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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 2: Critters #1, Bats and Rats and Elephants...Lord So Forlorn!

Friday, June 30, 2017


If you were born in the early 60’s or late 50’s, you probably know the Unicorn Song about Noah.  If you’ve never heard it, Google it and you’ll see that I was a little loose with the phrasing – but the reference is appropriate. Living in this house is what it must have been like on the Ark- except Noah could have jumped overboard to get away from his beasts, while we are SURROUNDED!  In fact, I’m writing this at 4:30 in the morning because that is when the cacophony of birds have decided that it is time to get up, after; a posse of racoons have had a screaming battle to the death; a skunk has ambled past our open window; and two of our self-imposed animals, our combined 120 pounds of dogs, Olive and Fern, have loudly protested the trespassing of an opossum onto our deck while a family of unconcerned deer munches on our hostas (deer resistant my A##!!!).  The outside fauna are one thing, but the ones that get in are the subject of this tale!

I was raised understanding that when you live in the woods, you must tolerate living with critters in the house.  Hence, you would rinse your eating utensils first to wash away the evidence of the nightly visits from our tenant mice, check your shoes for spiders, expect to see “wood” roaches scurrying away in the morning (“Those are ‘wood’ roaches that live in the forest, not cockroaches that live in dirty apartments” - Mom), and find an occasional snake curled-up in the laundry.  We had our ineffective ways of dealing with each.  Spiders where trapped in a tissue and carefully carried outside since it is bad luck to kill a house spider, although I doubt that the ones that I dropped into snow banks lived for long. Roaches were squashed under your foot, or squished in a tissue dependent upon whether they were in a location that would leave a smear where Mom could find it.  A small portion of the mouse population would find itself strangled by one of our Victor mousetraps, and I was proud to be the one to check, fling, flush, bait and reset most mornings.  To this day I cannot eat Velveeta as it only has two purposes – baiting mice and disguising pet medicine as a treat. 

Snakes were the easiest.  When you found a snake, you would scream and run upstairs to find Dad, usually reading the paper at the kitchen table.  Dad would look toward you with his sorrowful pale blue eyes, set down the Herald News, slurp a sip of thick black coffee, and take a last drag on his Kent cigarette.  The heavy oak chair would rumble across the tile floor as he stood and began his journey toward and down the stairs.  He would arrive at the laundry, ruffle through the hamper, find nothing, and return silently to his coffee, cigarette and paper.  The snake had disappeared, and it worked EVERY TIME!  I once asked him why he didn’t search more diligently for the snakes, “Snakes eat the mice.”  We had some well-fed snakes.

As Mom approached 90 as a lone widow, a new species of critter moved into the house, bats.  Without Dad, she had begun making an overwhelmed exterminator a rich man, but he didn’t know what to do about bats, if they were even there.  We first learned about this infestation one Sunday morning after church.  As Kristen and I sat at the kitchen table munching donuts with Mom, Mom proclaimed matter-of-factly, “I think I have bats.”

A string of smart-ass responses came flooding to my brain and as I struggled to keep them from pouring out of my mouth, Kristen asked, “What makes you think that?”

“The cleaning ladies” (yes that was a plural, and probably another story). “They say the streaks on the windows are caused by bat urine.” 

I was afraid I knew the answer, but I had to ask, “Are the streaks inside or out?”


The recently swallowed first bite of Bavarian Cream began to slosh against the back of my uvula.  I gulped it back down, dropped the remainder of the donut on the table, and began walking around and inspecting the windows – there are A LOT of windows, but there were no pee streaks to be found.  Mom offered that the cleaning ladies may have cleaned them-up.  Without any evidence, I remained dubious and I hoped that this problem, unlike every other problem I have ever had, would just go away.

It didn’t.

Kristen is the best thing that has ever happened to me. She is my partner at home, at play and at work and is the most organized, thorough and intelligent person you will ever meet.  She is an electrical engineer with a background in the defense industry, and at REHCE she is the majority stockholder, Chairman of the Board, CEO and Corporate Secretary because she truly can do it all.  However, she will readily admit that about a month after Mom’s Bat Reveal, she was not having a great morning.  I was at our Trinidad office and Kristen was having a working mother struggle.  Although she had a crapload of work at the office she had a literal crapload at home as one of our dogs, Birch, an elderly 60 pound Pointer, had developed explosive diarrhea. As she was wrestling our poo-smeared pooch into the family minivan for an emergency trip to the veterinarian, her cell phone rang.  She slammed the side door of the van closed giving our bursting pet unhindered access to the tan carpet and leather seats of our newest and most reliable mode of transportation.  She sighed, wiped her hands and took the call.  It was my mother. Mom had called the office, but I was out of the country, “Why don’t you tell me his plans?!”  She had called our home, but Kristen didn’t want to pick up the phone with poop hands, “I didn’t leave a message because this is urgent, so I called your cell phone.”

“What is it, Mom?”

“I caught one!”

“Caught one what?”

