(The following was recalled after reading Cave Builders’ Crusade for Bats, AP 9/16/12)
I have always been anxious around bats and I know why. It all started with a fireplace.
Even before I was old enough to crumple the paper and stack the kindling I knew they came from the fireplace. My sister and I never saw them during the warmer months. They always came in the autumn when a chill came to the Berkshire Hills.
I remember the ritual that was played out before me every night until the following spring. My father would finish stacking the thin wood, precariously placing it on top of the balled up stories from weeks before. He would grab the box, rattling the matchsticks as he slid it open. The match would ignite in one smooth strike punctuated by a pop.
As he lit the corners of the paper the fire would lick the wood, building in strength until it was intense enough to catch. The smoke would rise slowly disappear for a moment, building under the closed flue. My father knelt with one arm dangerously close to the growing flames, holding the metal chain. For a brief instant you could smell smoke as puffs flowed back down the chimney trying to escape into the room.
My father pulled the chain, opening the flue and suddenly the smoke was gone. In that moment I always held my breath, waiting for a signal that I could settle in to watch that evening’s programming or whether I would run.
Occasionally my father might open the flue too soon and stun a sleeping bat seeking shelter in our chimney. The flames would startle the creature as it fell quickly to the wood or ash. If I heard a soft thump or better yet saw one fly across the room I knew to take my position.
I preferred the high ground when the bats came. I would run trough the dining room up the stairs to my room, grabbing protection long the way. Sometimes I wore a football helmet but I found it obstructed my view. I almost always wore a baseball glove and gathered my tennis racket as I made my way to the balcony.
Below me I saw my father watching the flight pattern of the bat as it swooped in diving arcs. He was yelling to my mother to grab the vacuum cleaner. My sister usually ran with me and I could hear her screams occasionally interrupted by a fit of laughter no doubt brought on by the absurdity of life in the woods.
Although I had my gear I never came close to striking a bat as it rose in preparation for another dive. I was and still am protective of animals, something that we all learned from the bats.
We waited until the bat settled, eventually to rest on a nearby curtain. They rarely took flight more than once and seemed to know that they did not need to worry. The vacuum handle would suck them up quickly, pulling them one by one, night after night, into the bag of dust in the guts of the Electrolux.
I was never sure of how they spent the rest of night, hoping that they slept and weren’t scared. The next day my father would kiss us goodbye and drive the bag to a field by his work. I never saw him cut open a bag or witnessed these re-locations firsthand. I always felt a sense of relief that they were gone. I also knew that the flue could not be closed until the fire died down much later, leaving a window of opportunity open to an adventurous bat looking for a rest.