When We Were Just Kids


By Frank Gallo

I thought my mom was going to kill me when mosquitoes hatched from the bucket of frog eggs in my bedroom. My mother was generally a good sport about such things, but she had her limits. All future acquisitions were relegated to the front porch. Thus began my illustrious career as a collector of all things wild. I was 7.

Each weekend my brother Paul and I would jump on our bikes and race off to collect something new. One week we’d catch frogs in the Mill Pond; another we’d test our skill and agility on crayfish or salamanders in the stream. It was great being a kid whose mom thought children should be outside playing instead of glued to the TV. We were doubly fortunate that our back yard abutted 500 acres of woods and was within walking distance of a pond and several streams. So off we would ride with nets and buckets strapped to our handlebars or shock-corded to our bike racks. Often, we returned with animals to add to our growing collection. Our bedroom and front porch looked like a pet store. Aquariums stuffed with fish, snakes, turtles, frogs, mole crickets and a myriad of creatures great and small surrounded the room.

As we grew older, we’d head farther afield. On one such adventure, we’d found a pond in Wilton several miles from our home that held an amazing assortment of exotic turtles. We planned the raid on that pond for days. Most coveted among the pond dwellers were a red-eared slider, soft-shelled and spotted turtles. We knew what they were; we’d looked them up. We weren’t sure how we were going to catch them, but we were determined. The pond was in someone’s front yard. (It never occurred to us that they might belong to this someone.) I always wondered what the owners thought when several of their prize turtles mysteriously disappeared.

The Silvermine Artists Guild has a pond in their front yard. It was rumored to hold spotted turtles, a most prized species. I also knew, because I’d stepped on it, that there was a huge snapping turtle in the pond. (We didn’t know at the time that snapping turtles pose no threat to humans in the water; they’re frightened of people, and we’re not on their food chain.) My brother and I discussed the perceived danger at length and decided to risk it. Our biggest problem was reaching the turtles. To do so, we had to wade to the far shore in water up to our necks. We edged nervously into the water, bucket poised above our heads, and set out, eyes darting about in search of the killer turtle. On the far side we discovered only painted turtles and reaching them proved difficult. It meant wading in mud up to our chests. We nearly got stuck but eventually managed to escape, turtles in-hand and all limbs intact. Later, my mother wouldn’t let us in the house. I think she burned our clothes.

COMMON Snapping Turtle 

On one of our trips to Mead Park, my brother and I found a nest of snapping turtle eggs in Bristow Sanctuary that had been partly dug up by a raccoon. We’d seen the female “snapper” many times in the stream. We took the remaining eggs home in a bucket of sand and left them on the porch. Either I knew not to turn the eggs or was lucky when I placed them into the bucket. Either way, I’ll never forget the day they hatched. The tiny turtles with sandy goggles, looking all the world like dinky Godzillas, offered us many hours of discovery and amusement.

Our mother watched with patient resignation as our aquatic animal collection burst at the gills. Favorite treasures of ours were small snakes. Dekay’s (northern brown snake) and ring-necked were particularly prized. Mom became a charter member of the club when she walked in the door one hot summers day with a ring-necked snake in her hand. She handed it to us with the explanation that she’d found it on the road and thought we’d like to have it. When I asked about her being afraid of snakes, she said that she just figured if her boys could handle snakes without coming to harm so could she. My admiration for my mother soared that day! It rose another peg when she brought us another snake a week later. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.


The “Dinky Godzilla” — a baby Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

The concept of trespassing was beyond us; there were too many mysteries to unravel in the woods. In our wanderings we saw deer and skunks, rabbits, and woodchucks. My youngest brother John found a roosting Long-eared Owl and a Hooded Warbler, and we all found a Barred Owl and a Red-tailed Hawk nest. The Red-tailed Hawks still nest in our woods, although the wood lot is much smaller than it once was. I’m glad at least a bit remains.

We tried living in the woods for a while in a primitive tent camp on the hill. Later we built a fort in the woods, our first real club house, using wood scraps acquired from a completed housing project on River Street. One board, however, was acquired while the project was still running. The piece was a full 8×12 sheet of plywood; it was to be the backbone of our structure. It had a crack in the middle and had been discarded in a heap of lumber, so we felt justified in using it. It was sort of my first introduction to recycling. The question was how we would get it the mile to our house. Running down the road in the middle of the day with a sheet of plywood over our heads seemed imprudent, so we  did it at night.  It made a fine wall.

Periodically road-killed songbirds would find their way into my mother’s freezer, neatly sealed in labeled plastic bags. I don’t know what my mother thought, but at that stage, she’d long since resigned herself to my little idiosyncrasies. I guess she figured that small birds were no worse than frozen chickens or turkeys. Whatever her true feelings, she never said anything, at least not to me. I just figured she understood, being a member of the club, so to speak. Her stoic acceptance of my “freezer pet” collection did not, however, extend to everyone. One of my prize acquisitions was a perfectly preserved barred owl. It was so large that its talons spilled out of its plastic bag. While the bird was residing in the freezer, my mother hosted a friend for the weekend. It must have been about 2 a.m. when a scream from the kitchen brought us all tumbling from our beds. Assembling hastily, we discovered my mother’s friend, one hand clasped to her mouth, the other waving violently at the open freezer. Apparently, in an attempt to get some ice, she’d met my owl. “Oh, that’s just Frank’s Owl,” said my mother, as she shut the freezer and quietly led her friend back to bed. I don’t recall ever having that particular friend stay with us again. My birds moved back with me to school. I have my own place now, and I keep most of my freezer pets at work – one of the advantages of doing what you know and love.

To get a true sense of what I was like as a kid I must tell one last story. When I was in sixth grade, two friends and I were at recess. We’d drifted into the woods and were turning over logs looking for salamanders. I flipped over one log, and beneath it was a garter snake and a dollar bill. Both my friends were afraid of snakes. One ran for the playground at top speed, the other jumped for the dollar. I jumped for the snake. We all did what made us happy. I find it interesting that we’d all do the same today.

Dedicated to my mom for letting
me grow up to be me. 

Happy Mother’s Day! 

And to my brothers, partners in
everything important.

Frank Gallo is the Senior Naturalist at the
 New Canaan Nature Center located at 144 Oenoke Ridge. He can be reached at Fgallo@newcanaannature.org by email. For more on the New Canaan Nature Center, visit NewCanaanNature.org online.

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