Originally, my brother wanted a goat as a pet. But, our apartment manager didn’t allow goats. (a rule that doesn’t have to appear on your lease to be legally acknowledged – by the way) Though, I’d argue that when you’re talking about an apartment building located in the far-reaches of a tumbleweed town in eastern Washington, the management should be more flexible.
Regardless, Garth moved on, visited the local pet store and set his heart on taking home a budgie parakeet. He named the bird, Woodstock, after the little bird in Charles Schultz’s famous comic strip, Peanuts, Snoopy’s best friend.
Woodstock’s flying was an awkward mix of klutz and peril. He often smacked into trees or fluttered upside down, spun wildly and landed on the ground with stars and spirals drawn around his head. Garth’s bird was either an avid follower of the Peanuts comic strip or suffered brain damage as a chick in the egg, because he flew exactly the same way. That is, when he got the chance to spread his wings, which wasn’t very often.
Yes, because the dirty little secret about bird ownership is that it comes with a hefty side dish of guilt. When you purchase a wild animal with survival skills long ago scratched from the DNA, you’ve made a lifelong commitment to keep your pet from doing the main thing he was born to do, fly. He will live in a cage. With clipped wings. So he will never get away. Never. Because, the truth is, you haven’t purchased a bird, more like your own feathered prisoner. And that makes you his warden. In our case, that was Garth, Warden Garth.
Ninety-nine percent of Woodstock’s life was lived in a two foot by one foot cage. His sole companionship came from a mirror attached to the wall. The reflected Woodstock made the real bird bob his head up and down in a somewhat pornographic and disturbing way. Besides eating and bobbing, Woodstock’s entertainment consisted of sharpening his beak across a large cuttle bone, and sitting on a wooden perch to crap on newspaper. Does this strike you as a terrific way to spend a life? Will I get a 3% cut of all the PETA donations inspired by this blog post? The answer to both questions is, probably not.
I think Garth sensed the emptiness of Woodstock’s life immediately, but I’ve always been slow on the uptake. On Saturday mornings, after ingesting a bowl of sugar-coated cereal and watching a few hours of Looney Tunes on television, I was happy. Something about the combination of the afterglow of Tweety cartoons and the crash from the sugar made me keenly aware of Woodstock’s imprisonment. I found myself begging Garth to let Woodstock free.
“Open his door. Let him fly.”
That’s all it took to encourage Garth, I suspect because he was already chanting the same thing in his head. He’d open the door and Woodstock remained on the perch. Garth would call his name, and Woodstock stayed on the perch. Finally, Garth would reach in and gently pry Woodstock’s curled nails from around the perch and release the bird into the living room.
I always hoped that Woodstock would circle above our heads in graceful loops to our cheers and whistles. This was never to be realized. Woodstock’s flying, if one could call it that, resembled the inky up and down readouts of the old fashioned EKG machines. It was all quick drops and high bursts. The bird sputtered up and down in the air, almost hitting the ceiling, nearly smacking the floor, creating spastic Vs in my mind until, wham! He slammed into a window or wall, lost a handful of feathers and then crawled up the drapes where his long nails got caught in the fabric. He jerked and bobbed frantically, losing more feathers, until he was freed by Garth’s gentle hands. It was unnerving, heartbreaking and horrifying. And somehow, which might explain a great deal about my inner-workings, within minutes of nestling Woodstock into his cage again, I forgot the trauma caused by letting him fly.
Well, we liked Woodstock, and because he was Garth’s, I assume Garth loved him. When we moved into our house, Woodstock came with us. He had a place of honor on the corner of Garth’s desk, next to a stack of books about Egypt, my brother’s latest fixation.
Then, on May 18th, 1980, Mount St. Helens blew her top. I don’t remember any house-shaking booms, but the sky outside became pocked with ash sacs. And poor Woodstock died of a little birdy heart attack during the eruption. We found him dead in his cage and left Garth to bury him or flush him however he saw fit. I was sad, but not sad enough to miss the birthday party Bobbie McPherson was hosting at Farrell’s. Her mother had ordered the volcano ice cream sundae and I wanted my share.
May. Woodstock died in May. I don’t remember Garth mentioning the bird throughout the remainder of spring, or summer on our visit to California to see our father and other mom. He’d gotten heavy into Egyptians, created an immaculate black pyramid, and placed it in the bare spot on his desk that Woodstock’s cage once occupied. I thought maybe he put it there as a sort of memorial to his first pet. After that, I didn’t give another thought to the bird, his death, or Garth’s grieving. It just evaporated for me.
The summer we spent at Dad’s sped by, but at the end of August, it was time to return home to Mom and school. Before we arrived home, Mom changed our bedding, vacuumed our rooms and dusted. In order to clean Garth’s desk, she had to move the black pyramid. And when she lifted it up, she found Woodstock lying there. Woodstock. If anything could bring the bird back to life it would be a few months sitting underneath a pyramid, right? That’s what the Egyptians believed would happen, resurrection, new life.
Maybe Garth’s calculations were right, and Woodstock did rise from the dead. But, with no birdseed and water and mirror and cuttle bone and Garth after waking, maybe Woodstock decided that death was an improvement.
In death, Woodstock could soar like an eagle, avoid any obstacle and hold onto his feathers at last.