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We’re not talking about a backyard squirrel, the kind your dog chases up trees at the neighborhood park. This was a burly mountain squirrel, a western gray with steely black eyes and the hind legs of a jackrabbit. It stood taller than the encyclopedia said any squirrel should, Its ropey, muscular arms looked as though they could break a pine cone in two. This was a genetic freak, a hundred-year squirrel. This was the Bill Walton of squirrels.
It was a huge effin squirrel. And everyone was certain I killed it.
Illustration by Emily Holman Morris
But I’m ready to tell what really happened that weekend. The following story is true. Only the names have been changed.
Two or three dozen of us had gathered at a meetup spot somewhere in Oceanside, where we boarded an old yellow school bus that then rumbled past Palomar Mountain and up to a school camp in the Cuyamacas. Most of us wore scowls, this being our Friday night, and a casual observer might have mistaken the trip as a nature retreat for troubled youth. But we were in fact just a motley troop of Catholic teens. This sequestered weekend of “thoughtful discussion and prayer” had been arranged as part of our sacrament of Confirmation, the church’s adolescent rite of passage.
Teens had been harvested from several congregations, so other than the six from my weekly Sunday school classes leading up to this journey, most of the kids were strangers to me. Our cohort clustered together on the bus, as did the groups from other parishes, all of us eyeing each other warily across rows of green vinyl bus seats.
The only adults on the bus were our counselors, and they were strangers too. There was a female college student. A young Marine and his fiancée. A man with a bristled mustache who I never directly met, but who spent much of the weekend glaring at me and shaking his head with disapproval. Our Sunday school teacher had handed us over to their chaperonage, and then presumably gone home to spend the weekend drinking wine and feeling a sense of relief.
She may or may not have warned them about me. The same engaged and inquisitive nature that made me an ace student in public school classrooms didn’t go over so well on Sunday. I’d frequently been removed from class, one time for wondering aloud whether certain of the Bible’s plot devices should be construed as miracles (or vice versa), and on at least a couple of occasions for excessive laughter.
We can blame the latter on my best friend: let’s call him Randy. He was the funniest kid I knew, and had long since figured out he could get me to laugh at inappropriate times with a silly noise or a goofy face. When he got bored in class, he’d amuse himself by crossing his eyes and puffing his cheeks to set a trap for me. He’d turn in his desk just enough for me to see, and then hold the expression for however long it took me to look. Sure enough, at the worst possible moment, I’d peer around the classroom, and there would be Randy, looking like Red Skelton had swallowed a whoopie cushion.
I’d erupt with surprised laughter, and by time our teacher turned from the chalkboard to look, there would be a class of serious, focused students — none more attentive than Randy — and me, giggling about nothing. I’d get tossed outside for being disruptive, and through the classroom window, I would see Randy pointing and laughing at me about it.
Randy and I came from military families, and both wound up moving to Camp Pendleton at the same time, at the beginning of 6th grade. For most of three years, he’d lived up the street, and we’d spent that formative time riding bikes together, playing video games, and watching professional wrestling. We shared endless inside jokes and quoted movie references, and were close enough that Randy’s older brother sometimes included me in their tradition of shoulder punches, Indian burns, and other big-brother bullying tactics.
We spent much of the bus ride to Cuyamaca talking about baseball. The World Series was starting up, and we were miffed we’d have to miss a game to go on this trip. Randy often carried a baseball with him, and while we talked, he continually shifted it in his right hand, practicing grips with and against the seams for his growing arsenal of pitches: curveball, split-finger fastball, slider.
I’d learned only a couple weeks prior that Randy’s father had been appointed to a suddenly vacant post at the Pentagon. It was rare for a military family to up and move in October, but this was an important position. His dad had left for the East Coast immediately, and in a few weeks the family would pack up the house and follow. So we sat together on the bus that evening, each of us conscious the weekend would be among the last times we saw each other. We were determined to make it count.
