marines land in pakistan. third gasoline tanker hijacked near los angeles. pocono flats football team strives for first win in two years. president peltz denies breast implants.
Never let school interfere with your education. That’s what it says on the blackboard as Polachek, our social studies teacher, climbs onto his desk and goes into his gorilla act. The class is called Problems of Democracy and Polachek is the perfect man to teach it. He’s a wiry little old guy who some kids say is a millionaire and teaches for the fun of it. At least it’s fun for him. Other people don’t seem to know what to make of him most of the time—like now, as he hops up and down pounding his chest, further wrinkling his grey three-piece suit. He stops and scratches himself, cocks his head from side to side, then studies each face up and down the rows. A few of the kids look like they might run out of the room.
Last year, Katie might have been one of them. Today she appears to be getting a charge out of Polachek. Not as big a charge as I’m getting out of her, though. Katie Tran is tall, Vietnamese, and really smart. Along with being a tall female in a family whose adults average five feet in height, being Vietnamese at Pocono Flats High School doesn’t make her life any easier. Katie is wearing her trademark necklace featuring five flash drives suspended on a chain with black and canary yellow ribbons running through it. She’s also wearing another one of her trademarks, a very short miniskirt. I can’t believe her parents let her out of the house in that skirt—I guess they must have slept in after working late at Happy Family Asian Buffet last night. Anyway, I hope they keep doing it. Along with providing me with a reason to attend school, it’s good for the economy. I’m having a hard time taking my eyes off her long tanned legs, as the Polachek show continues.
“New eyes,” he growls from up on the desktop. “You’ve got to look at everything with new eyes in this class. Pretend you’re a curious gorilla or an alien who has just landed. Forget all the crap they’ve shoved down your throat for the past seventeen or eighteen years. Open your mind and think for yourself for a change.”
I want the rest of my senior year to be over, but I wish I could stay in Polachek’s class all day long.
“So,” he continues, “let’s share a few of the topics I had you write down that you’d like to learn about this year.”
“The war with Pakistan—and maybe Mexico.”
“Gasoline tankers getting hijacked.”
“The first woman president.”
Nodding, Polachek drops the gorilla routine. He plants his hands on his hips, switching to his country preacher act. Peering down over his wire-rimmed glasses from a make-believe pulpit on the desktop, he addresses his congregation with the smile of a TV evangelist.
“We’re also going to think about the influence of the media and technology on our culture. Where, brothers and sisters, would you be without your cell—excuse me, your smart phone? Any comments? Mr. Cookenbaker, enlighten us. Share your research findings with us.” He looks down at Bird. Bird is the only kid I know who does research for fun.
Like me, Bird is a Pocono Flats native, a small-town country boy. He’s also a lot of other things: one part Einstein, one part Gandhi, and one part Joe Strummer. Bird’s opening-day fashion statement is a pair of cut-off jeans, cheap black sneakers, and a plain white T-shirt which, in the middle of the chest in small black letters, simply says YES. Bird is my best friend. He and his family have been a big influence on me the past few years, especially now that my dad’s never around and I live on my own.
“The average American teenager,” Bird says, “sends and receives 3,339 text messages a month. That’s 111.3 per day.”
“Does that apply to you, Cookenbaker?”
“Uh, no. I think I texted Miles a few weeks ago,” he says, motioning to me, as a few kids snicker. It does apply to Katie, who at this moment has her hand inserted into her purse, texting Tony, her boyfriend at college in Boston. Tony Gillespie was our all-state quarterback three years ago when I was a freshman. I was supposed to replace him, but I haven’t gone out for the team since then. Coincidentally, the Pocono Flats Canaries haven’t won a game. I’ve taken some heat.
“Also, brothers and sisters,” Polachek continues, “we’ll examine the ways the Bill of Rights shapes our society, exploring topics like free speech and advertising.”
Nuke’em Kozlowski pipes up from the back of the room.
“I don’t believe in advertising.”
Nuke’em’s real name is Nelson, but he’s known as Nuke’em because ever since sixth grade he’s been talking about nuking things. Now in high school, his solution to all international problems is “Nuke’em.” Kozlowski isn’t real bright, but he’s not stupid either. Every once in a while he makes a semi-sensible statement. Maybe because he’s a tackle on the football team he isn’t afraid to speak up in class. Kozlowski and his teammate Richie Rascona are both decked out in their baggy back-to-school duds from the Coal County Mall. Rascona also has a new tattoo, Sick Boy, in old English lettering, on the inside of his bicep. Polachek grins, pleased to get a reaction.
“Why don’t you believe in advertising, Mr. K?”
“I don’t think it influences me.”
“Me neither,” grunts Rascona, whose head appears to grow directly out of his torso without the benefit of a neck. Unlike Kozlowski, whose behavior is civilized most of the time, Rascona’s idea of a good time is chugging a couple of cans of Red Bull, loading his lip with Copenhagen, and getting a buddy to drive around the back roads while he hangs out of the passenger-side window demolishing mailboxes with a baseball bat. His idea of a real good time would also include a pair of six-packs and a bag of weed, but he usually doesn’t have enough money.
