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Nut case left Dad squirrelly

Column by MARK FREEMAN

My father knows more about slide rules and Pentium processors than hedoes about bolt-action rifles and reading steelhead water, which has alwayshad me wondering about the hobbies of the neighborhood mailman back in 1963.

But I never needed DNA testing to prove he's my dad. All I needed wasto witness his intense pursuit of squirrels in his San Jose, Calif., backyard to know I come from honest, but misplaced, outdoors genes.

That's why this tale of the Urban Outdoorsman is more than just a Father'sDay story about what a college professor with a BB gun will stoop to whenhe has pesky gray squirrels and far too much time on his hands.

It's a warning to Rogue Valley hunters of what might happen if they endup living in a big city when the urge to exercise their role in game managementovercomes them ­ and all they have is an imitation Red Ryder and theurban fauna to work with.

It starts back in the late 1980s when my dad, Jim, was one of the headsof the College of Engineering at San Jose State University.

An engineering school is a lot like a fish hatchery, rearing a bunchof little engineers until they're big enough to be released into the realworld, where all but 2 percent or so are eventually eaten by predators.Those that do come back later as adults are called alumni andthey're kept in holding pens called booster clubs and foundations to breedmore students for the hatchery.

So my dad was one of the managers of this engineering hatchery. And whenthe first hints of domestic trouble hit him, it was not surprising thathe took a clinical approach.

A few gray squirrels living in his backyard redwood tree had made a habitof burying nuts and other knickknacks in his tiny lawn. Such actions wereconsidered unneighborly and had to be met with swift retaliation.

So the clinician engineer started systematically trimming various treesand bushes to make the back yard less nut-fruitful and squirrel-friendly.

It didn't work. The squirrels instead headed to my mom's bird feeder.He moved the bird feeder, hanging it off the house; the squirrels climbedonto the roof and shimmied down the chain during bird-feeder raids.

While one rodent was swinging from this bird feeder, Dad heard a squirrellaugh for the first time. And here's the proof that he's really my dad:

He ditched all the principles of science from the engineering hatcheryand got visceral. The squirrels turned from nuisance to prey.

My dad bought a gun.

Well, it wasn't really a gun. It was an air-pump BB pistol. It didn'treally fire BBs, more like lobbed them. But it signaled that the hunt wason.

Now, as a lifelong resident of engineering hatcheries, the only huntingexperience my dad had to draw from was stalking Easter eggs.

But the testosterone boiled in him the same way it does in Rogue Valleysportsmen the night before elk season, and he was going to tag his squirrels.

Being an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan, my dad figured all he'd have to dowas bust into the back yard, pop off a few rounds and he'd be barbecuingsquirrel steaks on his newly reclaimed lawn by afternoon. But when he triedthat, he flushed the squirrels too quickly, and they escaped by running,while laughing, across the power lines and the top of the backyard fence.

So my dad sat down and started to analyze his hunt and couldn't figureout what went wrong. He had plenty of camouflage: My parents' ranch housewas built and painted like every other ranch house in their neighborhood,and he wore the same clothes that every neighborhood engineer wore.

So he tried stalking them, but that didn't work. The squirrels wouldsee him sneaking past the living-room window with his gun in hand, and they'dflee.

When he was able to squeeze off a shot, the BB would take off more likea lazy fly ball to center and fall short of the fence.

And that's when the hunt really consumed him.

He quit his managerial job at the engineering hatchery and became justa teacher. He trimmed more bushes, yanked out more trees.

He turned the living room into a squirrel blind, spending $300 to tintthe living room picture window so the squirrels couldn't see in; sparrowsstarted flying into the window, but the squirrels always seemed to knowwhen he was there.

When I visited last Father's Day, I found my dad sitting on the dining-roomfloor, holding his BB pistol, staring through the living room, out the openedsliding-glass door and into the back yard.

Don't speak, he said. I can feel them out there.

He had, my mom told me later, been lobbing shots through the dining room'ssliding glass door all summer, but never once got a squirrel.

The back yard looked like a moonscape. What foliage wasn't dug out wascut to the nub. The grass was still pockmarked with nut holes and bird seedwas strewn all over the patio beneath the feeder.

That day my dad pounded a For Sale sign into the front lawn.The hunt was over.

It's a year later and everything's OK now. My parents have moved intoa new condo just across the street from the engineering hatchery. My dadis back to his clinical self, actually goes to work again and seems happy.There is no talk of the hunt.

He hasn't used his BB pistol since then, but he still keeps it well-oiled,encased in a tube sock and stuffed in his underwear drawer.

But he has made it clear to his new neighbors who to turn to if theyever find squirrels playing in the elevator or using the condo's Jacuzzi.

And you can bet it isn't the mailman.

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors . He can be reachedat 776-4470.