The Colgate Scene
November 2005

State of mind
A sampling of Steve Hannah's past columns

The Bird Lady - Back to School - Bo

The first thing that comes to mind when I remember The Bird House is a flock of cedar waxwings flying from room to room like fighter jets making a pass over the Super Bowl, while a pair of mourning doves perched on the mantle nodded their knobby heads in sync as the show sped by.

And, of course, the acres of paper towels protecting every exposed surface from splattering bird bombs.

But most of all, I remember a rotund robin who had arrived years earlier for a little repair and mistook Edna and Henry Koenig's home for Extended Stay America. I can still see him balanced on the top of the kitchen door watching me eat a piece of chocolate cake and gobs of vanilla ice cream that the human being he confused with his biological mother -- Edna -- had served.

Make no mistake: That bird was jealous and not too proud to show it. Before long, he swooped down off the door and landed beside my cake. He looked at it, looked at me, then buried his beak in the icing. Cheeky beggar.

"His name's Robbie," volunteered Edna, who resembled a chickadee herself. "He came to us years ago. Healed but never left."

I had been assigned by a magazine to write an article about the big Victorian house-turned-bird-hospital on a quiet street in the quiet hamlet of Sauk City, Wis. Edna and husband Henry, a tall, angular, exceedingly alert man with the silhouette of a chicken hawk, were utterly devoted to their feathered friends. It turned out to be a sweet afternoon spent with my idea of the perfect pair of grandparents.

They told me how they had become the Dr. Doolittles of ornithology. They told me how they had cartons upon cartons of mealworms UPS'd each week from Georgia; roughly how many trees had died to bird poop-proof their home; and how many hundreds of wounded creatures had been nursed back to health in their ER.

But, mostly, they bragged about their boy, Robbie. He was exceedingly affectionate, loyal, industrious, physically strong, morally upright, and possessed most of the other solid Boy Scout traits. Intelligent? I think they said he was familiar with logarithms and spoke Portuguese and, though they weren't certain, may have played a part in the invention of Velcro.

I remember calling my late mother, who lived a thousand miles away in the mystic East (New Jersey), and telling her about the Koenigs.

"Let me understand this," she said. "They have lots of wild birds in their home, and they fly all over the place, and these two old people run around all day behind them with paper towels mopping up bird poop?"

"Yes," I said. "They're very nice."

"They're something else, sonny boy," my mother replied, "they're a couple of coconuts. Those people are not normal."

My mother had very well-defined and refined rules regarding how the world ought to operate. The center of it all was her personal concept of normalcy. Basically, if you did things she approved of, in a manner that she approved of, you could be deemed "normal." Otherwise, no way. And "normal," in my mother's eyes, was something people should most assuredly aspire to be.

"I never said they were normal," I shot back. "I said they were nice people, nice to birds."

"Definitely not normal," my mother concluded.

I didn't think about Edna and Henry for years. Then, one fine fall day, I found myself in their neighborhood. I drove by their home, saw the brass "Bird House" plaque next to the front door, and stopped.

Edna was pleased to see me. She was out of the bird business now, she reported, as Henry had passed on years earlier and it was too much work for one 88-year-old lady. We reminisced awhile, mostly about birds come and gone. She was still very sharp. She even remembered my fondness for chocolate cake and ice cream, and invited me into the kitchen for some of each.

"What ever became of your boy, Robbie?" I asked, assuming my rightful place at her kitchen table.

"Oh, he died," she said.

"Sorry," I said. "I'll bet you miss him."

"I do indeed," said Edna, a little sadly. Then, just as quickly, she brightened. And then she spoke.

"Would you like to see him?" she asked.

"Of course," I replied.

I figured Edna was about to show me a snapshot of the late lamented Robbie. I was pretty sure I was wrong when she opened the freezer and subtracted what seemed to be a frozen box of Hallmark cards wedged between the Bird's Eye peas and a quart of ice cream.

Gently, she placed the box on the table next to my cake. The top was see-through plastic and covered with frost. Edna began to scrape the ice with her fingernails. In an instant, old Robbie, eternally resting on a bed of artificial Easter grass, materialized.

"I couldn't bear to part with him," she explained. "So I decided just to freeze him. That way, whenever I want to see him, you know, he's in the freezer."

It was hard to know what to say. So I stared awhile, looking very sad, at the feathery figure of Robbie in eternal repose, stiffer than a frozen mackerel.

The strangest thing came to mind: I remembered when my dad died and we had a great Irish wake. He had been a big man all his life but sickness had made him small and barely recognizable in that casket. If I hadn't known it was my old man, I wouldn't have been able to put a name to the face.

Yet, as folks always do at times like that -- when they are nervous and haven't a clue what to say -- they mostly spout nonsense. "He looks good," mourner after mourner said, consolingly. Or, another favorite, "He looks so peaceful." What I wanted to say was, "No, he looks lousy and nothing like I remember him. Also, I should point out, the peaceful thing is because he's dead." Instead, politely, I said, "Thank you."