“A bat”


“A bat! I want you to come get it”

“I’ll be right there…”

Kristen looked at her watch.  It was 9:35 and her appointment at Crest Hill Animal Hospital was at 10:00 and 20 minutes away from our then home in Plainfield. She quickly calculated that she could swing by Mom’s, take care of the bat in 1½ minutes, and make it to the Vet being only 5 minutes late.  Our veterinarian and friend, Ron, is always about 5 minutes late, so this could just work.  I should note that Kristen is very experienced with bats, another good story, but to keep this one on track, I’ve added it as an appendix.

The minivan lurched to a stop on the red brick drive. Leaving the car idling, Kristen leapt out and sprinted to the front door of Mom’s house as Birch groaned and a not so pleasant odor emanated from her back end. 

The door was locked. Three options rushed through her brain:

  1. Ring the doorbell.  Mom is deaf, she won’t hear it.
  2. Pound on the door.  See #1.
  3. Get the hidden key from the freezer in the garage.  (Note to potential burglars: We no longer keep the garage unlocked.  We no longer keep a key in the garage.  We no longer have a freezer in the garage.)

She chose #3, but had lost 20 of her allotted 90 seconds.

She unlocked and slowly pushed open the door (we were always afraid that Mom might be behind the door, or worse yet on the floor- so we opened doors very carefully) and took a partial step into the foyer.  Kristen instantly heard the click…..step……………….step…. of Mom and her walker in the center hallway, heading to, or from the bathroom.  She didn’t have time to discern which direction her mother-in-law was headed…65 seconds remaining.  She stayed in the doorway and shouted.

“Mom, where’s the bat?!”

click…..step….63 seconds

“What? Who’s there?”


“It’s Kristen, Mom, where’s the bat?!!”

click…..step….60 seconds

“Kristen, is that you?


“Yes, Mom, It’s Kristen. Where’s the bat?!!!”

Click…..step….57 seconds

“Just a minute Kristen, I have something to show you.”


“Mom, I don’t have a minute!! Where’s the damned bat?!!!!!”  54 seconds.  She knew that Birch was still fumigating the van, and was beginning to fear what not-so-fresh Hell was awaiting her return.

Click…..step…. Click…..step….Mom appeared at the edge of the foyer.  Wearing the same thinning antique white silk nightgown with faded pink and yellow roses around her neck that I remembered as a child, her 4’8” frame (down from her original 5’2”) hunched over her aluminum walker upon which she had begun to rely after an incomplete recovery from a broken hip and the pronounced hump in her back prevented from her from standing erect.  Even though she had withered to about 85 pounds at this point in her waning life, her direct and strong personality made her an imposing figure for whom we all had respect, and a twinge of fear.  But THIS morning, my beautiful 5’2” wife was stressed and fearless.

“Hi Mom, where’s the bat?” 47 seconds

My elderly mother squinted from the dark hallway toward the sunlit doorway where Kristen stood impatiently.  Mom’s macular-degeneration restricted eyesight was pretty poor, but she recognized her daughter-in-law.

“Oh, hi Kristen.  Come into the kitchen and hear my story.  I’ll make some coffee.”

<Shit, that’s two hours I don’t have!> “Sorry Mom, I have a vet appointment.”

“What kind of appointment?”

“VET. Veterinarian. Birch is sick.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Is she going to be OK?”

“Yes.  She probably just ate a dead bird, or rabbit, or something.”  We had critters at our previous home also. “So I really have to get going” 40 seconds

“OK…………..  I caught a bat.”

“Yes Mom, I know.  Where is it?”

“It was in the kitchen”

“Where is it now?!!!!”

“Why are you always in such a hurry??”

There is still a stain on our ceiling marking the spot where Kristen’s head exploded.

I’m sure by now you get the point of the content and the ponderous pace of Mom’s and Kristen’s exchange, so here’s what happened earlier that morning in a briefer format. 

Mom, like her youngest son today, didn’t sleep well.  Each morning she would awaken pre-dawn, use the washroom and click…step from the Master Bathroom, through the Master Bedroom, down the Center Hallway (past the Hall Bathroom and two Upstairs Bedrooms), across the Foyer and into the Kitchen. It’s about a 60 foot journey, but it took Mom longer than it would take a crippled snail to cover a mile.

Once in the kitchen, she would turn on Fox News to volume setting 11 (Spinal Tap reference).  She would then start the Keurig, put a piece of Pepperidge Farm Whole Wheat in the toaster and sense the need to return to the bathroom.  On this morning, as she turned from the toaster toward the foyer and the hallway to the bathroom, she saw something small and brown clinging to the vent at the top of the Frigidaire.  Mom, like Kristen, knew a bat when she saw one (see Appendix).

