Jim Buchanan

Jim Buchanan

It occurred to me last week that Daddy was on to something.

This wasn’t because of something that happened, but because of something that didn’t: For the first time in a shade over 20 years, I found myself in the middle of winter without a case of poison ivy.

Now, breaking out in poison ivy when it’s 20 degrees outside seems odd, but it can happen a few different ways. With its identifying leaves gone it can be mistaken for more benign vines, so it’s understandable that folks grab it while doing a little offseason landscaping work. The stuff can also be found on firewood and you can get a dose hauling it in and burning it.

I’ve heard tales of schoolyard bullies back in the old days stuffing vines down the pants of a hapless target, causing breakouts to the point that parents had to stuff the victim in a bath of oatmeal to ease the itchy torment. Fortunately, I don’t recall hearing of that sort of cruelty around here. Vegetative mayhem tended to run along the lines of stuffing a teacher’s desk drawer with ramps. I guess people were just more refined in these parts.

At any rate I picked up annual cold weather ivy from another source: Our cat, Butterscotch.

Scotchie was an indoor/outdoor cat of the scattershot variety. Once out, she wanted in; once in, she wanted out. Mostly, she just wanted her way. In the winter, that way involved going out, finding a patch of poison ivy, rolling luxuriously around in it and returning to my lap to lacquer me all over with ivy juice. This went on for years – she lived to be past 20 – before I figured out why I was breaking out with ivy rash in the middle of winter.

On one of the nature shows down past the news channels on cable TV was once a documentary detailing how certain species of birds rile up spraying ants. They get the stuff on their wings and it helps kill parasites or something, if I recall correctly. I did a little research to see if poison ivy helped out cats in some manner. The research showed no such connection. The conclusion of my research, instead, told me something I’d known for years:

My cat was a jerk.

She was intentionally swabbing me with resin.

I say “was” because, after surviving five or so presidential terms, Crystal Pepsi and Roseanne Barr’s rendition of the national anthem, she shuffled off this mortal coil early last year. She’s taken her chemical warfare patrols to kitty heaven.

If I’d followed Daddy’s credo I could’ve avoided it in the first place. He had a firm rule: No animals in the house. They stayed outside. Inside was for people. Further, he expected animals to have utility: Cattle were for meat, barn cats were for catching mice, Plott hounds were for catching bears.

Thus the one time Daddy’s rule was broken, it was broken in spectacular fashion.

One of Mother’s sisters was in from out of state for a visit, and along for the ride was the family poodle, as non-utilitarian a dog as Daddy could ever imagine. We all headed out to visit some folks at the head of East Fork, and somehow or another Daddy was conned into letting them leave the dog in the house.

During the trip up the creek one of those sudden mountain storms brewed up, bringing torrents of rain and the sort of intense thunder old folks used to describe as the mountain dwarves bowling back in the hollows.

We wrapped up the visit and went home.

There about three shelves up on the cupboard beside the kitchen table stood the poodle.

In a puddle.

Of its own making.

I don’t believe a person’s head could actually explode, but there behind Daddy’s eyes were what appeared to be miniature nukes appeared to be going off. He looked toward the poodle puddle, back toward Mother, then toward my aunt, trying to process the scene. Off in the distance I swear I could hear the sort of music that fills the air when a matador steps into a bull ring. He was clearly ready to break every rule in the ASPCA handbook.

“This is gonna be some vet bill,” I thought to myself.

I looked at Daddy, and reconsidered.

“Mortician bill.”

Somehow, and I’ll never know how, he composed himself, and carnage did not occur. But that was the last animal, save a mouse, inside the house on East Fork.

If I’d followed that model, I could have enjoyed many rash-free winters. 

With Butterscotch gone, this marks my first one of those since Bill Clinton was in office.

I’m just glad we didn’t live near a nuclear waste dump. I hate to think what would’ve happened if she’d had access to the high-test stuff.

Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.