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Woody-Chuck

OUR BELOVED CAMP STORYTELLER, CHUCK STEAD, TELLS A SUSPENSEFUL TALE OF A GROUNDHOG AND THE PLOT TO OUST THE UNSUSPECTING RODENT…

A few groundhogs had burrowed into the vegetative bank-side of the Fountain Park Pond in our village when I was a boy. The fuss they caused occupied the community for some time. It was one of Cindy Maloney’s little brothers who first spotted the roundish brown and black pawed woodchuck standing near to the remnants of the old pond ice house. It took us a while, but soon we discovered its den deep in the bank-side briers. It was complete with a dirt mound for a front porch, from which Woody-Chuck could observe most of the pond park.

We all got to calling him ‘Woody-Chuck’ when we learned it was a ‘he’, and for the most part no one seemed to mind him. The Keppler brothers tried to shoot him with a pellet gun, but they were notoriously bad shots. Then one of the Danhauser boys set an iron leg hold trap for it but caught Buchanan’s collie instead. The dog had to have surgery to repair its dislocated toe joints. Uncle Mal raged a campaign against the use of leg hold traps in the village of Hilburn, and it was soon announced by the mayor that a fine of $70 would be levied upon any trapping within the village. So, the Woody-Chuck seemed to be secure in his pond-side den.

But soon he had a mate and there were new worries that there would be even more groundhogs running about, digging up folks’ gardens and burrowing under house porches. So, a team of locals got the fire department to hook-up a hose to the Third Street hydrant in order to flood the groundhogs out. We kids were afraid they would be drowned, but we were assured that the groundhogs had other hidden exits and that as the burrow filled up, they would escape from those. So, on a Saturday morning in July, Ricky Cramshaw, Cindy Maloney and I were standing at the top of the Third Street bend in the road, looking down the park bank through the brush at the men laying out the fire hose. They were thrashing into the brush to ‘flush out’ Woody-Chuck. Although we had searched, we had yet to find his backdoor exit. Now we eagerly waited to see from where he would emerge with his mate and kin.

One of the men shoved the fire house down into the den opening and then they called back up the line to where my dad Walt was waiting with a big wrench on the fire hydrant, ready to open it up. From where we stood, we could see him turning the wrench. Then we could see the hose fatten up with water all along the way down into the pond park. It wound its way along to where some of the men stood, and then up and into Woody-Chuck’s den. We could almost hear the water flushing through the tunnels of the den, but still there was no sign of any groundhogs charging out of the ground. The men walked around the brush, kicking at the thick stubs, but they saw nothing. Walt walked down to where we stood and asked, “No sign of him?”

Ricky said, “Nope. Maybe he already moved his family out of there?”

Walt said, “Not likely. No, I think he’s still in there somewhere.”

I was about to ask if it was possible that they all got drowned, when Cindy shouted, “Look!”

And there to the right, in the thick of an old tree stump, out popped Woody-Chuck, his partner and three more small ones! They scurried up the bank and waddled out onto third street. All of them were wet and looked really annoyed. They then made their way across the street and into some barberry thickets. Walt walked back up to the fire hydrant and shut it off. The men pulled out the hose and then sealed off the den entrance with some rocks and even found the exit through the old stump and smashed that down into the tunnel. It was over.

A week later though, Woody-Chuck and family were comfortably back in their den. No one bothered with them after that.

Snowflakery

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recounts a humorous wintertime interaction…

Most winters gave us something of a white Christmas and almost certainly a white New Year’s, but there was one year in my boyhood we had neither. It was cold enough to have snow. The frozen mud of tire tracks along the edge of the roads curled up like crispy corduroy trousers. The pond was rock solid ice and most of the river was skate worthy. There just hadn’t been anything falling from the sky. It was a hard, cold winter. Dougy Cramshaw was disgusted. Every morning he leapt from his twisted blankets and comforter, ran to the window and gazed out onto the valley below, where the only white he saw was the long hard white concrete of the New York State Thruway, its cars and trucks speeding by without concern for slippery conditions. Dougy was utterly disastisfied!

Then it occurred to him that the inside of his mother’s freezer section of the refrigerator was encrusted with snow-like frost. So, he carefully scraped away at it with a large spoon and packed a tin cup full of the stuff. He then bundled up and ran outside. Hands freezing, he formed a snowball – the first of the season. Now he went looking for a target. Although he had put his cloth mittens back on, holding this chunk of frozen frost moistened his hands and in turn slickened the ball of intended winter fun. As he crossed over the top of Mountain Avenue, he spotted Ian Keppler, a notorious bully in the village. Ordinarily, Doug would have run in fear, but he was empowered beyond reason with his secret premature snowball.