The bus pulled up to the retreat center just after dusk. The campus was spread out over a shallow slope of forest, with cabins and gathering spaces connected by a network of trails. The students were split into four cabins: two male, two female. Randy and I were in the cabin overseen by Jake, the young Marine chaperoning the weekend with his fiancée.
Jake couldn’t have been much older than 20, and anything he knew about managing a group of young men he’d learned from the Marine Corps. Thus, he lined us up and barked out a few rules he expected us to follow, on penalty of pain, and made sure we all knew where to sleep, shower, and relieve ourselves. Then he took off in search of his gal. The moment his footsteps faded into the woods, we were a group of eight unsupervised teenaged boys who mostly didn’t know each other, and who were in dire need of a bonding exercise. It took about three minutes for the first fire to be lit.
That started with this kid, Bobby, a freckled boy with spiky hair from the Wire Mountain housing district on the coastal side of Camp Pendleton. Bobby reached into his duffle back and pulled out a large canister of Aqua Net hairspray. This was one of the old aerosol spray cans, the kind you can’t get anymore because its popularity among fans of 1980s metal bands helped destroy the ozone layer.
As Bobby was about to teach us, the aerosol chemicals could be used for a little parlor trick that had nothing to do with raising one’s hair game. With a showman’s flair, he planted one foot on the seat of a chair and doused his sneaker with hair spray. Then he casually produced a disposable Bic lighter from his pocket, and lit his shoe on fire.
Turns out, that old aerosol spray was so flammable, it burned itself up in seconds. But it never got hot enough for long enough to make the sneaker canvas burn. Same thing for blue jeans. Bobby sprayed the jean legs of a willing friend, and lit ‘em up. For three or four seconds, the kid’s legs erupted in blue and yellow flame. Then it burned itself out, not even leaving a smudge, and he pumped his fists in the air and roared with that special brand of nitwittedness reserved for adolescent boys.
“Know what’s really cool?” Bobby asked with a smirk, as the whole lot of us gathered around. He rolled up a sleeve and sprayed down his bare forearm. I held my breath as he sparked the lighter, and let fire swallow his arm. The flames danced across his skin without burning it. We all gasped, and satisfied by the attention, Bobby smartly patted his hairless forearm, rolled down his sleeve, and tossed off a careless, “It didn’t hurt.”
The next several minutes witnessed a flurry of creative fire-setting. Somebody sprayed the wall of the cabin and lit that. Someone else inflamed his bunkmate’s pillow. Bobby sprayed enough Aqua Net into his palm to make a small pool of it, and tried to throw its flame across the room.
When my turn came, I thought it would be funny to invoke an old hard rock reference Randy and I had gotten from watching MTV. I thoroughly soaked down my clenched fist, then took the lighter from Bobby with my free hand. Moments later, counselor Jake returned to the cabin, intending to introduce us to the retreat’s resident priest. The two men walked in just in time to witness me, standing on a chair with a flaming fist raised above my head, as I shouted in an exaggerated movie demon voice: “I am the god of hell fire!”
The lighter and hair spray were confiscated, and though all in the cabin were lectured about the level of maturity required of us this weekend, every rebuke was punctuated with a clear glance in my direction. Embarrassed in front of the priest, Jake announced an early lights out. With the ice broken, our guys cabin spent the rest of the evening in the dark, entertaining ourselves by making fart noises, then as a group making guesses which were fake, and which were real.
Saturday morning started with a quick breakfast, followed by church activities, including Mass with a special and quite long homily from the priest, Father Gene. It might have been Bishop Gene — I didn’t know him, and I don’t remember how it was he came to be our shepherd for the weekend. He was a paunchy, friendly-looking older man, with ruddy cheeks and white hair that swooped across his forehead. He spoke to us about the value of faith, making sure to let us know that doubt was its natural and inevitable partner. But he was confident that if we would grow strong enough in ours, we could resist bad influences that might send us down the wrong path, and we would become pious and productive adults. I’m pretty sure there was a little subtext in there for my benefit.