“Perhaps advertising doesn’t affect you,” Polachek says. “But there must be a reason companies spend billions on it. I’m glad you gentlemen have an opinion.”
Looking up at the clock, Polachek sees the period is almost over.
“We’ll continue this dialog tomorrow. I’d better get the hell down from here.”
He jams his thumbs under his armpits and flaps his wings.
“Ground control, come in,” he booms out in a deep voice. “Requesting permission to land.”
Bird obliges, holding his nose to make his voice sound weird, clutching an imaginary microphone in the other hand.
“This is ground control. Permission granted, runway six. Over.”
Polachek springs from the desktop, landing nimbly for a man his age. Performing a snappy military about-face, he wheels to address the class and says in his deep NPR voice, “Thank you for your attention ladies and gentleman. Remember your assignment for Friday: demonstrate your understanding of the First Amendment in a creative fashion.”
I’ve been psyched for Polachek’s famous First Amendment assignment ever since I heard about it last year. I’m doing a photography project and have already taken pictures. Katie stands, tugs the hem of her skirt, and edges toward the door—eager to get to her calculus class early for extra help. Polachek notices and nods for her to go. Another thing different about Katie these days is she’s no longer impressed by guys who have a lot of apps on their phone. In fact, it’s pretty shallow of me to describe her as tall, Vietnamese, and really smart. That would be like saying John Lennon was just a singer in a Sixties band. She waves to Bird and me, making me feel a whole lot better than I did all of last year, when she didn’t seem aware of my existence. That hurt, because we’re not exactly strangers. Her older brother Ronnie and I played on the same baseball team for a couple of seasons. I’m also a regular at Happy Family. As she crosses the room, the breeze blowing in the open window sends my nose a combination of her perfume and #6 on the Happy Family menu. Number 6 happens to be Buddha’s Delight, my standing order.
“I still can’t believe her parents let her wear those get-ups to school,” I say softly to Bird.
“They don’t,” he replies. “She changes before homeroom.”
Rascona spits into the wastepaper can by the door on his way out of the room. Despite standing six feet tall with curly bleach blonde hair, Rascona does his best to make sure no one misses or ignores him.
“Richie really matured over the summer,” Bird says. “Last year he would have spit on the floor.”
Polachek smiles at our comments and sits down. Even on the first day of school, his desk is strewn with books, piles of hand-outs, a gas mask, and several beat-up old cameras. He also keeps a couple of tennis balls handy to fling at kids who sleep in class, but he doesn’t have to use them very often.
“So, Parker,” he says as Bird and I stand up to leave. “No football again this year? No baseball either?”
“No, Mr. Polachek, I got a job and…”
“Don’t worry about it son. You know it makes no difference to me. I am merely echoing what they’re saying in the faculty room.”
“Well thanks…I guess.”
“You know my theory about the necessity of team sports,” Polachek says. “They fulfill a tribal function now missing in our culture.”
He turns to Bird.
“Without violent public spectacles such as football and your dad’s favorite hobby, demolition derby, we’d become a fascist nation within a few generations.”
With his mouth, Bird makes the sound of an engine revving followed by a crash. Polachek shoves the gas mask out of the way, making room for the stack of papers he has collected from us.
“Parker, I’m counting on you and Bird to keep things interesting in here this year. Don’t let me down.”
“I’ll be ready on Friday, Mr. Polachek. I promise. I took pics with my Zorki and I’m having them developed.”
A Zorki is an obsolete Russian camera from back in the Cold War era. They stopped making Zorkis in 1965. They use film and they’re dirt-cheap on eBay. I got mine over the summer in a string-wrapped package from a guy in Siberia. It doesn’t work right all the time, but I still keep it with me wherever I go.
I found out about Zorkis in Polachek’s World History class last year. The name, Zorki, means “sharp sighted,” and “the ability to see a great distance.” One of the advantages of going to a small high school like Pocono Flats is you can get lucky and have a great teacher more than once. Of course, it also works the other way: you might get stuck with Mrs. Mitchell for math in ninth, tenth, and again in twelfthgrade, the way I did. I suppose I can’t blame her entirely for my “borderline proficient” math scores on the Omni test, but I might have done better if she hadn’t made me feel like an idiot every time I asked a question. Naturally, I stopped asking questions. Polachek, on the other hand, wants us to ask them. Too bad about Mrs. Mitchell’s class. I think I could have been decent at math if I’d had another teacher. I’m not stupid—in fact, I probably read more than any other kid in the school, except for Bird. Nobody can begin to compete with him.
As we’re getting ready to leave the room, the intercom speaker on the wall squawks.
“Mr. Polachek? Mr. Polachek? Are you there?”
