It was July of 1989 in East Chop when my five-year-old son Charlie woke me up with the question, “What’s that smell?”
If you’ve never had a skunk blast off in your crawl space which, in turn, floods through your duct system because this stuff aerosolizes like chemical weaponry, then you have no idea of how a single wild animal can cause such olfactory terror.
In our panic, we learned right away that “who ya gonna call?” was Walter Wlodyka of Chilmark.
Last week, on a new Mission Impossible for this paper, I made a date to assist Mr. Wlodyka on a day of trapping skunks and “squirrels, moles, voles and more,” as Walter says in his phone greeting. Of course it’s skunks that cause folks to place that first hysterical plea for help, such as I did 25 years ago when a family of four black-and-white ghoulies lurked under our cottage. During the siege, when Walter collected a skunk a day, he urged me to calm down: “If you keep thinking about it, pretty soon it’s gonna make you neurotic.”
Last week Walter rolled up in his white VW Golf. I’d expected a banged-up old Island truck, but Walter needs a frugal gas tank because mostly he drives around all day, seven days a week, checking his traps. At the back of the Golf was a compact trailer bearing two stacks of traps, eight in total. The inside of the car, packed with shuffled-off papers, coffee mugs, and other assorted domestic gear, teemed with a faint eau de skunk that comes with the territory.
Walter wore sunglasses, a white canvas jacket over a tee-shirt and jeans. We drove slowly; the trapper takes his time with everything; a true connoisseur of the moment.
“I’m a disabled war veteran,” he said without emotion, and yet, it turned out to be the key to everything.
Our first stop was a billionaire’s spread, untold acres rearing high above the northwest shores of the Island. Here moles and voles ran amok and, for these crits, the goal would be dissuasion. Walter squeezes a noxious mixture into the ground, a pale bluish-grey fluid that flows into the little beasties’ tunnels.
Walter said, “They eat it and it makes them sick.” So sick, they decamp to another billionaire’s yummy property. And it just goes to show how smart these moles and voles must be, attributing a bad day of the runs to a particular parcel of land, just the way we humans avoid the restaurant that sold the bad batch of mussels.
So far I had no trouble with this job, much as I’d dreaded it going in. My fear, of course, was of being deluged with skunk oobleck. I’d even considered leaving a bathrobe and an industrial-sized bottle of laundry detergent in my absent neighbor’s outdoor shower. But then I recalled Walter’s long-ago advice about not being neurotic, and I decided to boldly go forth, come what may.
We checked more estates in Lambert’s Cove and West Chop. Everywhere we roamed, the properties were devoid of owners, but filled with work details — contractors, gardeners. Gol-LY, it takes a lot to run these Vineyard villas. Everyone looked happy to see Walter with his skunk patrol sign on each side of his VW. “Come and get these varmints!” they seemed to say.
And then on a property off North Pines Road we did. Get a varmint, that is.
A skunk squatted in one of two traps set the day before. Walter indicated the closed door. Here’s how it works: Walter attracts the effluvious creature with peanut butter, concentrated peanut oil, and skunk pheromones dabbed along the bottom of the trap. Once the doomed crit enters, it steps on a plate, a rod snaps down, and the door slams shuts.
I made the nearly fatal mistake of approaching the oblong trap from the skunk’s behind. I saw the raised bushy tail. Walter said gently, “Come around to this end.”
I stared at an adorable being with big round glittering onyx black eyes; cute enough for a Disney film. Walter lifted the cage and set it on the trailer, the critter’s face pointed away, the back end firmly sealed with metal cladding.
As we drove to the links of the Vineyard Golf Club, Walter removed his shades. His grey-green eyes were sad, soulful.
“It’s my soldier background that trained me for this work. I have to dispose of these animals. It’s the law [he’s licensed by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife]. I take them to a special location. I shoot them behind the head with a twenty-two caliber pistol. They go into a hole covered over with two layers of plywood. The spot is closed off by a fence with warning signs.”
It was a lot to think about.
At the golf club, we drove over hill and dale, even as white balls whizzed past. On hole number three Walter checked four traps. One of them held another prisoner. This time I decided not to look and risk forming an attachment.
For the remainder of our time together, Walter told me several times how little he liked the shooting part. I believed him. And yet I understood the necessity. I recalled the sense of defilement to our house in East Chop. Our clothes, our furniture, even our dishes, reeked for weeks. (Unitarian minister Bill Clark tells of a skunk detonation that made its way even into the bills inside his wallet). I too would have put “a cap in the hat” to each of the four stinkers in our crawl space, not so much for revenge, although that was part of it, but how could we in good faith set these creatures loose to ravage another family’s home?
On the road through the links, we hit a bump. Bang! One of the skunks shot off a stink bomb. A sickening miasma surrounded the car, then osmosed into it, attaching to clothing, skin, and hair.
Back home I showered, using up an entire bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, alleged to be good for skunk gook. (I keep it under the sink in case my dog is slimed). I dumped my clothes, including the canvas shoes I wore especially for the day’s work, into the washing machine with a big helping of detergent and Parson’s Ammonia.
So far no one has said, “You smell a little funky.” But people never tell you that, do they?