The Noble Armadillo

A new friend asked me the other day if there’s anything I collect. Not many of my collections have been very successful. Back when I was able to travel overseas, I was working on a Beers of the World t-shirt collection. Now I can’t fit into any of them or acquire more. (Yes, you can get anything on the Internet, but I had to be where they actually sold the beer for it to count.)

Another failed collection started when a boyfriend decided that I would start collecting heart-shaped boxes, made from various materials. I know it was just so he would automatically have a go-to present whenever a gift-giving occasion came up. That collection lasted about as long as the boyfriend.

What I collect now are armadillos. I started this back in the 70s and now have armadillos made from a variety of materials: wood, stone, aventurine, concrete. Plush armadillo toys. Crocheted armadillos. Armadillo pins and earrings.

The prize of my collection is an armadillo purse. Her name is Erma. She makes me easy to identify (“My wife is joining me here. She’ll be the one with the armadillo purse.”) and is a great conversation starter (“Is that real?” “Where did you get that?” “Where I come from we call that “possum on the half-shell.'”).

(Brief digression: My mother found her in a catalog. I don’t know which one.)

At this point, you may be asking, “Why armadillos? They aren’t native to Ohio. People don’t keep them as pets. As a cat owner, why don’t you collect cat items?” (I do.)

Armadillos are fascinating creatures. You may not know this, but armadillos are one of the few animals besides humans that can catch leprosy because their body temperature is so low, so they are used in leprosy research. I can thank an armadillo that my childhood leprosy now hardly bothers me at all.

(Bazinga! I made that part up – the part about having had leprosy. The research part is true.)

But I digress. Again.

There are two main reasons that the armadillo is my SA (significant animal). The first is musical.

Back in the 70s, there was a subgenre of country music variously called progressive country, outlaw country, or redneck rock. Artists such as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, David Allen Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Waylon Jennings, and others broke from the Nashville music scene and started making records that featured their own bands instead of studio musicians, rock and folk influences, gritty or provocative lyrics, and so on. I was a big fan of this music and still am. (Now it goes by some other name – Americana, maybe, though I think of it as retro-alt-country.)

So where do the armadillos come in? The place that attracted and supported and freed these musicians was Texas, where armadillos abound. One of the main clubs was the Armadillo World Headquarters. That theme song for Austin City Limits is popularly known as “I Wanna Go Home With the Armadillo,” though its real name is “London Homesick Blues.” Austin and the musicians adopted the armadillo as their symbol.

And so did I.

The other reason I identify so strongly with the armadillo is that it has such unique defense mechanisms. The first is to roll up in its protective armored shell, like a pillbug. The other is to jump straight up in the air about two and a half feet.

The pillbug thing works pretty well and they probably ought to stick to that. But the jumping strategy has one major flaw.

The main menace the armadillo faces is the automobile. Their leap puts them right at car bumper height. Splat. Roadkill.

And I identify with that.

Over the years I have tried or developed various coping and defense mechanism that resembled the armadillos’, and worked about as well. Using the pillbug technique, I would retreat into a shell and let the world pass me by. Which it did, but I never got to see much of it.

When I decided to abandon that strategy, to engage with the world, I encountered lots of scary things. And how I dealt with them always seemed to end with a big, messy splat.

And that’s why I keep Erma and the armadillo collection around – to remind me of the music that still sustains me, and to remind me that what I think are ways to dodge anxiety and fear and danger just might turn out to be counterproductive.

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