I’ve subscribed to a free list called birdky, on which people from all over the state of Kentucky write short emails whenever they spot an interesting bird. In the last few days, I’ve received three or four notes by bragging birders who have seen dozens of sandhill cranes flying overhead. At nearly four feet tall, sandhill cranes are among the largest birds in the United States. Their red crowns and grey plumage make them easy to identify from a distance, even for an ornithological idiot like me, who might otherwise just point upwards in awe and yell “Duck! Duck!” Not the noun, the verb.
Unfortunately, sandhill cranes do not come to backyard feeders, just as lions do not eat Meow Mix from a bowl labeled “Princess.” So you won’t see one (a sandhill crane or a lion) if your main contact with nature is the view through your sunroom window. My main contact with nature – really, my only contact with nature – is, in fact, the view through my sunroom window, and even that makes me sneeze. So my avian friends tend to be little guys, like sparrows, titmice, and misidentified squirrels, none of which is the kind of sighting that makes a person scream “Duck!”
My consolation is that I can still clearly conjure up my first encounter, back in the Bronx of my boyhood, with an enormous flying creature. It wasn’t a bird exactly, and you’d never find it on Audubon’s list of North American species, but I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. And it did make me scream.
Until that evening, I never fretted about being attacked from the sky, because I knew Mom was vigilant. She spent a lot of time imagining awful things that might happen to her children, and acted beforehand to prevent them. I was never allowed to have chunky peanut butter, even though I begged and begged her to change over from the boring “creamy smooth” kind. Mom was sure I would forget to chew the small pieces of nuts, and choke.
Pez fell into the same category. I was permitted to have a dispenser, but forbidden to fill it with candy. Instead, I was encouraged to use it as a puppet, opening and closing the lid to make it talk. What I usually had it say was, “Help! I’m empty!”
Besides gaggable foods, there were dozens of other perils lying in wait for me. Mom was constantly on the lookout for friends who were “bad influences.” In the Bronx of 1956, any kid who showed an ounce of independence was a potential corrupter. If Jerry went outside without a jacket before May 1, he was a bad influence. If Shelley stopped at the local bakery for an appetite-ruining cookie on the way home from school, he, too, was a bad influence. Stevie, who was the smartest child in my grade, maybe even the entire school, became, briefly, a bad influence because one day Mom saw him riding his tricycle faster than one mile per hour. He was forgiven only when she learned later that he was in a hurry to get home and kiss his mother hello.
Mom would have been horrified to discover that the other mothers thought her son was a bad influence because he was such a mama’s boy. In those days, people still believed that sissiness was contagious.
Wherever I went, Mom made sure that in my pocket I always carried a small card with my name, address, and phone number, as well as her name. “You never know,” she’d say. “What if you, God forbid, get run over. God forbid.” Even when I was on my way to play at a friend’s house in the same building, she would remind me to take my identification.
“Do you have your ID card with you?”
“I’m just going over to Shelley’s to read comics. It’s raining. We’re not gonna go out. We’re just gonna sit around and trade Supermans. His mother knows your number.”
“Well, take it anyway. You could fall down the stairs on the way over. You’re not Superman.”
With all Mom’s concerns about my fragile physical and mental state, it was no surprise to Dad or me that she was dead-set against his taking me to see Rodan, a Japanese sci-fi movie about a rubber pterodactyl threatening Tokyo. For a weeny boy like me, it was definitely a trauma waiting to happen.
Dad dug in his heels. Sitting through a horror flick was a necessary rite-of-passage for a male child. F’Chrissake, he was about the same age when he and his buddies had gotten the crap scared out of them by Dracula and Frankenstein. A little healthy fear would make a man out of me.
“Don’t compare yourself to Larry,” my mother said. “You lived in Brooklyn.”
Brooklyn was considered the tough borough, the borough where Jewish boys grew up to form Murder, Inc. The Bronx was where Jewish boys grew up to form orthopedic shoes.
“He’s too young for a movie like that,” Mom insisted. “He still gets a nervous attack from the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.”
“Listen, Elaine,” Dad said, “don’t tell me about monkeys. When I was his age, I saw King Kong. But I survived, didn’t I? Let the kid grow up, f’cryinoutloud.”
Then, turning to me, he asked, “You’re not scared of some Judy Garland movie, are you, Mr. Cowardly Lion?”
“Um … no,” I replied, trying my best to shrug nonchalantly, although my heart began racing at the very thought of the winged creatures. “I just think they’re … um … ugly.”
