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Ordinary Wonders

March 16, 1986|VICKI HEARNE

I sometimes hear people trash California in general and Southern California in particular. I used to worry about this, especially when I was fond of the person doing the trashing, but events have shown me that there's nothing to worry about. California has a way of getting its own back, just by being California.

I didn't always know this, though. A while back, in fact, I was camping around the state with Shimshon Lerman. Now, Lerman is a fine man, which is one of the reasons I was married to him, but he is also an Israeli, and with Israelis the general rule seems to be that the more admirable and lovable they are, the more they make up for it by infuriating you.

In this case, Lerman was infuriating me saying that thin-skinned and mushy-brained Californians don't know anything about real life in general and the out-of-doors in particular, because in California there is no danger to speak of, nothing to know about survival. The latest of these conversations was occurring as we drove to a campground at Big Sur. We were late getting there (I don't remember whose fault this was) and ours was the only cooking fire going. The smell of the woods and of the food on the fire was sheer happiness.

There was a small closet for trash, and inside was a Smokey the Bear poster with text about taking care of your forest friends. Smokey grinned from the center of the poster, and around the edge were pictures of various critters, including a raccoon.

I was depositing a trash bag when Lerman came up and asked, alarmed, "What in the world is that?"

"What is what?" I asked, looking around to see if there was an army there or something.

" That ," he said, pointing at the poster.

"That's Smokey the Bear."

"No, no. I mean that!" He pointed at the raccoon portrait. I told him that was a raccoon. He said that it wasn't, that there could not be an animal like that. I said there was, and that they liked terrain of just the sort we were in. He said that Southern California had addled what few brains I had had to begin with, and then--well, we fell to quarreling for a bit, until the thought of supper recalled us to our senses. I suggested that we should store our food chest where the raccoons wouldn't get at it.

Lerman started laughing at me, but his laughter was cut short, for in front of us, on a log about 15 or 20 feet from the fire, was a raccoon, putting on a show that included dancing, acrobatics and juggling. Once again Lerman asked, "What in the world is that ?"

I said, a little smugly (but please don't judge me by this), that that, my dear, is a raccoon. Lerman said it had to be a bear. I said it was a raccoon. This time our bickering was interrupted by the coon himself; he was performing so charmingly that we simply had to watch.

I was as entranced as Lerman was, until I remembered that raccoons are very clever, and that they have hands. I said, again, that we ought to put the food chest away. This led to a repeat of the scene above, with the lines about addled Southern Californians.

I retaliated with lore about coon hounds and raccoon hunting and how rough that sport gets if the human beings and the dogs don't cheat. That led to more stuff about scaredy-cat Californians and tall tales. I had, just in time, sense enough to get the flashlight and look around at the food chest. There, of course, were the raccoon's two buddies, happily piling into our food. This time, Lerman was the one to get scared.

He said, "What are we going to do? We're sunk; we don't get to eat tomorrow. We spent all of our remaining money on gas!" What we did, of course, was to use flashlights to keep the coons at bay until we could get the food locked away. I was the one who knew that bit of woods lore about using flashlights on raccoons. (I hope it still works, but the coons have probably figured that one out.)

The other thing we did was to sleep in the tent rather than under the starlight, listening unhappily to the sounds of various creatures quarreling outside, no doubt about how best to get at our food chest.

That is the one and only time I have ever come close to winning an argument with an Israeli, and, of course, he refused to admit that I had won. What he said when I tried to claim that I had was, "Well, you don't understand, because people in Southern California get so accustomed to wonders that raccoons seem ordinary." I refrained from telling him that raccoons are found throughout most of North America. After all, he got the important part right. Southern Californians are the way they are because they are so used to wonders.

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