There is a house over in Billingsford, Vt that has been in my family for the last sixty or seventy years or so. The house was built in two parts, the older, shed-like half being constructed around 1750 and the main part of the house 50 years later. It has always been used as a summer home (my family having been academics for eons they have always had summers off. My generation however, seems to have gone the other way) The older half contains the kitchen, the woodshed, and on the second floor a room known as "the loft". Traditionally this has always been the boys room, mainly I think because it has a large sliding window at just the right height to pee out of, in fact when I was a child there was a large bare spot under the window where the grass never grew. It now houses an old pump organ (on which we used to make scary sound effects when we were kids during games of Murder In The Dark at night) and the family costume collection which is varied and vast.
The house has always had a few bats, in fact my father as a teenager used to keep a tennis racket by the bed for the purpose of swatting at them as they went by. However in recent years the bats have become a problem. In fact they have basically taken over that whole end of the house. Some ten years ago my mother built herself a little one room cabin up the hill from the big house. It is very cosy and neatly fitted out. It is also possible to stay there in the winter, the big house being mostly unheated (and unheatable) My father died in 1963 and my mother has been mostly single since except for a short-lived marriage in my teen years. Two years ago, however, at the age of 73 she eloped to New Mexico and married Chuck, an absolute gem, they are madly in love.
What follows is an account (in the form of a rather lengthy e-mail to my siblings) of how I spent one weekend there. I hope you enjoy it, because in retrospect I think the whole weekend was absolutely hilarious.
Well. Chris and I arrived late Friday afternoon in Billingsford prepared to spend the weekend helping Mom do battle with the bats. It was the usual scene when we arrived. I had told Mom I planned to repaint the lower shelves by the sink where the paint was all chipping off from the water damage this winter before Louis got there as they are right at toddler height, she had already repainted them as well as a bunch of others with what turned out later to be some exterior latex house paint she had found and had the featherlight spackle and her little putty knife out. Everybody knows by now how I feel about putting latex over oil paint, especially without sanding or at least washing the surface first, (or putting latex on woodwork at all for that matter) but I have learned a few things over the years. I only said mildly that I wished she had waited. It will at least hold the paint chips down through Nancy and Arlene's stay. She immediately presented Chris with a sort of complicated water rocket I had to put together, Chuck wanted me to program his new automatic watering system, Mom wanted to consult about supper, 30 seconds after I walked in the door I had three people wanting me to do six things it seemed when all I wanted to do was sit down for a minute and relax, I had had a long day. Then Mom and Chuck went up the hill to clean up and start making supper up there, the kitchen in the big house being pretty much a shambles. I finally was able to sit down on the front stoop and breathe a sigh of relief for a couple of minutes before Lisa Overstreet and her helper Alan and his girlfriend arrived to look over the living room ceiling, which Mom has asked her to paint. They were there for half an hour or so and then Chris and I walked up the hill to supper.
The first order of business was to find out where the bats were coming in so after supper up the hill in Mom's little house we all came down and at dusk stationed ourselves around the house to observe the bats as they came out for their nightly perambulations. Now last summer when I did this I saw at least five main exit holes, but this time we only saw one, up at the peak of the roof where the two halves of the house meet. There didn't seem to be quite as many bats as there were last year, last summer I would have estimated their number up around a thousand, really this is no exaggeration, but this year I'd say it was a few hundred. This may be due to (Uncle) Chris' efforts over the past couple of years with the expanding foam or it may be that the main colony hasn't arrived yet, because according to the Bat Conservation Association's web page on the subject of evicting bat colonies, bats go "away" in the winter. Exactly where they go the Bat Conservation Association doesn't say, somehow I can't quite see bats doing any migrating but maybe they do.
The next morning I took the shop vac up to the loft and began the campaign by vacuuming up the piles of batshit, dead bats and one very smelly mouse, it was too gross for words up there. Mom had brought a roll of fiberglas insulation and a roll of plastic with her, her plan was to replace the newspaper stuffed in all the cracks in the flowered bedroom over the kitchen as she felt the newspaper was too flammable, and then staple plastic over the big opening in the loft, giving over the attic to the bats for them to, as she put it, "carouse" in. Well I really don't want hundreds of bats carousing in the attic. I want those bats out of there. I want them to move down to those caves on Mount Dorset, or they can move into that nice bat house Mom got for them, I don't care where the hell they go, I want them out of our house.
