I’ve eaten squirrel

Way back in the 1980s, when Madonna was new and Lady Gaga was only a noise you made in the privacy of your own bathroom, I was the editor of a weekly newspaper.

It was a turbulent time in my life; at 23 I had aspirations of big-time journalism but was hampered by things like having to write on an electric typewriter and supervising an editorial staff of two, which included myself. The job was enlivened by the fact that I was presiding over the sole publication of the town where I was reared, and by spending much of a summer covering a grisly murder trial, the defendant in which was a member of my high-school graduating class.


None of that has anything to do, however, with the fact that during this year, 1986, I consumed fried squirrel.

One of the things I miss desperately about being a reporter is all the interesting and unexpected things you get to do. In no particular order, among other duties both savory and unsavory, I’ve —

• Interviewed and photographed Cheryl Ladd

• Toured a dairy farm

• Covered a wedding between two carnival workers, on a Tilt-a-Whirl

• Profiled an all-senior citizen jazz band

• Interviewed a World War I veteran

• Written about a pet cemetery

Any one of these items would make an interesting blog post, and of course each made an interesting story published in an actual newspaper. Since my foray into television, I’ve also profiled a llama farm, the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and ostrich burgers, as well as written scripts on subjects ranging from Melungeons to a Kentucky Derby winner.

Of course, along the way, you attend a lot of meetings of planning and zoning commissions, city councils, school boards, and just plain boreds. You wait outside in the hall during a lot of executive sessions, and you go to bed after four-hour meetings that end at midnight, and then get to work by 7 a.m. to write three stories based on that meeting for publication that afternoon.

But you also get to eat fried squirrel.

Rodents aren’t the only thing I consumed in the name of rural journalism; I once was the delighted recipient of a pound of home-churned butter. The lady who churned it had served as a “correspondent” for a neighboring town’s weekly for — oh, I don’t remember now — maybe 50 years, and I was profiling her and her little homey column. For those of you not raised in rural areas, local papers often published news from little communities about who’s visiting who, births and deaths, and other ordinary occurrences. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, when such goings-on were actually news.

The reason the butter was memorable (in addition to it was incredibly delicious on toasted homemade wheat bread) was that I was able to gaze upon the actual cow who produced the milk that made the butter, as I sat on the front porch interviewing the gracious correspondent. Her husband also plowed using draft horses, an incredible sight to see.

As was the plate of squirrel.

The squirrel actually was tied, metaphorically speaking, to the World War I veteran, whom I heard about from a representative of the local VFW (or Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post. The local post provided a watering hole for veterans, and did good works, too, like getting a WWI vet a hearing aid he couldn’t afford. They thought I might want to “write up” the donation, which I did — but I was much more interested in meeting him. This event is now more than 20 years ago, but even in the 1980s it was still far, far removed from a conflict that ended when women didn’t even have the vote. Hells yes, I wanted to interview him!

Which I did, and duly published the story of our meeting, which mainly was conducted via writing the questions on my pad, since he was stone deaf and hadn’t yet received the hearing aid. Yet he recited, from memory, in German, a poem he learned after the war, where he spent a few years doing something with German industry.

And then, I was invited to the VFW Post to dine on squirrel.

It was, as I have mentioned, fried, so I can report it was delicious — inasmuch as anything batter-dipped and deep-fried is. It also, as I always report when relaying this tale, tasted like nuts. I absolutely am not making that up. Nuts. Yes, indeed, fried squirrel tastes like nuts.

That’s just the sort of education rural journalism will provide, along with murder trials, meeting movie stars, politicians — and other celebrities, like butter-producing cows grazing in the pasture off the front porch, and Great War vets who will recite poetry for a rapt audience of one, in a tiny town in rural Kentucky.

A plethora of tornadic activity

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog today for an update from the National Weather Service. There is a tornado WARNING in effect for the area directly above your head.

Well, maybe not directly, but that’s just what it feels like when you’re in the middle of a storm and suddenly herded into the basement. In my case, the basement in question was beneath the Cathedral and I was surrounded by about a thousand middle school students.

