This is a true story as told to me by a friend and neighbor, a humorous tale that might only occur in north-central Pennsylvania.
We should set the stage a little and provide you with some background on our friend. We’ll call him Dean, but his real name will remain anonymous for the purpose of this story. Dean is a true outdoorsman, an avid hunter who spends countless hours hunting game in Tioga County, on his property, as well as numerous big game expeditions to other states. He has recently retired from a successful career in a local school system. Dean has been very fortunate to have several of his grown children, along with his grandchildren, living within a stone’s throw of his home. He and his wife reside in a beautiful home that overlooks the Niles Valley area of Tioga County. This time of year, with hunting season behind him, he looks forward to rising early and relaxing at the window with his coffee as the woods around him come to life each day.
Today is a cold day, very cold, with temperatures in the single digits, as they have been for the last few mornings. An inch or two of hard- crusted snow covers the ground, and Crooked Creek in the valley below boasts ice along both edges threatening to come together and finally cover the fast moving water with a layer of thin ice. A typical February day in these parts. A great day for relaxing and watching the outside world from inside your cozy warm world.
Up the road a piece Dean’s daughter prepares her twin girls for school. Breakfast, schoolwork together, teeth brushed, hair brushed, and every other task that goes into getting two ten-year-olds ready for the school day. Today she will drive them the nine miles to school and then on to her job in town. A typical daily routine for a school day. One last check and everyone piles into the SUV with backpacks and gear for the day.
Turning onto the hard road below the house they cross the bridge over the creek, around the curve, down the straight stretch to the railroad tracks. The girls watch, disinterested, as the world goes by, but as the SUV slows to cross the railroad tracks they both look down the tracks and at the same time they see it. “Mom, stop, stop!” they shout together. Mom crosses the tracks and stops the SUV. She looks in the direction they are looking, down the tracks about 150 yards near the railroad bridge over the partially frozen creek. What is that? A possum? A coon? No, it looks like a skunk alongside the rail, moving but not getting anywhere. What could be its problem? Why is it not moving on? And then the girls ask Mom, “What if the train comes?” With time fleeting, they drive away thinking about what they just saw and what course of action should be taken.
Oh, the wonderful world of cell phones. The phone rings at Dean’s house and as he reaches for it he’s wondering who would be calling at this hour. It can’t be good. As he answers he hears the familiar voices of his granddaughters, both talking excitedly at the same time. “Grandpa, on the tracks down here by the road near the bridge there’s a skunk next to one of the rails and he looks like he can’t move. You have to help! What if a train comes?”
Sorting through the information and quite content and comfortable sitting in his chair on such a cold morning, Dean foolishly replies, “Well, that would take care of his problem.”
“Grampa, you have to help!” the twins plead in unison.
Hesitation, and then he finally concedes, “OK, OK, let me get something warm on and Grandma and I will drive down and check it out.”
The old but dependable Ford F-150 sputters but comes to life on this very cold morning. Dean goes back in and dresses for the cold day while the truck warms up. Today he wonders if being a grandpa is such a great idea. With the truck finally warmed up and he and wife Mary dressed for the weather, he grabs his favorite walking stick and climbs in the truck.
The trip down the road takes only a minute, and as he stops near the tracks he peers down towards the bridge and sees something against the rails. A small white and black ball of fur. “It’s a skunk,” he mutters to Mary. “You stay here, and I’ll wander down there to see what the problem is.”
Mary comes to attention with words of wisdom: “If that’s a skunk, you best keep your distance.” Dean climbs out and starts down the tracks with his walking stick in hand. It’s hard not to feel the frigid air in his lungs. The cold quickly permeates his warm clothes.
Approaching slowly he tries to see what is holding the skunk near the rail. Maybe he’s tangled up in something, or maybe he has gotten caught in a trap and pulled it loose from its anchor and has dragged it to this point but can go no further? As he nears the animal he approaches from the front to avoid the business end of the skunk. All the while he talks to the animal. “Hey, buddy, what’s going on here? Cold morning to be sitting here next to the tracks. You just calm down here while I check this situation out. Don’t do anything stupid now, I’m here to help.” Using his stick he tries to push the skunk away from the rail. Somehow he’s stuck. The skunk comes to attention while Dean probes and continues to talk. Finally he sees what has happened: apparently the skunk swam or waded across Crooked Creek and then, while still wet, he tried to cross the tracks and froze his wet fur to the frigid rail. The classic tongue on the flagpole caper.
Dean knows there is no set strategy for this situation. It’s him and the skunk. The skunk sees Dean as the enemy and as a result he’s at full attention. Dean continues to talk to the trapped skunk as he probes to try to free his fur from the rail. First pushing from the front, then from each side, but always with his trusty walking stick. Progress is slow at best. “Hang in there, little buddy. We don’t want to hurt you, only help you. Just be patient, little fellow, we’ll get you out of this jam.” He’s going to have to work from the rear of the animal now, something he’s tried to avoid so far. He talks more as he moves around to the rear using the full length of the stick to keep as much distance as possible.
From up the tracks he hears Mary’s words. “You’re going to get sprayed being that close, you best keep your distance.” Good advice, but nothing he didn’t already know. He’s making progress working from side to side, then the front and finally pushing from the rear. He almost has him free. Talking, pushing, probing, keeping as much distance as possible, little by little, just one more push from the rear.
And he was free.
“Hey, little fellow, I told you we’d get you out of this little jam.”
And then it happened. Free and now fully able to use all of his defenses the tail comes up and in one ungrateful action the cold morning air is filled with the pungent celebratory spray from the skunk. As Dean freed the skunk, he backed up quickly but stumbled and fell. Seeing the spray pass over his head, he can’t move away quickly enough to escape the mist as it settles down to the ground. Eyes burning now, he mumbles some unprintable phrases concerning ungrateful skunks as he staggers away half blind and eyes watering. Walking back to the truck he watches the skunk wander down the railroad bed and out of sight. The thought of seeing him as road kill somewhere seems appropriate now.
Mary smells the results before he reaches the truck. “I told you that was going to happen. You’re not going to get in this truck, are you?” Dean strips off all the clothes he can before climbing into the truck for the short, smelly, and very silent trip back to the house. Stripping to the bare minimum in the garage and then a quick dash to the house for a long shower that includes numerous home remedies for removing skunk odor, Dean was finally able to reduce the odor to a livable level. He chucked all his clothes in the washer for repeating washings, which filled the house with the faint hint of “skunk.” They don’t make a Yankee candle in that flavor.
Several hours later Dean settled back into his favorite chair, coffee in hand, looking out the window as the sun in the clear sky tried to warm the February air. It was barely at the ten-degree mark. It was really just another winter day in Tioga County. He was grateful for this beautiful February day, for his home, for family all around him, and for the opportunity to answer the call for his granddaughters. It didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but it turned out well. In the distance, from the valley below, he heard the Tioga Central Railroad train rumbling up the tracks towards the bridge over Crooked Creek. All clear ahead!