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My Trouble With Tribbles

Cyrano Jones was right — once you start showing them around, you won't be able to keep up with them.

Star Trek: The Original Series - "The Trouble With Tribbles"

It’s 1975, and there are two questions on my mind.

First: How can I, an enterprising sixth grader, make some extra money for Christmas?

And then: Hmm, what would Cyrano Jones do?

David Gerrold published official tribble-making instructions in his book, The Trouble With Tribbles, which I’d checked out from the school library many times. My mother had a sewing machine, which she let me use after I convinced her to take me to the fabric store for fake fur and shredded foam rubber. Then it was just a matter of snip snip, stitch stitch, et voila - instant profit.

What could possibly go wrong?

Star Trek: The Original Series -

I’d been watching Star Trek every weekday afternoon since 1972 and “The Trouble With Tribbles” immediately became my favorite episode. Those little balls of fluff were irresistible and creating one for myself became my first sewing project. Following the instructions in Gerrold’s book, my mother showed me how to use the machine to make the primary stitches, then we flipped the fur inside out, stuffed it, and hand-sewed the final hole. I declared that first tribble, a golden yellow one, to be the tribble in the Captain’s chair, the one Kirk nearly squished. I loved that tribble. It was my pride and joy. So why not spread some of that joy?

After my brainstorm to sell Tribbles to classmates, I made a flyer to put up around school which read:

“The Only Love That Money Can Buy - Tribbles! Perfect Christmas gift! Only $1. Contact Neil Shurley to order yours today!”

Boys, girls, even a couple of teachers placed orders. I was delighted. I was an entrepreneur, selling rare merchandise! Twenty orders equaled twenty dollars and in 1975 that could buy plenty of Spican Flame Gems or, even better, a fistful of James Blish’s Star Trek novelizations.

I believe it was my father who suggested I supply each customer with a Tribble handbook. Naturally, I argued that if I did that, “What would happen to man’s quest for knowledge?” But he won the day. Not everyone, he said, would really know what a Tribble was. So I wrote a handbook.

Star Trek: The Original Series -

Neil Shurley

It contained four chapters: "Getting to Know Your Tribble," "Naming Your Tribble," "Caring For Your Tribble," and "Having Fun With Your Tribble."

Chapter one featured advice such as, "Pet your Tribble at least 15 minutes a day. Let it get to know how you talk and smell. Tribbles cannot see because they have no eyes. Because of this, don’t expect your Tribble to see things. They get to know you by finding out how much pressure you put on them when you are stroking their fur. Don’t expect your Tribble to talk. They speak in a voice too high in pitch for the human ear."

Chapter two read: "Tribbles do not like being named Rover, Fido, etc. The best name for a Tribble is the name of a person on a favorite television show. For example, if you liked the program Movin’ On you may name your Tribble Will or Sonny. But Tribbles also like names like Fluffy, Furry, etc."

(Movin’ On was a short-lived NBC program about long haul truckers, an attempt, no doubt, to cash in on CB radio culture - a trend that also gave us the hit song "Convoy" and, ultimately, Smokey and the Bandit. I’m still hoping that one day we’ll see Movin’ On: The Next Generation.)

“Caring For Your Tribble,” chapter three, was twice as long the other two chapters. “This is the most important chapter of this book,” it began. “Tribbles love sleeping in your bed with you at night. Always comb your Tribble every day. If you go on a trip, take your Tribble with you. Tribbles love to be read a story before bedtime.”

Star Trek: The Original Series: -

Neil Shurley

Chapter four covered the kid-friendly concept of 'having fun.' “Tribbles love to have fun. People usually do to [sic]. This is a nice combination because together you and your Tribble should have a lot of fun.”  It then went on to share games such as ‘Tribble, Tribble Everywhere.’

“Say ‘Tribble, Tribble, where are you?’ Throw Tribble in air and say, ‘In the air!’ Then roll your Tribble around and say, ‘Rolling on the ground!’ Now throw your Tribble anywhere you feel and say ‘He’s everywhere!’ Throw him all around. This is very fun for your Tribble.”

And then, of course, there was the ‘Tribble Toss.’

“Find two boxes. Set them about ten feet apart. Now find a friend. Have your friend  stand behind one of the boxes. You stand behind the other. Now, try and toss your tribble into your friend’s box. Then, your friend can try to throw the Tribble into your box. One point for each Tribble in the box.”

Finally, the booklet recommended you teach your Tribble tricks. For instance: “Put your Tribble on the back of a chair. Say ‘Roll’ and tap the tribble. If it rolls down the back, pat it on the head.”

(Please note, there was never any mention of how or where you might find the Tribble’s head.)

Eventually, my mother typed up the completed manuscript and made photocopies. When I recently asked her if she had any memories of all this, she said that she and my father had wondered at the time why I was making all the money while they were doing all the work. Because even as I stapled together copies of "Know Your Tribble," there was one final task to complete before Christmas break began — the small matter of actually making twenty more tribbles.

They were due the next day. They had to be ready because it was the last day of school, and I had only finished a handful. As the night wore on, and my usual bedtime passed, I became more and more tired, cutting fur, sewing, stuffing, finishing. I got through ten and couldn’t go on. And, Landru be praised, my parents stepped up. They started a mini assembly line and as I went to sleep, they stayed up — late — completing the rest of the Tribbles, allowing me to deliver on schedule. And letting me keep all the cash.

Star Trek: The Original Series -

Neil Shurley

Years later, I temporarily fired up the assembly line again as I decided to enter my Tribbles in the county youth fair. I wrote up a new booklet explaining the original project, and displayed the original booklet and my favorite multi-colored Tribble. I took home a blue ribbon for my trouble.

Cyrano Jones could’ve learned a few things from me.

Neil Shurley (he/him) is a writer/actor/musician/nerd based in Greenville, SC. He tweets too much @thatneilguy.