I had brought a roll of duct tape with me and I began by going around the loft and sealing every hole I could find no matter how small, I pulled all the furniture away from the walls and went round all the windows, sealing up every tiny crack with tape and pieces of the insulation. I brought the small extension ladder up there and stuffed all round the peak of the roof too, where I had seen them coming and going last year, they didn't seem to be using it but maybe the other place is just more convenient.
Then it was time to tackle the attic. Now I have a phobia about bats. I am not unreasonably scared of too many things. I don't mind snakes, or frogs, and while I'll shriek if a spider lands on me they don't make my skin crawl. But bats and rats are two things that give me the shivering shakes (those and moray eels, I can't even look at a picture of a moray eel without feeling sick, luckily we don't have a moray eel problem up here). Mom said she'd go up there with me for moral support so up we went and it was pretty yucky crawling on your belly through piles of bat turds, (only the first six feet or so is crawling territory, thank goodness) but the strange thing was that we couldn't see any sleeping bats. We could hear them all right though, squeaking and chittering above our heads. We theorized that they were above the boards but under the slates. Chris had filled a lot of places with the foam but I could see a lot more places, and I could see a big dark hole between two beams where I estimated the main exit to be, the squeaking was pretty loud there, and certainly the batshit was deepest. We crawled into the main part of the attic to inspect the screening over the louvered opening on the north side only to beat a hasty retreat when we were greeted by a bunch of wasps. Back down the ladder to look for wasp spray. We found an empty can of the kind you can spray from 20 feet away (my personal favorite, it comes out in a stream) but Mom said she thought she had some up the hill so off she went to look for it, she came back down with some flying insect killer mist. I didn't think it had the necessary oomph for wasp nests but she said she thought it would do and went up in the beekeepers hat and sprayed some at the wasps. Then I waited for them to die or at least settle down a bit.
My plan was to stuff the fiberglas in the smaller places and save the can of urethane foam we had for the bigger gaps and some of the places I could see along the peak of the roof where I could see traces of daylight. Then I was going to go up there at night after all the bats had gone out, and seal up their front doorway so they couldn't get back in. I didn't want to use too much of that fiberglas up there as once it gets wet it stays that way and I didn't want to be starting any roof rot. I stapled down the screening on the louvers on the north end as it had some weak places and went around stuffing things for a while and then came down for a break. It was a hot day, about 85 or so and it seemed like it must have been 120 in the attic.
Then Mom and Chuck went off to the Farmers Market and I helped Chris build a fort in the lilac bush. We took a walk up to the cabin but couldn't get in, the front sill and the corner by the door has rotted out and kind of sunk in, I think Chris is right, it's too far gone to do anything with. Julia called as I was cooking up some lunch and I gave her an update on the progress of the bat campaign and she gave me an update on the progress of Ella Marie. Mom and Chuck came back in the middle of the conversation and then I had to help Chuck get the automatic watering system back to manual as they had bought some plants. I can't seem to get the thing right at all but we got it on manual somehow by resetting everything and meanwhile I served Chris his lunch out in his fort. Mom told me later she went out there when I was dickering around with the watering thing and he had fallen fast asleep. It is a nice shady little place and we had put a rug out there for a floor, but I'm afraid the poor kid didn't eat anything for lunch.
