Great-Uncle Al was a creative man. A resourceful non-conformist. That’s a euphemistic way of saying he was a hustler.
Al never let logic or credentials stand between him and the chance to earn some cash. His resume, so to speak, read like a script from the popular movie and radio serials of his day in which, week after week, the hero would undertake some preposterous adventure. For example, Al worked for a time as a pharmacist during the Great Depression. Creativity, in this case, included spinning a fictional tale about his educational background—he never attended college and I’m not sure he even completed high school—and a tragic fire in the hall of records at his fabricated alma mater. It wasn’t a dangerous job for Al, but I shudder to think of the risks taken, unknowingly, by his customers. Every prescription must have been a cliff-hanger.
I hadn’t thought about Al for a long time, but while traveling by car from the edge of the continent to the middle for the holidays, I found myself reminiscing about the stories my dad and his siblings used to tell during gatherings of the clan.
I think it was the pole-sitters.
I must have spotted over a hundred red-tailed hawks during my 650-mile drive. Finials perched atop lamp posts and utility poles. Hoping for a meal, just like Uncle Al.
Flagpole-sitting was a fad during the Roaring Twenties and the early days of the Great Depression, a popular test of endurance for someone who would attempt to roost on high for weeks or months at a time. The sitter would negotiate a fee prior to the attempt, or an assistant on the ground below would collect money from spectators. To Al, it must have looked like a much easier way to earn a stake, or a steak, than working as a day laborer.
The hawks I saw along the highway were also looking for an easier way to earn a living, but they were hoping to collect their meal ticket in the form of pocket gophers, not pocket change. Just as well. I didn’t observe a single gawking crowd. I did spy several birds diving for dinner although, at 70 mph, I wasn’t around long enough to tell if it was Hard Times for the predator or the prey that day.
Some other birds of prey will hover and soar, taking a proactive approach to grocery shopping. But unless they’re quite hungry red-tailed hawks use a wait-and-see strategy. They have keen vision so a telephone pole provides an excellent vantage point to watch for the movement of small mammals below, and standing uses fewer calories than flying. Laziness or efficiency? I guess it depends on your personal work ethic. I know my great-uncle would have admired those raptors.
Al’s days as a pole-sitter were brief, and I doubt he set any records. From what I can tell, he was a man of action and a distinctly social animal. Not a sitter by nature… unless you count a barstool. Besides, flagpole-sitting was a short-lived craze.
For people, anyway. Next time you’re out for a drive, stop texting long enough to scan the telephone wires along the side of the road and you’ll see it’s still as popular as ever among red-tailed hawks, who tend to be a bit less gregarious and a lot more patient than Uncle Al. They’re also less prone to break into song than some of their songbird cousins; they have too much dignity, and the cars speed by too quickly, for a chorus of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.
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