I call my parents twice a week, generally the same nights around the same time. On the last conversation, Dad brought up this story:
“I remember a little boy, about five or six, who was at the mall with his parents and younger sister. He said he was ‘going to look at the birds’ and we couldn’t find him for awhile. Eventually we figured out what he meant.”
I remember this well. What I don’t remember is where the youngest sister was. And she would have two or three at most. I think she might have been younger and that I was closer to four years old. What I do remember clearly, is that there was some kind of art show in the open spaces between shops. Paintings, drawings, and carvings, on peg boards. There was a section of carvings of birds. Right outside the store we were in.
That was not where I went. Those were not the birds I wanted to see.
I went to the pet shop to see the live birds.
I have not forgotten the look on my mother’s face as she was talking to a security guard or police officer as I walked up to her. So I learned to be a little more clear about where I am going when I go.
Our home in Chickasha was across an alley from the college where Dad professed. A former women’s college gone co-ed. In a small town, not far from the middle of nowhere, it was quite a place to be a child. Especially since one might possibly encounter both cowboys and Indians on a given day. Cleavon Little was born there a year or so before I was, but it took me 50 years to learn that. I know why it took so long, and it pisses me off.
I was a wandering child. No big surprise to any that have noticed how much I wander, r drive instead of fly. Walking and looking are just about my favorite things and they started early. As large as our backyard was, and I remember it seeming quite large, it was not big enough to contain me. The back gate in the cyclone fence was always inviting me to open it. And I did.
That corner of campus nearest the house was the emptiest, notable for the new alumni chapel, whose construction I watched when I could. The dorms and most of the academic buildings and student union were at the other end of campus. So, I always felt comfortable in this park-like space. One of the buildings, I don’t remember which, was attractive because of the flowerbeds in front that attracted ruby-throated hummingbirds. I was mesmerized by those lovely little birds. But I was also looking for scissor-tailed flycatchers and Mississippi kites. Just as I did when I was allowed to accompany my grandmother when she played golf at the country club.
One on of these days wandering around campus. I encountered an adult.She probably asked what I was doing and I proceeded to tell her with all the earnestness of a five-year-old. I made an impression that mattered. She was a biology professor, who happened teach ornithology and lead bird-watching expeditions. She contacted Dad, and then invited me to join the next field trip.
I don’t recall a lot of details about that trip. There was no parent with me to reinforce the memories through story-telling. I have flashes of memory of being somewhere in the wilds of Oklahoma, looking across a ravine through a telescope, a couple of young women making a fuss over me (I was realllly cute), and other images. It was quite a big deal for me at that age.
Around the same time, maybe the same summer, there was a big thunderstorm. My friend and I and were playing in the stream on campus, trying to build a dam near the remains of an Osage Orange tree that lightning had shattered in the storm. I remember scooping water out of the area we were trying to lay mud. I threw the water from the bucket and watched it hit the ground. There was unanticipated movement in the ground. A bird. A chimney swift with a broken wing was struggling against the drenching.
I scooped him up and ran home with it. Asked mom if I could keep it. We found a box. Put it in there with a little alabaster white ashtray filled with water. Mom gently pushed his head to the water and he drank. After, he looked up at us.
I have never forgotten those shiny black eyes, sooty-grey feathers, and a look easily believed to be gratitude.
It was dead the next morning though, and we had a little funeral. I always knew though that I tried to do the right thing, to give him or her a chance. But sometimes a chance is not enough.