FRISCO, ME … OH, AND THE BULLFROG IN RICHLAND
The most popular illustrations celebrating childhood will most certainly reveal animals as a most popular motif. Within this category, I suppose the most well-liked imagery are dogs, cats, fish, rabbits, pigs, reindeer, birds, butterflies, caterpillars, and, amazingly enough, worms. Don’t chuckle. Children under the age of eight love them.
Before I reached the age of eight, I had already chosen those animals which fascinated me the most. I wasn’t interested in pets, per se, except for Frisco, my dog. With the exception of spiders, which bite, most living creatures were merely curiosities to be observed, read about, or seen in various natural environments. For years, I actually thought zoos were natural environments. Fish, as far as I was concerned, were meant for aquaria, but more importantly, were to be caught, cooked, and then eaten.
In the distant days of my childhood, when we lived on a chicken farm in Richland, NJ, and continuing well toward the end of high school and beyond to the present day, certain animals have lived in my home where they were able to be observed closely,
Caterpillars are in part of that interesting group. Hundreds of these creatures became part of my personal zoos as far back as I can remember. They were captured, fed, allowed to spin cocoons, and eventually hatch out. My mother, after a few secret caches were discovered in my bureau or closet, insisted they develop their lives on the front porch. At her insistence, worms took up outdoor residence in a carefully prepared leafy mud pile under the kitchen window.
Preying Mantis egg cases were also popular. Much to my chagrin, Mom insisted they be kept in locked screen cages. One experience with several hundred of the insects exploding into our living room late on a spring morning initiated that rule.
Insects and arthropods fascinated me, too. An eight-creature cricket chorus in a cage under my bed was discovered when I was nine. Like grasshoppers, crickets chirp and warble.
It took me years to figure out how my mother had discovered them.
A lovingly constructed pool in an old fish tank held several dozen mosquito larvae. I fed them daily. Of course, the top was a heavy screen, firmly fastened down with a brick. Once the creatures metamorphosed into adults, they were summarily executed by me. Sixty four different species of the animal have been documented in New Jersey.
“What am I going to do with my child?” Mom asked a friendly neighbor on an early summer day. “She hides her creatures everywhere, hoping I will not discover them.”
The neighbor suggested giving me shelf space in the barn, and henceforth, all my pets had a place to develop and grow. It was my first museum.
Mom breathed a sigh of relief.
The following spring, I was told in no uncertain terms to consider my zoo’s permanent home to be the barn, PERIOD. It was an arrangement I could happily live with, of course.
My father said jokingly, “Of course, you can only keep one bullfrog at a time, you know.”
Mom darted him a venomous look, and I was a bit confused by his laughter and her anger.
“Bullfrog? Who would want to have a bullfrog? I just like to hatch out the frog eggs until the tadpoles can hop away.” I said to him. “Look here, Daddy. These tin tubs will hold hundreds of frog eggs, which will hatch, turn into tadpoles, and eventually hop away.”
The four tubs were a yard long, a yard wide, and about eighteen inches deep.
So spring flowed into summer, and July was coming to an end. One day, Frisco and I were swimming in a nearby stream and found a bullfrog entangled in the roots of an oak tree at the water’s edge. Frisco barked frantically, until I extricated the animal. I was about to toss it back, but our eyes locked.
It was love at first sight.
I had to cup both hands over the bullfrog to keep it captive. How would it be possible to keep such a creature in my barn? It was so large! It would hop away. Well, I thought, I’ll bring it home and find a shallow pond on the farm and release it there.
By the time we arrived home, about twenty minutes later, the bull frog felt like an old friend needing protection. I knew bullfrogs were eaten by herons, egrets, kingfishers, ducks, raccoons, and opossums. Garter snakes relished them.
I discussed the matter with Frisco, and he happily wagged his stump of a tail and barked comfortingly. Without further ado, we went upstairs, and I cleared out space in my largest and deepest bureau drawer. The original contents were stuffed into other drawers.
I could not keep the frog there all day, so I constructed a hidden outdoor habitat for him at our largest pond. Carefully, I constructed a metal mesh cage for bullfrog on a far bank, partially submerged in the water. The cage was hidden in a small bay on the far bank. To keep away predators, I nailed rags to sticks, then stuck them into the mesh. Every day, I diligently caught insects and worms for it. The next few days, Frisco and I played near the bullfrog in his pond. I carried it home to safety at night. It nestled lovingly in my cupped hands.
At the break of day, before I launched into the day’s activities, I would carry it to the pond.
One morning, my mother awoke me early. Dad was going to Atlantic City, a forty-five minute drive away, to deliver some fresh chickens and several dozen fresh eggs to a customer. I wanted to go so I could collect shells on the beach. As he wanted to leave immediately, I hastily got dressed and ran down to the car. We had breakfast at a nearby diner.
After the delivery had been made, we had a wonderful day at the shore. I collected dozens of shells to bring home.
By the time we got back to the house after sunset, I was really tired.
Mom was awaiting us as we pulled into the driveway. She carried a covered cake carrier in one hand and a large wooden spoon in the other. It was her weapon of choice when she hit me.
“I wonder if she’s going to visit a sick neighbor?” mused dad.
We got out of the car, and walked towards her.
As soon as I saw her face and the spoon, I thought, “Uh-oh. I know The Look. What have I done now? I’ve been so busy with the bullfrog, I haven’t had a chance to get into mischief all month.”
Bullfrog? Oh, NO.
Mom turned the cake carrier upside down and opened it. There was my frog. He looked tired and somewhat dried out. I had forgotten to put him in the pond during this morning’s rush!
“If we were not normal people and actually ate bullfrogs,” snarled my mother, “I would cook it and make you eat it. Peter, she had it in her bureau drawer! Frisco was whining and crying for an hour this morning at the back door, and when I opened it, he dashed upstairs and tried to open the drawer.”
Betrayed by my best friend, I thought.
Dad fought back laughter. “All right, Susie, I’ll take it to the pond and release it.”
Panic-stricken, I confessed about the cage.
I turned around to tearfully say goodbye to my pal and that’s when Mom whacked me twice on the rear end with the wooden spoon. Oh, what pain!
As dad headed to the pond, singing and laughing, mom called after him, “She takes after your side of the family!”
It was to be nearly twenty years before I understood the implication of what she had said.