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Crows - A Story

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     Farmers hate birds.


     This is a simple fact, a condition that comes to them naturally.  Not that they are adverse to a pet canary or parakeet, or even in the case of my old friend Hank (Jim to his mom), a number of parrots.  Macaws, even.  Actually, those were his wife's; he tolerated them.


     But consider a farmer with eighty acres of grapes just about ready to harvest.  Or even eighty acres of harvested grapes laying out on paper trays drying into raisins.  Now, consider what must go through the farmer's head - and heart - when he looks up and sees a mile-long ribbon of starlings or blackbirds, beautifully twisting and sparkling like a giant black mobius strip dancing in the sky, and headed toward his precious crop.


     What will go through the man's head - and heart - would be a dagger of terror, with an underlying sense of loathing. 


      ‘Twas fall, I believe, of 1988.


     I was enduring another dreadful day of tedium, serving my sentence as a banker. Condemned to an inner office, I had to make my way out through the “bullpen” of workers to find a glimpse of window, and daylight, and a hint of there actually being an outside world.


     About mid-afternoon, toward the end of a meeting with my senior staffers, I found myself exhausted.  I decided I was in dire need of a mental break from credits, debits, crebits, balance sheets, or the pursuit of whatever mundane and esoteric rules and regulations made up my usual day.  I could feel my eyes waxing over as someone was trying to convince me of their interpretation of “the Song-Beverly Act” and “Regs E and Z” relative to a chargeback and settlement issue…




     The meeting wound down, and as my staffers left my office I closed the door.  I sat back in my chair and sighed.  A glance at the clock on my desk triggered another sigh.  Three-fifteen.  At least three hours to go, maybe more, before I could begin my thirty mile, two-and-a-half hour journey home.


     Damn.  Life was surely a drag, and I was mightily bored with it all.


     I shoulda oughtta been a cowboy.


     Hey... speaking of which, mebbe I'll give ol' Hank a call.  That always cheers me up.


     Without further ado, I picked up the handset and dialed.  The odds of Jim answering were pretty sketchy, as he was running the family ranch - a hundred acres of grapes and twenty acres of walnuts kept the boy pretty busy during daylight hours.  But worth a try!


     I dialed; the phone rang on the other end.  And rang.  And rang.  Knowing that if he was anywhere near the house it could take a while to get to the phone, I would usually let it go for up to forty rings.


     At about ring thirty or so, he answered.


     "Hullo?  Hullo?!"


     What the hell?  That was Jim's voice, alrighty.  But I could barely understand him over a background cacophony of yells and screams and... gunfire!  Honest to Gosh, my first thought was of the old cowboy movies, where the wagon train was encircled and surrounded by a huge band of mounted Indian warriors, all racing around the wagons, whooping and hollering, exchanging  shots with the pioneers.


     I heard just that.


     "My GAWD, Jim!  Whatinell's going on??"  I queried.


     "Man, I can't talk now!  We're having an emergency here - look out, Allen!  Behind you!  Rocko, I'll call you tonight and fill ya in!"




     I gotta say, suddenly I was not in the least bit bored.  Damn!  Come on quittin' time!  Come on six o'clock!  Six thirty!  Seven...!


     Well, sometime between eight thirty and nine that night, the phone rang.


     It was Jim.


     "Good Lord, Man!  What was THAT all about?!?" I queried.  Like... first words out of my mouth.


     Jim immediately launched into a recount of his afternoon.


     "Gawd, DAMN, Man!  You shoulda been here!"


     "What in HELL happened?" I replied.  "It sounded like you were under attack!"


     "Well, we were!"




     "Okay," he continued.  "So ol' Allen Jones stopped by for a visit.  So, there we were, sittin' out at my barbecue table, drinkin' coffee and talkin' about the coming harvest.  Suddenly, we heard tires on the driveway gravel and the UPS truck pulled in."


     "Yeah?  Did ya get sumpin' good?"


     "Well, yeah, as a matter of fact.  The driver hopped out of  his truck and said 'Hey, Jim!  Got ya a package from Burnham Bros here!' and handed me a box.  We talked for a minnit or two, then he hopped back into his truck and split.


     "So there's ol' Allen and me, sittin' there drinkin' our coffee, studyin' on that parcel.  Finally, I pulled out my pocket knife and opened it.  It'd been a while since I'd sent off my order and I didn't remember what-all I'd sent off for, but there were some pretty cool things there - a duck call or two, some other trinkets, but the thing that caught our eyes was a cassette tape."


     "Yeah?"  I asked.  "A tape?  What was it?  Johnny Cash?  Loudon Wainwright the Third?"


     "Naw!  It was a tape called 'Crow In Distress!'"


     "Huh?  Wotinell is that for?"


     "Well, s'posedly, when a crow hears another crow in distress, he'll come around to see what's up!


     "So there we sat, lookin' at that tape, when I up and said to Allen, 'Hey!  I'm gonna go plug this thing into my pickup truck tape player and see what it's all about!'


