Friday, August 29, 2008

Have You Ever Seen A Mongoose?

When I was a kid our neighbor across the street was an avid Detroit Red Wing Hockey fan. Every year he would buy season tickets. He didn't have children so he would often ask my brother or I if we would like to go with him to Olympia Stadium to see a game. It was the days of ink and octopus. Seafood-slinging was so popular that Detroit fish markets were hauling in the eight-legged mollusks by the truckload to keep up with fan demand.

The Superior Fish Company in Royal Oak, Michigan even sold an Octo-Kit, featuring a cooked octopus (which didn't stain the ice with ink and jiggled better than the raw variety), two latex gloves and two wet napkins in a sealed bag. Call it superstition if you want but it makes the Red Wings win. Between flying octopi the "Production Line," as they were known—Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, were helping Detroit win seven consecutive regular-season titles—still an NHL record— and four Stanley Cups during those years.

The first octopus landed on the ice during the Red Wings' 1952 Stanley Cup run, courtesy of a couple of lads from a local fish shop. If you know your cephalopods, you will know that an octopus has eight tentacles. In those days it took eight playoff wins to claim the Cup, hence the supposed symbolism of the gesture. One night before the game got underway, someone tried to start a new tradition—throwing a guinea pig out on the ice from the balcony seats.

I saw Gordie Howe sweep by on his magic skates and swoop the guinea up in one hand. He took it over near the penalty box and seemed to be looking it over. I wasn't in to hockey much but I always wondered what happened to that guinea pig.

Years later I met a guy who had taken a job at the local bank as a new loan officer. Russ came to town with a bang. His first morning at the bank he brought in a large chicken wire cage with a small wooden enclosure placed in the middle. In the enclosure you could see two bright eyes peering out from the darkness. As people came into his office to introduce themselves he would ask them if they had ever seen a mongoose. "No," was the standard answer, which is exactly what he was hoping for. He would have them peer into the cage, comforting them with the thought that the mongoose is as cute as a koala bear. The mongoose would not come out of the enclosure so Russ would encourage the onlooker to get down and scratch a bit on the chicken wire to coax the shy little mongoose out. When everything was set and the victim in place, innocently scratching and talking baby talk to the mongoose, Russ would trip a lever which would activate a spring-loaded arm with a muskrat pelt nailed to it. The muskrat would stop right up against the chicken wire where the baby talk had turned to frantic screaming.

Many of the bank employees fell for Russ' little prank—except one. Another loan officer had been on vacation. He returned on a weekend and had heard all the stories about the new guy and his mongoose. He showed up for work bright and early on Monday morning and immediately went in to introduce himself to Russ. Russ introduced himself with, "Say, have you ever seen a mongoose? "Russ' newest victim said, "No, I never have." "Well, scratch on the wire there and meet my pet mongoose—he's harmless," Russ assured him. As the loan officer bent down to scratch on the wire, Russ hit the trip lever. In a flash the loan officer jumped back, pulling a starting pistol from his coat pocket and emptied the rounds at the cage. Russ almost had heart failure.

A few years later I ran into Gordie Howe. He had moved to my town and I would often see him at the local copy shop. The first few times we were in line together I never bothered him. I figured people probably pestered him all the time. But one day the guinea pig question got the best of me and I had to ask. I began, "When I was a kid. . . "Gordie stopped me in mid-sentence— "You're not going to give me that—when I was a kid shit are you?" I could tell by his smile that in fact I could give him exactly that. I had a long conversation with him and found out that he had taken the guinea pig home and it had lived for six weeks. Outside in the parking lot was Gordie's full size Chevy Van—is wife waiting in the front seat. Before I had finished my business I heard Gordie say to the girls who were waiting on him, "Have you girls ever seen a Mongoose?" I knew immediately that Gordie must have Mongoose Russ's cage.

Soon they were all out behind the van scratching on the chicken wire and Gordie seemed to be having as much fun as he did scoring goals at Olympia back in the old days—When I was just a kid. —Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird/


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