“Are all men idiots?”
That was a challenging question and one with epic consequences. It was my wife who had asked.
I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t heard her. I’d just had my ears cleaned. It might have been the first time, although I’d had uncles blow smoke in an ear or two to quell an earache. Fortunately, my ears never became hooked on smoking. The nurse hit each ear canal with a high-pressure hose. Now the wind whistles as it travels from one clean ear through the other. The nurse found Tinkertoy pieces, beans (despite a popular song telling me not to put beans in my ears), a long-lost plastic army man I thought had deserted, and lost socks in my ears. That’s where lost socks go. Socks! If I’d had a good game, I wouldn’t wash my basketball socks. I kept them in my locker, held my nose when I took them out and pounded the socks on the floor to soften them for wearing. I thought noxious odors brought good luck. It takes many years for a man’s brain to grow into a lean, mean, thinking machine — and that may never happen.
Harry Lillesve was my driver’s training instructor when I was 15. A bunch of us potential road hazards piled into an AMC Ambassador and hit the road. He had a brake on the floor in front of his passenger seat (his throne) he used when one of us drove as we would once we became licensed motorists. I called shotgun each time I neared the car, but my claim was null and void, as Mr. Lillesve perched there. “I call shotgun” is a declaration that the speaker has claimed the front passenger seat, which offers more legroom and a better view than being crammed into the backseat. It was an AMC, not a stagecoach. It wasn’t the Old West, where no contemporaneous records exist of using the term “shotgun” to describe the side seat of a stagecoach, and it wasn’t until this country became preoccupied with Old West tales that the phrase became part of the American vernacular. Pulp, radio, TV and movie writers used the term “riding shotgun” to define the station of a shotgun-toting associate of a stagecoach driver whose job was to discourage robbers with buckshot.
As my father-in-law grabbed the shotgun seat when riding in my Ford Fungus, he white-knuckled the door handle and pressed his feet to the floorboard in the hopes there was a passenger-side brake like the one Mr. Lillesve used. My father-in-law was a cautious man. I suspect being a Marine landing on Iwo Jima made him so.
Not all men are that circumspect. I’ve done many Christmas Bird Counts, each performed on a single day from December 14 through January 5 in a 15-mile diameter circle. I count how many birds I see of each species. It’s fun even when the weather isn’t. I did one on a day with temps way below zero. I couldn’t even see zero from where I was. And it was cold, too. I birded with two young upstarts. We walked along on that gelid day until we came to a wood duck box attached to a pole. They imagined a screech owl in the box. I said it was a squirrel because of the chew marks around the entrance hole. They remained convinced it held an owl. We needed a screech owl for the Count, so they spun the wheel. The biggest whippersnapper stood under the pole while the smaller one climbed onto his shoulders. The accident-waiting-to-happen-built-for-two they had created moved with the grace of Frankenstein’s monster. I became an innocent bystander. As the top man neared the box, a frightened squirrel jumped from it and bounced off the head of the top human as if his noggin were a trampoline. The two-man totem pole became unstable. The top man flapped his wings furiously, either to maintain his balance or in an attempt to fly. They teetered and tottered before tipping over without a “timber.” They hit the snow-covered ground with a muffled thud. Experience is a skilled teacher because it gives individualized attention.
“Yup, it’s a squirrel,” I said.
My wife had asked, “Are all men idiots?”
My answer was, “Yes.”