Friday, August 26, 2011

Archimedes & Lambchop

Archimedes the Owl
One day, during the summer when I was 16 and in a counselor-in-training program at a Girl Scout camp in northwestern New Jersey, I came back to the top of a bank barn where we lived over the Crafts area for something, and heard an odd sound. Looking around, in a corner I found a little reddish-brown screech owl, with an injured wing and damaged claw. I ran to the kitchen in the Main House to beg for some raw hamburger from Mrs. Rabel, the cook, and hurried back. Slowly approaching, I dropped a towel over him, based on my reading about hooded falcons in medieval times, picked him up, and took him to the camp nurse. She arranged for me to take him to a veterinarian. (This was in the Sixties, before laws about wildlife rehab got more stringent regarding birds of prey). The vet set the dislocated wing, and tended the damaged right talon, showing me what to do as he got better. We also measured him; he was only slightly taller than my favorite dolls when I was younger, so he was about 8 1/2 inches tall; his wingspan we estimated was about 21 inches, and he weighed about 6 oz. So I had an owl....and because I was reading T.H. White's The Once & Future King books that summer, I named him Archimedes....so my camp nickname was, naturally, Owl.

Consulting the Audubon bird guide at the Nature Lodge, I learned that the Latin name was Megascops asio, and  that he would normally be nocturnal, hunting mostly the first four hours of darkness--in other words, from about 9 pm-1 am at that time of year. At first, I carried him in my Panama hat; he seemed to like the swinging motion as it hung from the throat-latch I'd made. He was NOT a pet; I never caged him. Later he often perched on top of the hat on my head, or on my shoulder (I padded my shirts with a folded dish-towel stuffed with moss, so his talons didn't prick my skin through the cloth; the towel was sewn onto a sort of sash that tied on my opposite hip). Often he'd come spend time with me during the day as well as in the evening.

About a month later, the State Ag farm gave us a sheep. I suppose they thought it'd be nice for the city kids from New Brunswick to be around it. This was unexpected--I made a cartoon of it in a basket, abandoned on our doorstep like a cartoon baby--so they hastily set up a pen made of that slatted red winter fencing that farmers use, and made a stall under the Big Barn, whose main floor contained a gathering space/camp store. And guess who wound up having to take care of Lambchop? Yup. Me.


Lambchop, aka Fluffy
I grew to hate that sheep! The only farm creature stupider than a sheep is a turkey; when she was 12, Mother was in charge of a flock of them, and she told me many times that they are so dumb that not only will they die if they get wet, but some of them are so afraid of water, they will fall over dead if they even see a dark cloud on the horizon....but I digress.

Lambchop must have had a heat rash under his fleece, or was addled by loneliness--after all, sheep are flock animals, and he was alone--so he almost constantly rubbed against the fence. The paint came off onto his fleece, so he turned pink.

Jealousy sank its green claws into Archimedes' feathery consciousness. I know this because he would fly up into the branches of a big tree whenever I went into the pen, hooting and flaring his wings after he landed, while I cleaned the stall and gave Lambchop some feed and more water....and Archimedes got into the habit of amusing himself by dropping pinecones, twigs, or other items down on Lambchop's head, driving the sheep back and forth across the pen until the sheep took refuge inside his stall.

One day at supper, June, the camp director, announced that someone from the National Girl Scout HQ in New York City would be coming in several days to inspect and recertify the camp. For most of those days, we were all very busy sprucing up the camp; I spent a great deal of time either sickling odd corners of tall grass, or doing inventory in the "rat cages", netted-wire areas where equipment was kept in storage between out-of-camp field trips (we would hike and camp on the Appalachian Trail, or go to public campgrounds near Dingman's Ferry, PA for specialized camping/skills tests). I remember that Doris, June's sister, who was in charge of the kitchen and that equipment, was so pleased that they couldn't find any recent evidence of rats--Archimedes had cleaned them all out. He also loved eating spiders, other large insects, bats, and the occasional fish. He was an equal-opportunity eater, but Lambchop's thick fleece and size defeated him.

The day before the inspectors were to arrive, June looked around all morning. At lunch she commended us for the fine job we'd done....except for one area: the sheep pen. Oh, it didn't need to be mowed or sickled--Lambchop himself took care of that as he grazed. No. Lambchop was the problem. Even though it was a GIRL Scout camp, we couldn't have a pink sheep. He would have to be bathed.

At the time, the camp did not have a Shower House. June and her mother and sister had a claw-footed tub in the  Main House. We CITs had a very small, ancient, rusting, war-surplus shower that was rumored to have been used by Washington's troops near Morristown. The individual camp units had communal washstands with many spigots and a few basins, and there was the lake where we all swam. Most campers were only there for a couple of weeks, and after all, we were roughing it. So June decreed that the CITs would do the washing that afternoon.

We were provided with:
        a garden hose
        a leaky bucket
        a cake of Ivory soap
        a dog blanket
        a roll of paper towels
        a rope
        two scrubbrushes
        some extra feed in another bucket
        a car chamois to act as a washcloth and
        a pair of manicure scissors to trim the wool Doris insisted was growing into his eyes.

I still maintain that if I'd been left alone to entice Lambchop with the food, I could have then tethered him without any problems. I knew, and said, that he was paranoid already. But no one else had ever been around when he was dive-bombed by my owl, so no one believed me. The rest of the CITs wanted to get this over with so we could do something more fun than clean up a smelly pink sheep, so they all rushed into the pen with me, and he panicked. Two of them blocked the door to his pen, so he couldn't go inside.

