I admit I haven’t earned the right to wake up screaming
McGinn note: Last week in this space, I dusted off a previously unpublished column.
This week, I have one more that’s begging to escape from the vault.
I wrote it a couple of years ago during our time in Springfield, Ohio, but it seems even more appropriate for an audience in Jefferson.
You see, I’ve always had this weird, quasi-phobia of squirrels. (No, seriously.)
In Ohio, they have gray squirrels — which are considerably smaller and, dare I say, cuter than the fox squirrels we have in this part of Iowa, which seem to be roughly the size of Chow Chow dogs.
And, my God, they’re everywhere.
We had the good fortune to buy a place near Chautauqua Park.
They’re in my yard, on my roof and, yes, dead in my street.
Truly, I’m living the stuff of nightmares ...
Remember that feeling you always got when playing “Centipede” at the Pizza Hut?
It was the only arcade game back in the day that paralyzed me with anxiety.
That crazy centipede would snake down the screen so fast that my brain couldn’t control the rollerball while simultaneously preparing to be killed, so I’d usually just stand there, clinch up and shriek.
That was the feeling as the blood-thirsty beast scurried down the tree, then barreled straight at me with crazed, bugged-out eyes.
I could only clinch up.
It seemed to pick up speed on flat ground, the rabid foam from its mouth parting to reveal a set of incisors that presumably had made short work of a feral hog at its last feeding.
It kept coming and coming, faster and faster.
And then it jumped.
“OOARRRGH!!” I bellowed.
“What?!” my wife asked, startled out of a dead sleep. “What’s wrong?!”
“Jesus,” I panted, “I just had a dream that I was attacked by a squirrel.”
She squinted to see the time on the alarm clock.
“Again?” she asked.
I didn’t even know it was possible in real life to awaken from a bad dream by yelling “OOARRRGH!!” Only people in movies did that, I thought, when they relived having bamboo shoots shoved under their toenails by their North Vietnamese captors.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit I had that sort of guttural reaction to a nightmare about a single, regular-sized squirrel.
Had I been sadistically tortured by the Viet Cong at some point in my life, sure, OK, we all can agree that it would be perfectly acceptable to shoot straight up in bed from time to time by howling “OOARRRGH!!”
As it stands, I never would’ve cut it in ’Nam.
One time in high school, a Vietnam vet came and spoke at an assembly.
I’m still not sure what we were supposed to have taken away from his motivational speech, but he said if you went to sleep in your hooch with Cheetos on your fingers — personally, I didn’t even know they had Cheetos then — it wasn’t uncommon for a terrier-sized rat to come along in the night and gnaw your orange-stained fingers off.
And, here, I’m having nightmares about the kind of backyard critter that my father-in-law feeds slices of bread to by hand?
I fully acknowledge I haven’t earned the right to wake up screaming.
Squirrels have always unnerved me. I’m surprised they don’t freak more people out, to be honest.
I mean, they’re like rats — that climb everything.
Imagine an actual, honest-to-God rat coming within a few feet of your picnic table in a park. “Get in the car, kids,” you’d yell, scrambling to save as many cheese puffs off their plates as possible. “There’s typhus here.”
And, yet, when a squirrel — a rodent, too, that’s capable of carrying the plague, according to the Centers for Disease Control — bounds into view at a picnic, everybody’s fine with tossing a few cheese puffs its way.
Don’t let the adorable, bushy tail fool you.
A rat, at least, can’t leap onto your back from eight feet away when it decides that two cheese puffs just aren’t enough to satiate its hunger.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve feared a squirrel attack.
I always envisioned it’d go down like this — I’m riding my bike under a tree when one jumps me.
I squeal in terror as the thing grabs hold of my head like a big acorn.
As I pedal faster and scream louder, it looks as if I’m being attacked by a coonskin cap. But I can’t shake it.
I’ve never actually feared dying at the claws of a squirrel, but I’ve mentally prepared myself to go on living with just one ear. And hair grows back.
I don’t think data exists for the exact number of people attacked annually by squirrels, but it does happen.
My fears aren’t completely unfounded, I’ll have you know. In 2005, a German woman was attacked by a squirrel right in her own living room.
By Googling “squirrel attack,” I also found a horrific BBC story headlined “Russian squirrel pack kills dog.”
“They are said to have scampered off at the sight of humans,” the BBC reported, “some carrying pieces of flesh.”
It’s been hypothesized that a shortage of pine cones in this particular Russian park led the squirrels to seek out an alternative source of food.
To me, though, what’s truly disturbing is that it appears that squirrels have finally achieved the tactical ability to operate in numbers.
That’s something we all should fear.
But in an attempt to cure myself of sciurophobia — the fear of squirrels — I recently went out and bought a squirrel feeder for the tree in our backyard.
I figured I could sit inside the relative safety of the house and watch the squirrels eat, and thus see that they’re actually quite pleasant little creatures.
Plus, providing them with an adequate source of food lessens the likelihood that I’ll share the same fate as that Russian pooch.
However, as I was standing in line at the hardware store with a big bag of ear corn for the feeder, a scraggly older gentleman limped up behind me.
“Whatchya gon’ do with all that?” he asked.
Everything about him — from his disheveled appearance to the way he grumbled when he spoke — suggested he’d bore witness to some kind of unspeakable horror. All that was missing was a metal hook in place of a hand.
“Oh,” I smiled, “I’m going to feed the squirrels in my backyard.”
“Ma’ brother once did that,” he warned, “and the squirrels got all up inside his house.”
I immediately envisioned “Night of the Living Dead” with squirrels, with this guy and his poor brother desperately trying to board up their windows as hordes of flesh-hungry squirrels scratched at the siding.
I try my damnedest to keep my various eccentricities in check, so I reluctantly bought the bag of corn anyway.
I chose to tough this one out rather than come home and explain to my wife that I now was afraid of squirrels crashing through the windows of our dining room in an attempt to eat part of our brains now and bury the rest in the backyard for January.
But not a day goes by that I don’t think, “Andy, you’re such a nut.”
I can only hope and pray that, to the squirrels in our backyard, I don’t smell like one, too.