The sound quality is about the same as at the drive-through at McDonald’s. Not that I frequent burger joints—I turned veg around the time I gave up sports. Vegan living is another thing I picked up from Bird. Polachek glares up at the speaker above the door.
“You’ve been listening to me,” he shouts, “so you know damn well I’m here.”
Bird and I look at one another. We’ve heard rumors about new two-way intercoms, but haven’t experienced them until now.
“Ms. Cummins,” the garbled voice continues, “needs to see you in her office at your earliest convenience. Preferably, right now.”
“Kinky’s fired up again,” Bird says out of the side of his mouth. “She loves being in charge when the Big Guy is away.”
No one is quite sure where Ms. Michelle Cummins picked up the nickname Kinky. Her tight skirts, stiletto heels, and take-charge attitude suggest interesting possibilities. Bird has promised to research it, but these days he’s more concerned about our armed forces’ recent invasion of Pakistan and the troop build-up on the Mexican border.
I had more than a few unpleasant encounters with Ms. Cummins as a junior, but I’m trying to start out my final year in high school with a positive attitude. I have a reputation for being a wiseass, but have made a resolution to cool it this year. Polachek, on the other hand, thrives on his running battle with Ms. Cummins. He shakes his fist at the intercom.
“You tell her to stop interrupting my classes or I’ll buy this building and burn it down.”
The intercom clicks off. Polachek picks up one of the tennis balls and whips it at the speaker. His aim is low and the ball sails through the open door out into the hall.
“Dammit Parker,” he says, “My arm is shot. Be my relief pitcher, would you please?” He flips me a ball. I turn, toss it softly, and hit the speaker dead-center, causing its cheezy cover to rattle.
“Beginners luck,” Polachek says, flipping me a second ball. “Do it again.”
I toss it. Same result, dead center. The speaker cover rattles louder.
“Okay, Parker, one more time. If you hit it I’ll give you an A for the first marking period.”
“Unfortunately, no. You earn points in this class with your brain.”
“Glad to hear it.”
I wind up the way I used to out on the mound. I fire a hard strike at the speaker and knock the cover to the floor. The tennis ball bounces slowly down the hallway toward Miss Ciazzo’s room. She’s the only teacher besides Polachek worth coming to school for. I can’t wait to get to her class.
man wakes from twenty-year coma, taps first text message. all seventeen-year-olds, males and females, reminded to register for draft or face felony charges. pocono flats loses football home opener 42-0.
I hate to invoke one of my dad’s hackneyed slogans from the 80s, but invoke and hackneyed are both on Miss Ciazzo’s use-or-die vocabulary list. Plus, the slogan still applies: Thank God it’s Friday. When we were kids, Bird and I used to have long conversations about whether Friday or Saturday is the best day. I always argued for Friday and he was for Saturday, but the more deeply he’s gotten into Zen, the less it matters to him. He says today is the only day we have, so it’s our responsibility to make it the best we can. The concept makes a lot of sense to me, except I still don’t have the be here now thing totally under control. I’m working on it. I try to stay in the moment, but my mind wanders. Bird says to not worry about it.
First period—Mrs. Mitchell is up at the smart board, droning on about sines and cosines. I’m wishing a time warp would advance the clock five periods so I can turn in my First Amendment project to Polachek. Between his class and Ciazzo’s, I’ll finally have the chance to be creative in school this year.
A series of sharp raps rattles the door. Ms. Cummins opens it, leans in, looks directly at me, and tells me to step out into the hall. I don’t know how, but it’s clear she knew where I would be sitting.
“Bring your backpack,” she commands as I get up.
Her mouth is tight. She looks like she needs a cigarette more than usual. I have no idea what this is about. When I get out into the hall, she turns and says, “Miles, these are agents Martinez, Stakowski, and Wang. They’re from the United States Secret Service.”
In ten seconds I’ve gone from looking forward to a creative senior year to standing face-to-face with a casting cliché from a bad TV movie. Not that I watch TV—television is another thing I’ve given up along with eating animals. Some stereotypes, apparently, are accurate: the three agents I’ve been introduced to are wearing black suits and Wang is wearing sunglasses. They show me their badges and say they want to talk to me. They ask for my phone and my backpack, which has the Zorki in it. I hate my phone most of the time, but in a way I feel kind of naked without it.
Martinez clamps onto my arm as they lead me to the office of our other assistant principal, Mr. Anderson. Stakowski takes the point, scanning from side to side as if expecting an ambush to pop out of the Home Ec room. Wang brings up the rear, carrying my backpack in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Ms. Cummins stays behind to talk to Mrs. Mitchell. Martinez’s grip on my arm reminds me of a blood pressure collar, only it doesn’t ease up.
“Officer, I’m not a threat to flee. I rode a bicycle to school today.”
“Regulations, son. Don’t worry; we’re not going to cuff you yet.” He smiles a little when he says this. I hope he’s kidding.
“How about my rights? Are you going to read me my rights?”
