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Original Issue

Grandfather and the Racquet-tailed Drongo

Seeking an outside hobby to keep him from lazing about the house all day, Grandfather Rhoades takes up bird watching and discovers a species of fine-feathered friend that makes him the toast of the Vireo Club—temporarily

Grandfather took up bird watching when his doctor told him he needed "an outside interest," whatever that meant. There are vogues and fads in doctor work, too, and in those days any elderly patient with an untreatable ailment like headache or melancholy was likely to be told that he needed activity: "Don't just sit around the house all day, get out there and take an interest!" Grandfather had been sitting around the house for several months now, brooding and sulking, ever since they took his baseball team away from him. After his retirement as head of the English department at Waparanic Falls Junior High, Grandfather had poured his life's blood into that team. Three afternoons a week he had them working out, kids 6 to 10 years old, practicing sign-stealing and catcher's interference and learning how to bunt against a doctored infield. Mother always said that Grandfather's rapport with the little kids came from the fact that "he's 75 going on 9!" Personally, I felt it was because Grandfather talked to the boys the way a slightly older boy would talk, minus all the patronizing baloney we would get from other adults. "Look, Alberti," Grandfather would say to a lazy shortstop, "if you don't want to move your fanny why don't you just drag it off the field?" When a first baseman would circle and circle under a pop-up and then watch it bounce 10 feet behind him, Grandfather would say, "That was very nicely done, Mr. Nijinsky. Now what's your next number, the minuet?"

You might think that a manager with a sarcastic tongue like Grandfather's would be disliked by some of his players, but not so. Grandfather gave out cookies and pop, which he took from my mother's pantry. Also, the boys learned words and expressions from Grandfather that they would not normally have picked up till they took woodshop in the seventh grade under Mr. MacPherson. And anyway, Grandfather's vicious vocabulary came in handy at game time. The umpire would call, "Ball one!" on our pitcher, and Grandfather's foghorn voice would be heard all over the neighborhood calling out a reference to the ump's disgusting dietary habits. "Ball two!" the ump would say, and Grandfather would accuse him of performing bizarre physical feats. On "Ball three!" Grandfather would cup his hands to his mouth and make a public charge that there was a canine in the ump's family tree. After this how many umps do you think would call a ball four on our pitchers?

The whole trouble was that Grandfather got himself too wrought up, too personally involved. He would take the losses home with him, and late at night we would hear him crying out from his attic room in his sleep: "The infield fly rule? The infield fly rule? You have the guts to call the infield fly rule on a little kid? Why, you—-!" The next morning he would come to breakfast all red-eyed and pasty-faced, and he would sit there and stare at his food and answer in one-syllable words that made it plain that he didn't want to talk. After two or three seasons of this the family doctor told Grandfather that he would have to hang up his spikes. The old man took it hard; he stayed in his room for a couple of weeks, just coming out for meals and baths. He perked up a little at the news that his team had lost four straight games in his absence, but a two-game winning streak sent him down in the dumps again. This was when the doctor told him to look for outside interests, anything but managing an athletic team.

Thus began a long procession of hobbies. Grandfather made airplane models, or at least he started them; he never finished any that I know of. He'd lose interest in the Mono-coupe he was working on and start a Stinson Reliant, grow tired of that and start a Luscombe Phantom. Then he began brandying. In an unused room in the basement he set up his pots and his powdered sugars and all the other tools of the brandying trade, and from then on any fruit or vegetable that came into the house was 8 to 5 to wind up in an old Mason jar reeking of booze. Grandfather would thrust these delicacies at us. "Brandied rutabagas!" he would say. "Delicious! Never tasted anything like 'em!"

My mother and father agreed, and they had also never tasted anything like brandied persimmons, brandied beets and brandied grapes. "Father," my father said to him, "nobody brandies grapes! Brandy comes from grapes, for cripe sakes!" Grandfather wanted to know what that had to do with it, and accused Father of dealing in "non sequiturs."

