1001 Toad and Bird Calls

By Roberta Schine

A red-faced warbler on a branch, staring ahead

When I was a junior at Central High School, Mike Ventura invited me to Cornell University’s homecoming weekend. We had gone out a few times when he was still in Bridgeport. Once, he took me to Beardsley Park Zoo. Another time we sat in the Merritt Canteen on Main Street for hours, drinking root beer floats and taking turns telling each other funny stories.  One of us would say a word and the other would have to make something up based on that word. Mike’s stories often had some kind of lesson at the end. He said mine were “strange in a good way” and that I was “witty.” I liked him. When he left for Ithaca, Carole Epstein pointed out that he would probably stop asking me out because he had been in the popular crowd. I asked her if I was in it, too. She reflected on that for a moment, then said, “Yes, but you’re in the Jewish popular crowd and that’s not the same thing.” 

 Mike told me my favorite singing group, The Kingston Trio, was going to perform at his fraternity house, Sigma Chi, after the football game. It was the late 1950s and the group was at the peak of its success. I was a little nervous but mostly I was thrilled. I had never been to a college weekend and had never actually seen these famous folksingers. Plus, I liked Mike. Now, I just had to get my mother’s permission. She was concerned about the sleeping arrangements. So, she called Sigma Chi and the fraternity brother who answered the phone reassured her that there would be a separate dormitory for the girls. She said I could go!

When the Greyhound bus stopped in the center of downtown Ithaca, late Friday afternoon, Mike was there to pick me up. He looked so handsome — kind of like a heavyset Frank Sinatra – but in overalls. He immediately informed me that he had changed our plans. “I signed us up for the Ornithology Club outing,” he announced. “You’ll like it because you’re unconventional.” I didn’t know what “unconventional” meant. (I do now.) I hated the new plan; I wanted to see the Kingston Trio but it didn’t occur to me that a girl could have anything to say about where a boy had already decided to go on a date. My only protest was a pathetic, “But I don’t have the right clothes!” Mike had a solution for that. He drove me to his fraternity house where I dropped off my suitcase (plural, actually). I wouldn’t need my twirly, felt poodle skirt, matching sweater-sets, curlers or hair dryer. Mike opened his closet and pulled out a gigantic pair of Levi’s.        

He stared at them for a moment, shook his head and then reached in again and found a thin leather belt which, when wrapped around my waist twice and tied, would keep the pants from falling off.

So, instead of dancing to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Sloop John B” on a romantic Saturday night, we tiptoed around in the woods with field guides all weekend and identified birds.  Besides Mike and me, there were about ten enthusiastic people of various ages. One was a jocular guy named Billy who had a beak-like nose and a wife named Greta, whom he called, “Egret.” Our leader, Gus, a no-nonsense type in his 30s, wore two pair of binoculars around his neck and emphasized the importance of complete silence. “Above all,” he kept saying, “And I mean, A-BOVE ALL, you don’t want to scare the birds away.”     

One morning, at dawn, I spotted a stunning bird. It was a mix of gray and black and had a fire-engine red head – just as it was described in the manual. I shrieked! “OH LOOK! IT’S A RED-FACED WARBLER!” Everyone glared at me – except Mike. Since even the sound of “Sh-h” was considered noise, they hammered their index fingers against their mouths. The bird was still perched on the locust tree when we began walking on the trail again.

About an hour later, we took a break to eat breakfast. Gus mentioned that it was unusual to see a Red-Faced Warbler so far north. Mike smiled proudly and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Just like you, Roberta, beautiful and unusual.” I was starting to enjoy the ornithology club outing.

We slept in a tent that was small for twelve people; there were just a few inches between our sleeping bags. Every so often someone needed to go to the outhouse.  They would have to climb over our sleeping bodies and maneuver their way in the dark. That woke everyone up. Before each carefully placed step, they would say, “Excuse-me” so it was, “Excuse-me…excuse-me…excuse-me…” When the excuse-me’s finally ceased, we would go back to sleep. But soon our tent-mate would be back, moving in the reverse direction and again, we’d hear the Excuse-me litany. In the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep and no one was at the outhouse, Mike leaned over and kissed my pillow. I said, “Do that again.” Then, we pressed our sleeping bags together and kissed on the lips. I had kissed boys before but never lying down and it was ten times better. When I got back to Bridgeport, I told Carol Epstein it was like every pore in my body was a vagina and that I thought Mike had a hardon.

Late Sunday afternoon, Mike brought me back to Sigma Chi for closing ceremonies, the last event on the schedule for homecoming weekend. It was held in The Great Hall, the fraternity’s enormous living room with cherry wood rafters, walls and floors. Sophisticated-looking girls sat in chairs side by side in a long line in the center of the room. Boys knelt on one knee in front of them singing, “She’s the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” accompanied by a pianist at a baby grand piano near an open door from which you could see a swimming pool in a large garden. Then, as each fraternity brother gave his date either a mug or a bright red nightgown with the Sigma Chi emblem on. it, Mike presented me with a book and record entitled, “1001 Toad and Bird Calls.” As the pianist softly played “Try to Remember,” from The Fantasticks, we talked about some of the birds we saw that weekend: The Blue-throated Macaw, the Scarlet Tanager and the Arctic Tern – which, I pointed out, Gus said was “monogamous” even though I didn’t know what that meant. Then we went up to his room, lay down on his bed and French-kissed about a million times.

Snuggled in my seat on the bus going home that night, a bright, overhead light illuminated my treasured illustrations. I practiced birdcalls for the full four-hour trip as the middle-aged man in the seat next to me tried his best to ignore me. I continued my ornithological pursuit for weeks at home. Mike would call from Cornell and we would whistle and croak to each other on the phone.

We saw each other a few more times after homecoming weekend. And then… Did the distance between Cornell and Bridgeport increase? Did he start seeing one of the sophisticated girls at Cornell? Was it because I was dating Eddie, the guy who drove the Good Humor truck in Bridgeport every summer?I honestly don’t remember how the relationship ended. I guess it was un-dramatic. Maybe one of us just flew away.

All the names in this story have been changed, except mine.

Category: Featured, Memoir, Nonfiction