Archive for September, 2013

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  • September 24th, 2013

WHY I AM NOT A GENERAL IN THE ARMY

By Joel M. Vance

When I was 10 years old I saw Gary Cooper at the Rialto in downtown Birch Lake playing Alvin York, the soldier-hero of World War One.  In the middle of the last reel the film broke and we all hooted at the projectionist and went away disappointed.

But then when I was 15 I saw Audie Murphy in John Huston’s movie The Red Badge of Courage where he redeemed himself from cowardice without getting what he’d hoped for—a red badge of courage, a bloody wound, that would take him out of the fighting.  He and I both looked like we were 15 years old, only I really was.

Boyish or not, Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War Two.  The red badge, a blood-soaked wound gained in fierce fighting with the enemy–gosh, I could almost feel it—not fatal, you understand or even really painful, but something to show the guys at home (and the girls, too, since I was fumbling through puberty)..

My cousin Mike had been a Marine somewhere in the Pacific. It seemed a glamorous way to grow up, over there fighting the Japs, the Yellow Horde, the Nips.  I had sighed because the Army wouldn’t take ten-year-old kids and hoped the war would last long enough for me to get in and kill a few slanteyes.  It didn’t and Mike came home from the Pacific where he had enjoyed tropical breezes and suicide attacks on garden spots like Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  He tended to dive to the ground, shaking and moaning, when the Fourth of July lit up with fireworks.

His battle fatigue and the fact that he declared squatters rights on a stool at the Bluegill Bar and began to expand his waist like a barrage balloon somewhat tempered my ambition to walk in his boots, a mile or any other distance.  He didn’t seem like someone who had come to the end of the battle with the sound-over music of the Marine hymn playing and the flag waving in the background as John Wayne led his battle-weary survivors homeward.

Just a freaked out kid with acne, a blossoming beer belly and a thousand-yard stare that only abated after six or seven Bruenig’s lagers.

But the military has a strong sales program and if there are no foreign troops using you for target practice, the military is a doable way stop on life’s rocky road.  The country had been banging around in a place called Korea and I could seek my red badge.  But Mr. Eisenhower, everybody’s grandpa, was negotiating a truce and the shooting would stop, eliminating my chance to get sent to Korea and get my stupid ass frozen off and if I was lucky come home to indifference.  Of course we didn’t know about the ass-freezing or the distinct possibility of getting it, frozen or not, shot off.  The military doesn’t emphasize the downside.

There was a brief, shining moment when the Army came to Birch Lake and I was tempted to learn the mechanics of war, how to shoot an M1 rifle, how to march in step and how to clean latrines—all skills that would benefit me as a civilian, especially if I yearned to become a janitor.

Or, had I chosen to make the military a career, maybeI could be a colonel by now or even a general.  But I got cured of that idea the day the Army recruiter came to Birch Lake High School with the nurse, recruiting our blood.  It was a cooperative venture between the military and industrial complexes—before Mr. Eisenhower warned us of their dangers.  The civilians needed blood and the military was in business to create the need.  Talk about symbiosis!

We were poised at graduation, diplomas shimmering in the near future and a void after that.  Football season was long over; basketball had come and gone and the last Bobcat baseball game was two weeks finished.  Ennui was the name of the game now and even the Army looked pretty good.  It was 1953 and everyone figured that Korea was about to run out its string.

In the Army you could get job training, assuming there was a civilian call for trained assassins, earn very little money and see the world, especially some parts of it that, if you had money and time, you never would visit.

The principal gathered the senior boys together in a classroom and introduced Sgt. Hawkins, a recruiter, and Nurse Belvoir, a public health representative.  She would, he told us, take donated blood while Sgt. Hawkins sold us on the virtues of Army life.  Sgt. Hawkins was about six foot, four inches and built like the head of a splitting maul.  He had a buzz cut, a face cut out of granite, and the voice of a lion roaring on the veldt.  I suspect he had been chosen for recruiting duty on appearance alone—he looked like John Wayne on a good day.  Nurse Belvoir was petite, pretty and, I noticed, occasionally looked at the sergeant like a fastidious matron looks at a smelly stray dog.

It wouldn’t have occurred to us naïfs that the Army would not send its finest representatives to a backwater town like Birch Lake.  The enlistment pool was so scanty in the little resort town that there wasn’t much point in delegating a real recruiter.  “You ever kill anyone?” Scuz Olson bellowed from the back of the room. There was no question too embarrassing for Scuz who had been known to ask girls whether they were on the rag or not.

