Fur whom the bell tolls

September 28, 1994

I remember seeing him for the first time. It was October of last year, the sun was shining, and I was going outside to do some gardening. He was standing in the middle of the dirt driveway, looking about as anxiously as though he had arrived at a bus stop five minutes too late.

A gentle breeze parted his shiny brown hair down the middle. I admired the stylish stripes on his little coat and, taking a step forward to get a closer look, was dismayed as he mysteriously disappeared. The mystery was quickly solved when I spotted a hole in one of the tire ruts.

My wife, after I told her about our new friend, said that chipmunks only mean trouble around a house, burrowing where they shouldn’t burrow. I agreed and, despite my attraction toward the cute little ball of fur, set out to evict our unwanted tenant.

The logical step to take, I figured, was to destroy his home. Feeling unwanted, he would pack up his acorns and go. With my flat shovel, I transferred several scoops of sand from the side of the road into the rodent’s foyer. I packed it in nice and tight and considered it a job well done.

I did, however, feel a bit guilty. Would I appreciate it if someone backed a truck up to my kitchen door and buried it with 20 yards of loam? Not likely. But the hard reality was that I was a human being and he was a rodent, and the rodent had to go.

The next morning, I was irked to see the unplugged chipmunk hole surrounded by a berm of roadside sand. The puny fur bag was on my front step when I came out, and quickly disappeared behind it when he saw me. Great. Now he had another burrow.

I crammed pebbles and sand and soil down his hole, and stomped it down flat. Like one of those continuous-reel promotional videos they play at shoe stores in the mall, this fill-the-hole/free-the-hole activity was repeated day after day, as the little bastard kept digging himself in and out of his underground apartment. Occasionally, I would throw in the odd brick or handful of pine needles just to throw him off, but to no avail. I, however, was thrown off by the fact that I had met my intellectual match in a tiny, four-legged striped rug.

Winter came, and the snows with it. El Munkos del Cheepos, as we called him in our native Portuguese, had gone underground. I read up on chipmunks at the library, and learned that they would have a burrow with both a front door and a back door. That would explain the little hole out by the deck in the backyard, although if two holes were actually connected, that meant he had more living space than we did. Amazing.

After I learned that chipmunks will interrupt their hibernation only to eat, I felt a bond forming between us and them. If they had cable, we’d practically be related. But I resolved that, no matter how they tried to ingratiate themselves to us with their customs and habits, I would get rid of them in the spring. Springtime, as I had read in the encyclopedia, is when the new models would roll off the assembly line, and there are usually three or four furry ones. It was with great anticipation that I awaited the melting of the snow.

One sunny March day my wife and I were reading in the sunroom when we were interrupted by the distinct scratching of a rodent frantically scurrying upwards within the walls. I smacked the wall with my book. The scratching stopped, but resumed momentarily. It was overhead now. Diane and I followed the scratching until we were in the kitchen. I ran upstairs to get a definite fix on the invader’s location, but the noises ceased and we lost him.

On one of the first warm days of spring, after seeing the chipmunk bound across the backyard with two little chipmunks in tow, I launched a two-pronged attack against the enemy. A bag of mortar mix, purchased the previous fall for a project that never materialized, served as ammunition in both phases of the assault.

First, I mixed the mortar with water and with a trowel smeared shut the rodent hole on the front step. Satisfied that I had blocked off the chipmunks’ portal (I was sure they were still out and about), I commenced the second stage of what was turning out to be a very one-sided battle.

Unlooping my Wal-Mart garden hose from the side of the house, I dragged the Tube of Death to the main hole in the driveway. I jammed the hose a couple of feet into the hole, and turned on the water full-force. Soon, any chipmunks unfortunate to be underground would look like extras in The Poseidon Adventure.

Instead of gushing up out of the ground like Old Faithful, the water surprisingly rushed through the subterranean abode. I got to thinking that the burrows were more extensive than the sewers of Paris, and imagined an enormous water bill for the next quarter. I turned the water off and kicked at the ground, which opened up like the California countryside during an earthquake.

I filled the chipmunks’ foyer, now measuring 2 square feet, with the remaining mortar mix, jammed the hose into the mess and stirred it up with an oak branch. A certain Bugs Bunny cartoon came to mind – the one where the burly construction worker, eager to build a highway over Bugs’s hole, goes to absurd lengths to evict the rabbit, only to inadvertently encase his burrow with concrete, thereby rendering it indestructible.

That was a cartoon. This was reality. I had turned the chipmunks’ burrow into a little Herculaneum (if this historical allusion is too obscure, Herculaneum was the village buried in mud at the same time Pompeii was buried in ashes when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79).

I realized that I may have massacred helpless creatures in a torrent of mortar, water, sand, and stone, and for that I felt remorse. But I could not have my home invaded by these dumb, inferior creatures, and for that reason, for a couple of days thereafter, I would pass by the mortared tomb with a feeling of triumph and a sense of accomplishment.

Biblical allusions notwithstanding, on the third day they rose again. Seriously. Three days after my brilliant strategy was executed, a hole appeared on the edge of the mortar plug. Shortly afterward, I saw the chipmunks in the garden, visibly pleased. And why not – they probably had the only cement-lined burrow in North America.

We came to an unwritten agreement that day, one that, to this day, pleases both parties. They do what they want and I let them. Last week, incidentally, I opened the basement door and saw, looking up at me from the bottom of the stairs, a light gray mouse.

Negotiations are scheduled to begin next Monday.

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