The Conservationist's Kids

By Catherine Downen | January 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2000

His service to the Conservation Department was more than just one man's occupation; it was a way of life for our entire family. As the conservationist's kids, our childhoods were enriched with a wealth of memories and lessons we will carry with us our entire lives.

One of my earliest memories is of taking a bath with my two older sisters, Lyn and Wendy. Bath time with three preschoolers can be rowdy in any family, but that night my father arrived home with a sack full of bullfrogs he had confiscated from some pre-season giggers. He emptied the frogs into the tub with us, and then stood back and laughed as the frogs croaked and leaped and we squealed and splashed and the bathroom became a slippery disaster area. My mother, Marilyn Wiedemann, should be nominated for sainthood.

Wild animals were a constant presence in our home. Often people would stop by our house with a cardboard box full of babies whose mother had been killed on the highway. My mother would cook up her special recipe of formula, and we would all take turns feeding the babies with an eyedropper. We learned not to handle them too much. We learned that when you hold something loosely it will settle comfortably in your hand, but when you grip too tightly it will struggle to get away. The rapid beating of their panicked little hearts filled us with wonder.

One of the heartbreaks of my childhood was trying to save 11 baby possums who still belonged in their mother's pouch. Dad told me they were too young to survive, but I set my alarm to wake every two hours through the night to feed them. When their little tails curled tightly around my fingers, I felt like a mother.

On the second night I could only manage every four hours, and by the third night I was so exhausted I knew I could not continue my vigil. The possums began to die the next day, one by one, and I grieved for each one. I learned early one of life's hardest lessons-sometimes you cannot do enough to avert disaster.

We liked to give names to our favorite animals, even though we weren't supposed to get attached. One time we named a baby squirrel L.S., which stood for Little Squirrel. As the squirrel grew, my younger sister, Mary-Jo, thought he needed a new name. She proposed B.S., for Big Squirrel, and couldn't understand why the rest of us objected. We decided to keep L.S., with a new meaning of Large Squirrel.

My brother Warren remembers an early confrontation he had with a coyote pup we called Foxy. We were all rushing to get ready for school that morning, and somehow Foxy got past the barricade that kept him in the kitchen. The coyote slipped into my brother's room, snatched up his underpants, and raced through the house with my brother streaking in hot pursuit. Of all the tardy children at school that day, my brother had the most interesting excuse.

My brother almost caused a scandal one time by answering honestly when his teacher asked him about a bruise on his face. Every morning when Dad left for work, all of us children would line up to kiss him goodbye. That morning Warren had been pushing to get in line, and as my father straightened up from kissing my sister and turned for the next kid, the gun strapped to his hip smacked my brother on the side of his face.

Luckily his teacher knew us well enough not to get too alarmed when my brother told her, "My dad hit me with his gun," but she did call my mother for an explanation.

My mother, Dad's unpaid personal secretary, deserves special recognition for all she had to put up with as the wife of a conservation agent. My father used her good pillowcases to carry snakes. The animals passing through our home were sometimes ferocious, and none of them were housebroken.

Her freezer always was full of dead creatures that had to be kept for evidence. Once an entire deer carcass occupied her deep freeze for six months until the case came to trial. Her husband's schedule was unpredictable: the phone often rang and he was coming and going at all hours, sometimes bringing home extra people for her to feed. Emergencies cropped up and altered our plans.

Once on a family fishing trip, my father threatened to arrest my mother because she untangled our fishing lines and threw them back into the water without a fishing permit. Unfazed, she told my father, "Take me to jail where there's some peace and quiet. You cope with the kids!"

My mother is a whiz in the kitchen; she can cook almost anything. Perhaps the strangest thing she's ever had in her oven was a batch of baby skunks. Our kitchen was drafty, and when she wrapped the skunks in soft cloths in a box on the counter they continued to shiver, so she popped them in the oven and kept it at a low heat. The skunks survived, but I hate to think what the next batch of cookies smelled like.

When it comes to smells, our olfactory memories are full of strong impressions. My sisters Lyn and Wendy both recall bad experiences with the tail ends of various animals. Raccoons had a thing about Lyn. Every time she picked one up, it would invariably show the leaky side of its personality. Wendy remembers helping transport a fawn to Rockwoods Reservation and having it deposit something unmentionable down her shirt. And none of us wanted to ride in Dad's truck during trapping season.

Bad smells weren't the only downside to being the conservationist's kids. Having a conservation agent for a father brought some unwelcome notoriety to us. It's amazing how many people told us that our father had arrested them or someone they knew.

Once my sister Wendy dated a young man my father had arrested for illegal possession of a red-tailed hawk. Our dates were required to come in the house to meet our parents when they picked us up. When this young man recognized my father, he flushed a deep scarlet and punctuated every sentence with, "Sir." He also brought Wendy home well before curfew that night.

As a family, we had to endure many attempts at revenge for my father's diligence in enforcing the law. The large picture window in the front of our house was shot up by someone with a grudge. Somebody also shot at my father's car, puncturing the brand new basketball my brother had just received for his birthday and left in the back seat.

Once we found a huge dead fish stuffed in our mailbox. We used it to fertilize our garden. Someone dumped nails on our driveway to puncture my father's tires; we picked them up with a magnet and used them to build our barn. Another life lesson learned-make the most of whatever comes your way.

As we got older, we began to appreciate more and more the benefits of being the conservationist's kids. Dad's presentations at our 4-H camp always brought a swift cure for homesickness. We scored well on hunter safety exams. We weren't required to show identification when we cashed checks at the local store, because everyone knew we were Warren Wiedemann's kids.

We all loved going on the river with my father, "holding down the front end of the boat," as he called it. We learned how to read animal tracks and respect the animals that made them. Our father taught us by example how to speak and act with authority, and none of us is afraid to take action when we see a situation that needs to be corrected.

Because we are the conservationist's kids, we became the people we are today. Now many of us have children of our own, and as they spend time with their grandfather the torch is passed to a new generation. My father's career with the Conservation Department came to an end, but his legacy lives on in the people whose lives he has touched through his work and in the memories of his family.

As one of his children, I just want to say, "Thanks, Dad, for 31 years of excitement, adventure and priceless memories. I'm glad we had the privilege of being the conservationist's kids.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer