Our pet raccoon and Jake's friend. NOT the best pet in the world.
Daddy was not in town, of course, when Mama somehow found out about a bunch of baby raccoons for sale. The people selling them lived in the country. We did not. But Mama didn't think that was a problem. Why would it be?
When she came home from work that Monday evening, Mama was acting like an excited little girl. She gave us the news, and we were excited little girls, too. Except for Pete. He was an excited little boy. I had seen pictures of raccoons in my Weekly Reader. One was of a cute little critter, peeking out from a hole in a tree. I had seen a film reel about raccoons, too. I knew all about them, and I shared that knowledge, amazed at my own brilliance.
Masked faces and mass thievery earned raccoons the nickname, little bandits. They had good manners, though. They liked to be clean, so they were always washing their hands. After reading about them I believed all raccoons were adorable little furballs. Their mere existence must make the world a happier place, and I couldn't wait until we had one of our own.
Mama said raccoons live in the country, and we'd drive to the country for ours the next afternoon, after work. Twenty-three and a half hours later, all four of us waited in the front yard. Each of us stood, decked out in blue jeans, cotton tops, and the cheap, beat-up cowboy hats we found in our toy box. We were going to the country, so we decided to dress like country kids. Any other time we would have been in shorts and t-shirts.
When we saw Mama's car come rolling down the street, we let out a collective whoop. Mama had pulled into the driveway, but the station wagon was still running when we attacked. Opening up doors, climbing into seats, we were chattering like chipmunks.
"We're ready to go to the country, Mama," I shouted.
"Move over, Katy," Dee Dee bellowed. "You're too close!"
"I want to see out the window, Dee Dee," hollered Katy.
Pete just climbed in the back.
"Kids!" Mama's voice covered all others. "Settle down or we're not going anywhere! I have to go inside and change clothes."
"Awwwwwww," we moaned, slumped shoulders banging against seat backs. But not one of us got out of the car. No one wanted to be the cause of tacking on extra time before we could leave.
"What could be taking her so long?" Pete asked. It seemed like an hour drug by while we sat in the sweltering heat. All four windows were down, but no breeze stirred and the air hung, heavy, around us. Slouched down in our seats, Dee Dee and I each had an elbow hanging over the door, me on one side of the car and her on the other. If we'd have had a couple of the candy cigarettes we loved, we'd each have one dangling from our lips, too. But we were out.
When we finally saw Mama step onto the front porch from the house, we all sat up straight. Smiling, eyes glittering, hands in our laps, we were trying our best to pass for angels.
"That's better," Mama said. Looking into each face she added, "Now, it's a forty-minute drive, so let's see if you can be good the whole way."
"Let's play the quiet game," someone yelled.
"Great idea!" Mama answered.
We weren't quiet the whole way, but we managed to stay out of trouble. By the time Mama found the driveway she was looking for, we were bouncing in our seats.
"Now, remember, kids. We don't know these people, so everyone needs to be on their best behavior. Stay with me. Don't touch anything, don't wander away."
As we clambered out of the car, the first thing we saw was a big cage holding eight baby raccoons. Some were sitting, some climbing over a log wedged in sideways, across the cage. A couple of dogs came to meet us, wagging their tails. As we bent down to pet them, a man and woman came outside. Each one was wearing blue jeans, plaid cotton shirts, and big smiles. The four of us looked at each other and grinned. We had nailed the outfits.
"You must be the Prescotts," the man said, sticking out his hand to shake Mama's.
"Yes, I'm Thelma. These are my children, Stephanie, Dee Dee, Pete and Katy." We all looked up and smiled, our best manners on display.
Following orders to stay put, we played with the dogs. Mama and the country people walked over to the big cage. The woman was talking, instructing Mama on how to handle our raccoon, once we got him home. Her husband walked away and then reappeared wearing heavy gloves, carrying another cage. It wasn't as big as the one with all the baby raccoons, but it was still pretty big. He put that cage on the ground, as close as he could to the larger one, with the door facing up. Then he opened that door and moved to the bigger cage, where the raccoons had retreated to the far corner. They were climbing over each other, like they were having a contest to see which one could get the farthest away.
The country man in the plaid cotton shirt waited a few seconds. Then he stuck in his arm, grabbed one of the raccoons and had him out and in the other cage, faster than I could blink. At first all we could do was stand and stare, trying to make sense of what we had seen. Then we realized we were looking at our baby raccoon. Our baby raccoon!
"That's him," Dee Dee squealed. "That's him, that's our raccoon!"
All four of us commenced to jumping up and down, the excitement promising to
explode. Then we saw Mama's head jerk toward us, eyes narrowed in a warning. As hard as it was, we each stilled, trying to remain soundless and not fidget. The effort was excruciating.
I guess I thought that baby raccoon would be happy to meet us. He'd immediately curl into arms or settle into chests, like a kitten. Or, he might be shy at first, hiding his face before we caught him peeking over his hands, trying to get a good look at us. Mama might have thought the same thing.
We were both wrong.
No matter how cute the film reel made them out to be, raccoons do not show up, ready to become a member of the family. And they can wash their hands all they want, but that doesn't mean they have good manners. We didn't get the sweet little play toy we expected to bring home. What we got was a hissing, snarling little tyrant who made sure we knew we weren't what he expected, either.
By the time Daddy drove up the driveway and into the garage Friday evening, Mama was ready for him. There we all stood: Mama, the four of us kids, Jake . . .
. . . and a wild raccoon in a cage. Nothing in his nine years of marriage could have helped him predict this surprise.
Raccy was so wild Mama was the only person allowed to handle him. And the only way she could take him out of the cage was to pad and cover her entire body. A winter coat reached from her neck to her calves. Heavy gloves covered her hands and climbed up past her elbows. A thick scarf wound around her neck, chin and mouth, and a hat flopped over her eyes.
Which was the costume she was wearing when Daddy got home. The clothes were all Daddy's and Daddy was not amused.
To Mama, taming Raccy was no more than a challenge she would win. She was a fierce competitor, and it didn't take long for her to tame him a bit. At least enough to where she only needed the heavy gloves. Raccy was never petisized, but she had tapped down some of the wildness.
After a while, we finally got to where we could walk him on a leash. And Mama would sometimes put him on our laps where he would crawl up our bodies and land on our heads, but we had to be completely still so we didn't startle him. That one was actually a bit scary. Of course, he was always on a leash and Mama kept it short so she could quickly drag him away if she needed to. But our favorite, both us kids and Raccy, was letting him beg for food.
With Mama holding securely to his leash, we would take turns sitting in a chair, holding a piece of food. It didn't matter what kind of food, Raccy would eat anything. So, we'd sit in this chair and hold out the food, a full arm's length away from us. Mama would let Raccy move toward the chair and, once he was under the bait, he would plop his bottom on the ground and reach both hands up as high as he could get them. If he was still, we would lower the food until it was within his reach. He would grab whatever it was, roll it around in his hands a little bit, and shove it down his gullet. Then we'd all clap and praise him for being a good boy.
We were never able to play with Raccy the way we played with Jake. The few things we could do to interact with him were measured and stilted. Still, he was a cool pet. No one else we knew had a pet raccoon. Then again, no one else's parents would ever have considered having a pet raccoon. Daddy planted himself in the regular parents' camp. He was not at all excited about the wild animal living in our back yard.
And that's before Raccy started running away.
Stephanie Prescott Sparkman. All rights reserved.
21 March 2022