Mother would take Father aside after these outbursts and remind him that Grandfather was 75 and he was Father's only father, after all, and he was merely trying "to play a meaningful role in the family group." (Mother had gone to Smith for two terms and she actually talked like that.) One night Father complained at dinner: "Caroline, I've been eating green olives for 20 years and I keep getting the bad ones." Not long after that Grandfather showed up at the table with his latest creation: brandied olives. "Try one, Harvey," he insisted, but Father said he hadn't been feeling well that day and would beg off. No offense, he was sure the brandied olives were a real treat, could he just take a few upstairs for a bedtime snack?

Grandfather passed out of brandying and into ceramics and burned his shower curtain and melted the soap in his bathroom. He collected stamps for a while till he discovered that a certain freak airmail stamp with the airplane flying upside down was worth $25,000. "I don't intend to encourage a hobby in which imperfection pays a premium," he said in the pompous manner he sometimes affected to show the world he had a command of English superior to Ford Madox Ford's. After that it was butterfly collecting, but he was more interested in the chase than the specimens, as shown by his collection: three picture frames of swallowtails, plus a single gypsy moth.

It seemed as though Grandfather would never hit on an outside activity that could occupy his busy mind. I can see him now, feverishly trying to figure out what outside interest to get interested in. He tried music, but all that really interested him were endings. He would sit quietly while the family listened to a scratchy old phonograph recording of the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, and as soon as the orchestra began winding up for the ending Grandfather would leap from his chair, stomping his feet waving his arms. The polka and fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper was his favorite piece of music because it ended lustily. The poorest music ever written, according to Grandfather, was the Unfinished Symphony, with Petrouchka a close second ("it just tails off"). There was a period when he attended the concerts at the Conservatory of Music, where he was always first on his feet with loud bravos, because he knew the exact split-second timing of each ending. But he soon grew bored with this, especially after the night he dozed off during a Brahms concerto, dreamed he was hearing the ending of Feste romane and jumped up to shout, "Bravo!" in the middle of a soulful violin solo.

There followed a long, pleasant interlude when Grandfather retired to the privacy of his room to exploit his twin areas of knowledge: English and baseball. Breathlessly he announced at dinner: "I am at work on a novel!" To annoy my mother, he gave it the working title The Captain of the Nine, or a History of Sex in the Nile Delta. He confided to me that the book was to be for teen-agers and was going to star a kid who was falsely accused of throwing a game, spends the whole book proving his innocence and is cleared just in time for the championship contest, in which he pitches a no-hitter and blasts a four-master in the bottom of the ninth with two out. "Is that plausible, Sonny?" Grandfather would ask me. "How does it strike you as a typical teen-ager?" I would tell him that it certainly rang true to me. In fact, it had rung true in about 40 other books I had read, but I didn't report this to Grandfather.

After a few months of work Grandfather allowed me to inspect the opening chapter, and even I could see that Grandfather was a natural writer, one in a million. He had hit on the clever device of describing his characters by having them look into mirrors. "Jeffrey looked into the mirror on the locker room wall and a handsome, copper-complexioned face looked back. He glanced at the high cheekbones, the straight, strong nose and the light stubble of reddish beard, and..." Any character who didn't have a mirror didn't get described. And Grandfather also was excellent at wordplay and puns, which he peppered all through the manuscript. One of his characters was a crooked umpire who had been cashiered from the Navy, fired from the police department and charged with neglect as a fireman. "He was uniformly unsuccessful," Grandfather wrote. The manager of a baseball team, a man of 5 feet in height and 300 pounds in heft, was "roundly disliked." Grandfather inserted a lettermen's banquet in the story and informed the reader that the entrée was a curry of venison flavored with sauterne, so that it seemed perfectly natural to have one character say, "Please pass the buck," another announce that "one good sauterne deserves another" and a third complain to the cook, "We don't favor your curry." The whole banquet was summed up by the hero, a sharp fellow, as "a fete worse than death." Grandfather, cackling loudly, would show me these mots, and I would be hard pressed to contain my laughter.

