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Eagle Eyes

“And class don’t forget, tomorrow we scratch!” Miss Martin struggled to be heard over the deafening combination of dismissal bell and scuffling feet.

Earlier that week, each of us in my seventh-grade art class had prepared scratchboards by brushing layers of India ink onto 8.5 x 11 inch sections of art board. Once dried, our assignment would be to create something for the school art contest. The technique, a new one for us, involved scratching away dried ink to reveal the white board beneath until the desired image was formed. The individual subject matter would be up to us, but the overall theme was “nature”. Miss Martin would choose just one piece from our class to be entered in the contest.

The next day, Miss Martin handed each of us a scratchboard and a small metal tool to be used for removing the ink. Over the course of the next few classes we worked diligently on our middle school masterpieces. I decided to scratch a bald eagle into the dried layer of black on my board.

To my left, Sylvia etched away at several clouds. To my right, Todd scraped the outline of a tree. I leaned forward to look over Rob’s shoulder and saw the huge head of a snake taking shape.

I sat back to begin my eagle.

Still a bird lover today, my interest began long before that art class. I found myself lost in the assignment, enjoying the process, and proud of tiny details I put into the work. Sharp talons, well-shaped wings, perfect facial features. I was downright proud of myself. By the time the final class session began I had produced what I considered the perfect bald eagle. His stature regal, his form sublime, and his face magnificent.

“Buddy.” Rob said as he looked back over his shoulder at my artwork. “You got eyelashes on him.”

“Yeah” I responded. His remark seemed silly.

He looked down at my board again, then back at me. “I’m putting some on my snake?” He said as if asking permission.

“You can put curlers in his hair if you want. It’s your snake after all.” I responded.

Rob began feverishly scratching out what promised to be very impressive snake eyelashes.

Miss Martin took a lap around the classroom to give each of us a few mid-work critiques. She stopped at my desk and I held my already completed art board in the air, awaiting her praise. She touched her fingers to her chin as she studied my effort.

“Your eagle has eyelashes?” She asked in a tone that clearly indicated disapproval.

Rob began feverishly scratching over what had promised to be very impressive snake eyelashes.

Was she expecting an answer? Of course it did. All birds have eyelashes. I kept waiting for praise.

“Have you ever seen a bird up close?” She continued her inane questioning.

Had I ever seen a bird up close? Irritated she hadn’t instantly pegged me as the next John James Audubon at the mere sight of my inky eagle, I thought about what to say. I felt highly offended. I mean really. Had I ever seen a bird up close?

Before school that morning I fed my parakeets. I also had two zebra finches in my room. There were always chickens around home. Ours was the house where people dropped off orphaned nestlings to be cared for and we currently had a baby robin in the house. I owned a little incubator and had recently hatched quail and they lived in a pen out back. I had even raised baby turkeys because I’d heard they could be a challenge. They were not. I knew my birds.

“Well?” Miss Martin asked again. “Have you ever seen a bird up close?”

Incensed, indignant, and full of teenage hormones I looked her in the face and said all I knew to say. I even stood to say it.

“Lady, just how stupid do you think I am?”

I sure was hungry that night, having to go to bed with no dinner.

Class the next day lasted an eternity. My palms sweated as Miss Martin casually lectured on pottery wheels. She seemed to have forgotten yesterday’s unfortunate incident. I’d been given strict instructions from home that I was to apologize, so maybe she hadn’t brought it up, but I would have to. As the dismissal bell rang, Miss Martin motioned me to her desk. She shut the door as the last student left.

“Oh no. Here we go.” I said under my breath.

She stared at me for a few seconds.

“I want to apologize.” Miss Martin began. “I looked up a few things and many birds do, in fact, have small modified feathers around their eyes.”

“Yep. Eyelashes.” I thought as I bit my adolescent tongue.

“Now.” She continued. “Do you have anything you would like to say to me?”

Oh boy, did I. She didn’t seem too intelligent. How dare she doubt the knowledge of a budding ornithologist?  How dare she criticize the artwork of the next Audubon? I could feel the irritation building as I thought of just what I really wanted to tell her.

But we were having lasagna for dinner and I didn’t want to miss it.

“Sorry about yesterday.” I said instead.

She smiled.

“It is a beautiful eagle.” She stated as she straightened the jar of paintbrushes on her desk. “It will be in the school art contest.”

She suddenly seemed very intelligent. With all forgiven on both sides, we parted ways and I dutifully reported to my parents that I had apologized. They already knew. She’d called them.

Several weeks later, in the middle of my sculpting a frog, she summoned me to her desk. This time in front of everyone.

“Oh no. Here we go again.”  I said under my breath.

“I want to talk to you about your eagle.” She walked towards me.

“What?” I thought sarcastically. “His toenails were crooked?”

There, right in front of the entire class, she handed me a little blue ribbon and grabbed me by the shoulders.

“You won the contest!”

