As I turned my thoughts to literary purposes this past magnificent Columbus Morning, I seemed in boyhood again and reflected that it would soon be time to get back into the skunk business. I relate skunks to school and literature, as I may explain, and one of my earliest poems was on that subject:
When L.L. Bean was first in school
He trapped a skunk in the vestibule;
The fur was black, the pelt was prime,
And the schoolhouse stunk for quite some time.
The most I got for a skunk pelt was $30, but that was for an exceptionally fine trophy, completely black without a single white hair. Otherwise I'd get 25 cents, or about what I get now for a poem.
I realize the subject is uncouth, but I grew up in uncouth days, before ladies realized what a stylish fur coat meant to a skunk. The waning days of brilliant autumn presage winter's chilly blast, and before he hibernates, the skunk preens and puts on fat, and his pelt becomes "prime." It was then that we boys laid out our traplines and became olfactory menaces. You have no idea!
The unpleasant stench of the animal is a natural defense. He can't help it. So we boys would visit our traps on the way to school. Mr. Allen, the school janitor, would have come in at 4 a.m. to stoke the soft-coal furnace so the classroom would be comfy when teacher and pupils arrived.
But it was skunk season, and after the scholars were in place, Teacher would open all the windows and we'd put our mittens back on. The season ended around Thanksgiving, when skunks go to sleep. But it'd be about Christmas when I stopped stinking.
The skunk is not a bad fellow. His protective odor is used sparingly, and if unmolested, he is moderate in motion and does not get excited at trifles. A skunk can be easily tamed and makes a good house pet. And because of his easygoing nature, he is seldom wary and therefore approachable.
My skunk career began with a silly remark of my dad's. There was a delving by the foundation of our house, as by an animal seeking a worm, and my father said, "A skunk did that."
The next morning, before he got out of bed, I came running to tell him, "I got him! I got him!"
My father said, "Got what?"
"The skunk that was digging under mummy's pantry window!"
Then Daddy got out of bed, and in that brief time I learned not to hunt too close. Until Easter my mother did all her pantry work in the front hall.
There is one thing everybody needs to know. Never call a policeman for a skunk down cellar. No policeman yet has ever won with a skunk. If you find a skunk down cellar, speak to him with kindness and affection, and then open a door or window. Put up a plank so he can walk out. Next time you look, he'll be gone. But if you call a cop, you'll never forget it.
One time, Charley Knowlton, a neighbor, came to our house in high excitement. He said he had a skunk in his cellar and wanted to use our phone to call the police. Well, our elderly uncle got up and said, "No, you don't! I'll take care of him."
On the way, he said, "I usually get $100 for this, but in your case I'll only ask $10." He was funnin'. He had no intention of charging Charley anything, but Charley was a skinflint and uncle liked a good joke.
The skunk was there, all right. Uncle spoke to him, kitchy-kooed him behind the ear, and carried him outdoors. Then he said, "Ten dollars, please."
Didn't Charley go up in the air!
"Ten dollars for that?"
Uncle was disgustipated! He said, "All right, then you lug him out," and he tossed the skunk back down cellar.
The skunk responded, and the Knowlton family moved to Montana.
Many years after I retired from skunking, I was in the woods to gather mushrooms, and I came upon a forlorn little skunk. Somewhere he had come upon a peanut-butter jar that still contained a smidgen of peanut butter. The skunk had gone inside and lapped it up. When there was no more, he backed out of the peanut-butter jar, but found that the jar backed up when he did. In this perplexity I came along.
There's no knowing how long he'd been walking backward. As a careful old hand at the skunk business, I did not try to pull the jar away. I pondered the situation. Then I looked about, found a small rock shaped just so, and dealt the jar a quick blow, freeing my friend. He was pleased and while I picked up the shards of glass, he trotted away. I never beheld him again.
One more skunk thought: In the game of cribbage, the score is kept by pegs in a cribbage board. If the winner "goes out" before the loser goes three-quarters of the way, it is said to be a skunk. To skunk your opponent is to deal him an unfriendly insult.
Anyway, some years ago, Dingbat Beebe lived alone in a woodchopper's camp at Runaround Pond, and to cheat the time, he taught his tomcat to play cribbage. It was a sight to see the two of them, and one day a tourist said, "My gracious, Mr. Beebe, that sure is one smart cat!" Dingbat says, "Oh, I don't know. Yestiddy, I skunked him two games out of three."