Our side yard on Carpenter Street had plenty of trees, mimosas and black walnut mostly. The former blossom pretty pink flowers when they are ready. The black walnut trees drop golf ball sized nuts with their coarse, thick green skins, apparently to ease their landing.
The padded coating comes in handy when a walnut – or a bunch of walnuts on stem – drops 50 feed and lands on your head. It’s embarrassing, and stings for a while, but leaves nothing longer lasting than a green skid mark on your head, and perhaps a little bump.
Step out the side door into the lot and there’s that big black walnut tree. It served as the base for Ma’s clothesline that ran out through the air to the far mimosa in the center of the side lot and looped back again.
One day, under that tall black walnut tree we found a baby robin on the ground. Perhaps a storm blew by and whisked it out of the nest. Or a squirrel shook the branch, or perhaps some green black walnut hit the nest and trampolined the bird in to the sky sending the ball of fluff through the air – a bit ahead of schedule – to land unceremoniously on the soft pile of grass clippings.
The robin was young, very young and frail, but not so frail that we couldn’t pick it up and transfer it to a spare canary cage and tend to the bird, proffering it milk-soaked bread from an eye dropper.
So, that was my job, feeding the little bird, and I shared the job with whoever else was around, mom, dad or my teenaged sister. We could have pretended we were all living on a farm. We all looked after the wild helpless little robin as it grew stronger and flew from perch to perch building its wing muscles while railing against the cruel and unwarranted imprisonment behind these chrome bars.
After growing up with dad’s homing pigeons, picking up and gently holding a robin was really nothing, like holding a handful of soft, scared, sacred air.
This would have made a great science project for Mrs. James Fifth Grade class at School 10 where I barely squeaked by, she said, after I learned everything wrong n my old parochial school.
Heck, I wasn’t used to picking out clothes to wear to school every day instead of my tie and uniform and she expected me to remember everything that was drilled into my head by the habited ones. Leaving that old school was a lot like being paroled. I had a new life in a new house. I could make new friends and the first thing I did was forget what went before. In September, I entered Fifth Grade after the tabula rasa summer of 1964.
What would I know about a science project? How’s this: If you’re really good all your life, when you die, you get to live again. That should have been my Fifth Grade science report. Instead, I took some scrap wood from the giant garage, tapped in some finishing nails and strung some rubber bands from nail to nail and called it an instrument.
Picture a Charles Brown Christmas tree as a science project. Got that picture in your head? His tree would have been an A-plus next to my scrap of wood.
At the science fair where we all got to show off our science projects, the kid down the block had created a real volcano that exploded and shot out sparks and lava. I had a cast-off piece of window moulding with big brads sticking out catching on everything and anyone who walked too closely by, topped by rubber bands stretched out to the max and about to snap when you least expect it.
"Can you play a tune on that thing, Anthony?"
"No, ma'am, I don't know music," I said flatly.
Maybe if I had more time to work on the project? You can be sure the teacher told us the night before that the project was due, so, that’s when I did it.
Don’t go taking the teacher’s side that she told us weeks and months ahead of the due date. (This is my flashback aside, and I’ll tell it the way I remember it. You’ll have to make up your own stories.) I’m sure she told us the afternoon before, “Don’t forget, children, your science projects are due tomorrow.”
In retrospect, if I had the foresight to show I could save one wild, red-breasted robin, then I might have been able to bring up my science grade and gone on to become a famous scientist instead of you-know-what.
The little bird and I got along well. I think it was happy to see me – not that you could see it smile, it was happy to see me in the same was it was happy our dog Butch didn’t eat it when I held it to his nose for a sniff.
And that feathered critter helped me get to know some of the neighborhood kids. They all came by at one time or another to check out my little charge flitting from perch to perch in the spare canary cage.
If I ever did a science project, I would have stood in front of the class and said how we fed the gossamer waif. Yes, we soaked bread in milk and at first had to feed it with an eye-dropper. It was just like in those cartoons we all watched, with its mouth as wide as a steam shovel bucket and twice as hungry. But as the North American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is a migratory songbird of the thrush got bigger, we disposed of the dropper and fed it small clumps of soggy bread.
Then we worked up to some of the small seeds from dad's pigeon feed and bits of earth worm. Of all that we fed the baby bird, the worms were the weirdest. They were skin on the outside and dirt on the inside. At lest the soggy milk-bread reminded us of something we might eat ourselves, like our morning sugar frosted flakes.
One day when the robin was stronger and its angel hair down cover given over to fine feathers, I released it from the cage and watched it soar and zip and climb and land on a shelf here, the wooden Brookdale soda crate over there on our screened-in porch.
It liked that. It wasn’t all that interested in flying to my outstretched finger. But I had him again and my mom got the camera to take a photo of me and my bird under the tree where we found it.
I settled it and kept it calm, and held my hand out as Mom snapped the Kodak.
The bird flew to a low hanging branch in the black walnut tree. I stuck out my finger and waited as if it was a trained falcon like on Disney. The robin didn’t come to me, so I whistled, held my hand out higher and eyed the robin in the branch just out of reach. It watched me back.
At last, the red breasted robin left its branch, flying towards me, then shot straight up winging over my head leaving a white wet chalk mark on my forehead, disappearing forever into the back pages of a young boy.
The short version of this story
About the author: Anthony Buccino has written several collections about life and growing up in and around Belleville, New Jersey. He also created Old Belleville, a web site of local history.
For more information, www.anthonybuccino.com
Copyright 2011 by Anthony Buccino – used by permission.