About a quarter million years ago, give or take, a half naked Neanderthal stands at the mouth of a cave and stares into the night. He is protecting the house. And sure, it’s not much to look at, but it’s paid off and it’s all his. His mother thinks he shouldn’t have moved so far away. He’s happy he did. This is his little piece of paradise and tonight is a night full of noise. He needs to make sure that whatever is out there stays out there.
Fast forward to our modern world. Everything is different and yet, everything is the same. Our caves take many forms: apartments, trailers, condos and overpriced, poorly built McMansions. No matter what it looks like, protecting the house is still job one.
The Neanderthal had his spear and his courage. Today, we have guns, seven different types of door locks, alarms and cops. The one thing we don’t have is courage. Even our dogs are afraid. The Golden Retriever growls from underneath my desk but refuses to investigate any strange sounds after the sun has set. She likes to sleep in and only sounds menacing during the day when the neighbor kids pedal by on their bikes. In other words, she’s a nine to five security guard who likes her job but doesn’t want trouble.
The threats to home and hearth have changed in a couple hundred thousand years. In the past, hungry lions and tigers and bears…oh my!…pressed the populace into action. But we are not the hunters and gatherers that we once were. Today, we hunt bargains at the mall and gather plastic grocery bags at the supermarket. Some humans still venture into the wild and hunt. But the days of facing a mountain lion with a sharpened stone on a stick are ancient history.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. I look terrible in loincloth and I’m allergic to half the plants on earth. I wouldn’t last twenty minutes in the stone age. One good sneezing attack and I’d be on a grizzly bear’s dinner menu.
Even so, the spirit of the neanderthal lurks inside every modern man. And your average Joe watches a lot of action adventure flicks while sucking down his beer. He identifies with the hero on screen. Although Joe can’t do two laps in the pool without getting winded, he sees himself as the king of his castle and a gladiator to boot. After all, he knows how to pulverize a spider and work a weed whacker. His spouse, a member of the not necessarily gentler but certainly smarter sex, allows her pudgy mate to indulge this fantasy.
Still, there are times when danger lurks. Last Thanksgiving was one of those times.
It was two days before turkey day. Lee was getting the house ready for a dining room full of guests. The house was dusted and the extra leafs were installed in the dining room table. The holiday silver was haphazardly stacked on the kitchen countertop awaiting polishing. She wasn’t looking forward to it.
“Tomorrow, my hands are going to feel like they’re falling off after I’m done polishing.”
“But you don’t have to do it,” I said, “unless you just want to show off.”
Crickets. The kitchen grew suddenly colder.
I said nothing, slipped downstairs and held up in my man cave until it was time to take the dogs out.
One quick note before we go any further. Our dogs just aren’t right. The backyard is fenced in, so, in theory, you should be able to just let them out. Most canines are delighted to be left alone to take care of business. Unfortunately, that is not the case with our two dogs. They demand an audience. If I don’t go outside with them, they never make it off the concrete slab. Instead, they return to the back door and press their wet noses against the glass. And if they don’t relieve themselves before toddling off to bed, they will surely demand another trip to the great outdoors around four in the morning. And it will be me who lets them out again. My wife plays the “I didn’t hear a thing” game. She’s an expert at it.
And so, each and every evening, I escort the two dogs out to the back yard. They get the spotlight treatment from my halogen flashlight. The bright beam follows them across the yard until they find their mark and perform. They love the spotlight. It’s as close to Broadway as they are ever going to get.
That night, something was very different. The dogs were out milling around when I heard a sound. It wasn’t your normal outside sound and I couldn’t make out where it was coming from. The dogs didn’t seem to notice. They’re hearing is lot better than mine. They never went to that Stones concert in 1980. So, I shrugged it off.
Then I heard it again. And then again. Was it the wind blowing through the trees? No, the night was still. Maybe a neighbor taking something out to the curb? Not at this hour.
I didn’t move, didn’t breathe and squinted…you know…so I could hear better.
That was the sound of someone or some thing crawling over the fence. I could even hear the twang of the wire that was stapled to the paddock planks.
The hair went up on my neck.
“Oh shit,” I muttered. There was some large menacing animal trying to get into my back yard.
