Bats! Love ’em or hate ’em. When I was 9 or ten years old my sister Marsha and I were on our way to Pittsburgh to stay with my cousin Philip for a week or two. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Bud had been up to Canada for a short stay with us, and now we were going back with them. We jumped out of the car at the gas station where my Uncle Bud had pulled in to fill up with gas for 31 cents a gallon, and my Aunt Betty went into the junky little store attached to the station to buy us all some treats.
The hand-painted sign at the road side said “See Our Giant Red Bats!” Another sign beside the gravel area just outside the rest rooms, which were attached to the left side of the station, said “Giant Red Bats Just Ahead!” At the end of a dusty path running across a scruffy lawn was a big blue rust-pocked steel drum. On the side of it was painted in drippy red lettering, “Giant Red Bats” Marsha and I, and our cousin Philip were panting by the time we reached it and I remember having to go to the bathroom really bad, but running down the path anyway, because I didn’t want anyone else to see them before I did.
We were all just about the same height— just tall enough so that we would be able to get a good look without anyone’s help to boost us up. On top of the barrel someone had bolted on an old discarded barbecue grill to keep the bats in. We shoved one another to try to position ourselves to get in closer, for the first look, but pulled back in fear a little at the same time. This went on for a few seconds of hesitation until Philip said, “It’s OK, Giant Red Bats are too big to get through the wire!”
We were all used to the bats on the farm, even Philip, who had stayed with us for holidays before. They were small and brown, and seemed to be able to squeeze themselves into impossibly tiny spaces to hide in the daytime, like behind the turquoise shutters that flanked all the windows. The bats, of course, chose only the shutters outside the upstairs bedroom windows to do their sleeping behind— close to us when we were sleeping. We had never thought much about the reason for this until Philip told us. His Mom and Dad owned a grocery store and they gave him a big allowance every week just to buy fun stuff. He had read a lot more comic books than we had ever seen in our entire lives, though probably some of them were his older brother Clifford’s, or ones he had traded for with his friends. Our Mom would only have let us have Little Lulu or Donald Duck ones if we had saved enough money to buy them with anyway, but Philip had seen lots of scary ones. He knew all about vampires, and blood-sucking bats, and what happens to your body after you die, and other gross stuff like that.
I knew Philip had to be right. Giant bats would be too big to be able to get out through the narrow spaces between the barbecue grill wires, so we all leaned in together to get a closer look. Then we each said our own version of a swear. “Stink pot!” Dang-it-all!” “Crap!” We cussed as best as each could muster. Marsha and I looked around fearfully to see if anyone else had heard. Yes, the bats were giant! Yes, the bats were red too. The bats were giant red plastic baseball bats! You could even have given one to a baby to let him try to hit a ball around the yard with it. What a rip!
Aunt Betty was still inside the store, trying to pick out something for us to snack on from a candy bar shelf. She was standing right underneath a yucky plastered fly sticker hanging from the ceiling really close to her head, when we ran in. She moved away from the heavy fly sticker, before it got stuck in her blonde hair. She had just dyed our Mummy’s hair to match with hers the day before. Aunt Betty grabbed the wooden sticks with the keys to the Ladies’ and Men’s rooms off their hooks by the door for us and told us to hurry up. That advice was hardly necessary; we had been riding for hours since the last stop, and who wanted to hang around in there anyway? It smelled like a gasoline-soaked ash tray and pee!
I hoped Aunt Betty would buy us each a Baby Ruth, or a Mounds bar, or some kind of candy that they didn’t sell at home in Canada. I hoped all the chocolate bars she picked would be the same, so that we wouldn’t have to choose one of them back in the car. Then somebody might be unhappy because they changed their mind after they picked, or maybe somebody else would pick the one they really wanted before they did.
When company from Pittsburgh came the biggest thrill was the candy. They always brought a lot of it because there were ten of us— eleven counting Granddad— and so many aunts and uncles would come all summer long with bags of Hershey’s Kisses, and Tootsie Rolls and caramels. Then we would miss it all so much in the fall, and the winter and the spring until they came back again.
Well, we would miss them too of course, but the candy was always nice and predictable and never made anybody unhappy like some of the aunts and uncles sometimes did when they were mad at the other ones who had just left, or the ones who were coming right after them.
It was “like Grand Central Station” Daddy would sometimes say behind their backs, but never with very much impatience in his voice. Maybe it was more surprise, or even curiosity about why all these city people wanted to swelter in the upstairs bedrooms of our big old farm-house instead of staying home in their air-conditioned houses. Maybe they just came to see the bats. The ones around our house—the real ones! Or maybe they were just batty! Ha Ha!