I kept my winning eagle artwork for many years. Much of the India ink was lost over time, a bit scraped off here, a bit peeled off there, but I loved it just the same. It surfaced now and then as I went through closets or boxes and I’d often hold it and stare in admiration. One day I stared a little longer than usual and really studied the prize winner.

It wasn’t very good.

The poor bird’s body was extremely portly and his feet were different sizes. I wasn’t quite sure whether he had two wings or three and his tail was far too short. Much of the ragged eagle was way out of proportion, but one thing was clear…

His eyelashes were fabulous!

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

 

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Triggers

We remain stunned by the unbelievably brutal attack on innocent high school students in Parkland, Florida. Who knows why the individual, obviously disturbed, felt compelled to do such a violent thing thereby ending seventeen lives and damaging so many more. Hindsight cannot help too much now.

The trigger has been pulled and there is no going back.

In the wake of the horror, debate rekindled over gun control and the meaning of twenty-seven little words. They have been dissected countless times but the conclusion has remained largely the same. Gun advocates cling to that decision because parts of the Second Amendment provide quite a sturdy position from which to take a stand.

But so do parts of the First. Enter the students.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, the organization and determination of the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must be admired. Their collective response in speaking out was not a left-wing or right-wing reaction; it was a human reaction. And parts of the First Amendment provide quite a sturdy position from which to take a stand.

As clearly (or not, depending on interpretation) as the Second Amendment allows some to declare their right to bear arms, the First Amendment allows others the right to declare they should not. It presents a poignant battle during which each side feels offended by the other’s perceived inability to understand the point. Gun control is a gargantuan dispute.

I have no answers. Never having purchased a gun I have rarely given ownership or control a second thought. The right of anyone to own a gun was a given. But when gruesome gun-related events repeatedly occur they give one ample reason to reconsider based on common sense. It is a natural response. The same response Parkland students had after surviving the attack by a crazed individual whose weapon of choice was a gun. They had seen the same play out too many times, felt fed up, and are now letting the world know.

These kids understand the power of free speech. And they will use it.

These kids also understand the power of the vote. And they will use it.

Outraged by another tragedy where “thoughts and prayers” were substituted for realization and action, a handful of students spoke out. Inspired by their force, thousands more are swelling the protest. Lawmakers have largely avoided the gun control controversy, dodging and side-stepping their way around any resolution. This approach has worked for decades and may have continued as the preferred pattern, but the Parkland outcry grows stronger all the time.

Who knows the intention of the disturbed young man when he attacked students at the high school. What was he trying to prove? One thing he did prove, unwittingly, was the ability of a dynamic group of expressive young voters-to-be to consolidate their power. “Thoughts and prayers” go out to lawmakers now… they do not know what they are in for. Perhaps they hoped to continue the stalling? Pushed into action by the witnessing of death, children are forced to step up where adults never did. Something will happen now.

The trigger has been pulled and there is no going back.

Stuart M. Perkins

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That’s Noody

I was in ninth grade when my English teacher asked us to write a three page paper on someone we respected. We were to choose someone who had influenced our thinking and whose character we admired. After groans from the class that the paper must go on for three long pages, we each set about choosing our person. Once we had decided, we were each to walk to the front of the class and write our choice on the blackboard. Since the person could be someone from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After we each wrote our person’s name on the blackboard, the teacher read them aloud.

I remember she went slowly down the list as she read names like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. Soon, she reached my chalk written choice.

“Margaret P. Lankey?” she asked, as she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.

I raised my hand. “That’s Noody” I said. “She’s my aunt.”

I was never sure why we called her Noody. I probably asked but don’t recall an answer. It didn’t matter really. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s just how it was done at home. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky that Noody lived right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of my everyday life as my parents and sisters.

Noody had an old redwood picnic table in her yard under the trees where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting a watermelon for whoever happened to be in the yard that evening. When I saw her at the picnic table I’d walk over to visit. She was a great conversationalist and always seemed interested to hear what I had been up to. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved to hear old family stories and she loved to tell them. She taught me the importance of remembering where you came from while not forgetting where you wanted to go. That’s Noody.

She could do things like drive a pickup truck, haul firewood, feed hogs and chickens, work hard in her garden, and slap on a baseball cap to cut grass, all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on now and then. She and Nannie, her mother and my grandmother, once cornered a snake near the barn. Noody, thinking she was lined up just right for a good decapitation, raised a hoe over her head and came down with all due force towards the snake. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep that Nannie asked me to bring a shovel full of dirt to fill it. Noody belly laughed. Do your best to get the job done and if it doesn’t work as you’d hoped, so what, have a good laugh. That’s Noody.

Many winters if there was enough snow, we cousins took our sleds to a nearby hill. Noody would come along to be part of the fun. On other occasions we all went roller skating. Noody came along for that too, strapping on her skates to head into the rink like a pro. She even joined in the Hokey Pokey dance in the center of the rink a few times. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat on the beach or in the shade, Noody put on her bathing suit and plunged into the water with us kids. She taught me how to float on my back, and also taught me that hard work may be necessary, but playing hard is just as beneficial.