“Well, they’re no worse than Uncle Jack, are they?”
Mom was adamant. “Keep Uncle Jack out of this. He’s not going, and that’s final.”
It looked like Mom would prevail. “That’s final” usually was. But Dad still had one trick up his sleeve; he played the Pansy Card. “You know, Elaine, you’re gonna turn him into a homo if you’re not careful. A good scare’ll give him some real balls.” Dad gestured to show the immense size he had in mind. “It’ll put some hair on his chest.”
It’s hard to imagine why the image of a third-grader with freakishly large testicles and body fur won Mom over, but she finally said OK. With conditions. She made Dad promise that we’d take the bus instead of walking to the theater. “He’s a little afraid of the dark, and besides, you never know who’s out there.” She made us swear that we wouldn’t even think about popcorn. “It could get stuck in his throat. Yours too, Murray.” And she couldn’t resist a parting zinger at Dad: “Go ahead and put some hair on his chest, but if my child has nightmares for the rest of his life, it’ll be on your head.” Which is exactly where Dad needed some hair, so he was gonna be winner whatever happened.
The short bus ride over to the RKO Marble Hill was an emotional journey; one moment I was euphoric about my venture into manhood, the next moment I was panicked that I might wet myself in terror. At Mom’s urging, I had already used the bathroom twice before we walked out the door, but I was worried that there was still some residual fear-pee waiting to be released. I had learned in the schoolyard the story of the boy who had pissed out all his internal organs during The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I dreaded the possibility of losing my essence in an ignominious series of puddles.
Once inside the movie house, we headed upstairs. Dad always staked out territory at the extreme end of the last row of the balcony, where he could smoke or snore without any disturbance. The rest of the people in the theater were teenagers on dates, busy with anatomy lessons.
Monster movies of the ’50s followed a formula. You never got to see the critter until the picture was about two-thirds over. Then he would make some half-hearted attempt to eat a major city, until a human (yay!) figured out a way to blow him up.
But I had no clue about the routine. As Dad sat beside me, contemplating his eyelids, I watched the story unfold and worried about bladder control. A piece of popcorn was lodged in a back tooth; I was sure that if the sight of the monster didn’t immediately kill me with fright, it would cause the kernel to pry loose and cut off my breathing.
And then — oh no!
“Dad? Wake up. I have to go to the bathroom.”
He was not one to coddle me. In those innocent days, you could still send a small boy to urinate by himself, so he gave me explicit instructions for how to get to and from the men’s room. I could hear the blood pumping through my head as I raced down what seemed like a million steps, ran into the toilet, whipped myself out in record speed, and peed as if I were in time trials. Mom always taught me not to “force it,” I could rupture something, but this was a crisis situation.
Ominous music came roaring out of the speakers as I hurried back to my seat. I dared not look at the screen, but I dared not ignore it either. It wasn’t until I had gotten entirely into the theater’s darkness that Rodan surfaced.
“I’m here!” A cigarette beacon shone in the distance.
Adolescent boys are extremely witty, and so the theater filled with echoes of “DAAAAAAAAD! RODAAAAAAN! Watch out, little boy, it’s gonna EAT you! Oh, no, a big CHICK-ENNN!” This was the only downbeat necessary to start a huge clucking chorus. Some of the clucks were meant to be parodies of Rodan, but many more of them were meant to be me.
“Look, it’s no worse than Uncle Jack,” Dad argued. If we had stayed, I would have learned that our species always wins. But my eyes were shut tight, my hands were over my ears, and my air passages were blocked by a handful of popcorn basketballs. I told Dad I had a bad bellyache.
During the ride home, I calmed down slightly. But I did sneak peeks out the bus’s rear window to make sure we weren’t being followed by any monsters. Dad put on an act, but I could tell that he was afraid, too. Mom was going to kill him.
“Let’s not tell your mother, huh? Just say you had a good time. OK?”
Mom was waiting for us. “Short movie,” she commented.
“Well,” Dad answered, “how long does it take to tell about a big bird?”
Mom looked me over until she had satisfied herself that nothing was wet or broken. “So?” she asked me. “Were you scared?”
“Not really,” Dad said, quickly. “But I think he’s got those winged monkeys in better perspective now.”
That was more than five decades ago, and I still haven’t seen any airborne simians. But I do have high hopes of spotting a flock of sandhill cranes one of these days. I trust they’ll be better looking than Uncle Jack.