“I could lie to you an’ say I did,” Sgt. Hawkins said.  “But I ain’t been in combat yet.  In case you don’t know it we whupped up on them Korean gooks.  One uh these days, though….”

“What if we wanted to join and learn how to do something other than shoot someone?” my cousin Hal asked.

“I guess you could be a company clerk or some puss thing like that,” the sergeant said.  “Or you could learn explosives an’ be a demolition expert in civilian life.  There’s a lot of money in blowin’ up old buildings and stuff.”  For the first time the sergeant was on our wavelength.  There was great appeal in the idea of destroying large structures for money.  “You ever blow anything up?” Scuz asked.

The Seargeant, sensingthat he had touched a pleasure point, said,“You got yer hand grenades an’ you got yer rocket launchers an’ them artillery guys they got yer 105s and 155s can shoot five miles.  One uh them eight inch guns can shoot 20 miles and drop a round in a friggin’ rain barrel, excuse my French.”

Nurse Belvoir looked as if she’d heard his French before and didn’t care for his pronunciation.  She busied herself with a bottle of alcohol and cotton swabs.  We looked at her legs, losing the thread of Sgt. Hawkin’s description of flying debris and ear-deafening noise.  Apparently he was from Brooklyn or one of those New York-type places, as foreign to Birch Lake as the dark side of the moon.  He used words like “youse” and “Awright.”

“Youse guys are gonna graduate and Uncle Sam wants youse,” he said. “An’ right now he needs your blood.  “Awright, we’re gonna show you some Army stuff.  Nurse Belvoir here, she’s gonna bleed youse guys for a blood drive an’ it’s all for a good cause.  Might save some dogface’s life.”  It sounded like a noble cause and I fought down a tide of squeamishness, prepared to drain for Uncle Sam.  So…who’s gonna volunteer?”  We all looked at each other and then simultaneously tried to disappear like the Invisible Man.

Nurse Belvoir, meanwhile, extracted a wicked-looking syringe from her kit bag and the needle tip glinted in the classroom light.  We watched with open-mouthed fascination.  “Cummon, youse guys!” thundered Sgt. Hawkins.  “Whatta we got here—a bunch of pusses?”  I saw a couple of my classmates, more honest than the rest of us, nod agreement.

Here was my chance to earn a civilian red badge of courage.  Did I have what it took to charge the metaphorical machinegun nest and volunteer to have my blood sucked from me.  My conscious mind urged me to do it, but my craven subconscious paralyzed every motor response and instead of leaping to my feet, shouting, “I’ll do it!” I shrank even further into my chair, becoming almost the size of the 10-year-old of World War Two.

Nurse Belvoir looked at her massive traveling companion and into the echoing silence of our collective cowardice, said, “Looks like you’ll have to be the guinea pig, sergeant.”  Sgt Hawkins jerked as if he’d absorbed a bullet from one uh them gooks.  He swallowed noisily and his eyes darted much like those of a cornered animal.  Duty and something else struggled behind that manly visage and we frowned in puzzlement.  Was this John Wayne or…us?

“Sergeant?” the nurse said.  Did I detect a gleam of suppressed triumph in the nurse’s face?  She and the sergeant had been beating the bushes for cannon fodder together for a long time and she knew him far better than we did.  Surely she had blooded him numerous times….or was BirchLake the only small town populated entirely by teenage cowards?  She approached the huge sergeant, like a Chihuahua sidling up to a Great Pyrenees, and unbuttoned his shirtsleeve and rolled the sleeve over a massive bicep.   “It ain’t gonna hurt as much as gettin’ shot,” he said, a tight grin on his face.

She swabbed his arm with alcohol and, without ceremony, jabbed him with the needle.  Nothing happened.  Frowning, she worked the needle like a woodcock probing for earthworms.  Sgt. Hawkins’s ferocious grin tightened and he paled.  Then there was a gout of blood, as if an oil driller had struck a gusher.

Sgt. Hawkins looked at his spurting arm and he let out a tiny moan and crashed to the floor like a giant redwood.  The entire BirchLakeHigh School building shook as if in a minor earthquake.  Nurse Belvoir stood over the poleaxed warrior, her mouth open (like those of the rest of us).  If Sgt. Hawkins had wanted to make a statement, he had—just, I suspect, not the one he intended.  From a class of potential bloodletters in the name of freedom, the American way and any other good cause you could name, we became a class of pacifists, conscientious objectors and outright draft dodgers.