"He looks great," I suddenly heard myself telling Edna. Did I say that? "So, you know, peaceful."

"Doesn't he, though," she agreed. "He was a handsome boy."

I left Edna that day and decided not to mention Chapter II of "The Bird House" to my mother. I didn't need the aggravation. More importantly, there was the other thing, the way I've come to feel after all these years notwithstanding my dear mother's directions:

Normal or not, if that old lady took comfort from keeping a dead bird in her freezer, it was fine by me.

When I moved back to college for my sophomore year at Colgate University in the wilds of Hamilton, N.Y., I drove straightaway to the Salvation Army in nearby Utica. I had fifty bucks in my pocket, and my intent was to buy enough used (nowadays they would probably call it pre-owned) junk to furnish an apartment on the top floor of an old rooming house.

For my $50, I got a mattress, a hideous faux Oriental rug, a lousy lamp, a likewise lousy desk and chair, a priceless print featuring a bunch of bulldogs sitting around a table playing poker, and, if I recollect correctly...change!

I tied the mattress on top of my VW, stuffed everything else in the back and front seats sticking out the windows, and drove back to Colgate. It was pre-Queer-Eye-for-the-Straight-Guy executed in a sassy Salvation Army motif. Nonetheless, I thought, you know, this is going to be exceedingly cool.

I recalled that experience last week as we moved my daughter back to the University of Colorado. The approach to furnishing her apartment compared to mine -- to mangle a metaphor or two -- was the difference between putting a little lipstick on the proverbial pig and re-creating the Oval Office. Capiche?

The idea shared by my wife and daughter was to essentially transport the girl's bedroom at home in Wisconsin clear out to Colorado. This meant moving a certain number of pieces 1200 miles (as opposed to visiting St. Vinny's in Boulder), as well as obtaining other essential accessories and hauling the lot across The Great Plains. Most of the new stuff was acquired at IKEA at some mall in Chicago where, my first wife assured me with a look of utter disdain, you can get good stuff on the cheap. Sure.

(The hitch, I later learned, is that you have to assemble the stuff. As I am a dad who cannot distinguish an Allen wrench from Alan Greenspan, I now know this is a stupid trick.)

But, then, I am not consulted on these things. My every attempt at imposing practicality on my family over the years has failed pathetically. I see myself as a pragmatic, eminently reasonable man; they see me as middle-aged, pear-shaped lump in a Barcalounger, sort of like that clown Joey on Friends, i.e., a Philistine with no aptitude for interior design.

"This is a college apartment," I insisted, fruitlessly. "The essential thing about college is to finish -- and finish quickly--not to decorate."

In recent years, this back-to-school, long-haul trucking expedition no longer includes me. So while I help bring the stuff down from her room to the big U-Haul, I am not invited to ride along. This is OK by me, however, because when the women in my life drive long distances, they listen to certain books on tape recommended by people like Oprah (this year's back-to-college biggie was Paper Life, the incredibly dysfunctional and deeply depressing story of Tatum O'Neil's horrible Hollywood growing-up) that would make any 1200-mile car trip seem like a trek across Siberia, or, worse, Illinois.

So they load up, drive to Minneapolis, pick up the kind of one-million-pound sleeper couch (donated by my son's girlfriend) that you see abandoned on curbs across the nation, then cross Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and enter Colorado, all the while listening to poor Tatum talk about how her father was a creep, her mother hopelessly gone round-the-bend, and her husband abusive. That's entertainment?

I fly to Denver two days later. We plan for the next day's unloading. I know it is going to be in the 90s, and that if I have to unload the big stuff in that U-Haul, I am going to die a meaningless death on the staircase pushing that horrible couch up to my daughter's second-floor apartment.

But Steve is smart. He is a man with a college degree that took him 10 years to pay off. He has contacted a colleague in Denver who has lined up two college guys to unload the U-Haul, and carry the bed and massive sleeper couch up the angled stairs. Steve is always, always thinking.

Thursday morning I call both of the pack mules' cell phones. I get sleepy college male voicemail. This is not comforting. By 10 a.m., still nothing.  It is 91 now. I cannot wait any longer. Time to unload.

And then, because I lead an exemplary life and God so approves of me, salvation arrives in the form of a young man named Brent. He is riding past on his bike as we unlock the U-Haul.

"Need help?" he asks.

"How about twenty bucks?" I answer.

Brent, who, with all due respect, smells a lot like the tasting room at the end of the Miller Brewing tour, looks totally dumbfounded. Too little? Too much? I cannot tell.

"For twenty bucks, man," he says, "I'll unload the whole thing myself!" With that, Brent starts extracting big boxes from the trailer, and -- I kid you not -- runs full tilt up the stairs! He is determined to unload in Olympic record time. Up and down he goes, box after box marked for the bedroom, kitchen, living room, bathroom.

It is the hands-down, most impressive unloading job by a thoroughly besotted guy in the history of college move-ins.

