Getting squirrelly

The other morning, on my way to class, I witnessed an incident that would have been a fatal accident if not for what might as well have been a miracle.

Before anyone becomes too alarmed, however, I hasten to add that the nearly-killed party was a squirrel.

I was walking down Kirkland Street, which is a main route to campus and therefore usually full of cars on the road and students on the sidewalk at 8:55 in the morning. I don’t normally take this route myself, but I had an out-of-the-ordinary stop to make along the way that day. So there I was, hoofing it up to campus along with all the others going in my direction, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the squirrel.

Now, I ought to point out that squirrels on the Harvard campus are like no squirrels you’ve ever encountered before. Tourists and passersby are a constant fixture on campus, beginning with the Asian delegation at roughly 6:00 in the morning and continuing until the final drunken revelers have paid their respects to the statute of John Harvard sometime after midnight.

Of course, any self-respecting squirrel is home in bed by then, but a few rakish vagabonds still lurk about.

In any case, the effect of this constant stream of people upon the squirrel populace is that they have no fear. Like seagulls at Coney Island or pigeons in Venice, the Harvard branch of the family Sciuridae are afraid of neither man nor beast…

… nor, apparently, vehicle.

The squirrel that attracted my attention that morning was waiting along the edge of the sidewalk and was apparently attempting to cross the street. He couldn’t have picked a worse time; as I mentioned, traffic volume on this street is usually at its highest at this time of day. To be sure, the constant stream of cars was giving him fits. He was as hesitant as a freshman at a high school dance, constantly darting out a few steps into the roadway, thinking better of it, and returning to the curb.

Evidently his mother had taught him to look both ways before crossing.

Actually, at this point, the squirrel’s pedestrian flip-flopping had caused a bit of a crowd to gather. As anyone who drives regularly knows, it only takes one rubbernecker to cause a knot to form. Perhaps it was due to mere morbid fascination, or perhaps it was because folks around here aren’t accustomed to seeing a squirrel hesitate over anything, but by now five or six people had paused to watch the squirrel—and not a moment too soon.

The squirrel must have known that he had an audience, because just at that moment he seemed to have decided that his big moment had come. Without looking back, he charged into oncoming traffic just as an old Volvo wagon was bearing down upon him at top speed. Those of us watching inhaled sharply and covered our eyes. We heard the squeal of brakes and the blare of horns from traffic moving in both directions, then looked to the blacktop to see what was sure to be a flattened version of our furry friend.

Nothing!

I was reminded of the scene from Disney’s Peter Pan, in which Mr. Smee marvels that Peter Pan has walked the plank without so much as a sound. “What, no splash, Cap’n?” he exclaims. No splash indeed! For there was the sassy little squirrel, still sitting on the curb and laughing impudently at us for our unnecessary alarm.

We walked away, shaking our heads at the squirrel’s extraordinary good fortune. How he got safely back to the curb I’ll never know, but with all that’s going wrong in the world, I doubt that a miracle would have been spared for him. He must just have been much quicker on his feet than I thought possible, and now he lives on to flirt with death another day.

I can think of at least one person I know who would say that the only good squirrel is a dead squirrel, but I tend to be a bit more charitable myself. In this particular case, what struck me (no pun intended) was the evanescent community feeling engendered by the perilous crossing of the squirrel.

As I said above, I really don’t know what caused that small group of people to gather. Perhaps we remembered playing “Frogger” as children and wanted to see how this one would come out. Perhaps the oddity of a squirrel checking traffic was odd enough to stop and watch in its own right. Perhaps we were concerned for the squirrel’s welfare (doubtful), or perhaps we simply wanted to be entertained (far more likely).

Whatever it was, though, I’m fairly certain that everyone watching thought the squirrel would die.

Is that why we wanted to watch?

There’s a part of me that really hopes not. We have all heard of the crowds of Romans who came to watch the gladiators, or the French mob that gathered at the guillotine. But we would like to think that the days of death as a spectator sport are long behind us. Oh, of course there are still bullfights in Madrid, but that’s so far away! And the dogfights and cockfights in America… well, the people who enjoy watching those sorts of things aren’t our kind of people.

Right?

Now, I’m not saying that anyone wanted that squirrel to die. That would be overstating the case, and would not be very charitable. But I think a legitimate argument can be made that the question of the squirrel’s survival was interesting enough to those who stopped to watch. And if that’s the case, what does it mean? Were we perhaps attracted by the possibility of seeing something cheat death?

I can only speak for myself when I say that I was prepared to interpret the squirrel’s fate as a referendum on risk-taking: if he didn’t make it, perhaps I should be more careful; if he did, perhaps I should take more leaps of my own (though obviously not in front of moving vehicles). It’s kind of a funny way to look at it, and certainly not rational, but sometimes even the littlest thing can seem like a sign. On the other hand, perhaps I’m making far too much of a glorified rodent with a brain the size of a walnut.

Either way, though, that squirrel and his little brain are probably still out there somewhere, laughing at me and mine.

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