Three Personal Bat Stories

Well, this is certainly a major undertaking for the Week in Review section of the New York Times, but who doesn’t love bats?

Actually most people. Most people are afraid of them and have their bat thoughts dominated by a variety of myths that have stacked up over the many generations of life.

They don’t get in your hair. They do carry rabies. You shouldn’t handle them unless you know how. Don’t ever kill them because they eat like a ton of flying insects every night, mosquitoes included.

Most of all, don’t disrespect them.

My first bat encounter came in Bedford County, Pa. at my aunt Mary’s cottage in the summer of my youth. I can’t remember which summer it was. But it was summer. It was where we spent our summer vacations, all my sisters and my brother and I. It was a wonderful place maintained by my uncle and my father. We all slept upstairs in the attic, which had big, open windows that allowed breezes and the sounds of the summer night to fill the place up. We pissed in a pot under the bed. Major business you did in an outhouse which was stalked by black snakes.

We did not care. It was a wonderful place with its own creek full of little fish to catch and very good for swimming unless one of the chemical plants upstream had a spill, when you were told to avoid the pestilent creek at all costs. Then that would wash away and it was back in the water again.

Every once in a while, a bat would visit the sleep quarters through the open windows. This would lead to my sisters swatting with brooms and tennis rackets and whatever else they could find to get rid of it. My father had better advice. “Just let it go and it will leave.” It aways did.

You had to give bats a good deal of respect because they were such survivors. No one liked them and people had been trying to kill them any way they could for years. Still, they thrived!

My second encounter came when pal and I rented a former one-room school house on the Susquehanna River in Perry County, Pa. We were working at the Harrisburg Patriot and it seemed like a good choice. The rent was $15 a month, which we could well afford. We would pick up girl friends at the Central Republican Club downtown after work (an AM newspaper, after work meant 1 a.m.)

There were no Republicans in the Central Republican Club, which was good for us. It was filled up with girls from up the river, mostly workers in the shirt factories, who would come to party late at night. You could buy a lot of drinks for those girls and get absolutely nowhere in almost all cases. Once a while, a couple of them with low standards would gather with us for the ride up the river to the schoolhouse.

Actually, that happened just once.

When we arrived, we had some beers in the living room and then escaped to our individual spots. My friend had an actual bed. I had a folding kind of thing with springs that pinched you if you were sitting wrong. Mostly what you could do in that bed is look out the windows at the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, about 30 yards away. Freight trains would come rumbling through there and shake the house.

Anyhow, our dates for the night were settling in when a scream came from one of the bedrooms. We rushed to see what had gone wrong (because a lot of things could in that place.) What we found was a young woman pointing at the bottom of a bedspread. Hanging there, in all their glory, was a pair of bats. The girls immediately ran from the room, from the living room and from the front door of the house, never to be seen again.

The bats, we learned upon examination, had come from the attic and had worked their way down the steps, across the floor and up on to the bed spread. Because we had unusual friends, the last person who lived- in the house collected cardboard potato chip boxes, which he stacked in the hallway. We grabbed a box, nudged the bats into and put the lid on, then took them outside and released them.

We called the county agent to come and take a look at our bat problem. White faced and sweating, he walked out of the door that led to the attic and announced we had one of the most serious infestations he had ever seen.

“What should we do about it?”

His advice, if I recall, was to move.

So we did. But not before we spent a night drinking beer in the back yard and watching the long line of bats come flying up the Susquehanna River and right into a broken window upstairs, hundreds of them. Crooktail, our abandoned siamese cat, sat on the railing of the back porch. Every once in a while she would just reach up and snag one from the sky, then eat it, leaving only wings and a bone connecting them.

Yes, we moved to a nice place that had no bats. We reformed ourselves, too. My friend got married and moved to Buffalo. I moved to Philadelphia to work.

Years and years later, now with two Boy Scout-aged sons, I had my final bat encounter. It was a good one and made me something of a legend at Camp Majakawan up north of the Wisconsin line.

All Boy Scout dads were required to spend two weeks on vacation with their Boy Scout sons at summer camp.

I was in charge in the cafeteria building (It was really just glorified barn with picnic tables and folding chairs.) We were watching the only movie we ever got in the Boy Scouts, “Parent Trap” with Haley Mills, Brian Keith and an Irish red headed woman who always seemed angry.

Bored senseless, I was monitoring the projector when I felt a tap on my calf. I looked down and there was a bat, making its way, arm over arm, up my leg. I shut off the projector and called some 35 Boy Scouts to come and see what I had found.

Most of them were aghast. They could not believe I had not swatted it away.

I wanted to see where it was going. With the little hooks on the ends of its wings, it crawled straight up my leg and onto my lap, with all the Boy Scouts staring at both of us. That’s when I reached down and took it gently by the wings and picked it up. I held it for everyone too see, but I would not let them touch it.

Bats are engaging, but if you get your finger in the way, they will bite, and that means rabies vaccine, which you don’t want to get.

I told them to open the screen door and I walked over and held the bat at shoulder height and let it go. It glided away and into the woods, where I am certain it ate a pound of mosquitoes in the next hour, because there were that many around.

No one said much. But I didn’t get any more crap from the Boy Scouts that week. What I said was law. I felt like the famed lion tamer Pat Anthony, who scattered his cats around the big cages at the Shrine Circus, occasionally firing a blank from his pistol.

I swaggered a bit that week. And I am not ashamed of that. I knew my bats because I had lived with them.

Even as a very old Scout now, I still love that.

7 thoughts on “Three Personal Bat Stories

  1. When sitting under a light fixture waiting for my family in an otherwise ink black Grand Canyon at 4:30AM, I had a bat buzzing inches over my head feasting on bugs. I decided to test the no hair theory.

    It’s true. And no dropping either.


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