Nevertheless, the work in progress was allowed to molder, and Grandfather was running through hobbies again, including the construction of jigsaw puzzles, an HO train layout and a No. 15 chemistry set complete with retorts and an extra bottle of sodium silicate, when one day he hit upon the hobby that he was certain would sustain him for the rest of his life. The Vireo Club, a local group of birders, swept him up in one of their annual membership drives, and Grandfather, in the course of his first meeting as a potential member, was asked to describe his most exciting ornithological moment. "Once I was walking through the woods and I spotted a scarlet tanager," Grandfather said. "But he was too quick for me and I couldn't even get a shot off." Later in the meeting he asked for advice from club members on "how can we get rid of a bunch of sparrows that're pestering us to death?" Somehow this blew over, and Grandfather was made a provisional member, with final voting on his application to take place at the next meeting in 30 days.

During the month Grandfather enlisted my aid in compiling his "life list," bird-watcher jargon for the list of all the birds one has ever seen, and we leafed through the guides page by page. Our conversations would go like this:

"Yellow warbler?"


"Sedge wren."

"Is that the little tiny one?"


"Put it on the list."


"Oh, yes, I've seen plenty of them."


"In the movies."

"In the movies doesn't count."

"Put it down. I know I saw one someplace.' "

Each week Grandfather and I would visit the Vireo Club's private bird sanctuary, a lovely place of about 100 acres that had been left by a rich member, and on these walks I would see Grandfather transformed right before my eyes into an Ernest Thompson Seton or a Henry David Thoreau.

"Rather strange," he said one day as we strolled past a grove of trees. "Rather strange."

"What's strange?" I asked.

"Why isn't that apple tree bearing this season?"

"Because it's a beech tree," I said as gently as possible.

"Well, everyone's entitled to his own opinion," Ernest Thompson Seton answered.

Later we would make up his sighting reports: "8 robins, 4 starlings, 17 sparrows and a hawk [might have been a buzzard or a pheasant]." I was sure that the club members were stunned by the grandeur of these reports, and by the time the matter was put to a vote Grandfather's earlier blunders were forgotten and he was accepted as a full member, $5 due and payable immediately, thank you very much.

Grandfather threw himself into birding with an enthusiasm we hadn't seen since his baseball career. He studied the bird guides for hours, stashed feeders all over the place, tromped through the club sanctuary almost every day and took as a pet a crippled sea gull that had appeared on our lawn after a thunderstorm. Grandfather fed the bird sardines and crackers dipped in sardine juice, and the gull followed him around like a puppy. There was consternation one night when the gull disappeared, and Grandfather roamed the neighborhood until early in the morning poking his flashlight into all sorts of private places. In the Petersons' backyard he got a light in his own eyes in return, and a challenge from a policeman standing there with drawn pistol. "Whatchew doin' here?" the cop barked.

"My sea gull got away," Grandfather said.

The policeman observed that he hadn't quite got Grandfather.

"I said my sea gull got away."

"I don't know what you're up to," the cop said, "but you're in violation of Ordinance 347-B, the trespass and privacy statute, and it's my duty to warn you that anything you say—"

"Don't give me that police doggerel!" Grandfather shouted, and bolted over the fence toward our house. He was required to explain everything down at the station house, and his sins were forgiven by a desk sergeant whose total explanation to the other policemen standing around was: "He's a bird watcher."

Anyone who knew Grandfather (or, indeed, who knew our family) could have predicted that such escapades would only bond him closer to his chosen hobby. Soon Grandfather had become one of the most active members of the Vireo Club, explaining to me: "Your Rhoadeses are not a common clan of followers. We are natural leaders." Mother expressed it differently: "Every Rhoades that ever lived," she said, "tries to take over everything. They're like garlic in a casserole."