Then Mom and Chuck went up the hill for their lunch and a nap and I went back up in the attic. I made my way over to the louvers at the south end in the main part of the attic to check out the screening there, it was stapled down all right, it was nailed down with great big spikes, but there were big gaps where it was pulled across the wall joists, you could have driven Greyhound buses full of bats through there. There was a lot of that fiberglas screening around so I thought I'd just staple new screening over the old stuff and pull it down tight to the joists but there were a lot of wasps there too so I sprayed some flying insect mist at them. It just seemed to make them mad. By this time the bats were getting restless with all the activity up there, it was making me really nervous so I called down to Chris, who was in the loft, to go and bring me the beekeeper's hat. I know bats don't really get tangled up in people's hair but I wanted it anyway. It was getting hotter and hotter up there and I was more and more undone by the squeaking which was getting louder and louder, plus the hat kept falling over my eyes so I couldn't see a damn thing. The bats grew more and more restless; I could just feel their little claws all over my back. I began sobbing quietly and moaning "Oh God, Oh God" at intervals as I crawled around. Chris came up the ladder. "Are you OK Mom?" "I'm OK sweetie really I am" I said tearfully. " "It's just that I can't stand hearing these bats squeaking" He suggested that he bring up the radio and turn it on loud so I couldn't hear the bats. I thought that was a great idea so he ran down to the kitchen and got the tape player that was down in the kitchen, hauled it up the stairs and turned it on full blast. John Hiatt at full volume was distracting all right but I could still hear the bats, it wasn't the squeaking so much now as the sound of their little claws scratching around. I got the can of expanding urethane foam all shook up and got ready to run with it because you know once that stuff starts coming out it doesn't stop. Then Mom was down in the loft. Chris had apparently run up the hill and woken her up and told her that "Mom was starting to freak out" I certainly was. She turned off John Hiatt and I yelled at her to turn it back on; I was well on the way to hysterical. Then I turned on the foam. I was going to use it on the roof peak spots and around the chimney. Well you have to hold the can upside down for the foam to come out. I couldn't get the stuff to go where it ought. Holding it upside down meant the bottom of the can was where the foam ought to be going. The foam, the bats, the wasps, the heat, it was all too much and in complete and abject gibbering terror I flung myself towards and down the ladder, banging my head severely on several beams in the process, and ran down the stairs and outside. After five minutes or so of hyperventilation I started to calm down. I went into the kitchen and threw some water on my face and lit a cigarette and sat on the back porch smoking and shaking. Mom came out. "I'm sorry" I told her weepily "I'll go up tonight when the bats are gone and do it. I just can't bear the noise they make." I sat for a little while drinking glass after glass of cold water. Then I could hear Mom calling me from the loft. I went back up. She was up in the attic. "Would you bring me a piece of cardboard?" she called. I went up to the top of the ladder. "What?" I said. There she was with the can of foam, which was foaming away on one of the planks. "Would you bring me some cardboard" she repeated. "I don't want to waste this foam." "I'll pay for the foam, Mom" I said, "just leave it" "Well I don't want it to go to waste" she said, she was scooping the stuff up into a pile on the plank. "Just leave it Mom" I said "it's getting all over you, the stuff never comes off." "Just get me the cardboard," she said.
OK. I was in no state to argue with her, I ripped off some pieces of cardboard box and took them up the ladder. She wanted to smear it into the gap we had seen under the eaves over the back porch, so I brought the extension ladder down the stairs and set it up so she could climb up onto the porch roof and she went up there and tried to stuff it into the gap with a butter knife with little success. Then she had trouble getting down, the foam was all over her hands and she kept sticking to the roof.
I said I'd go up and finish the job that night, when the bats were gone, but I just couldn't take the noise of them up there. She said she'd do it and I told her no, I didn't want her having to do it, I'd go back up when the bats were out. She said she'd do a little bit, so I said if she wanted to she could.
Chris had been begging all morning for me to take a break so we could make some butterscotch candy, so we got out the butter and sugar and stuff and started cooking up the candy. The candy was foaming away on the stove when I heard some thumping from up in the loft. I couldn't leave the boiling candy so I sent Chris up to see if Meema was alright or if she had fallen down the ladder or something, he came back down and reported that she was fine, she was just getting down from the attic. Then the intercom beeped and Chris ran over to answer it, he thinks this inter-house communication system is the cat's ass (so do I, it sure beats running up and down the hill). "Chris, this is Chuck" came the voice over the intercom, "go out to my car and look on the front seat and see if there is a bag with some medicine in it there. If there is please bring it up to me." Chris ran outside and I saw him go running up the hill with a paper bag. I was worried Chuck was having a heart attack or something so I buzzed the house up the hill and Chuck answered. "Chris is on his way up with the medicine" I said, "are you all right Chuck?" Yes he was, it was apparently only some salve for his mosquito bites. Chris came running back down and we turned the candy into a pan to cool. Then Mom walked into the kitchen with her hand clutched to her chest and a bloody paper towel wrapped around it.
