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Our Winter Game: The Mouse, The House

Field mice like loose houses. Every autumn, they squeeze through the gaps in the plank walls of our farmhouse, which was probably built before the Civil War.

Inside, the mice find shelter in the ancient crawl space attic and also between the lath-and-plaster ceilings and the (relatively) newer dropped, tiled ceilings.

It’s a pretty good life for the mice, good enough to entice them to breed more mice. I do my best to see that each mouse’s good life ends with one bad day.

So far this season, 14 of them have had those bad days.

It might be perverse to keep track of the number of mice that I have sent to Mouse Heaven. But keeping track motivates me to check the half-dozen traps daily, renewing the peanut butter bait whenever it seems to be dried out.

I love peanut butter myself. Why would I share that delicacy with rodents that I wish to exterminate? I do not share, strictly speaking. I use the crunchy type as bait. It seems to attract more mice than does the smooth type. Ever since my age-related introduction to partial dental plates, crunchy peanut butter is uncomfortable for me to use. So I get the smooth stuff, which is probably less odiferous, and the mice get their crunchy last meal.

In our 16 years here, mice have been the nearly exclusive winter intruders. I recall one chipmunk that got an “I’m a cousin” pass to Mouse Heaven. There might have been a red squirrel that ventured in from our chimney, back when we had those old brick fireplace chimneys.

Previous experience was worse.

In my parents’ house, built on a hillside and prone to flooding from storm water rushing downhill and unbaffled sewers backing up, mice were common enough. So were rats. Mice flee. Rats, cornered, fight back. I was never bitten, but I do recall having broken some crockery because I threw a pipe wrench at a rat in our basement.

I remember other “loose house” hallmarks, including frost on the insides of the windows of my childhood bedroom. I kept a chair next to my bed, so I could don woolen socks and a sweatshirt before getting out of bed. Mere slippers or pajamas were nearly useless against the toe-curling iciness of hard linoleum floors and the butt-tightening shock of the toilet seat. In those days, our toilet seats were wooden, not plastic, and with good reason. Wood does not chill as deeply as do plastic or porcelain.

We heated with a huge natural gas stove in the living room.

We also had smaller white-coated gas fired heater stoves in the bathroom and kitchen. Boxes of matches stood nearby. Igniting them was an adventure. Built-up gas could produce eyelash-singeing mini-explosions.

Since then, I have owned two relatively tight houses, with poured concrete or firmly mortared block basement walls, and studs-and-siding framing. They were much less rodent-prone. But tight houses have their own hazards, including carbon monoxide and radon. Our current house has no gas heating appliances in its basement. Propane wall heaters supplemented by electric baseboards warm our living quarters.

I have written news stories about people who died from carbon monoxide poisoning. One that stays with me was about a family of five. I saw the children’s bodies being carried out, one, two, three. That instilled a lifelong aversion to carbon monoxide.

Our house is equipped with carbon monoxide detectors in addition to smoke detectors. We don’t have radon detectors. I might be too sanguine in this respect, but I think the relative porousness of our basement and our near-hilltop location, well away from any drilling, minimizes that risk for us.

To me, the most important thing that gets into our creaky, gap-prone house is air. I am uncomfortable within modern tightly sealed houses with triple-sealed windows, weather-stripped doors, poured concrete foundations, etc.

Airtight houses save a few bucks on heating expenses but could also increase the tendency of carbon monoxide to hang around.

Is our house drafty? Not if we dress for it.

But the mice can run in and out. I listen. I plot. I scheme. I buy traps that look like binder clip fasteners on steroids.

I don’t use chemical bait. Not all bait-stricken mice flee outside to die. An impossible-to-find dead mouse in the niches above a doorframe remains odiferous for months.

Drowsing, I hear “Scurry, scurry, pitter patter.” If I am lucky, soon I hear a crisp, satisfying “Snap!” With the ensuing silence comes a good night’s sleep.

In the morning, I adjust the score chart. In the long run, the mice will win, unless fire or some future owner’s demolition removes the house.

But I am not playing for the long run. I merely seek winter warmth and comfort, freedom from diseases, and a good sleep each night.

So, I suppose, do the mice.

The game continues….

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: notniceman9@gmail.com

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