Friday, March 6, 2009

The Poison Frogs of McDowell County


Poison Frogs
I was so excited. I got to go to work with my Pop. We were going out to a house he was building somewhere in McDowell County. I have no idea where it’s at today. I’m sure by now the toad population has recovered to its former glory.

It was summertime and the morning was already thick with the heavy feeling of that deep-south humidity that can only be found in these southeastern states that form the heart of Old Dixie. The sun was coming up, the trees were emerald green, and the dew lay thick on the grass and leaves. It was not yet hot, that would come soon enough. It was warm, the sky was blue, and the day was new. I was looking forward to a big day of doing big things, though I knew not what yet.

As with every building site in western North Carolina, the ground was pure red clay. I mean deep red clay; both in color and in how far you sunk in the muddy spots, of which there were plenty. The house under construction was up on the face of a hill, though not all the way to the top, and the site had been graded level, cutting back into the hillside slightly on the upper side. With the excess dirt, aka mud, pushed off in front to level out the front yard some.

There were several piles of scrap lumber and blocks of wood scattered helter-skelter both in front and back of the house. These ranged from blocks cut from the ends of various boards, to partial sheets of plywood and chip-core, with several broken up concrete blocks sprinkled in for good measure.

Pop and I arrived before his two carpenters who worked for him. We sat in the truck for several minutes and looked at the job site. He talked about the house, but I was too young to understand all the technical mumbo jumbo about rafters, joists, sheeting, and shingles. Later in life I became quiet fluent in the trade talk of carpenters, roofers and plumbers, but this was long before that. I imagine I was pretty impressed with it all.

The two other guys arrived. If I remember correctly, I believe it was Ozzy Finwall and Bob Justice. I may be wrong on that. It’s been a lot of years.

We piled out of Pop’s truck and into the mud. Red clay is quite possibly the stickiest naturally occurring dirt-like substance on the face of this planet. Two steps and it was an inch thick on my boots. Yuck, I did not plan for that. Oh well. I could deal with it. After all, I was a boy and this was the nineteen seventies, when boys still got dirty and thought it was fun. There are still some of those around, thank Heaven above. Not enough, though.

In the very short discussion that followed I learned that Pop, Ozzy and Bob were going to work on the roof. I think they were starting shingles, or finishing the sheeting. I know they were up on top. So as they were preparing their tools, nail aprons, hammers and getting a ladder out, I piped up and asked: “What you want me to do, Pop?”

He looked up and looked around for a minute. “You see all these scraps and blocks and trash? I want all that picked up and piled right over there.” He was pointing to a spot near the end of the drive behind the house.

‘Ok, Pop.” I had no idea how big a job that would actually be, and had not something else captured my interest, I don’t think it would have taken me long to realize this was not going to be a fun day. In fact, I would have probably been ready to leave in short order.

Fortunately for me, there was an adventure waiting to begin right out front.

I began in the front yard picking up blocks; stacking several together and carrying them to the pile Pop had wanted me to add all these pieces to. There was already a growing pile there. I tossed them on and returned to the front yard. I was already wishing I had a wagon, though I wonder now if it would have helped with the sticky clay building up on the wheels.

After several loads, I came to a section of a piece of plywood lying with several blocks around and under it. I grabbed it, lifted it up and HOLY COW! LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT TOAD! I had never in my memory seen a toad that big and fat. Not only was it huge, it was a deep red that matched very closely to the color of the red clay around it. I flipped the plywood over and swooped in and the monster was mine, a sudden unfortunate prisoner of war.

I headed up through the yard. I just had to show this thing to Pop. I knew he would be amazed and impressed.

“Hey Pop! Look at this toad I just caught. It’s HUGE! And look how red it is! You ever seen a toad that red?” I was very impressed with myself and my prize. I already had plans for showing it to Roy and Johnny and Dennis and anyone else I could find. I bet I could scare Brigetta and Crystal absolutely insane with it. Probably Charity and Rhonda too. My mind was in full gear at my soon to be notoriety.