I kept my light on the dogs, who didn’t bother looking up. What in the hell is wrong with them?
“Get in the house,” I said in a loud stage whisper.
Again the sound of claws on the fence cut through the night.
“Come on, come on.”
The mutt had made his way back to the door. He was happy to be done for the day and looking forward to the comfort of his soft bed. The Golden girl was slowly sashaying her way back to me.
It was a bear. It had to be a bear.
I opened the back door and the silent, nonchalant dogs disappeared into the safety of the house.
Now, I was alone, in the backyard, in the dark…with a bear.
Keep in mind that I didn’t know shit about wild animals. I have since been told that you can smell a bear a quarter mile away. Bears are not big on hygiene.
Closer now. It was above me on the deck. It wasn’t a bear or the floorboards would be creaking. Even a Jersey boy from the burbs knows that bears are huge and heavy. I could breathe again.
It was something smaller, maybe a raccoon or a fox. I crept up the deck stairs and poked my head over the edge to look across the floor for furry intruders. I thought I was being cautious and clever. I was really being dumb and dumber. With my face at floor level, a disagreeable raccoon could have turned me into the Joker in five seconds flat.
The deck was clear. The sound was coming from beyond the front gate of the backyard. Near the garage. No doubt about it. Whether it was an animal or someone breaking into my car, it was time to handle this.
I bolted down the steps and through the basement door. Then it was up the stairs and running towards the door to the garage.
“Lee! Lee!” I yelled.
She stepped out of our bedroom. “What is it?”
I spun around. “There’s someone out there.”
“Outside. I’m heading out. Whatever you do, don’t open the door.” And with that I streaked across the house and out into the garage.
I was about to punch the electric garage door opener button when it dawned on me. I needed a weapon. I rummaged through a nearby toolbox and grabbed a claw hammer. Now, I was ready. I hit the button, the door rolled up and I ran into the night with my clawhammer raised high. And that’s when I saw…
Nothing. No car thieves. No bears. No raccoons. Not even a sleepy squirrel. Zip.
For the next fifteen minutes, I continued to act tough, marching around the driveway with my clawhammer at the ready. The sound was gone now. Whatever it was, I had scared it off. Good job, Fink.
I headed back inside and pushed the garage door button. The kitchen door was locked. I fished a putty knife from my toolbox and took care of the crappy lock. I entered the house. The dogs were nowhere to be seen. Between the builder’s grade door lock and the lazy dogs we had nothing to worry about. That’s security for you. I made a mental note to change the lock, move the toolbox and give our four legged security team a good talking to. I closed the door and took a couple of steps forward.
Had I missed something out in the garage? It wasn’t a bear. I was pretty sure of that. I would have bumped into him on my way in. I turned and took a step back towards the door to the garage.
The sound was in back of me. I whirled around. What I saw left me speechless.
The dogs were way smarter than me. That sinister sound, the barbarians at the backyard gate, the band of car thieves and bears turned out to be the silverware collection rattling merrily on the countertop. I took another step to be sure.
This was going to be fun to explain to my wife.
I found her in the dining room. She was holding her grandfather’s wicked butcher’s steel in one hand and her cellphone set to 911 in the other.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“What’s going on?”
“Everything is fine.”
“If you weren’t back in the next ten seconds, I was going to run and get the gun.”
Oh yeah, the gun. I had forgotten about that.
“Well, everything is fine now,” I said.
“What was it?”
“You go running outside and yell at me to lock the doors…?”
“For your safety because…”
“…and I’m thinking, what does he expect me to do? What if something happens to him? I’m just supposed to sit here?”
“Well, you don’t have to worry now. I took care of it.”
“So, what was it?”
“Like I said, nothing.”
Now it was Lee’s turn to squint and it wasn’t to hear better. “Uh-huh. So what was it?”
“Look, you want to go to bed and…”
“What was it?” She was taking no prisoners.
“The silver was rattling in the kitchen and…”
“I’m going to bed.”
“…it sounded like…”
“You’re my hero. Next time grab the gun in case the a gravy boat gets out of line.”
And without another word, off to bed she went. I was too jazzed up to sleep. I slipped down the stairs to the man cave and found an action adventure flick to watch. Bruce Willis was kicking ass and taking names.
Yeah, I could do that.