Well, that little nugget, is me. You may have seen this picture before, in another blog, but I’m compelled to use it again because it really is me. As in, the essence of who I am. Goofy. Awkward. Tom-boyish (check that outfit!). Girly (oh, those red sandals!). A ham. The only thing I can’t claim from that photo, is the purse. Not mine, mine would’ve had Arthur Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz”
Apparently, I freaking loved the Fonz, because nearly every picture of me (that I posed for) has that exact ‘thumbs up n out’ posture. I was the only kid, that I knew, that was doing that. Everyone else acted pretty normal. I was already preparing for my imaginary dramedy , starring: me. And Me: The Early Years, was about being Nature Girl.
Me: Nature Girl had numerous obsessions, fueled by Heidi from the Johanna Spyri book, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe , The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, and everything Beatrix Potter . I imagined myself as those characters, living and talking with all creatures, the strange and the common, in my own little universe.
While I loved all living things at that stage- from grasshoppers and daisies to lions and bears- my favorite of all were: frogs ( and toads equally). It is safe to say that no one was particularly thrilled by this fascination, aside from me, of course. Fortunately for me, we had an abundance of amphibious friends in the neighborhood, if you knew where to look. Which (of course) I did.
Our apartment complex was a huge, sprawling dominion that zig zagged its way across twenty acres of land (still does, but by a different name, and now they’re called condominiums, with my childhood playground completely gone. Bastards. However, ‘my’ Crabapple tree, that stood outside our window still stands, and I plan on taking a cutting to root and plant in my own yard. Sentimental fool, am I). Because of the configuration, and the way the buildings connected, there were sections that had an almost fortress like quality( if you’re an imaginative kid, and what kid isn’t?)- recessed and shaded. Perfect for a hot day, or hiding out during a game of War. It was in one of these cool havens when we (my best frien-emy and I) discovered: The Well. We were finally old enough to join the older kids in the epic hide and seek game, so we were scouting out a place to hide. The shady recess where two apartment units met seemed ideal, as the canopy of pine trees and the shadow of the buildings gave an almost otherworldly appearance (to imaginative children, at least). It was there, in that shadowy haven, that we caught sight of large square piece of plywood with a cinder block holding it in place. Only, someone have moved them both just enough to reveal a crescent of darkness, that, if you put your face close to (and we did) you could feel a wave of cool air emanating from inside.
*Truthfully, up until this moment, I never wondered why an old well was in an apartment complex. It wasn’t the kind with a stone or brick frame and a bucket hanging from a rope, it was just a deep round cement hole in the ground, covered by a piece of plywood and a cinder block sitting on top for good measure. So, great, now I’m compelled to find out the answer. Sigh.
Now, as most of us can recall, in the 70’s, they didn’t worry too much about getting sued by parents of curious kids who are stupid enough to climb into mysterious wells, if you were a kid in that era, and you did something dumb, you were the one who got in trouble. Simple as that. Having said that… we were dumb. However, we were also lucky. As you can easily infer, we opened up that makeshift cover. I mean, we had to, it was practically begging us to open it, with its thick board and concrete block holding it down, yet just enough of a sliver of blackness revealed to encourage our curiosity. . . it was as if it were daring us! So, not only did we open it, we did Rock, Paper Scissors to determine who would be the one to hop in.
Couple side notes here:
*One: Truth? I did not get how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. Just.Did.Not.Get.It. My frien-emy, she knew that. She also knew that I wouldn’t admit that I didn’t get it, and therefore, exactly why she picked that method as the decision maker.
**Two: I’d like to believe that we would not have even considered hopping in the well were we unable to see the leaf covered bottom. Yes, the bottom was entirely covered by brown, moldy, wet leaves and no actual well floor was visible. I told you, we were dumb.
Guess what? I lost, and therefore: I was going in. This would require supplies. So, 8 year old me, and 8 year old she, ran to our respective apartments (one unit apart, we were in an ‘L’ shaped section with four apartments to each unit. Too much info, but I added it anyway). Flashlights, rain boots, and my handy dandy plastic critter house for any of our findings.
