By J. Michael Lambert
When I was nine the world was more genuine. Kids still played kick the can on summer nights with a million cricket legs rubbing in the fields and freshly mowed yards. The crackle of voices from new televisions, none in color yet, mingled from the open screened doors to entwine with the outside kid yells of “all ee all ee outs in free”. This was new suburbia, in the middle of summer, in the middle of America.
Fathers worked their jobs and rode home on busses from the Transfer House. Mothers hung clothes on clotheslines. No one had heard of clothes dryers, at least not in our neighborhood, and if they had, no one had the money to buy one.
My sister Carole and I were lucky, for if we were not well off, we did not know it. Like many families then, our parents armored us from the adult world of daily bills, stress and want. We lived on the outskirts of town, a very modest home, on a quarter acre lot across the street from the new housing project named Home Park, one of the first in the city, where eventually hundreds of homes would huddle, all of them much grander than ours. I still aurally remember the hammers and saws of early morning, the progress of man waking me to another day of play, for in those days kids played outside.
Our property was bordered not by parking lots, gas stations or strip malls but by pastures and fruit trees. Our back yard hugged the 50 acre field of Mr. Tennison, a man crippled from some childhood accident that we never understood. But his handicap, evidenced by his horrible limp, always spoke to his kindness as a man, displayed by his quiet acquiescence with our repeated forays across his property to get to the woods.
We would roam thru the tall summer grass of Mr. Tennison’s field to the row of hedge apple trees, with large yellow milk sapped fruit dangling from their spiny branches, the littlest fruit, perfect for developing a young boys pitching arm. Beyond that hedge of trees, more Tennison land, another 50 acres, with a far off high roofed barn that we never ventured near out of respect for Mr. Tennison and his property, so close it stood to his actual home.
Bounding the back pasture of Mr. Tennisons farm were the woods, and sparkling thru those woods ran Stevens Creek, shallow enough in spots to wade across and deep enough in others to drown. Then more woods to the right, including the infamous 1/4 mile long black sewer pipe running thru the thickest trees, the beautiful danger of it, walking it, 40 feet above the ground in spots, most any child, crawling instead of walking, when the fear tested even the most fool hardy kid.
Mike, my friend, lived in a farmhouse with his grandmother at the end of the gravel lane that turned into those woods. Although Mike’s granny, Old Mrs. P, had little to say to me when I would visit she said plenty with her actions. She would invite me to dinner with Mike then go outside grab a chicken, throw its neck over a stump and chop off its head, the term “a chicken running around without its head” being staged in stark gruesome reality to a 9 year old, the scent of chicken blood mixing with the sweet aroma of the pear trees bordering all around her home. Out back by their old well stood a three story high roofed barn with trap doors and a hayloft that served as a fort in the summer and reprieve from the wind chill cold in the winter. Mike and I would play there for hours, often after an afternoon in the dump that surrounded and bordered his grandmother’s property. We would spend many mornings there picking up old bottles that glistened like diamond rings in the sun, and throwing them at the giant rats that lived and populated the deepest recesses of a century of trash.
Down by the marsh area was the dead end Stanley Avenue. A road leading to nothing but four small old ramshackle homes, homes even smaller than ours. The Elrod’s lived there, with their two children, Dovee and Jake, the sadness of their existence, etched in their faces even at their young ages. Jake, a name found boring then, way before it became a present age moniker of studly rebellion. At the very end of that road lived old Mrs. Reedle, alone, shuttering her life and her memories, except on sunny spring days when we would be cutting thru the woods and see her tending to her perfect lilac bushes, taller than us and covering her run down home in an aromatic blanket that assuaged her poverty.
And there was one other home there, the shabbiest, tin roofed, spit of a home that seemed to refuse the sun in its daily passing. It was there that Lonnie Martin lived, the darkest, metal headed, vilest, bully of a boy whose life today would be examined and digested and dissected in an effort to explain his nasty demeanor. A boy who today, would be labeled a victim of circumstances by the psycho babble mix of newly named excuses and political correctness that pervades and warps the basest of discernment in today’s world. Perhaps some of today’s cerebral fodder would be rightly uttered in Lonnie’s case, a boy seemingly stained from day one by a six inch dark birth mark on his neck, but a boy even if fed by the excuses of today, was full of anger and devoid of happiness for himself or any living thing. It was easier then to strip away the paint from the metal. The world was not so sophisticated. We knew what we knew of Lonnie Martin. He was mad, bad and mean, end of discussion.
