Critters Under the Porch

The other night I went out to my screened-in porch and my cats were staring at the floor. The decking boards are separated a half inch, and I could see something furry moving beneath them. I grabbed a flashlight and shone it through the gaps. It looked like an opossum, judging by the hairless rat-like tail. That’s nothing new in my neighborhood (along with raccoons, foxes, feral cats, rats, rat snakes and armadillos).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith a stick, I poked the little guy in the back, but he wouldn’t budge. Scanning the porch for more advanced weaponry, my gaze landed on a can of insect repellant. A quick shot on his back, and the creature made a beeline out from under the porch onto my front yard. I suspect it was the hiss of the can’s nozzle that actually flushed him out. Instead of appreciating the DEET protection from my neighborhood’s voracious mosquitoes, he looked a little agitated (although it’s hard to read a opossum). Anyway, problem solved.

Well, maybe not. A couple of days later I came home to a pile of dirt inside my enclosed porch at the same corner. Pretty good trick to get dirt on top of the floor boards, I thought. It took me a little longer than I’d like to admit, but I finally realized that an animal had been digging so furiously beneath the floor boards that he flipped up dirt through the gaps and it settled on top. I’m not a opossum expert (although I played one on TV) but this was a lot of dirt for one of them. I suspected the scourge of Texas lawns: an armadillo. Again, I retrieved the flashlight and tried to peer under the floor. All I could make out was the mouth of a dark hole.

Something stank. The smell was similar to what you get when you pour the contents of a ripe cat box into a garbage can, add a deer carcass, and then set the mix out in the sun for a week. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) I needed access under my porch for a closer inspection. In the 70’s, I bought a Rockwell circular saw. I’ve become so attached to it that I immortalized it in an oil painting. It ripped through my floor boards and exposed the hole in the ground. Even with unfettered access I couldn’t see the end of it using a flashlight.

946811_10200388974262241_268562578_nIf I merely filled the hole with dirt would I trap the critter, whatever it was, under my porch? I imagined the foul smell elevating to a sufficient level that my neighbors might burn down my house for relief. I needed to make sure that hole was unoccupied before I filled it in and then sealed off the perimeter of my porch. From my garage full o’ crap, I produced a boom-box and tuned it to a country music station before facing it into the stink pit. If anything was in there that had ears, it would be driven out before morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a fitful night of sleeping to the caterwauling boom-box, I got up and tested the hole by inserting a springy toilet bowl snake around the dark bend. There was no push-back on the snake and no sound. A couple of 5-gallon buckets of gravelly dirt poured into the hole filled it. I screwed down replacement deck boards and then sealed the perimeter of the porch with concrete blocks. Problem solved—or so I thought.

A couple of days later I went into the backyard to cut bamboo and trim roses, and I twisted my ankle in a freshly-dug hole against the side of the house. That damned armadillo had just moved to another piece of real estate!

My neighbors are pretty much fed up with all-night music, so I’m thinking about stinky mothballs down the hole as the next battle tactic.


I knew time was running out for my bottle of special-occasion champagne as soon as I got the invitation to go sailing on the Bella Vita. It would be the night of a supermoon! Little did I realize that my boat mates and I would reenact a pivotal scene in my novel, Church of the God Particle.


Photo by Donna Jordan

On the day when the full moon was also at its closest point to Earth, I iced the champagne and headed to the marina with my cooler. After an exhilarating swim with my hosts, Gil and Donna, plus three new friends, we unfurled the sails at the mouth of the marina and headed into Lake Travis. Gil tacked along the shore in the waning afternoon until we sailed beneath an Austin landmark, the Oasis restaurant. Its multilayer deck system, rebuilt several years ago after a conflagration from a lightning strike, sprawled across the top of the cliff above us. I imagined its diners looking down at us, secure that the structure wouldn’t slip over the cliff.

“We are in a scene out of my novel,” I told my sailing mates as we retrieved delicacies from coolers and laid them out on a small table in the center of the boat. “The scene,” I continued, “is of two characters engaged in a pivotal conversation on one of those cliff-top decks while they look down at sailboats like this one.”

Here’s a snippet from the book:

The water scape of Lake Travis opened three hundred feet below them, shining like blue chrome all the way to the opposite shoreline two miles away. From the cliff-top patio Alex and Quizzy gazed upon the vast, placid expanse. It extended outward, scratched and speckled white by the tiny wakes of minuscule power boats and triangular sails.

Cascading down the cliff from the main patio like wooden waterfalls, the multiple decks of the Oasis supported hundreds of tables impaled by sun umbrellas, their canopies sprouting like colored canvas mushrooms. Patrons faced west as the sun burned into the horizon on the other side of the lake. Alex and Quizzy followed the hostess down several flights of stairs to their table. Alex sat next to the deck’s railing, and Quizzy sat as far away from it as possible. She ordered a margarita, and he a beer. They marveled at the fiery, painted sky.

From our vantage point on the Bella Vita, the supermoon began its ascent directly over the Oasis, now sprouting lights like a Bourbon Street hotel on Fat Tuesday. Mesmerized, we watched the moon rise above the restaurant. Its brilliance poured over the outdoor decks, cascaded down the cliffs, and electrified the wave caps.