OK, so it only sounds like a thousand in a basement hallway after we’ve been sitting on the hard linoleum floor for 45 minutes.

But yes — this morning Tras and I were innocently attending Mass, which incidentally was the day that the middle schoolers at the parish school also had Mass. Blissfully singing along, we were — when abruptly the piano trailed off and Father announced, “There’s a tornado warning — let’s all head to the basement!”

When a Man of God speaks, you listen.

So we all trailed downstairs, speaking only in hushed, are-we-gonna-die tones. The children were instructed to sit in the hallway along the wall and, being a good Catholic school veteran myself (although my experience was directly with Catholic School Nuns) I did obediently sit along the wall with them. I yanked Tras down to the floor with me; he, being a newly minted Catholic, wasn’t quite as responsive to instructions from Catholic-school teachers.

It wasn’t our first foray into the basement this tornado season. Last Friday, the first Tornado Warning was issued for our county — a situation about which we were blissfully unaware until I received a telephone call from my mother.

An Aside

This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten a Tornado Warning from Mom. About 15 years ago, the phone rang around 11 o’clock at night. I was already in bed, exhausted from spending the day at the Oaks, which is (for the non-Kentuckians among us) the race for fillies the day before the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Oaks has become a tradition in Louisville as a more sedate day at the races than the Derby, which brings out millionaires and mouthbreathers alike for a day of partying at the Downs. Still, I’d spent a day dressed up and drinking mint julips; I was whipped.

Then, the phone. It was my mother’s voice, and when you hear  your mother’s voice when you’ve been awakened from a deep sleep, it sounds something like the Voice of God. In this case, the Voice said, “Get in the bathtub, Ellen. There’s a tornado headed right for your house!”

The bathtub instruction was added because, at the time, I was living in a house without a basement. But no matter, The Voice had instructed me to get to the bathroom, and get I did. Springing from bed and grabbing baby Claire (now 16) from her crib, I launched myself toward the bathroom. I don’t think I became fully conscious until I was almost in the tub itself.

Back to Last Friday

So anyway, Friday evening Mom again calls, this time with less panic-inducing instructions, which were to turn on the TV and listen to what they were saying. We were again under a tornado warning. Still the dutiful daughter, I complied, and we all sat around listening to the weatherman tell us about the incomprehensible radar information appearing on the screen, which was indicative of tornadic activity.

Now, I’ve heard the word “tornado” and experienced “tornado” first-hand since I was a small fry; I did, after all, live through the Super Outbreak that occurred throughout the midwest and southeast in April 1974. But in all that time, I’ve never heard it referred to as “tornadic activity,” and the term strikes me as frighteningly hilarious and ridiculously verbose.

Indeed, why have a tornado when you can have “tornadic activity”? Tornadic, tornadic, tornadic. My son Christopher remarked with a completely straight face, “I can honestly say I have never heard that word until today.” Me neither, son.

So when Tornadic Activity Weatherman announced Friday evening that the hot-zone for the aforementioned tornadics was between the two very roads which bound my subdivision, I herded my offspring, plus one visiting friend, down to the basement for some quality time with the basketball hoop, toy cars and swing.

No such luck this morning, when all I had to entertain me was Tras, the iPhone and some random middle-schoolers. As Tras and I updated the moving weather map on our Weather Bug apps, the girls sitting next to me wanted to know if I liked to shop. (What is it, tattooed on my forehead or something? Sheesh.)

They also asked if I had any cool apps — a rather non-so-subtle hint that they’d just love to get their textie little fingers on my phone, I’m sure — so I showed them the face melter.

They are cute girls, as you can see, even before I melted their faces. They quickly became bored with making polite chit-chat with somebody’s mom they didn’t really know, and went back to drawing on the paper the teachers provided. After a bit, they trooped reluctantly upstairs for school; we rejoined Father in the church after an hour-long gap in morning Mass. Soon we were back outdoors, which still seemed to contain most of Lexington.

Looking at the weather systems brewing west of here, I have a feeling this isn’t the end of the week’s tornadic activity. But maybe if I just say it repeatedly, I’ll scare all tornadic everything away. It’s scared me enough already.

