The Nine-banded Varmint and Me
Ryan E Felton
“What is your ‘Medieval Times?’”
This question, posited by my friend Jessica at dinner, was tantamount to asking, “What would make your inner child happiest?” She’d just returned from a trip to that serf-and-sword-themed mega-restaurant, fulfilling a heretofore unrequited wish of her youth. It was, she said, all she’d dreamed it would be. I myself have never been, but based on her description I now envision a sort of heaven on Earth when I think of it, something like Disneyland dialed up to 11 on the giddy meter.
Jess wanted her friends – at present, me and fellow diner Matt – to experience the same euphoria of realizing an old unsettled dream. She asked us what would be our equivalent experience. What would be our “Medieval Times?”
My answer was reflexive.
“Armadillo,” I said.
There could be nothing else.
“All I want is to see a nine-banded armadillo.”
Anyone who knows me would likely not be surprised to hear this. For most of my life I have been inextricably and, as a life-long Hoosier, somewhat incongruously associated with the genus Dasypodidae, or the roughly twenty species of armadillo – but especially the nine-banded.
But I had never seen one.
Not behind glass. Not as a lump of chunky meat on the side of a Floridian highway. Never, ever. Somehow one of the most common animals in North America had eluded me my entire life, despite my deep affinity for it.
So that was my version of eating roasted meats and watching dudes reenact jousting matches.
Let’s see – I guess the armadillo (God’s noblest creature) and I became forever associated in 1994. I would’ve been seven, feeding on a strict mental diet of Calvin & Hobbes, Louis Sachar books, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. This last would introduce me, one fateful day, to my personal totem. In one episode the Rangers faced off with a hard-shelled monster who could curl up into a ball and knock the heroes down like bowling pins.
His name? Soccadillo.
The design and utility of that bulky creature suit caught my eye, and my mother – perhaps in a desperate move to entertain herself while being subjected to ‘90s children’s television – pointed out that the creature was actually an armadillo.
Which was a real animal.
Now, I’d never heard of such a thing. The news that the eye-catching beastie onscreen existed in real life (more or less) was like telling me that Great Danes actually solved supernatural mysteries, or that semi-trucks could, under duress, morph into humanoid behemoths and save the world.
I wanted to know more. And since it was 1994, that was achieved with a trip to the library.
The library was a magical place for me as a child, and I imagine for most of my peers. I don’t know how deeply the Internet has wounded that magic for kids today, but I think if I could’ve whipped out an iPad, done a quick Google search on “armadillo,” and rifled through a few thumbnail photos, my fascination may well have ended there. The anticipation, the physical journey to the library and through its stacks, made the books and the knowledge within a palpable reward.
When I at last laid eyes on a picture of a true-life armadillo, my seven-year-old mind and heart melted. I’d never seen anything like it – the Lord above had deigned to mash up a turtle and a rabbit and maybe an anteater for good measure. We had and have nothing like it in Indiana; it’s more or less all ‘possums and squirrels here, and pardon my yawning.
But the armadillo was special. It was a little weird, or perhaps a lot, and shuffled awkwardly and couldn’t see very well, and a lot of the adults I showed it to didn’t quite “get” it. On some level, I guess I felt there was a de-anthropomorphized version of myself out there, clawing around and getting hit by cars and catching leprosy. Chief among the many species, though, was the nine-banded. I loved them all, but the nine-banded was my familiar. Daydreams of having one as a pet or visiting a farm full of them in Texas swirled as a kiddish manic cloud in my mind.
That was the summer of armadillos. Every book and factoid and photograph pertaining to armadillos I found was consumed voraciously and repeatedly. I drew pictures of them and talked about them incessantly, not to any grown-ups’ chagrin, I’m sure.
“Did you know armadillos have four babies at a time?” I’d say.
“And that the babies are called pups?
“There are nine-banded armadillos. But there are three-banded, six-banded, giant and pink fairy armadillos, too.
“Only the three-banded can curl up in a ball, though.”
And so on.
Into the fall and Ms. Misiniec’s second-grade class, armed with this knowledge and red-hot obsession, I showed my friends books like Lynne Cherry’s The Armadillo from Amarillo and Rudyard Kipling’s The Beginning of the Armadillos.
“O Best Beloved,” indeed!
I wrote reports on armadillos. I made up stories about them such as “Pass Them on, Mr. Armidillo (sic)!” and drew comics like “Armadillo Man.” I dabbled in poetry, even (“Armadillos and Pillows Don’t Mix”) and copyright infringement (Mr. Popper’s Penguins 2nd found the Popper family in possession of a cluster of armadillos in addition to their winged friends).