It was true enough. I was becoming fairly active in the Vireo Club myself in those years, but Grandfather had set himself up as the club's last word. He was particularly tough on grammar and syntax, and would jump to his feet with one of his numerous points of order whenever a fellow member mispronounced a name or used what seemed to Grandfather to be a shoddy construction. One night a member reported the sighting of "two tufted titmice in the sanctuary," and Grandfather was on him in an instant.

"Point of order, Mr. Chairman!" he cried. "Point of order! Mr. Chairman, I wonder if we can't do something about that name."

Oh boy, I thought. Oh boy, oh boy. Grandfather has really done it this time. The chairman raised his gavel and I slumped slowly in my seat as Grandfather went full steam ahead: "I think it is meaningful, Mr. Chairman, that we are referring here to birds, not rodents. Now, the plural of mouse may be mice, Mr. Chairman, but I move that we say 'One tufted titmouse, two tufted titmouses.' "

The chairman let the gavel slip quietly to the podium and informed Grandfather that his quarrel was with Mr. Webster. Would Mr. Rhoades care to dash off a letter to the publisher of the dictionary? Mr. Rhoades certainly would.

Something else that bothered Grandfather was the life-list phenomenon. Every member of the Vireo Club had his own list; every new addition was like a Boy Scout merit badge, and the life lists hung proudly in duplicate on one whole wall of the club's lodge. Grandfather's list, though padded slightly, was still the shortest in the club; after all, he had come to birding late in his career. The longest list belonged to a retired Army captain named Emerson Sharoom, a bloodless, humorless, sallow old man who told Grandfather early in the game that he preferred being addressed as Captain Sharoom, which caused Grandfather to sign his sighting reports "Private First Class Rhoades" for several weeks, until Father told him to stop acting like a child. "It's Sharoom that's acting like a child," Grandfather said angrily. "In 30 years in the Army he rose all the way from second lieutenant to first lieutenant to captain, and now he acts like that was a great accomplishment."

What was eating Grandfather was not only the fact that Sharoom's life list was the longest in the club but that everybody looked up to Sharoom as the ultimate authority on any bird matter, an eminence to which Grandfather jealously aspired. And Grandfather also suspected that Sharoom was cheating at bird watching, or at the very least making some dreadful mistakes. As he said to me: "If old man Sharoom comes in and says he saw a purple-breasted sapsucker everybody says, my, my isn't that wonderful, and they add it to his life list and nobody even stops to wonder what a purple-breasted sapsucker is doing in our sanctuary when the last one was sighted in central China in 1775. Nobody stops to think, could it be that old man Sharoom's trifocals are out of focus or could it be that old man Sharoom is a liar?"

A few weeks after this outburst the bulletin of the Vireo Club contained an odd little item:

Emerson Sharoom of the Waparanic Chapter reports sighting April 15-16 a robin with conspicuous carmine patches on tail coverts, in the society sanctuary near the apple grove. Members are urged to report any similar sightings.

When I showed this to Grandfather he merely winked at me and said he would let me in on something if I would keep quiet about it. Three doors away, in the backyard of a "for sale" house that was slowly falling down, Grandfather showed me a humane bird trap, with a balanced stick and a door and a line of seed leading inside. "The bird eats along the row," Grandfather explained, "and then he steps inside the box and whack! The door comes down like a shot. It doesn't hurt the bird unless he backs in or unless he's a snake."

"Then what?" I asked.

"Then I improve on nature," Grandfather explained. In the basement of the old house he displayed a watercolor paint set and a couple of brushes. "No harm done," he said. "The first rain washes 'em off, and in the meantime the club members have a lot of excitement."

"Oh, Grandfather," I said, "you'll get us all in trouble."

During that summer members of the Vireo Club reported sighting an American redstart, a black-throated green warbler, a vermilion flycatcher and a hoary redpoll, all tributes to Grandfather's artistry with the brush. He outdid himself on a pair of domestic pigeons, painting the wings and bodies green and the heads red and yellow. Captain Sharoom caught a glimpse of one in the club sanctuary and added it to his life list as a Carolina paroquet, an American parrot that had been reported "probably extinct" for several years. "Perhaps this signals a revival of this fascinating species," Captain Sharoom wrote in the club bulletin. "Certainly we are excited that the bird has been seen in our sanctuary!"

