Fear, Feathers and Wisdom — aka Big Sticks

#19

I’ll start off by saying this. I love animals.

I naturally smile at dogs when they come over to check me by sniffing me out if I’m alright.

Cats are another breed, but still loveable. I can’t read their faces like dogs who have that way of smiling at you. The same face of a happy cat is the same face of an angry cat – much like Donny Osmond.

Whenever I’ve gone horseback riding, I always go over to make friends with my assigned horse, and the others come trotting up to give me a friendly nudge. They can’t talk, they don’t make war, or create news channels to spew their venom about a political party left or right. They do occasionally have enemies, fight it out for territory, but they don’t kill for sport nor do they create religions or classes to judge others or look down on another breed for a lesser-class collar.

I have never really been afraid of many animals. Snakes I’ve held in the palms of my hand and had them wriggle along my arm – unless they’re poisonous, then they gotta go. Spiders, I have no quarrel with unless I walk into their invisible web and they bite me. (Dude, I can’t see the thing, don’t get mad at me for making your traps in my doorway.) Maybe it’s the Ananse tale that gets me about the African Spider-man, I usually pick them up in something and put them outside rather than squish them.

All my life, I’ve loved animals – except one.

One sat on my radar and did not want to go away hooting and screeching all the way.

And it terrified me.

A wise man, who would later become a politician (the two rarely go hand in hand) once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Ironically, his cousin later became a politician and came up with the saying, “I speak softly and carry a big stick.”

It was 1983 – not when these guys said their famous sayings, it was 1983 when this story I’m typing took pl– … okay, let me start over.

I was six years old.

And it was winter.

I was walking in my neighborhood with my aunt and two cousins between our house and hers. For whatever reason my aunt kept a big stick with her this night – well, to say it was a stick would be neglecting the obvious. This was no stick, she had a tree branch. My cousin Alvin finally asked, “Mama, why do you have that stick with you?” She didn’t look down at him, just gave a quick glance over her shoulder and said, “This is for the owls.”

Owls?

By that time, I’d rarely even seen an owl except on television. During that time, a lot of birds came down during their migratory routes and stopped off in Louisiana. She pointed up toward a telephone pole where a clump of feathers sat in the moonlight. It was bigger than most birds and to me, it looked a lot like a cat with wings – which needless to say, creeped lil’ ol’ me out.

It sat glaring down at us in the dusk. Yellow eyes and all.

By this time the only acquaintanceship I’d made with any owl was public environmentalist Woodsy and Big Mama from the Fox and the Hound (I don’t count Bambi’s Owl, Winnie the Pooh’s Owl or Mr. Owl from the Tootsie Roll commercials due to their bad advice on twitterpation, pointless speeches and gluttony). They were chummy pals. This one looked like it could take out a small village unless a sacrificial virgin was offered up.

Nor did I know that this was not just any old horned owl, but a mother owl – a mama that did not like people near its nest of babies. So when she swooped off her perch and came in to use my head for a landing strip, I panicked.

I’d never seen an animal with talons much less wings that big that flapped in the night. We ran so fast, we could have easily put Jessie Owens and Uasian Bolt to shame. My aunt on the other hand, outran all of us, with her house key pointed directly for the keyhole of her door like an arrow. The second she got it in, there was no nobility of pulling us in and letting the kids go first. It was all of us or nothing – much like the three stooges (or in this case four) as we squeezed simultaneously through a two and a half foot wide door-frame and this animal flapping its wings screaming with yellow eyes in the cold night.

Ever since then, I developed a phobia of owls. I’d run from them when I was a child, sprinting from my house to my aunts or vice versa, as they’d fly in the evening or sometimes in the daylight hours, sometimes over my head, sometimes just sitting there and glaring. They sat in the tree outside my window hooting and screeching in the night. And it didn’t help being raised in a highly religious Christian family where they consistently spoke of owls once being linked to witchcraft according to the medieval days and being messengers of death. (FYI – That’s more or less where J.K. Rowling got the idea of the owls being the letter carriers for the Harry Potter books, and no, I’m not advocating a protest of the next Harry Potter movie, people. … Yes, there is another HP movie coming out; I’ll be purchasing a ticket for that too. But for the sake of blogging, let’s stick to the subject.)

Every time I’d see an owl afterward, even on television, I flew into a panic. I still remember two Disney movies (back when the old Disney Channel would show True Life Adventures). “Perri the Squirrel” and “Nosey the Sweetest Skunk in the West.” Both movies had horned owls as the enemy and would do extreme close-ups, zooming in, causing seven year old me to jump from my seat in front of the television, and onto the sofa where my mom just laid out clean laundry and I’d toss my freshly folded undies at the TV. Even the closing credits to Wild Kingdom would flip me out.

So later, at eight years old, I had two big fears: The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz (the lady was ready to kill a twelve year old girl over a pair of shoes people!), and owls.

It scarred me for life…

… or at least the next thirty years.

It was embarrassing to tell people I had strigiformaphobia, then have to explain what it was as I watch them roll over and laugh afterward. It became an interesting quirk of mine. I could hold a tarantula in my hand, watch everyone run as bats flew over, but if an owl would pitch and roll, just watch poor Jason lose control. I’d get weak-kneed and kick up enough sweat for a deodorant commercial. Needless to say: Perspiration U – 1, University of Speedstick – 0.

Despite my fear, I still carried a strange fascination with them. I even created a comic book back in college called KnightOwl (this was before I knew of Alan Moore’s Watchmen series and its similarly named character).

Don't mind the tagline. It was 2001 and I was on a movie high.

