On Captain Irving, The Squirrel

It all started around 1985. I was 4 years old at the time. My older brother Benjamin was 9, and the two of us desperately wanted a pet. Unfortunately, our father’s allergy to animal dander prevented us from having anything good – like a dog or cat.

Not understanding the concept of “domesticated,” I somehow got it into my head that one of the tiny woodland creatures that lived in our backyard would make an excellent house pet. We could see chipmunks and squirrels skittering across our patio from our living room. They seemed pretty cute, and if cartoons had taught us anything, it’s that woodland rodents are extremely friendly and helpful.

Irving the Squirrel

Ben agreed to help me catch one of these poor creatures, so we could make it our pet. We ignored our mother’s pleas to leave the chipmunks and squirrels alone. Her insistence that we probably shouldn’t try to keep a wild animal as a pet fell on deaf ears, and instead, we devised a foolproof plan. All we needed was a cardboard box, a stick, several feet of string, and whatever sugary breakfast cereal we had on hand (I believe it was Froot Loops).

We set up our Elmer Fudd-style trap – one end of the box propped up with the stick, and the other end of which was tied to the string that led to our hideout in the bushes.

We waited. It seemed like days, but most likely, it was minutes. No chipmunks or squirrels took the bait. It didn’t occur to us that any woodland animal we had previously witnessed running across the patio could probably sense us hiding in the bushes, never mind the fact that I don’t think Froot Loops are particularly enticing to squirrels and chipmunks.

Crestfallen, we gave up on our attempt to capture some poor animal and decided we would go inside.

Benjamin could sense how disappointed I was that we had failed, and he was nothing if not a good big brother. So, as a consolation prize, he created a character that would be our pet…on paper. His name was Irving, and he was a squirrel. Ben drew countless works of art with Irving as the subject.

Irving was always going on some fantastic adventure. One series of drawings had Irving digging to China, so he could acquire silk. There was some kind of tug of war over the silk, and the resulting force shot poor Irving all the way back to his home on the other side of the planet. Remember, these were from the mind of a 9-year-old, so the story lines weren’t that great. Eventually, I got over my desire for a pet squirrel, because I had something better – a character that my amazing big brother would draw doing whatever I wanted.

Sadly, Benjamin was killed in a tragic accident at age 11.

Throughout my career as an illustrator, Irving has had a tendency to sneak his way into my personal artwork. I learned to draw him as Ben would have (which, to be honest, is not particularly difficult), as a somewhat secret tribute to my beloved brother.

And as the Apparel Graphic Designer at EMS, I am constantly looking for inspiration for our graphic tees. We need just the right amount of humor and conceptualism while staying within a theme that our awesome customers would find appealing. Believe it or not, most of my time is spent researching. Once the idea is there, the execution is pretty easy.

One day, I was looking online for reference images of wild animals from the northeastern part of the country, and a photo of a squirrel caught my attention. I had an immediate flashback to Irving and all of his adventures. I talked it over with our merchandiser, Margaret, and we agreed, a squirrel participating in the same activities that our customers might engage in could make for an awesome graphic tee. Or at the very least, each of us would definitely buy that shirt.

So, I got to work.

On an unrelated note, did you know that woodland creatures posed in birch paper canoes are a popular trope in the world of taxidermy?

Irving, featured in our 1972/1973 EMS catalog.
Irving, featured in our 1972/1973 EMS catalog.

Anyway, I began updating Irving’s character design. His original appearance, not surprisingly, kind of looked like a 9-year-old boy had drawn him. As I was sketching out a more realistic rendering of my favorite squirrel, Margaret sent me an excited email: In the late ‘70s, EMS had used a squirrel graphic on one of their logos, and even better, it looked a whole lot like the original Irving!

If I believed in such things, I would say it was fate. At the very least, it was a sign that Irving had found his rightful home.

Irving was officially redubbed Captain Irving B. (for Benjamin) Squirrel. And, now when people ask my profession, I tell them I draw squirrels for a living. I think Benjamin would be proud.

Irving Tee

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