Once Mass ended, at least four of us wasted no time getting outside: Randy, me, and our new friends Mark and Bobby. We’d been granted an hour of free time before the next exercise, and wanted to make the most of the fine weather. We just didn’t know how we’d do it yet. We rushed out onto one of the trails leading to our cabins, a couple minutes ahead of the rest of the congregation.
A few minutes on, the trail curved around a cluster of trees into a shallow depression. At the opposite end of a clearing stood the squirrel, so large that we all stopped short in awe. Even took a step back. The squirrel perked straight up, its massive gray tuft of tail flared behind him like a cape. His nose twitched as he sniffed the air to gauge what risk we posed.
None apparently. He stood at ease and turned to face us, not so much anxious as mildly curious. This was the same safe, abundant forest that had never checked his growth. What risk could human teenagers pose? From sixty feet away?
“That thing is huge,” one of the guys said. Maybe Mark, maybe me. Whoever it was, we were all in agreement.
I’m not sure who pointed out that the distance between us was about the as that same between a pitcher’s mound and home plate, but it got Randy’s attention.
“Hmm, let’s see,” he said, and started kicking a groove into the earth at his feet.
We all played baseball, Randy just played it a little bit better than the rest of us. I’d played backyard catch with him for three years, and during that last one I had to start wearing full catcher’s mask and pads. And now he was a good ten pounds bigger than then. Within a couple years, Major League scouts would be visiting his high school to see him pitch.
That squirrel’s head lined up plumb center of the average strike zone. Randy picked up a rock, and planted the outside edge of his sneaker into the groove he’d dug out, like it was a pitcher’s rubber. He straightened his legs and back, making a rigid line from the ground to his left shoulder, which faced the squirrel. He consciously raised his hands together in front of his chest and inhaled, almost like he was going to pray. Then started his pitch from the stretch.
The squirrel twitched its arms, like a pro wrestler flexing for the camera. Randy shook his head at an imaginary catcher. Not that pitch. No, not that one either. Then a single, curt nod, yes.
I don’t believe he put any thought into what might happen next. It was just a game, a challenge. Most likely, he didn’t expect to hit the thing. But when he brought his left knee up into a half windup, and his right arm extended straight back, all the muscle memory from all the pitching practice he’d put in over summer break did its work. His leg kicked forward and his arm — his whole arched body — swung forward like a whip, hurling the rock in a laser-straight line.
Heedless cruelty aside, I’d call it a perfect throw. The rock struck the squirrel dead between the eyes, hard enough to flip its body backwards, over its own tail. Its sound was not unlike that of a wood bat making contact.
All the air seemed to leave the forest. I recall no birds chirping, no rustling of leaves. All four of us were stunned, caught motionless in the thrall of unintended consequences. When the spell broke, I sprinted toward the animal, which now convulsed on ground littered with pine needles. Its hind legs kicked it counterclockwise, tracing a semicircle in the dirt. Then it too, was still, dark eyes vacant. A pink tongue bulged from its mouth, and a trickle of blood pooled around its nose.
How long had passed? Thirty seconds? Five minutes?
Somebody said Run!, and I heard the scramble of their footsteps thud away, like a spooked herd taking flight in rubber soled shoes. Then I noticed what they already had, the chatter of voices approaching the bend in the trail. The rest of the congregation had caught up to us. I could already see the colors of their clothing through the trees. Any moment now, they would turn the corner, priest and all, to find the self-proclaimed god of hell fire standing over a fresh squirrel corpse.
So I ran.
I could see my friends just disappearing over a ridge farther along the path, and knew that even at my fastest I couldn’t make it that far before the congregation showed up. My only chance was to go off trail, into denser forest where I might not be seen.
But two people did see me, and one of them was Cynthia Reyes.