     "So, I walked over to the truck, opened the doors and windows, and punched that cassette into the radio-tape player, then went back and sat down as the thing started screechin' and hollerin' something awful.  It sounded so bad it was funny.


     "Then, a couple minutes into the thing, Allen sez 'Hey, Jim... lookit!' and pointed off to the east.  Sure 'nuff, here comes a crow!  We watched him come flappin' in to the rescue - and when he got here, he started circling and squawking and hollerin' back at the tape.


     "Next thing, here came a couple more... then another three in a group... then three more individuals.  And they all joined the first guy, circling and 'Caw, Caw'-ing, louder and louder. 


     "It was amazing!


     "But before we knew it, there were HUNDREDS of the boogers!  And more were still pouring in!  It was horrible!  It got to the point where we couldn't even hear that tape in the pickup... they were making so much noise theirownselves that they drowned it out.  It was a frenzy!


     "And then the bastidges started to STRAFE us!  If they'd been armed, we'd-a been dead. Strings of 'em would dive on us.  Didn't matter if we waved and yelled at 'em; they were PISSED!


     "So I real quick ran to the pump-house, opened up the gun safe and grabbed a couple o' shotguns for Allen and me - by then it was a matter of self defense fer sure.  So... we started shooting.  It was like the Battle of Britain!  Crows that were just 'winged' would break off and sail out over the vineyard.  Most of 'em we missed, but by the time Allen shot down the power line, there were crows down all over the place.  There were crow carcasses in the driveway.  Crows on the lawn.  A couple of crows draped over the phone line.  Crows on our pickup trucks, and even one on the barbecue table itself!


     "Well, I went in the house and called PG&E, and told 'em we had a line down.  Dispatcher said she'd send someone right out - stay away from the wire!  Right after I hung up was when you called - that's why I couldn't talk.


     "So I went back outside, where Allen was still trying to hold off the attack.  We had a quick discussion, and decided to move on down the avenue a hundred yards or so, away from the downed power line and where we wouldn't be able to shoot another one.


     "The damned crows were just starting to thin out when I looked up and saw the PG&E truck pull into the driveway.  We turned off the tape and stowed the shotguns, then drove back to the house. The PG&E lineman was standing there in the driveway, surrounded by crow carcasses, looking up at what was left of the black cyclone overhead.


     "When we got there, the dude looked at me and said 'Mister, YOU got a PROBLEM!!  Damn!  I got a place of my own a few miles away, and sometimes I have crow problems.  But dude - you got it BAD!!  What in hell happened here?'"


     Jim said that he looked at the man, and with a sad face and total seriousness, said, "Mister, I'm not sure.  It's been like this here since my granddad's day.  He didn't understand it, my dad didn't understand it, and I sure don't.  But about every seven years or so, they come through like this.  It's like this was the ancient crow burial ground and they're makin' a pilgrimage!


     "Well, that PG&E man just shook his head, lookin' around in amazement.  'Mister,' he said, 'it's obvious that the power line was shot.  We're s'posed to report any gunshot damage to the Sheriff.  But mister, you got enough troubles here - I'm just gonna put it down as a line failure... and wish you lots o' luck!'"


     He had fun a few more times with the tape over the years, but did so judiciously.


     A few years later, we moved to the Central Valley, and built a house in a rural community north of Fresno.  When settled in, I was so danged impressed I had to get one of my own. 


     Now, living in the country, our next neighbor to the east had his house about two hundred fifty yards off or so.  Ol' Joe Yoder was a commuter - that is to say, he worked in San Jose, and had a commute of about a hundred fifty miles - each way.  To make life bearable, he would leave for work about 0430 Monday morning, spend Monday and Tuesday nights in a motel, drive home Wednesday night, then repeat for Thursday and drive home Friday evening.


     So one day, I asked Joe if he'd seen any of the weird bird things we'd been hearing about on the news - of course, I just made that up.


     "Bird things?  What kinda weird bird things...?" he asked with curiousity.


     "Why, Joe!  Folks have been reporting flocks of birds - especially crows - going on rampages.  Just like that old Alfred Hitchcock movie, 'The Birds.'  Reports are that they've attacked lifestock, farmers, even farm machinery!  You sure you haven't seen anything?"


     "Nope," Joe replied with a mix of astonishment, serious interest, and disbelief.  "But I'm gonna keep an eye out!"


     Over the next few weeks, I asked him several more times - always the same answer, but he was intrigued.


     And then came Memorial Day Weekend, 1994.  The Yoder's had company - family from out of town.  I could see them off in the distance, milling about around the barbecue, enjoying libations and snacks.  And I decided... It Was Time!


     I gathered up my 2 1/2 year old son, Ryan, and plopped him into the seat of my little Ford Ranger pickup truck.  We started a slow drive down the avenue on the west border of our property, in the shade of a row of huge eucalyptus trees belonging to our other neighbor.  Suddenly, I stopped.  The windows were opened, and I popped the "Crow In Distress" tape into the deck, volume up to Eleven.  I gazed out my window at the treetops.  Then I got out, and continued my study of the trees.  I walked around the vehicle and extracted Ryan, leaving both our doors open.  Holding his hand, I resumed my study of the trees, pointing and talking to the lad. 