If I have one criticism of Brent, it would be that he is geometrically challenged. The last item out is the million-pound sleeper couch. I get the front end, Brent the rear. It troubles me not a little enough that he intends to run up the stairs with this beast, over me, but also that he apparently cannot distinguish a right-angled turn from an isosceles triangle.

Still, after much heaving and turning -- plus lots of advice from the wife and daughter--we get it up the stairs.

I give him a $20 bill for his Herculean efforts. He looks exceedingly happy.

My wife gives me the look that says, "More. You are a tightwad, and he worked so hard!" I hand him another twenty.

"Man," he says, obviously overcome with gratitude.

"And here's ten bucks more for being the world's most enthusiastic unloader," I say.

I think Brent is going to cry.

"I can't tell you what this means to me," he says.

I'm thinking, "I think I know, Brent. It involves a fraternity house and a keg the size of a grain elevator."

As serious decorating commences, I am dispatched to the corner store for drinks. I buy the morning newspaper, take a seat on a bench outside, sip Peach Snapple, and peruse the sports section.

The women in my life are nesting. Brent has fifty bucks in his billfold. The sun is shining, and my back will live to make another horrible golf swing. Sometimes it's good to be the clever Steve.

What do you say about a guy named Bo?

He had attitude. Our first summer on the farm, the dog next door came loping across the pasture, climbed the porch hoping to introduce himself, and Bo promptly bloodied his nose. There was something about him that Bo just didn't care for. Turned out he was right.

Bo liked to stay out all night, sleep all day. He had a good left hook, a cauliflower ear, one blind eye, and the most bowlegged gait since Billy Crystal got off that horse in City Slickers.

Frankly, Bo didn't have much to recommend him. Worse, he didn't care.

But he grew on a person. He had lived upstairs in the old barn for God knows how long and considered it his own. Once, when I was moving lawn furniture out of the barn in spring, and he more or less refused to move out of my way, I suggested he might make some sort of contribution if he hoped to stay.

He tipped his head, stared a moment, then commenced licking his paws.

"Are you as dumb as you seem, Steve-O?" his eyes asked.

The family considered him quite the charmer. They would pick him up and rock him like a baby, then scratch his chewed-up excuse for ears. When they began bringing him in the house in summer, I was opposed, and loudly so. When I caught him sleeping under the kitchen table one day, I put my foot down.

"That old ragamuffin barn cat is not moving into this house," I howled. "There's no telling where he was last night. This is a barn cat. He belongs in a barn!"

Pretty soon he had vacated the cardboard box in the hay mow and taken up residence on a specially prepared chair on the back porch. It had a fluffy beach towel for a mattress and a parasol to shield his scrawny self from the sun. Truth to tell, though I railed against him for his arrogance and presumption, I worried a little when late autumn suggested winter.

One day -- I can't explain why -- I stopped at a pet store and invested in one of those insulated, igloo-style pet houses with the heavy-duty plastic flap for coming and going.

"There's a nice blue mat that goes with it for another $15," said the sales lady.

I was appalled, offended. "Do I strike you as the sort of sap who would spend another fifteen bucks to buy a bed for some shiftless barn cat that has slept on a pile of straw all his sorry life?" I walked around the store for five minutes looking indignant and feigning interest in bird feeders. Then I gave her the extra fifteen for the mat.

I figured I'd get big points with the igloo. I put it on a bench on the porch and, with Bo lounging nearby, demonstrated how a smart and grateful barn cat would go in and out. He took no notice. So I lifted him up and placed him inside. He immediately walked out.

"I don't care if you did pay $200 for the whole arrangement," he communicated. "I'm not interested. Have you noticed that I'm a cat, not an Eskimo?"

A week later he was fast asleep in a laundry basket in the kitchen. A week after that he had moved to the hallway upstairs. Soon he was sawing logs or whatever lazy cats do on the end of our bed. I don't remember when he started sleeping between us.

I came to admire his patience. He would waltz down for breakfast and one of the kids would fill his bowl with crunchy cat food. He would look at it, disdainfully, then stare at my wife behind the morning paper. He was getting old and his gums were sore and he preferred something softer. In the end, Bo always got his way.

A few weeks later, I noticed that he was struggling to make the leap from the floor to the bed, and that his trademark laziness had turned to listlessness. So my wife took him to the vet.

"He's got severe kidney problems," the vet announced. "He's in an awful lot of pain. He should be put down." And so he was.

I was out-of-town when I got the bad news. I don't know what came over me. I couldn't stop thinking about that old cat, how he was the picture of contentment when he slept, how he sauntered down the gravel drive from the barn like a bowlegged buckaroo, how he stared and glared until you got up and substituted smoked salmon for meow mix.

When I arrived home there was no Bo on the back porch. No Bo asleep on the stairs, refusing to budge. No Bo in the bedroom, taking the sun.

After dinner that evening, I strolled out to the barn. I climbed the steps to the hay mow and walked over to a cardboard box that one of the kids had filled with straw when we first encountered that old cat. I just stood and stared. Then, alone in that old barn with not a soul in sight -- you can bet I made damn sure of that -- I had a good cry.

I must be losing my edge.

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