“You bet, if we need to. We need to talk to you first.”
“We’ll talk about it downstairs.”
“Have you called my dad?”
My dad’s out of town, as usual, and I don’t have a mom, so I’m on my own for this one.
“How about a lawyer?”
“If you need one, we’ll make sure it happens.”
Stakowski looks back over his shoulder to check on me. His black suit, flat expression, and businesslike walk remind me of an undertaker, but I decide this wouldn’t be a good time to make a joke.
Anderson’s desk is cluttered with discipline referrals, a Joe Paterno bobble-head doll, and a little plaque proclaiming “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” Off to the side, he’s made a clearing for a bag of chips, another of pretzels, and a giant refillable plastic soda mug from the Guzzler. Crammed on his shelves are row after row of massive three-ring binders I can’t imagine anyone ever being desperate enough to read. I smile when I think of Polachek’s description of Anderson as a man who has been educated well beyond his intelligence. They all see me smiling and everyone in the room gives me a dirty look. The small office is crowded with five of us in here. I don’t know who is wearing the aftershave, but he’s killing me.
Anderson sits bug-eyed behind his desk like they’ve just hauled in Charlie Manson. He’s sweating. Two of the Feds unbutton their suit coats as they sit down on either side of me. They seem tense, as if they think I might do something. With their jackets unbuttoned I can see they’re carrying big Glocks. Out of his briefcase, Wang pulls the 8 x 10 photo I had printed at Wal-Mart for Polachek’s First Amendment project. He hands it to Stakowski, who studies it. So this is what it’s all about. Unbelievable.
The picture shows my left arm jutting in from the side of the frame giving a thumbs-down. My arm is clad in my favorite red flannel lumberjack shirt. Several feet beyond my hand, tacked onto the side of my barn, is a full-page smiling headshot of President Connie Peltz I tore out of People magazine. What creeps me out is I only had two copies of my photograph printed. One is in my backpack to hand in to Polachek. The other is at home, out in the barn. So either they’ve been to my house and took it, or the guy at Wal-Mart made an extra copy. For his act of heroism, he’s probably going to get an Employee-of-the-Month certificate, a pile of fast-food coupons, and a special parking spot.
Stakowski slowly waves the picture. He’s a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache. He appears tired.
“You want to tell us about this?”
I think I’m going to have a hard time keeping my resolution.
“Wow,” I say. “You guys are efficient. I haven’t even posted the picture online yet.”
“Okay, don’t tell me, let me guess. Wal-Mart called you.”
“You got it.”
“He almost got it,” Martinez interrupts. “First they called the State Police and the State Police called us.”
“So what’s the problem?” I ask. “You don’t approve of the composition? I was thinking maybe the hand took up too much of the frame, but I couldn’t stretch my arm out any further and I didn’t have a tripod.”
“Don’t get wise,” Stakowski says. “What’s it all about?”
“Project for my P.O.D. class, due this afternoon.”
“What’s P.O.D.?” asks Wang in a monotone. He’s been punching the keys of his cell phone and continues to stare down at it.
“Problems of Democracy. Get it?”
“No, we don’t get it,” says Stakowski. He appears to be the boss. “You want to explain it to us?”
“No, I don’t. If you aren’t smart enough to figure it out yourselves, I plead the Fifth Amendment. Why don’t you go ask my teacher what the assignment was?”
“Go get his teacher,” Stakowski motions to Anderson with his chin. “Get him down here.” Anderson picks up his phone.
“No, go get him,” says Stakowski.
Anderson grunts while struggling to rise from his chair. Squeezing between the desk and the bookshelf, he knocks a pile of papers onto the floor. He stares down at them, stepping on tip-toes past the Feds. He’s sweating bullets and big wet circles darken his shirt under his arms. Once Anderson is out of the room, Stakowski waves the picture again, a little more forcefully. He clears his throat.
“Okay, son, I’m gonna level with you. This could be pretty serious. Do you have a problem with the president?”
I look at him. They’re all looking at me, except Wang, he’s still checking his phone.
“Of course I have a problem with the president. Anyone in their right mind should have a problem with the president.”
Stakowski rests his butt on the front of Anderson’s desk and bends toward me, lowering his voice to ask the next question.
“And what is the nature of your problem with the president?”
“The nature? I guess I would have to say my issue is philosophical in nature.”
“What do you mean by that?”
I think about ranting along the lines of her being a neo-fascist warmonger bimbo, but I decide to play it dumb.
“I don’t think she’s doing a very good job.”
“Well, I think it should be the president’s goal to try to make things better for our country and the world. It doesn’t seem to be working out.”
Stakowski looks at Martinez, who clears his throat and leans over to me from the side. Wang continues looking down, and I realize he’s holding a digital recorder, not a phone.
“You ever think about hurting the president?” Martinez asks, ever-so-casually.
“No, not at all,” I say. “I’m a pacifist. I’m a vegan. I don’t want to hurt anybody or anything. I expressed my feelings in a photograph.”
