It happened on a cool Saturday morning, just before Thanksgiving, but I remember as if it were just yesterday. Such a thing one doesn’t forget — even if it has been over fifty-seven years. I’ve been known to stretch the truth a little in some of my stories, using poetic license, if you will.
But not for this one.
What you are about to read happened just as written, or as best as I can remember. After all, I was only eight and had been scared almost to death. Still, to this very day, it’s one of the most vivid memories I retain from those seven magical years we spent growing up on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.
It was a rare occurrence for The Sister to join us on one of our adventures, but the night before, Dad had made it extremely clear that we needed to do so. As adventures go, it was a rather simple one for my three brothers and me: a morning hike in the woods then returning by lunchtime. We’d asked Goofy Steve to join us for some comic relief, and around 9:00 a.m. we all met in our backyard. Well outfitted with a canteen full of water, snacks, and spider sticks, we headed out on a hike that should have lasted only about an hour. Unfortunately, it lasted a lot longer.
Following the well-worn pathway past the swamp then up and around the crystal-clear fishing lake, we entered the forest as we had done many times before. Soon the canopy above us grew so thick, it almost blotted out what little sunlight could sneak out from behind the clouds to make its way through the leaves above to the ground below.
It being so late in the year, there was little use for spider sticks, so after a while we boys started a grand sword fight with them. After half an hour of running and fighting our way through the woods, we were exhausted, we were hungry, and we were something else.
Being lost in the woods around our house wasn’t something new for us, but these woods looked different. Under the thick canopy, the dark shadows thrown off by the trees looked foreboding, striking us with something we weren’t used to: fear.
With no path to follow, we ran/walked our way through the woods for what seemed to be forever. Finally, the forest gave up its captives — spilling us out on the edge of a huge open pasture with grass that reached up to our knees.
At the center of the grassland stood a massive tree, so large that if all of us joined hands we still could not reach around its entire girth. And even though we were still hopelessly lost, such a find couldn’t go unexplored.
Drawing near the ginormous tree, we noticed something in it about eight feet up from the ground. Where the huge trunk split, lying in the crook of the tree was something none of us had ever seen before. Getting closer we could see that it was about the size of three beach balls, gray, hairy, with a long snout and a long curly tail. We stopped our advance, partly because The Sister got scared and partly because we boys did too.
About twenty feet away from the massive tree, our lost hiking party of six argued over what we thought was lodged in the tree. We finally decided that it was either a stuffed elephant placed there by other kids to play a joke on anyone coming upon it or it was a monster that was either sleeping or dead.
Older Brother Richard wanted to throw a rock and hit it to see what it was, but we decided that throwing rocks – even at monsters – wasn’t a nice thing to do. So, the group decided that someone would poke it with a six-foot stick. But who?
Because he was the best dodgeball player on Flamingo Street and at Mt. Olive Elementary School, we voted that Goofy Steve would be the Poker. And if the stuffed elephant was really a live monster that woke up mad and lunged at him, he’d dodge it and run away.
But just to be sure, we all walked in the opposite direction as he walked closer to the tree. The closer he got, the further we got. We figured that once the monster got finished with Goofy, it would surely come after us. After all, no one likes getting awakened by being poked with a stick — not even a hairy gray monster with a curly tail and a long snout.
Inching ever closer, Goofy finally made it to the base of that strange, twisted tree, and with shouts of encouragements from us (now over forty feet away), he undertook the now famous poke.
We immediately took off running as fast as we could. Goofy tossed the poking stick and took off running as fast as he could also.
Was it a stuffed elephant thrown up in the crook of that tree for a joke? Nope. With angry red eyes and an alligator-shaped snout full of razor-sharp teeth, the monster woke up uttering a deep long growl and in a very bad mood.
We didn’t look back as we ran, trying to escape across the pasture that had so intrigued us not twenty minutes earlier. As we ran the sound of the monster’s advance came closer and closer. Then it was suddenly upon us! What happened next surprised everyone. Everyone except Goofy.
In a flurry of red and with a mighty burst of speed, Goofy Steve had not only outrun the monster, but had caught up to and passed all of us. Now disappearing back into the woods, he’d left us all to fend off the monster he’d angered.
Bloodied and with torn clothes, Goofy never stopped running, making it back home long before any of us. The rest of us finally reached home also, all unharmed from our epic battle with the huge, long-haired monster with the red eyes and alligator-shaped snout.
Over the years as the fog of that battle has lifted, I’ve looked back upon that day. I now realize that maybe my eight-year-old self might have seen the monster in the crook of that giant tree a little differently than the older-wiser me would have.
I know now the giant gray thing the size of three beachballs was, at most, three feet long – including its curly tail. And yes, it was sleeping because it was a nocturnal animal, and yes, when it woke it uttered a low deep growl baring its teeth in hopes to scare off any predators. Then, if you asked Goofy, it lunged out of the tree trying to attack him.
But this is what really happened.
The “monster’s” eyes glazed over, and its body became stiff, then it fell out of the tree to the ground. Predators believe that it is dead and will walk away, refusing to eat a dead animal.
And it all happened a long, long time ago in woods not so far away when four brothers, The Sister, and one very goofy friend saw, asleep in a giant tree in the center of a large open pasture, their very first adult possum.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories weekly in The Citizen since 2001.]