Rainy days and Mondays

It’s been a soggy weekend. Louisville on Derby Day received two inches of rain. Derby hats, as you can see, were severely threatened.

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On Sunday, roads were closed all over the state. Dams washed away, menacing innocent towns. There are slim rivers running down my basement walls.

Yesterday morning at Mass, Father abandoned the sprinkling rite, whereby we all are doused/blessed with Holy Water, he said, “for the obvious reasons.” Apparently, when it comes to water, we’d been blessed enough. About the time he made this announcement, I noticed a rather fast-moving stream barreling down one of the enormous pillars inside the church.

This was at 9 am. By 8 o’clock that night, the rain still poured down. My children cheerfully (and I use that term loosely) performed their Sunday evening duties, taking out the trash and placing the cans at the curb for Monday-morning collection. They looked damp yet rather cute. The photo’s not much to speak of; I was standing on the porch trying to keep the camera dry and at such times I apparently lose focus.

Isn’t the grass a lovely shade of green, though? All verdant and growing, thanks to the nearly four inches of rain. Rain that, on a less cosmic scale, has prevented me from getting out there and getting dirty by grubbing in the garden.

Here you see the tense scene on my window sill.

These poor things have been languishing in an inch of soil in egg crates, waiting for their permanent home in the back yard. There, abundant weeds choke out the azaleas and sundry other plants. This despite the fact that I dumped an entire trailer-load of dirt back there last summer ON TOP of a bunch of cardboard to kill the weeds and,  more importantly, the mint. Short of a flame-thrower, though, there’s not much you can do with mint, except make a metric buttload of juleps.

Anyway, the heavens opened Saturday morning at around 6 am and apparently liked staying good and open. My deck is drenched and sad; no sunny annuals in porch boxes yet.

But I suppose it’s still early. There’s plenty of time for the world to dry out, the pollen to fill the air — and when that happens  I really, really know it’s springtime in Kentucky.

It’s a mud world

Yesterday we here in Kentucky celebrated the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. We also celebrated, if you can call it that, the non-stop rain which left the track muddy, the Derby hats limp and jockey Calvin Borel with his third Kentucky Derby win in four years — a new record.

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There’s Calvin on the right, living up to his nickname, “Bo-Rail,” for his affection for running his horse along the rail. It worked for him last year on Mine That Bird and in 2007 on Street Sense, when he won his first Derby as Queen Elizabeth watched from the grandstand.

“It’s the shortest way around,” he always says.

I grew up in Kentucky and I’ve never lived anywhere else, so the Derby is as ordinary to me as air. I’m not Horse People,  I’m not remotely connected to anything horsey, except by proximity, since I live in Lexington, and I’ve only been to the Derby twice. There are Kentuckians who don’t pay a whole lot of attention  to the annual horse race, which captures at least some of the world’s attention for a couple minutes on the first Saturday in May. And that’s OK too. But for me, it’s something completely ordinary to turn on the TV on Saturday afternoon on Derby Day and watch the coverage, or maybe attend a party (though I haven’t been to one in years).

But my interest stepped up a notch a couple years ago when Calvin Borel was brought to my attention. He’s from Louisiana, home state of my beloved, who falls into the group I mentioned above — they who pay only scant attention to the Run for the Roses. We were  both captivated by his self-effacing manner, his bald displays of emotion upon winning the holy grail of horseracing and his patented method for achieving the win. Now in one of those “I was country before country was cool” moments, I was a Calvin girl before Calvin was cool. I was drawn to him by the association with Tras’s homestate and well, look at him now.

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Here’s his wife getting a victory smooch and holding up three fingers for his third win … maybe it’s for the Triple Crown,  where Calvin’s headed next.

We all love a good story, and Calvin certainly is one. He’s like a cross between Rocky and Seabiscuit. Plucked from obscurity in 2007, trainer Carl Nafzger gave him his shot on Street Sense and look at him now. He owns the Derby.

See you at Pimlico for the Preakness in two weeks, Calvin. Maybe the rain will have stopped by then.