I first met Petey at daybreak, on one of those clean, crisp, brilliant early spring days that still existed then. I remember waking that day to the cawing of the big crows out back of our property. They would sit in the solitary hawthorn tree, which in all the years I lived on Center Street never grew beyond the 15 feet as I knew it then. One crow would sit and keep its vigilant watch for much less intelligent animals to stray too close to the feeding ground where 10 to 20 other crows would feed, pecking and somehow finding something edible among the small grassless patch of dirt in our far back yard.
On one particular day I was awake and transfixed by one bird perched on the clothes line post 10 feet outside my bedroom window and cawing me awake. As I flung my face against the window screen I asked him “Are you talking to me?” and he cawed and bobbed his head, startling me in its seemingly obvious response. I pulled on a tee shirt, my jeans and my white converse all stars. The Chuck Taylors were the best you could buy then and would last for a year of play. Out back I went, my eyes squinting in the early morning sun as the back garage door closed behind me.
As my eyes adapted I saw the crow, hopping down from the clothes line post and coming towards me. He wanted to be my friend which was made obvious for after each step I would take towards him he would hop back a step of his own. This give and take of land between us went on for ten minutes. That dance between us was broken suddenly by the FLAP, FLAP, FLAP of 15 crows rising at once to wing. His departure startled me as the whole murder of crows, as I later found them to be unjustly called, lifted and flew all at once. They had been forewarned of someone’s or some thing’s presence. The solitary crow sentinel in the Hawthorn tree had cawed his alarm and within seconds of their leaving, I saw the reason for their departure, a red tailed hawk soaring low from the back tree line of Tennison’s field. And while it was not uncommon to see many crows ganging up and pestering in flight their natural flying enemies, this morning the crows must have had their fill for they left spreading out in many directions. My eyes picked out the crow I had been communicating with and followed him as he flapped, curled and soared beyond the gravel lane into the woods. He already had me hooked.
I waited all morning for the crows to return but to no avail. My mother, up then, asked why I was just sitting in the metal lawn chair in our back yard so early in the morning. I never gave her an answer but It would be mom that I realized in a few minutes knew the crow by name.
Ten minutes later, as mom stirred the oatmeal that she fixed virtually every day for my sister and me, I wondered if I should tell her about Petey. After mulling it over on half a bowl of oatmeal I blurted out “I think a crow was trying to get me to come out and play today.” As she was filling my sisters bowl with fresh oatmeal my mother responded, “What makes you say that?” From there I told her how one crow had awoken me by cawing right outside my window and how I had felt a need to go to him. I talked of how we had danced our introduction. My sister, a whole 11 months older, a cat, dog, bird, frog, snake, and every living creature lover, assured me that the bird was probably very intelligent and in trying to make friends with me, a lesser member of my species, the crow was simply performing an animal egalitarian act that had to do with the betterment of his species thru an act of pity.
“That crow,” mom said, “was probably Petey.” She explained he was a neighborhood crow that had befriended others. Mom recounted how a year ago, over coffee with Mrs. Wilkerson, the widow, who lived 3 houses away, the question of a friendly neighborhood crow had come up. Mrs. Wilkerson informed her that Petey had been around for at least 4 years prior to our moving there. Mrs. Wilkerson thought he had belonged to a local boy, Bob Brookson, who had somehow befriended him long ago. Mrs. Wilkerson told mom that Bob Brookson had drowned three years ago in Stevens Creek.
Petey for all his contact with humans, had kept his wildness, and while I felt initially gifted by his choosing to respond to me, I also was let down by the thought that he may not have sought me out but was simply being a bird and I happened to be in the right spot at the right time. My mother seeing a young boy’s disappointment in the potential un- uniqueness of his experience assured me “John, he woke you up to come out to meet him, not me, not Carole, not any of your friends. He sees the gentleness of you and It think he wants you for a friend.” Those of course were the words I needed to hear. As I went to sleep that night I was electrified by the hope that Petey had chosen me for a friend, and I could barely sleep for my anticipation of seeing him again.