Busting through the back door of our apartment, and following the sound of As The World Turns in the living room, I find my mom,”Mommm! Flashlight? Quick. I neeeed it!!” As she shushes me, she points to the junk drawer in the kitchen, eyes glued to the screen: Bob Hughes is about to lay some heavy news on someone. This is perfect for me, she won’t ask why I need a flashlight at 2:45. Or why I have my rain boots on when it’s sunny out, for that matter. By the time I’ve gathered my gear, the closing credits are about to roll , I race out the door to the distant and muffled sound of my mother warning me to be back before it gets dark.
Back at the well, now considered Our Well, we prepare. By prepare, I mean, she trains the flashlight on the well interior, promises to help me out if I get stuck ( with an evil glint in her pale blue eyes, I might add), and I lower myself oh, so carefully down. And by carefully, I mean I lost my footing and fell ass end onto the soggy leaf pile at the bottom. Note to young self: Rain boots have no traction when scaling well walls.Fear not, for the scrappy wonder that was I, for the fall wasn’t far and the leaves gave ample cushion, even for an ass as bony as mine was. The air in the well smelled of dampness, and moldy leaves- like a rainy Autumn day. Before I even had my bearings, I spotted a frog, mere inches from my foot. He was bright green and shiny in the glow of the flashlight, he was perfect! But as I slowly reached for him, the light went out and I was plunged into instant darkness. From above, the cackle of my friend. She’d done it deliberately.
“Jessie, come onnnn!” I loudly whispered, no wanting to scare away the frog, but also on the verge of panic. The well was arms reach all around, and just a foot or two higher than my head when standing, but in the dark, it may as well been a cavern. Jessie flicked the flashlight back on, but this time, placed below her chin to illuminate her already pale complexion and causing her fiercely red hair to look like angry flames dancing around her face.
“Muah hahaaaaaa!” Jessie affected her best Dracula laugh. I should’ve know better than to trust her, I’d been fooled many a time before by her false promises of playing nice.
But before I could whisper-yell again, the beam was back where it belonged. She wanted to see the frog just slightly more than she wanted to torment me, fortunately. Unfortunately, we’d given the him enough time to burrow deep and hidden it the thick leaves. I beckoned Jessie to send down my flashlight, so as to search ( and to guarantee a light source under my control!) along with my critter keeper. I was determined to catch us a frog (or toad) down there. After shushing Jessie several times, I crouched down quietly, knowing it would require both patience and silence for any of these wary creatures to reappear. I was quickly rewarded by the semi-frightening rustle of leaves at the furthest point from me in the well.. was the mother of all toads, his throat bulging rhythmically as he jerkily made his way out from under his burrow. The moment arrived: This guy was coming home with me, and I knew it. In a flash I darted forward, arms outstretched and ready to close around his fat toady waist. I had him! Now, to secure him in the carrier, and reclaim my flashlight from the leaf floor and climb out.
Ah. Climb out. Yes, well- that turned out to be a bit more challenging than climbing in. It would require an abundance of faith in Jessie, who would now have to run to her apartment to grab a footstool, run back to Our Well, and send it down to me, so that I’d gain enough leverage to pull myself out. It turned out, neither of us were tall enough or strong enough to do it otherwise.
Miraculously, Jessie came through. It felt like forever waiting for her, and I’ll easily bet she stopped to have a snack before returning, but nonetheless, she returned. She really wanted to see that toad, I’m guessing. Once out of the well, we replaced the cover as best we could, leaving a slightly bigger crescent than before, and ran over to the playground, where we settled down under the slide to check out our newest “pet”. I, being the one who did all the work, got to hold him first. He was big enough to require two hands to lift him up, and as soon as I did, he peed. It was dark brown, like wood stain, and trailed down my arm to my elbow, but I still held on. Even as both Jessie and I yelled, “Ewwwwwwww” , I held on. This was my toad, and I already loved him. In the midst of this, my brother, along with some of the other older boys rode up on their ten speeds. They skidded to a dramatic stop next to us, kicking up a cloud of dirt as they did. My brother, the ringleader, smirked down at us, flicking his 70’s longish shaggy hair away from his eyes.
