REMEMBERING ROOKIE

crow

One summer day, when I was about eight years old, I was sitting under an elm tree watching a cricket match in the local recreation park. Then something plopped in front of me. It was a ball of fluff with short black feathers sticking out. I turned to my friend Sam.

“Look Sam, a baby bird fell out of its nest. I’m going to take it home.”

“You can’t have it, I saw it first,” he retorted.

“You didn’t know it was there until I told you! You can have the next interesting thing we find.”

“Okay. Nursing baby birds is too girly for me anyway.”

Unfortunately for Sam, the next thing we discovered was an unexploded German Butterfly bomb. Sam grabbed it eagerly. “I’m going to cut it open and get the powder out.”

I stayed as far away as possible, so I wasn’t there when Sam tried to dismantle the bomb. Apparently, he clamped it in a vice and attacked it with a hacksaw. When the bomb exploded, he was killed instantly, and his tool shed was demolished.

I carried the baby bird home in a paper cup.

My mother helped me make a nest for the bird by filling an old shoe box with worn-out socks. Then we used a clean ink filler to feed the bird by squirting milk into its open beak. The bird rapidly recovered from its trauma and had no serious injuries. After a couple of weeks we switched the diet to bird seed, which it ate without assistance. The bird was black, so we thought it was a rook—and we gave it the name “Rookie.” A few weeks later, we went to the aviary at Regents Park Zoo, where we compared all the black birds—rook, raven, crow, blackbird, magpie, etc. We found that Rookie was merely a common crow. But because rooks and crows are related subspecies, we figured the name was close enough. Also, of course, “Rookie” suggests a beginner, so it seemed appropriate.

We never intended to keep Rookie captive. As soon as he could flap his wings, we put him and his food outside. Soon he learned to fly and forage for food. But he still stayed close to the house. Then he reached maturity. We assumed he was male, because he didn’t lay eggs or build a nest. One day he wanted to find a mate, so he attempted to join a huge local flock of crows. But they figured he wasn’t a real crow, and chased him off. It suddenly made sense that a group of crows would be called a “murder.” However, researchers have found that crows are actually very social and caring creatures, and also among the smartest on the planet. They can count up to five, and they can recognize people’s faces.

After his rejection by the local murder of crows, Rookie seemed to understand he would have to spend the rest of his life in the human world. He no longer did much flying, and became cranky—perhaps because he knew he was never going to get laid. He developed some very human emotions. Local children started to taunt him–so he started to attack them and chase them away. However, Rookie also retained some annoying crow characteristics. He kept stealing shiny objects (such as people’s jewelry and coins) and stashed the loot on top of our tool shed. Also, he would peck holes in the silver foil on top of bottles of milk that had been delivered and left on our doorstep. Perhaps he had developed a taste for milk as a baby.

One day, Rookie disappeared. My parents said he had probably rejoined the flock. But I knew that was impossible, because he had already tried and failed. Later, I learned that my father had taken Rookie to the local chicken farm, and had him destroyed. I don’t know why he did that—he was probably afraid of being sued by the parents of the obnoxious children that Rookie chased away. But my father had lied to me and had killed Rookie–a sort of surrogate kid brother (I was an only child). And that wasn’t the first time my father killed a pet bird. A couple of years earlier, my mother took me to Wales for a few weeks in the summer (to get away from the bombing in London). When we returned, the pet canary had died because my stupid father had forgotten to feed it.

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FOUNTAIN

Image result for pictures of dominic behan

When I first met Dominic Behan, he was singing on Eel Pie Island. The last time I saw him, he was wrestling with police in the moat under one of the two fountains in Trafalgar Square.

Eel Pie Island sits in the middle of the Thames, connected to Twickenham via a narrow footbridge. Apart from a hotel and boathouse, most of the island was a bird sanctuary. I lived in the hotel, a former whorehouse for American airmen during WWII. According to the guide on a passing tourist boat, “Charles Dickens lived here on Eel Pie Island while he was writing the Pickwick Papers.” The tour guide did not explain whether the hotel was already a whorehouse when Dickens resided there.

Every Saturday evening, the bird sanctuary was disrupted by loud music from the hotel ballroom, mostly traditional jazz, with occasional folk music. Arthur Chisnall, owner and operator of the club, had recruited me as his doorman.

Dominic Behan was a fountain of creativity. Like his older brother, Brendan, he wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and biographies. But unlike his brother, he also composed about 450 songs. In his Eel Pie Island concert, Dominic put on a one-man show, playing all of his most popular songs.

Arthur usually invited performers to dinner after their show. He must have had a premonition that ‘dinner’ with Behan would turn into an extended pub crawl–he gave me a handful of ten-pound notes and asked me to entertain the performer. I figured unless Dominic was a gourmet, I would come out ahead on that deal. I think I had a meat pie and a bag of potato crisps at the first pub, while Dominic ate nothing. He drank a lot of black-and-tans with Irish whiskey chasers, while I drank a lot of lager.

At closing time, I figured I was finally off the hook.

