My girlfriend, Deanna, and I went to East Texas to stay with her parents for a few days. Deanna's mom and dad, Sharon and Ed, recently bought a ranch and moved there. There's not a lot to do in East Texas - unless you're into ranching or gigantic traveling yard sales (another story), so Deanna and I jumped at the suggestion Ed made on the second day:
"Our neighbor has a lion. Want to go see it?" Ed asked.
"A lion?" We chimed in unison.
"Yup. Real live lion," Ed said.
"Y Y e e a a h h. T o t a l l y!" We exclaimed.
The next day we were climbing in the Jimmy and driving to the neighbors'. Deanna's dad, Ed, is a man's man: veteran, former sheriff, mason, and extraordinary storyteller (if only you could hear his story of being handcuffed to a mob hitman for a month). Deanna's mom, Sharon, is a petite but strong woman, with a glint in her eye. It doesn't take long to learn that the glint is the reflection of a great, dry sense of humor - often used to rebuff her husband's seriously mischievous streak. For instance, on the way to see the lion, Sharon reached and turned the air conditioner down just a tad. In less time than for, say, a lion to attack, Ed goes on a rampage: he powers all windows down, pushes the heater levers to their hottest, and spins the fan dial to its max. The car is suddenly exploding with heat and Ed declares, "Was it too cold for you?!" Sharon is not daunted. She fires back, "Ed, you big dork. I was just a little too cold." Then she turned to Deanna and said, "Your father is crazy. Every week it's a different stunt."
We pulled into the neighbor's bumpy dirt driveway. As we were parking, I saw it. A real live lion. A big golden lion. It was in a cage, but seeing it in the yard, like a chicken in a chicken coop, was startling to the eye. We exited the car and advanced toward the coop for a closer look. The lion went nuts. He sprang up and began rapidly pacing; rubbing his massive shoulders and body against the wire entrapment. His rubbing was so aggressive, the fence would buckle, but fortunately not break. The giant cat even reared up and rattled the cage with his two boot-sized front paws.
"What does he want to do to us?" I was wondering. Just then the owners came out. They were a truly Texan ranching couple. Buck and Becca, both authentically clad in boots, hats, and Wranglers. Buck walked right up to the gate-crashing cat, stuck his hand in and said, "He loves to be petted. Loves people. Go 'head, pet 'im." No way, I thought. He's a lion. Deanna and Ed went up to the cage and pet him. I stood back with Sharon and just kept thinking, "He's a lion. Why would you guys pet a lion?"
"How did you get a lion?" Deanna asked. "Oh, one of our friends couldn't keep 'im anymore," Becca explained, "so they give 'im to us. He was born in the wild, but we ain't never had any problem with 'im. If we take 'im out to clean the cage, we just have a spray bottle full of vinegar that we put in his eyes if he starts to get a little out of control. He hates it real bad and calms down straight away."
As Becca was talking, petite little Sharon decided to go up and give Mr. Top of the Food Chain a little pet (admittedly, he did look cute, so much like a big kitty). I was watching Sharon when it happened. I was the only one watching, as a matter of fact. It went down in slow motion. Sharon went to pet the lion's face, and the lion rolled his mouth open and clamped down on her hand. Sharon tried pulling her hand out with a little tug, but that only made the lion tighten his bite and pull back. Sharon spoke up, softly but firmly, "He's got my hand."
I was watching it all, and I could only think, "The lion is going to rip off my girlfriend's mom's hand. This is so terrible." Ed and the old cowboy darted to the cage to help. Deanna took one look, saw blood and turned to run in the opposite direction. "Get off!!" "Let go!!!" Whack! Thwack! The two men's efforts were feeble as the lion continued to maul Sharon's hand and pull her arm further into the cage. "The lion is ripping off my girlfriend's mom's hand," I kept thinking.
Sharon didn't even scream. Then, as suddenly as he had attacked, the lion let go. Sharon's struggling lean catapulted her from away the cage. A dripping bloody hand was all you could see. Of course the first words out of the neighbor's mouth were, "He's never done that before. He must just have been over-excited because of so many people. He just loves people." My mind flashed on an image of Buck on the National News, missing one of his front teeth, just like in real life, saying, "I can't believe that lion ate my Rebecca-Sue. Up 'til then he was a real sweet pet." I could picture it, just like all those people I've seen who end up on the news because their pet snake eats their baby.
Sharon's hand had four deeply grooved cuts, and required 21 stitches. Thankfully, she'll have full use of her hand when it heals. Ed opted to tell the doctor it happened while Sharon was trying to break up a dog fight (yeah, right - if you own wolf dogs.)
On the way to the hospital, Deanna and I, in the back seat of the car, giddy from over-stimulated nerves, kept turning to one another and declaring things like, "A lion attack!" "Your mom survived a lion attack!" "Wow, every day really does bring surprises!"
"Sharon, there is a bright side to this," I declared out of nerves, "You still have the hand you use the most, so you can do the things you enjoy - like petting." As we were pulling into the driveway, I remembered a dialogue from the movie Natural Born Killers. A woman finds an injured snake one day and takes it home, she feeds it, loves it and eventually the snake heals. After a few years she leans down to pet the snake and the snake bites her. She looks at the snake as she lay dying and says "why did you bite me?" The snake replied "Look, you knew I was a snake."