Recalling her training, Nurse Belvoir dug in her bag and found a compress and stanched the flow of blood.  Those of us in the front seats witnessed the carnage of warfare without enduring gunfire or cannonade.  It was enough to cure any desire I might have had for a career on the battlefield.  “If anyone would like to sign up,” Nurse Belvoir began, “the sergeant will be in the library…..”  The bell rang and the rest of what she said was drowned out by the thunder of our hoofbeats as we fled the classroom.

That was the end of my exposure to the military on the grunt level.  I went to college, deferred from the draft, got a second lieutenant’s commission through ROTC and spent six months on active duty at Ft. Bliss, Texas, after the Korean cease fire.

On the first day of what amounted to basic training for second lieutenants, the lowest form of animal life, a grizzled master sergeant strode into our classroom like a thundercloud and looked at us as if he were looking at vomit.

“Okay, pussies, sirs,” he rumbled.  “You’re in the Army now and our job is to cause bloodshed.  Anybody here afraid of blood?”

I started to raise my hand, but thought better of it.

-30-

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  • Blog
  • September 16th, 2013

Anatomy Comes to Birch Lake

By Joel M. Vance

It is the middle 1950s, long ago.  Birch Lake begins to slumber in mid-June and doesn’t really wake until the first cold night of autumn.  The lake turns to pea soup and fish sull in the dark depths.  The mid-day sun is painfully bright and the thick, hot air smells of road tar and lake algae.  Labrador retrievers drowse listlessly in the shade, twitching with fevered dreams of icy water and mallards tumbling from the sky.

Summer is the time of the tourist, those strange beings from other worlds—like Indiana and Illinois.  My Uncle Floyd’s bar fills with visitors in Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps who brag about big fish they’ve caught.  Uncle Floyd, the owner and bartender, arbitrates arguments over the Chicago baseball teams and the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.  He is regarded warily by the ladies of the United Church.

True, he owns a bar, a cause for concern, but he also is a member of the town’s most revered family.  My grandmother is a Birch Lake pioneer and a figure of unassailable rectitude.  One does not lightly attack her family.

The Pioneer’s Fair planners made Uncle Floyd chairman of the midway entertainment subcommittee…and he brought Flame LaTouche to town.

The owner of the previous year’s carnival was in jail for kiting bad checks, so Birch Lake needed a new show, preferably one with class.  Uncle Floyd was up against it because if there was one thing the Bluegill Bar lacked it was class.  He should have known better than to trust a stranger from The Cities who ordered yet another Bruenig’s Lager and said, “Trust me, you can’t go wrong with the Miller Brothers outfit.  I used to work for them guys and they is first rate!”

The deadline loomed and Uncle Floyd was desperate.  Uncle Floyd went for the bait.  He arranged for the carnival visit over the phone and in time a shabby collection of flatbed trucks and trailers pulled onto Main Street and began to set up some indifferent rides like a Tilt-a-Whirl that looked more bent than tilted, and a miniscule Ferris Wheel that creaked arthritically and wobbled like a wheel with loose lug nuts.

One tired old lion slumbered in a small cage, looking as if it wanted only to sleep or perhaps to die.  A group of monkeys threw shit at the onlookers which effectively limited their appeal.

For us randy teenagers Flame LaTouche was the exception to the general decrepitude of the event.  She was advertised as “An Exotic Dancer Direct From The Nile!” and she was the flame (or Flame) to our randy crowd, awash in juvenile hormones.

My cousin Hal and I stared at the posters tantalizingly offering glimpses of her charms with the rapt attention our biology teacher had vainly tried to get us to show in class.

“Exotic dancing,” Hal declared as if he knew all about it, “means she does sex stuff.”

“That’s erotic dancing,” I said, having made a study of such things since my voice began to change.  “Exotic dancing means she does stuff from Bali or Afghanistan or some place like that in the South Pacific.”

The United Church League ladies demanded that the performance be prohibited, but the city officials and county court, exclusively men who secretly planned to sneak a peek at Flame LaTouche, weren’t about to ban her exotic Afganistanian gyrations.

They cited the First Amendment, as well as artistic expression.  “You ladies don’t have to go, you know,” said the presiding commissioner, praying they wouldn’t.

The ladies gritted their teeth, mostly false, and stalked from the meeting to confront my grandmother.  “It’s your son who’s bringing that,,,,that woman here!” exclaimed Mrs. Ethel Warburton, a widow, though it always amazed me that some man could have found her attractive enough to marry.  “I should think you’d be more Christian than to allow it.”