“What’s vegan?” Stakowski follows up. “A religion or belief system?”
“No, it means I don’t eat any animal products or use them if I can help it.”
“So—you’re a vegetarian.”
“Yeah. Close enough.” I can’t see wasting a lot of time explaining it to three guys who are going straight to Mickey D’s for lunch after they get through with me.
Martinez smiles again and relaxes a little.
“My daughter’s a vegetarian.”
I feel better for a second. Stakowski gives Martinez a look. I’m happy to see the friction developing between them, but it dawns on me they might be playing good cop–bad cop. The whole routine could be planned to set me up to identify with Martinez, so later I spill the beans to him. The thing is, I have nothing to spill. But they have no idea. Stakowski returns his attention to me.
“So let me get this straight, son. You made the picture for a school assignment—and the assignment was what?”
“To demonstrate an understanding of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. You know…‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…’” I quote the whole thing, nailing it almost perfectly, considering the circumstances. Stakowski and Wang look at each other. Then they leave the room.
Martinez moves to the chair across from me. He relaxes a little more, crossing his legs and throwing his arm up on the back of the empty chair at his side. He notices me staring at his Glock, drops his arm and buttons his jacket.
“Good job quoting the First Amendment,” he says, reaching into his coat pocket. “Piece of gum?” He has a small, smile-shaped scar on his cheek.
“No thanks. It took me a couple of nights to memorize. I’m going for an A in P.O.D. this year.”
My hands hurt and I realize I’ve been gripping the chair like I’m riding a roller coaster without a safety bar. My armpits are wet and cold. Anderson hasn’t been the only one sweating.
“We hear you’re quite an athlete.”
Why can’t everybody give this sports thing a skip? I hope I don’t have to listen to this crap from now until June.
“I used to be, but I kind of retired. I’m concentrating on academics my senior year.”
“Where are you thinking about going to college?”
Another possible trick, but I decide to play along for a while.
“I’m not sure. NYU maybe.”
“Know what you want to major in?”
“I enjoy literature a lot. I’m also interested in writing. Or photography. Maybe journalism.”
“Quite a coincidence. My son is in his second year at the Columbia School of Journalism. He loves it in the city. Good luck with your NYU application.” He rubs the scar on his cheek.
I take it from his wishing me luck that I may be spared from spending the rest of my life in a maximum security federal penitentiary.
There’s a knock on the door; they’re back with Polachek. He saunters in like he owns the place and heads directly for Anderson’s chair. The rest of the seats get filled and Anderson has to wait outside.
“Good morning Parker,” Polachek says. “These gentlemen have shown me your First Amendment project and you have done an outstanding job! For your efforts you will receive an A.”
He looks around the room at the Feds. Lifting Anderson’s open bag of pretzels he says, “Has Mr. Anderson offered you gentlemen any refreshments?”
Martinez starts to reach out, but Stakowski snatches the bag.
“We’re still a little concerned, Mr. Polachek,” he says.
He hands Polachek the picture. Polachek studies it carefully.
“May I point out, Agent Stakowski, the young man is simply giving President Peltz a thumbs-down. He is not making an obscene gesture, as in giving her the finger. He is not making a gesture representing violence, as in shaking a fist at her. And he does not have his hand held as if he is pulling the trigger on a firearm. He is merely giving her a thumbs-down, indicating disapproval.”
“Perhaps,” Stakowski says. “But back in ancient Rome, didn’t a thumbs-down from the emperor indicate a person would be put to death?”
“Quite the contrary, Mr. Stakowski. Several ancient Roman writers—Horace, Juvenal, and Prudentius, all stated thumbs-up, meaning ‘send him to the gods,’ was the signal to end a gladiator’s life. Thumbs-down meant to spare it. As happens over the course of two thousand years of history, the interpretation changed. Regardless, in modern society, the thumbs-down gesture has come to simply mean disapproval.”
Polachek moves the Joe Paterno bobble-head doll out of the way and leans forward, resting his elbow on the desk.
“Miles, you don’t believe you’re the Emperor of Rome, or a superhero, do you?”
“Did aliens put you up to making the photograph? Do you hear voices in your head?”
“No. I was trying to express my opinion and do my assignment. In fact,” I add, “President Peltz plastered the thumbs-down symbol all over her website during last year’s campaign. That’s where I got the idea. She put it over pictures of her opponents and next to a list of laws she thinks need to be changed. How come she gets to use it but I don’t?”
Polachek sits back in Anderson’s chair, helping himself to chips while watching the Feds look at one another.
Finally Stakowski says, “We’ll have to verify. Her campaign website was taken down after the inauguration.”
“We can verify it right now,” I say. “I saved a copy of it on my flash drive last year when we studied the election. The flash drive is out in my backpack.”