I was ready the next morning. My dad, almost out the door for work, sat me down and spoke a few words about my incident with Petey, which I had repeated to him in detail the night before. My father a welder and bus driver, a man who lost his father when he was 8; a man who lied about his age and started working for the Wabash railroad when he was 16 to support his widowed mother, took the time to assure me of one thing. “Animals are better judges of people than people will ever be. He’s friendly, but remember, he’s also wild so respect him for that.” I had no idea at that moment what he was talking about but I knew it was important. The sad thing about that morning as I waited in the back swing for 2 hours is that neither Petey nor any of his flock appeared. I saw crows flying 300 yards away back over the tall sycamores in the woods and I concluded that a better feeding spot had been located that day. I was crushed for surely my belief that Petey wanted me to be his friend was folly.
The next day, another clear, warm, Midwestern Spring day, I again was awoken by the cawing of a crow on the sill of my window. I opened a young eye and there was a bird there, black, large, impressive and cawing. I was running thru the house and in the back yard before my tennis shoes were even on and there once again, was Petey. How did I know? I knew for he looked AT me, and IN me. I moved to the swing to sit and he cawed his hello from 10 feet away, his boldness frightening me as I was not used to this type of greeting from humans let alone animals. I realized I was empty handed and that it was not important why Petey wanted to befriend me only that he did. If it was food he wanted. I would feed him all day. His attention for food was a trade I would gladly make. I slowly spoke “Petey. Stay here. Don’t fly away. I’ll go get some oatmeal.” And as I slowly stepped off the swing avoiding his side of the yard altogether I knew he would be gone upon my return.
I was wrong. With my hand still in the round Quaker oatmeal container, I saw he had not moved at all. Staring at me, his beak clicking in some strange bird way, I stood 8 feet from this magnificent bird. His size to me was like that of a condor. Slowly I held out a handful of oatmeal, my heart pounding loud enough to scare him away. I beckoned him to eat “oatmeal..see oatmeal! Come and get it. I won’t hurt you.” Before I could finish my sentence he lifted effortlessly from the ground and flew AT me. One swooping curl of his black wings and at that I closed my eyes out of fear. Where did he go? But upon the top of my small black haired head, his weight there, lighter than I imagined, all feathers of course, as his feet lightly moved my hair. I could not believe the joy of it! The genuine connection of it and before I could utter a word, he hopped down on my left shoulder at which time I brought my arm up with my hand full of oatmeal! I then heard, saw, felt, smelled and consumed my first taste of the THEIR world. At that moment, he became my friend for the rest of my life and the rest of his, short as it would be.
From that day on thru the rest of spring and the heat of a central Illinois summer we were morning companions. I fed his hunger and he fed mine. Sometimes he would not show up but never three days would go by without his appearance.
Petey and I had reached a point after many weeks to where he would fly down from his perch in the hawthorn tree when it was his turn to keep watch, as crows are democratic and traded turns as watch men. Petey would caw his signal for another crow to fly up and he would then fly directly to my shoulder. I varied his breakfast between oatmeal and corn meal which my dad would buy at Wilsons Feed, still a money making store in a town surrounded by farms, and Petey loved raisins which he devoured in an indulgent display of complete trust, often walking down my arm and perching on my forearm to get a quicker and more precise angle of to peck.
There was something else about Petey that was as clear as the water in Stevens Creek which then you could have drank out of if need be. It was a small quirk that never failed him. If someone happened around when he was on my shoulder he would stop and peruse them, whether they were 50 yards or 50 feet away. He would look them up and down and fly away at a moment’s notice if doubt arrived with them. It was therefore not surprising when in late August, for I remember the warmth of the time, Petey saw Lonnie Martin, the end of the road bully of a boy, cutting thru Mr. Tennison’s field to get to his home. Petey began doing his typical leg lifting dance with me before he would step to my shoulder to fly. He turned at the first sight of Lonnie Martin and flew up into the Hawthorn tree where he proceeded to caw annoyingly in a voice I had not heard before, endless, strident, with wings flapping and head bobbing and eyes glaring!
Not for one moment did he take his dark eyes off of Lonnie Martin, seventy yards away, but too close for Petey’s comfort. Lonnie noticed too for he turned and stared at me as I stood in my own back yard and yelled across the field, “ hey you little son of a bitch, tell your crappy bird to shut up or I’ll come over there and kick both your asses. At that point I realized Petey’s comprehension of the English language was more developed than my own, for while I had never before heard any one use some of the phrases Lonnie did, Petey must have heard them before, for he flew fast and hard, his wings flapping and soaring directly at Lonnie Martin. Flying low he went, and Lonnie, like all true bully’s when confronted took off running until I lost sight of him in the tall grass of the field, his red haired head bobbing all the way home with Petey dive bombing his every move. I had never seen a crow attack a human before. I stood there puffed up and proud for if anyone deserved to be chased home it was Lonnie Martin, the constant agitator of every living thing in the neighborhood.