My grandmother bristled at the suggestion she was unChristian and also that one of her sons might be flawed, although they all were in charming ways.  “Floyd is 46 years old,” she declared, just short of a snarl.  “I quit spanking him quite a few years ago.”

Mrs. Warburton huffed off with her doughty delegation and prayed for salvation.  She thought it had come when a rusty Ford van limped into town.  The Rev. Roy Lee Snyder was a frreeswinging revivalist whose biannual visit to Birch Lake just happened to coincide with that of the Miller Brothers sideshow.

Faced with an implacable phalanx of righteous church ladies, the county court let Brother Snyder set up his revival tent at the edge of the Midway, figuring that while the town wives were being saved the husbands could roam the Midway, awkwardly shooting basketballs at a goal half regulation size, firing a .22 at tin targets that refused to topple…and skulking into the dark corners of Flame LaTouche’s crimson tent, a tent lit by flickering lamps that made their eyeballs glitter.

Hal and I were throwing rocks at a poster advertising the visit of Brother Snyder when his rusty van jerked to a stop beside us.  There was an ill-painted sign skewed to the side of it reading “Jesus Saves!”

“At the Birch Lake Bank,” Hal snickered.

“Geez!” I said, “that’s blasphemy stuff.  Don’t make jokes like that.”

“You boys!  Get over here!”  Brother Snyder had the eye of a raptor, sharp and hungry.  He crooked a long finger at us that reminded me of an illustration I’d seen in a Weird Tales Magazine  of the Grim Reaper beckoning a lost soul.  My mouth went dry.

“Whayuh is the fairgrounds?” the lean preacher asked, a hint of the South and dusty gravel roads in his raw voice.  He needed a haircut and a shampoo wouldn’t have hurt either.  He was at least a day short of a shave and I thought of a buzzard perched in a tree over a road kill.

Hal, who never met a stranger he couldn’t irritate, pointed down the road.  “Can’t miss it,” he said.  “It’s where the hootchy-kootchy dancer is.”  He did a clumsy shimmy and Brother Snyder’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Do you attend church, boy?” he growled.  We stirred uneasily because while we did go to church it was not a matter of choice.  I suspected it didn’t qualify as real churchgoing.

“I see sin in you boys,” Brother Snyder said.  “Oh, I fear you are whoring and gambling and lost!” he exclaimed, wrong on all counts.  But he was just warming up.  He drew a tattered Bible from his coat jacket as quick as John Wayne ever unholstered a Colt Peacemaker.

Brother Snyder grabbed my arm.  It felt like a huge eagle had me in its talons.  “Lust is in your heart, boy!” he hissed and reflexively I shut my eyes so he couldn’t see in.  He had me pegged.  I could smell his breath.  It was as if he had been snacking on Hell.  “Repent or suffer as the damned!”

I was suffering already but just as I was on the verge of blubbering repentance, he let go of me.  “Thou shalt regret thy sins and become whole!”

He clambered back into his van and was gone in a flurry of dust.

“Shazaam!” Hal exclaimed.  “What a weirdo.”  I rubbed my arm.

We resumed our study of the poster immediately adjacent to Brother Snyder’s, the one advertising the forbidden charms of Flame LaTouche.  Meanwhile Brother Snyder set up his revival tent as close to the Midway as he could get, not realizing it was only a few steps from that of the evil Ms. LaTouche.  Dangerous business, like storing explosives close to an open flame.

The Pioneer’s Fair began and the bay of the calliope and the racket of the sideshow barkers mingled strangely with the preacher exhorting his sweating faithful through a sound system that occasionally screamed like a gutshot tomcat.

The United Church ladies swayed as one, inspired by Brother Snyder’s fervent rhythm.  A couple of husbands, incompetently evasive, glowered uncomfortably, wishing they were sucking up Bruenig’s Lager and drooling over the charms of Flame LaTouche next door.

Charlie Pete, the town drunk, wandered into the revival tent on the second night of the Fair and the holy man threw him out.  Charlie Pete was a Chippewa Indian, coppery and seamed, with an unkempt pony tail.  He would not swat a pesky deer fly.  “Get out, you heathen Indian!” shouted the good Brother.  “Get thee to Hell with your Godless aboriginal ancestors!”

Charlie Pete, half in the bag, didn’t understand much of what the foam-mouthed preacher was shouting, but he did understand he wasn’t wanted.  The preacher stalked the spooked Indian like a panther after a deer and Charlie bolted through the tent door, caromed off the rusty van and fell to the ground.  Hal and I hauled him to his feet.  “What the hell was that all about?” Charlie said, rubbing his forehead.  “What’d I ever do to him?”  He dabbed at a cut on his forehead with a dirty handkerchief.

