9 Frogs by (4 Stories)

Prompted By Regrets

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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.

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Profile photo of Ben McKelway Ben McKelway


Tags: 1950s, childhood, nature
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Welcome to Retrospect, Ben, and what a delicious premier! So much to love, your miniature world, your connection to nature, and your sensitivity to all of it. I also especially liked those transitions of Mike and Robert from boyhood to adulthood and am curious about your own so look forward to reading more from you!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    This is an amazing story, Ben. I loved the description of your childhood and, of course, your nine frogs. When we first moved to the suburbs, much of the land was undeveloped and my brothers used to catch tadpoles and frogs. Once, when changing the water, one of my brothers put his collection into a pan he thought was filled with water, but it was bleach. The result was similar to your boiled frogs. Hope Twist made it and welcome to Retrospect.

  3. What do I love about this story (besides almost everything)? The fact that you also, conveniently, had a jar collection, way more than enough for each of the 9 frogs to have its own for the trip. The tangential stories along the way (such as the one about the snake that got away, and the friend who died in ‘Nam). The way you bring out the relationship with your father without writing about it directly. The names you and your friends gave to different elements of the creek, and the fact that you can still call them back after all these decades. The way the whole story meanders, kind of like a frog looking around for its next lily pad (or blueberry). The fact that you captured a story of regret without ever using the word “regret” or any equivalent term.
    Powerful memories, Ben. And welcome to Retrospect.

  4. Marian says:

    What a wonderful story to start off your contribution to Retrospect, Ben. Welcome! There is so much to admire and relate to here, even for a girl in who grew up close to cities. How sad about Robert … Your recounting of throwing cherry bombs in the creek reminds me of a quirky French animated film, “The Triplets of Belleville,” in which three very odd sisters use a similar technique to catch frogs. Worth a look.

  5. Oh Ben, what a beautifully written story of your wonderful boyhood memories, and of course your regret and guilt at the death of your frogs, save for the valiant Twist.

    But what I read most is a vision of your happy childhood and your loving and nurturing parents. Welcome to Retro, I look forward to more of your stories!

  6. Suzy says:

    Beautiful story, Ben! We learn so much about you here, and we are eager for your future stories so we can learn more. Welcome to Retrospect, we are delighted you have joined us! If you want to know why we were hesitant about approving your registration, read my story “96 Tears” on this prompt.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    Welcome to Retro! And what a beautifully evocative story of someone — you — who obviously loved and respected nature’s creatures. And described your childhood experiences with them beautifully.

    And yet, despite your heart clearly being in the right place, you brought your frogs into a situation of mortal peril simply by wanting to be with them. What a sad tale of regret, borne simply of childhood ignorance.

    I particularly resonated to your story since I, too, grew up in a rural area, surrounded by ponds and frogs. There were a good number of my friends who seemingly took great joy only out of cherry bombing the frogs out of existence. I did not join them in this, but more out of squeamishness than virtue. Given your own virtue, your story should have had a happier outcome. But at least you leave us with hope for Twist. That is huge.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is a beautiful narrative of a childhood life spent outdoors in nature with snakes, frogs and other small creatures in their habitat. Your description of frog hunting is compelling. The joy experienced on those hikes with your father is palpable.

    The juxtaposition between Robert shooting off cherry bombs and his death by “incineration” in Vietnam while guarding the fuel depot was brilliant, Ben.

    I confess to a sense of dread as you described the hot day while putting your beloved frogs in the trunk of the car for the five-hour journey and could feel more than just regret by the results. As least Twist survived. Your release of him was vivid as well.

    This story is a real tour de force. Welcome to Retrospect, Ben. I look forward to reading many more of your stories along your life journey.

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