It’s mid-December in Charleston, South Carolina, which means alternating days of rain with temperature fluctuations of 20 degrees or more overnight, somewhere between tropical and frigid but not quite reaching the extremes of a Colorado spring.
It was cold and rainy outside and the squirrels were running back and forth across my roof with acorns, as they had been all fall. I was sitting in my chair by the fireplace (it was not lit, this is important as you will see)—comfortably drifting between reading and dozing, when I heard a “cry” similar to cats fighting followed by a “thump” in my fireplace. I’d forgotten to close the flue after my last fire and now a very pissed-off squirrel sat staring out at me through the fire screen. A few months ago I’d found a baby possum in my recycling bin drunk off stale beer but this was a first.
Sciurus niger, the American Fox Squirrel, is the largest species of tree squirrel native to North America. They are also sometimes referred to as the Stump-eared Squirrel, Raccoon Squirrel, Red Squirrel, or Monkey-faced Squirrel. Muddy Waters even wrote a song about them. In urban areas the Fox Squirrel enjoys an abundance of food (acorns, primarily) along with a dearth of natural predators and hazards, which may explain why this particular squirrel did not realize the consequences of base-jumping down my chimney.
My fire screen is the flat, single paneled variety and thankfully I’d left it flush against the opening so the squirrel was now trapped. This gave me time to think. Take a moment to run through a list of things you would do if faced with an angry American Fox Squirrel in your fireplace, remembering that squirrels can carry rabies, bubonic plague and are, for all practical purposes, fuzzy-tailed rats. Could I construct a box or container the squirrel would run into? Fine, then how do you propose I force the angry squirrel into the box? Could I get one of those traps, bait it and shove it in the fireplace without the squirrel getting out? Was there a squirrel eradication hot line? Each carefully considered option seemed to end with an angrier, bigger, rabid-er squirrel leaving a soot-stained trail through my home as it attacked me followed by my long, agonizing death by rabies (complete with grieving family and friends at bedside, city fathers speaking out against squirrels, PETA protesting the captured squirrel’s treatment, etc., etc.).
I decided there was only one rational course of action:
Call Mr. Cramer.
Everyone has at least one person in their life that they can call in a true emergency. If you’re a woman, it may be your father, brother, or boy friend. It’s the person you call when your pipes freeze, you’re stuck by the side of the road, or you have a squirrel trapped in your fireplace. You call them because you know they have probably faced the problem before and will have the tools, knowhow and fortitude to get you out of the mess you’re in. And, not to be underestimated, they will do it efficiently, focused on solving the problem, without making you feel really stupid for getting into the mess in the first place—or at least you’ll laugh together when it’s over. My favorite example of this “type” is Winston Wolf played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. As with most of Pulp Fiction, be forewarned there is lots of foul language:
Lately, for me, that person has been Mr. Cramer (who bares no resemblance to Winston Wolf in manner or language), the father of Thomas Cramer, one of the young men who work for our company.
“Mr. Cramer, I have a problem.”
“I left the flue open and a squirrel fell into my fire place and it’s trapped. Have you ever dealt with this situation?”
“What did you do?”
“I got my gun, filled it with birdshot, put on a pair of safety glasses, cracked open the fire screen and shot the squirrel.”
“I don’t have a gun.”
“Would you like me to come shoot the squirrel?”
Twenty minutes later Mr. Cramer arrived with Thomas who’d been helping him put up their Christmas tree when I called. Mr. Cramer got out of his white truck wearing a pair of orange safety glasses and carrying a metal case like Jean Reno in The Professional. In front of the fireplace he carefully unpacked a revolver, showed me the ammunition as he loaded it into the gun and then positioned his flashlight to shine on the squirrel that had now perched on the smoke “shelf” a couple feet above the grate. Thomas and I backed up to separate doorways, ready to run for it in case anything went wrong (brave “seconds” we were not). Mr. Cramer cracked open the fire screen and aimed his gun.
“Crack!” I’d expected something HUGE, an explosion like the kind you hear during gunfights on TV. A revolver shooting birdshot sounds like a large firecracker. I have to admit I was a little disappointed until the squirrel came sprinting between Mr. Cramer’s legs out of the fireplace and directly toward—yes, you guessed it—me. It had been hit by some of the shot and was leaving a trail of blood across the floor. Trying to be useful, I’d positioned myself in front of the door to my screen porch, thinking I could open it just in case the squirrel did exactly what it was doing now—furiously running around, spewing blood, and getting closer and closer to me. I opened the door, jumped in back of the squirrel to herd it outside, and watched it ran out onto the porch where Mr. Cramer ended it’s poor life with another shot.
The whole episode took no more than two minutes, which is an eternity in minor household catastrophes. Squirrel dispensed, Mr. Cramer calmly put its body into my garbage can and Thomas helped me clean up the blood. After carefully repacking his revolver, Mr. Cramer walked back to his truck carrying the case, neatly backed out of my driveway and returned home to finish decorating the Cramer’s Christmas tree.
I suspect some reading this will be shocked or unhappy at how I handled my squirrel “problem”. I’m sure there was some way I could have gotten it out of the house alive but for various reasons I won’t go into, this just wasn’t the holiday for me to risk rabies to save one squirrel’s life. This year it was right to call Mr. Cramer. This year it was good to give in and not try to be too self-sufficient. This year it was a good year to ask for help and enjoy being helped.
It feels like there aren’t that many places left where you can solve a crazy squirrel problem without calling someone in a uniform and a panel van who charges you $100 just for showing up. I’ve lived in the South for two years now; most of that time consumed with running a new business, not battling squirrels. Through the new friends I’ve made, I’ve come to find that the South, like rural Washington State where I grew up, is full of helpful, hardworking, practical people who will selflessly show up at your house late on a holiday evening to shoot a squirrel trapped in your fireplace, help you clean up the mess, relive the highlights for a few minutes and then head back home to finish doing whatever they were doing as if it were no big deal.
And, that’s a big deal.