THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOOTER MCCORMICK -- SQUIRRELED AWAY

by: Wes Ishmael

Hooter's old friend, Uncas Bingelmeyer was usually more carefree than the owner of a new credit card at a discount store. Today, though, he watched the scenery speed by as if they were approaching doom instead of Tulsa.

Uncas shifted to see Hooter out of his right eye; the left one was bandaged and being treated for an infection. “I really do appreciate you coming along,” Uncas said. “Remember what I told you, he's a little different.”

Uncas was talking about his cousin, Zebb, whom Hooter was driving them to see. Uncas told him that he needed to make the trip, but didn't feel comfortable driving half-blind so to speak. Hooter knew there was more to it than that; Uncas would speed merrily along in torrential rain or a blizzard.

“Speaking of cousins, did I tell you Charlie and are about due for our annual visit from Smelly Nelly?”

That's what Hooter and Charlie called their city cousin, Priscilla, ever since they were old enough to remember. They couldn't stand each other. Aunt Pinkie, on the other hand, thought Priscilla was tops, which meant the boys had to play nice as they possibly could.

“What? No, I don't think you did. Well, isn't that nice,” Uncas said, obviously not hearing a word Hooter said. “Anyway, remember, Zebb is just a mite different than you and I.”

Anyone who knew Uncas like Hooter did would find plenty of humor in the description, like the proverbial pot announcing the color of the kettle. On further consideration, the assertion was downright unsettling. If Uncas thought they were different, whoa.

Actually, Hooter found Zebb to be a pleasant sort. His sprawling house and grounds between Tulsa and Claremore were well kept, as was Zebb himself. He was about the same age as Uncas, Hooter guessed, and wore the same sort of overalls that Uncas favored.

Uncas even seemed to be enjoying the visit until Zebb announced, “I think it's time for Hooter to see the collection. You've already told him, I suppose.”

“No, no I haven't,” Uncas said. He gave Hooter one of those looks that begs forgiveness for the uncontrollable. “I didn't want to steal your thunder, and I didn't know that there'd be time.”

Zebb was already up and motioning them to follow. “There's always time for this. I don't believe you'll be disappointed Hooter.”

Storing Opportunity

When Zebb opened the double doors at the end of a long hallway, Hooter was greeted by one of those unexpected, yet mesmerizing sights, like seeing a clown at a funeral.

The room was huge, at least 50x50, Hooter reckoned, with a ceiling no less than 16 ft. high; it looked even higher at the back. Scattered across the floor was what appeared to be a miniature-sized carnival. Instead of people, though, the inhabitants were squirrels.

At first, Hooter didn't think the squirrels were real. There wasn't a flicker of movement from them until Zebb snapped his fingers. The scene exploded to life.

“For what it's worth, Mr. McCormick, they don't like sudden movement.”

“Neither do I, so we should get along fine,” Hooter said through clenched teeth.

Some folks think squirrels are cute, of course. According to various accounts of history, they were all the rage as house pets in the early days of this country, but were uncommon enough that cities populated parks with them to serve as an attraction.

Others welcomed the ensuing proliferation of varmints, believing squirrels are best served in stew at a new moon.

Then there are those like Hooter who believe squirrels are nothing more than rats with fuzzy tails, which are capable of even more destruction. Hooter once went five rounds with one that invaded the attic of an urban buddy before he and the squirrel grudgingly declared a draw.

That helps explain how difficult it was for Hooter to hold his tongue and ground when introduced to the odd spectacle.

Zebb began the tour, taking slow and deliberate steps.

In the distance were two gray squirrels sitting politely side by side, on a slowly spinning Ferris wheel, looking around them as if for the first time. One wore sunglasses.

Closer to where Hooter stood was some sort of arcade shooting game, with a squirrel sitting behind the counter of the booth, decked out in overalls, snapping its tail rhythmically and chattering like a carnival barker.

Further along was a concession stand selling nuts, of course. The fuzzy brown worker wore a red and white striped vest and seemed to be doing a land office business, placing an unshelled peanut on the counter when a squirrel would scurry up and deposit a gummy bear on the counter.

“That one doesn't ever give any freebies,” Zebb said, neither here nor there, to no one in particular.

There was even the standard strongman game where you swing a sledge and try to propel a puck against gravity to hit the bell. In this case, a red squirrel in a sleeveless t-shirt and bandana was using a mallet with an acorn-shaped head.

“I assume one of them has a flea circus?” Hooter said as kindly as he could.

“What?” asked Zebb. His eyes gained new sparkle. “You know, that has real possibilities.”

Uncas glared at Hooter.

“I see you added another ride,” Uncas said, pointing up to a tramcar moving slowly over the tableaux. A gray squirrel was sitting atop the bright yellow car, for a couple of seconds, anyway, before skittering along the cable to the other side.

Zebb explained he got the idea from the annual squirrel festival in Longview, Washington. “Do you know, the seeds for that homage were planted years ago when some of the locals built a suspension bridge across a busy street so that the squirrels could cross safely?”

All Hooter could do is shrug. “What about that up there,” he asked, pointing to a sign attached high up on what used to be a chimney. The sign said, “Baron V.”

Uncas took hold of Hooter's arm, pressing him toward the exit. “Well, Zebb, we certainly don't want to keep you.”

Zebb had Hooter's other arm and was steering him with even more encouragement in the opposite direction.

“I'm so glad you asked,” Zebb said with a smile of pure joy. “If you'll just sit in this chair over here. Now, if we're lucky. Just hold this out beside you.” He gave Hooter a candy cane.

If Hooter would have looked, he would have seen Uncas shaking his head in despair, but something told Hooter to keep his eye on that chimney sign. He thought he saw movement, then something coming toward him, then he felt his face covered in smelly fuzz, along with pinches on his cheeks, then the view was clear once again.

Before Hooter could start to untangle what happened, two beady little eyes and bucked teeth were peering upside down at him from the bill of his cap.

“Well done. Well done everybody,” said Zebb with a merry voice. “The Baron must like you Hooter, he won't do that for just anyone.”

“Huh?”

The beady eyes disappeared. When Hooter looked back to Zebb, there was a squirrel sitting on his shoulder, holding and licking the candy cane. Hooter would have sworn that the squirrel winked at him.

“This is Baron V.,” Zebb explained. “As in Baron Von Ricthofen, the Red Baron, my one and only flying squirrel. He always get's what he aims for.”

Uncas was bending down into Hooter's view. “I'm so sorry. He's never tried that with anyone new before. You know how cousins can be.”

The fog cleared as Hooter thought about his own cousin's impending visit.

“So, Zebb, how much does it cost to rent the Baron for a day or two?”







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