Best of Show

from Tales from the Red Pump 
Pages 30-34

     The huge toad almost got splattered by my lawn mower. 

     I was cutting thick grass and ground cover, near our Red Pump in Solon Springs in June 1985, when my rotary power mower passed over a lump on the ground.  The lump looked like a dark rock in the grass, but the rock had bumps and spots on it–and it got up and hopped out of the way as the mower passed.  It was a particularly, shall we say, muscular toad.  I called the boys over. 

     Seth, age four, and Adam, almost six, playing in another part of our camping area, were thrilled to see the big toad up close.  They soon decided he was “Tubby Toad” (he truly was a tubby toad), and Seth put him in a box on damp grass and fresh green leaves.  The boys decided to take him home to Superior as a pet.

     Over the next few weeks with us, Tubby became a fine family pet.  Our young sons learned a lot from him, and he was surprisingly interactive with them.  They would stroke him gently on the back of his head with their small fingers, and Tubby would warble, his brown and white spotted throat flap moving in and out.  They fed him worms and bugs in his box, and always kept a shallow pan of water there for him.  Seth took him out many times a day to romp in the damp, dense plants near our Superior garden.  He also let Tubby have time to just sit in the low, buggy greenery along one cool side of our house.  Toad and boy bonded.

     Soon we learned the upcoming summer celebration at the county historical museum included a pet show and contest sponsored by the humane society.  Divisions for pets ranged from largest, smallest, and best trained, to best of show across all categories.  We saw possibilities for Tubby.  Seth asked if he could take his new toad friend to the show. 

     Debbi suggested that, as a pet show contestant, Tubby should have a proper pet harness and leash.  Using some thin gold curling ribbon she had taken from a package, we designed and crafted a small, loose-fitting harness for Tubby.  It fit well and was quite attractive for the dark brown toad.  “Accessorizing your amphibian,” we mused, “what a concept.”  We also fastened a ribbon lead to the harness so Seth could walk his pet.  Wow, a chunky, tubby toad on a gold leash with a tow-headed, blue-eyed four-year-old kid walking him: a winning combination, we figured.  

     On the day of the contest, Seth put Tubby’s harness on the cooperative toad, packed him in his homemade port-a-toad box, and took along his leash.  Seth and all of us were excited as we drove to the historical society museum to show Tubby.  Each child with a pet had a chance to come up in front of the group as everyone met out on the bay-front lawn of the museum.  It was a sunny, brilliant blue day there, overlooking Lake Superior.  The kids all sparkled as they each enthusiastically told about their animals and showed them to the crowd of assembled pet lovers.  

     When it was Seth’s turn, he walked to the head of the group, carefully holding Tubby, then put him down on the ground with both his harness and his gold leash attached.  Seth told his pet’s name, and explained how he got him.  Tubby apparently understood his role at that point (or was scared stiff), for as if on cue, he hopped out ahead on the grass while Seth walked him back and forth a few steps in front of the judges and crowd.  The audience laughter and approval were huge.  Tubby, nonplussed, almost seemed to enjoy it. 

     The judging of dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, turtles, frogs, and other critters was soon completed, and the prize announcements came for each category.  Tubby won the first place blue ribbon for the “Interesting Pet” category.  When all the division awards had been announced, the drama built as the “Best of Show” trophy was about to be awarded.  The head judge got everyone’s attention, and intoned loudly “The Best of Show award goes to…. Tubby Toad and Seth King!” 

     We cheered and laughed; we knew Tubby was a winner.  Tubby and Seth won a surprisingly large trophy, and we recall the story being in the local paper.  We also got some great pictures we will always treasure.  Seth had the trophy in his bedroom for all his growing up years.  It is stored on a special, revered shelf in our barn attic here at Solon Springs to this day.

     After the pet show, we decided to return Tubby to the wild.  Putting him back in the lush leaves near the Red Pump was our first thought.  We realized, however, that might be too risky for him, with all the wild predators here, and the power mower cruising over his head several times each summer in our camping area.  We concluded the protected, moist perennial covered area near our garden at home in Superior might be best for him until hibernation time came in the fall.  The spot we decided on was fenced in, and seemed to provide enough freedom for Tubby to hop, eat, and roam.  It also offered protection from birds, cats, and traffic, as well as from other kids and parents.  We felt Tubby would be secure and happy there for a few more months until the weather cooled off.  

     Then fate stepped in.  In late summer of 1985, we found we had to sell our Superior home and make a major family move south, to another Wisconsin town, because of care issues for our extended families.  We packed and prepared for several months, and got entangled in all the depressing details and stresses of moving.  It was sad and difficult for all of us to leave our simple, small (but to us, most beautiful) home we had built on our own, on our little corner lot, and had loved for more than a decade.  It was also when Debbi and I stopped sleeping well in our lives.  We began pulling a much bigger family-care and financial load. 

     In all the rush and changes, we largely forgot about Tubby.  We looked for him once or twice in the garden area where we had last seen him, but could not find our toad.  Seth was concerned about this, but he and Adam both understood Tubby needed to be in the wild.  Hopefully that was where he was.  Just maybe, he had escaped our garden to better digs, literally perhaps, in the larger yard or in our neighborhood. 

     We resolutely stopped looking, and continued about our intense business of packing and transporting all the important things, indoors and out, we had accumulated in our wonderful, eleven active years in Superior.  Debbi hastily dug out some of her treasured flower bulbs and other perennials, and we boxed and carted them to our new home in southern Wisconsin.  It truly broke our hearts to leave our well kept, self-built home and yard, with so many memories and so much life having happened there.  But we knew we had to leave for a greater family purpose. 

     One day in late fall of 1985, we were in our new yard transplanting some of those bulbs and plants from the few boxes we had quickly stuffed in Superior as we packed to go.  As we carefully tipped out the roots with rich black dirt from back home to replant them, one of the lumps we found in the dark soil moved.  Tubby?  Yes, it appeared to be Tubby, a miraculous reminder of home, our real home, not this strange, new one.  We thought at first it was too good to be true; that our stowaway friend was just another toad who had bedded down for the fall in our moist northern garden.  But the closer we looked at him, and as we watched him move and interact with us, Seth and all of us knew it was our favorite amphibian.  We believed it really was Tubby Toad, concluding he had moved with us.  We collectively, carefully placed him in our new side garden of dense plants and bushes, to continue life with us at our new home.  Tubby was there in those bushes the next spring of 1986, and we kept track of him well into that summer when we last saw him. 

     Tubby Toad was a good pet for us.  He was a needed, fun friend for a four year old and his family at a time of such sad leavings and new, uncertain beginnings.  We learned from Tubby how even the humble and mundane, with imagination and love, can indeed become Best of Show.  We think of Tubby now and his many, many toad progeny here, especially every time we mow near the Red Pump and see a lumpy dark form in the moist leaves.  We need to be careful. 

     Hey, something just hopped over there.  I wonder…?

Copyright 2008 and 2009  Thomas Wayne King.   All Rights Reserved.