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The Bird Hospital


Posted: May 18, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 18, 2014 8:17 p.m.

Children and animals walk hand in hand. American Indians often venerated their kinship with animals with totems. Kids don't need wooden carvings; they simply treasure their furry comrades (or feathered in this case).

The setting for this tale is "The Cathouse," not to be confused with dens of sin, but considered literally: a house for felines. Before my parents bought our house in 1946, it belonged to the conductor of the Huntington Park Symphony Orchestra and his wife. He had a passion for concrete and she for cats. He'd built a miniature golf course in the back yard and she had a cathouse for tens of cats. It measured about six feet by twelve and was about five feet high. In the end it harbored trashcans for my father. But many years ago, it served a far nobler role.

I must have been about ten when I saw a dead bird in the street. I'd seen others before, but in my rush towards maturity, I'd never SEEN them. That day I did! It was on its back, spread eagled in the street. Its beak gaped and ants crawled in and out of its eye sockets while downy feathers of its belly waved gently in the breeze. Patty and Joy, neighbor kids up the street, joined me and stared at the stomach-churning sight. We found a shoebox, wrapped the remains in my mother's finest tissue and plopped it in a shallow hollow we'd dug in an abandoned part of the miniature golf course. We all joined hands and administered the final rights.

Hunkering in the shade of an immense pepper tree in the front yard, we dwelt on the meaning of life. While kids' pain augers far deeper than adults', they’re apt to rebound more quickly. Like the metamorphosis of an ugly caterpillar, their anguish often flowers into revelations, leading to new adventures. Hence, we rejected the bird's death and decided to correct the situation. What was needed was a bird hospital––a fine, modern hospital where the creature could have received proper care. It didn't matter we lacked experience as veterinarians or hospital administrators; we were resolved (and that is the path to greatness and glory).

We commandeered the cathouse. When you're ten, headroom was ample and though it lacked electricity (cats can see in the dark) the lone window gave sufficient light for a proper operating theater. When we yanked open the creaking door, we were greeted by filth: cobwebs, vermin of all kinds and, not dust, but dirt. No matter! Shovels first, then brooms and finally a thorough hosing with water. Darkness halted our efforts, but we fell into bed that night knowing the morrow would bring salvation to the feathered ones.

The next morning, I burst into the sweet morning air and ran to the hospital, only to find that Patty was already there, wrinkling her button nose. "Stinks," she said.

My next breath confirmed her observation. Mildew. Big time. Old wood, buried in clinging ivy, is a haven for odorous fungi. We entered to see if we'd become immune to the reek, but teary eyes and burning throats drove us away.

Patty, being chatty that morning, uttered the solution, "Paint."

Kids and paint, a match made in heaven. Left over cans were liberated from my father's garage, mixed and applied. The resulting glow was wonderful––just like a real hospital. The stench of the drying paint (oil base in those days) banished us for the rest of the day. The following morning we returned with a table (wobbly leg), a stool, a basket for the sick, clean rags and a pilfered can of Band-Aids. (Yes, back in the fifties they came in metal cans.) We completed our surgical supplies with Listerine disinfectant, a small bottle of Mercurochrome––a remnant from my Boy Scout first-aid kit––and a flashlight.

Joy folded the rags neatly and Pattie brushed aside a dust speck as we continued our critical inspection. A nod from each and we declared the hospital open for business.

The only thing lacking were patients, so we set out to find ailing birds. There were none in my yard, nor in Missa Van's, nor over by Tosties. None up the street past Joy's or even Patty's. None on the next street by 'Tants' and none on Cherokee. We walked and walked and words became few. The shadows grew long and so did our faces. No sick birds. I began to wish God would break one of their wings so we could show our stuff. Patty spotted a limping dog, but even with only three legs, he escaped our lunges.

Night fell on our empty hospital.

Kids have little patience and the hospital closed the next morning. Not that we said it was closed, or even that we returned the Band-Aids. It simply didn't enter our minds. No matter, future adventures would have the cathouse become a prison and a warehouse, but that is another tale or two.


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