“Whyn’cha put some Jibway curse on him?” Hal asked.  “Make him turn blue or something.”

“Kid, I run outa magic before I was your age,” Charlie said.  “I need a brew.”  He wandered off in the direction of town and the Bluegill Bar, familiar territory.

“Poor ol’ guy,” I said.  “That preacher don’t have no reason to push him around.  We sighed at the incomprehensibility of adults and wandered toward the forbidden tent.  I heard the raucous bray of the barker and my hormonal juices escalated to flood spate: “Awright, step inside and see the sweetest thing this side of Vegas!” he shouted.  “You kids, move on out, come back when you’re old enough to appreciate fine art…and bring money!  You get right in to see our little Flame…not only see, I’m telling you…but experience something you’ll never experience right here in Birch City.”

He got the name of the town wrong, but that was a trifle compared to what our imaginations added to his peroration.  He talked over our heads to the adults behind us and, embarrassed by the attention, we slunk to the next tent where a pimpled, greasy guy, scarcely older than we were, implored us to knock down stacked milk bottles and win a purple panda.

I couldn’t stand it anymore.  “Let’s go see her,” I said.  Hal looked at me, alarmed.  For all his bravado he tended to fade into the woodwork when push came to shove.  And he knew of my tendency to get into cataclysmic fixes.  He believed I could break Jell-o.

“You chicken?” I challenged.  That, of course, is the ultimate flung gauntlet to a teenage boy.

“Up yours!” he replied eloquently.  We circled behind the Flame LaTouche tent.  It was dark back there, untouched by the Midway lights.  The tent was quiet, between shows.  We cautiously peeked through a gap between two panels in the tent.

“Would you look at that!” Hal hissed.  The tent was deserted…and Flame LaTouche’s tasseled brassiere was draped over a folding chair.  “Talk about a trophy!” Hal breathed.  “Go get it.”

“Me!  You go get it!”

“Shhhh!  Shut up and listen.  I’ll go stand at the front of the tent and if anyone starts to come in, I’ll give the Bobcat Bark and you run like hell.”

“How come you get to stay outside and I get to go in?” I asked.

“Cause you can’t do a good Bobcat Bark,” Hal said.  “Your voice don’t work right.  Now quit foolin’ around and get in there before somebody comes back.”

He vanished around a corner of the tent and I peered in at the spangled brassiere.  My mind dwelled on the contents for which those glittering cups were designed and I took a deep and shuddery breath.

Well, what the hell, I thought.  I wriggled through the narrow gap in the tent wall and paused inside, my nerves singing like chorus frogs.

I reached for the brassiere and a voice rasped just behind me.  “What the hell are you doing!”  I completed my grab and whirled to behold Flame LaTouche.  She was in the all-together and there was no doubt she was all together.  Flame LaTouche was not a modest woman.  She covered none of her charms.  I breathed, “Shazaam!” and my mouth stayed open.  I clutched the brassiere against my chest as if I were the one who was naked, not her.

Flame LaTouche was one angry exotic dancer.  “Gimme my bra, you little pissant!” she snarled.  She started toward me, raising her hand to display long crimson fingernails, like bloody claws.

I yelped in alarm and dove for the opening in the tent, but missed it.  I rebounded off the stiff canvas like a trampoline artist into Ms. LaTouche who exclaimed “oooofff!” and grabbed me as we both lost our balance.

We staggered across the tent and, even in my terror, I realized that naked women were soft in delightful ways not experienced when dancing with clothed ones.  We fell over a low table and broke apart and I scrambled to my feet, facing Ms. LaTouche, who seized a book from the table and threw it at me.

I’d been catching for the Birch Lake Cookies for years and I shagged the sailing book one-handed and now grasped two items belonging to Flame LaTouche (not, however, the two I’d been fantasizing about).

Flame LaTouche spoke to me in a way that only the Birch Lake Bobcat coach had done previously.  I figured it was long past time to hit the road and dove again for the gap in the tent and squirted through it with Flame LaTouche hot behind me, a turn of phrase that in more reflective times, would have torched my hormones.

After the glare of the tent lights I was blinded in the dark and squinted desperately, trying to locate a refuge.  “Little bastard!” Flame LaTouche roared behind me.  I leaped forward, rebounded off a tent support wire and once again found myself in a desperate embrace with a naked woman.  Her claws whispered past my ear and I realized she wanted more than her possessions back—she wanted to hurt me.

