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The Tentacle


September 20, 2005

Frederick's "Birds"

Roy Meachum

Not the best summer of my life climaxed with both Katrina's devastation of my childhood haunts and what my neighbor called "thousands of birds" roistering and messing in the grand old maple tree out back.

The patio that has anchored warm weather life the seven years since Pushkin and I moved down North Market Street was turned into a stinking foul mess. The pun was intended.

No smiles appeared, however, until after a visit from my son transformed the situation into something more normal. But not quite.

"Son" Cal Bolinger advises that what I must now do is bathe the sagging asphalt in a chlorine and water mix; it makes sense. But everything he says does. I am so thankful he's there. On this occasion especially.

Younger Roy, like his father, is a city boy. Growing up chiefly in Washington, he spent nearly 10 years in Manhattan working in theatre: he opened and closed the first production of "Annie." Cars in New York are not only extremely expensive but completely unnecessary; public transportation, especially the subway, is not just more practical, but frequently faster.

As a consequence he never learned to drive. Why should he? His father did not legally sit behind a wheel until shortly before he was born. Growing up with New Orleans' splendid streetcars was a memorable adventure. My Army service featured motor pools, when necessary.

Not really Luddites, those who hate all things modern, my son and I share a basic mistrust for much that passes for life's electronic conveniences. Despite my profession, I didn't get a computer until a little over 10 years ago; he's still considering whether to hook his first one up.

In recent times, as longtime readers know, I've learned the joys of gardening, but this summer was the first in which I planted violets that survived until schools took back in. Roy's formative years on the island bound by the Hudson and East River scarcely exposed him to the world of nature.

The only thing either Meachum male knew about an invasion of massed birds came from that old Alfred Hitchcock movie: a pigeon's attack on the blonde leading lady was prelude to an onslaught by every conceivable critter from the feathered kingdom. They came to kill not to coo.

Not incidentally, the cinematic master of suspense never bothered to clarify to his own audience exactly why red, red robins and dove gray pigeons turned into killing machines. He didn't have to. His audience wasn't likely to fly away. Of course, that's exactly what I wanted that rambunctious crew of squawkers to do.

As Cal patiently explained, despite my perception, the abominations did not need 24 hours to wreak havoc, splattering tables and chairs, pots and flowers with a combination that included undigested seeds, cast-off feathers and even more repulsive stuff.

But, no, I was informed when the sun appeared they scattered around the city, roving to snatch food and returned to roost at dusk; once settled in, Cal said, the mighty roar of artillery couldn't get them lose. The trick was to bombard them with noise before their snoring drowned out all else. Something like that.

So, here's how it worked: Saturday Roy worked in a mighty frenzy cleaning and scraping, raking and packing; his father helped as best he could. My chores required spraying and scrubbing, gathering and stuffing. We put together five huge bags in all. By day's end, there was a certain satisfaction in the improvement we had achieved.

Came Sunday morning we discovered they had come back. Not all our work was undone. But absence from home to have dinner with close friends had forced us to miss the witching hour, the single time spread when they might be made to spread their wings.

We returned to the task, cheered by the message that Cal was on his way to buy a plastic owl, today's urban equivalent of yesterday's farm scarecrow. This time around we decided the better part of valor (and common sense, always in short supply around here) was to put some of the furniture away. So younger Roy hauled two tables, 10 chairs and a wire settee into the basement.

As promised, my practical "son" brought back this big eyed monstrosity that would certainly scare kids of a certain age: why not birds? It was filled lightly with gravel to make it stand and placed atop the balcony under the maple.

That night, on Roy's warning, I mounted what became the tour in our war on the invaders and pounded on a cooking pot with a metal spoon, raising laughter from a neighbor next door and protesting shrieks from my targets. They hung on. I pounded and I pounded, staying the course until they took off.

It gives me joy, dear readers, to report the two Meachum boys advised and abetted by Cal Bolinger did the trick. The next morning not a splatter in sight. The next night I pounded on the brass panned bottom again. And all was right with the world.

Younger Roy returned to Washington and Pushkin and I settled into a peaceful expectation of autumn's dawn next week. Minus the birds. We hope.



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