Photo by Terri McCarley

When the lake air cooled and the champagne was only a memory, Gil turned the boat toward the marina and we followed the curving silhouette of the back-lit shoreline, listening to the waves lap the hull. The motion of the boat, the sound of the water, and the glowing red depth gauge on the bulkhead quieted my mind. I imagined myself in another sailboat, clipping along a dark Mediterranean shoreline a thousand years ago, anxious to see the lights of my seaside village.

My imaginary excursion faded away when we rounded a rocky point, and a cove opened before us revealing the lights of our marina. I looked at each of my friends, trying to read their faces, wondering what little journeys they had just taken on the night of supermoon.

Guatemala Trials

photo by Johan Ordonez, AFP News via ABC news

Photo by Johan Ordonez, AFP News via ABC News

Rios Montt, ex-president of Guatemala, was recently convicted of genocide in the 1980’s against Maya villagers who lived in the north of the country near Mexico. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the verdict ten days later, saying that the violence stemmed from warfare between Marxist guerrillas and the army, not genocide against the Maya. Nevertheless, the civil war killed 200,000 people and lasted 36 years.

I took a few trips to Guatemala in the 80’s and early 90’s. Fear gripped the countryside.  (The violence mostly affected the indigenous Maya population, not travelers like me.) The war also perpetuated cholera epidemics that claimed many more lives.

Much of the violence stemmed from the Cold War. The U.S. government feared that leftist guerrillas, who sheltered in the highlands and jungles with the desperately poor Maya, would overthrow the Guatemalan government and give the Soviets another foothold in Latin America. The United States funded (off and on) various governments and “extrajudicial forces” not only in Guatemala, but also in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador during this time.

I was never more relieved to have my American passport than when a truckload of soldiers would raid my favorite bar in Antigua and take young local men away to the army if their papers weren’t in order. Those raids were also a good reason not to carry drugs or weapons.

Eventually, an uneasy peace accord was reached in most of these countries, except for Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, overthrew the government. The U.S. funded the “Contras” to overthrow him, in violation of our own laws. (See “Oliver North.”) Ortega lost an election in 1990, and then got reelected in 2007, and is president of Nicaragua now.

The mass killing has stopped in Guatemala, but the uneasy peace accord has failed to bring the poor, rural population into the mainstream of national government.

Raccoon Rumble on my Roof

The patter of small creatures scampering across the roof hardly draws my attention any more. It’s just a normal occurrence, living in my central Austin home surrounded by mature trees whose trunks rise a few feet from the sides of my house. Their canopies spread above the brown asphalt shingles of my roof and provide access for critters that roam my neighborhood: opossums, cats, raccoons, and even an occasional rat.

Last night was something else, though. At 5 am I awoke to what I thought was a break-in. The house was shaking and an ungodly screech pierced the predawn. After a few moments I realized that I had a full blown raccoon war going on over my head. Like squirrels in the daylight hours, raccoons often run across my roof, only at night. It’s no big deal. Usually it’s one or two passes. I have grown used to them like the all-night trains that rumble by a few blocks away. But this explosion of nocturnal wildness jerked me up in bed. I was afraid a pack of crazed animals was ripping off my shingles as they rolled and pivoted and clawed at each other.

This was a life and death struggle. Raccoons normally chatter, but these were screeching. Between the screeches I could hear distressed cooing sounds, presumably from very young animals. I lay in bed waiting for nature to run its course, whatever that might be. The minutes passed, and the frenzy continued. I imagined chipped and shredded shingles and surmised that my insurance doesn’t pay for animal damage. (Maybe I should look into a rider.)

Finally after ten minutes or so, I got out of bed. Maybe I could throw up the ladder that I keep beneath an eve and scare the buggers off. No way, I decided. These animals were in full battle mode. One of them would probably chew his way across my face on his way down the ladder as I ascended. I went into the kitchen, noted that my cats were staring at me, and flipped on the back porch light. An adult raccoon tumbled down the mountain laurel tree just on the other side of the window. Another followed close behind. And the war still raged on my roof– thumping, screeching, and cooing.

As I stood at the kitchen window one of the furry warriors raced back up the tree. I banged on the glass as he passed, but it didn’t faze him. The other animal bolted up the tree, I banged the glass again, and then another raccoon came off my neighbor’s roof down a different tree. I had no doubt that they were also transiting the big live oak on the other side of my house. How many were there? Was it clan warfare? Were the males trying to kill their young? Since I was powerless to stop the carnage, I decided to at least document it. After all, there were crazed animals dashing by me on a tree not more than four feet away.

I ran for my camera. As if I were going to steal their soul, everything went quiet. No movement in the tree, no sound on the roof. I waited with the Olympus in my hand. Nothing. Finally, I returned to my bedroom, kicked the cats out, and went back to sleep. My insurance agent kept popping into my dreams.

The next morning I bicycled down the hill to Flipnotics and fortified myself with caffeine for a gruesome roof inspection. I pedaled back, leaned the ladder against the eve, and climbed up. Expecting damaged shingles and blood, I was amazed to find nothing disturbed. The live oak had recently dropped its tassels, and they covered the shingles in a delicate amber layer. How could there not even be tracks, let alone body parts? Am I a dreaming sleepwalker?

If only I had gotten one picture.