Old Stripey

This is just a short-short story in the bigger World War saga, It's based on a joke I found in an old 1940's joke magazine.

By Paul E. Jamison

1944, somewhere in the South Pacific

Alfred hated the tropics.

Oh, he wanted to do his part to fight the enemy. He couldn’t vote in elections – none of the New Ferrets could. But they all considered themselves citizens of the United States, and when Pearl Harbor was attacked, they answered their country’s call.

Not that ferrets actually fought in combat units; the humans thought they were too small and the ferrets agreed. But there were things they could do and do well – jobs, for instance, where their small size came in handy, like wiring and hydraulics for aircraft assembly. But in some cases, the war effort relied on their brains, and the New Ferrets were fiercely intelligent, especially the Skippys. Those jobs were mostly classified, but everyone knew they existed and rumors were rife in the Wichita ferret community about what they were. In a few cases, the only thing anyone was halfway sure of were locations – Alfred had heard something about a place called Oak Ridge in Tennessee and someplace in New Mexico.

But some jobs weren’t classified, like the bomb release mechanisms. The Skippys had designed an improvement on the existing installations, and had gotten the human muckity-mucks in the War Department interested enough to schedule trials in actual combat situations. So far the Skippys had designed and fabricated new release mechanisms for the B-24 and the B-29, and the War Department had shipped two groups of ferrets overseas to install and observe operations of the hardware in working bombers. One group had traveled to the European Theater of Operations – lucky bastards – and the other group, to which Alfred had been assigned, went to the Pacific.

Alfred went readily enough, but he hated it. It was humiliating.

It was hot and it was incredibly humid, and there was only one way for a New Ferret to remain comfortable for any length of time in such conditions. And that was to get rid of the fur. For the first time in almost 150 years, the Skippys had developed ferret-sized razors.

In normal circumstances, Alfred had chocolate-colored fur that, at least according to his wife back home, was incredibly handsome. But now, the chocolate was gone, replaced by Alfred’s pink skin, and he had to shave every other day to keep it that way so he wouldn’t die of heat stroke. And to top it off, the ferrets had to smear some oily concoction on their bare skin to keep from getting sunburned.

Alfred was part of a group of four ferrets newly assigned by the Head Skippy to this particular airbase on this particular tropical island. An airstrip large enough to handle B-29s had been carved out of the jungle. The rest of the island was still densely packed with palm trees and other exotic vegetation. The other three ferrets in his group were Skippys, which made sense, with Skippy Three leading the group. Alfred wasn’t a Skippy and he still wasn’t sure why he’d been ordered to come along. He was now naked from neck to tail – nobody shaved their head – covered with sticky, smelly goo, thoroughly sorry for himself, and now he had to listen to a human sergeant giving a lecture to the human bomber crews and ground personnel. Alfred hadn’t thought the ferrets needed to attend but the Skippys insisted, so there they were.

It wasn’t much of a setup. There were several dozen humans sitting in folding chairs facing a card table. The ferrets shared two human-sized chairs of their own at one end of the front row. The humans were chatting away among themselves, waiting for the lecture to start. They also chatted with the ferrets. It was their first day here and Alfred had found the humans to be a friendly bunch. That helped.

A sergeant sat behind the card table, going over some written notes while the men chatted away. The ferrets had met him and had found him to be a good man – firm when he had to be and fair when he had to be. All sergeants have to be that way.

Finally the sergeant stood up and spoke up. “If I may have your attention.” The conversations died down.

“Thank you. First I want to welcome our visitors –“ He nodded at the ferrets. “– and I want to say that I for one will be interested in seeing how their experimental bomb release mechanisms work on the -29s. For now, the reason I called this little get-together – and I think that because they are new here, the ferrets ought to hear this – is to discuss our home away from home. For that matter, there are several other new faces among us, and you ought to hear this, too. Please pay attention. I am not just talking to hear the sound of my own voice.

“Now as you all can guess, this airbase did not come to us ready-made. We had to cut down trees and level the ground and we had to do a lot of that to fit the -29s. The people who did all this deserve your thanks. As it is, we occupy only a percentage of this tropical paradise.” He waved a hand at the nearby line of trees. “Beyond those trees, there is still jungle and it is as rough and dense as when we got here. There are a lot of interesting flora and fauna among those trees. If you go into that jungle – and you will want to, I am sure – you will meet some of those flora and fauna. Most are benign, but some can be dangerous. I am going to tell you what to expect and what to watch out for, so that you don’t get into serious trouble. Rescuing your sorry behinds can be time-consuming, as writing letters home to your mothers would be.

“I intend to tell you which plants to avoid – some are poisonous, but easy to identify – but first I will discuss the animal life. There are many and varied beasts in those trees, many birds and many insects. Some will run away, and some will not. You have to watch out for those that don’t run.

“The first animal that I will talk about is a snake. It is a poisonous snake – a very poisonous snake. Unless an antidote is administered immediately, its venom could be fatal to a full-grown human being.” The sergeant looked at the ferrets and said nothing. Alfred had forgotten his personal miseries and was now paying close attention. “I don’t know this snake’s scientific name nor its entomology. I don’t need to. The nickname for this snake is Old Stripey.