“Whoa, boy! You better throw that thing down before it bites you!” It was either Bob or Ozzy, I don’t know which. It doesn’t matter because the other one jumped right in.

“Boy, didn’t you know them red things is poisonous? That thing gets a hold of you and you’ve had it.” The toad bounced as it hit the red earth.

“What do you mean poison? I ain’t never heard of a poison toad. I’ve heard of people getting warts from them, but not poisoned.” I said with very little conviction.

My Pop got in on the act by that time. “Yep, boy. If that thing bites you your head starts to swell. Sometimes they swell so big they bust. I probably wouldn’t even be able to get you to the hospital in time. Better stay away from them red toads.”

I looked at the toad and thanked Goodness for my all-too-narrow escape. What if I had been bit? I swallowed hard and life got very serious as I contemplated my own mortality. There was only one thing to do. I had to make it safe to work around here before someone got bit.

I began my search. Walking around the cluttered yard I looked for the perfect tool. Something long enough to keep me safe, yet short enough to swing accurately. What I found was a cut-off two-by-two that was about two and a half feet long. I whittled a quick handle on one end. Then I began my quest.

Going back to the front yard, I searched high and low for the monster that was a big, fat, red, poison toad. My search was soon rewarded as I flipped over a board near the center of the front of the house. There sat the evil, vile creature.

My heart was racing. How fast were these devil-frogs? Cut I even protect myself? I raised my make-shift club to my fullest reach, and WHACK! One less poisonous red toad to menace the world. I discovered the toads were not the fastest venomous creatures God had created. That was a great relief.

I picked up that block, threw it on the pile, and went back to the front.

Upon returning to the front yard, I began to flip each block that was large enough to hide a toad under by using the end of my club. I picked up one end, peeked underneath, and flipped it over. Nothing there. Ok. I would check several then pick them up and take them to the pile. Returning, I would repeat the process.

From time to time I heard Pop, Ozzy and Bob up on the roof laughing, but gave it no thought. I was way too focused on what I was doing to protect the world from poison frogs.

I flipped over one board and there was the next little demon in red. I flipped the board, saw the toad, brought the club all the way around behind my back and over my head and down right on the top of those beady, satanic eyes. All in one very fluid and graceful motion. Splat! I was a Toad Ninja. All those hours of playing Karate and Kung-fu masters with Johnny Justice served me very well. I didn’t know a lick of real martial arts, but I was doing quite well, I thought.

Gradually the Front yard became less cluttered and eventually cleared of both scrap lumber and of deadly reptilian vermin. So I headed for the back.

The back yard shouldn’t have been as bad since I was so much closer to the main pile. I was going to throw most of the blocks into the pile.

I went for it, but was quickly losing my enthusiasm. My frog count was up to around five when I started through the yard. I was running out of steam and ready to quit. I guess that’s why I wasn’t thinking so clearly when I reached for that corner piece of a plywood board. I grabbed it and started picking it up when an average size toad jumped out, and terror of all terrors; it was one of those red-as-Satan-himself poison toads and even worse, it hit my hand! I practically fell over backward and stumbled three or four steps before regaining my balance. I turned my left hand over and back repeatedly inspecting for the tiny tooth marks that would surely seal my doom. Nothing. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! No doubt the frog had misjudged how quickly I was moving and had missed in his strike at my exposed fingers!

The toad hopped, heading straight at me! I jumped backward! He jumped forward! I yelled and made a wild swing with my club. I missed. The toad kept coming! I backpedalled, and made another swipe. The venomous evil little beast jumped to my right and I missed again.

Oh ye little spawn of the devil! I have you in my sights now! I drew back to full length, lined up, and SMACK!!!! The toad returned to the evil, hot, smoky land from whence it came, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had thought I was a goner for a second there.

That’s when I noticed Pop, Bob, and Ozzy up on the roof laughing like crazy.

James Lee Frady (c) 3/6/2009