Ms. Misiniec, an angel if ever one taught a second-grade class, not only permitted me but encouraged me to organize and implement a classroom holiday called “Armadillo Day.” It spilled over into the neighboring teacher’s quarters and gave me my biggest soapbox yet to extoll the virtues of the little armored ones. My parents stayed up late with me the night before, decorating treats shaped out of a repurposed dinosaur cookie cutter into tidy ‘dillo forms. I wore my custom-made “Ryan’s Armadillo Ranch” sweatshirt to school that day with an armful of statuettes, stuffed figures, and wood carvings shaped like my favorite animal.
I graduated high school the year Ms. Misiniec retired, and she wrote me a letter to tell me that for the rest of her teaching career she and her classes celebrated Armadillo Day.
So, yes, I did do something with my life.
In 2014 I turned twenty-seven. Just a few weeks after my “Medieval Times” survey with Jessica and Matt, my friends and I rang in the next year of my life with a lovely cookout.
A lot of really nice things happened that night. Among them were the two armadillo-shaped birthday cakes I was given – one by Matt, the other by my friend Megan. (Apparently, armadillo cakes were popularized by the Julia Roberts film Steel Magnolias – or was it Mystic Pizza? Either way I claim the armadillo iconography alone.)
The other thing that happened at this party was the sweetest and kindest blood oath ever taken.
Almost exactly twenty years into my uninterrupted and unsullied love of the shelled creatures, Matt, Jessica, and another close buddy Brandon drew blood and sanguinely signed a contract stating that they would, with their combined forces, make a one-on-one meeting between me and a nine-banded armadillo happen. The nine-banded distinction (or as I’ve come to think of it, the “Novemcinctus Clause”) was crucial, and that these three would anticipate and understand that was amazing in itself.
I would have my “Medieval Times.”
If my friends had anything to say about it.
As a child, the closest I would come to a close encounter with my favorite animal happened in 1995.
By this point I was full-on “the Armadillo Kid.” My classmates knew, my teachers knew, my family and friends’ families knew that armadillos were my jam, by God. I had a bedroom full of benevolent donations: books, clothes, mugs, buttons and figurines and stuffed toys, each emblazoned with or crafted to look like an adorable four-legged tank. For whatever reason, this obsession of mine was being encouraged. Maybe adults found it funny or cute, or maybe they were in awe that anybody could love something so dopey (and so unattainable) so much.
In the summer between third and fourth grade my parents arranged a special surprise for me. One hot day at the Indianapolis Zoo, my father – ever the car salesman – charmed and cajoled my way into a private room with the zoo’s resident three-banded armadillo Digger. I fed Digger mealworms and he sniffed my ankles and I generally gawped and giggled like an idiot. It was one of the happier experiences in a pretty happy childhood.
But even then I felt like it came just short of seeing and petting and sharing oxygen with a nine-banded armadillo. My fantasy had been nearly fulfilled, and I appreciated it to be sure; it’s just that it wasn’t quite the same.
And I still wanted to meet a nine-banded armadillo more than anything – probably, now, more than I ever had.
In the meantime and intervening years, I managed to eke out some sort of existence anyway, collecting pill bugs (or, as we called them in Trafalgar, Indiana – “rolly-pollies”) and pretending they were tiny armadillos. In the classroom I remember another boy telling me I was “possessed with armadillos,” and instead of pointing out he probably meant “obsessed” I simply thanked him. During recess once, in my sad attempt to scale the monkey bars, a girl cheered me on by saying, “C’mon, Ryan! An armadillo could do it!”
I wrote Watterson-inspired comic strips like “Arnold Dillo & Rick Coon;” I gave science reports through the supposed eyes and voice of cartoon armadillos; and I managed to recruit all the boys in my fourth grade class to draw page after page of a never-finished but highly ambitious illustrated novel about my creation “Detective ‘Dillo,” in what amounted to a small-town schoolyard equivalent of a Korean animation sweatshop.
2014 came and went like – well – the flick of an armadillo tongue? I’ll work on that.
Either way, in the months following my twenty-seventh birthday dinner, The Oath – my well-meaning friends’ blood pact promising me an audience with a nine-banded armadillo – became the stuff of legend. What would happen, others speculated, if the signers couldn’t pony up, didn’t deliver? Would I own their immortal souls? (The consensus was that yes, I would.)
In June of that year I unexpectedly happened upon a zookeeper in Cincinnati with a familiar brownish bundle of leathery bands, clasped to her chest. My heart raced, my synapses set off like fireworks, my hands trembled: could it be?
