Friday, September 26, 2008

Starlings Are Smarter Than the Average Bird

Star on my shoulder

Starlings are extremely smart birds. They know when they’ve got a good thing. Like the rest of us they are greedy and always wanting more.
A friend told us about a baby starling she found abandoned in a barrel near her garage. It was so irresistible we decided to try raising the little egghead. We took the little orphan home and put her in a small cage in our atrium just off the kitchen and discovered that even at this fragile age she was a ferocious eater.
She loved blueberries and roast beef. We called her "Star Ling" and when she had all her feathers we gave her full use of the atrium and soon she was looking for room to roam.
I was getting real used to having a regular supply of roast beef in the house, but Gaila said we had to release the bird outside. I tried to convince her that I wanted to teach Star to talk but she knew I was only interested in the roast beef supply. As it turned out we both got our way. After we released Star she stayed close to home. On our way to the mailbox she would swoop down from the tree tops and land on our head or shoulder and look at us as if to say, "Hey, how about some roast beef."
One day Gaila went to get her hair cut and the hairdresser said, "Looks like you’ve been painting, Gaila, you’ve got paint in your hair." Gaila was too embarrassed to tell him that it was recycled roast beef.
Another time Gaila was talking to Star who was perched on her shoulder and the bird poked her in the eye. It started to get infected so she went to see our optometrist. A couple weeks later I went for my yearly exam and had to explain to him why I had a ugly bruise on my forehead. Maggie and I had been swimming in Lake Michigan and in jest I told her I was going to sneak up on some ducks swimming nearby. I swam underwater for about fifty feet before I collided with a cement block that held a water pump on the bottom of the lake. The doctor already knew we were a couple of birdbrains but this proved it.
Star loved to travel. We would take her on weekend camping trips. We could release her knowing she would always come back for roast beef or blueberries. We usually knew where she was—we could hear other campers screaming when she landed on them. On occasion Gaila would have to go fetch her. One day a couple Star met was amazed by her and had been planning to take her home. Gaila was calling for her and as soon as she heard her name she flew over and landed on Gaila’s head.
Star loved meeting new friends. We live on a dirt road that curves 90 degrees at the bottom of our driveway. Vehicles always slow down to make the curve and Star found that to be an excellent way to meet new friends. One day she landed on the hood of a car. The driver was a baker heading for work and dressed in bakery whites. When he stopped the car to check out this bird who had now flown to his side mirror, Star perched right on his shoulder taking her regular morning blueberry dump.
Star went all the way to town that day. Her reputation followed her. The guy stopped at a local business and asked if they had a camera so he could get a picture with this overly friendly bird. A woman in the office exclaimed, "That’s Maggie Mallery’s bird!" Coincidentally this woman happened to be our neighbor and she brought Star home that afternoon tightly taped in a cardboard box. When we opened the box Star hopped up on my shoulder and looked at me as if to say, "Hey, how about some roast beef."
Towards the end of summer Star began to feel the tug of wanderlust. She was reported further and further down the road. Soon the tug of adventure over-powered the urge for roast beef and blueberries and Star was gone. She may have made friends with the wrong people but we like to think she merged into a flock of her peers. She would tell them where she had been and all the things she had done and they wouldn’t believe a word of it. When you do things others have a hard time believing, then you are most likely living life the way it was supposed to be lived.
Every time we see a massive flock of swirling starlings we look for Star—and every time we find her wonderful memories. - Dick E. Bird

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Luchenbach, TX. vs Plains, GA.

Ever look for Luchenbach, Texas? It’s on the map, but not on the road.

Luchenbach—you know—Waylon, Willie and the boys. After Willie Nelson made it famous in song, the Texas highway department can’t keep signs on the road. People keep stealing the Luchenbach city limits signs.

Luchenbach isn’t your typical town. You won’t find it looking main street. Luchenbach is more of a dead-end road. But if you look hard enough you can find it in Texas Hill Country. At the end of the road you’ll find a bar, post office and mercantile all in the same building, with restrooms out back. You can even birdwatch there. The bartender told me there was a red-headed woodpecker in the side yard. It turned out to be a red-bellied but I didn’t try to explain the difference to him .

