Anybody who has read Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" might admit that few activities on July 4 could be more American than frog-jumping. Once in the 1970s in Durham, N.C., I took part in such a patriotic event, and I'll never forget it.
The local newspaper announced the contest. I figured I had as much chance as anybody, considering that the only athletic ability to be tested was that of the amphibian. The only obstacles I could foresee were that I didn't actually own a frog and, having grown up in Washington, had no good training in how to score one.
Last-minute phone calls led me to the home and small pond of our friends Martha and Joel Haswell, both of whom worked for the paper. Joel volunteered to help catch one of the critters, given that I knew less about catching frogs than I knew about particle physics, which is to say -- squatola. The only thing I felt confident about was that one should not use a spear, since the frog might resent it, and the resulting blood loss might impair both his jumping ability and his interest in excelling on Independence Day.
On the night of July 2, Joel and I fortified ourselves for the grand hunt with a couple of bottles of the beverage that made Milwaukee famous. Martha reminded Joel that he had to get to bed at a reasonable hour because he had obligations the next day and needed to get up early.
Then, armed with a large butterfly net and flashlights, we ambled down to the pond and began circling it as stealthily as possible.
Joel said frogs can be skittish and take both offense and flight at the approach of creatures large enough to make a meal of them. That made sense.
As we slopped around and around the pond -- literally for hours -- with primordial ooze seeping in and out of every hole in our tennis shoes, the frogs would launch themselves skyward just before we were within range and would reach safety in deep water yards away.
Martha came out several times and told Joel that he needed to get to bed. We, of course, ignored her because men have to do what men have to do.
Finally, and with sighs of relief, we netted a fine specimen of Rana sphenocephala, the southern leopard frog, the voice of which naturalist Roger Conant once described as "a deep rhythmic snore often followed by two or three single clucks." As I recall at this late date, it sounded to me more like an unwelcome mocking observation on how bedraggled, pathetic and mosquito-bitten Joel and I looked hours after starting our hunt.
"Knee-deep," countless frogs shouted at us. "Knee-deep, knee-deep. Bork, bork, bork."
Our frog, which I'll call Bilko as a convenience, was a beaut -- monstrous, the bull of the lick, so to speak. But after a few moments, I noticed there appeared to be something wrong with him. For an animal in the clutches of skilled hunters, he seemed oddly inanimate and resigned. I sensed that something was much amiss. If I'd been in Bilko's flippered feet -- caught by superior, much larger creatures -- I think I'd have been struggling mightily. But no, Bilko just hung there loosely in my hands like a large banana peel or a small dead cat.
All other inhabitants of that shallow watery world demonstrated far greater liveliness than he did. But at that moment there was nothing to do but incarcerate him in the cooler I brought along for that purpose. And then let Joel go to bed and head home myself. And hope that Bilko recovered by the July 4 Olympiad two days hence. Holding him firmly with both hands, I lowered him into the cooler while Joel carefully positioned the top over the box with just enough clearance for me to let go of the somnolent creature and withdraw quickly.
But the instant I relaxed my grip and began to pull my hands back, Bilko showed his first signs of life. He exploded from the cooler, shooting through the gap left by the out-of-position lid like a green Roman candle. Impressed was not the word. Stunned was more like it. I almost fell backward, and so did Joel. We had no idea a frog could achieve such altitude and distance. When Bilko landed some 50 feet away, he sprang thrice more and crashed with a noisy splash into his home waters. He had lulled us into a false sense of security and gulled us good and proper.
"Knee-deep. Knee-deep. Bork, bork, bork!" Bilko's water-borne lily pad buddies chortled.
After recovering his composure, Joel looked at me as if it was all my fault and I was a harebrained dolt. I looked at Joel convinced that it was his and that he was a bungler of the highest order. But neither of us said anything, because complaints would have been unmanly and entirely out of character for macho outdoorsmen such as ourselves.
After we had sloshed around in the pond for another hour and a half, Martha came out in her bedclothes and yelled at Joel from the deck to get his sorry butt to bed that instant and at me to get my equally sorry butt into my truck and take it home. (For the sake of delicacy, I've expurgated her exact sentiments.)
Ah, well . . . the best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley, as Robert Burns once said, and as I often still say. This is archaic Scottish talk, which, roughly translated, means Murphy's Law was operational as early as the 18th century.
But fear not, everything turned out all right in the end.
I designed and then persuaded my long-suffering wife, Sandy, to sew up a green frog suit for our cat, Ross, and we set out for the frog-jumping contest at the Eno River State Park anyway. Nobody, especially the kids, was fooled into thinking our entry was an actual frog. In the spirit of the day, the judges allowed Ross and me to participate, and though we didn't win, we had a fine time.
Or at least I did. Ross didn't seem at all pleased to be in a frog suit.
Local kids in the crowd enjoyed our efforts, and so did everybody else. We even got written up in a lighthearted way in the newspaper, along with the winners. Ross forgave me within a couple of hours, as soon as I fed him his well-deserved dinner and threw the frog suit away. And I'm hopeful that Martha has forgiven me, too.