The Wine Country Online

The Holiday 'Possum

By Jack Burton

A cook and chef since the late 1960's, Jack writes stories of his well-traveled working tours of the tail-end of the twentieth century. His first published book, Sonoma Picnic, a California Travel Companion, is available through the Book Shop.

Stan Boudrey was a blue-collar visionary. In his mind's eye he could see quite clearly a happy day in the not-too-distant future.

"Boss, I hate to tell you this, but I won't be in to work on Monday   ghee, ghee, ghee."

Stan had a peculiar, cartoon-quality type of snickering laugh. You hardly ever got a big ha, ha, ha out of the guy, but he was plenty full of the ghee, ghee, ghee.

"Yup, I'm retiring!"   ghee, ghee, ghee. "You can just put my last check in the mail!"   ghee, ghee, ghee.

This was not just an idle fantasy. Stan was investing his backbone, a couple of fingernails, and every penny he could lay his hands on in this little dream.

When Stan's father had passed away, he left a beautiful piece of land where his mother lived in a comfortable home the couple had built for their retirement. The land was almost two hundred acres of fields and hardwoods set on the southeast corner of a pretty lake in Jackson County, Michigan.

There was good hunting and fishing. All four seasons a shop-rat's paradise, with fat whitetails in the hayfields, rabbits down in the marsh, squirrels in the hardwoods, ducks, geese, pheasant, quail, partridge, and a lake full of fish. God, it went on and on! The place was just beautifully situated for the sporting life, and, Lord knows, Stanley was a sportsman.

There was also one problem to overcome, and that was how to make a living on the land. How to avoid the 140-mile round trip to the well-paid machinist's job in the tool shop back in Detroit.

This is where Stan's vision comes in.

Stan had talked his mother into letting him develop a campground and trailer park on a knoll overlooking the lake. There was an existing cabin there, and that's where my mother and father found Stan Boudrey. It was the summer of 1964. They were looking for a place to park the secondhand, sixteen-foot travel trailer they had just purchased.

My mom and dad's dream had been the freedom of the open road. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, sunny California! It only took them a couple of short excursions before the reality of hauling sixteen feet of comfortable camping around the country with a little Rambler American led them to four cinder blocks in the (then largely imaginary) Boudrey's Acres Trailer Park.

Stan had also convinced his wife Alice what a great lifestyle resort owners enjoyed: waterskiing, hunting, fishing. Every day a party with new friends.

Alice was a good sport about all this (charms of the resort lifestyle) business. While Stan was happily burying the septic tank and laying a tile field, Alice was doing her level best to turn the cabin into her idea of a mid-1960s dream home. No easy task, when Stan would rather be out clearing brush and grading all those camp and trailer spaces. He could see dollar signs in every blackberry tangle, a veritable fortune over in the low marsh, true happiness and a day closer to his goal with every load of fill dirt!

Alice wanted a lot. And she pretty much got anything she wanted. Formica in the kitchen, genuine wood paneling, new plumbing, oil heat and linoleum. Stan and Alice had an amazing energy level. It all progressed, and the dream took on a life of its own. And this also included plenty of time for cocktails, Bar-B-Q's, and all the aforementioned socializing and recreational activities.

Stan and Alice had some kind of God-given talent for getting things accomplished. They were a great, though somewhat oddly matched, team.

Alice maintained a wicked bouffant, and an elegant, wrinkle-free, 1960s working-class chic that included fabulous nails and a knockout wardrobe. All the other moms openly marveled at this and her ability to cohabitate with the casually disheveled Stan.

Stan had a jolly but decidedly unkempt air. His normal outfit was oily jeans, sneakers, and t-shirt in summer, a union suit, boots, and funky, blood-spattered wool hunting gear in winter. He generally appeared to be God's own messy little boy. He could do a brake job on the dump truck flat on his back in the dirt, keep a smoke going, and carry on a lively conversation with my dad concerning the merits of a #2 spinner with pork rind as opposed to surface plugs in the pursuit of largemouth bass over in the southwest corner of the lake.

