Gelbie and the Chipmunk

A chipmunk

In 1959, I was a Forester (that is, a second year counselor in training) for a group of Intermediate boys, the same age I was in my first year at camp seven years earlier. One of the campers in the group, Stephen Gelb, called "Gelbie", suffered from time to time from bouts of homesickness.

Gelbie had checked out a "Have-a-Heart" animal trap from the nature lab, baited it, and set it out behind the bunk, in the hopes of catching a chipmunk. He checked it every day, but had no luck. It occurred to the counselors that if Gelbie were to catch a chipmunk, he would become the center of attention, and his homesickness would be forgotten, at least for a while.

The counselors, however, were urban teachers, all from New York City. They had no idea how to go about obtaining a chipmunk. What they did have as a resource was me, their Forester, in my eighth year at the camp, and obviously fraught with woodsy lore. Although actually, I myself was born in Brooklyn, New York (a borough of New York City), and at the time hailed from Great Neck, Long Island (a suburb of New York City). "Larry", they said to me, "get us a chipmunk."

Upholding the obvious trust they had in my ability, I didn't blink an eye, and replied confidently, "No problem." Having delegated this task, they were not interested the details. I went to the Nature Lab, and checked out an identical trap, baited it with peanut butter, and set it out next to the woodpile near the riflery range. I figured that the reason Gelbie had not caught a chipmunk so far was because the human activity near the bunk kept the chipmunks at bay, whereas the woodpile was absolutely teeming with the creatures. I had my chipmunk the next morning.

I reported this nonchalantly to the counselors, as if the outcome was never in doubt. Ask a Robinson Crusoe Forester for a chipmunk, and one will be promptly delivered. The forester is, of course, completely in tune with all the woodland creatures.

We removed Gelbie's trap, and replaced it with my identical one. When he checked it later in the day, excitement reigned in the group. Gelbie was the hero of the day. His chipmunk was installed in an exhibit in the nature lab (as if we really needed to see another exotic chipmunk), and all of the group, and all their friends and acquaintances trooped down to see it.

The excitement lasted several days, until, unaccountably, the chipmunk died.

The counselors suddenly became aware of the downside of their little adventure. Would Gelbie now lapse into an even worse episode of homesickness, or worse, a depression? Would this seemingly simple idea lead to disaster?

At the next morning meeting, as the group sat in a circle prepared to discuss and vote on the morning activity, one of the campers shouted across the circle, "Hey Gelbie, how's your chipmunk?"

The counselors all winced visibly, frozen, waiting for the response. Sobs, perhaps?

Gelbie shouted back across the circle, in a loud, clear, almost enthusiastic voice: "He's Dead!"

The counselors were so relieved that some of them nearly laughed, then quickly pulled themselves together, and put on solemn looks suitable for the sad occasion.

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