Dry leaves skirted gnarled trees on the hill that spills from Denny Hall toward the center of campus. The trees were the kind that don’t apologize to sidewalks, their root paths bending asphalt into crumpled hazards. I have clear memories of the trees. And Denny Hall. The broad grass hill. But come to think of it, the autumn leaves may have been spring buds, or early summer blossoms. The season doesn’t really matter. It could have happened any time. To anyone.
This was back when composting wasn’t yet a thing, so expired food was either trash or animal food. I’d liberated a partial bag of stale bread from the boarding house kitchen. An afternoon of pond meditation offered a break from my studies. Lucky ducks! A scattering of crumbs, and a squadron of appreciative mallards would be waddling around me on triangle feet. Stressing about feeding junk to wildlife wasn’t a thing yet either.
My route took me diagonally across the lawn. Pleasant weather had drawn students and faculty out to walk, chat, throw Frisbees, and warm in the sun. But even with so much going on, my animal instinct sensed eyes on me at twelve o’clock. All other activity on that lawn dropped to the periphery. Beside a grizzled tree trunk, a gray squirrel had popped into a meerkat stance, twitching tail framing his head, laser eyes drilling into mine. We were like gunslingers on opposite ends of a dusty Western town.
My challenger had me out-matched. He had the speed, the need, and the element of surprise. A second after I spied him, the squirrel was torpedoing toward me, bounding over grass, roots, and paths. Why did I freeze? The same impulse that drove the squirrel forward anchored my sneakers into the grass. My legs became a pair of denim stumps. I had no choice but to wait and witness.
My attacker dashed into my shadow. A fraction of a second later, he’d leapt from the ground onto my thigh, his hypodermic claws poking through my jeans. It made me feel for trees that endure wind and rain and cold and heat, only to have their branches used by rodents as sky highways.
Oh, yes, my bias is revealed. That’s right, we should call squirrels by their name: rodents. Fluffy tails and tufted ears don’t change the fact that these little scavengers rank just a couple notches above worm-tailed rats on the eeew-scale. So, when one of their species is hanging onto your pants, piercing the skin with rabies-tipped micro-talons, panic inevitably sets in. Did I scream? If I did, no one noticed. I may have screamed inside my head. In fact, I’m pretty sure of it.
Not a flinch. It kept hanging there, dark eye-dots staring at my right arm, fixated on the bread bag I held above my head. It was so intimate. I could see its whiskers twitch. I’d never seen a squirrel freeze for so long.
As the brain haze began to subside, I observed the squirrel’s singular focus and understood my leg was merely a convenient climbable object on the way to the food. I was desperate to extricate myself from this too-close-to-nature predicament. Throwing the bread bag across the lawn was an option, but those anti-littering commercials had trained me well. I saw myself fighting off a frenzy of gnashing beasts to retrieve shredded plastic bits.
An alternate plan came to mind. Carefully, deliberately, I reached out as if to drop the object of squirrel’s desire an arm’s length away. It worked! The little vermin launched itself off my leg, skewering my skin one last time as it lifted off.
Okay, so it was more of a hasty trot. Already deeply embarrassed that a small animal had mistaken my leg for a tree, I wanted to get out of there without attracting further attention. Not looking back, I managed to get down the hill in record time. At Red Square the cross-traffic of fellow students slowed me, but by that time I was safe from any additional urban wildlife attacks.
I cut short my leisurely afternoon of communing with water fowl. When I arrived at the pond, I hastily unloaded my half-loaf of bread. Then I stuffed the empty bag into my pocket, taking care to conceal it completely, and scurried home on the most tree-free route I knew.
We’ve been University squirrels for generations. There’s no better place to burrow and forage. The landscaping is impeccable, and the place teems with old-growth trees. A guy hardly needs to touch the ground. There are fruits, berries, nuts, and cones for the taking. But nothing says “well-rounded diet” like people food. As soon as our baby kits open their eyes, they’re eager to venture from the nest and poke their heads into abandoned potato chip bags, nibble discarded French fries, and sharpen their incisors on popcorn kernels.
Oh, white bread! Once I got a taste for white bread, I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s everywhere, all over campus. It appears in a hot dog shape and a hamburger shape. It comes smeared with peanut butter or mayonnaise and accompanied by bits of meat and cheese. And bacon. Don’t get me started about bacon!
So, when I spotted a bag of bread coming across the lawn that day, every hair on my tail leapt to attention. I stood, the circuits in my brain calculating speed, trajectory, obstacles, hazards. Sharp peripheral vision and the finest aural acuity pinpointed every interference and potential rival. After all, I had dozens of cousins working the trees and bushes on campus. I wasn’t going to let them beat me to the prize.
My body was soaring across the lawn micro-seconds after my brain registered its desire. I was at her feet before she could move. I’d learned through experience that even the cutest begging is rewarded by no more than a crumb, so I decided to go bold. One leap, and I was clinging to her denim-shrouded leg. Brilliant! I impressed myself with the acrobatics, and hoped at least a few eyes were aimed my way. She would have no choice but to hand over the bag.
Sweet thoughts of spongy baked goods mesmerized my senses. With just enough presence of mind, I restrained myself from drooling. People can be so irrational when they mistake a little slobber for evidence of rabies! But I couldn’t take my eyes off that luscious loaf. I calculated how I could tear into that bag, and whether I’d have to hang from the arm that was now swinging like a tree limb in gale-force winds. All the while, I could feel her staring down at me. In fact, if anyone was frothing at the mouth, it was probably her.
She might have screamed. I don’t remember. But believe me, her eyes were wide and wild.
Then she just gave up. She reached out to drop the bag on the ground, and I leaped off to claim my prize. It would only take a moment to shred the plastic, then on to devouring as many slices as I could sink my teeth into before my cousins, and the crow brigade, descended on the feast. But when I landed on the grass, my bread was on the run. I’d been hoodwinked!
Sure, I could have given chase, but that’s so undignified. Besides, people raise a real fuss when you sneak up behind them. This one had go. I dashed up the nearest tree to watch my fantasy indulgence disappear into the distance.
When she arrived at the pond, she was visibly flustered. Usually people bringing us bread have the serene countenance of someone who’s carved out some downtime for themselves. No, she flung hands full of bread at the crowd, barely taking the time to tear up the slices. Everyone hopped out of the pond and surrounded her to get their share. It was a mob scene of slapping webbed feet and snapping bills. A bit of a frenzy, if you ask me. I’m not usually one for such chaos.
I squeezed out of the scrum and noticed looping laces laying across her tennis shoes like worms poking from freshly-tilled earth. They called to me. I waddled over. I wasn’t fooled, but I pecked at them nonetheless.
“Hey!” said the person.
She moved her shoe slightly, but I kept at the laces. It might be fun to see if I could untangle them.
“Hey!” she said.
A chunk of bread dropped in front of my beak. I snatched it and gobbled it up. Perhaps she thought she could distract me. But I resumed my work on the vexing knot.
“What are you up to?” she said, dropping another morsel.
Laces. Bread. Laces. Bread. Action. Reaction. It doesn’t get better than this. I kept at it.
“Oh, you are a clever one,” I heard.
Why, yes. And thank you. Bread arrived steadily, and I was safe from the manic beaks, feet, and feathers my companions had to endure.
When the bag was empty, we said goodbye, and she hurried off. She looked more relaxed, or maybe relieved, and I hoped we’d see each other again soon.