"Hand me those Vise-Grips, would ya Jack?"

All the other dads were humbled by this raw talent. Most of them were regular, three-balls-in-the-air family types. Kids, wife, job, and then you kick back on the weekends. Walk and chew gum, OK. Maybe change the oil.

Not Stan Boudrey! Stan always had five balls up and could spin the dishes on the sticks. He was a one-man dog-and-pony show, like something you would expect to see on Ed Sullivan.

Stan always had time to fix the outboard and pull all the kids behind the ski boat. Paint the back bedroom for Alice? No problem! Then he would load up the truck with guns and trash and announce cheerily: "Let's go to the dump and shoot rats!"

All us kids loved Stan. None of the other dads ever wanted to go to the dump and shoot rats.

Well, actually to shoot at the occasional rat. Mostly we peppered old refrigerators, or blew up a discarded TV or two (on a good day). We generally just set interesting items up where you could get a clear shot at them and merrily blasted away. Water heaters were a favorite target when we could talk Stan into bringing along one of his old military rifles.

"Watch this, you guys! This thing could stop a tank!" Blam! And over would go the water heater. Ghee, ghee, ghee!

It was on the way back from the dump one evening that we encountered the Holiday 'Possum crossing the state road. Mister 'Possum, as 'possums are want to do, became somewhat befuddled by the approaching vehicle and was just standing his ground, dumbly, in the middle of the road. Stan managed to stop the truck in time. He impulsively grabbed a Levi jacket and bounded out to capture the bewildered beast.

This was a classic Stan thing to do. Kind of like the time he was compelled to take a couple of shots at a mouse in Alice's new kitchen with his antique Colt .45 revolver. It didn't make much sense, but then for Stan, I suppose, it didn't have to. We were in the cab of the truck, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding before us. The 'possum had regained his wits and tried to make a dash for the ditch by the side of the road.

Stan was too fast for the pokey 'possum. He tossed the denim jacket over the animal, and grabbed him up triumphantly. He turned to hold his prize up for us to see, but what we saw was Stan on the cusp of a bad moment.

We have, I am sure, all experienced our share of bad moments, and are intimate with the odd nature of time as a bad moment evolves.

It did not take the intellect of an Einstein to grasp the fact that Stan was having one of those moments right there in front of us   eternal seconds frozen in the glare of the headlamps. The normal fabric of space and time seemed to bend and stretch as the terrified critter latched on to Stan's thumb and began to gnaw his knuckle to the bone.

Any sane person in a normal state would have simply dropped the snarling bundle. But Stan's mind was racing ahead. Envisioning with pure dread a course of rabies shots, Stan knew that if he lost track of that 'possum he could anticipate an unspeakable horror.

The prospect of rabies shots would be enough to scare anyone. But Stan had a transcendent fear of the needle that lifted him from his work-a-day pack of smokes and a cold beer norm to another level of consciousness.

He calmly walked back to the truck. Somehow he managed to extract himself from his prey and simply stuffed the whole works   shit-scared opossum and jacket   into an empty five-gallon plastic pail. He turned the pail upside down in the bed of the truck and sat on it.

"Son of a bitch!" said Stan incredulously. "They're supposed to play dead. It's in all the books!"

We all knew there was going to be big trouble with Alice when we got home. It was a quiet ride back to Boudrey's Acres with Stan bleeding morosely, sitting on the captive marsupial and composing an explanation for this unexpected turn of events.

Stan installed the 'possum in a cage by the back door. It was a no-frills bowl-of-water and plate-of-dog-food tough-love kind of animal prison. Buddie, the family hound, viewed the new arrival with a great deal of suspicion. Stan, understandably, was not inclined to granting Mister 'Possum any special treatment. But the next day, in spite of his wounded thumb and bruised ego, Stan's natural good nature led him to start bringing table scraps and juicy tidbits for his prisoner.