I wriggled free and saw a sliver of light from under the edge of a nearby tent.  I had led the Cookies in base-stealing and sprinted toward the light as if trying to steal second base on Yogi Berra.  I dove under the gaping tent bottom and lay for an instant, breathing hard.

And then, piling terror upon terror, someone roughly hauled me to my feet.  It was Brother Snyder and again I smelled his breath only this time it strangely carried the aroma of the Bluegill Bar.  “What are you doing in my tent!” he growled, gripping my arm painfully in the same place as before.  Bruises on bruises.

Caught somewhere between Heaven and Hell, as it were, my mind went out of gear like a worn out transmission on a steep uphill grade.  I was wild-eyed with fright.  Brother Snyder glared at me.  I didn’t know what to do, so I thrust the brassiere and book at him like an offering.  I noticed that the book was Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly.  Apparently Flame LaTouche and I shared the same literary hero.

Automatically Brother Snyder took the two items and as he realized what he was holding let go of my arm.  I sprinted for the door just as it was thrust aside by none other than Mrs. Ethel Warburton, pillar of the United Church ladies and stout guardian of Birch Lake morality.

With the quick move that had made me a minor legend as a guard for the Bobcats, I juked to one side and pivoted against the tent wall, breathing hard.

Flame LaTouche had slithered through the gap in the back wall with an agility born from years of exotic dancing, and she and The Rev. Snyder were frozen face to face, as if in a waxworks.  Mrs. Warburton’s coterie of church ladies crowded in behind her, astonished by the inimitable exhibition before them.

Perhaps they thought someone had been saved.  Someone had.  Me.  “Shazaam!” I breathed again.

“Gimme my goddam bra, you scuzzbutt!” snarled the naked Flame LaTouche.  The Rev. Snyder handed it to her, much as I had passed it along to him.  He retained the Spillane book, whose provocative cover was clearly visible in the harsh light.  The church ladies exclaimed wordlessly in unison.

I waited no longer.  I slid sideways along the tent wall and scooted through the door.  The aimless clatter of the Midway was a relief after the intense scene inside.  Hal appeared out of the dark and hissed, “Did you get it?”

“No,” I said.  “But that ol’ preacher’s gonna.”

The Rev. Snyder, of course, was discredited and dismissed.  He packed his rusty van and vanished from our lives.  Flame LaTouche’s reputation was enhanced.  Her tent was packed every night with those who had heard the story, or so we heard—we didn’t go back.

The Fair faded in memory, but there were times that summer when, in the moments just before sleep, I would remember embracing that naked woman.  My imagination neatly trimmed her talons and turned her expression from steaming rage to melting affection.

Toward autumn just before school started Hal and I were chunking rocks at the same street sign where we’d first seen the preacher and I looked at the now-tattered poster of Flame LaTouche and took a deep shuddery breath.

“Do you suppose Charlie Pete really can put curses on people?” I asked Hal.

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  • Blog
  • September 10th, 2013

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

 

By Joel M. Vance

They glow a devilish red…

Headlights shining on a whippoorwill in the spooky midnight hour seem to reflect the fires of Hell reflected from its huge eyes.  Poor misunderstood bird!

Once a common woodland bird in the eastern United States and southern Canada, it now is in sharp decline.

The National Audubon Society reports a 57 percent decline in the bird’s population in the last 40 years.  Habitat loss is the apparent main culprit, although pesticide spraying that kills off the insects whippoorwills feed on probably is another suspect—just as it is with various bats, also in sharp decline.

The whippoorwill is far more often heard than seen.  Its incessant call either is a soothing voice of the night or a grating hymn to insomnia, depending on the listener.  No bird has more folklore, mostly wrong, associated with it.

Henry Thoreau, spokesperson for bucolic solitude, was a fan of the whippoorwill. “The note of the whip-poor-will, borne over the fields, is the voice with which the woods and moonlight woo me,” he said.  Others have not been so lyrical.  Ornithologist Elliott Coues said the whippoorwill is “a shady character, oftener heard than seen, of recluse nocturnal habits and perfectly noiseless flight, in the breeding season ceaseless in uttering with startling vehemence its uncouth cries.”

So much for moonlight wooing.

