Our evenings were mild, but always wild

I clicked on my uncle's flickering black-and-white TV and settled into the slats of a handmade chair, George nestled comfortably on the tree limb behind me. Darkness fell around us like a mantle, and together we watched and listened as Walter Cronkite read that evening's news: Nixon had resigned.

After Cronkite's signature sign-off, I turned off the lights and went to bed. George ambled solemnly down the tree trunk and retreated to the woods.

We often watched the news together, George and I, separated by panes of glass. Our nightly ritual was particularly unusual, given that we were of different species. George, you see, was a raccoon.

My aunt and uncle lived in Foster, R.I., when Foster was rural and wild, quiet yet teeming with wildlife.

Uncle Harold and Aunt Peggy were not country folk, but had adopted those ways with the enthusiasm of all converts. They had also learned quickly that the property they'd purchased from an old-time woodchopper was fully populated.

No sooner had they built a sturdy house than they found themselves the subjects of nightly inspections by the local residents: first the curious raccoons, then the more cautious deer, and finally the wary foxes.

Peggy was an inveterate lover of animals. She was always surrounded by a bevy of stray cats and dogs. It was an easy transition for her to begin loving the wild critters that lived in her woods.

I spent many evenings with Peggy and Harold, and their routine was always the same. As the sun set, painting tree trunks with slanting orange light, Peggy and Harold prepared the food.

We three would fill the enormous bowls that stood by the boulder near the kitchen window: dog food for the gray foxes, kitchen scraps and bread for the raccoons, dry food for the deer.

We worked quickly, but we'd soon begin to feel eyes upon us, and hear the snap and crunch of hooves and paws in the underbrush as our customers gathered.

Hurrying to finish, we'd top off the fox food, even out the raccoons' treats, and move the deer's dinner farther from the foxes'. We would retreat, as the animals hoped we would, moving slowly to the kitchen door, taking care not to slam it shut.

Pressing our faces to the window, lights turned off in the house, we could see the animals arrive. The raccoons were first, the eager young ones dancing and cavorting, occasionally disciplined by an impatient parent. Then the deer slowly advanced, fawns and does last. Finally the foxes slinked forward, heads down and eyes up, fearsome despite their fear of us.

When the food was gone and the show was over, we'd grope in darkness to turn on the lights. Peggy would serve dessert - vanilla ice cream; it never varied. Harold would stride to the television, reserved only for the nightly news, turning it on and retreating to his favorite chair.

We'd hear a skittering behind us, and George would appear - usually with his mate and cubs in tow. After much scrambling of claws, the raccoon family would line up like dolls on a shelf, balancing easily on the fat limb of the maple.

For half an hour, we would tune out our world and tune in another, humans and raccoons snuggled in silence, all eyes riveted on the screen. And then it would be over, signaled by Cronkite's benevolent "And that's the way it is...." We'd click off the TV and hear a slow scramble of paws down the maple tree.

I often think of that bond forged so long ago, proof that humans need not proclaim hegemony.

Harold's grandson lives in the house now, rearing his own family where his dad grew up. No doubt he sees his own raccoons. I wonder if they're George's.

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