An uneasy truce in the battle for Fort Tomato

I knew, when Eric came ambling up to the door, that soon my husband would be up to no good. Perhaps I knew this from the excited expressions of the two young boys he had in tow. Or maybe I knew this because it was rumored that the local groundhog had helped himself to Eric's garden again that very morning.

The previous month had been peppered with planning and planting, punctuated by great outcries of fury and garden-fence conferences with neighbors. The problem was that we had built an enormous neighborhood garden - and a furry little friend was intent on joining the neighborhood.

At first Mr. Groundhog confined himself to Eric's tomatoes, and it became a great joke. An early-morning foray into the tomato patch was, for Eric, hardly the soothing treat he'd intended. I watched a few of these episodes with detached amusement, seeing a side of my calm neighbor I never knew existed! But then our new neighbor - the one who waddled on all fours - became bored.

And boredom, as we all know, is best cured with new experiences. That translated into 34 heads of lettuce mowed down one day at dawn. Our lettuce, I might add. Now my husband, Dick, was the one who was fuming.

He researched the habits of these critters with the studied air of the Latin teacher he is. They hate messy tunnels, he learned, so down the hole he stuffed some debris and a pitchfork for good measure.

The next morning I learned that Dick was right: Groundhogs do hate mess, and when confronted with it, will happily fling it right out of the tunnel. Even a pitchfork.

Back to the books, and then to the store for the biggest jar of red pepper money can buy. Down the tunnel went the pepper.

Dick was positively giddy over this solution - until the next morning, when he discovered that our pepper-loving animal had emerged once more, this time to feast on our tomatoes. It was time for high-tech measures, Dick thought darkly, and he returned from the hardware store with a vibrating stick designed to send groundhogs scurrying across state lines.

Yet, despite generating a 6 on the Richter scale, it seemed to rattle our bones more than it did our little friend's.

So when Eric proposed using "Rodents' Revenge" to smoke him out, Dick jumped at the chance. The four boys - er, two men and two boys - lit two sticks of the stuff, dropped them down the hole, and covered it up with a huge piece of plywood.

Did I mention that the hole they chose (there were two) was nestled deep inside an enormous, old stump?

Soon the odor of burning "Revenge" gave way to that of the nostalgic odor of a winter fire. Except that it was July.

"Do you want me to call 911?" I called helpfully from the porch.

"No!" came the annoyed reply. An hour or two later, though, the answer changed to a whimpered "yes." The fire chief arrived, and left with the suggestion that the menfolk see the movie "Caddyshack."

Chastened by their little adventure (and the truly public humiliation of their failure), the groundhog hunters retired for the season. The next summer, Dick built a raised-bed garden of our own, placing it carefully over a network of tree roots to keep out our furry friend. He installed a six-foot-high fence around it all.

Did I mention that he forgot to tack the bottom of the fence to the garden beds?

Unfortunately, our little friend noticed this before Dick did, and squeezed in only to find himself face-to-face with my dear husband. Silence before screams, and then one of them fled. It was Dick.

By this time everyone was privy to our travails, and we all had great fun amusing ourselves at Dick and Eric's expense. My girls even sent Dick a photo of a groundhog, writing "thinking of you" on the inside of the card.

This year the fencing is securely tacked and taut, and triple locked at the gate. It takes a mighty strong human to break into Fort Tomato, and Dick is smugly confident that our produce will remain untouched by animal paws.

Of course our new neighbor chose to spend the winter hibernating under Dick's garden shed, and emerges each morning to feast on the many weeds in the lawn around the garden. Our girls enjoy regaling Dick with gleeful shouts of "Groundhog!" at these sightings, followed by lengthy musings on how many baby groundhogs we'll see this spring.

As for me, I have endless fodder for practical jokes, a steady supply of dinner-party tales, and a weed-free lawn. But just in case, I'll be sure to put the fire department on speed dial.

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