Among all the strangers on this trip, there had been one familiar face: Cynthia’s. We’d been in sixth grade together, on base, at Mary Fay Pendleton Elementary School. I’d spotted her on the bus ride up this weekend, but we both succeeded in avoiding eye contact. We had history.
We hadn’t been in the same class, and only knew each other at all from playing four square at recess. But we did share a desk in the same math and science classroom. Her class would spend the morning there, mine the afternoon. And so, one day I showed up after lunch to find an envelope inside the desk with my name on it.
A note inside read, “Dearest Ian, I think you are sooo cute. Will you be my boyfriend? Here is the key to my heart. Love, Cynthia.” She’d included a literal key, a rusty little iron one. The old-fashioned kind with a looped handle and two large square teeth.
After school, I hurried to the bus to avoid seeing her. I wasn’t ready to be anyone’s boyfriend. When I asked my mom and sister how to handle it, they told me to be polite so I wouldn’t hurt Cynthia’s feelings. So on the next school day, I looked for her at recess, and found her standing with a group of other girls. They all buzzed with excitement as I approached Cynthia, cleared my throat, and rather politely handed her the key.
“No, thank you,” I said, then turned around and walked away. But not before I saw disappointment and humiliation flash across her face. Teasing about the public rejection embarrassed us both for weeks, but eventually we went off to different middle schools, and I never expected to see her again. I certainly never guessed she’d turn material witness, placing me at the scene of a squirrel crime.
Shouts of “He went that way!” dogged me through the woods. I didn’t really know where I was, or where I thought I was going. There were only so many people at the camp, and most of them had been walking alongside a priest when the squirrel died, so their alibis were pretty airtight. But instinct told me to run, and when I spotted a cabin through the trees, I ducked inside to hide.
There wasn’t any furniture inside the cabin other than bunk beds, meaning the only place to hide was up. I climbed atop one of the beds and lifted myself up to the rafters. Just in time, as two women approached the cabin door from separate directions.
“What’s all the excitement?” one greeted.
“Oh, one of the campers killed a poor little squirrel,” came the response.
“Jesus!” exclaimed the first. “What kind of sicko would do something like that?”
The two counselors met inside the cabin doorway at this point, and if they’d bothered to lift their heads, there would have been nothing to stop them from seeing me. Quietly as I could, I crawled along the heavy wooden beams on my knees, moving deeper inside the cabin to cross into the next room.
Female campers began entering the cabin too, still excited over the shock of the dead animal. The topic quickly turned from how sad it was something so cute had died, to how awful a person that kid Ian turned out to be. I wanted to object, to defend my honor. But my current hiding place seriously compromised any defense I might make. If any one of them had happened to look up at that moment, they would have found me lurking in the rafters of the girls’ showers.
Don't worry 2019, mine was not that kind of '80s comedy. While the occupants of the cabin distracted themselves with assassinating my character, I found a way out onto the roof, where I was able to skedaddle down a tree and disappear back into the woods. But not before another bit of conversation floated up to me.
“…With a rock,” someone said. “Cynthia Reyes saw him do it.”
Before long, I found another cabin, my cabin. I stayed hidden among the trees until I saw Jake jog into it, looking for me. He was alone, so I followed him in.
“Dude, what is your problem!?” he snapped. He explained how all the camp was out looking for me, and how my antics were ruining the weekend for everyone.
“I didn’t do it!” I pleaded.
“People saw you. They saw you run away.”
“It was hurt when I found it,” I stammered, my only lie. “I wanted to help it.”
“I saw that thing,” Jake said, “Something that big doesn’t die on accident.” He stood over me, four inches taller, with a Marine Corps weight-room physique. Although he tried to appear stern, the effort was undercut by a still boyish face.
“It wasn’t me,” I repeated, with more conviction this time.
“Yours was the only set of footprints anywhere near it.”