Coues wasn’t totally anti-whippoorwill.  He also said, more moderately, “…those scarce-embodied voices of the night, here, there, and everywhere unseen, but shrilling on the ear with sorrow-stricken iteration.”
The bird’s Latin name is Caprimulgus vociferus and a more vociferous bird does not exist.  The incessant call goes on and on until some folks liken it to auditory torture.  Naturalist John Burroughs once counted 1,088 continuous calls by a whippoorwill, then 390 more after the bird paused for an instant (maybe for artificial respiration).
Ornithologist Alexander Sprunt Jr. counted 834 continuous calls by a chuck- will’s-widow, the other of the 67 family members likely to be heard in the eastern United States.  The third is the poor will, a southwestern version of the familiar night caller.  Nighthawks are a relative, but without a variation of the familiar song.

On June 2, 1983, bird enthusiast Pete Laurie of Johns Island, South Carolina, counted 2,616 calls between 2:45 a.m. and 4:19 a.m. with a brief pause of 2-3 seconds every 25 to 100 calls.  It takes a strong will to hear that many repetitions without screaming, “Shut up!”

Coues may have regarded the whippoorwill’s call as coarse, but to some Indians it was a cause for concern.    The Omaha Indians believed if you heard the call, which they translated as “hoia, hohin?” and answered “no” and the bird ceased to call, you were doomed.  Of course, someone who goes around shouting “No!” at bird questions likely doesn’t have a very bright future anyway.
Other Indians had different beliefs–the Utes of Colorado thought that the whippoorwill was a night god and could transform a frog into the moon.  The Iroquois theorized that moccasin flowers were whippoorwill shoes.

For the athlete with a pulled muscle, folklore has it that if you turn somersaults in concert with a whippoorwill’s call it will cure the backache.  Might work…but don’t rule out a hot shower and some sack time.

In New England, some thought the birds stole the souls of the departed—probably because of their nocturnal habits and noiseless flight (they have frayed feathers, like owls, that enable them to fly like avian B-2 bombers).

A whippoorwill landing silently on a log next to you in the middle of the night can be as unnerving as a werewolf, but it’s no supernatural being, nor threat to your body and soul.  And it won’t be silent for long.  A male whippoorwill lives to sing, even though its song is pretty limited. It says it’s name….over and over and over.

On a more practical level, some gardeners time corn planting to the return of whippoorwills (they migrate as far south as Honduras and in spring as far north as southern Canada).

There are about 70 species of birds in the Caprimulgidae family, including the Chuck-Will’s-Widow and Poor-Will, and the one most likely seen in daylight, the Nighthawk.  All are familiarly (and erroneously) called “goatsuckers” because folks once thought they flew under goats and nursed on them.  Actually the birds, if they did fly under goats, were catching bugs off the animals.

Two whippoorwill cousins are not likely to be heard in some areas, the Poor-Will and the Pauraque.  The Poor-Will ranges as far east as Iowa and the Pauraque has extended into New Mexico and Texas, but ranges mostly south of there.  Almost everyone has seen another close cousin, the Nighthawk, familiar to small town baseball teams who play at night.  They swoop through the lights after bugs and  pull out of their power dives so dramatically they make a booming sound that has earned them the nickname “bullbats.”  Southern kids used to build a whirring toy on a string that imitated the sound.

Whippoorwills have few natural enemies.  Foxes and weasels may catch one napping or nesting, but it’s rare—the whippoorwill’s camouflage is so near-perfect that only movement will betray it (and they won’t move unless you nearly step on them).

Not only does the bird’s plumage hide it; a membrane closes over its eyeball to conceal the one shiny object the bird has.  Further, whippoorwills perch lengthwise on branches so they look, at rest, like a knot in the wood.  I’ve found them only by seeing them land and even then it takes patience and luck to separate them from the wood they perch on.

Early American settlers were familiar with a European cousin of the whippoorwill, the nightjar, and brought the legend of them sucking milk from goats with them.
One ornithologist, a whippoorwill enthusiast, wrote that an adult whippoorwill probably catches more mosquitoes in a single night’s feeding than the average purple martin does in its lifetime.
Both whippoorwills and chuck-will’s- widows have “rictal bristles” protruding forward from their mouths.  Some experts think that increases the size of the bird’s insect trap (goatsuckers fly with their mouths open), while others think the bristles serve as a bug deflector.

Like most bug-eaters, whippoorwills follow the insect trail south in the winter, migrating to the southeastern United States and on into Central America.  They are death on moths especially, their wide mouth able to scoop sizeable flying insects on the wing.