That sheep turned into a broken-field runner, Olympic sprinter, agile and cunning beyond belief. He butted. He pivoted on one hoof. Aimee swore later that he rolled himself into a ball at one point and knocked over several of us like nine pins. Audrey, Sandy and Pat all said later that they saw him retract patches of his wool so they couldn't grab it. I know for a fact that he changed breeds and from tiny nubbins hardly noticeable in his wool, sprouted big curled horns any mountain sheep would have claimed with pride, because I felt them more than once on a tender part of my anatomy.

After an hour, the 12 of us were panting, sweating, wet from the garden hose and bucket, bruised, and dishevelled. Lambchop was fresh as a daisy, not even partly breathless, dry as a bone, smirking, baaing his disdain. And pink.

The rest of the camp population was lined up outside the pen....rooting for Lambchop. June was frowning. We went into a strategy huddle.

Sheep 1, CITs 0.

Pat, whom I disliked almost as much as I did Audrey, said, "This is all your fault, Owl. Why'd you let him get pink?"

"Don't you blame this on me, Pat!" I snarled. "I'm the one who's had to do all the work with that walking dinner! I didn't see any of you mucking out his stall! The least you can do is help me now!"

"I think we should go on strike," said Sue. "What'll they do to us? Send us home? For once there isn't even any KP to do. Why should we have to cleam up after a sheep?"

I sighed. "Okay, time to bring in the reserves." Moving away from them, I held up my hand and called, "ARC-ih-MEE-DEES! Agamsa!"--and held my breath. I'd dreamed about this, about Archimedes flying to me like a hawk to the lure, but we'd never actually DONE it in private, let alone in front of everybody.

What a champ! What a pal!

From where he'd been avidly watching high in the tree outside the pen, he launched himself into the air, flying in a long, smooth, almost leisurely descent for Lambchop, at the last minute dropping a pinecone on his wooly head. After that, by means of his shadow, he herded the sheep into our arms.



Sheep's wool will absorb an inordinate amount of water, did you know that? Gallons of water from the hose and the bucket. And it puffs up, even after you rinse out the suds. We used the whole bar of Ivory. Did he get snowy white, like in cartoons? No. He was kind of an off-white, with a yellowy undertone, we learned. And wet living wool has a much more powerful odor than a damp coat or sweater that gets into your clothes and hair and lasts for quite a while.And if you are washing a sheep, you really should tether it instead of tying all four feet together so it lies on its side and trim its facial wool BEFORE washing it, because when you let it up, you have to get out all the twigs and leaves it's picked up on its side wool from lying (and wiggling) on the ground. You will also have fewer bruises. Sheep do not like their feet being tied together and will struggle. It's one of the lessons we learned. They may have a reputation for being peaceful and calm, but that is propaganda and a lie!

At last June took pity on Lambchop (and us) and declared he was as clean as he was going to get. We were done.

Untied, he bolted back towards his stall, only to find we wouldn't let him inside to burrow into the straw. Nobody wanted to have to pick it out of him. Thwarted and maybe even a bit tired himself, he allowed us to tether him in the sun in such a way that he couldn't lie down on the wet grass/churned-up mud, at a safe distance from the fence.

"Do you think he might get a chill?" wondered Jill. She was a sweet girl, but the rest of us snarled at her.

"Wonder if we could have roast lamb the last night of camp?" muttered Toni.

"I doubt it," replied Francie. "He's too tough!"

The next day the three National folks came. They inspected the entire camp. One of them spent about an hour in June's office doing paperwork. After she emerged, she and June walked over past the Big Barn, where I was gingerly feeling Lambchop's wool to see if it was dry yet. It was still damp. They paused while June told her that the sheep had been donated to us.

"How nice," said the woman. "Do you like petting the sheep, dear?"

"Owl--Jakie's very fond of Lambchop, aren't you?" asked June, who had forbidden me to allow Archimedes to terrorize Lambchop while they were there, and who was clearly wondering where he was.

I didn't know the answer to that, so I merely said (a Girl Scout is truthful), "I will never forget him!"

"Did you call her Owl?" asked the woman.

"No! She's nicknamed Jakie because her last name is Jacob."

"How odd!"

"Why? It's in the Bible," I said, wondering how much more inane this conversation was going to get.

Looking back on it, I suspect that this lady was as uncomfortable as we were, and may have been new at inspecting. Or maybe she spent most of her time doing it and actually had very little experience with people. She said, "Oh, I didn't mean that. Of course it is! No, I meant how odd that I thought you said Owl. It must have been because of the stuffed one on the mantlepiece in your office, Miss Rabel. My, it looked very lifelike, especially the eyes! I've never seen such a fine example of taxidermy."

June and I traded appalled glances, and she blurted, "You didn't try to touch it, did you?"

Both of us had vivid memories of how Archimedes had intimidated a former member of the CITs who had admitted to several unsuspected thefts, simply by his standing right behind her pillow leaning over and looking down at her when she woke one morning, his curved blue-grey beak inches from her nose....

"Oh, no, I didn't want to risk damage the feathers," she said. We both breathed again, and I stopped trying to count her fingers.

Lambchop scowled behind his wool and tossed his head irritably.

"Well, let's continue with the tour," said June brightly, and as they moved away, she looked back, making urgent gestures I easily interpreted as Get that bird the heck out of my office NOW!

Which I did.

Sometimes I will dream of the softness of feathers, and a low burring sound next to me as a beak delicately traces the curve of my earlobe, and the grace of silent flight under the moon, flickering over the trees and fields, instinctively adjusting minutely for changes in air currents, keen eyes and ear-tufts alert for the almost invisible movements, the almost inaudible sounds, of small creatures scurrying along the ground, and then the swiftness of descent, flaring wings, reaching, reaching, for the catch....and I *am* Archimedes, free in the sky, strong and powerful and proud.

But I never dream about sheep, especially pink ones.



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