     I stole a quick glance to the east - and sure 'nuff, the entire Yoder clan were on their feet, looking and pointing - both at us, and at the black tornado of crows forming overhead.  Still small, but growing rapidly.


     With feigned alarm I scooped up the kid and sprinted back to the security of the house.  Once safely behind doors we all gathered around the kitchen window and gleefully watched as the Yoder Clan scrambled about, obviously excited.  In my mind I could see Joe eagerly sharing with his people his arcane knowledge of the mysterious behavior of the birds.


     But we were to be saved by Joe Yoder hisownself!


     Suddenly, there came a barrage of rocket fire from the Yoder spread!  It seems the gentleman broke out his stash of very illegal Fourth of July skyrockets that he'd smuggled home after visiting some mid-continent state.  With a burst of inspiration, he quickly fabricated a launch mechanism and sent a flurry of the things - with surprising accuracy - into the midst of Kurt's trees and the congress of crows.  The birds suffered no casualties; however, they did begin to dissipate. Over the course of days, Joe was keen to claim responsibility for "saving" us, and representing himself to his acquaintances (and anyone else who would listen) as a hero of the "Avian Rabies Attacks." 


     Oh... after the bombardment ceased, I moseyed back out to shut down the tape player and engine.  As I walked back to the house some strange fella I'd never seen before zoomed into my driveway and jumped out of his pickup, brandishing a broom and declaring "Man!  I got here as soon as I could!  I could see 'em from my house a half mile away!  How can I help?"


     I had one more little adventure with the tape.


     The City of Madera, where I worked, has a history of crows.  Seasonally, crows will gather in the downtown area around dusk every evening in outrageous numbers.  From some areas you can watch virtual rivers of black descending on the small town; they'll leave at sunrise, off to decimate the farmlands, leaving behind a community of buildings and vehicles liberally coated with "crow sign."  Literally, every square foot of the Triple A office parking lot (as well as the police station across the street - hold that thought!) would bear a *splot* of "crow sign." 


     After the downtown workforce were well on their way home, police officers would actually break out their shotguns and engage in "crow control."  Not totally effective, but it helped; if they were able to start before it was too dark huge numbers of the black boogers would vacate the area and head for trees by the river.


     One day at work I told the story of Jim and the crows.  My co-workers listened with interest... but disbelieving interest.  Why... that was too incredible a story - no way!




     I just happened to have the tape in my car!  After work that evening (it was late winter; sunset was shortly after five pm), I gathered the crew about my VW Jetta, opened the doors and sunroof, and popped the tape in.  In short order there was a black overcast; the crew became believers.


     Now, remember my "hold that thought" directive above?  Welllll....


     Around 2003, Jerry Noblett announced his forthcoming retirement as Chief of Police.  Jerry was a good guy; well known and respected.  And a Chief who would allow his men to do their part in the town's "crow control" process.  He was going to be missed.


     It took several months to hire his permanent replacement - one Michael Kime, who was hired from a larger department in a more Northern city.


     Most of his predecessors had been local boys who had grown up in the area, knew many people, and were generally well integrated within the community.  Mr Kime had his job cut out for himself.  He would have to demonstrate his effectiveness as well as cultivate community relationships.


     Early on, he was shocked at the town's crow problem.  Further, he was nearly outraged to learn of his own officer's role in "crow control."  That just would not do!  He ordered an immediate cessation of the practice.


     But I remember the day...


     The Madera Tribune carried a story:  Chief Kime had taken seriously the town's crow problem.  He had undertaken a scientific study of methods that could be used to ameliorate the situation.  And, by golly, he had discovered a perfect solution using science!


     He had learned of a special recording of a "Crow In Distress."  A copy of this tape would  be procured forthwith.  The soundtrack was to be played at high volume through loudspeakers strategically located  downtown after hours, and would undoubtedly drive the loathsome corvids from our fine city. 


    Yessiree... the Scientific Method!








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3 minutes ago, Subdeacon Joe said:

By Vulcan's left testicle, you spin a fine story, sir.


'Tis a factual tale, sir~!  ^_^


Evidently, Burnham Bros still sell a version of this tape.... :rolleyes:



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I do not doubt the veracity of it, I was admiring the skill with which it is told.


Not unlike The Story Of The Grunion when being told to someone in "fly over country."

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Muchly appreciated, Joe.  Frankly, I was kinda astonished to see that they still sell 'em!  


Lessee... the last cassette player was made... what, almost twenty years ago?  :rolleyes:  


I was surprised that my '02 Dodge Ram came with one!  

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3 minutes ago, Hardpan Curmudgeon SASS #8967 said:

Lessee... the last cassette player was made... what, almost twenty years ago? 


The car we leased a year ago doesn't have a cassette player, CD player, 8 track, or any such thing.  It has USB ports and Bluetooth capability.  My wife put a couple of dozen albums on a thumb drive.



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