When I was nine years old I had nine pet frogs. It was a coincidence, though there wasn’t much room left in my backyard miniature world. That’s what I called the cage my father had built for me at the edge of my sandpile — an old wooden crate with a framed screen lid. For the pond, I had borrowed a plastic basin from my mother. The dirt, stones, and carefully placed weeds were all my work.
A good childhood in the woods, a crippled frog
I loved my nine frogs. Their eyes were like jewels. Though they were all the same species, green frogs, I could tell them apart by subtle differences in their markings. I could tell their gender by the size of their eardrums, which are just back from their eyes (males have bigger ones). I gave them names. My favorite was Twist, so named because of his leg that trailed awkwardly behind him in the water, twisted to make the white underside visible from above. I had no idea how his leg had been broken, but it did make him easy to catch. I remember he was also darker than the others.
I learned how to catch frogs from my father. With practice, it became easy with a long-handled net. At night, blinded by a flashlight beam, a frog will freeze. But when I was frog-hunting by myself it wasn’t after dark, and I didn’t usually have a net with me. With my dad’s encouragement, I graduated to the hard way — just my hands. Sneaking up behind a frog as it sunned itself on the bank of a creek or pond, I would pounce like lightning with cupped hands at just the right second. The odds were slightly better than catching a fly that way, but the frog frequently jumped first. When the terrain allowed, I would wade into the water after it, for a second chance. I’d feel around in the mud or dead leaves where it hid. Sometimes I would just wait patiently, like a heron, until my quarry thought danger had passed and floated back to the surface, where the two of us would again compare synapses.
Shining in my memory, in the center of the extensive woods and fields down the street from my family’s house in northern Virginia, is Four-Mile Run. Along this winding creek, elevated by the usual berm, was a railroad track. Alone or with friends, for hours at a time in the summer, on weekends, and after school, I would prowl this area. I preferred the term “exploring”. There were some rapids, which Mike and I named “Little Falls”. There was a ravine with a few dumped appliances but a large outcropping of milky quartz at the rim. We named that “Suicide Canyon” (we watched a lot of westerns on TV). With brush we built a small fort near the rim. We would sometimes pack peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and eat them in the fort. When he grew up, Mike became an architect.
When we met other boys we didn’t know well, there were sometimes impromptu battles with cap guns, ragweed spears, dirt clods, or even rocks. Often we would put pennies on the track when we heard a freight train coming. Sometimes we would hide on the cliff just under the trestle where the tracks crossed a bend in the creek, to revel in the intense noise and vibration as the train roared just overhead. There was that element of danger, of challenges to be faced and mastered. My mother never knew that my friends and I were hop-scotching across the trestle day after day, sometimes with the train coming. We took giant steps from one tie to another, watching the wide, muddy creek 60 feet below.
One day I found a dead male cardinal and laboriously cut off his red beak with the jackknife my dad had given me. I let it dry for a few days in the sun, then borrowed my dad’s auger to carefully bore holes through both halves, which I wore on a string around my neck for a couple of weeks.
Robert, who would often turn the conversation toward girls and their anatomy, had relatives in a state where serious fireworks could be sold. If he was with us, he would sometimes pull from his pocket a pack of matches with a photo of a nude woman on it and a couple of cherry bombs, and we would conduct various experiments. One batch of cherry bombs were plastic, the waterproof kind. At my suggestion, since my father had told me he had done this is a boy, we lit it and threw it in a slow-moving bend in the creek. Stunned fish rose to the surface of the muddy water, bellies up, then regained consciousness and swam quickly away. Robert died in Vietnam, incinerated in the explosion of the fuel depot he was guarding.
Those years — my eighth, ninth, and tenth — were the best of my childhood. My exploring grounds were bulldozed for an eight-lane highway not long after we moved away in 1960.
More than any of my friends, I was always on the lookout for turtles, small snakes, salamanders, and frogs to bring home to my indoor and outdoor terrariums. A critter would escape now and then, but my mom was quite tolerant in this way. My dad was usually at work or working on the car, it seemed, but my heart would soar when he made time for a hike with me. The best ones lasted all day. We would drive to a trailhead. We would bring our lunch — a can of sardines or a jar of peanut butter, some crackers, apples, cookies. We would look under big rocks and rotten logs. We would catch butterflies with nets, euthanize them in a pickle jar containing a few cotton balls that we had saturated with carbon tetrachloride back at home, and mount them later that night, sometimes on the white, fleecy side of an old sweatshirt cut to the size of the frame.
Some hikes were not for butterflies, amphibians, or reptiles. Dad liked to go to Great Falls, on the Potomac. He taught me about pawpaw trees. Once or twice, at the base of a cliff he found down a dirt road, we took turns shooting old cans and bottles with his pellet gun. He’d had a similar childhood.
On one hike, down-river from Glen Echo on a hot summer day, I was running up ahead of Dad when, I saw a six-foot blacksnake stretched out straight across the trail. It was too late to stop, so I made sure to leap over it. Dad caught it handily, pressing a stick firmly behind its head. I remember how it coiled around his arm. We cut the hike short and headed back to the car, where Dad peeled the snake off his arm and put it in a cloth bag in the trunk. Upon arriving home, we put the snake in a brand-new, galvanized-steel trashcan. After dinner I went out to check on the snake. The trashcan lid was on the grass, and the snake was long gone. Did Paul, the next-door neighbor’s boy, open the lid and get a surprise? I had never known Paul to climb the fence, which was overgrown with poison ivy and honeysuckle. Was the snake long and strong enough to push the top of its head against the tight-fitting lid and free itself? This was the leading theory as dusk settled in. I must admit that relief was among my mixed feelings that evening. Today, six decades later, I think Dad sneaked out to release the snake, which would have been too much for me to handle.
In July of the year of nine frogs (the most I ever had), it came time to drive to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey for family vacation. The frogs had to be fed every few days with worms, flies, or virtually anything that was still moving. Once, as an experiment, I rolled a blueberry through the miniature world, and a frog snapped it up (I think I had gone way too long without feeding it). I took care to make sure no frog jumped out of the miniature world at feeding time, when the top of the cage was open. I could have asked a friend to feed them while I was gone. But would he have been as careful?
I decided I needed to take all nine frogs on vacation. It was a five-hour car trip then, but my grandparents lived on a lake. Was I thinking of letting my frogs go, where they would be vulnerable to hungry ducks, snapping turtles, and herons? I doubt it. I think I just wanted to show my pets to Nana and Pop, though there was certainly no cage big enough for them up there. Somehow (questionable in hindsight), I managed to talk my parents into letting me put the frogs in the trunk, each in its own jar full of water. I had a jar collection, so I had enough.
The day we left, in our green 1952 Chevrolet rolling out beneath the pink-firework, hummingbird-tended blossoms of the mimosa trees along our driveway, was a hot one. The trip was made longer, or at least felt longer, by the crying of my new baby brother. When we arrived, after kisses and hugs, we opened the trunk and found eight boiled frogs. I was heartbroken.
Only Twist, the crippled frog, had survived. Truth be told, he was barely alive. Crying, I gently transferred him to a bucket of fresh, cooler water. He slowly blinked, his eyes nearly retracting into his head.
After all the unpacking, after dinner, when it was dark, I went out to the garage to check on Twist. He had revived, though he was far from frisky. I decided to let him go. I took the bucket and a flashlight down to the little dock, where I slowly poured him out into the lake. He floated for the longest time. I will never forget the whiteness of that twisted leg on top of the black water below. Finally, Twist swam off, hesitantly as well as awkwardly, toward the deep, dark center of the lake. I never saw him again.