The Chipmunk Ranch

Once, when I was eight or nine or ten, my father and I stopped at the Chipmunk Ranch, a place in the country near Sanger, California, where Dad�s Uncle Archie was painting a house. The Chipmunk Ranch was owned by Ross Baghdasarian. Ross was Archie�s cousin, and the creator and voice of the popular television and recording cartoon personalities, �Alvin and the Chipmunks.�

This is what I remember: a hot summer day, a sudden storm of loud, comical voices, an assortment of paint cans, brushes, buckets, and ladders, and Archie�s impatience with the chore at hand. Somewhere on the grounds, there was an unwanted hive of bees � it might have been in a tree, or in the rafters of one of the outbuildings. That part of the image isn�t clear. Was Ross there? I don�t know. I don�t remember seeing him, then or at any other time, though we have a picture of him in an old family album, in the act of either telling a story or imitating one of the other relatives. We also have an autographed copy of one his Chipmunk records, signed with best wishes to my brothers and me.

On the other hand, I do remember Ross Baghdasarian�s brother, Harry, the illustrious owner of Harry�s Toy Shop in Selma, who used to follow kids around his store and watch them like a vulture, and comment on almost every situation by saying, �So.� And then there was their father, Dikran, whom everyone in the family called D.H. I think I remember visiting D.H. in an upstairs room with my mother and father and one or both of my brothers, and watching him eat a bowl of tuttoo while sitting at a simple square table by a window. I have written about tuttoo before. Tuttoo is the Armenian name for a marvelous pickled cabbage soup unknown to the world, and even to most Armenians. The dish is simmered with lamb, onions, hot peppers, and barley, and it originated in Bitlis, where my grandmother�s mother, the sister of D.H.�s wife, was born.

Sadly, no one else remembers this upstairs episode. I still think it happened, though, because it is a strange thing for the mind to simply cook up. Then again, so is tuttoo. And while I�m on the subject, I will say that, to my knowledge, the only other person who ever wrote about tuttoo was William Saroyan. But this isn�t surprising, because Willie was another cousin. Willie I do remember. He stopped by our house with Archie, and Archie�s brother, Kirk, many times. Once, he ate a toadstool growing in our front lawn. He was widely traveled and read, so perhaps he was an expert on mushrooms. Or perhaps the high level of residual tuttoo in his system rendered the poison harmless. The important thing, though, is that after eating the toadstool, Willie roared his approval of a little comic book I had put together, and declared that I was a genius. This took place on the sidewalk at the corner of our front lawn. It was quite a moment. I have not been called a genius since.

During another of these visits, Willie announced at the top of his lungs that he loved small towns and therefore wanted to go see Dinuba, making it a matter of great urgency and excitement. Immediately, Archie shouted, �Let�s go!� and so my father dropped everything and the three of them drove to Dinuba. When they returned about three hours later, my father was wearing the frantic, wild-eyed expression of someone who had been having a wonderful time at the expense of his mental health. After Archie and Willie had done some more shouting and had gone back to Fresno for the evening, he claimed he had almost lost his mind because Willie had insisted on going into every store, had talked to every clerk, owner, and customer, and �tried on every pair of pants in town.� In other words, there was nothing at all unusual about their trip.

Meanwhile, back at the Chipmunk Ranch, there isn�t much more to tell. We ended up staying just a few minutes, because Archie was preoccupied with his painting job and wanted to be done with it as soon as possible. That�s what Archie always wanted. Chances are, he wanted to go to Fresno and see Willie, or hurry back to Palo Alto where he lived so he could go to the race track at Bay Meadows, or drive to Reno to enjoy a few relaxing hours in a casino, smoking cigars and shouting at the dice tables.

I never set foot on the Chipmunk Ranch again. I don�t remember the ride home, and I don�t know what made me think of this in the first place. But I�m glad I did, because it�s obviously important.

July 6, 2005

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Also by William Michaelian

Winter Poems

ISBN: 978-0-9796599-0-4
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ISBN: 978-0-9796599-1-1
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