You can while away the hours imagining what could go wrong with a goatsucker’s dive: miscalculating the intersection of mouth and bug so the bug hits the speeding bird between the eyes at 30 miles an hour or, even worse, a bug entering the bird’s throat at 30 miles an hour, like swallowing a .30-06 rifle bullet.  Never seems to happen, though.

The poor-will is the only bird known to hibernate.  In 1946, Edmund Jaegar found a hibernating poor-will in California’s ChuckwallaMountains.  The bird had no detectable heartbeat and a temperature 42 degrees below normal.    Whippoorwills have the slightly distracted appearance of a spinster librarian who has misplaced her glasses.  They also seem sleepy, which, considering the hours they keep, is possible.  They are relatively unafraid birds.  Most turkey hunters have had whippoorwills land within a few feet            Thoreau wrote about goatsuckers fairly frequently and sometimes with a bit of awe.  He found a nighthawk on its nest and said it looked “so one with the earth, so sphinx- like.”  If you’ve ever seen a goatsucker either perching or on a nest, the sphinx reference seems ideal.

            My wife once startled a female from her eggs and had presence of mind enough to mark the nest with a rag.  I came back to it in time to photograph the precocious chicks before they gathered enough strength to flee.  It doesn’t take long–in a couple of days they can hop like frogs and in 17 days they’re able to fly 50 feet or more.
Another time, a friend found a nest when the female flushed and marked it.  We returned to it and so well camouflaged was the bird that some of the party never could spot it, even though it was framed by a small forked branch. The camouflage of whippoorwills is near-perfect.  The mottled browns are the exact pattern of leaves on the forest floor.  The bird’s doesn’t build a nest and lays its two white eggs almost always on a dead leaf forest floor in fairly open woods.
The male struts before the female, uttering guttural “chucks” during mating season, which in the Carolinas is from late April on, depending on location.  If something gets the eggs, the female will re- nest.  One ornithologist speculated the birds return to the same spot to nest since he’d found nests in the same place in successive years.  But he admitted that only banded birds would verify his theory.
Nighthawks prefer the flat roofs of buildings, particularly those with gravel coverings.  I once found a nighthawk nest atop the building where I worked.  The female was ferocious, hissing venomously at me, fiercely protective of her eggs.
Whippoorwills are among several birds that will feign a broken wing to draw off an unwelcome visitor.
Ornithologists are fond of translating bird calls into English: the meadowlark allegedly is calling, “Spring is here!” even in August.  One bird enthusiast translated the chuck-will’s-widow is saying, “Chip fell out a white oak!” and another heard it as, “Twixt hell and white oak!” which indicates perhaps those people had listened to entirely too many night calls.
The call of the name-sayers is the same, if you break it down, but the emphasis is in different places.  The whippoorwill emphasizes “will”; the chuck-will’s-widow “wid.”  Chuck is the largest of the American goatsuckers, a foot long (his Western cousin, the poor-will, is smallest at seven inches) and has been known to inhale small birds, as well as large insects such as moths and June bugs.  Chuck’s motto is “If it flies, it dies.”
No one has done research, but it would be interesting at the least, revolutionary to science at the most to know how a whippoorwill can fly through the night woods without hitting anything.  Obviously the bird has superb night vision.  Much of its feeding is done in twilight, but the birds also flit through the forest on moonless nights.
Their flight is soundless–like owls they have soft, frayed feathering that makes no noise.  Country singers have resorted to whippoorwills for inspiration.  Both Bradley Kincaid and the duo of Lulu Belle and Scotty advised their lover to meet them when the first whippoorwill calls (if the tryst continues until the final call, it’s gonna be a long night).
A pioneer legend said that if an unmarried woman heard the first whippoorwill call of spring, then did not hear a second, she was fated to remain unmarried for a year.  If the bird continued after the second call, she would be a spinster, but she could forestall that fate by making a wish to be wedded on the first call.  Considering how quickly whippoorwills call, a bachelorette had to be nimble with her wishes.
Another legend was that you could cure a bad back by turning somersaults in time to a whippoorwill’s calls, although you’d think that would more likely cause a bad back than cure one.
So, the whippoorwill flies silently through the woods, its presence a relentless sound, a lullaby to some, fingernails on a blackboard to others.  Goatsuckers have been with us through recorded history, in fable and fact, and always will be.  Those who consider the first robin or bluebird the official harbinger of spring are wrong.  Chances are the whippoorwill was advertising spring all the night before.

Thoreau had a knack for summing up.  He did it for whippoorwills: “It is not nightfall until the whippoorwill begins to sing.”
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