Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Birds of a Father

I became enamored of birds at a very young age. I do not know how this fondness began, or when I first noticed birds, but my father, who encouraged the hobbies and interests of each of his four children, happily indulged my flight of fancy. One small token of the regard he had for my pursuit was his gift of a little Royal Copenhagen robin, which he purchased while on a business trip to Denmark back in the late '60s or early 70s.

This little bird has traveled everywhere with me since, and in recent years it acquired a companion: a bigger version of itself, rescued from the shelves of a local thrift shop. The big one, of course, I consider to be the papa bird. The little one's me.

Dad wasn't a birder, but he loved that I loved birds, because it pleased him to see his children take a keen interest in a topic, research it, be enveloped by it, become impassioned about it, just as he dove into subjects that caught his attention.

And so he gave me my first field guide to birds--a book so well used that now its covers are just a folder for a sheaf of loose pages. He later replaced it with the first Audubon field guide to feature photographs (this book is still going strong). Over the years, he also gave me my first bird feeder, my first pair of binoculars, and an Audubon bird call--a squeaky little bit of wood and metal that so far hasn't summoned any birds, but has proven to be a most amusing device for stirring housecats into a frenzy of searching.

Though Dad couldn't name the species that flitted through our garden (a story recalled by my parents tells of a running disagreement over a waterfowl that paraded in front of them as they argued about whether it was a goose or a duck), he could identify other winged things with ease--namely, airplanes.

Dad was a lifelong aircraft aficionado and an aeronautical engineer by profession, and when a small craft buzzed over our Long Island garden, he would cock an ear, squint into the sky, and either rap out the name of the plane straightaway or weigh several options before deciding on one. When he moved to the northwestern USA, to an area replete with airfields, it was his particular delight to smile knowingly and not say a word when a visiting WWII B-17 rumbled over the city.

My fondness for flying things, however, stopped at birds. I've never been overly fond of air travel, though in my early twenties this sensible hesitation took the form of outright fear. This terror at leaving terra firma didn't bode well for taking a jet to Hawaii with my mom and dad. But Dad's scientific precision and sensible, logical ways--always infused with a sense of humor and a gentle, sly wit--proved to be of invaluable help.

As the jet sped down the runway and gained altitude while I maintained a death-grip on the arms of my seat, Dad didn't chide me, or seek to comfort me by sharing cheerful bromides about flying; instead, he simply murmured repetitively, with a twinkle in his eye, a pair of phrases: "Bernoulli's principle. Lift, and thrust."

This incantation, coming from a man who designed variable-sweep jet wings and wrote papers that earned him the nickname "Mr. Supersonic Propulsion Inlet," was oddly comforting--perhaps because it made me giggle, perhaps because it came from such a trusted authority. My dad simply would not allow the plane to fall down.

It was completely plausible to me that even a Boeing 747 with a takeoff weight of 975,000 pounds would respect my father's authority. There didn't seem to be anything that was beyond my father's capability.

He could not only design a jet but also sail a boat, bake bread, convert a dinghy into a sailboat, build a wooden cartop carrier for all our camping gear plus a chuck wagon to match, explain quantum physics, imitate a steam locomotive starting up, identify a metal bar scavenged on a beach as a "sacrificial anode," read books on string theory for pleasure, appreciate an exquisite turn of phrase, enjoy Beethoven and "Masterpiece Theatre" but also get startling (to us) joy from "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," fling us on his back to show us how to do the Fireman's Carry, win at Scrabble (sometimes), predict the weather, imitate Peter Lorre, drive a tractor, use a sextant, send and receive messages in Morse code, build a dollhouse for my and my sister's mouse-sized dolls as well as a playground for my pet parakeet, construct a model railroad, grill a steak to perfection, painstakingly color an Easter Egg in a plaid pattern with markers just to amuse his kids, play Candyland very graciously with his granddaughter, plot and plan square-foot gardens, write a breezy history of Ireland before taking his family on a coach tour of same, fix just about anything, and converse seriously with a harmless but completely inebriated gentleman in a park who asked him, "Excuse me, sir, but what color is indigo?"

And laugh. Dad loved to laugh, and he had a great one that went from a rumbling chuckle to gasping for breath. He loved the absurd and appreciated wordplay. Once, while complaining gruffly but with amusement about the mysterious bird that insisted on defecating daily on the mailbox, he wondered aloud if it could be identified as a "mailbox pooper." One of us kids responded, "Maybe--if it's brightly colored, unlike the female boxpooper."

A roar of appreciation from Dad, and another running joke was hatched.

Last week, we lost this excellent man, our wonderful father.

The day after his funeral, we gathered quietly for breakfast. Chancing to look out the window, we noticed a robin, puffed up against the cold, sitting on the fence. My mother remarked that her father always referred to robins as having been sent to say hello by his beloved wife Bridey, who'd been lost to him at a young age.

The robin continued to stare at us through the window, sitting quietly, peering intently at us. He watched calmly as we finished our meal, not moving until we began to tidy up.

It wasn't hard to imagine that Dad had sent this little harbinger of spring to sit in for him and tell us that he's still with us, still keeping up with everything about the life that he loved.