Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"You're Not Going To Believe This!"

It's been a tough few months. We memorialized another one of Linda's cousins last week. Steven died in his sleep at the age of 47, leaving his wife Maureen and two young children, Tyler and Andrew.

Despite Steven's serious job with Gillette, where he managed arbitrage programs allowing Gillette to, by the minute, invest in advantageous international markets, he was the life of any party, with amazing stories. His stories helped me reflect on twists of fate. Below please find a few.

A few months back, Tyler said his dad was, as usual, reading on their back porch in Plymouth when he heard, and saw out of the corner of his eye, what he thought was one of the family's two cats walking up the porch steps. Steven continued to read, and clicked his fingers to attract the kitty. He reached to pet the responding animal. The fur was thicker than usual, and the belly much broader. To his horror, Steven looked down at a fat raccoon, now enamored with Steven's hospitality, and the food on the table. Steven shot into the kitchen, shut the double door, and called his family to see his new friend.

When Steven and Maureen were dating, Steven was cooking a steak on Maureen's deck in Quincy, MA, overlooking Boston Harbor. He stepped inside to check a Red Sox score. When he returned to the deck, a seagull was pulling at the steak. Not willing to lose his meal, Steven shooed the animal, but it persisted, creating a battle where Steven used a hose to spray the pesky animal to protect the steak.

This reminds me of a story by Marty, another cousin, who was video taping his children while vacationing at the Cape. His boys were toddlers, playing in the yard, when something fell from the sky into the camera frame. Marty zoomed in, and focused on a huge eel. A seagull was flying overhead and lost control of the jostling eel. Within a second, a seagull landed, and with two gulps, swallowed the several foot long eel, whole. On film, Marty caught the writhing eel undulating down the seagull's neck and could have won $10,000 if he submitted the piece to America's Funniest Home Videos.

Thinking of this eel dropping from the sky reminded me of the time I was pulling ivy from our home's chimney. It was 1977 and we'd just moved to the NJ house where my dad still lives. He purchased the home from a woman who let the place go. Ivy can pull mortar from bricks, so my task was to remove all the overgrown ivy from the chimneys. There was a slight landing on the chimney about twelve feet off the ground. This space was relatively flat, warm, and safe from predators. It was an ideal spot for an astute snake to nest. So, as I pulled on the ivy, snakes varying in length from six inches to two feet landed on my head and shoulders. They were writhing all over me. I ran around the yard, flinging snakes as far as possible.

My head seems to be a natural target. While strolling along San Francisco's waterfront last summer, I felt something scratching the top of my scalp. At first, I thought it was my brother in law Robert teasing me, but he was walking in front of me. Next, I assumed it was a street vendor, with one of those scalp massagers. I ducked, looked up, and saw a bird. A starling was attacking my head. There are a series of landscaped areas along the waterfront, where this bird was nesting. My height, combined with my hair color, must have sent a warning. My whole family passed the area, in front of me, with no harm. When I walked back to assess the situation, the bird attacked again. My family saw this and howled with delight.

My most unique animal story involves a retired TV chimp. My childhood friend, Grant Bennett, whose stepfather, Dr. Bennett, delivered my brother Jud and me at Overlook Hospital in Summit, NJ, went to live with his mom and Dr. Bennett in Berkeley Heights, NJ when we were in 7th grade. We stayed in touch, and the family included me on some great adventures, like Giants games (including opening day at Giants Stadium) and deep-sea fishing.

Grant's mom adopted a retired TV chimp. The chimp adored her, but was aggressive to males, a possible response to abusive methods used to train TV chimps. We were playing keep away with the animal, and he was getting testy. So, Grant decided to cage the beast. The animal didn't like the idea. Grant suggested I give the chimp a banana, to sooth him. After handing the chimp the fruit, it grabbed my left thumb, as if it was a banana. He sliced my nail in half with his bottom eye two. The lines in my thumbnail are still there. Fortunately, Dr. Bennett was on site to administer first aid.

As was Dr. Lassiter, Nayan's dad, following a failed attempt to herd Storch, their German Shepherd. A few years prior to the chimp incident, my neighbor Nayan and I were tasked with getting Storch, his big disobedient German Shepherd, into their house. Nayan said he'd open the door after I grabbed Storch's bowl full of food, and ran towards the door. Our goal was to make Storch follow me into the house. When I picked up the bowl, Storch growled and shot after me. I threw the bowl away and ran in the other direction, but Storch kept coming. He jumped at my face and bit a hole in my lip.

Through all of this, I never developed a fear of animals, or dogs in particular, thanks to Shane, our reddish gold Labrador retriever from a South Dakota kennel. He was my mom's wedding gift to my dad and a gentle giant, weighing close to 130 pounds. We rode him. He lived until I was about ten and brought us regular gifts. One time, he deposited a pregnant frog at the base of our back porch. The frog, unhurt but shocked, laid its eggs and then hopped away. Shane did the same with a chicken. Once Shane opened his soft jaws, the chicken scrambled away.

One of my most inspiring dog stories involves a friend. Chris was boating in Boston Harbor a few years ago when he saw something thrown from a boat about 50 yards away. The dropped item kept splashing and the suspected boat sailed away. Chris approached the splash. It was a dog. He recovered the animal, and tried to catch the offending boat owners. Every time Chris tried to approach the dog dropping boat, it sped away. He realized the owners wanted to drown his new pet, as did the dog. It never needed a leash, or training. It did everything possible to please its new master who called it "the best dog he ever owned".

Truth is stranger than fiction. Despite being written on April 1, 2007, these stories are all true. The only one I wish was false is Steven's.

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