No one could characterize me as a juvenile delinquent. I would not have thought of shoplifting even a candy bar. I would have been afraid to sample the Jack Daniel’s that was hidden away in the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet. It was a major breech of my code of conduct to pour over the interesting pages of “Playboy” that one our farm workers kept under his mattress. Now there was a temptation for a pubescent teen.
But, from a very early age, I became interested in practical jokes and other scams. These jokes began innocently and were copied from other people’s harmless teasing that I read about in “Reader’s Digest” or “Capper’s Weekly.”
One of my best was aimed at my Grandpa Fleenor. He was a pig farmer, a carpenter, and an entrepreneur. I listed on the local radio station on “swap and shop” that he had pigs on sale for half of the going price with the added comment that people should call after 10 p.m., well after Grandpa’s bedtime.
I captured my first wild animal at age 13 to add to my Grandma Watkins small town zoo. She had a fox, two deer, a small Asian bear, various snakes, all types of birds, a coon, a monkey, and a few other animals. My gift to Grandma was a baby skunk that she very quickly de-scented. Sam, as we called him, was a cute little bugger that loved me like his mother. Within two years I was using the pet skunk as a gag, leaving him in my sister’s bedroom, our new pastor’s study on Halloween, and carrying him to community events to watch people freak out and run wildly from my harmless pet.
Then, came the dare. The skunk had made it to Danville High School with the permission of the principal to irritate a teacher that no one liked, including the principal. My classmates knew that I was making a bus trip to Washington D. C. and they challenged me to smuggle the skunk to top of the Washington Monument. Being rather adventurous, I could only see the $40 they were offering if I could garner a note in a newspaper of notoriety. The implications of getting caught with a skunk in the nation’s capital never entered my mind.
The major issue I felt would be how to keep a skunk hidden and sedate for periods of up to ten hours in a bus or hotel. So, I decided to try “catnip” since my folks used it when we brought our neurotic cat on the train from Denver, Colorado to Burlington, Iowa to begin farming after the end of World War II. The skunk had become use to the company of humans since I kidnapped it as an infant. In many ways it had no idea it was not a person. Grandma often took the skunk to the school when invited by teachers for show and tell days. The silly skunk would just walk around with a curious look until some kid would pick him up and rub his unruly hair.
My experiments with catnip were amazingly effective. And, I learned that the skunk could easily go twelve hours without needing to potty. He was fastidious about the neatness and cleanliness of wherever he had to sleep. If any water got into his pen, he would not sleep inside it until it was changed.
I packed my suitcase allotting one third of the space for Sam. The sponsors of the trip insisted that two participants share a room throughout the trip. But, I wrote a letter to the sponsors claiming that I could not share a room due to a nasal problem causing snoring that caused consternation for my own family. This opened the door to having the freedom to feed and relieve my pet each evening and early morning.
These were before the days before 9/11 and almost no security was in place at national monuments. In fact, thirty years later, at age 50 I carried my entire suitcase to the top of the Statue of Liberty because I didn’t want to pay for a locker to stow it. I was rather miserly in those days and refused to use money if I could avoid it.
I studied the design and security issues of the monument before making the trip. Washington Monument was the highest structure in the world until the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The monument had 49 flights of stairs up to the 490-foot level with 18 steps or risers per flight, plus a 490–500-foot spiral stairway with 16 steps in the northeast corner. In 1958, the original spiral stairway was replaced with two 490–500-foot spiral stairways of a different design with 15 steps each in the northeast and southeast corners. There was an elevator that visitors could use, but a huge majority of the people chose to climb just to boast that they had made it to the top.
I had asked my mom to sew me a type of backpack that I could carry while visiting the sites of the nation’s capitol. She knew nothing of my ploy to take my skunk to what she saw as the apex of world cities.
The trip to Washington on Greyhound with 40 other students went without a hitch. I assume my skunk slept most of the way with his mild sedative. And, I even let him sleep on the bed with me.
The actual ascent of the monument was scheduled for the fourth day of our visit, and I was really calm about my plan. Every day was so jam-packed with visits to the Smithsonian, Mt. Vernon, the Washington Cathedral, and a host of other sites that I barely thought about the fact that I would soon have to set Sam free to make it as he could in the nation’s capital.
The white marble of the Washington Monument beamed in the sun on the day of our visit. I had no idea that so many people visited the monument on a given day and I soon realized that I would have difficulty finding a secluded spot near the top to set Sam free. I waited at the top peering time and again out the small windows for a view of the city. Finally, our group cleared out and there were a few moments to spring the “kitty.” And, then, I began the descent to catch up with my group. It was strange but we met no one going up and I was wondering if I was already busted. Had someone gone up the elevator and then back down to report a polecat at the top of the monument?
We noticed a large group of Japanese people as we exited and left for the walk to the Lincoln and Jefferson Monuments. I lingered. As soon as we left the Japanese began their ascent, it was not ten minutes until the first Japanese must have met Sam trying to find an exit. The entire contingency came pouring out of the monument. The women were screaming and the men were giggling from a mixture of fright and pleasure.
I decided to leave as inconspicuously as possible.
The next day, the “Washington Post” ran a brief article about the Japanese ambassador and a group from Japan being rudely rushed out of the Washington Monument because of the presence of a skunk. And, the editorial comic had a cute caricature of a skunk with his raised tail running after a group of Asians as they hustled away from the monument.
I had my newspaper story. Now all I had to do was to keep this secret until I returned home. Unfortunately, I had no guarantee my friends would guard my secret from my other friends and family. But, that is a story for another day.
Yep, that was a taraddidle (a little white lie)!