They ask Anderson to pass them my backpack through the doorway and he does, handling it like it’s radioactive or might explode at any second. We plug my flash drive into Anderson’s computer, and sure enough, the thumbs-down icon is all over the place on Peltz’s website. The Feds leave again, taking my backpack and flash drive. I’m still sweating, but I feel a lot better. Polachek helps himself to a few more chips and straightens his skinny tie.
“They’ll keep those things for a while,” he tells me, fiddling with the small American flag pin in his lapel. “It’ll give their sleuths in the crime lab something to do. If you’re lucky, they’ll return them one day.”
“I hope so. I love my camera. The kids are never going to believe I was questioned by the Secret Service for taking a picture of a picture.”
“I’ll back you up. Good job today, Parker. Always remember, Illegitimi non carborundum.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
10,000 pennsylvania deer to be used as live targets on military firing range. cia: terrorist plots by non-muslims exceed those by muslims more than 2:1. coal county hook, ladder, and rescue seeking volunteers.
Bird is my best friend. His real name is Barry Cookenbaker. If you want to picture what Bird looks like, go to Google Images and type in “young Woody Allen.” Next, type in “young Dustin Hoffman.” Imagine combining their faces—roughly 60 percent Woody Allen and 40 percent Dustin Hoffman. Make him 17 and you’ve got a close resemblance.
One reason we call him Bird is his stick-like legs, which are always on display from wearing shorts nearly year-round. He used to say it gave him the advantage of never having to change for cross-country training, but he’s not on the team any more.
“Distance runners are a little too obsessive-compulsive for me,” he explained. “I’m not totally against all competition, but I think people take it way too seriously.”
The thing Bird is seriously into is Zen. It’s starting to rub off on me.
“Sounds good, but I don’t totally understand it,” I tell him when he tries to explain the illusion of life.
“No problem, he says, “There is nothing to understand.”
Besides reading, I’ve gotten into listening to audio books, one of my favorites being The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I’d heard it was a great book and tried it last year, but got bored after a few pages. Over the summer I borrowed a recording of it from the public library and listened to an actor with a terrific accent play out all the characters. Turned out to be one of the best books ever. Dostoyevsky described one of the brothers, Alyosha, in a way that makes me think of Bird. He said if Alyosha suddenly found himself alone and penniless in a city far from home, he would never be hungry, cold, or without friends. That’s Bird.
Small things can amuse Bird for hours. Slightly larger things can keep him occupied for days. Take ants. The summer between seventh and eighth grade, Bird conducted a study of ants. He was always conducting studies—still is. He walked around everywhere with a big magnifying glass sticking out of his back pocket. Most guys in eighth grade would use a magnifying glass to catch the sun and create a death ray to incinerate ants. Instead, Bird used it to enter their world. Occasionally he took notes, but most of the time I’d find him lying on his stomach, observing, in the dirt pile next to Go-Go Bob’s garage.
“They are undoubtedly going to take over the earth,” he said, looking up from his dusty vantage point. “There are estimated to be a quadrillion of them.”
“The number one followed by 15 zeros. It is also estimated ants compromise 15 percent of the total animal biomass on the planet.” Even in eighth grade he said stuff like “it is estimated.”
“It would be very hard to simply nuke ’em, as our friend Kozlowski is fond of suggesting. Mega life force.”
Life force. Bird was always thinking about life force and related topics. It started him on the road to being vegan. By the end of the next summer, we were both committed. One of our experiences also affected Go-Go Bob. He didn’t become vegan, but as far as I know, it was the last time he drank or used drugs.
It was the Saturday before Labor Day, and Bird and I were hanging around the garage. Go-Go Bob said, “Let’s take a ride over to the shoot in Paradise Valley.” Bob had taken us hiking on the Appalachian Trail near Paradise Valley a few months earlier, so we said, “Sure, whatever.” I didn’t know what he meant by “a shoot,” but it was a chance to get out of town. Dad had already started traveling. When he was home, he never did anything with me. About all he did was watch sports on television.
“They set up a real nice beer tent in the grove,” Bob said. “You two make sure I behave myself, okay?” Bird was always making sure his dad behaved himself in those days and it wasn’t easy. Bob wasn’t a bad person or anything; but whenever he started drinking, he couldn’t stop. He’d already done a couple of stints in rehab, and each time after coming home, he did great for a while. He did so great he would convince himself he could handle a couple of beers.
“Hey, Shirley,” he called out to Bird’s mom upstairs over the garage, “Are you and Cookie coming along?”
“You going to the beer tent?”
“Stopping by for a minute. Tom Short from the Army will be there. You remember him.”
Shirley looked down at us from behind the screen in the upstairs kitchen window.
“Cookie and I are going to pass.”
Cookie’s little head popped into the window.
“Yeah, Bob, we pass. No beer.”
Bob shrugged and he and Bird and I piled into his old Dodge pickup. The day before, he’d tuned the engine and also thrown on a new muffler, one with a nice low throaty sound.
“Highway or back roads?” Bob asked as he spun the tires a little pulling out of the parking lot.
