Fifteen thousand birds and a double date

One thing about the Square that’s changed over the last half-century is that now there seem to be fewer trees. In the forties and fifties there must have been two or three times as many pecan trees standing on the lawn, many with limbs hanging out over the sidewalks. And that was part of the problem. In those days there were great flights of a thousand or more starlings and sparrows that would wheel through the sky over town. They’d come from the fields in wave after wave. I use the word ‘wheel’ because when they would fly in they would turn and turn again looking like black chaff caught in a mighty whirlwind. Standing a hundred yards below, you could hear their wings hammer against the air. Every evening these flights gather overhead from about any point on the compass. To see that many birds of any variety flying first this way and then that was surely a spectacle. After filling their craws in the fields what better place to spend the night than a well-lighted perch on the Square. A bird could socialize and all the while, keep an eye out for anything that might want to include them as part of a snack. They would fill every available space and when tree room ran out they’d sit on the wires. My great great auntie, Mrs. Richards, remembered a similar story about how the passenger pigeons would blacken the sky over Missouri when she was a little girl. She said that they landed on the tree limbs, wing to wing, until the limbs would give way beneath their weight. There were broken limbs of eight to ten inches on the pecan trees on the Square as well. But the main criticism of the birds was if you were to take a stroll around the Square, you might find yourself covered in ‘summer snow.’ Little boys would find anything that gross amusing, but parents’especially mothers with permanents, could not see the humor in the situation. You wouldn’t want to park your car on the Square after dark unless you intended on washing it the next day. The upshot of the matter was that nobody chased off a boy with a BB gun who wanted to add some notches to his rifle stock. Most of the birds I dropped were sparrows since they showed up better against the night sky. Sometime I’d miss and hit a starling standing on the branch above. I’m sure there are today twenty-seven laws prohibiting such anti-social behavior but this was before we reached our present high state of sensitivity. The police would show up with light loads of 7 1/2 shot and drop a dozen in one blast. Even after the last shotgun report echoed off the storefronts and the last BB toting kid called it a night, there was still a space problem from the birds’ point of view in those trees. There came a time when girls took priority over shooting starlings and we put the air rifles away. Still as sure as evening came on, the birds took to the pecan trees by the storm. On one such evening my pardner and I waited for our dates, who attended a Rainbow Girls function. We got to the Square early and saw a boy throwing a rock up into the mass of leaves. Down came the rock and a bird. He picked up the rock again and threw it. Nothing happened. He threw again and about every forth or fifth try, down would come a bird. We walked over to talk to him and found that the stratagem was to aim into a cluster, let fly, and see what happened. Most of the birds were simply stunned. I found a stick about a foot and a half long and down came three. Possibly I’d just reinvented the boomerang. I picked up the birds but they flew away. In about a half-hour the girls walked down to find us. We all decided to take in the movie at the Palace, just across the street south of the Square. We didn’t tell the girls what we’d been doing, partly because we weren’t done doing it. I tell you, they were innocent, your Honor. The trees were still leaf-covered. The season was probably fall because I remember wearing a light corduroy jacket with ample pockets with flaps. The coat had what I call a straight cut. That means that from the armpits, the body of the coat dropped straight down to the hips with no gathering at the waist. The coat was made for rough wear but it was open at the chest having lapels and could double as a sports coat. I said that it was a straight cut, that it dropped straight down’well, there was a bulge, only a slight one, at either pocket. My pardner and I bought tickets and the obligatory bag of popcorn. We took seats in center about mid-distance to the screen on the main floor. That evening the crowd was light. We settled down to eating popcorn and watching the newsreel. Before TV commercials there were movie commercials and somewhere along being told that ‘Frost’s freshness is a fact, not a fable,’ I looked across the girls at my pardner. We both nodded. It was time. I can’t remember where we found them but he and I had come across a wad of rubber bands. What we did was stun a half-dozen birds apiece and slip rubber bands over the birds, holding their wings next to their bodies. It was a great idea but didn’t work all that well. Since the bird’s shape, being broad in the middle and small at the end, the task was something like keeping a string secure around the middle of a football. They’d slip the bands off themselves and escape. I was down to my last two birds by time we found our seats. After the newsreels the commercials came on. Mrs. Baird’s Bread never looked finer when I rolled the rubber band off one of my two remaining birds and released it. I’m not sure my date saw what I did. The people up in the balcony surely did. Pretty good racket up there once the arms and legs got untangled. The Palace never had bats but a starling zipping through the projector beam a couple of feet over your head could make you believe what you thought you saw rather than what was. Movie patrons used the commercials as a time to get a drink of water or to buy a second bag of popcorn. They didn’t sell soda water, as I recall. It was unheard of to have audience reaction when watching an automobile pitch where ‘Your car of the Future’ plodded down the highway at twenty miles an hour (we sell transportation, not speed, the industry sniffed.) People came out of the little lobby and out of the restrooms to see what the commotion was all about. It was all about the two birds, my buddy had let loose, doing aerial acrobatics about 10 feet over the heads of the people on the main floor. But then we really weren’t spoiling the spiel of ‘the Car of the Future’ either. The producers of these masterpieces of monotony would load up a bunch of grinning actors, the forerunners of the Brady Bunch, who looked to be all messed up on laughing gas and film them driving through the countryside. The audience, kids especially, knew that it took half a lifetime to drive to Brownwood, all of which was totally boring, unless you got lucky and ran over a skunk. I launched my last bird. My date saw what I did and it took me a couple of minutes to get Janet Rudder to sit back down. I had to explain that I was out of birds and therefore I wouldn’t do it again. Finally I got her calm, the movie came on, and we had a wonderful evening. If you are wondering about the birds, it was customary to leave the theater doors open each morning while the clean up crew worked. I’m sure that while the birds may had an eventful night up until closing time that they returned to fields safely with a craw-full of stories by early morning light. The larger mystery to me is where have the ten or fifteen thousand birds gone that clouded over the evening sky. True the authorities have fallen many of the trees. I heard that the light level on the Square has dropped, both by planning and by business closure. Believe me the police and the air rifle marksmen didn’t dent the population. It could be that there is not as much grain produced in McCulloch County as in years past although the doves I see look sleek. Not even the most tender-hearted Greenie would shed a tear for the passing of an English sparrow or a starling, both invasive species. But something’s changed. One evening recently I went down to the Square at sunset. The standing pole lights come on first on the plaza side. I watched a bat flight come out of the west but I could have counted on my fingers the number of birds that flew by. The plan may be to turn the more powerful street lights on after dark. It could be that the great flights settle for another location before the Square comes alight.

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