But I did get to pet a screaming hairy armadillo and make the zoo employee very uncomfortable. I came down from that encounter like a tween girl after meeting One of the Directions. It still wasn’t a nine-banded armadillo, and I made sure to remind my Oather friends of that – the bargain had not been nullified, the dream had not come true. But if I was this star-struck by the nine-banded’s shrill and shaggy lesser cousin, then it was clear to me now that the zeitgeist of armadillo mania had reignited within me, back to levels approaching those of my young childhood. In the wake of the promise my friends had made to me, I shed some (not nearly enough) of my hardened grown-up cynicism. Wonder returned to me.
And, if not hope, then faith – faith in my friends.
I took up a bit of online research, attempting to locate an armadillo ranch or a zoo that kept a nine-banded somewhere in the Midwest: no luck. As it happens it was a bit of a tall order. I remembered quickly why in all of twenty years I had yet to be in a room with one of the taper-headed critters. But the part of me that dared to dream like a kid again let go quickly, stepped back, and patiently waited for the friends I had such faith in to Make It Happen.
Just before starting high school, my eighth grade art teacher asked me to teach a cartooning class for a bunch of first-to-third graders at the Trafalgar, Indiana library. That led to a corny local interest story on me and my cadre of comic characters in our small-town newspaper The Scout. You know the kind: small, tabloid-size fold-ups tucked into the bigger, county papers once a week.
Anyway, that little rag – and I use the term affectionately – provided me my first ever published work. After hitting it off with The Scout’s then-editor (and all-around good guy) Paul, who wrote the piece on my doodling class, I somehow trumped up a level of gumption and bravery most uncommon for fourteen-year-old Ryan and e-mailed him to ask if he’d be interested in printing a recurring comic strip if I wrote and drew one.
I didn’t have anything in mind. In fact, I kind of expected an instant “NO!” and didn’t begin mapping out any sort of character bible or long-term plan for a strip until Paul wrote back with a resounding “YES!”
I suspect it was considered cute to have a kid writing the comic in a small-town periodical, and at any rate I’m sure nobody on the Scout staff expected me to have the attention span to write more than three or four strips before burning out.
Well, that is not what happened.
With this unexpected and heretofore unparalleled opportunity at my fingertips, I feverishly began to write comic after comic, hoping that I’d strike upon a character or set of characters that resonated with me, that felt sustainable or had some lasting quality to my teenaged brain. After several failed attempts and with the clock ticking, I sat at my well-worn drawing desk one summer night when epiphany struck, in much the same way as it would have over and over again in my (even) younger childhood.
I thought: “Duh, armadillo.”
And thus 9-Banded was born.
By 2001 I had already written what would likely amount to a Proustian accumulative text on armadillos in stories, comics, and class reports. I dug out my old “Arnold and Randy” scribbles and attempted to repurpose those into a new strip. After changing pretty much everything except the fact that the star was an armadillo, I wound up with Avery – a cantankerous and impish nine-banded – and his best friend, the gangly human dweeb Watterson (named after one lifelong hero). For almost six years I wrote and drew one strip a week and found, to my utter amazement, that as long as I kept sending them to Paul, The Scout would keep printing them.
Eventually I was even granted permission to run the strip in color.
Charles Schulz didn’t even get to run his comic strip in color!
Paul and The Scout graciously provided me an outlet for both my storytelling and armadillo penchants. My entire awkward, bumbling adolescence is contained in this work, and the population of Johnson Country had, at least, the ability to see it all unfold on pulp paper, should they happen to care at all.
I spent untold hours with Avery and Watterson – and their ever-expanding cast of supporting players like Conley the echidna, Jewel the pig-tailed bully, and Alberto the long-suffering almiqui. I would rush home from school each day for years to work on the strip or one of several graphic novel-length tomes which still exist only in pencil-and-paper form, but which I still revisit frequently. Until my final months of high school, I was with these characters far more than with any actual human being. In some ways the comic helped me survive the high school experience: I was far from popular, but even would-be bullies generally left me alone because they knew of my little cartoon, and if they were really nice to me, maybe someday I would draw them into it and thus immortalize them.
I ended the strip one year into my college career, in 2006, to start writing novels and such – none of which, probably, have the readership that was built-in to the comic.
There’s still one more grandiose 9-Banded story in me. I just know it. One day I will unleash Avery and Watterson upon the world again, one way or another. Until then, I confess that I do scrawl Avery, all oversized ears and folded surly brow, onto the margins of notebooks when I should be taking meeting minutes at the office.
In 9-Banded, I found the perfect nexus of my two most defining obsessions.
And of course, throughout its run, I still never came within shouting distance of the comic’s namesake.
2014 ended; I turned twenty-eight.
There were murmurs, naturally, of how intensely Matt, Brandon, and Jessica were investigating possible means to achieving their end of the pact they’d bled to pledge. Having made numerous attempts over the years to locate and pal around with a nine-banded armadillo myself, I was well aware of the challenge they’d shouldered. Just knowing that they were trying touched me.
Even if, I thought at one dark point, it didn’t happen – it was still so kind of them to try!
Then, around my twenty-eighth birthday, I got the call.
Brandon instructed me to take an upcoming Friday off of work. We all agreed upon a date, and I was informed we’d be heading to North Carolina, where a nine-banded armadillo awaited.
It didn’t feel real.
It felt less real when I observed the last-minute panic in my friends, just days before our would-be departure. I sensed something had gone awry in the plan, but I was kept in the dark for the sake of surprise and adventure.
Then, just before The Day, I got a refurbished and most welcome thumbs-up, and on the morning of Saturday, April 11, we four – plus Brandon’s wife/my friend Megan – were on the road.
As it happened we wound up nowhere near North Carolina. We crossed the Missouri state line, drove past St. Louis, and turned onto a winding wooded path adorned with brown state park markers. Most of these bore the yellow etched proclamation that we were approaching WORLD BIRD SANCTUARY.
And indeed we did!
With the car quickly closing the gap between me and my long-awaited union, Brandon told me, “When you hear the armadillo’s name you may tear up.” And after we parked, and some of the others took a head start to see to some preordained arrangement, Brandon waited on a balcony with me, overlooking a sprawling wood, and he asked if I wanted to know the name now.
I said I did.
“Rustle,” he said. “Like the verb.”
I nodded and gripped the balcony railing, my chin touching my chest. A small part of me wanted to stay here and wait, wait forever. I’d been waiting twenty-two damn years. The concept of the actuality just moments ahead was idealized, romanticized, and built up as an impossible daydream of overwhelming nostalgia to my mind. In that moment I genuinely wondered if I could, or should, face it. My friends being the terrific people they are, I’m certain even now all four of them would have laughed and lauded how metal I was for just turning around and heading back home, eyes having never laid upon the ‘dillo.
But that thought really only lasted a fleeting moment before it was trumped with absurd impatience.
Where are Megan and Jessica?
Where’s this armadillo?
Why is where the armadillo is RIGHT NOW not in front of me?
C’mon c’mon c’mon!
And so on.
Finally, the ladies rounded the corner and told me they were ready for me inside the sanctuary. Matt and Brandon behind me, I took slow meaningful steps around the corner, through the open door, and into the building.
And there he was.
Rustle. An actual, living, breathing, real nine-banded armadillo.
My dream realized.
My Medieval Times.
Rustle hung snug and happily over the arm of a Bird Sanctuary staffer named Cathy, who broke the ice by asking, “Are you Ryan?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh.” And, seven years old again, I drifted dreamily toward her and Rustle, began patting and petting the animal without an invitation. I squatted so as to be eye-level with him.
“This is Rustle,” Cathy said. Her name tag was not far from Rustle’s plated face. An introduction was unnecessary, for all three of us.
I said, “I know.” Let my hand rest on his shell. “With a T-L-E, like the verb.” The shell was bone-hard but leathery, bumpy like a basketball, sort of. It had some give around the legs, where it flexed with his movement. He sniffed the air with nearly every breath, letting out small puffs through his nostrils on the exhales.
Cathy and several other workers knew my story, or at least the broad strokes, and seemed excited about our visit. The staffer with the nine-banded armadillo tucked into her arms spoke in a friendly manner her introductions and welcome, but in honesty I didn’t hear any of that.
I stared at this creature that had only been a figment of my imagination for my entire life. Cathy’s voice sounded in my head as though I were listening to her underwater. She rattled off armadillo trivia: they only have back teeth; they run up to 30 mph; they’re nocturnal and they’re omnivorous. I thought, I know, I know, I know, and tried in vain to look cool and calm.
“Would you like to come outside with us?” Cathy asked.
I nodded lamely. My friends and I followed her through the door onto the outdoor plaza, where Cathy placed Rustle into a large wooden planter with a little conifer in the middle.
The armadillo switched in an instant from Cathy’s snuggling pet to wild digger, throwing chunks of soil into the air with his claws and jabbing his nose deep into the dirt. My friends gathered around me in a circle as I sat on a stump next to the planter and hung over it from the chest up. I watched the armadillo skitter round and round the planter, snuffling and wagging his tail.
They wag their tails, I thought.
I was like Sam Neil in Jurassic Park: “They do move in herds.”
An armadillo experiences the world primarily through smell. In fact, one World Bird staffer told me, one game they like to play there with Rustle is to spray strong smells like perfume and vinegar onto cardboard boxes and put them in his habitat then watch him go nuts. In the planter, whenever he got within sniffing distance of his primary keeper Cathy, Rustle would hop into her and nuzzle her. A paragon of patience and understanding, Cathy would gently turn the armadillo around to face me and nudge him any time this happened, uttering, “Go on. Go see Ryan.”
I tried something. Holding both palms up in the dirt, I waited for Rustle to come by and sniff me. After a while, he came to know my scent and would lay his chin in my hands and let me pet him. His head was hard as a board, and when he pushed up on my hand with his snout there was no resistance. How could something so tough and armored be so cuddly, so endearing? I wanted to scoop the critter up into my arms and cradle him like a babe, but I was in public and so held back with every bit of willpower I could muster.
And finally, after the benevolent waiting period Cathy allotted us, Rustle jumped onto my arms and gripped me with long claws from the wrist to the elbow, sniffling and snorting. I considered the scrapes and cuts all down my forearm to be trophies. We joked later that I ought to get them tattooed permanently onto me and now I kind of regret not doing so.
At the time, I was certain of my well-kept composure, but photographs later revealed every vein in my forehead to be on the verge of combustion.
My audience with Rustle came to an end so Cathy could facilitate a bird show on the grounds, and we hung around for that before I went back inside for one last look at a now-slumbering Rustle.
My friends asked if I would like to pet him one last time before we departed. The sanctuary was closing up, and Rustle just looked so peaceful, sleeping there, that I waved my hands and half-heartedly declined. Reading the situation like only the best of friends could, Matt wandered off anyway and asked the nearest employee if I could say a proper goodbye.
They heartily opened the habitat and allowed me to reach in. Rustle awakened, once again living up to his namesake, and I was proffered a bowl of cat food, yams, and a hard-boiled egg to feed him.
I served Rustle his meal in the now-closed sanctuary. My friends on one side of the glass, and me and the nine-banded on the other, I ran my hand along his banded back and counted the partitions that allowed his shell to contort like a bendy straw.
Matt, Jess, Brandon and Megan began to sing “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and I pretended like it wasn’t the most profound moment of my adult life.
Sensing that our visit was near its end, I committed to hanging over the ledge of the habitat for as long as it would take before staff began tugging on my arm. Once again turning my palms up, I let Rustle come to me, sniffing and snorting, and in a fitting goodbye he leapt out of the terrarium and into my arms. After an instant of startled panic I placed him back into his home and intoned a telepathic farewell.
On the way out, we all remarked that clearly Rustle wanted to leave with me. That is, of course, utterly absurd and no adult man would convince himself otherwise. Of course.
And that was my meeting with Rustle, the nine-banded armadillo of my childhood dreams.
I didn’t and don’t know how to thank my friends for what they gave me that day. Such a grand gesture may never be possible to repay in a way I find satisfactory. They didn’t just drive me to an armadillo. They didn’t just place countless calls across the nation trying to find the perfect time and place and animal over the course of a year, and they didn’t just patronize some goofy diversion for a few minutes of chuckles.
Brandon, Megan, Jessica and Matt sent a proverbial message in a bottle back in time to me, in 1994. They justified a lifetime of eye-roll-inducing fascination with something written off by most as dull or ugly or commonplace. At the age of twenty-eight I was encouraged and lauded for believing something like a nine-banded armadillo encounter could be life-changing, and so it was. More than that, each of them understood what they were doing, what it meant.
And now, in 2015, the nine-banded armadillo embodies those ethereal sentiments. It no longer serves as just a symbol of childhood whimsy. Meeting the animal marked a shift in its significance to me. Those moments wherein Rustle’s cool, fuzzy underbelly lay on my palm and his claws tore me open lovingly were all I’d cracked them up to be and, amazingly, even more.
Thank you, friends.
And thank you, everyone who indulged this stupid infatuation for the past two decades.
In ’94 my aunt Linda wrote of me, “Ryan [looks] for beauty and love with his heart, not his eyes, and is fortunate enough to have found both in one of God’s more grotesque creations – the armadillo.”
How embarrassing! For God’s sake, she made a saint of me!
And who needs eyesight anyway?
Not an armadillo.