Red Squirrel’s Indian Summer (The Final Chapter)

This is the third and final chapter in my autobiographical Indian Guides Saga. If you’re reading this before reading the other two parts, you’re doing it wrong.

Start here.

When you’re done with that, then read this.

There you go! Now you’re ready to read what’s below. Enjoy!

***

Red SquirrelDad and I led the procession of cars through a winding tangle of suburban back roads. To an observer, the scene might have had the slow, solemn look of a funeral procession.

But one’s perception is not always the reality. That was especially true in this case.

After what felt like forever, we pulled into a parking lot and glided into a “visitor” space.

“We’re here.” Dad declared as he waited for his ancient Oldsmobile to sputter to a halt. His car had this habit of gasping and wheezing for a few seconds after the key was yanked from the ignition.

The Olds let out one last apologetic, wispy fart before finally falling silent.

“There we are. Let’s go.”

Newer and far less idiosyncratic cars pulled up alongside us. Eager fathers and sons soon assembled in a tight knot, brimming with happy anticipation. They all wore brown leather vests and yellow headbands – the official uniform of the Indian Guides – and awaited instructions from their tribal chief, Tall Oak.

Tall Oak was Dad’s Indian Guides name.

It was time for Dad to give a speech. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Dad loved to talk. He talked even when he didn’t have anything to say – and he frequently didn’t have anything to say. So I figured he would savor his time in the spotlight and ramble on for a while.

But lately Dad had been making a habit out of defying expectations. What followed was the shorted speech he had ever given in his entire life.

“Who wants cupcakes?”

In response, everyone screamed like a banshee.

“I thought so,” he replied.

Without another word, he turned toward the factory, its smokestacks scarring the azure sky with streaks of grey. That ugliness was offset, however, with the unmistakable, intoxicating scent of warm chocolate cake. The tribe had journeyed to Wayne, NJ, to behold the wonders of the Drakes Cake factory and we were getting a contact sugar high right there in the parking lot.

This field trip was a bit unusual for a typical Indian Guides outing. Our weekly meetings were supposed to embrace nature or Native American culture. A lesson in snack cake manufacturing didn’t easily fit into this rubric. This fact was not lost on the other fathers.

“Hey, chief!” one shouted to be heard above the squealing kids. “Which Indian tribe made Ring Dings again?”

The other fathers laughed, but none more so than Chief Tall Oak. “Oh, this trip is about Indians,” Dad insisted. “You’ll see!”

A cheery, red-cheeked man greeted us at the door. He was as wide as he was tall. Clearly a bottomless box of Devil Dogs was part of his employee benefits package. “C’mon in, young braves!” he chortled. “Lemme show ya around!”

After donning goggles and hairnets, we tromped though the factory. It was a magical, sugary place and we saw it all: machines squishing and kneading, rolling and baking; icing oozing out in long brown sheets smothering the fist-sized cakes under a coating so sticky and sweet it made my teeth hurt just to watch it happen.

Then we were off to the packaging department where machines plopped cupcakes onto cardboard sleeves, zipped them up in clear plastic, and dumped them into boxes. The rhythm of these machines was lightning quick and deeply satisfying. Their perfect, precise movements filled me with a sense of inner peace.

When I grow up I want to work in a factory, I thought.

“And that concludes the tour!” the chubby, chipper Drakes Cakes guy said. “Be sure to come again!”

He made a shooing gesture toward the factory exit that felt a little too eager to be sincere.

“Hmm…” He tapped a beefy contemplative finger against his beefy triple chin. “No, no, that isn’t the right thing to do,” he began. “Where are my manners? I can’t let you leave yet.”

He paused significantly.

“I can’t let you leave without TAKING A FEW SAMPLES!”

In response, we went nuts.

As if by magic, trays of Drakes Cakes appeared before us. Funny Bones! Ring Dings! Coffee Cake Juniors! Yankee Doodles! They were all there! We shoveled them into our gaping maws as if were in a competition.

The Drakes Cake Guy beamed. He lived for moments like these. Once the initial gorging began to slow down a little, he called for our attention once again. “Do you boys like baseball?” he asked.

I did not like baseball. I didn’t any sport really. But I sensed that a response in the affirmative would result in more free stuff. So, with my cheeks packed with about a dozen Yodels, I screamed a muffled “YEAH!” that sounded a lot more like a “BWUUUUH!”

“Oh, that’s good to hear!” he replied with evident relief. “Baseball is as American as Yankee Doodles! And did you know that in specially marked boxes of Drakes snack cakes, we are giving away baseball cards?”

This question was apparently rhetorical for he didn’t bother to wait for a reply.

