The dogs recoiled in unison from the movement of the dark, curlicue shaped creature standing out against the streetlight glow which illuminated the driveway cement near the garage door. On our daily walk in the pre-dawn dark of five o’clock, they shook off their surprise at the small, elongated object suddenly balling itself up in a defensive posture, and stood on high alert over it trying to determine if it was threat, food or something else entirely. The zip of the retracting leashes subsided as I came up behind them, quite certain of what sat in front of them, but wanting to confirm. Asking them what it was I bent down and squinted against the darkness.
It was a large tiger salamander, eyes set wide on either side of its head which was a drab olive that continued through most of its body with speckles of black running down its back and legs. In recent days I had stumbled across a smaller one, most likely one of this year’s hatchlings which I grabbed and took home for my oldest boy to examine, saving it from the further effort of trying to make its way up in the valley of hot cement gutter running the opposite side of the block, exposed to whatever predator might see it. When my son came home, I took him to the plastic container which held the little creature, he touched it and laughed, lifted it up and let it crawl through his hands a few times before we turned it loose into the tall grass along the edge of our backyard. Dubbed “Baby Gria” — a youthful version of the name he came up with for the first salamander we had found together (and every other one thereafter) — he wished her a fond farewell as she disappeared into the blades of grass.
Returning from the recent memory, the big salamander in the morning darkness took me back to perhaps the worst prank I had ever played on my mom. My buddy, my dad and I were instructed to pick up an order at Valley Meat on a summer Saturday, and we did. The meat and cheese, which was cut and folded in butcher paper squares stacked neatly in the bottom of a brown bag, left plenty of room up top to roll it down and form a handle. On the way back from the butcher shop, we stopped to grab a scoop of minnows for an afternoon run to the lake at the last gas station before home. As we filled our bucket with a $2 scoop of baitfish from the old “on-your-honor” tank outside of Brothers III, I saw a large black salamander swimming in the corner of the converted and aerated chest freezer.
It didn’t take long to make the leap, and the salamander came aboard for the trip home, while a devious plan hatched in my mind. As we pulled into the driveway, I finished up letting the salamander scale my knuckles like a never-ending ladder, drying off some from its extended swim in the minnow tank. I unrolled the top of the paper bag and placed the amphibian inside as my dad and my buddy laughed at the reaction which I predicted which would follow in a few minutes. I set the bag on the counter, and hollered down the hall to my mom, letting her know that we were home and her order was ready for her to use in our lunch spread. Busy as she was, the three of us slipped onto the deck, turned on the baseball game and enjoyed a cold beverage.
After a few minutes, I had nearly forgotten about the hidden payload, but I was quickly reminded by a scream that rattled the deck door windows, followed by unintelligible cursing and yelling that was half laughter and half terror as the salamander had crawled out of the bag while my mom was unpacking the lunch ingredients. Needless to say, we were on our own for the mid-day meal, as the three of us roared uncontrollably from the deck on our way into the kitchen.
I’ve found them by the dozens in window wells — a rare childhood treasure at my grandma’s lake cabin — and far more exciting than the run-of-the-mill wood frogs and spadefoot toads that populated the sunken structures. I’ve been staking out dove hunting spots and seen them slowly crawling their way across the gravel roads in late summer as I made my way back to town. Wherever they’ve been encountered in my life, they’ve always been memorable, whether a first experience for our boys or our dogs, or the punchline in one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever participated in and they remain a notable part of my extraordinary experiences … in our outdoors.