“Hey, brats, whaddya catch now?” My brother, four years older than I, was infinitely cool, and passingly nice to me, as far as older brothers go. I was, naturally, an easy target for pranks and teasing, and the general mischievous deeds imparted by older brothers to younger sisters. This day would prove no different.
“It’s a toad, Rich! Lookit, isn’t he cute?!” I squawked, grinning up at the four gangly boys, one of which I already had a crush on that would last for several years. The boys were moderately impressed- it really was a large toad. But then, one- Jessies brother, actually- noticed the streak of brown that still marked my skinny arm.
“Aww, nasty, man! He peed on you!” Embarrassed, but defensively, I explained that he only did it because he was scared. Then I hastily wiped my arm in the grass as I awkwardly tucked the toad- now motionless with fright- against my chest.
“Anyhow,” I said. “we need to give him a name! I’m gonna keep him in my room!” My brother stated that he knew the perfect name for the toad. The four boys exchanged glances and knowing smirks, all which I was oblivious to.
“Yah, you should name him ‘Pisser’. That’s the perfect name for that thing!” The boys burst into laughter, the kind that includes snorts and guffaws, and back-slapping as well. And I still didn’t catch on. Sigh. I didn’t get the joke, I didn’t even know it was a joke. I just knew that my brother suggested a name, it made everyone seem happy, and therefore: that would be the name.
“Pisser! That’s the name!” I exclaimed, inciting more laughter and snorts from the boys. Jessie, still alongside me, laughed, too- overly loud, if you’d asked me. She liked the same boy I did, and was trying to impress him. I gave her the squinty side eye, I-know-what-you’re-up-to, said that look. She pretended not to notice, of course.
“I’m gonna show Mom!” I stood up with my new buddy, ready to pack him up and charge home. The boys, and Jessie, started heading off in different directions- the boys, off to the next adventure, and Jessie back home for lunch, as was I ( along with showing of my guy Pisser, there). My brother, as seemingly an afterthought shouted back,
” Perfect timing, brat, everyone’s at the apartment. Make sure you tell ’em real clear what your toads’ name is!” With that, he and the guys rode off in another cloud of dirt, off to who knows where to do who knows what. Jessie was already halfway back to her place, with barely as much as a “see ya!” She was probably mad that I claimed Pisser as my own, but too bad, I got him fair and square.
Walking through our back door, which went directly into the small galley kitchen, I could hear the voices of my Aunt, Mother, and Grandmother in the living room, here for a visit. My Father, Uncle and Grandfather were probably already at the tennis court warming up for a quick match before dinner. I hurried out to say hello, rain boots, filthy shorts, and Pisser in outstretched hands:
“Hi everybody! This is my toad, his name is Pisser!” I yelled.
“Lookit, isn’t he great?!”
Still, more silence. I look at each face- my Mother: Shock. My Grandmother: Mirth mingled with revulsion. My Aunt: revulsion. Then there’s me: goofy smile taking up half my face- which is dirt streaked, unbeknownst to me, toad (No, Pisser) clutched precariously in my hands, his long legs hanging limply, and then, almost as if on cue- he pees, again.
Well, if you didn’t know that just three women could sound like a cacophony – they can. I don’t know who exactly was shouting what, but it all sounded pre-tty crazy to my ears, with the “Aghhhhh!” to the “ewwwwww” and the, “Oh, my Godddd, get that thing out of here!” and the loudest of all, “YOU NAMED IT WHAT?!”
* By the way: Eventually, someone imparted the intel that the word “pisser” was actually a vulgar and crass term not best used by six year old girls.
The next thing I knew, I was unceremoniously shuttled back out the door from where I came, wondering what the big deal was. I know that I actually shrugged, turned Pisser to face me, and asked him what the fuss was all about. He seemed undaunted, and by now, quite content to dangle awkwardly. Or maybe just resigned? Regardless, Pisser and I had a great afternoon. We talked about many things- ok, I talked and he pretended to listen. Hmm. Not unlike most men, am I right, ladies, am I right?! (insert rim shot here) . We walked around, played on the swings and found four leaf clovers together. We were a great duo, destined for a long companionship. Or at least one that would last until about 5pm that evening, when I was told in no uncertain terms that, that thing, would not be coming inside the house again. I would have to bid adieu to my fine, lumpy friend.
