Visit from a little flapper

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THE heat was so extreme that day that the air conditioning in my parents' home had been on since morning. So as not to strain the system, they shut it off at dusk and sat before a small electric fan with a damp cloth spread in front of it. This didn't suffice, so my mother set down her glass of apple juice and got up to open the front door, hoping to let in an evening breeze. Instead she let something else in. ``Look! A bird's in the house!'' she said. By the time she had gotten those words out, the creature was already winging its second lap around the living room. ``Poor thing,'' murmured my mother, for it flew crazily, as if upset -- an understandable state considering that the presence of a TV set, a whirring fan, and two human beings who were getting considerable neck exercise trying to follow its flight path could only lead it to one conclusion: This was not its native habitat.

``Direct it back outside, will you?'' said my mother while heading for the kitchen. She had to attend to the telephone which, owing to the excitement, was already on its fourth ring. ``Direct it?'' said my father. ``It's not as if I can gesture like a policeman in traffic and it will understand.'' She tossed him a dish towel and, by way of elaboration, said, ``Just shoosh it outside.''

My father would like to have looked up that word ``shoosh'' to find out what the exact shooshing procedure was and just what it had to do with a dish towel, but there wasn't time. Instead, he waved the towel in front of him, moving toward the creature, hoping to coax it toward the door. His was the sort of activity that might have been effective in guiding a goat or a pony, but the bird apparently did not derive any sense of direction from it, for its path seemed no more predictable than that of a leaf caught in a dust whirl.

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The bird's unorthodox wing motion caused my father to speculate that perhaps it was injured. Then, surprisingly, the bird stopped flying for a few seconds and clung to the acoustical ceiling with wings fully spread, making evident that it was really a bat.

``The bird is a bat!'' my father announced, not being one to hedge. For both of my parents this news brought in its wake a flood of mental images, mostly gleaned from Bela Lugosi films. My mother abruptly terminated her phone conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, and, although the bat had been flying as close to ceiling level as possible, they both instantly assumed a crouching, Groucho Marx style of walking out of fear that the bat might swoop at them. ``You keep an eye on it,'' my father said. ``I'm going in the garage to find something to catch it with.''

The first garage item that attracted him was an old baseball glove. Perhaps, he thought, he could catch and hold the bat in the thick leather pocket until able to release it outside. Then he remembered how easily baseballs used to find their way out of that particular mitt. There was no reason to think he would be any less error-prone when gloving a living creature.

My father began rummaging through two large cardboard boxes filled with camping equipment, hoping to find a green mesh butterfly net. Minutes ticked by as he clawed past canteens, knapsacks, and tent poles. He had no idea what was going on in the house.

Finally, with net in hand, he bolted indoors. He was relieved to find a rather tranquil scene -- my mother sitting comfortably on the living room floor, the bat clinging comfortably to the living room ceiling. They probably could have coexisted peacefully like this for hours had my father not made a quick advance with the net, whereupon the bat flew for the kitchen and climbed in one of the air-conditioning vents.

My parents briefly imagined what life was going to be like with a bat living in their system of air-conditioning ducts, popping out every once in a while to liven up their dinner parties. In desperation, my father took the wire handle of a fly swatter, stuck it in the vent, and rattled the aluminum behind the bat.

It worked! The bat flew forward through the slats, headed again for the living room, and assumed its favorite position -- clinging to the acoustical ceiling with wings spread wide. This time my father approached slowly and calmly placed the net over it, but the bat was able to press itself so flat against the ceiling that it appeared for a moment that a spatula would be needed to pry it off. By nudging it with the net's metal rim, however, he persuaded the creature to loosen its grip and enter the net. My parents then stepped outside and released the bat in the night air.

Although this ended the encounter, a further surprise was in store when they opened a wildlife book, hoping to learn something about their feared visitor. They read that bats, contrary to the popular image, are really very gentle creatures, and that they play vital roles in reforestation and insect control. ``After reading this,'' my mother said, ``I hope the little flapper has a long and prosperous life.''

Later, Mrs. Jenkins called back and my father answered. As a means of stimulating conversation, she asked, ``What've you been up to?'' She thought him eccentric when he replied, ``Oh, just chasing a bat around the house with a butterfly net.''

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