One Saturday in October, I expected Petey to appear, for he had missed two days already. I saw his crow friends flapping around but staying their usual distance, but no Petey. It was on this fall day, cloudy but crisp with the sugar maple in front burning with its colors that the big black wall phone with big rotary dial finger poking numbers still in existence then, rang. I remember picking up the phone before mom. In retrospect I wish I had let her answer simply for the sake of his voice being heard by someone other than myself. I needed no verification however for I knew whose voice was being weakly disguised as it uttered in its empty dark way, “Go down to the marsh; you know where. There’s a present for you there boy.” Then silence. I sat there in shock, for games like that weren’t played back then, not psychological games. I felt what sinister sounded like.
I remember slipping on my black boots with the little metal buckles that all kids had then, knowing the area where I was to go would be muddy, as I yelled at my mother that I was going exploring in the woods. Two hundred yards later and with more apprehension than fear, I slowly entered the high reed area where my “present” awaited me. My young world flew apart at the site of Petey, his small body mangled and tethered to a two by four by a ragged length of barb wire. An eight inch nail protruded from his chest, pounded deep and skewering him to his wood crucifix stuck unnaturally straight in the cat-tailed and milk weeded mud of the marsh. I felt his heart barely thumping thru my fingers. I could see that his beautiful black wings had been crudely clipped with some sharp instrument. I knew it was Lonnie Martin who had called. My mind was reeling.
Somehow, he had caught Petey, perhaps putting out some food in a trap which I knew his father kept on his property. My friend was dying; that I knew and FELT. After I found the strength to remove him from his death bed, I could no longer take it and seeing his eyes in their gentleness even in his dying, I laid him down softly in a small tussock of grass and ran home crying, unable to be a man.
Later my mother followed me back and went into the woods herself to look, the only time I ever remember her being in the woods. She came out, her face saddened, and told me Petey was gone. She promised we would find out who did this but first we needed to bury him. She had brought with her a grocery bag and gloves. As she placed him in the bag it started to rain and we walked silently home together. Once back she asked me to go get dads shovel. Together we dug a hole under the Hawthorn and I placed Petey there with a handful of his favorite corn meal. He was grounded now for eternity.
It was two days later, after my insistence that no one other than Lonnie Martin would have committed such an inhumane act, that mom finally called the police. Back then the police answered every call. They came and took a statement and promised they would talk to Lonnie Martin. They made it clear, without any proof of his involvement, they could do nothing unless he confessed which of course he would never do and never did. The next week, my father, angrier than I had ever seen him (other than when my sister had been threatened), called the Martin’s and talked to Lonnie’s obviously drunken father telling him that if Lonnie or any of the Martins ever set foot on our property, it would be the last place they ever stepped. That degree of anger was very rare for my father, but I knew he had lost a friend too.
So this is where the story stopped for forty years, until last Monday as I read the Decatur paper, and this local news item caught my eye:
MAN DIES IN HUNTING ACCIDENT
A man was found dead yesterday in what police are calling a tragic hunting accident. The unidentified body of a man approximately 50 years of age was found by a young hiker in the woods along Stevens Creek in unincorporated Macon County. According to police reports, he had been dead for at least 24 hours after what investigators said appears to have been a hunting related accident.
Police investigators speculate that while hunting in a marshy area of the woods, the man tripped on an old strand of barb wire entangled on a two by four and hidden in a tussock of grass. In his struggle to catch himself, it appears his shot gun then discharged causing a fatal head wound.
The newspaper account continued: “the victim had no identification when found. He is approximately five foot ten inches tall with reddish hair and a large dark birth mark on his neck. Any persons having information regarding the victim’s identity should contact the local police department.”
The article closed with the following: “the hiker who found the body told police that he was first attracted to the area where the body was found due to large number of crows, which he estimated at 30 to 40, gathered around and pecking on what he thought was a dead animal lying in the low water of the marsh. It was then that he saw a plaid flannel shirt and investigated further. The young man then used his cell phone to call 911 after scaring off the crows which he said had virtually severed the dead man’s arms.”
J. Michael Lambert, a multi published author ( mostly poetry) and songwriter currently resides in Illinois where he teaches guitar, feeds an assortment of random critters in his yard and occasionally attempts to reconcile the beauty of the past with the energy of the present in his writings.