He also told me a local tractor salesman had just run off with a farmer’s wife. He said the farmer just got a John Deere letter. Willie wasn’t there but he was coming soon to play dominoes. It was going to be Willie against everybody in Luchenbach—should have been a short game.

Luchenbach claims a population of three. The town motto is "Everybody’s Somebody in Luchenbach." I’m not sure who the bartender was but as a resident of Luchenbach he was definitely somebody. He was an incredible guitar player. He was left-handed with a right-handed guitar which meant he was playing it upside-down and backwards. And he played it better than most people play it right-side-up and forward.

Traveling can take you to the most exotic places if you get off the beaten path once in awhile and do a bit of exploring. I’m not saying it is always an enjoyable adventure but most of the time you will end up with lasting memories.

Take the time my wife Gaila and I were headed south on I-75 for Florida. The weather was nice, the traffic was not heavy and we were making good time. All of a sudden we felt adventuresome. We were in Georgia and not far from Plains—home of our new President, Jimmy Carter. "Hey, let’s go to Plains and find Billy’s gas station." If you know your Trivial Pursuit history you will remember that Jimmy’s opinionated brother Billy owned a gas station in Plains. He not only sold gas he doled out free advice to anyone who had a question.

By the time we reached Plains they had already rolled up the sidewalks. Billy’s station was closed—in fact, the whole town was closed. The town’s people had been under so much demand to answer media questions during the campaign that after the election they were wore out.

When you live in a small town in Georgia and one of your own runs for President it is your civic duty to have an interesting story to share with the world about that person. Every one in Plains did their part, sometimes fighting over camera time. But it was over. The town had its fifteen minutes of fame and on the evening we arrived everyone was already home in bed. Not a soul to be found.

We turned our rig around in the entrance to the Plains Country Club. I’m not sure what they did there but it looked like it might involve roasting a pig. The trip back to I-75 was dark, foggy and confusing. I almost hit a hound dog chasing a rabbit across the road, then a kid on an antique motorbike going the wrong way in my lane, and yes, a chicken trying to cross the road.

By the time Gaila and I made it back to the expressway I could have used a Billy Beer. My eyeballs felt like they had been glued open searching the dense fog for Georgia road obstacles. We have never been back to Plains but I’m sure there must be a Walmart there by now. If you arrive and find everyone is still going to bed early, Sam Walton will let you sleep in his store parking lot for free because he’s from Arkansas—but that’s another story!

—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Re-Designed Saturn SL2

My 1994 Saturn just turned over 210,000 miles. Most people would trade their car in at 36,000 miles when the bumper-to-bumper warranty runs out, or 100,000 miles when the extended warranty runs out. Not me. Just because I live in a throw away society doesn’t mean I have to cooperate. My Saturn was built to last a good 300,000 miles and I am going to see that it does. Warranty is very important to most people. That’s because when you take your car to a dealer to have it worked on it usually costs about a thousand dollars to get it back. I’m not that old and I can remember when that was the price of a new car.
The reason warranty is so valuable is that cars are made in such a way today that normal people can’t work on them. Not only do you need a computer programming background and be a certified electronics engineer—you also need to know where stuff is. Why do you think they turned engines in cars sideways? It’s because when they faced forward people figured out where all the stuff was. Designers had to put normal wear and tear parts like fuel pumps, alternators, fuel filters and air filters where no one could find them. And just to be sure those that did didn’t mess with them, they put stuff like transmissions, drive lines, air conditioning compressors and radiators in front of them to checkmate any shade tree mechanic who isn’t on a first name basis with Mr. Goodwrench.
That’s why I keep my Saturn with no warranty. I have already found all the stuff and I have retrofitted the car so that I can get to all of it. It’s not that I’m a mechanical genius—far from it. Once I get things apart I can’t always get them back together. So I re-engineer them to my Specs. Take my windshield wipers for instance. They are brilliantly designed with a nut that becomes loose when the arms ice up. That way you don’t burn the motor out. The problem I found was that I had to take half the front end of the car apart to get to the nut and re-tighten it. So—I just cut a hole in the windshield panel and now I can reach right in and tighten that nut—no problem.
Another thing I discovered is that my fancy mag wheels were valuable. My dad stopped at Bob Evans for breakfast one day and when he came out all his fancy hubcaps were gone. If you have nice stuff people tend to steal it. My dad should have known that. When I was a kid and Head Ski gear was all the rage you had to lock your skis to the rack or find them missing. My dad had an old pair of wood slates he used for skis and one day he spray painted them all black and painted the Head Ski logo on the tips. Sure enough, that night someone ripped his skis off. No one wants my wheels anymore because they don’t match. They work just fine. The wheels still go around and the tires stay inflated—they are just visually impaired which makes them safe from thieves—unless they are stupid thieves like the ones who stole my dads wooden Heads.
The reason I bought my Saturn is that it is one of the few cars you can dingy tow behind a motorhome (all four wheels down) and not rack up any miles. It is the reason you see so many Saturns being towed behind motorhomes. Most other models need electric pumps feeding fluid to the transmission as you tow it down the road.
I love my Saturn but I had a hard time buying one. I went to the dealer and they had a brand new marketing program. It was called the "NO HAGGLE" policy. That means whatever the window sticker says the price is—that’s it—No Haggle!
At first I didn’t believe it. I haggled a couple times and got my hand slapped. Finally I gave in and said, "All right, I’ll take it." The salesman got that happy little commission grin on his face and started filling out the purchase agreement. I said, "I need $16,500 on the van I’m trading in." He said, "My guys have looked it all over and said we can give you $14,000." I said, "I’m sorry, I have a ‘NO HAGGLE’ policy."
Needless to say, I didn’t buy a car from that guy. But I still wanted a Saturn and I went just up the street and found one at a dealer with a "HAGGLE ‘TIL YOU DROP" policy.
That little beauty doesn’t owe me a dime. My wife got in a fight with a garbage truck last winter and lost. They wanted $4,500 to fix my little Saturn so the insurance company totalled it. With $200 in new plastic parts and ten screws I had it back together and on the road again. It kind of looks like an alley cat that has seen his share of scraps. A Tomcat with torn ears, one eye missing and half a tail. And just like that Tomcat my little Saturn keeps on going. I live way back in the woods on the worst dirt road in North America. I have seen Jeeps die on my road but it hasn’t even fazed my Saturn. I think Saturn should use my car in their commercials. Instead of showing all those shiny new clean vehicles, put one on display that’s been around the block a few hundred thousand times. I might turn mine in for a hybrid, but I have to find someone I can HAGGLE with. —Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nature Cashing Out

Our many early naturalists deserve our thanks for making people consider birds and other re- sources as gifts to be enjoyed and treasured and not just used and discarded. Awareness is still very important today. Each new generation must be taught the value of our natural world and the historical lessons we have learned from exploiting their limited quantities.

John Burroughs said, "I never studied birds, I just spent a lot of time with them."

Time and experience are the best teachers, and the most incredible classroom is the great out- doors. There is not enough time in one life to see everything displayed or begin to understand Nature’s logistics.

Man has long considered himself capable of improving upon nature. He often regards nature’s distribution of her creatures as haphazard. He has moved birds halfway around the world to eat some insect that was eating his crop, who in turn ate his insect and then his crop, too!

I think Noah started all this. Boat people are like that. Give them a helm and they get overwhelmed. Ever since Noah moored his boat we have been meddling with the arrangements. It’s like moving the living room furniture because we’re tired of looking at it the same old way.

During the Depression people painted their beautiful oak furniture all kinds of off-the-wall colors because they were bored with oak and couldn’t afford anything new. That’s why so many antiques are painted like rainbows. I guess it’s a weakness man has. He just tires of the same old miracles of nature and decides he’s a better architect than the guy who originally designed everything.

As bored people continue to board the planet earth we multiply numbers and divide resources. We develop all kinds of surreal technology to create more living space, more food, more water and more misery for those who have little access to any of it.

We have learned that we can manipulate nature. We have dams that hold back mighty rivers, sea walls that fence off the ocean itself. We can drill through the earths crust and extract the carbon that has been deposited there for millions of years and put it back into the atmosphere by re-burning it. This energy exchange may be the straw that breaks the camels back and spills all that water we think we have mastered.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Yellowstone Country

As we left David Jackson’s Hole and John Colter’s Bay and moved north into the Yellowstone Country. We felt the same awe that must have struck Jackson, Colter, Bill Sublette, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and so many other early explorers who stood in the shadows of the Tetons not so long ago. This valley completely surrounded by mountains is perhaps the most beautiful in the West. Yellowstone has been described in so many ways I think it is enough to say it offers a sense of identity with America. It is a wilderness showcase where people from all over the world come to experience the out-of-doors. The pressure of so many visitors on such a fragile ecosystem has taken its toll over the years, but Yellowstone is still a well-managed tribute to the Park Service.

Bill and Diana Plyley, who we met up with in the Tetons, like to sleep late and drive fast. We like to get up with the sun and travel with the turtles. So we never caravaned together. We would just pick a camping area and meet up with them when it happened. We would always leave long before them and get in long after them. Bill and I wanted to do some backcountry canoeing, so we met up in Grant Village campground and left the next day early for Shoshone Lake.

Bill was camped two sites behind me. When I arrived at his trailer at 5 A.M. he was still sleeping. So I sat on his picnic table very quietly, drinking my coffee and listening to the birds. Someone had let a black lab out to run the field which was against park rules, but this is just one example of the pressure on the parks I was referring to earlier. As I sat there the park was coming alive. A lady who had come in during the night climbed out of her station wagon and walked back to her canvas-covered utility trailer. She stuck her head under the canvas and began rooting around for cooking gear. About the same time, the black lab came up from behind and goosed her. She dove right under the canvas and into the trailer. When she peeked out she saw a black lab wagging his whole hind quarters and wanting to play and me rolling on the ground trying to control my laughter. She said to the dog, "Boy, am I glad to see you! " Her first thought was bear—which is much more uncommon now than it once was.

Bill finally rolled out and we packed our gear and drove to Lewis Lake where we put in. It was a short paddle across the lake and then a power portage up the spillway into Shoshone Lake. I call it a power portage because we found it easier to leave our gear in the canoe and pull it upstream which often meant we were in the ice cold water right up to the threshold of stream scream.

Shoshone Lake is about 6 miles long and can become very dangerous very fast. The wind had created too much of a chop to cross the lake so we started along the shoreline. We set up camp between the river and the first point of land. We thought this area would create a windbreak and allow us to do a little fishing. As we set up camp a group of seven kayaks came out of the river and started across the lake for the point. It was obvious the last kayak was in trouble. Through the binoculars it looked as though his craft were built from duct tape. He was taking on water and sinking. The wind was so bad we kept hoping his group would be going back for him—not only for his sake but also for ours—we knew if they didn’t we would.

We watched in horror as he finally came out of his kayak which was being blown across the lake with just the front end exposed, bobbing straight up out of the water. We knew he would not make it in the cold water very long so out we went with no plan of how to get him in the canoe in this chop.

Luckily, at the same time another canoe had come up the river and had been watching the kayak struggle. We all reached him at the same time and were able to get him aboard. He was in the first stages of hypothermia and it took a good fire before he was even able to say thank you.

I never thought too much about this incident until many years later in Reader’s Digest I read the story of a group of scouts who had drowned in this same area under very similar circumstances just one year after our little excursion. Respect is probably the most valuable thing you can take with you into the wilderness—not only for the sake of the wilderness, but also for your own.

While we were still in the park we heard about a French couple trying to have their picture taken with the bison. She stood near the animals as her husband recorded the event. Then they switched. But he was not satisfied with la bison lounging. He thought it would make a much more impressive picture if la bison would stand. So he kicked the animal in the hind end and his wife recorded his goring. I say respect is valuable but that does not mean you leave intelligence at home.
Park Service records are full of reports describing irresponsible behavior acted out by people who are under the misconception they are at a theme park.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wilderness Future

The first time I visited Olympic National Park, WA. was 1968. My first stop was Kalaloch Beach. I went to a campfire program on the beach that evening and took a picture of the Ranger Naturalist looking out across the ocean, his palm sheltering his eyes from the glare of the setting sun, and its reflective path across the water. It was a wild and beautiful beach, full of life.
It was ten years before I was able to return to Kalaloch Beach. It seemed as though little had changed. Gaila and I went to the naturalist program, and yes, the same ranger I had captured on film a decade earlier was giving the nightly talk.

But things have changed at Kalaloch, Olympic National Park and the once pristine forests that bordered the area. Persistent progress continues to squeeze the natural life out of this magical landscape as it does so many other supposedly protected regions of the world.

Gaila and I backpacked along Hurricane Ridge in the late 70s. During the first night the sounds just outside our tent wall frightened Gaila into thinking we were being visited by a black bear. I assured her it was only mountain goats digging around our site for salt. Her first question was, "Why is there salt around our site?" I had to explain that many other campers in this site have urinated over the years leaving salt deposits. I should have stuck with the bear visitation!

Like the giant mastodon that once roamed the park, the goats are about to disappear also. With no one able to prove or convince the park service that the goats are native to the area the damage they do to delicate alpine soil will soon have them evicted.

In the 80s over a quarter of a million gallons of heavy bunker oil dirtied not only Kalaloch, but hundreds of miles of pristine beach from Oregon to British Columbia. Thousands of birds and other ocean life were killed leaving a lasting scar in the shifting sands of time along this sacred shore.

The 90s scored the boundaries of the park with clear-cutting right to the quick of National Park/National Forest property lines. If not for the creation of this country’s National Park System there truly would be nothing left of the few areas we have set aside. Even these areas that most Americans think of as hallowed ground are under constant attack from interests that battle for the resources they hold. Patriotism is used as leverage to rally support for what is blatant corporate greed. Money driven politics grease the wheels that turn up the pressure to ease protective legislation.

Logging peaked in the 1980s when timber companies raced to cut as many trees as possible before impending environmental legislation could take effect. New laws limiting where and what could be cut were enacted in order to preserve the few remaining stands of old growth trees and the plant and animal diversity of the Peninsula, and to protect the habitat of the tiny and reclusive northern spotted owl. Timber companies still push to cut as much as possible, and the old growth stands are still susceptible to the chainsaw, but tourist dollars have taken on a new importance to the region’s economy, and communities that once relied upon timber have had to diversify in order to survive.

With 95 percent of the old-growth forests felled in the Northwest, the timber companies have stepped up their logging in the Northern Rockies. They’re clear-cutting a place that is our Serengeti and erecting lumber company billboards that state the time of death—tombstones for the land.

Walking from the barren clear-cut border of the park into the densely forested ravines of the Elwha Valley takes you through an abrupt change in landscape and politics. Standing on the moist and matted forest floor among giant conifers it is quiet except for a plunging stream. Studying a water ouzel dipping in and out of the snow melt I find myself agreeing with English navigator John Meares that this is—home of the gods. Meares, sighting this area in 1788 named the highest peak Mount Olympus.

Moisture-laden Pacific winds on the western slopes of the Olympic Peninsula has produced one of the most luxuriant temperate-zone rain forests in the world.

Cutting Douglas fir and western red cedar trees over 50 feet in girth seems almost sacrilegious but that is what we have done leaving a very small population still in peril. Undisturbed for centuries we will once again see the forest heal and blossom. Timber science calls what they have done—management of a healthy forest. Have a financial advisor tell you to spend 95% of your retirement nest egg the first decade after quitting work and see if you are convinced that would be—management for a healthy future. --Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Places Life Takes You

I always wanted to visit the Academy in Regina, Saskachawan where young Canadians are formed into Royal Canadian Mounted Police. My curiosity might have stemmed from the Sgt. Preston TV series of the 50s. I wasn’t disappointed. Our visit, in 1981, reminded me of my own days in Marine Corps boot camp. Lots of yelling and screaming broke the silence of the campus grounds. I don’t understand psychology but there must be a boost to the learning curve when big, loud, mean people are yelling in your face.