“And because you young braves were all such wonderful guests, I HAVE SOME BASEBALL CARDS FOR YOU!”

Again, we went nuts. He Frisbee-tossed each of us a cellophane-wrapped package of six cards. Even though I knew almost none of the players I ripped open the package like everyone else. I gazed upon the unrecognizable faces and scanned their incomprehensible stats.

Dad leaned over my shoulder. “Who do you got in there, Red Squirrel?” (My Indian Guides name was Red Squirrel.) Dad pulled a card out of my small stack. “Can I see this one for a minute?”

Chief Tall Oak turned to the tribe. “Can I have everyone’s attention? I need your attention!” Dad held my baseball card above his head for everyone to see. “Bo Diaz! Catcher!” he announced. “For the Cleveland Indians!”

Every adult in the room brayed with laughter.

“I told you this trip was about Indians!”

The rest of Tall Oak’s tenure followed a similar pattern. Dad organized a trip to a place he thought we’d enjoy, and, as a running joke, he’d conjure up a silly, tenuous link to Native American culture.

“The French gave America this statue, you know,” he said as the tribe peered through the portholes in Lady Liberty’s crown. “And the French fought in the French and Indian War. The French and Indians both lost.”

On another outing, Dad offered up this tidbit: “Europeans got this island from the Indians for $23 worth of goods.” He eyed the tribe’s lunch check. “But these days $23 can’t even get us all fed in Chinatown.”

As so it went. We bowled. We rode horses. We ate ice cream. We had fun. The year was, without exception, a complete and unqualified success.

But the end of the Indian Guides season was coming. Tall Oak’s leadership skills had surpassed my wildest expectations, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to get me out of marching in the Memorial Day Parade.

That parade was the bane of our existence. Dad and I had bad feet. We were not built for marching. When we tried to march on behalf of the Indian Guides the previous year, we were forced to ditch the tribe around the halfway point. We couldn’t hope to do that again this year. Tall Oak was the chief and I was the chief’s son. He and I had to lead the tribe for the duration of the march. It was the price one had to pay for being the boss.

And so I stood in the Grand Union parking lot, the parade staging area, waiting for this hellish experience to begin. The morning was unusually chilly with a mist in the air that promised rain. I hadn’t marched a single step, yet my feet already ached inside my orthopedic shoes.

I tried to distract myself by watching the grannies in the quilting bee attempt to wrap their wares in saran wrap. It was a quixotic endeavor if there ever was one — and I would’ve found it amusing if my mind wasn’t preoccupied with another, troubling thought:

Where’s Dad?

He had left the tribe 20 minutes earlier in search of a men’s room. I was used to Dad’s slowness, but this was particularly slow. I saw stirrings of activity in the distance. The police cars that led the parade began to whoop. Members of the Ramapo High School marching band straightened their tall hats, wet their reeds and wriggled into their sousaphones. The parade was beginning and Dad was MIA.

Just as my anxiety began to reach its apex, I heard a very familiar sound:

Wheep!

It was Dad’s unmistakable whistle. I spun on my heel and found him about 50 yards away hobbling toward me. But Dad, for once, was impatient with his own slowness and waved me over.

“What?” I asked.

“Get the guys. I got us a float.”

“A float? You mean like a parade float?”

“Yes. Go get ‘em.”

My foot pain vanished as I scampered toward the tribe to deliver the good news.

In the midst of all this giddy excitement, my mind soon filled with questions. How did Dad get us a ride on a parade float? Did money exchange hands? Was the driver an old chum from high school? Did Tall Oak masquerade as Bo Diaz from the Cleveland Indians?

I still don’t know the answers to these questions – and, to be honest, I kind of like not knowing. Sometimes an Indian chief needs to possess an air of mystery; it is what transforms a great leader into a legendary one.

The grateful braves piled onto the back of the truck and found it fully stocked with bags of candy. It was a dream come true. Not only were we getting a free ride, we were candy throwers! Memorial Day Parade MVPs!

The police cars whooped a second time and we were soon on our way, our feet happily dangling from the flatbed’s tailgate.

“Are we gonna sign up for Indian Guides next year?” I asked Dad.

He shook his head. “You’ll be too old next year.”

The disappointment crashed over me like a wave.

“But don’t worry, boy,” he added. “We’ll find something else. There’s always something else.”

And so we rolled on. After about a mile, I noticed a boy seated on the curb beside his dad. What drew my attention to him was that the boy was wearing a Cub Scout uniform. I surmised that he was a marcher who was unable to make it to the end of the parade route.

Maybe I was projecting, but in that moment I thought I could see his frustration, his exhaustion, his humiliation in watching the rest of the marchers leave him behind.

