Danny would ask to see your hands, and if they were smooth and soft he would call you a sissy. He’d show you his rough and callused palms and tell you that’s how a boy’s hands ought to look. He said it showed you worked with your hands. I used to rub my hands in dirt to get that rough and callused look. Now I kind of wish they were less rough, cracked and callused. Anyway, when you’re not allowed to go somewhere, and you’re a kid, you’re pretty much going to go there anyway. It’s an automatic. You don’t want to appear to be a sissy. When you’re a kid, you can’t see the dangers that lurk behind cool places like the Gully.
The Gully ran behind our houses and separated us from the cemetery on the far side. If you walked off our back yards down the hill, you would come to some thick vegetation created by the stream that ran through the middle of it. Once you got inside those trees and brush it was a like the “Hundred Acre Wood.” A totally different, wild, world, with a brook that ran through the center, gurgling and splashing over rocks. There were little ponds full of frogs, and garter snakes slithering along the paths. There were other more dangerous things too, like the stash of nudie magazines we had found and the packs of cigarettes, and once we even found cans of beer cooling in the stream. And sometimes, you ran into the owners of those things, and you had to hide or even run for your life. In short, the Gully, was a perfect place for adventure.
It was the morning following the Opening Day and Final Run of “Que Sera” that we decided to turn the shed into a combination zoo and rock museum. We could charge admission and make some extra money. I had a rock collection that I had gotten for my birthday, that consisted of a one inch thick black box that was segmented with little cardboard walls making an equal number of two-inch squares. Glued inside each of the squares was a small sample of a type of rock and a label. There was a small chunk of bituminous coal, for example, some red shale, a piece of rose quartz, an agate, a piece of iron ore, and others. Twenty in all.
The best sample was the fool’s gold, or the mineral, pyrite. That’s what the label said. It looked just like a gold nugget and we could easily see how a miner could mistake it for the real thing. We had each tried to bite on it like we’d seen in the movies. We didn’t have any idea what that was supposed to accomplish, but it had required me to break it loose from the box of course. Let’s just say the only thing left of the fool’s gold in the rock sample box was the label and some dried glue, having long ago disappeared into the alley gravel on my way home from school. We walked that entire distance, back and forth to the school, three times and never saw the fool’s gold again. We wouldn’t have been very good gold miners I guess. Or maybe not very good fool’s gold miners, which was okay.
So we had originally headed for the Gully to find more rock samples for the rock museum. Maybe a big chunk of granite, or……then Dan spotted the frogs.
“I got an idea,” he says, “we could make us a zoo and a museum. We’ll call it a Zooseum.” I could have been the one who came up with the idea to name it a Zooseum, but I’ll give Danny the credit. He caught most of the frogs.
So that is how the Zooseum came about. We headed back up the hill to his house to get us a couple of buckets and headed back down to the Gulley to catch us some frogs. Within an hour we had over twenty of the critters of different sizes in the bucket with a piece of wire screen and a rock over the top of one. And Danny was agile enough to catch two garter snakes, one of which wiggled so much to get away that a portion of his tail broke off. We re-captured him a little while later and he was immediately named “Tail-less Ted”. Then we spotted the bull snake, which had just moments before scared the shit out of me.
Most bullsnakes have a bad attitude. When encountering something as large as a human, they will go into attack mode, raising up and back tracking in a menancing way. In fact they look a lot like a Diamondback rattlesnake. While all of that is happening and you’re waiting to be bit and die, you’re not listening for the telltale rattles. Danny came in from the back and snatched the snake up off the ground holding it up and away from him. Now a bull snake can, and often does, exceed 8 feet in length, but this one was a youngster, maybe three feet long.
“Man, how cool. Now we have a bull snake for the zooseum,” he said.
“Yeah, I said, “what are ya going to put him in?” One bucket had the frogs and the other bucket had the two garter snakes.
“You carry the buckets and I’ll carry the snake. Or you can carry the snake,” and he thrust it out towards me. I withdrew, trying not to act to fearful (that would be sissy) and picked up the buckets.
Bull snakes eat by constriction. In layman’s terms, they choke the shit out of their prey, then swallow it whole. They have this lump the size of whatever they’ve eaten, a short distance down from their heads, that stays there until the snake digests the food. Pretty cool process for a zooseum. You could throw a frog into the cage with the bull snake and watch him murder and eat the thing……for a small admission fee, of course. Bull frogs like small mammals too, like mice, and rats. One of the reasons it’s probably a good idea to keep one around your yard.
We had the materials from the shed cleaning earlier, to build a cage with wire mesh and some scrap lumber. We even found some hinges to hinge the lid, and soon we had our live snake display. “Sammy” was in a bucket with a screened lid waiting for his new home to be finished. I’m not going to take credit for naming him Sammy, but I’m sure I did. Tail-less Ted and Gertie (Get it? Gertie the garter snake.) were in the other bucket waiting for a cage completion, and the dinner (the frogs), were in yet another bucket. We hadn’t figured out what type of display we were going to build for them yet. It was going to take more than some wire mesh and two by fours.
Now with the igneous rock display (those are fire-formed rocks like obsidian, rhyolite, basalt), some minerals, a few arrowheads, and the “zoo” animals, or more accurately reptiles, we were ready to open for business. Same ticket window as the one-run musical.
But by the time we had finished the snake cages, we heard the shrill of the whistle. The whistle was the neighbor kids’ father. They were too young to play with Danny and I, (although they did have that supporting role in the musical production) and we didn’t want to get too friendly with them anyway because they were just going to be there for the summer. The neighbor and his family were from Champaign, Illinois. We found that weird because he was only renting the house from the real neighbor, some grumpy old guy, just for the summer. We weren’t versed on time-shares, or house-swapping, or whatever they were doing, we just knew the summer family wasn’t related in any way to the grumpy old guy and we had no idea where he had gone for the summer. We didn’t think Sheridan was all that wonderful of a place to spend a summer anyway, if one had a choice.
Anyway, blowing the whistle was how he signaled for them that it is was time to come home. He would blow three times on the silver whistle and they would come running within seconds. For the rest of us it became kind of a warning signal that our moms would be calling us soon. So when we heard the whistle we started packing up and securing the zooseum for the night. And by securing it, I mean we pulled the door shut, put the clasp on it and put a padlock on the door. Danny had the key around his neck on a shoestring. Minutes later my mom called us in for supper.
…to be continued.