It’s a Tuesday in late April.
Tuesday is Weeding Day.
Monday was also Weeding Day.
So was Sunday.
Saturday and Friday, too. In a flower garden, during a pandemic, when both parents are going to school online and daycares are closed, every day becomes Weeding Day. There’s not much else to do.
My flower beds are in fabulous shape. My mental state? Not so hot.
My wife Katie is inside, taking a timed test, which means my troop of truant children—Alena and Thomas, almost 5, and Tara, almost 3—are my considerably-less-than-willing helpers.
“Is this a weed?” Thomas asks (for the 23rd time).
I glance over. I don’t know how—he must have had a job pushing all the sprawling weed stalks out of the way—but my little man has managed to wrap his chubby hands around the base of a bushy, two-foot-tall pink spirea.
“No buddy,” I sigh. It’s like he siphons away a bit more of my sanity every time he asks. “Stick to the little green ones between the big flowers. OK?”
“Why do we have to do this poopy job?” he asks.
I’m fluent in four-year-old—anything negative is automatically deemed “poopy.” It’s a red flag. He’s getting bored. And looking up, I realize Alena is craftily sidling away toward the house.
Tara, of course, is too small to be any real help. She gave up five minutes in, and is now squatting atop one of my decorative stone walls, observing the scene from above and munching a bowl of trail mix like some sort of puckish, cherubic gargoyle.
Desperate to keep my troops from dispersing—once they lose interest and scatter, I’ll be forced back into full-blown Father Mode—I rock back on my heels and ask, “Shall I tell you a story?”
Requests ring out from every side.
“Tell us stories from the Army!” (Alena)
“Can you tell us about when you were a little boy in Montana?” (Thomas)
“HALO!!!” (Tara—she’s quite the fan of my old military sky-diving escapades.)
“Nope,” I say. “Look over there.”
Everyone looks. Fifteen feet down from Tara is a chipmunk. He’s perched on the stone wall in the same crouched position she is, and is watching us in a very similar manner.
It’s the first such rodent on our property since last Summer, when after weeks of mini-excavations and nipped-off buds, I finally overruled Katie’s objections (“But they’re such cutie-pies!!!”) and began live trapping and transporting the little buggers away.
Is it my imagination firing up, preparing for a story? Or do I actually detect a glint of malice in those beady little rodent eyes? “Not today,” I say. “Today’s story is about”—
“Chipmunks? Ah, come on Papa!” (Alena)
“I don’t want to listen. Chipmunks are poopy.” (Thomas)
“These ones aren’t,” I counter. “The chipmunks in this story grow up in a beautiful forest, spending their time outside, learning all kinds of tricks for surviving in the woods—tracking and canoeing and tree climbing, and hundreds of other woodsman skills.”
Thomas looks interested, but Alena’s nonplussed. “All chipmunks can climb trees, Papa.”
“Not as good as these ones,” I assure her. “These chipmunks are trained in Military Tree Ascension by little Drill Sergeant chipmunks—they wear flat-brimmed hats, just like human Drill Sergeants do, only smaller. And they have to cut holes in them, of course—so their ears can stick through.”
Alena’s eyes narrow, but I can tell I’ve got her on the hook. “And…HALO, Papa?” Tara asks.
Has she picked up on my gambit?! Not for the first time I’m forced to consider whether my youngest child is not the sharpest of the three.
“You know it!” I say, “Tree HALO. It’s like base jumping. The chipmunks use it to steal seeds from bird feeders as part of their struggle against the Great Growly Galumpher.”
“The WHAT?” (Thomas and Alena)
“The Great Growly Galumpher,” I say, as I inconspicuously return to weeding. “Galumph, for short. The old grumpy monster who lives in the chipmunk’s forest. He’s really big and really hairy and really, really grumpy. He spends all his time growing beautiful flowers and kidnapping chipmunks.”
“He KIDNAPS them?” Before the pandemic closed school, a policeman visited—Alena and Thomas came home that day highly impressed by the idea of “Stranger Danger.”
“Well, chip-naps, actually.”
“Why?” Thomas asks.
“Oh, because he’s got too much time on his hands, and nothing else to do. He’s gone a little crazy, you see.”
Silence. I glance up from a small but stubbornly deep-rooted dandelion—and see three sets of round eyes and furrowed brows. “Anyway,” I add hurriedly, “this one time, the Galumph thought he’d finally won. He thought he’d chip-napped every single chipmunk living anywhere near his flowers.”