In solidarity, I chucked an especially large handful of candy in his direction. It was my way of saying Don’t let this get to you, kid. Next year you might be on top of the world.

But deep down I didn’t really believe it. To go from a curb to a parade float in the space of one year required the invaluable leadership of a Tall Oak.

And Tall Oaks are rare leaders indeed.

So I threw the kid another handful of candy, as a kind of consolation prize, and continued to wave to the cheering crowd.

66 thoughts on “Red Squirrel’s Indian Summer (The Final Chapter)

  1. Excellent story. I want to go to a cake factory! I’ve been to a couple of chocolate factories, and a marshmallow factory (and a few non-food item factories, but nobody cares about them), oh and the Ocean Spray cranberry factory, but never a cake factory that I can remember.

  2. Aww. What a great finish and wonderful tribute to your dad. Actually got me teary eyed once I stopped laughing over “When I grow up I want to work in a factory!” Ha ha ha. Lovely story, Red Squirrel.

  3. Awwwwwwwwwwwww. You dad takes the cake and my guess is you take after your dad. 🙂
    Love the story. The suspense almost killed me, but I hung in there and voila. Awesome. Great time for a father and son. 🙂 😀

  4. No “oak quote” at the end? No “sappy” proverb or tree humor in honor of Tall Oak?? With all he did for you, Red Squirrel?!!
    This read like an episode from that show “The Wonder Years,” remember that?! Could easily see this narrated in film. It was very entertaining and heartwarming, Mike. 🙂

      • Yes! Better fit for your humor! Watch that movie every year and have taken friends from out of town to the house many times. (I live on the west side of Cleveland… and yes, I am a big Indians fan!)
        Speaking of which – I’m sure you are aware of Bo Diaz’s death… quite tragic. His cards are probably worth a lot of money, if you still have one. 🙂

      • I’ve always wanted to visit that house! (And own a leg lamp.)

        I just love the way you assume I know something about Bo Diaz’s death. Now that I looked it up, however, I can assure you I will never forget. Death by satellite dish! Mercy!

      • Sorry – guess I assumed you knew because it was so horrific!
        The Christmas Story House is quite a tourist attraction. But I’m sure you know (but then again, maybe you don’t know)! that most of the movie wasn’t filmed there. If you are a fan, it’s still cool to see though, and there is a gift shop there as well where you can buy lots of cool movie-related stuff, including leg lamps of all sizes. 🙂

      • Oh no! Not the glue! That’s crossing the line! Maybe you can take the tape!
        Can’t say that I blame her though, about the leg lamp… wouldn’t want one in my house either… my daughter has a mini one that’s a night light… so there you go! A compromise, maybe 🙂

  5. What an unpredictable, creative and awesome dad! He marched to his own drum beat — like someone else I know. You really know how to spin a great tale! I enjoyed all three stories. Keep them coming. I need to laugh once a week!

      • Amigo, this was way back, 1969 or 1970. All I know is I survived, and the old man got to save a bunch of money on Boy Scout dues. There may or may not have been a rattle-snake, adults sending kids off on snipe hunts, and the obligatory dad or two pretending to be bears off in the woods after the kids fell asleep. But after 46 years, that’s mostly conjecture!

  6. Oh my my my, you have brought me back home to New Jersey and the Ring Ding. Ohhh, the Ring Ding in my youth was my savior after a bad day at school. And when I was young, there were many bad days at school. Not academically, but socially. I just didn’t ‘get’ kids. But one thing I could share with my school compatriots: RING DINGS. Thanks for the memories, Red Squirrel.
    I have high respect for your dad, Tall Oak. Give him a Ring Ding, from me.

      • You, Red Squirrel, will always be a Tall Oak in your son’s mind.
        My (quite adult) son and I have a perverse pleasure in sneaking in a pink Snow Ball together every once in a while. Remember them?

      • Love Sno Balls! My son wouldn’t go for them, though. He has an unhealthy hatred of coconut. Ellen hates coconut, too, so every Halloween I get all the Mounds and Almond Joy bars. No complaints.

        Now what are your thoughts on Butterscotch Krimpets? (Yes, we have now moved on to Tastykake territory.) I live for those things!

      • Oh. Moan. Tastykakes! I went into withdrawal when I moved to CA in the ’80s. Every time I visited my parents in NJ, I’d surreptitiously go to the small town store and buy a load of Butterscotch Krimpets to take back home. Don’t tell anyone…

  7. What a great story. You know how to spin a tale. Mike, I’ve reviewed hundreds of books and I got to tell you, I can see this as a chapter book. I can literally see the illustrations for it. You might need beef it up a little, but I know you can do that. I love this story. It would be great for young boys and reluctant readers. It can be your next Kid Lit Hit.

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