She had been putting away some of the badminton rackets and some garden shears had fallen on her, it was a nasty three-cornered gash on the top of her hand, about 5/8 inch on either side. It looked like it needed stitches to me or at least a butterfly closure but she said she'd put a bandaid on it and she'd be fine. I washed it out and persuaded her to go up and have Chuck look at it. It really looked like it needed medical attention to me and I thought maybe he could talk some sense into her. They came down together, he said he was going to take her into the emergency room at Rutland General, he didn't think it would require stitches but he thought considering the batshit and the rusty shears, she ought to have a tetanus shot. He had also apparently poured 80 proof gin into the wound to sterilize it which Mom said had made her scream, Chuck said it only went to show that gin was good for something and off they went to the emergency room.
Then Lisa Overstreet arrived. I had completely forgotten she was due to come up and give Mom her estimate for painting the living room ceiling in all the excitement. She had brought up some johnnycake for us. I filled her in on the events of the morning and we sat at the kitchen table and got caught up on the last couple of years. Now I like Lisa and always have but that woman sure can talk. She did have some great stories about her cats; Chris loved them especially the one about the bullfrog in the bed. Finally Mom and Chuck got back from Rutland. The doctor hadn't been able to stitch her hand, he said the skin was so thin he was afraid it would only tear, but they had given her a tetanus shot and wrapped it all up in gauze and a latex glove. It grew later, Lisa kept talking, she still hadn't gotten to the estimate. At some point Chuck came in the kitchen and asked me if I'd seen Mom. I went upstairs and called. No Mom. I went into the loft, no Mom, looked in the garden, etc. I thought she must have gone up the hill and he went off to look for her.
Lisa kept on going, I was starting to wish she'd cut her visit short. It was now about 6:00 in the evening and I wanted to run down to South Billingsford and buy a pack of cigarettes before supper, I had been out of them since about three. Then Chuck came in still hunting for Mom. I looked in the loft again and called, no answer, but on a hunch I went up the ladder and looked in the attic. There she was at the far end of the attic dimly illuminated by a flashlight with a garbage bag beside her.
"Mom" I called "Mom" She didn't seem to hear me so I called louder. "Mom we've been looking everywhere for you, what are you doing up here?" "I need another garbage bag" she called back. "I took down that old screening and there was a big squirrels nest or something and there's all this trash up here. I want to get all this trash cleaned up. I need to vacuum up here, it's awful up here." "Mom, just leave the trash" I called."It's been up here for 50 years and never bothered anybody yet. Why not just leave it?" She started working her way back toward me dragging the garbage bag. "Get me another garbage bag" she said "this one's ripping, I need another one. Then would you get me the little vacuum? I want to vacuum up all this batshit, it's disgusting up here." " Mom come on, it's hot as hell up here", I said. "Just leave the trash for heaven's sake. I'll get it tonight if you really insist on getting it down." "Just please get me another garbage bag" she said. Jesus. I went down to the kitchen where Lisa was talking to Chuck. "Where's your mother? " he asked me. "She's up in the attic!" I said. "What?" he said. "The woman is up in the bloody ATTIC and she wants a garbage bag." I said rooting around in the painted cupboard looking for some. I found a box of garbage bags, I was so upset I couldn't get the box open, it was a big box sealed with that clear packing tape and Chuck took it from me and looked it over with interest. "There must be a special way," he said musingly, turning it over and over in his hands. "I just can't get the tape!" I said, my voice rising, "Just let me cut it with a knife!" "I always carry a pocket knife with me" he said and slowly fishing one out of his pocket he sliced open the box and I grabbed a bag and went back up to the loft and climbed the ladder to the attic. Mom was on the far side of the division between the loft end and the main house leaning against the garbage bag. "Mom" I said, "this is silly. Come on, it must be 400 degrees up here, leave the trash and come down." "No, I have to get this attic cleaned up and this trash down" she said in that pitiful little girl voice she gets when she's completely exhausted and won't admit it. Plus that hand must have hurt like hell. "Mama, this is completely insane," I said. "Nobody ever comes up here except the bats. You've got a cut hand for God's sake. Please leave the damn trash bag there and come on down out of this attic." By this time Chuck had made his way up the stairs with Chris and they stood at the bottom of the ladder and added their entreaties to mine. "Lisa, the doctor told you to take it easy for a couple of days." called Chuck "Come down, you're not sixty anymore you know." "Meema, come down!" Chris chimed in. She started to slither slowly under the beam that marks the break between the two sections of the house, still dragging the trash bag stuffed with squirrel nest, old wire screening and such-like and indeed ripping everywhere and no wonder it's nothing but splinters and nails everywhere up there and she insists on using the flimsiest garbage bags possible. This division point is also bat central unfortunately, as it's the lowest point and you have to squeeze through on your back or belly with the bats fifteen inches or so above your head. "Go get me that little vacuum that Anna bought "she said. "I want to vacuum up all this batshit". Then her face came into view. Her nose was literally covered with blood. "Mom! You've cut yourself!" I said, horrified. It was really bleeding a lot. "I'm fine, just get me the vacuum cleaner and give me another garbage bag" she replied weakly. "Mom your face is covered with blood!" I said my voice rising "For God's sake come down." PLEASE Mom " I said and I climbed up another step and reached for her, " come on down out of here, I'll clean it up, I'll make it so you can EAT up here if you want, just come down." " I'm fine" she said again "I just want to finish cleaning the attic." Then I lost my temper. " Goddamnit Mother, you come down from that attic right this very instant!" I yelled, I was so enraged that I think I actually stamped my foot on the ladder. Big mistake. She turned balky on me. "No I won't!" she snapped back, "and you can't make me! I'm going to finish cleaning up this attic!" Oh lord. Well she finally allowed me to help her down the ladder and I ran to the bathroom and washed off the blood with a washcloth, the cut wasn't very big but it was bleeding fit to beat the band, she must have cut one of the little blood vessels or something. We went down to the kitchen and I put a bandaid on it and said I was going down to South Billingsford to buy a pack of cigarettes. Lisa was still there, what she thought about it all I don't know but I assume she's known us for so long the whole scene didn't surprise her. Chris wanted to come so I slammed out of the house with him muttering darkly to him that his grandmother was the stubbornest godammned woman on the face of the planet and she was never going up in that attic again if I had anything to say about it. "Is Meema forbidden to go in the attic?" asked Chris "You bet she's forbidden" I said "absolutely strictly forbidden!" "Should I tell Chuck?" he asked "Yes absolutely, go tell Chuck" I told him and he ran back to the kitchen and told Chuck that he was to forbid Meema to go back up in the attic, which Chuck told him he'd be only too happy to do.
When we got back, Lisa had gone, she had however come up with a figure which seemed reasonable to me and Chuck started supper, the plan was that as their treat the two men were going to make supper, At one point Chuck gave Chris a plate of hamburgers and asked him to take them to the stove and start them frying, Chris kind of smirked at me as I haven't really let him near the stove much yet.
Meanwhile I had an extremely stiff drink and made one for Chuck too at his request. Mom contented herself with some white wine. We finished supper and then had to physically prevent Mom from doing the dishes as she wasn't supposed to get her hand wet. Then Chris and I went out to sit and watch the bats come out while Chuck began cutting some of the plastic into strips, I was going to staple this up at the peak of the roof. We counted the bats as they came out but stopped at 140 as I wanted to go in to assemble my battlegear. Chuck went up the hill to the little house. Mom stayed under condition that she was not to enter the attic but only stand on the ladder for support. I couldn't figure out how to refill Chuck's fancy staple gun so he and Mom went up to the little house and he taught Chris how to do it, while I got ready for the fray. I ran two extension cords up through the closet in Julia's room and put two lamps at that end, it was still pretty batty up there, there were several of them flapping around. Then at the loft end I had the trouble light and a clip light I had brought over so the place was pretty well illuminated. When it seemed clear I hauled myself up through the closet, I had had enough of that slithering stuff and I really didn't want to go under the bat dormitory any more, although one of the first things I did was stuff the hole as full of fiberglas as I could, I didn't want anyone returning for their little batty checkbook or whatever. Without the bat noises it really wasn't bad at all, plus the wasps were sleepy and Chris was a trouper, crawling over from the loft end with fresh supplies of fiberglas and refilled staple gun when I called for it. He also kept an eye on Mom, at one point I heard him tell her "You just stay on that ladder Meema!" He was great. It was slow going, as there aren't nearly enough planks to walk on. You kind of have to pick up the one behind you and move it in front to get anywhere. If anyone is missing a small tabletop they stored in the loft it's up there along with anything else that might be suitable to walk on.
I stapled up new screening over the louvers at the south end and if anything can get through there now I'll be very surprised. I filled everything I could remember from the daytime as by then of course I couldn't see the traces of daylight through the roof, but I did what I could and finally about ten-o -clock I called time for the night.
Mom went up the hill and I got Chris into the bathtub, we were both filthy. There didn't seem to be much hot water, but we got about six inches of lukewarm, I scrubbed him down and then I jumped in and scrubbed myself down, we left quite a bathtub ring I can tell you.
The next morning I woke at around quarter of five, as I usually do, made myself some coffee, and went out to see what happened when the bats came home. I sat against the maple tree as I reasoned they would hardly be likely to run into that and waited. I had obviously not filled the gap to the ouside well enough as there was a lot of light shining through there from the trouble light which I had left on, (securely wired by two separate wires, in two separate spots on the light, to a galvanized pipe at least 12 inches from any wood surface.) The bats started to arrive. At first it was sort of fun to watch them, they'd land on the roof, start to go in and then turn back and fly off, all upset by their 100 watt nightlight. But as more and more bats started to come in, it began to get scary, I had a couple hundred extremely agitated bats flying around and they were starting to swoop more and more wildly. Finally I threw my coffecup aside and crawled on my belly through the grass up to the kitchen door, slithered up through the doorway and slammed the screen door shut.
After breakfast I went up to begin the clean-up operation. When I went up the ladder the bats were still there under the slates, but they weren't making little squeaking noises. It was more an anguished sort of "Ereek , ereeek" they didn't sound happy at all. However by this time I was so pissed at them that it didn't bother me nearly as much as the day before. I tossed Mom's bag of trash down into the loft and I started vacuuming, pausing every now and then to bang on the planks with the vacuum and yell at them. "Having a nice REST little batties? Having a good SLEEP are we? Hope you never sleep again ya little suckers!" etc etc. I did NOT clean the attic. I vacuumed up about 20 pounds of bat guano, which I emptied at two-minute intervals into a bucket; I gave it to Mom to put on her vegetable garden. Then I stapled up plastic on one half of the big opening into the loft and screening on the other half (I would have done it all screen but I didn't have enough) and filled every gap in the flowered bedroom, no matter how tiny, with fiberglas. I do not think they can get into the house now, or at least not without a lot of effort. They can however still get into the attic. (Uncle) Chris called on Sunday and suggested hanging mothballs on strings up there. The Bat Conservation Association says mothballs don't work but if someone wants to send me a supply of mothballs tied onto string I will be more than happy to go and put them up. I am not going to spend a lot of time tying the mothballs onto the strings, in fact none at all. I haven't any idea how you would go about tying a mothball onto a string but it sounds pretty darned labor intensive.
However I AM going to get these bats to move, it's personal with me and these bats now. I am going to get these things to go. I think we still have a bat colony up there, but it is not a happy colony. I think they don't find the home cave very welcoming anymore, and if they stick around they are going to find it a lot less welcoming as time goes on.