I was twelve years old in the summer of 1951. It was the first day of school vacation when Johnny Hill rode into the yard, dropped his bike, and rushed into the kitchen as I was eating my breakfast.
“I’m going over to Doc Hopkins’s office. He has some baby raccoons. Do you want to come along?” he asked breathlessly.
I gulped down my milk as I headed out the door for my bike.
I have no idea how Johnny got the information about the raccoons. In a small town, news could travel fast over back fences and down alleys. It only took us a couple of minutes of fast riding to get to Doc’s office.
Doc Hopkins was the town veterinarian in Early, Iowa. While he helped families in the town keep their pets healthy, the focus of his practice was livestock. He usually had some horses in the pen behind his office. This was one of the places boys liked to check out as we rode around observing what was happening in our small town.
Other boys were already there talking with Doc. As we arrived, he brought out a small cardboard box. Everyone crowded around. Three baby raccoons were inspecting us from the bottom of the box. They looked a lot like new-born kittens or puppies.
Doc told us he had been called to a farm to tend to some hogs. The farmer told Doc that while cultivating a corn field the day before, he had run over and killed a mother raccoon. He stopped his tractor to check on her. The three little babies were crawling over their dead mother trying to get food. Feeling sorry for the motherless babies, the farmer put them in the box. Doc agreed to take them off his hands.
“What are you going to do with them?” someone asked.
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “What do you think I should do?”
“Would they make good pets?” Johnny asked.
“Boys, you have to remember, these are wild animals. Right now they are cute little babies. They need help eating and protection from other animals, like dogs. They could be a pets, but later this summer they will be big enough to take care of themselves. Then they will want go back to nature to be a raccoon. If you promise to take good care of them, I’ll let you have them.”
Bobbie James stepped up to take the box from Doc. “I’m sure my parents will let me keep them,” he said. He then walked the block to his house carrying the box while we all trailed along behind.
As soon as Bobbie and his entourage arrived home, his mother reinforced what Doc had said. She pointed out that the cute little baby raccoons will soon be big, wild raccoons. There was no way she was going to have these animals in her house.
While negotiating with his mother, Bobbie found some wire fencing material, and we all helped make a temporary pen for the three babies. His mother soon started to give in to the pleading. Holding the little babies probably helped to soften her heart. Finally she gave in. Bobbie could keep one, but the other two had to go to other homes. “Before you take them, get your parent’s permission,” she announced, as we all hurried off to beg out parents.
Our family was not a big pet family. I had once had a dog named Shep. He was part collie and other parts unknown. As my sisters and I were getting bigger, Shep was getting huge. Our house seemed to be shrinking. My parents decided there just wasn’t enough room for Shep. Mom was delighted when Dad found a home for him on a farm.
It was a surprise to me when my parents gave their consent to my taking one of the raccoons. They gave in sooner than I expected when I started begging. I did have to pledge to take care of the animal, and do many extra chores.
No sooner did they say “OK,” and I was back at Bobbie’s house to get my new pet.
The other raccoon recipient was Chuck Jones. Bobbie, Chuck, and I were studying the little raccoons trying to decide which one each of us would take. There were another half-dozen boys standing there evaluating and discussing the merits of each baby. They all looked alike, but two were a lot friskier.
After we had gotten a chance to hold each of the babies, it was decided we’d draw straws to determine the order of selection. I got the short straw. Bobbie and Chuck took the two friskier babies. I was left with the more lethargic one.
When I picked up my raccoon, he crawled up my shirt and nestled into my body with his head under my chin. He might not have been as lively as the others, but he was more affectionate. He knew at once that he was mine, and from that moment on, we loved each other.
That evening Mom, Dad, my sisters, and I sat in a circle on the grass in the backyard with the baby raccoon in the middle. He soon won them all over by going to each one to get a pat on his head, and to give them each little snuggles.
“What’s his name?” Mom asked.
“If he is a part of the family, he needs a name.” Dad said.
I hadn’t thought about naming my raccoon, but I agreed that pets need names.
“How about Pokey since he is slower than the others?” I suggested.
“That sounds like a good raccoon name.” Dad replied.
Mom did draw the line that Pokey was not allowed in the house. She did soften it a little by letting me make a little bed for Pokey on the screened in back porch.