That evening at our campground we noticed a young woman trying to open a door marked, "Danger High Voltage." After speaking with her we discovered she was from Germany and was looking for the womens’ bathroom and mistakenly tried this door. If she would have been able to open the door it would have been the shock of her life.

Later, she and her husband stopped by at our site to talk to our cats who were on leashes outside our trailer. We struck up a short conversation but it was difficult to communicate because of the language barrier. Little did we know this would be an acquaintance that would last a lifetime.

They had rented a motorhome in Toronto and were headed for the West Coast. For days we kept running into them. When we arrived in Banff we stayed in a campground with 800 sites and we were assigned the camping site right next to Uwe Ahlers and Marina Bude. What are the chances of that?

We were headed for Alaska and anxious to begin our journey up the Alcan Highway. But the Banff/Jasper area was beautiful and the spring weather seemed to be cooperating very well. So we lingered at both ends of the Calendar Highway in British Columbia, and hiked every day. Had we not run into our German friends again, we would not have become so close. We seemed to have plenty to say to each other just trying to figure out what we were trying to say to each other.

We decided to hike together around Mt. Edith Cavell. It was a beautiful mountain with an angel hanging from one side. It was a glacier, of course, but a unique glacier with wings. Uwe could not get over our old ‘66 suburban. As we drove around he would pound on the dashboard and say, "Metal! Metal!" His Russian-made car was mostly plastic from what I could gather.

Our last evening with them we sat in their motorhome and discussed visiting them in Germany and hiking along the Austrian border. It sounded like another great adventure, but dawn would light our way further along the adventure at hand.

We thought it would be a few years until we saw our new found friends, but not far up the road we crossed paths again at the Mt. Robson information center. We joked that we would probably see them when we arrived in Alaska, but they assured us that this was the end of the line for them and that they must start working their way back east.

Life is a labyrinth of unknown connections that change the course of history both individually and collectively. Uwe and Marina have enriched our lives over the years. Even though language has been a barrier, it was language that brought us together.

Since that time they have come to visit us many times. A couple of visits that stand out in my mind is the time Uwe stayed with us the summer Gaila was pregnant and helped her paint the nursery. Another year they visited and borrowed my backpacking gear for their trip further west. One night Uwe called inquiring about how to ship us a rifle.
Traveling through Colorado they stopped to help some stranded motorists. The people had no money so Uwe and Marina took them to the nearest town and bought them the parts they needed to fix their truck. As a thank you the people gave Uwe a rifle. Marina said that Uwe’s new hobby was "plinging" cans and now he was wondering how to ship it to us before they flew back to Germany.
With language still a barrier we were trying to instruct Uwe not to go into a post office and hold up his new rifle asking a lot of questions in broken English. That would make people very nervous. I assumed he had a .22 caliber target rifle, and even that probably made people nervous if he was plinging cans in campgrounds.
Several weeks later the UPS man showed up at my door with a large package with no return address. Gaila made me open it outside as it was during the time the Unibomber was still on the loose. In the package I discovered my backpacking gear and not a .22 but a 20 gauge shotgun.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Monday, September 8, 2008

