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Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts

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Fall is hunting season. I’m not a hunter, never have been – unless you include a traumatic childhood episode that still stains my dreams on restless nights.

When I was a boy in Southern California our Little League baseball field was located on semi-wild terrain adjacent to a cliff that dropped precipitously down to the ocean. Foul balls to left field were a big problem for the league and a bonanza for the daring youths who braved the cliffs to retrieve horsehide booty.

Gophers were an even bigger problem: a populous colony had created a network of tunnels that led to cave-ins of the field’s surface after rains, and entry/exit holes that led to twisted ankles and the potential for worse.

One breezy spring afternoon when I was about 9, the worst happened at practice: our head coach’s son was running for a fly ball, deep in concentration and under a full head of steam. The boy’s shoe caught a gopher hole and he flew through the air rather spectacularly only to land on his right wrist with a sickening snap that echoed off the outfield fence and the dugouts with doubtless finality. The boy turned from swaggering sportsman to stricken child, the coach to horrified father in an instant. The verdict: broken wrist, out for the season.

Coach ran our next practice with an uncharacteristic fervency: he barked out orders sharply, hit grounders with more authority than usual, pitched batting practice with extra zip.

After practice he rounded up the lads conspiratorially and said we had to do something for his son, our fallen compatriot, and all of the other boys who had been injured due to the rodents over the years.

“Chuck’s injury is the gophers’ fault, and I am dead sick of them!,” Coach’s voice rose to a shout.

He handed everyone a bat, spread us out over the field and told us to position ourselves over gopher holes. He then ran a hose to the mother of all gopher holes, and told us to whack anything that emerged upon his signal.

“Aim for the head, boys,” he said grimly, “and do it for Chuck,” his son. Mixing public service – avenging injuries past and preventing injuries future, protecting our sacred field of dreams from insidious interlopers – with the tingle of a taboo waived, we glared down at the offending holes.

The coach gave the signal and turned on the hose with a flourish. Furry heads popped up, were attacked, the slaughter commenced: a remarkable display of pre-adolescent blood lust, a lawless time of primordial frenzy.

Disembodied gopher heads flew everywhere like some perverse driving range; blood dripped from our cudgels; our eyes widened and nostrils flared with atavistic killer instinct. We must have looked quite a scene from a safe distance: a mob of pygmies bludgeoning rodents with furious abandon and righteous indignation.

The carnage unfolded in the silence of great concentration, other than the swoosh and thud of bats swinging and connecting with dirt and rodent. There were dozens of rodent casualties strewn across the battlefield. Then there was a single cry of pain as one of the boys hit himself in the foot.

His shouts and cries of pain broke the fevered spell. Snapped out of our collective blood trance, we stood there and stared at our handiwork in disbelief, shaking a little as the steady sea breeze ruffled dead rodent hair. One boy clutched his mouth and ran off toward the cliff.

I felt an overwhelming surfeit of emotions: debauched disgust, pride, vengeance achieved, sorrow, fear of my own and my friend’s capacity for lethal violence. Viewing the rodent corpses around me, I had a sudden vision of my burgeoning family of pet white rats jogging peaceably on their wheels, nibbling cutely on sunflower seeds held between little paws.

But I banished the vision – this was different: these were dangerous pests wreaking devastation on our field, causing grievous injury to my peers. They had to be eradicated, it was us against them, and besides we were told to do it by an adult. I dropped my bat and brushed some gopher remnants from my pants.

After attending to the bruised psyche and foot of the injured player, our coach, clearly taken aback by the fury he had unleashed, quietly congratulated us and also advised us not to tell our mothers, whose delicate sensibilities might be offended by our work. This was between us guys.

Word got out of course – 9 year-old boys keep their mouths shut about something like this? There was a stern dictate from the league that such forms of pest eradication would not be tolerated in the future, but this was a different time and place. The coach was well thought of, his son HAD broken his wrist, and the gophers had to go. There was no disciplinary action, but that doesn’t mean there were no consequences.

For years I had recurring nightmares of giant, bucktoothed avengers chasing me over endless fields pitted with gopher holes the size of bomb craters. I had to get rid of my white rats – I just couldn’t look at them any more. And I have felt the guilty pleasure of succumbing to the flush of blood lust more than once since that day, a feeling I had never previously experienced. Most seriously, as a young adult I was attacked silently by a small dog from behind when jogging, and I lost all control over myself until I had kicked it to death. I am still not over that horror.

Be careful what you unleash: some genies can never be put back in their bottles.

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About Eric Olsen