I struggled with the decision whether to tell him the truth, about the miraculous throw. But it would just get my friends in trouble right alongside me. I could try to explain why Cynthia might lie about what she saw, but the counselors had every reason to believe her over me, and it didn’t explain the dead animal. Jake sensed I was about to crack, and took a different approach, putting his hand on my shoulder, softening his voice and asking me in a warm voice, “We can work this out. Why don’t you tell me what really happened?”
So I did tell him a story about what happened. Not about the squirrel, but what I’d seen on the bus ride to Cuyamaca the night before.
The first hour of the ride had been all teenage chatter and laughter, but as dusk hit, things calmed down. The dim light and rocking of a bus navigating mountain switchbacks made everyone drowsy, and heads started nodding. Randy drifted off in the seat next to me, and not long after, my own chin dipped, and I was out.
But there must have been a bump in the road, because at some point the bus jerked, and my head knocked on the seat in front of me. Jarred awake, I turned my head side to side, and tried to massage away the pain. That’s when I noticed rhythmic movements across the aisle.
It was Jake and his fiancé, lying low across their shared seat, in the midst of a heated make out session. They were pressed close together, and my eyes widened as I saw his hand caressing up and down her body, heard her soft moans in response. They were breathing in unison, and quite unaware I had woken up. I watched out of curiosity — all this stuff was new to me. But I had enough decency to turn away once his hand disappeared under her clothes.
Jake stared at me, too stunned to be upset yet. His hand slipped off my shoulder. “Shit,” he said. He tried to shake the thought out of his head. “Shit,” he said, again.
That morning, he and Elizabeth had stood up in front of our group and explained how they, as confirmed and dedicated Catholics, were saving themselves for marriage. And how making that decision together had greatly deepened their relationship, given it a chance to become spiritual before it became physical. As I watched the implication of my testimony dawn on him, I wondered exactly whose idea it had been for the two of them to chaperone this weekend in the woods.
I never explicitly blackmailed Jake. At least, I made no demands of him. But I probably didn’t even know the half of how bad it could have gone for the young Marine, had word gotten out about his heavy petting escapades in front of impressionable Catholic youth.
“Just stay here, in the cabin,” he told me in an unfriendly but defeated tone, without raising his eyes. “Don’t go anywhere until I come get you. I’ll go settle everyone down and make sure you can still participate the rest of the weekend.”
With slumping shoulders, he left the cabin. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that my Confirmation itself was on the line. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world; I would have another chance next year. But I had sacrificed a lot of sunny Sunday afternoons to those prep classes.
After Jake walked out, my friends showed up. “Dude,” Randy asked me, “What did you tell him?” Mark and Bobby looked equally concerned. After running away, they had circled back on a different trail, so they could cross paths with the rest of the group and feign surprise at news about the dead squirrel. I had been with them, was their story, but they’d lost track of me, and assumed I had doubled back to look for a girl I liked.
“I just told him it was a mistake,” I said. “It was dead when I found it.”
Bobby and Mark seemed satisfied, and left for the afternoon seminar. Randy hung back for a moment to give me a look of appreciation. He then grimaced and shook his head sadly. “Why’d it have to be such a damn good throw?” he said.
He followed the others out the door. I stayed in the cabin, as instructed, and read a book.
Later in the afternoon, Jake showed up to collect me. He didn’t say much as we walked the trail to the conference building, only assured me he’d fixed things, and that I would have a chance to finish the weekend without my parents being called. Provided I behaved myself. “Not a step out of line, you understand me?” he said, finger in my chest. “I got you another chance, but it won’t even matter if I have to vouch for you again.”
I nodded and followed him into the meeting hall. The teens were spread around the room, several feet apart from one another, sitting on its blue carpet. Father Gene, dressed in white and purple vestments, stood ready to address them. Address us, I should say. The weekend organizer, a woman named Debbie, gestured to an empty spot in the center of the floor, and I took my place there.
