Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 24, 2011

Brief stint as Earl the Squirrel brings new appreciation of mascots

Whenever I see a sports mascot in full costume, I feel a mix of amusement, admiration and pain. Amusement at the sight of an adult in a funny costume, admiration when I see them enduring hot weather inside an stifling outfit, and pain when I recall my own experience in a mascot critter suit.

When I was student teaching at Concord University, education students had to put in a set number of hours working at a school or an education-related project. Working these hours into an already busy schedule was a challenge, but I found a way to fulfill almost half of them my first semester when I volunteered for a wood science fair at the Robert C. Byrd Wood Science Center in Gardner.

My fellow students and I had a variety of job choices. We could be guides, demonstrate exhibits or perform as wood mascots. Two of us chose the mascot role, and I soon discovered that I would become “Earl the Squirrel.”

A forester who was to don the professionally-made Smokey the Bear costume warned me and my fellow mascot — I think he was going to be a tree — to wear T-shirts and shorts. The weather was going to be warm, so those suits were going to be hot.

I arrived that morning and found the Earl the Squirrel outfit waiting for me. I had to put on a thick sweatshirt, furry gloves, furry slippers over my shoes, a bushy tail and a squirrel head wearing a hard hat.

A hole for a mouth and screen eyes provided ventilation. Muggy heat built up inside that mask despite my shallow breathing and I soon knew why Darth Vader was always cranky. To make the situation even better, the whole costume probably weighed more than 20 pounds. If I had to be Earl the Squirrel for days at a time, I’d want to blow up a planet, too.

The weather was warm and that furry suit made the situation even warmer. We went out and greeted the children. Smokey was naturally the star, but there were plenty of little kids who wanted a hug or their picture taken with Earl the Squirrel.

However, a harrowing moment came when one little boy wanted to feed the squirrel. He gave me a peanut M&M, a candy I really like, and I popped it into my “mouth.” The boy was happy and that’s what was important.

Unfortunately, I missed my real mouth and had a chocolate peanut melting inside my head. It rolled around as I went through some contortions to catch it, but I kept missing.

Then the situation actually got worse. A yellow jacket started buzzing around me! I had visions of that menace zipping into my head and buzzing around inside. I’m sure the kids would have enjoyed the spectacle of a grown squirrel running around in horror — I had promised not to take the mask off in front of the kids — and saying inappropriate things.

Fortunately I ducked back into the building before the yellow jacket got inside Earl’s head.

Photographer John Nelson, who was still working for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, recognized me and found my new job pretty amusing. Sarah Dalton, then working for the Princeton Times, didn’t recognize me and wondered why Earl the Squirrel wanted his picture taken. She learned my secret identity later.

I probably lost about three pounds by the time my Earl the Squirrel stint was finished. Those are good results, but I wouldn’t recommend adding sports mascot work to your weight loss routine. There are easier ways to stay in shape.

Despite the yellow jacket, melting chocolate and the heat, being a wood products mascot for a day was a fun experience. The experience made me see why team mascots will put on those suits and brave the heat just to entertain the crowd and make the kids happy. The kids enjoyed seeing the mascot and that’s all that really matters. It’s job you really could learn to love.

I’ll always remember one little girl at the wood products fair. She was about 2 years old and just shy of talking, but she absolutely loved Smokey the Bear. Her little face started puckering up every time he started to leave. She just didn’t want Smokey to go. Generating that kind of reaction in a child has to feel good.

If I ever dare put on a mascot suit again, I’ll do it during the fall or get one of those ice pack belts that keep you cool. And I’ll definitely avoid putting candy in my mouth. I might not be lucky again if a wasp or a yellow jack buzzes by, but the kids might enjoy the spectacle.

Greg Jordan is a senior reporter for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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