Mom gathered a tan plastic Jewel Foods bag from the counter, and holding it in her left hand as she gripped the walker with the same hand, she deftly grabbed her “grabber” with her right hand.  The grabber was a 30” aluminum bar with a black plastic jaw on one end and a pistol grip and trigger on the other. It can be quite handy for reaching things in high places, and when you’re 90 and can’t stand upright you need it for grabbing anything anywhere.  I have one from my time in a wheelchair (another story).

She click…stepped to the refrigerator, reached the jaw of the grabber toward the brown object and squeezed the trigger.  The bat was caught!  Somehow she got the bat into the bag and tied the bag shut.  Even several years later as I’m writing this I can’t imagine the combination of luck and skill that allowed this series of steps to be successfully implemented by a hunchbacked, deaf, nearly blind, nonagenarian! She then click…stepped the trapped critter to the door and flung the bag and its struggling contents onto the front walk.  Mom, like any Hamilton on the winning side of a bat-battle (see Appendix) was proud.

“Kristen, the bat is in a Jewel bag outside the door.  What are you going to do with it?”

“I’ll take it to the Health Department so they can see if it has rabies.”

Frustrated that she hadn’t noticed it earlier, and thinking it was a dead bat in a plastic bag, Kristen in a flash spun around and bent over to pick up the bag.  It buzzed and bounced! She almost had some of her own poop to deal with now. 

She wasn’t taking a live bat anywhere!  So, she pulled an empty garbage can from the garage, dropped the bat-bag into it, closed the lid firmly, kissed Mom on the cheek, and fed her a stream of information, “Mom, I have to run to the Vet.  After I get Birch back home, I’ll go to the office to get some work done and call the Health Department to come get the bat.  After work I need to go home and check on the dogs and cats (our previous home was Ark-like as well), then I’ll pick-up some chicken from White Fence Farm, come back here and you can tell me the whole story while we eat chicken and drink chardonnay.”  

She sprinted from the Bat Cave to the idling Crap Mobile and as she popped back into the driver’s seat, she was overwhelmed by the fog of dogarrhea.  She looked at her watch through tearing eyes and noted that she had exceeded her estimated time by only 22 seconds. She wasn’t just Bat Girl, she was Wonder Woman!

When Kristen returned to Mom’s house at about 6:30 that evening, the bat and bag were gone, but Mom didn’t know that anyone had come – they probably rang the doorbell. 

Days later, when I was home from Trinidad, I called the Health Department and they assured me that the bat did not have rabies.  They cautioned, however, that a 90-year old woman should not be living alone with bats.  I did not disagree.  However, Mom did disagree.  Strongly, and regularly.  I discussed some of the options with Kristen, each of which involved keeping the house in the family and, in some manner having it become our home.  She was strong in her conditions.  “No bats.  No mice.  No bugs.  Or, no Kristen.”  We live there today, and are still very happily married, so obviously, those critters are no longer here.  I’ll tell you how we accomplished that in future blogs.

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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 2: Appendix, Our Honeymoon

My Dad grew-up loving the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota.  When I was nine he achieved his dream of building a summer home on Moose Lake, near the Canadian border and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) outside of Ely, MN. My first trip to Moose Lake was 6 months before I was born, and I’ve made at least one trip there every year since because Dad’s love for Ely was contagious to our entire family. My love for the Northwoods has spread to Kristen and our family as well.  No television, no cell phones, no internet.  It is where we escape the workaholic life of being 24/7 engineers.

Consequently, when Kristen and I began our lives together as 22-year-olds each with a partial semester of undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois remaining (I was going on for my Master’s degree, Kristen would support me as an electrical engineer for a fledgling R&D firm in Urbana), we could think of no better, nor cheaper place to honeymoon than the cabin.

On the first night of our honeymoon in the cabin we were lying in bed sound asleep with our newlywed dreams when we each began to sense a presence in the dark bedroom.  A steady thrumming would get closer, then farther, then closer, then farther, sometimes pushing soft breezes across our faces. I knew immediately what it was.

Kristen whispered, “Is that…”

“A bat.”  I didn’t let her finish.

She squeaked and pulled the covers over her face.

The first course of action when you find a bat in the house is to try to shoo it outside through an open door (“Bats eat the mosquitoes”- Dad).  However, in Northern Minnesota you can NEVER open a door at night since the clouds of Godzilla-size mosquitoes that buzz furiously outside the cabin will descend upon you in a microsecond and turn you into a bloody, itchy, bumpy, lump of devoured flesh.  Hence, I took a different approach.

I was now a man, a husband, and I must protect my young, beautiful, defenseless wife – so I literally sprang into action.  Dressed as any man would be on the first night of his honeymoon, I, in one seamless move, threw aside my half of the covers, jumped up on the bed, pulled the light cord on the ceiling fan, grabbed a canoe paddle from the wall over the door, and swung!- connecting with the flying rodent with a soft “plop”.  The leathery-winged varmint spiraled through the air and bounced onto Kristen’s chest where it fluttered and expired.  Kristen squeaked from under the covers.

Kristen was now baptized in to the Hamilton Family of critter battlers.


Have a beautiful day!