That summer Pokey was my constant companion. When I was riding my bike, he would sit on my shoulder or ride draped around my neck. There were even times when he would climb up on my head giving me a live raccoon cap. These were the days before anyone wore a helmet.
Within a week of the raccoons being adopted, the other two died. Pokey alone seemed to thrive. He was getting bigger by the day.
Slick Stevens lived across the alley from the back of our house. To a kid, he was a scary person. Usually Slick could be found sitting on the low window ledge of a store on Main Street. Slobber and tobacco juice would be running down through the whiskery stubble on his chin onto the dirty bib-overalls. A dirty old slouch hat was pulled down over his eyes while white whiskers covered his face. I always thought he looked drunk.
Dad told me once he had heard the Women’s Club had a committee planning how to beautify the town. The plan seemed to be to get a park bench off of Main Street for Slick, so he wouldn’t be the first thing visitors to the town would see. It didn’t work. As far as I know, they never got him off Main Street.
Behind Slick’s house and directly across the alley behind our house was a tumble down shed. Vines covered this building. I appeared it was the vines and weeds that kept the shed from falling down.
Slick’s house was covered with tar paper. Large old box elder trees surrounded and totally covered the house. Fallen limbs were rotting on the roof. It was so closed in with brush and trees that it looked almost like a cave. The lack of windows added to the cave like appearance.
Next to Slick was the home of Mush and Maude. Theirs was a little more of a house than Slick’s. Perhaps this was because it had some unpainted, weathered siding. There was enough cleared space by the house for Mush to park his old beat up pick-up.
Slick and Mush were painters. At least that’s what I was told. I never heard of them painting anything, or knew of anyone who had hired them. Mostly they seemed like bums.
In the winter, they trapped muskrats in the rivers and ponds around the area. Occasionally skinned animal hides would be hanging from the clothes line strung between trees by Mush’s house.
Mush had a small pack of coon hounds that I never saw cross to our side of the alley. Summer evenings, Mush and Slick would put the hounds in the back of the pick-up, and head over to the Raccoon River to the east of Early. If they had a successful hunt, we would see the coon skins hanging from the line in the morning.
While Slick and Mush were close neighbors, we had very little contact with them. They stayed pretty much to themselves. It was only when they ran into a skunk on one of their hunting or trapping events that we really gave them notice. The skunk smell they carried home was strong enough to affect the senses of everyone within two blocks. Fortunately the skunk encounters were rare.
The coon hounds noticed Pokey more than I noticed them. Mush had a pen for them by his house. I thought they were always in this pen that was back by the alley near the shed behind Slick’s house. I would occasionally notice the hounds standing in their pen by the alley just staring at Pokey. Since they didn’t make a fuss about him, I didn’t think much about the danger they were to my pet. Little did I know they were patiently waiting for their opportunity to do what coon hounds are bred to do when they see or smell a raccoon. As long as Pokey was by my side, and staying on our side of the alley, he was safe.
Within about six weeks, Pokey was getting to be a full sized raccoon. My parents noticed that some people were a little agitated when they saw Pokey. I suppose it could be a little disconcerting to people to see a large raccoon ambling down the street. Dad came up with the idea that I get a dog collar and leash for him. The plan was for me to use the collar and leash when I took Pokey out of the yard. Seeing he was restrained might be a comfort to those who saw him as a dangerous wild animal.
Pokey didn’t think much of the idea. For the first few days, he was the one who was agitated. He tried everything he could think of to get the collar off. Pushing with his paws and rolling in the grass didn’t provide him with any relief. At last he seemed to resign himself to being like a pet dog. He would let me put on the leash, but his favorite way to get around with me was still hanging on my neck or sitting on my head.
Raccoon paws were of great interest to me. Unlike a dog, Pokey could grasp objects. When he ate a carrot, Pokey would sit back on his haunches holding the carrot in his forepaws while eating it like a human. He could also grasp thinks like a door handle. I learned this shortly after putting him on the back porch. Pokey figured out how to climb up the screen door, grasp the handle, pull it down, and swing outside as the door opened. Attaching a hook at the top of the door was the solution to the problem of keeping him from going out to wonder around the neighborhood when I thought he was curled up sleeping on his bed.
I got lazy one night late in the summer, and didn’t take the trouble to take off Pokey’s leash or to hook the door when I put him to bed. The next morning, the back porch was empty.