“Old Stripey is fortunately easy to spot; indeed, it got its nickname from the coloring. The snake’s skin coloring consists of alternating one-inch transverse bands of black and orange. The snake’s body is roughly one inch in diameter. No other snake is colored quite like Old Stripey.

“It’s easy enough to identify Old Stripey when you see him. The problem becomes, of course, what you do when you see him. Provided he has not seen you first and reacted accordingly, I recommend this method of dealing with him.

“If you are walking through the trees and see a long, thin creature with orange and black color bands at your feet, you hold up your two fingers like this –” The sergeant held his thumb and forefinger one inch apart. “– and bring them down carefully until the fingers are on either side of the snake’s body. Then, holding the fingers apart like this, you slowly move up toward the head of Old Stripey, keeping the fingers on either side.”

One of the humans spoke up. “Sergeant?”


“How will we tell which is the head and which is the tail?”

“Good question, soldier. Hopefully you can tell if the body is getting bigger. If you have to reverse direction and go back the other way, the only thing I can tell you is be very, very quiet about it.

“Once you have traveled all the way up to the front end, you are now in a position to use your thumb and finger to grab Old Stripey just behind the head. Grasp him firmly and he will not be able to bite you. Then you can dispose of him.”

After the lecture was over, the ferrets walked back to their small tent and discussed what they’d learned. The things about the poisonous plants didn’t concern them much – they were carnivores – but the wild animals concerned them a lot. Alfred was particularly concerned about snakes.

“But all that stuff about the thumb and forefinger – how is that gonna help us?” He held up his paw. “We’re way too small to be able to do that with our fingers!”

Skippy Three said, “Well, for us, I think we’d just use our paws. Put our paws apart so far and put them on either side of Old Stripey. Then we carefully walk up to the head like the sergeant said and grab him at the neck – behind the head, I mean.”

Another Skippy said, “Once we do that, it’ll be easy. New Ferrets are pretty good at fighting snakes. You know that.”

“Oh.” Alfred held his paws apart and looked at them. “Yeah, that’s right. We can do that. I’ll remember that.”

Time passed. The ferrets kept their hair shaved and their skin oiled. They installed the release hardware on two B-29s and rode along on bombing missions to test how they worked. There were mechanical problems, which the ferrets would work on back on the ground. Riding at altitude was no fun, as it was cold and the naked ferrets had to bundle up. Still, the ferrets got used to the hardship. More or less.

One day, when the -29s were undergoing routine maintenance and the release hardware was working fairly well, the ferrets didn’t have much to do. One of the Skippys was writing in the Journal and the other two were playing a card game. Alfred was bored.

“I think I’m going to take a walk.”

Skippy Three looked up. “Where you gonna go?”

“Probably walk through the trees.”

“Okay, should be no problem. Be careful, though.”

“I will be. I’ll stick to the paths.” Alfred hadn’t forgotten the lecture. He headed for the jungle and was soon strolling along among the palm trees. He’d been this way many times before and he found it peaceful.

But something different happened this time.

The sergeant stared down at the ferret. Behind him stood two crewmembers from one of the B-29s. They were staring at the ferret, too, with their eyes popping and their mouths gaping open. The sergeant wasn’t one to gape, but he still stared.

It was Alfred, but they could barely recognize him. He lay on a ferret-sized cot, his entire body from his head to his tail, and every limb between, swathed in a plaster cast and bandages. He looked like a mummy. Above the bed was a framework of metal rods that supported his arms and legs in traction. About the only parts visible were his pink nose and jaw and two dark eyes. The dark eyes looked very angry.

A Skippy was adjusting Alfred’s traction. The adjustment seemed to consist of moving the arms and legs around until Alfred grunted in pain, and then moving them back slightly.

The humans didn’t say anything for the longest time. They just stared. Finally Skippy said, “No spinal damage. His neck and his back are fine, though his tail is broken. Ribs cracked. Bones in both arms and both legs broken. He received a cracked skull, too. It’s gonna take a long time to heal, but he’ll recover – eventually. He’s lucky, though, in a way. No lacerations.”

The sergeant asked, “Well – what happened?”

Alfred glared at him for a moment before he said, “Old Stripey.”

This time the sergeant’s mouth did gape open. “Old Stripey?! A snake? A snake did this to you?”

Alfred grumbled, “Kind of.”

“But – how -?”

Alfred tried to sigh and couldn’t. “It’s like this, Sarge. I was walking through the trees, minding my own business, when I saw it on the ground in front of me.

“Something long and thin, with alternating black and orange one-inch stripes, just like you said. Old Stripey.

“Now I could’ve turned and run, and it was tempting. But I remembered what you said about the thumb and forefinger. Now we’re too small to do that with our fingers, so I held my paws so far apart and bent down and got them on either side of Old Stripey’s body. Like you said. And I started walking up toward the head, like you said. Holding my paws apart. Like you said. It was actually working for me.

Then I reached the front end and grabbed him. Like you said.

“But it wasn’t Old Stripey.”

The sergeant looked confused. “It wasn’t? Orange and black stripes and it wasn’t old Stripey? What was it, then?”

Alfred didn't so much answer as snarl.

“I had a TIGER by the tail!!”