Walking in the Big Apple

My wife and I went to New York City once. It was unforgettable. I think everyone should go there once. But not all at the same time. It’s hard to believe that people actually live there. We parked at the Metropolitan Museum and walked 85 blocks through every conceivable type of urban landscape, culture and people, to the Staten Island Ferry. We walked around fashionable horse-drawn buggies and stepped over drunks in the street. There were con men in front of the Empire State Building suckering people into a shell game. It was very obvious to everyone but a German couple who kept losing twenties. The shell game is probably the oldest con in the world but it is actually one of the nicest ways to have your money taken from you in New York. My brother and sister-in-law were mugged on 5th Avenue in broad daylight on a beautiful Sunday morning. A sharp dressed man came up behind them, quickly stuck his hand into my brother’s pocket, snatched a wad of bills in his money clip, tripped him and threw his wife on top of him—all in a matter of seconds. Before they knew what had happened the guy was disappearing around the next corner. He must have had them staked out for some time. Had he reached into my brother’s other pocket he would have come out with his snot-rag which gives a whole new meaning to the word wad.
One thing I learned about New York City is that when you go there you have to take your own bathroom. We went into McDonald’s to buy a hamburger. We weren’t hungry, we just wanted to use the facilities. McDonald’s didn’t even have a bathroom. We started looking for restaurants. We wouldn’t ask what was on the menu, we just wanted to know if they had a bathroom. We finally found a nice little Mexican joint called El Coyote. (This might sound strange but actually New York has a small population of coyotes.) This place not only had a bathroom, but the food was excellent. I apologize to any New Yorker who might take offense to this description of the city, but I saw parents letting their children go to the bathroom on the streets because they had no other choice. Maybe that is the attraction to Central Park—there are a lot of trees there. You have to be careful in Central Park. Many of the squirrels have become crack addicts from finding empty vials of crack and licking them clean. This brings out their aggressive nature.
I wanted to see Ellis Island, where my grandparents, Michael J. O’Connor and Margaret Walsh, arrived in this country from Ireland. I know you are going to think this is just one of my crazy stories, but I swear it is true just as I tell it to you. We were on the Staten Island ferry headed towards the Statue of Liberty. I was imagining what it must have been like 95 years ago when my grandparents arrived. I was people-watching and I could see many others were in the same thought process that I was. Next to me stood an Italian gentleman with his young son. He was talking to the boy and explaining that his grandparents had arrived on Ellis Island. He asked the boy if he knew why so many Italians are named Tony. The boy did not, and as I crept closer to listen, the father went on to explain that often the parents of young immigrants, who couldn’t speak English, would put signs on their children when they left the old country that said, "TO NY." The boy looked a little puzzled and I watched the father very closely to see if he would crack a smile, but his face was as serious as if he were quoting the gospel.
When we returned to the city we were trying to decide how to get back to the car without walking another 85 blocks. We decided on a bus. We caught a bus and before we hit the first light, the driver was slapping himself in the head. I mean slamming his head with his palm just as hard as he could. We didn’t ask any questions. The bus stopped on Wall Street and we jumped off. The subway couldn’t be any worse than this. Actually, the subway was fast and comfortable—when the lights were on. My perception of the New York Subway actually comes from Hollywood. In the past I have only experienced the New York Subway in movies. Usually someone is being chased, shot, pushed onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train or being followed quite obviously by the KGB. It must have been a slow day. We didn’t see a shoot out but we did pick out a couple guys that looked like KGB. My favorite was the guy sitting across from us with the t-shirt that read, "JOIN THE ARMY—SEE THE WORLD—MEET INTERESTING PEOPLE—AND KILL THEM."
I am sure there are some normal people in New York. In fact, I have seen some of them on the David Letterman Show. There are also some very polite people, but never when they are in traffic after a Jet’s game. New Yorkers are known for their own special brand of driving habits. This comes from years of impatient pushing and shoving their cars through the canyons of buildings. It generates intolerance and breeds arrogance. The only calming effect on New York traffic is the corps of window washers that politely spiff up everyone’s windshield at each stop light. I have never witnessed this anywhere else. It must all be part of keeping the "Big Apple" shiny.
Some apartment buildings do have a doorman. I was thinking it must be the most boring job in the world. Worse than a construction flag person. But with the advent of computer palm devices, now a doorman could run a billion dollar company on the side between door openings. New York actually has a Silicon Alley—no I didn’t say Valley. It’s where all the billionaires became millionaires when the tech stocks tanked. They bought old warehouses and turned them into trendy new real estate. They are all crying in their dipped chips but it’s all part of the electronic revolution. You really can’t buy much more with a billion than you can with a hundred million. Besides, the most important survival tool for making it in New York is not money—it’s knowing where to go to the bathroom!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Catching a Conch