“What does he do to them?” Thomas says nervously.
“Nothing, buddy.” Way to go, Dad, I think. You’ve frightened the poor kid. Time to reel it back in. “He just takes them a long ways from his flowers and turns them loose.”
“Oh!” My son’s face brightens noticeably. “Just like we do when we trap them?”
“Exactly. Anyway…the Galumph dropped off this one last chipmunk, and he thought it was all over. ‘Finally!’ he growled to himself on the drive home, ‘Now nothing can stop me from feed-ing birds and growing flowers and being grumpy!‘”
Alena and Tara giggle—Thomas manages a smile. Danger has passed.
“But what the Galumph doesn’t know is that while he’s driving away, that last dropped-off chipmunk scurries inside this old hollow log. And as he’s sitting there peering out, all of a sudden, from the darkness behind him, he hears—
My kids may be slowly driving me insane, but they are a good audience—all three of them gasp.
“And out of the dark come one by one…the other chipmunks! Every single chipmunk the Galumph has trapped has been living there together in the hollow log, waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” Alena asks.
“For the last chipmunk to arrive.”
Skepticism is creeping back into her voice. I think quickly. “Because she’s Captain Chipmunk, formerly ranking officer of the elite Weasel Interdiction Force. Sometimes called the WIF.”
“The WIF? Whoah…” Mollified, her imagination spinning into overdrive, Alena desists.
“What other chipmunks are there?” Thomas wants to know. “Well, let’s see. Tommy Chipmunk, of course—the expert woodsman. They say he can track an acorn rolled across a flat rock in a rainstorm. And The Flying Squirrel”—
“The Flying Squirrel???” (Thomas)
“Yep. HALO expert. Known for successfully raiding the Galumph’s favorite bird feeder 53 consecutive days without being caught. They call him The Squirrel because he eats so much, he’s twice as big as all the other chipmunks.”
Little Tara’s eyes gleam.
“And,” I add, after a moment’s thought, “there’s Katie Chipmunk. In charge of logistics, morale, discipline, and day-to-day operations.”
“That’s Momma’s name!” (Alena)
“You know, I never realized that before, but you’re right! Anyway, Katie gets all the chipmunks organized—hands out snacks and water bottles—and they set out, the Captain in the lead.
“They walk for days. Once they get stopped by a big creek, but Tommy finds a log to use as a bridge. And one day a pair of sneaky cats stalks them, but The Flying Squirrel spots them in time and the Captain leads everybody away.
“Finally, after days and days of walking, they arrive. They’re back at”—
“A tree fort!” (Alena)
“—the Great…Growly…Galumph’s…flower gardens!”
“What? Why do they come back?” (Thomas)
“To get even with the Galumph for chip-napping them.”
“While they’re resting in the woods nearby, the Captain sends the Flying Squirrel to spy out what the Galumph is doing. The Flying Squirrel finds him—as always he’s in his flowers, weeding and being grumpy.
“The Galumph looks up. He sees The Flying Squirrel perched on a rock wall, watching him,” I point again at the chipmunk on the rock wall. “He realizes they’re back. He gnashes his horrible teeth, pulls out his horrible hair, and starts shouting himself red in the face”—my voice rises—“yelling what a horrible year it’s been, and how he can’t wait for it to be over and for things to just go back to normal”—my voice is getting louder—“and how helpless he feels, not even being able to control some dang chipmunks, let alone make sure his family stays safe, and how tired and stressed and worried about everything he is, and—”
Three shocked faces are frozen in place, staring. Both their father and their chipmunk story have gone completely off the rails.
“You know what?” I say. “I think we should take a break from weeding. Why don’t you kids go around to the back yard? I’ll go inside, grab a snack, and be right out, okay?”
Alena and Thomas are gone in a blur of size-six sneakers. Tara straightens up, jumps down from the wall, and comes over to me. I scoop her up.
She smiles. “It’ll be OK, Papa.”
My eyebrows go up. “You sure?”
She nods. Then she puts both hands on my cheeks and gives me a little kiss.
“OK then,” I say, smiling—smiling broadly in spite of everything. “Now, how ‘bout that snack, my little Flying Squirrel?”
Tara’s eyes gleam. ❖