Stop me if I’ve told you this story. But first, I gotta tell you that I was reminded of it by a wonderful blog I just discovered written by Lynda, called Mainly Mongoose. Absolutely, you must check out her posts (http://mainlymongoose.blogspot.com/), especially the last two or three about lions and elephants, which precipitated this posting.
I was 15 years old and living in a trailer on the Westside of Jacksonville, Florida on the very outskirts of town near Cecil Field, a Navy base. By outskirts, I mean that beyond our little trailer and clapboard neighborhood there was nothing but pine flatwoods, cypress and gum swamps and blackwater creeks. It was a fine place for young male hellions such as my friend Danny and I, ‘cuz there were plenty of snakes and bream to catch and bobcats to watch zinging across dirt roads at night in front of headlights. I don’t believe that I have ever before or since lived in a more wildlife-abundant place.
One of the neighborhood fathers had constructed a treehouse in the flatwoods not too far from where we all ordinarily slept, and it was palatial as far as most treehouses go. No, it wasn’t a Disneyesque Swiss Family Robinson McMansion, but it beat the pulp out of any other treehouse I ever got to play in. The man had found four stout pines growing in almost a perfect square, and had built a 6-sided wooden box about 8 ft off the ground among them. It had 4 walls, a door and 3 windows in addition to the requisite floor and roof. The walls were lapboard and the plank roof was covered with roll roofing (rock-covered asphalt felt). The door could be latched from inside as could the storm-shuttered windows. He was a good father.
The event happened on the first night we camped out in it, natch! Some of the kids didn’t have sleeping bags and it was cold, so they brought carpets to roll up in. I am not joking about the carpets – this was not an affluent neighborhood. We had a little campfire downstairs and cooked up some marshmallows and hot dogs before turning in. Boy, were we cool! No parents were present to lord it over us and we were sooooo confident in our independence. Of course, all the neighborhood dogs were present too. Hey, they were not about to miss a campout with kids and weenies!
As the evening wore on, we got sleepy and decided it was time to lay our heads down, so up the ladder we went and settled in for a good night’s sleep. The dogs were made to stay below to “guard” us, a job they took seriously, I’m sure. We battened down the hatches by closing and latching the door and shutters, said our prayers, chattered for a few more minutes, and then as the little ones drifted off, we elders shut up and lay awake listening to night sounds. There were katydids, tree crickets, nighthawks and chuck-will’s-widows sounding off for the evening, and all was really quite peaceful and well with the world.
Suddenly, the dogs started barking. At first, they only barked curiously, alertly, but after a short time began barking in a more worried timbre. This soon segued into a fearful, whiny barking that subsequently evolved into out-and-out yelping, and the next thing we knew the dogs were haulin’ ass outta there, crying in complete fear as they ran and stumbled, probably not even looking back. We heard them disappear into the distance as each one found its own way home, every dog for itself.
Gulp! It was a pitch black night with no moon, and it was even darker inside the treehouse. Every kid in there had platter-eye syndrome. No one was asleep. The little kids were muttering and whimpering quietly, and quite frankly, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end for the first time in my life. One of the little kids then mustered, “Buford, look outside and see what it is!” “Right,” I thought, “you would pick me.” But I was the oldest and nearly a man, so I knew that was right. OMG megagulp! I quietly slipped out of my sleeping bag, fumbled around and found my flashlight, slunk over to one of the shuttered windows and slowly opened one side of it, put the flashlight on top of my head so that the tapetum lucidum in the intruder’s eyes would reflect back at me, and panned the ground around.
And then I saw it, or rather saw them, a pair of eyes looking back at me from perhaps 20 ft away. They were about a half-inch in diameter, appx 3 inches apart and perhaps a foot off the ground. Then they disappeared and I slammed the shutter shut! And latched it. The beast neither tried to climb the stairs (as far as we knew) nor did it ever make a sound and we saw nothing of it any further that night or otherwise. To this day, I do not know for sure exactly what I saw, but firmly believe it could only have been a Florida panther.
The treehouse was dismantled the very next day, and we were never again allowed to camp overnight in those flatwoods.