The priest leaned heavily on themes of repentance that evening, which is a common topic in Catholic gatherings anyway, but after the events of the day I assumed it was partly addressed to me. I would periodically scan the room as he spoke, but no other campers would make eye contact with me. Randy made no funny face for my benefit.
The topic naturally progressed to the importance of Confession. About how forgiveness was available to all, but to ask the Lord for it our penitence should be heartfelt and true to our sense of right and wrong. And in our burgeoning adulthood within the church, we were expected to understand and uphold these shared standards from its teachings.
As he concluded, we were told to lie down where we sat, and engage in silent prayer and meditation, considering which sins we might truly repent of and confess. The lights were dimmed, with only trickles of sunlight creeping in between closed curtains. The large room fell completely silent aside from the murmurs of adults in quiet conference.
One at a time, every five to ten minutes, a counselor would walk across the room and silently direct a camper to rise and go through a closed door in the back of the center, which would shut behind them. Campers were picked at random, from one side of the room or the other, male, female. Cynthia was one of the first to go. I tried to glare across the room at her from my repose, but she wouldn’t look my way. Instead, she smiled graciously and hugged her counselor enthusiastically before passing through that door.
Slowly, our numbers reduced. Bobby, Mark, Randy: each rose with solemnity, showing himself to be serious and humbled, greeting Jake with a bro hug before passing through the doorway. Eventually, the sun set, and there was only me, lying alone in the dark. Jake and Debbie stood together beside the door. Then Jake walked across the room without looking at me and left through the front exit. Tired of lying on the floor with my own thoughts, I considered following him.
“Okay Ian,” said Debbie, with a pronounced sense of exasperation. She opened the door, and signaled me to go through it. Once I passed through, she closed it behind me, and I could hear her footsteps on the other side as she exited the building.
For the next half hour, it was just me and the priest.
Still in his vestments, Father Gene sat in one of two chairs at the center of the otherwise empty room. He gestured me to it.
“You know, confession does not have to take place in anonymous booths at the church,” he said, “We can have a conversation here, sitting across from each other, and it can be just as confidential. Anything we talk about here today will be just between you and I, and God, of course.”
This was the concluding activity for the weekend. Everyone was to take confession, then return home the following morning with a clear conscience and a clean slate. We would each be ready to confirm our embrace of the church, and leave behind our childish indiscretions. I’d spent my time on the carpet thinking about what things I might confess. Using swear words. Fighting with my sister. Making an obscene gesture at a bus driver.
We sat for several moments without a word, while I pondered the ideal of forgiveness. Then he spoke.
“So what is all this business about a squirrel?”
Though Father Gene braced me like the bad cop in a police interrogation room, I kept everyone’s secrets that night. Given his line of questioning, and his sureness of my guilt, so had Bobby, Cynthia, Randy, and Jake. He finally released me, and I made it through the rest of the trip scandal-free. A week later, I was allowed to participate in the confirmation ceremony, my parents blissfully unaware their son was a reputed animal killer. I never saw most of those people again.
Randy moved away a week later. We kept up with letters and phone calls for a while, but then lost touch until adulthood. He tracked me down during a business trip to San Diego a few years back, and we met to catch up over a couple of beers. A serious rotator cuff injury had put the kibosh on his Major League dreams, and he’d ultimately gone into advertising. We talked a bit about his latest sports obsession: English Premier League soccer. When I mentioned the squirrel he only shook his head and said, “Man, we were punks back then.”
I’ve never returned to confession in all the time since, so I suppose that thing with the bus driver still weighs on my soul. But my conscience remains clean when it comes to that squirrel, and I remain convinced I would have carried more guilt out of that weekend if I’d revealed the whole truth at the time. Probably there were many good lessons I should have learned on that retreat, many of them having to do with fire safety. But there’s only one that stuck, and it wouldn’t have saved that squirrel: never be the last one to run away.