I know, I know, sad, right?! It’s okay, though, really. Pisser was the first in a long succession of temporary pet toads, each bestowed upon them with the their predecessors namesake- as honorary Pissers. The last of the pet Pissers met with a terrible end, one I still hate to think about, alllll these years later. But, since I mentioned it, I’ll quickly tell you what happened to cause me to retire the moniker of “Pisser”:
It was another hot Summer day, I’d found a new toad, dubbed: Pisser, the 12th. P12 was a fidgety guy, a lot of pep, that one had. He and I were walking towards the tennis court to check for Praying Mantis when two older boys from the neighborhood approached. Frankie and Matt. Frankie was the older brother of Jessie, both with a mean streak a mile wide, and Matt- his tagalong. They’d just taken a plastic Tonka dump truck out of the dumpster, and were eying P12 with a glint.
“Let’s see your toad, kid” leered Frankie, as he put his hand out. Instinctively, I pulled away. I knew not to trust these two.
Matt, in his just-hitting-puberty voice, chimed in, ” Yah, c’mon, let us see him!” the word ‘see’ becoming a two syllable squeak. Now, if my brother were around, they’d never bother me. But, because I was on my own, I was fair game for the neighborhood jerks. I knew it, and they knew it.
Again, Frankie asked me to hand over the toad, this time using a cajoling tone of voice and promising they wouldn’t hurt him. They “just wanted to give him a ride in the dump truck, it’s just for one minute, geez” they said. “He’ll love it,” they said. Against my better judgment, I slowly handed Pisser the 12th over to Frankie. Maybe he meant it, maybe he really did just want to see him for a minute. Immediately, they ran away from me and toward the tall brick wall of the adjacent tower style apartment building that shared the back parking lot of our apartment complex.
I chased after them, and though I was fast, they’d already had my toad in the back of the plastic truck and had gotten down to “..3..2..” in their countdown till an apparent “blast-off”, by the time I’d caught up. Target: brick wall.
I’m leaving the story there. You can probably guess the rest, and what you’ve guessed is right. After that, I stopped ‘keeping” toads, and there were no more Pissers. However, I did, after a time, start catching them, admiring them briefly, and then sending them to safety.
More than thirty years later, it still hurts my heart that I couldn’t stop that from happening. I should’ve ran, I could’ve refused. It helped, a little, that my brother roughed them up afterwards. following the golden rule of siblings: ” I can mess with her/him, but YOU can’t”. But it didn’t make it all unhappen. The only good that actually came from that, was the lessons learned that day. Among the lessons I learned, I realized that I have a responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves. We all do. I learned that wild things need to be left to run wild, without interference, and even if I just want to love them, it doesn’t make it all right. I learned that to love nature, you have to respect it. It was a sad way to learn, but maybe it was the only way.
Of course, I learned some things about humans that day, too. It was probably my first lesson in how ugly humans can behave. I think I lost some(but never all) of my gullibility that day, that armor of naivety afforded to children got its first knick, that day. Rites of passage, I suppose. It sure is a shame, though, that we live in world where a rite of passage involves learning that people can suck. Really, really badly suck. I try not to dwell on that too much, neither should you. It’s not good for the soul. Instead, I dwell on my job, my role in it all. The Frankie’s and Matt’s of the world get no quarter in my world, they stay outside “The Bubble”. That’ll be another story, some day- I’ll tell you all about “The Bubble”. I think you’ll like it.
That’s about all I’ve got for this one. Truthfully? These stories start from somewhere out of nowhere- just a ripple of a thought that starts a wave of a memory, and the next thing I know, I’m telling you some odd little story that, if you’d asked me where I was going with it- I’d say, “Uh, I dunno!” I had no idea I’d tell you about Pisser the 12th. I didn’t really want to, I just wanted to share the nice part, the funny (to me, at least) part. But, now it’s in here, and I can’t fathom a reason to take it out, aside from that fact that it makes me sad. Anyway, if you’ve made it through to the end, thanks for sticking through! Oh, and yes, at 42, I still love frogs and toads 🙂