That day and the next were spent riding around town on my bike with several buddies calling for Pokey. I asked everyone I saw if they had seen my little raccoon. Where was he? I had a bad feeling that something bad had happened to him. Being reassured by others that he had probably grown to the point where he wanted to go back to the wild, didn’t help me. Knowing that I had left the leash attached to him, increased my sense of guilt.
On the third day, one of the Platt kids came to me with the news that he knew where I could find Pokey. The Platts lived across the alley on the other side of Slick. Mush’s wife, Maude, was their grandmother. There were a lot of Platt kids. The boy who came to me was about six or seven years old.
His story was that the night Pokey got out, he crossed the alley. Mush’s coon hounds were out of their pen, saw their opportunity, and attacked. The leash had trapped Pokey in some rusty wire near the shed behind Slick’s house. Hearing the dogs howling, Slick went out to investigate. He rescued Pokey with the intention of fattening him up before eating my pet. At this very moment, Pokey was badly injured lying in a box in Slick’s house.
Johnny, Rich, Chuck, and Roger were all with me when I got this news.
“What are you going to do?” Johnny asked.
“I’m going to get Pokey,” I replied.
“But he’s in Slick’s house. Nobody goes there.”
“Pokey needs me; I’m going to get him. Are you coming along?”
“We’re with you,” they all said.
I headed across the alley with my buddies and several Platt kids following. This was the first time I went near Slick’s house. As I waded through waist high weeds and pushed aside thorny bushes, I had my first good look at the tar paper shack where Pokey was waiting for me.
Gazing at the house, it seemed that I was peering into a cave. There was a partly open door hanging off torn hinges. There were no windows. It looked dark and foreboding. I turned to look at my followers who all seemed to be taking slow steps backwards. Driven by my sense of guilt in not taking better care of Pokey, I was determined to get him. Waiting wasn’t going to do me or Pokey any good. Shaking with fear, I slowly walked up to the door. I tapped on it.
A gruff, slurred voice from inside asked “Who’s there?”
Pushing open the door, I stepped into a very dark space.
In a weak and trembling voice I said “I’ve come for my raccoon.”
It took a minute or more for my eyes to adjust. My feet felt like I was standing on a dirt floor. Finally I saw Slick. He was sitting slouched in a chair in front of me. Drool was running down his chin as he just sat there staring in my direction. He wasn’t moving, just staring.
Finally he muttered something that sounded a little like, “I don’t have your raccoon.”
I had been told Pokey was in a box. Glancing around the room I spied a cardboard box sitting by what might have been a fireplace. I wasn’t taking an inventory of the house, so it might have been a cook stove. Walking to the box, I saw Pokey looking up at me with very sad eyes. He was obviously very injured.
I picked up the box and started for the door.
“That’s my dinner,” was the last thing I heard from Slick as I ran out the door fearing that he was coming after me.
I ran back across the alley and into my own yard before I took Pokey out of the box. He had been badly mauled by the hounds. Looking at me in his pain, I knew he was asking why I hadn’t protected him. I started crying. In fact, all of my buddies were also crying.
For the next two days, I nursed Pokey. It hurt him when I patted or even rubbed his back or head. He wouldn’t eat and drank very little. I felt very helpless.
Everyone tried to say things to make me feel better, but I was not only grieving for Pokey, I was feeling guilty. Having a pet, even if it is a wild animal, is a responsibility, and I had not acted responsibly. Nothing anyone said could make me feel better. I shed many tears in those days as I sat with the motionless little raccoon.
Mom and Dad had evidently been discussing how to resolve this loss of mine. Actually it was a loss for the whole family. They finally sat me down, and told me that the best thing for Pokey was to put him out of his misery. I didn’t want to hear that, but knew they were right.
Dad picked up the box with Pokey, and drove off in his car. About an hour later he came back without Pokey. He never told me where he went or what he did. When I asked, he only said, “Pokey is no longer suffering.”
Then he surprised me saying, “Come on in the car. I think you are now old enough to learn to drive.”
He headed out of town into the country to a deserted road. Stopping the car, he got out, walked around to the passenger side, told me to slide over behind the steering wheel, and for the first time in my twelve year life, I stepped on the gas driving slowly down a road.
I’ve never forgotten Pokey, but driving down that road my Dad had wisely gotten my mind off of the little raccoon for the first time in days.