Grandfather rose on a point of order at the next meeting, produced some fuzzy color photographs of a painted pigeon and insisted that it was not a Carolina paroquet but a new species discovered by himself and tentatively named by him "the great racquet-tailed drongo, Zenaidura rhoadesiensis." The members gave Grandfather a spontaneous round of applause, several of them rushed to shake his hand and the chairman said that the club would be happy to offer the bird to higher authorities as a new species, provided Grandfather could produce one specimen. "I will do my best," Grandfather said modestly. "No man can do more." He sat down to a tumultuous roar of admiration.

But at the next meeting Grandfather had to report that the great racquet-tailed drongo apparently had become extinct before there was even time to classify it. As a special dispensation for Grandfather, the membership voted to allow him to keep the bird on his official life list, while the Carolina paroquet was stricken from Captain Sharoom's.

Only a few days after this apex of Grandfather's career as bird watcher and troublemaker, he received an urgent notice ("return receipt requested") that the Vireo Club would be meeting at the lodge in "extraordinary session." We all went along, Mother, Father, my sister Susan, my brother Charley and I, because we were certain Grandfather was going to receive a commendation, maybe even a subcommittee chairmanship, for his pioneering work with the great racquet-tailed drongo. Instead there was practically a court-martial. His hands aquiver, Captain Sharoom stood in front of the room holding a bedraggled specimen of "Zenaidura rhoadesiensis."

"This bird was found near the high-tension lines over to Madison," Captain Sharoom began. "It happens to be a common domestic pigeon covered with paint."

The members oohed, aahed and clucked. It was the Hall-Mills case and the Peaches Browning suit all over again. Mother and Father and the rest of our little delegation exchanged worried glances, but Grandfather was on his feet. "Point of order!" he shouted. "Point of order, Mr. Chairman!"

"Yes, Mr. Rhoades," the chairman intoned.

"It is not correct for Captain Sharoom to say 'over to Madison.' " Grandfather said. "The use of the preposition 'to' implies motion. It would be correct to say, 'He went over to Madison,' but not, 'The bird was found over to Madison.' I move that the secretary make the necessary correction in the minutes."

"Who painted this bird?" Captain Sharoom screeched.

Grandfather looked into a sea of angry, upturned faces and asked if the Vireo Club wouldn't take a little joke.

The Vireo Club, by a majority of 10 to 1, voted that it could not, and Grandfather was suspended indefinitely and his life list formally removed from the wall. We all slunk toward the door, except for Grandfather, who walked proudly erect, stopped dramatically at the exit and announced in measured, stentorian tones: "Half your life lists are fixed! Anybody that'd cheat at bird watching—"

"Come along, Father," Mother said.

"—would suck eggs!" Grandfather said.

Mother took his arm and hustled him out the door. There was an awful silence in the family Terraplane after we had climbed in and Father had started the engine and thrown the electric gearshift into low. We were moving slowly down the street when Father giggled. Mother followed, and pretty soon we were all roaring. "Just a minute!" said Grandfather, the one person who remained serious. "There's a very important principle at stake here." But he never was able to explain what it was.




Under Grandfather, the boys learned words they would never have picked up till they took shop in seventh grade from Mr. MacPherson.


Once, having dozed off during a Brahms concerto, he awoke and leaped to his feet to shout, "Bravo!" in the middle of a soulful violin solo.


Grandfather threw himself into bird watching with an enthusiasm we hadn't seen since he was forced to give up his baseball career.


In the basement of the old house he displayed a watercolor paint set and a couple of old brushes, his improvements on nature.


"This bird was found near the high-tension wires," Captain Sharoom screamed. "It is a common pigeon covered with paint."