One time I stayed with out of town relatives for a few days. When I returned home I met Noody at the picnic table to tell her about it. When I finished relating my adventures she asked if I had yet sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her not yet, but didn’t tell her that I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her own stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note to the relatives I had visited. She taught me many lessons over the years. That’s Noody.

She was not just a mentor, but also an ally. Just before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in the back of Southern Living magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled by my idea to add more animals to the ones I already had, gave me an instant “No”. I took the next logical step and met Noody at the picnic table. I showed her the ad and told her I really wanted to try hatching some eggs but Mama said “No”. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from her, my uncle built a huge enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. If you want something that badly, why not go ahead and try. That’s Noody.

Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home that most of my extended family attended, and many still do. A couple years ago I took my kids for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read names from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot just a little further down than some of the older tombstones I heard one of the kids read a name. “Margaret P. Lankey” they called out.

“That’s Noody.” I said.

As soon as I heard her name I thought of the many good times with my fine aunt.

I also thought about the note my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper once she read it. “Please show this writing to Noody.” it said.

I still wish I had.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Five Black Cows

“Are you poor or something?”

I still remember when a kid asked me that at lunch in the fifth grade as I unwrapped my bologna sandwich, which he looked at with disgust. In front of him was a yellow school lunch tray with a little square pizza and a carton of milk he’d bought with lunch money. I only had a brown paper bag holding the sandwich Mama had made, and a thermos of milk from home. As he ate his school lunch brownie, I pulled out a little plastic bag holding my six vanilla wafers.

He repeated, “I don’t eat bologna because I’m not poor. Are you poor?”

No. I have five black cows!” I said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I was the one who’d said it.

I don’t remember ever having another conversation with that kid, but I do remember that’s when I began to wonder if I might be poor. I’d never thought about it. We did have five black cows in the pasture at home and maybe I thought since no one else I knew had five black cows, everyone else must be poor. We practically had a herd. We must be rich.

But as I thought about it, other kids at school did talk a lot about new clothes from the mall. My sisters and I had a lot of shirts and pajamas that Nannie had made for us. She’d walk from her farmhouse down the path and under the walnut tree to our house  with fabric hanging over her arm and a measuring tape in her hand. She’d talk to Mama a while about whether the butter beans were ready to be picked, then they’d call us into the kitchen so Nannie could measure our arms or legs. Later on, for Christmas or a birthday, we’d open a present from Nannie to find something made from the cloth she’d had over her arm in Mama’s kitchen that day. I guessed I was poor then, after all.

And I couldn’t forget the trips my classmates talked about making to ice cream shops on the weekends. Their parents would buy them ice cream cones with sprinkles, or banana splits in little blue plastic dishes. My family made ice cream over at Nannie’s. We all sat on the edge of the well by the ice cream freezer while Nannie made a creamy magic potion in the kitchen, then came outside and dumped it into the freezer. Daddy and uncles would crank it until it got going good, then we kids would all get a turn cranking until our arms were tired. If we weren’t actually cranking the ice cream then we were standing by watching, barefoot in the melting ice and rock salt that ran from the bottom of the ice cream freezer. Barefoot. I was poor.

Then there were the kids at school who talked about catching fireflies. One girl, I remembered, said that her father bought her a little clear plastic box with a handle and she filled it with fireflies at night to make a lantern. I didn’t know about fireflies so much, but I knew that at home when we kids noticed a lightning bug, we’d get old mayonnaise jars out of Nannie’s rooting bed by the chicken house to hold the bugs as we caught them. No lids, so we used our hands to cover the top. I wasn’t sure if my lightning bugs were as good as that girl’s fireflies, but I knew we used old jars and not new plastic boxes with handles. Clearly, I was poor.

With that issue settled in my head, I resigned myself to – well, whatever it was that poor people resigned themselves to. I would just have to wait and see what that was.

But as time passed, months and years, I had many conversations with friends about the way I grew up. They usually commented on how lucky I was to have grown up with my extended family nearby, and to have lived just across the field from a grandmother who spent her time making and doing things for us. Some were envious that my family had gathered often “just because” to sit and laugh while home-made ice cream was cranked by the well. I’d long since learned that fireflies and lightning bugs were the same, but I’d also learned that keeping them in a little plastic box from the store was nowhere near as memorable as the way we kids raced to Nannie’s rooting bed to hunt for old mayonnaise jars together.

Many memories flooded back with each conversation about growing up with my huge family all around. I even once told friends about the kid in school who asked if I was poor simply because I was eating a bologna sandwich and six vanilla wafers. Looking back, I really was the rich one, not him. But somewhere inside I had known that all along.

After all, I had five black cows.

Stuart M. Perkins

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