“Back roads,” Bird and I answered at the same time. We loved riding around on back roads in Bob’s truck. Because Bob knew so many people in our area, instead of waving at acquaintances coming the other way, he just raised his index finger from the steering wheel. Within the first five cars that passed, someone always got a finger wave.
“She’ll get over it,” Bob said when he saw Bird looking back over his shoulder at Shirley. “I’ll only have one or two. It’s a long way there and back, and I have you with me. I’m not going to do anything stupid. You trust me, don’t you? Let’s get into the ride.”
I said, “Yeah, I trust you Bob.”
Bird looked uneasy.
“How come you didn’t bring your rifle, Dad? You said it was a target shoot.”
“Not into it,” Bob replied. They don’t use rifles at this one. They use shotguns. They shoot at pigeons. I’ll say hi to my old Army buddies and we’ll head back.”
Bird squirmed in his seat.
“Pigeons? You mean live pigeons?”
“What do they do with the birds, do they cook them? No one eats pigeons, do they?”
“No. They shoot them and throw them away. Not my idea of a good time.”
Bird hung his head out the window as Bob took his time on the winding two-lane blacktop. At first I thought Bird was enjoying the air, the way dogs do. After a few minutes, he sat back against the seat. He was pale and sweaty.
“Pull over, would you Bob?”
Bob did and Bird scrambled down out of the cab and ran behind bushes where we could hear him gagging. He came back to the truck, still pale, and got in without a word.
“You okay? Want me to turn around? We can go home if you’re sick.”
“No,” Bird said. “Keep going. I want to see this. Tesla was crazy about pigeons, you know.”
I didn’t know anything about Tesla at the time. The three of us made small talk for the rest of the ride. By the time we got there, Bird was himself again. Except, he looked different. I’d been around him every day the whole summer and during the ride I noticed he was starting to sprout a little facial hair. His jawbone and chin were a little more angular. He was older. And so was I.
Bob pulled into the dusty field serving as a parking lot in Paradise Valley. He nodded at the charter buses draped with banners saying they were from animal rights groups in Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia.
“Those protesters have a point,” he said, easing in next to another pickup truck. “They have a point.”
On the truck next to us a sticker on the rear bumper said, the only reason certain people are alive is it’s illegal to kill them. Next to it was a P.E.T.A.—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—bumper sticker with a red X painted over it.
“Good law-abiding citizen,” Bob said, patting the truck’s fender and heading for the grove. “Come get me in an hour. Don’t be late.”
It was hard to tell whether he was being ironic—about both things. My sense of irony wasn’t very well-developed at that age. Bob didn’t look over toward the protesters, who were clustered about a football field away, near the firing line. They were chanting a slogan I couldn’t understand because of the distance. I watched Bob disappear into the shadows of the grove.
“Why did he bring us here?” I asked Bird, who was looking all around and sniffing the air.
“Extrapolating from his past behavior, we’re his insurance. He doesn’t want to get loaded.”
“If he has a drinking problem, how can you be sure he won’t get drunk?”
“I can’t, totally. But the odds are, he won’t. He started again recently, so he still has partial control. If he’d been drinking for six months, or if we weren’t here, he’d be in real trouble.”
“This is scary.”
“Not as scary as what’s happening over there.” Bird pointed toward the firing line. “Let’s go have a look.”
He was right, it was gruesome, even from a distance. I was rubbery-legged walking toward the shotguns blasting, but there didn’t seem to be any choice other than to stick with Bird. He appeared completely calm.
“What makes people think they have the right,” I asked, “to kill thousands of birds for target practice?” Though we were only in eighth grade at the time, I figured Bird would have a detailed philosophical explanation, complete with historical references.
“If all the insects,” he replied instead, “were to disappear from the Earth, within fifty years, all life on Earth would end. On the other hand, if all the humans were to disappear from the planet, within fifty years, all other forms of life would flourish.”
I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, but there was no time to ask. As we made our way toward the chanting protesters and the shotguns blasting off one after another, I could see his nose working again.
“What do you smell?” he asked me.
“Uh, barbecue…and gun smoke.”
“Don’t you smell it?”
No, I couldn’t smell fear no matter how hard I tried. But I could sure see it and feel it when we reached the firing line. About fifty state policemen, half of them in full riot gear with helmets and shields, stood between the protesters and the shooters and spectators. People on both sides looked afraid. The cops looked more afraid, and I could see why. They were in the middle of close to five hundred people, and almost all of them were pissed off. The spectators tried to ignore the protesters, but a few couldn’t.
“Hey, hippies, go back to the city.”
Half a dozen television news crews worked in and around the crowd, interviewing protesters, shooters, spectators, and a couple of local politicians.
A cop came up to us.
“Which side are you boys on?”
“We have to be on a side?”
“Yeah,” the cop said. “You have to either stand over there, with the spectators, or over here by the protesters. The ground in the middle is ‘No Man’s Land.’”
