrels had years before. The shoebox and medicine dropper led to the requirement for a place for incarceration for this new Squiffy.
I modeled this new cage after the one Dad had made, only it was narrower and taller. It had the exercise wheel and box house and limbs to climb on. It was truly a gilded cage, as I spray painted it gold to blend with our furniture. The space behind the couch proved to be just right for the cage (as far as Squiffy and I were concerned). Semi-hiding it that way was a concession to my bride, who was a city girl and not too used to living with weird animals (not even me).
This was another Squiffy, though there had been a change of color and gender, from red to gray and male to female. I have to say that she was one of the most entertaining pets I ever had. I think that in the earlier cases, having more than one squirrel growing up together promoted a squirrel culture that, though entertaining, removed a certain dependency on the human element. In this present case that dependency was very obvious. Squiffy thought she was human.
She quickly bonded with me as her friend and companion. At first she didn’t have much in the way of teeth, but as she matured, so did her teeth. Of course she grew large sharp incisors endemic to the squirrel tribe.
When I came home from work I would release her from her cage. She would race around on the furniture, then leap on me, and check each pocket for peanuts or special treats such as corn or sunflower seeds that she invariably found. After she finished eating her treat, we would engage in a mock fight. I would thump my finger at her and she would grab it and gently bite. She would move her half-inch teeth up and down it like someone eating corn on the cob. As scary as it looked, she never really pinched nor even broke the skin.
Squiffy enjoyed her periodic freedom within the house but we had to stop allowing her to run around the couch because with each move her claws pulled out little loops of thread from the fabric. I had to keep her busy playing on the carpet. We would spend hours roughhousing until it was time for me to engage in some activity that couldn’t include her.
Like a kid, she never wanted to go to bed. I always had to trick her into getting back into the cage. If she wouldn’t follow a treat back into the cage I would pet her and carefully position my hand until I could grasp her from behind, my thumb and forefinger around her neck, my other hand holding her hind feet so she couldn’t turn and bite or scratch. I would release her inside the cage and quickly close the door.
Strange, but she never seemed to catch on that I was going to betray her wishes like that. Otherwise, in many ways, she was extremely intelligent and resourceful and never ceased to amaze.
Unfortunately, there came a time when it became necessary to release her into the wild (there were complicated reasons). My experience in this regard was reminiscent of the problems faced by the owners of Elsa the lioness in the movie “Born Free.” Squiffy was so adapted to her human friends that she didn’t want to go back into the neighborhood squirrel population and didn’t know how to feed herself. When I took her outside and put her on a tree she climbed about ten feet and froze there in fear.
After she spent a long night in the same position I put a ladder up to the tree and retrieved her. In a few days, when I had delicately sprayed her crop of fleas and the memories of her freedom trauma had receded, I tried again, with the same results, including more fleas. On the third try, other squirrels were nearby and she gingerly went to them. Soon was frolicking happily — at least in a rodent approximation of that state.
The next day, just in case she hadn’t learned to find anything to eat, I coaxed her down a tree and fed her peanuts from my hand while the other squirrels looked on. In the next few days I was never sure any of the squirrels I saw was Squiffy. They all looked more or less the same and I didn’t want to interfere with her ongoing repatriation to the wild by feeding her any more. A couple of days later we moved away, hopefully leaving squirrel culture in the Cotswold Gardens area basically unperturbed from its natural trend.
I’ve had, at one time or another, pet pigeons, snakes, fish, lizards, horned toads, turtles, rabbits, mice, gerbils, hamsters, chickens, ducks, pigs, various types of songbirds, many dogs, cats, horses, cattle, squirrels and a raccoon. Pets are great. They can give life a certain amount of focus. They are always a learning experience. It’s my belief that everyone should have at least one pet squirrel in their life. I have, with my seven, contributed more than my share to squirrel pethood and will likely leave that domain to others from now on. To them I say, “Nuts! And enjoy!”