“Dominic, I’m going to head over to the Nucleus—a coffee shop where they have all-night jam sessions.”

“You do what you have to do. But you can drink round the clock in London. You drink with the newspaper men on Fleet Street, and then you hang out with the porters in Covent Garden. I usually drink until the coppers arrest me. “

“I’m ready to quit, but if you want to keep going, here’s some more of Arthur’s money.”

“Okay, it’s been a lot of fun. You’ll live longer than me, because you’re not such a wild child. Be sure to come see my play at the Irish Theatre, two weeks from now. Here’s a ticket for opening night, paid for with Arthur’s money. Tell all your friends about it. “

***

The Irish Theatre had a long bar inside the auditorium. It was probably a mistake to stage Dominic’s play in a theatre that allowed uninterrupted drinking.

His play, ‘Posterity Be Damned’, was a one-man show. Billed as a study of republican activity after the Irish civil war, it seemed more like a systematic attack on various political and religious groups. Progressively more violent audience reactions culminated in a brawl. The play ran for just a week—not because of a limited audience, but because each performance ended in a costly riot.

***

Every year on Guy Fawkes Night we went to Trafalgar Square to watch college students fight the police. The object of the game was to knock cop helmets into the fountain moats. The police were usually good-natured about the event.

That year, Dominic Behan was the star. He laid claim to three of a total of seven helmets under the fountain. Unfortunately, the police had started to become paranoid about IRA terrorism, so they brought in a riot squad. They arrested Dominic and hit him with some heavy charges—inciting a riot, assaulting police officers, resisting arrest, etc. So Dominic had to serve some real jail time instead of just sleeping overnight in a holding cell.

***

Dominic subsequently moved to Glasgow. His forecast that I would outlive him proved accurate. He died in 1989 at the age of 60, while in 2014 I’m still alive and kicking.

COMFORT

148Mike, the old man I live with, gave me the name Cassie—the fourth name I’ve had during my short life. When he’s lying on his bed reading, or watching TV, I like to lie beside him and cuddle up as I did with my mom. Mike says I’m a comfort to him, because he has lived alone since his wife died. And he’s certainly a comfort to me, as I really miss my mom.

Officially, I’m a “Redbone Coonhound”—Redbone was the name of the guy who developed the breed. But Mike calls me a “redneck coonhound.” I came from the south—and Mike says that’s where the rednecks live. On a farm in Virginia, my mom had me and three other puppies. Then my mom disappeared. The rednecks said she had been shot in a hunting accident–because she looked like a deer. Mike says morons like that shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, and people shouldn’t be allowed to hunt. But I was bred as a hunting dog, and if people can’t hunt they won’t need hunting dogs.

After my mom disappeared, I started exploring the edge of the farm. Then the rednecks rounded up the other three puppies and said they were going to try selling them. But I thought they would kill them like they killed my mom. So I ran into the woods and just kept running and running until I couldn’t run anymore. I started to get very thirsty. Eventually, I arrived at a place where there were streets and houses and people. They later told me I was in Siler City, North Carolina. A kind woman gave me some water, but then she called the dog catcher who took me to the county dog pound.

At the dog pound, they called me Tallulah, or Lola for short. They said coonhounds were a dime a dozen in North Carolina and nobody would want to adopt me. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” they said. Fortunately, they called a rescue agency that specializes in taking coonhounds for adoption in the Northeast, where we are seen as more valuable. Guess I got lucky because some wealthy guy in New York wanted a coonhound. Next day, they put me in a crate and drove me to Park Ave. and 72nd St., in Manhattan.

The guy who adopted me was a Jewish hedge-fund manager who had married a blue-eyed blonde from North Carolina. His friends said she was his “shiksa.” He thought his bride would be happy to get a puppy from her home state. However, she had evolved from a southern farm girl into a Jewish princess. She would have preferred one of those rat-sized dogs like the one Paris Hilton carries around in her purse. And, for Park Ave., that might have been a more practical choice.

They changed my name to Pippi. That was before I peed on their carpet, so I don’t know where they got the name. All the traffic scared me—especially the yellow cabs. I barked at the cabs, and tried to chase them away, but they just kept coming. Central Park was nice, but we had to cross a big street to get to it. My owner finally conceded that midtown Manhattan wasn’t the best environment for a hunting dog, so he had the agency take me back.

The agency wanted to keep me in the Northeast where I had a better chance of getting adopted. They persuaded a lady named Leslie to be my foster mother until I could get adopted again. She lived in a nice house in New Rochelle. It had a large fenced yard and I could play all day with my foster brother–a black-and-tan coonhound, adopted from the same agency. They changed my name to Krissy. I wished I could live there forever. But a husband, two toddlers, and two dogs were too much of a burden for Leslie. She made a video of me playing ball, and her godfather, Mike, saw it and decided to adopt me.

That’s how I wound up living with Mike in Connecticut. He changed my name to Cassie, and figured the two names sounded similar enough that I wouldn’t get confused. I’ve lived with him for over a year now—and that’s much longer than I lived anywhere else. Now we can comfort each other until one of us dies.