I lived in Hawaii for a couple years and I would go diving every free moment I had. One day I was diving in Pokai Bay and found a large Conch shell—called a Pu in Hawaii. The Pu is actually a large seashell played like a ceremonial fanfare trumpet. It is capable of emitting a loud sound carrying as far as two miles. The volume depends on the style of blowing rather than breath volume capacity. The shell is still used to announce the opening of the Hawaii State Legislature.
I decided I should not only have a conch shell but learn to play it. I never mastered the piano, I'm not half bad on the guitar—so I thought maybe my real musical talent was lying here at the bottom of the ocean just waiting for me to discover it.
I had no idea how I was going to get the present occupant out of my new musical instrument. I asked a local and he said to hang it over a bucket of water at night. The muscle would hang out of the shell to reach the water. He suggested I get up in the middle of the night, sneak up on the shell, grab the tangling muscle and yank it out of the shell. It all made sense to me.
I put a bucket of water next to my bed with a coat hanger across the top and a couple inches of water in the bottom of the bucket. I set the shell on the coat hanger facing down, set my alarm clock for midnight and went to bed.
When the alarm went off I climbed out of bed, beamed my flashlight on the bucket and that muscle was hanging down to the water just like my conch coach predicted. I quietly reached in the bucket and that muscle went back in the shell faster than a retractable window shade with a broken clutch.
I now realized I was not dealing with some stupid muscle with no brain. This critter was quick, sensitive and cunning. I crawled back in bed and let my eyes adjust to the dark room. The moonlight coming through the window allowed me to view the bucket with my good eye. I could see the muscle peeking out but he was in no hurry to get back in the water.
I fell asleep on guard duty. When I awoke, there he was again hanging down, deep into the bucket. This time—no flashlight, no alarm. I slowly pulled back the covers, slid out of the opposite side of bed and slowly moved around to the bucket. Like a cat pouncing on a surprised rodent, I dove my hand into the bucket spilling water all over my room. I never even grazed that slippery mass of mollusk. He was lightning fast and I was thunder frustrated. I was being outsmarted by a seashell.
Okay, I was in the Marines, I knew how to handle this. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. There is more than one way to skin a conch. There was plenty of night left for another try. I set everything back up. This time I made a lasso and carefully placed it around the shell and gently arranged it on the top of the coat hanger. I wouldn't even have to get out of bed. Once that thirsty little bugger dropped into the bucket I could yank on the rope and pull him right out of my new horn. A couple hours later, there he was tangling way out of the shell and taunting me to lasso him. I was patient. This might be my last shot. I waited for just the right moment. I didn't move a muscle until I was ready to go into action. I didn't know if he could see me, hear me or feel my vibrations but this time I would give him no notice of eviction. I pulled on the string as hard and fast as I could falling out of bed and again upsetting the bucket full of water. I switch on the light to see my prey and could not believe my eyes. There at the end of my rope was a frayed knot. I was amazed. This critter was fast. I had invested a whole night in trying to pull him out of his shell and I had not even come close to touching him.
The next morning I told my story to several neighbors who all had solutions. One suggested I freeze him out. Another suggested I boil him out. Still another gave me instructions on how to drill a whole between the third and fourth ring and insert a knife. This would cut the abductor muscle inside and I could remove the meat through the large opening in the shell by pulling on the claw.
It was too late. By this time I had already formed a relationship with this cagey conch. I developed an appreciation for his tenacity to stay up all night and deal with some nut sneaking around a bed in the dark trying to bushwhack him. Instead of spending the day freezing, boiling or drilling my conch I decided to take him diving. We went back to Pokai Bay and I deposited him near where I found him. I never learned to play the conch but both the conch and I now had a story to tell.
Like so many other creatures in the sea there are not enough conch left in many parts of the world to cook up a bowl of conch chowder. I'm glad mine is still in the South Pacific and not sitting on my shelf collecting dust because blowing the dust off would most likely have been the only time I would have played my conch. —Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird