Ed. — From 2000-2003, I wrote a monthly op-ed column for The Portland Press-Herald, which had resolved to make space for a regular op-ed feature called “Stages”.  In essence I was the paper’s “30something with kids” columnist. As I’m now 50something and my kids are both out in the world, columns like the one below make for some fun, retrospective fodder here at halphillips.net


 “It smells like burnt popcorn.”

“Popcorn?” countered my mechanically inclined brother-in-law. “Really?”

“Yes. Definitely popcorn.”

“Well,” he surmised, “I bet you got a mouse in there or somethin’.”

So was broached the Great Tailpipe Poser. My riding mower had been belching smoke from its bustled backside and it smelled for all the world like burnt popcorn. There was no other way to describe it. The beast had sat dormant for months, resting comfortably all winter in the shed until my 5-year-old son and I had fired her up to haul some gravel. Silas adores the John Deere. Can’t get enough of it. He’s always more than willing to help with any chores that involve the tractor. On this occasion, he and I were filling a few craterous potholes on our long dirt driveway. 

Despite the layoff, our beloved Deere had started up fine, ran fine, hauled the trailer just fine. But when I turned it off, billows of black smoke emanated from the exhaust pipe. It smelled like burnt popcorn, as indicated, and my mechanically disinclined mind didn’t know what to make of it.

So I called my brother-in-law, Brian. He’d know what to make of it.

Well, according to Brian, mice have been known to crawl into such things as tailpipes during the winter months to stay warm, make nests or what have you. This was news to me, but I was perfectly willing to accept this premise along with his recommended course of action: “Just run the engine for a while. That’ll clean it out.”

No problem. I’ve no great love for mice, nor for their rodent cousin, the gray squirrel. In fact broiling’s too good for them, in my opinion. 


We had mice in our pantry this fall. They ate our rice and potato chips with impunity, defocated on our shelves, basically intruded quite rudely upon our living space — that is, until I systematically trapped them out of existence (until next fall). Trust me: All this talk of building a better mousetrap is purely metaphorical. There’s no need. They work great! Baited with a bit of chunky peanut butter, traditional mousetraps are ruthlessly efficient.

Squirrels? Don’t get me started. They’ve haunted me since one literally invaded an apartment I shared in Greater Boston, chewing its way through a cheap drop-ceiling and falling onto the coffee table. Years later, when my wife and I lived in Portland, we had several furry, gray scoundrels living in our walls. They got in through a hole created by some rotting wooden roof-molding. Came and went as they pleased — that is, until I bought a Have-a-Heart trap. I snared a bunch and released them a healthy distance away. Like Yarmouth. Or Quebec. 

I couldn’t completely rid the house of them, however. Not until I went up the ladder and blocked off the hole and fixed the molding.

Of course, when one takes this step, he can’t be absolutely sure the walls are squirrel-free. Predictably, my first blocking initiative had trapped one inside. So, next day I went back up the ladder, three stories, and unblocked the hole.

Standing on the top rung of this ladder, the hole unplugged, I could hear him coming. I could hear him skittering frantically toward the light, louder and louder as he approached me down the passageway. Then our eyes met. He burst out of the darkness, through the new opening, glanced off my face and fell three stories to the sidewalk! He got right up, like nothing had happened, ran across the street and disappeared into what passes for underbrush on Mechanic Street. 

I estimate this episode took a minimum of 18 months off my life.

We would eventually move to rural New Gloucester where my squirrel problems persist. Perhaps these were the same suckers I had deported from Metropolitan Portland, but soon there were several living in the walls of my barn. I work in my barn. I conduct business there. Have you ever tried to conduct a professional phone conversation when some crazed rodent is eating a hole through your office dry wall, pushing pink insulation ahead of him, out the inevitable hole and onto the floor? Believe me: It’s disconcerting. 

Having exhausted the efficacy of politically correct traps, I moved on to dangerous toxins. This worked for a time, but as my mother-in-law would say, the squirrels were “off their poison” soon enough. They’ve stopped eating it. Instead, they’re back to eating away at my place of employment.

In 1998, as new homeownrs, we sat outside on our stone patio and marveled at a family of flying squirrels as they launched themselves from our roof to the spindly outer branches of a nearby oak. This spring, they were in the wall of my home, sleeping there perhaps, rearing their pups but surely defocating, too. Unlike their grey cousins, these flying squirrels are no bigger than mice and bore holes in my barnboard siding no bigger than a golf ball. I took to affixing Have-a-Heart traps onto the house itself, over these holes — so the little buggers cannot help but leave my family’s place of residence without entering the traps. Worked like a charm. I would cage 3-4 squirrels at a time and summarily drown them in the pool — but not before leaving them up there a couple days, two stories up and caged, as a warning to others.

While I’m now considering the  strategic deployment of coyote urine as a further deterrent, the situation remains fluid.


Long story short, I’ve no ethical hang-ups with having killed off the mouse in my tractor tailpipe, perhaps a family of mice, which had taken up winter residence there. On Brian’s advice, Silas and I ran the engine for 20 minutes or so in an effort to cleanse the steel cylinder of charred rodent. 

Then it happened: A projectile shot out of the tailpipe. Then another. And another. I turned the tractor off and retrieved what were clearly charred acorns! By now, Silas and I were laughing hysterically at the sheer absurdity of the situation. “Well,” I joked, “maybe the mouse was storing food in there for the winter.”

To which Silas responded, “Actually, Dad, I think I saw a squirrel putting acorns in there…”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah. I saw him.”

It’s quite a moment when a father catches his son telling his first real whopper of a lie. Clearly the kid had been messing with my tractor, sticking acorns in the tailpipe — a perfectly normal (if foolish) manifestation of a boy’s natural curiosity. But now he was attempting to pin the act on an innocent, if execrable, member of the animal kingdom. 

“Silas: Tell me the truth now. Did you put those acorns in there?”


“C’mon, Silas. I won’t get mad. I promise. But you have to tell me the truth.”

“No. It was a squirrel. I saw him.”

Well, we had planned to do an errand together that day, after filling the potholes. I can’t remember what it was, but it was something Silas really wanted to do. “Silas, let’s go inside. We can’t do our errands if you won’t tell me the truth.” I turned and started walking toward the house. Silas burst into tears about then. Confessed unreservedly. We had a good long hug and laughed some more about the entire ludicrous episode.

Then we went straight inside to call Uncle Brian.