Monday, July 11, 2005

A Favorite Place

The National Aviary, Pittsburgh

Those who know me well might be surprised that I would have anything bird related as a favorite place. I have been intensely phobic of birds ever since an incident at age 4 involving me, a bucket of feed and 30 or so VERY hungry chickens. Let's just say, you shouldn't throw the feed on your feet, OK? Especially when you're not much taller than the hens to begin with. My grandfather heard my cries of terror and rescued me.

So you might expect that my fondness for the Aviary has to do with something other than the fact that much of the exhibit is a free fly zone for the birds kept there. You would be right.

I was quite ill during 8th grade and missed many school days. The authorities, fearing for my education I suppose, determined that I be sent to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh for tests and evaluation. So I was loaded on a bus in Clarion and sent off to my testing at the hospital.

My Father was taking some classes at one of the Pittsburgh universities to qualify for a promotion with the union he worked for. And since the roads in the early 60's left a lot to be desired, he was staying in a rooming house in Pittsburgh rather than making the 3+ hour drive each day. I was not exactly what you would call well travelled at that point in my life and at 8am I arrived in Pittsburgh a total nervous wreck, absolutely convinced my Father didn't know I was coming and that I would be trapped in the bus station.

There I was, far away from home, a semi-hysterical kid, scared out of my mind by the crowds of the city and determined in my belief that the doctors in the hospital were going to find out that I was near death.

Of course my Father was late. By the time he arrived, I was cowering in a corner, barely coherent.

He gently calmed me down and took me to the hospital where I spent the rest of the morning in painful and humiliating testing. After having lunch in the hospital caffeteria, we were rather gruffly told by the doctors that I would live. They gave me a huge bag of meds and sent us off.

My Dad then took me on a tour of Pittsburgh. We went to the Cathedral of Learning. We visited Forbes Field, home of my beloved Pirates. We had dinner in a real diner and then walked across a beautiful bridge to the Northside neighborhood where his rooming house was. He knew I loved science and had purchased tickets for the late show at Buhl Planetarium, just a block or so from where he was staying.

Since we had several hours until the show started and there wasn't really a place for us in the shared room in the rooming house, we walked around a bit. My Dad spotted the Aviary and thought it would be a good place to spend the time. Now I was at that point even more terrified of birds than I am today. I didn't exactly go willingly, but he insisted that I would learn a great deal. And he put a lot of emphasis on learning.

So in we went. The public areas of the aviary were constructed in such a way that you followed a path that ran from the entrance to the exit. It was not a simple matter to reverse your trail. I was mostly ok with the smaller exhibits. The birds were caged and I didn't feel threatened by them. And he was right, the exhibits were interesting and I did learn a great deal. But when we entered the tropical free flight cage, I started to panic. About halfway across the big open space, a parrot flew between my Dad and me and I just froze. I was totally unable to move. I could barely even talk I was so frightened.

It took him a few moments to notice that I was having trouble. When he realized that there was a problem, he told me to close my eyes and that he would see me safely across the room. He then put his hand on my shoulder and led me quietly out of the room, never letting on to anyone else that I was in difficulty. He valued my pride enough to not make me visible.

Once outside the cage, we sat and talked until I calmed down a bit. We then continued on past the smaller cages toward the exit. In one of the last cages, there was a mynah bird named 'Groucho'. We stopped to look at him and I said to my Dad that yes, the feathers above his eyes did look like Groucho's eybrows. And my Father laughed. And the bird laughed back at him in exact mimicry of his laugh. My Dad laughed again. The bird laughed back. My Father started laughing uncontrollably. And the bird joined right in. Neither of them could stop because when they tried, the other would start and they'd be off again.

My Father was not what I would call much of a laughter kind of guy. Oh he smiled a lot and had a gentle sense of humor, but laughing out loud happened seldom for him. He always said that his Dad never laughed and seeing photographs of Granddad Ramsey's dour Scot's countenance, I truly believed it.

So seeing my Dad lost in uncontrolled laughter was a new experience for me. Soon, I was laughing so hard I had to sit down on the bench. The tears started flowing from my eyes and my sides ached at the effort of laughter. A small crowd gathered to watch the show. Soon they were all laughing too. And still my Dad and the bird laughed. After about 10 minutes. my Dad finally was able to stop.

As we were walking away, my Dad said "thanks" to the bird and Groucho said "thanks" back in my Dad's voice. My dad smiled and we left to go to the Planetarium.


ae said...

Wonderful. Lovely. Fantastic. If this be "blognosis," play on. =)

Kolchak said...

Great story!

handdrummer said...


One of the things I realized years later was just how profoundly frightened my Father must have been about the hospital visit. The release of that laughter must have seemed like something heaven sent.


thanks! I beginning to see the narrative thread of my life more clearly. Back when I had Phil's writing course at the U, I couldn't imagine anything more dull than writing about myself.