Don’t mind the tagline. It was 2001 and I was on a movie high.

I still think one of the creepiest scenes in cinema is not the shower scene in Psycho but the mail scene in the first Harry Potter where he has every species of owl sitting in his front yard with a letter.

Three words, Hogwarts: Return to sender.

I later realized that just about everyone in my family had a phobia that started with some childhood incident.

My dad’s was snakes, my sister’s was spiders. We were a lot like the Indiana Jones’ in a sense.

I didn’t realize it to be a problem until I went hiking one day a few years ago, and I came across what looked to be a barred owl sitting by the path. I stopped and stared at it for twenty freakin’ minutes before I realized it was only an old tree stump.

So A) I had to get my glasses prescription updated.

And B) I had to do something about this fear.

I began to tell my friends how I intended to get over this fear like I did with the Wicked Witch of the West.

Now allow me to get into that a bit. In ’85 they did this whole montage of commercials for the witch due to the passing of Margaret Hamilton’s (the actress who made the witch famous). So in 1985, I slept with a cup of water by my bed every night, just in case the witch came. After a little while of this, I decided enough was enough. By eleven, I was studying up on this lady, and found not only was she portrayed by an actress, yes it was just a movie, and this Margaret Hamilton was also a Sunday school and Kindergarten teacher (irony, thy name is Maggie). So after seeing the old home movies and behind the scenes shots of her with the cast, I realized I wasn’t afraid of her, just the feeling of being afraid.

Now I wasn’t able to articulate it like that until one day I was in line for a roller coaster years later. But by the end of my childhood, I was no longer afraid of the lady with water issues. So I took that feeling, afraid of being afraid, and decided to face my fear.

Last year, I had the privilege of petting a baby horned owl while on a tutoring session. It was a huge milestone for me, as at that time, I was still creeped out by the notion of touching the very thing that had such a weight on my life. ‘Yeah you did it, but that was just a baby,’ said the bad little conscience on my shoulder (dew rag, toothpick, baggy pants and all). I told myself, I will face an actual adult owl. I will get over this fear and look it in the eye.

Photo Nov 18, 1 20 13 AM

So … on the 365 it went.

And one night, as I went looking for the next place to hike, I found the Placerita Valley Nature Center – where they have a live animal exhibit. Lo and behold, there on their Facebook page sat a picture of “Orion the Owl,” wishing all of his Facebook friends a “Happy Owl-aween!”  The picture and the puns both sent chills up my spine.

I called that Saturday morning asking about the show. “Every Saturday at One,” said the manager.

I showered, shaved, got into my car at 12 and drove off for Placerita Valley.

As I found the auditorium and saw the stuffed birds hanging above me via wire, I thought, “Please sweet Jesus, don’t let me pass out in front of this Girl Scout troop.”

The show started.

First came a barn owl. Barn owls, I don’t have much of a problem with. They’re white (thanks, sociological color association!), they have a heart shaped face and doll eyes. Okay, a little heart flutter, but otherwise I’m alright.

Next came the snake – meh.

Then the tarantula – still meh. No worries there.

But I’ll have you know since I was sitting at the very back row near the entrance where they brought each animal out (which I was totally unaware of when I chose my seating arrangement),  I calmly looked at my cellphone each time, hoping to hide my fear while every child in the room sat with their eyes glued to the door.

Finally, I hear the oohs and ahhs, and my forehead was dotted with perspiration. Here we go, and I remembered what I learned – I’m more afraid of the feeling the fear gives me than the object creating the fear.

Still, I wouldn’t have minded having a good ol’ tree branch in my hand.

I looked up, and three inches from my face was a mass of brown feathers. I turned and it turned and looked at me. Ho-ley fre-joles.

Orion.

Photo Nov 16, 2 05 50 PM

(dun-dun-DUUUUUHHHNNN!!!)

Actually, it was more of a (dun-dun duh?)

It was … small.

What I mean by that is he wasn’t as big as I remembered. He wasn’t three or four feet high with a ten-foot wingspan. His eyes weren’t as menacing. His horned tufts didn’t look like the devil incarnate and the theme from “Night on Bald Mountain” didn’t play in the background.

He was actually … a beautiful animal.

Oh my God. (and I’m not saying that as in taking the name in vain, usual overused expression.)

Oh My God.

My fear was gone.

It was gone!

I took pictures of this beautiful bird, then asked to take pictures WITH the beautiful bird. As one of the patrons got my cellphone and adjusted the camera settings, I looked at Orion, right in his eyes, three inches away from his face. He calmed down from the kids jumping all around him and looked back.

I’d gone all my life judging a whole species of animal, then realizing he had a bad rap.

The only thing I didn’t do was pet him. I asked, don’t pin me for fear. I did ask to pet him, but his handler said the reserve was not allowed to let anyone touch him but them – California law included.

But I did look my fear in the face to discover there was nothing to fear but the fear itself.

So how many years does it take to get to the center of a phobia?

The world may never know.

As for me, thirty is a nice round number to end with.

Photo Nov 16, 4 07 50 PM

3 thoughts on “Fear, Feathers and Wisdom — aka Big Sticks

  1. Well done for facing your fears. Glad it went well. Also thank you for being the kind of man that catches spiders in a jar and puts them outside, something I do too. Hell I even catch hornets and wasps in jars. I remember doing it in an office once and all my coworkers being horrified that I didn’t kill the thing, but I told them I don’t kill creatures without reason. There are exceptions when it comes to pests: fleas, roaches, ants, ticks, mosquitoes… death from above!

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