Issue October 13, 2010

Playing possum

I’ve had a lot of interesting jobs in my life: paper boy, furniture mover, jewelry salesman, broker, writer, editor, education bureaucrat, cattle ranch hand, dot-com executive, marketing weenie and fish farmer. I am living proof that being completely unqualified for a job is no excuse for not landing it.

And yes, I said “fish farmer.” Back in the ’90s, I got the braindrizzle to get into aquaculture, a tiny but growing industry in Kentucky and one that promises a way for family farms to survive in the post-tobacco era. My wife’s family owned a farm in Shelby County, and the lay of the land made it perfect for fish farming. We built a half-acre pond and raised trout, which we harvested and sold to restaurants in Louisville.

Twice each day, I hiked down to the pond with our dogs Jake and Sugar to feed the fish. It was sort of like feeding fish in an aquarium, except the aquarium was a half-acre rectangle surrounded by woods, and the fish were as hungry as Anthony Bourdain and twice as aggressive. The fish feed came in tiny pellets, and when I tossed them into the pond, the trout went into a feeding frenzy normally seen only on Fried Cheese Night at the Golden Corral.

It turns out that fish feed is delicious not only to fish but also to squirrels, raccoons and possums. I learned that the hard way when varmints began breaking into the feed bin to steal the fish kibble. The cleverer I got about safeguarding the feed, the cleverer the critters got at breaking into it. When thick bags wouldn’t keep out the intruders, I began storing feed in metal garbage cans with tight-fitting lids. Ever resourceful, the nocturnal critters figured out how to pull the can lids off. My next attempt was to tie down the can lids with bungee cords. Bad idea.

One crisp, fall morning, Jake, Sugar and I hiked out to feed the fish. When I unbungeed the garbage can and pulled back the lid, a hissing possum was waiting inside the can. I was so startled, I slammed the lid back down and then took a few moments to collect my thoughts, allow my heartbeat to return to normal and ensure my underpants were still dry.

What had happened was this: The possum had pulled the lid ajar and climbed inside the can to eat, but the bungee snapped the lid closed and the poor feller couldn’t open the can from the inside. So it presumably ate all night long, then curled up for a nap so it would be well rested when it came time to spring up and scare the bejesus out of me.

Next, I got an even worse idea. I figured the sensible thing would be to take the lid back off, dump the can on its side and let the possum scamper away. In making this call, I overlooked two rules of the animal kingdom: 1) When threatened, possums play dead, and 2) Jake was keenly in touch with his inner wolf.

While Jake growled feverishly, Sugar retreated to a safe distance to bark helpful advice like, “Who’s up for ice cream?” and “Hey, you won’t believe where I can lick myself!” Against this cacophonous backdrop, I gently kicked the garbage can onto its side, spilling the feed and the now-paralyzed possum onto the ground. At this point, I fully expected the dogs’ barking to rouse the possum, which would then scamper off into the woods.

Instead, Jake dove on top of the possum, grabbed its neck tightly in his teeth, chomped down and shook the poor critter from side to side in a bloodthirsty slow-motion display worthy of a Discovery Channel documentary or a Sarah Palin rally.

With bloody possum parts whizzing past my head, I searched for a moral to the story, like, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s kibble” or “Sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease” or “You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs while watching your dog bite through a possum’s carotid artery.”

But finally, I decided the lesson is that we all have our own unique perspectives and sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not to play dead and not to kill but instead to pause for quiet reflection, lick yourself wherever you can reach and then go out for ice cream.

Just in time for Halloween: “Summary of My Discontent,” the book, is now available at Carmichael’s Bookstore or Amazon.com.