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Son Of Squirrel


Jonathan Kronstadt

It was the perfect father-son morning. Perfect, that is, until we saw the squirrel.

We’d arrived at Cabin John Park fresh off a culturally-enriching, if soggy, children’s theater performance at Strathmore Arts Center.

Rockville, Maryland, was unusually inviting that mid-summer Thursday, and our outing was clicking on all cylinders. We boarded the train at Cabin John just as it was about to leave, and got an A-plus ride, filled with cool breezes, raspberry bush sightings, and sticks. Max is three, and he likes sticks.

There wasn’t even any fuss getting off the train, nor a request for a second ride. Instead, Max said he wanted food, so we ambled into the snack bar and faced the culinary fork in the road - hot dog or pizza - with confidence and pride. That’s when I made my first mistake of the day (it was nearly noon, and I was so close to breaking my own record). Max said he wanted a hot dog, but I’d just read an article proclaiming all hot dogs, even those made of tofu or tree bark, only slightly healthier than strychnine. Apparently the tube-like shape is a breeding ground for carcinogens. Besides, he loved pizza, so I asked him a second time, hoping for a different response. He probably sensed which way I was leaning, and desperate to please the man without whom there would be no trains, trucks, car carriers, or Chex mix, he caved. We’ll never know what might have happened - or not happened - if we’d gone with the dog instead.

I suggested we bypass the picnic tables - too conventional - in favor of lunch on the bridge overlooking the train tracks. If you’re scoring at home, that was mistake number two. As Max happily munched his pizza and drank his apple juice, we agreed that it was in fact a good day but split on the issue of removing his shoes. That’s when the squirrel appeared.

Now I virtually grew up in nearby Rock Creek Park, and have always  had deep affection for squirrels. I love the way they chase each other up trees, marvel at their death-defying leaps from the tiny branches of one tree to another, and admire their industry when it comes to collecting nuts and other foodstuffs. I lived in Minneapolis for a while, and Dutch Elm disease had robbed the city of many of its mature trees and most of its squirrels, and I actually missed the little rodents.

These days I live virtually in Sligo Creek Park, home of mighty oaks and many squirrels. And despite my wife’s claims that they are merely rats with bushy tails, I have always been a defender of squirrels. I adored Rocky and Bullwinkle, as all right-thinking children did.

So when the squirrel first appeared, I may not have been charmed, but I certainly wasn’t looking for a fight. But then he (or she, I didn’t get that close) started creeping up on us in a vaguely disturbing way. I made a move that was not intended to threaten, but merely to suggest that there wasn’t enough pizza for three. The night before I had seen a Seinfeld rerun in which George runs over some New York City pigeons, first with his car, then with his feet. He protests that these pigeons broke the deal they have with humans, which is that they get out of the way and we cast a blind eye to the statue-pooping. I thought it was the same with squirrels, the deal being that they run away when we so much as twitch, and we keep acorns out of the food pyramid.

But this was clearly a rogue squirrel, one that had decided he deserved to be higher up on the food chain. I stood up. He did nothing. I stomped my foot. He scritched his claws. I made an ungainly lurching-type move toward him. He peed. A lot. I don’t know what this meant, but it can’t have been friendly. Then I started thinking, is it squirrels or raccoons that carry rabies? Not wanting to gamble our health on my knowledge of rodent genetics, I decided to back off. The squirrel seized the moment - and half the pizza - then scampered off to eat and have a good little squirrel laugh.

My pride wounded but my son safe, we walked off the bridge and back to the playground. I rationalized my seeming cowardice as follows: 1) I was out of my neighborhood, and who knows what these North Bethesda/Rockville squirrels were capable of. Perhaps the emptiness and crass commercialism of their upper-middle class lifestyle had left them without a moral center; and 2) the pizza sucked anyway.

Max and I will go back to Cabin John, and soon. But next time we’ll eat in the car.

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