“Can we go over there for a while and come back here?”
The cop took a long look at us.
“Sure, boys. Be careful. If any fights start, get away. Where’s your parents?”
“My dad’s…over in the grove. He’ll be with us soon.”
The cop waved us past. The pom-pom-pom-pom of shotguns rang out. A few seconds later it echoed back from the tree-covered mountainside a mile across the field. Two of the camera crews followed us on their way to get footage of the action on the firing line. I looked into the crowd of spectators as we approached and recognized a couple of people from Pocono Flats, including Mr. Burns, who I had for Environmental Science the year before in junior high. He saw me, too, and waved. I waved back.
Bird drifted over closer to the firing line. At the supervisor’s signal, ropes were pulled, releasing the pigeons from boxes on the ground. Most rose only a few feet before getting blasted and tumbling back onto the turf. A team of boys our age scrambled out on to the field picking up the dead birds as the shooters reloaded for the next round. The whole thing looked very well-organized and safe—except, of course, if you were a pigeon. The way everything was lined up, it almost reminded me of a bowling tournament. But the results were a lot different. In this contest, living things died. I watched one beautiful gray and white bird manage to make it about ten feet off the ground before getting shot. The carcass reached the turf first, followed by a handful of wing and tail feathers floating gently down.
In several shooting lanes, the latest volley had only wounded the pigeons and they flapped around on the ground. A kid with a shaved head and baggy pants ran up to one, clutching his pants so they didn’t fall down and trip him. He pinned the bird to the ground with his foot and scooped it up. He wrung the bird’s neck. I could hear the pop.
I turned to look for Bird. He was talking to the two news teams trailing us. He pointed to the firing line, sprinted for it, running onto the field, where he scooped up the last two wounded birds. At first the spectators took him for a new kid whose job it was to help out. He turned to the camera crews who were close behind, and held the birds out to either side at arm’s length. Looking straight into the cameras he said,
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is wrong. Broadcast it to the world. In about five seconds I’m going to get my ass kicked, but right now, I’m here to say the Paradise Valley pigeon shoot is over.”
A few of the spectators caught on and they charged out onto the field, all headed for Bird. About half the cops and a dozen or more protesters tried to head them off. Other protesters surged forward to occupy the shooting lanes. It all made for an ugly mix, with everyone looking surprised and scared to finally come face-to-face. A lot of yelling and shoving followed and a few punches were thrown. People got knocked down, but luckily it was such a wide-open area no one was trampled. I looked over at the shooters and all of them were headed away from the fight, walking back toward the grove and parking lot, shotguns cradled safely under their arms. None of them looked back.
I looked across the field to see if I could locate Bird, and there he was, about a hundred yards out, churning those skinny legs to put serious distance between himself and three big state troopers along with two fat kids who were giving chase. Bird was motoring for the woods at the base of the mountain, about three-quarters of a mile away. The cops gave up after another fifty yards and returned to check on the fat kids, who had given up earlier. The cops were sucking air. One of the kids fell to his hands and knees; the other was on his back. The cops waved one of the two ambulances out onto the field. The crew from the other ambulance was busy giving first aid to people from both sides in the fight. There must have been fifty people in line.
The other cops had broken up the initial fight, but on the field it was chaos. Little scuffles erupted like brush fires every few minutes. Go-Go Bob, along with everybody else from the beer tent and the grove was now milling around near the firing line. Bob spotted me.
“I knew it. As soon as they said what happened, I knew it was him. Which way did he head?”
I pointed and Bob said, “Okay, let’s go. I know where he’ll be.”
I was afraid the cops would grab me and blame me for starting everything, but they still had their hands full. One group of five or six people would quiet down and another person would yell. The camera crews and reporters were trying to interview as many people as they could and everyone wanted to have their say. Bob led me out through the crowd with his arm around my shoulder. I remember passing by a pickup whose bed was nearly full of dead pigeons. A couple of people who remembered I was with Bird said things, but as soon as Bob looked at them they shut up.
“I want you to know I only had one beer,” Bob said as he started the truck. “And it didn’t taste too good.”
We found Bird several miles away, reclining in the sun on a big boulder at the trailhead for the Appalachian Trail.
“Lovely day for a hike,” he said. He was sporting a swollen eye so he must have gotten socked at least once before getting away.
Go-Go Bob got out of the truck and hugged him. Bob started crying.
“I’m sorry, kid,” he said. “If I’d been there, it wouldn’t have happened. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Don’t worry, Pop, they couldn’t catch me. They never had a chance.”
I learned a lot about Bird at the pigeon shoot. When he said he could smell fear in the crowd, I knew he could sense things other people can’t. I don’t mean in a mystical way—I mean he uses a lot more of his brain than the rest of us. I’ve also learned a lot from him about dealing with life. Bird believes there are things you should do even though you don’t want to. He also believes there are things you shouldn’t do, just because you can.