Doug shouted at Ian, “Hey you, don’t you chase me, I got a snowball!”

Ian took the bait and charged toward Dougy shouting, “You ain’t got no snowball!”

Little Dougy then illustrated that tossing a hard as rock frost ball makes for a very accurate throw. The ball clobbered Ian in the chest and he landed on his backside. The frost ball bounced off of him and then struck a tree and took off some bark! Dougy turned and ran down Second Street with Ian Keppler hot on his heels. Keppler caught him and tossed him down and was about to pound him, when he realized they had landed in front of Cousin Buzzy’s house. Buzz was on the front porch messing with an old generator that uncle Mal had given him. He looked up and saw Kepler hunkered down on top of a trapped Dougy. Buzz called out, “What’s this about?”

Keppler shouted back, “He hit me with a snowball!”

Buzz glanced up at the sky and said to Keppler, “Now how did he do that? There ain’t no snow.”

Keppler stammered and as Buzz got up and stepped over the heap of generator parts Kepler said, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it!”

Buzz walked down to them and ordered Keppler off of Dougy. The bully obeyed reluctantly as Buzz carried with him an air of uncertain danger. Buzzy said to Doug, “You OK?”

Dougy said that he was just fine and then Buzzy turned on Kepler and said, “Now go away!”

Kepler went back up over the top of Mountain Avenue and Dougy got up and explained to Buzzy that he had indeed attacked Kepler with a Frozen Snow Frost Ball, made from his mother’s freezer. And Buzzy so admired little Doug’s ingenuity that he said there and then, “Well Cramshaw, I think you just invented Snowflakery!”

The Root Drinker

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, shares a peak into a character with a mysterious, muddy method of self-preservation…

About a year after my grandfather passed, it was observed that I had become a sullen and moody soul. Apparently, I was still waiting for him to return. My dad, Walt, started to take me on his ‘rounds’ in the evening when he paid calls upon village elders. I listened to their stories, their gossip, and their lives. It was time, according to my mother, that I learn about other things. But all things, for me, were connected to grandpa, whom we called Heebie Jeebie.

Along with my dad, my uncle Mal took me around to ‘learn about other things’ and this is how I met the root drinker. In the drive up to his house, Mal talked about how the root drinker had been diagnosed by doctors with an incurable cancer and had little time left to live. Mal said, “That was twenty years ago and he’s doing just fine still.” I asked how he was doing fine and uncle Mal said proudly, “He’s a root drinker!”

The house we came up to had bundles of twigs and dried flowers, and heaps of grass tied in long braids all hanging from the open ceiling of the front porch. As we walked under the porch roof, I looked up and saw the sky, realizing that there were only roof rafters for tying plants in the air and no actual roof cover on the porch. Mal called out to the man to let him know we had arrived. I saw the door open and we were greeted by a very healthy-looking man who smiled a very gritty set of teeth at us. He was happy to have us visit and he told us to come in and to sit down.

We walked in and it was very dark and kind of musty smelling. I looked up. There were the roots: thousands of different roots hanging from the ceiling. They were so clustered together that I felt we had gone underground and were now looking up at the very bottom of a forest. These roots were tied in bunches, some of them caked with clumps of earth and others clean and dry. He called us over to his table and showed us his book. It was an old tattered notebook and it had been his grandmother’s root drinking recipe book. He had kept it as a family heirloom and then when he was diagnosed with cancer he poured through the scribbled pages and detailed recipes left to him by a woman from another time. There were even little drawings to help identify the different plants and to show how to scrape the root skins and how to chop and shred the different roots

He was very proud of his grandmother who he told us lived to be over a hundred years in age. She had told him of when she heard about Lincoln being killed. She told him about learning of the death of Chief Sitting Bull. And she told him about hearing Mark Twain tell stories of his adventures in the Sandwich Islands. But it was her root drinking recipe book that told him the most valuable thing: how to live.

He poured us both a cup of lukewarm tea that had stuff floating in it. It tasted like mud. But Mal insisted I drink it. I did. The taste of dirt lasted in my mouth for days after. And the image of roots hanging from the ceiling has lasted with me ever since.

Winter Tales with Chuck Stead

What is the Secret of Snow Plow Hill?

Join The Nature Place this Saturday, January 17th, from Noon – 1 pm, as we listen to Chuck Stead’s winter tales.

We’ll meet downstairs in the lower school music room of Green Meadow Waldorf School, 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge, NY, 10977.