Mr. 'Possum became an instant celebrity at the trailer park. All of the kids and most of the parents came to visit with treats of their own: cookies, potato chips, old tired (fallen off the stick and into the fire) hot dogs, a piece of Slim Jim, etc., etc., etc.

Stan, on the other hand, was laying low. Most of the dads in the park had come up with their own version of the story about how Stan caught the 'possum. None of these stories were very celebratory of Stan's judgment or commonsense.

"Yeah, old Stan was out fishin' for 'possums and used his thumb for bait," said one.

"Hey, Stan!" said another, "How's the thumb? Ya know, if ya would just keep yer thumb up yer ass like ya usually do, this sort of thing wouldn't happen."

Stan was laying low, but making sure to keep an eye on Mr. 'Possum. He spent a good deal of time closely examining the creature for any telltale signs of hydrophobia.

About six days into his cageside vigil, Stan got quite a fright. Unbeknownst to him, Alice had treated Mr. 'Possum to the butt end of a bologna sandwich slathered (the way she liked to make them) with plenty of mustard and Miracle Whip.

Stan had been down burning some brush piles and had come back to the house for a cold beer to accompany such thirsty work. He was just pulling the tab when he noticed Mr. 'Possum grinning at him with a hideous froth of condiments clinging to his whiskers.

Stan blanched visibly. Stan (though not a religious man) was heard to call out to his Lord and Savior. He also dropped a full can of Carling Black Label and didn't even bother to pick it up. Something very un-Stan-like.

It took a couple of very long minutes of careful observation before Mr. 'Possum's dexterous little tongue had dealt with the last of the Miracle Whip. In spite of their common reputation for slothful behavior and wretchedness, the American Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is actually quite a tidy little omnivore.

For Stan it was an eternity of licking, and sniffing about, and having a bit of a nibble, looking around, and then licking again.

Uncle Ralph witnessed the whole ordeal from his gleaming Airstream on Space #1. Later I heard Uncle Ralph tell my dad that he'd never seen a man so absorbed in the observation of a wild animal. And that perhaps Stan had a future as a naturalist . . . .

After a good two weeks, towards the end of summer, Stan decided that Mr. 'Possum was as healthy as an opossum could be. The wounded thumb, though still quite mangled-looking, seemed like it was going to heal up. Rabies-wise, Stan felt he was in the clear. It was time to let Mr. 'Possum get back to the business of whatever it is that opossums do.

The whole park was in a festive mood when it came time to turn the critter loose. Even Stan seemed no worse for wear from the weeks of bad jokes and innuendo about his mental state, and from the dread and sleepless nights. Even Alice had recovered from her initial full week of being pissed off.

Everyone had had their fun. Stan, in particular, as he opened the cage was going to be more than happy to see Mr. 'Possum shuffle off into the bushes so he could put this whole matter behind him.

The problem was that when his hour of freedom came, Mr. 'Possum didn't want to have anything to do with it. Stan poked at him with a broom handle, but the 'possum was steadfast in his refusal to leave. Stan tried to shake him out of his cell. No luck.

The next day the 'possum was right there in his cage with the door open, waiting on a fresh bowl of water and some dog food. It dragged on for weeks like this, through the early quail season and on into squirrel season.

After the first snow in late October, Mr. 'Possum saw fit to leave the cage   but only to take up residence under the house. He made himself quite at home, and was a constant reminder of Stan's misadventure all the way through deer season.

It seemed as if the 'possum was going to stay forever, but the day after Christmas he was gone.

Alice had prepared her normal mighty Christmas Day Feast while Stan and the boys were out hunting rabbits. It is a truly great time of year to enjoy the Michigan Outdoors.

After the meal, Alice fed the dog and put out a generous plate for Mr. 'Possum. He apparently ate it all up and waddled back to the wild with a belly full of turkey and gravy.

Happy Holidays!