Although I don’t realize it sometimes, I find myself following some innate rituals that are rooted in my youth. For instance, I have an uncontrollable need to not waste any bread once it reaches the end of the loaf or has gone stale. One of two things would normally occur once this had happened in our house when I was growing up.
Occasionally, Mom would use the bread in some recipe or other cooking application. It could be that the remaining bread would be dried out in a warm oven until crumbly and then crushed between two towels with a rolling pin to create breadcrumbs to use for breaded pork chops, chicken or even city chicken.
Sometimes, Mom would make a batch of bread pudding with the leftover bread slices. My dad really liked bread pudding, so Mom would usually only have enough bread to make a portion that would only satisfy my dad. This was perfectly fine for my brother and I since neither of us particularly cared for bread pudding. Dad was more than welcome to have it all for himself, along with any pig’s feet, blood pudding, and peppered bacon that Mom would make.
A way that Mom would, as a last resort, use the scraps of bread would be to feed the birds. This was the only time that I would be asked to assist with the final consumption of the bread. I looked forward to stepping outside of our kitchen, standing on the back porch, and methodically breaking down whole pieces of bread into tiny tidbits for the birds to consume. It was always exciting to have the birds begin to dive-bomb our back or side yard as soon as they realized that there was a treat in store for them. This was especially true in the winter when their food sources were so much sparser. After finishing my chore, I would run back into the warmth of the house and watch from the dining room as each and every piece was carried off to the bird’s winter shelters to be enjoyed, as they shielded themselves from the fierce weather.
Over half a century later, I still find myself following the same ritual as when I was a mere lad. Today, I stood on my deck and dissected the three remaining pieces of bread from a loaf that had gone stale. I tossed them into my yard, but was disappointed when I failed to immediately attract a bird to the outdoor feast that awaited them. I sadly retreated into the house, glanced out the window and one by one, saw the bread banquet begin to attract the neighborhood’s winged citizens.
I watched transfixed as the birds flew off with their tiny bits of wheat bread. As they did, I noticed the difference between the birds that I normally see here on the Eastern Shore vs. the Duquesne feathered friends from long ago. Here at the Eastern Shore, it is common to see a wider range of different species versus the birds I recall from my youth. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to see graceful white egrets, large blue herons, seagulls, terns, ducks of all varieties, white and Canadian geese, hummingbirds, finches of many colors, bluebirds, and even an occasional eagle.
When I lived in Duquesne, the bird population was less “diverse.” It seems that the only type of birds I can recall seeing were robins, common sparrows, wrens, pigeons, a few crows and an occasional burst of color from a cardinal or on very rare occasions, a yellow finch. Back then I was somewhat disinterested in birds, so I’m sure there were probably other types hanging around that I didn’t notice.
Every once in a while, my friends and I would decide that we wanted to catch a bird and make it a pet. Although I realize today that this was not the best idea, we were kids and didn’t know better. On those occasions, we would set up a trap for the poor helpless bird in the backyard. I came to learn that the type of trap that we set had an actual name, a “dead fall trap.” It sounds really ominous, but was nothing more than an old shoebox, a stick and a piece of string, as well as the ever present piece of bread that acted as bait. I would carefully set-up the trap and patiently wait for what seemed like hours, hidden behind a nearby bush, waiting for some hapless bird to come along and fall for my ruse. On very rare occasions, I’d be able to yank the string that was attached to the stick that was propping up one side of the shoebox in an attempt to catch the poor creature. Usually, they were long gone before the box would fall.
I can only remember actually trapping a bird on one occasion. I was SO excited and couldn’t wait to tell Mom about my achievement. Unfortunately, Mom didn’t share my passion or excitement for trapping and handling our feathered friends. Instead of praise, my exploits elicited a scolding from Mom and a lecture about the diseases that wild birds carry. Instead of a typical warm and welcoming hunky embrace from my mother, I was barked orders that resulted in my little ward being set free to enjoy life, and to ultimately be able to poop on our lawn furniture if he desired on every pass by flight in retribution for daring to trap him.
Although Duquesne’s “human” population never swelled to the point that it could be called a metro area, walking along South Second Street across from City Hall would have given you a different opinion. Directly across the street from the main entrance to City Hall stands the shell of the Beth Jacob Congregation House Of David Synagogue. I don’t remember much about the synagogue at all; only that it had closed down at some point and had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair. I recall seeing some once beautiful leaded glass windows becoming the target of vandals.
Once the empty structure had been breached by the vandal’s rocks, it became a virtual tenement for hoards and hoards of pigeons. Even before it officially closed its doors, the synagogue, like City Hall, was a virtual magnet for pigeons. I would see them roosting along the roof edges and keeping vigual on the street below for stray bits of food.
Although I was not able to find any articles regarding the issue, I understand that at one point, pigeon droppings had accumulated inside the synagogue over the years to a knee deep layer on the floor. It had posed such a high health risk that, there was talk of demolishing the building.
Sometime in the past decade or so, Beth Jacob Congregation House of David*, had the leaded glass windows removed from the synagogue and boarded-up all of the openings. I happened across an article publishing in the 1996 or 1998 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which reported that Duquesne’s Mayor at that time, was trying to champion a project that would convert the synagogue into a public library for the town. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition.
*Note: Congregation Beth Jacob first organized in Duquesne in 1904. There were a total of 350 members of the congregation when it began on South First St. before it opened the synagogue on South Second St. in 1923. Rabbi, R. A. Hollander; Pres., D. Mandel; Sec, Sam Klein; were the first congregation’s leaders.
My final recollection that will surely validate that this blog is “For the Birds,” is my brief stint in the Cub Scouts in the late 50’s/early 60’s. There are only four things that I recall vividly from my time as a Cub Scout; the two projects that I made in order to earn a badge, the cool uniform, and finally, the pledge and how to hold my fingers while I recite it.
I was a member of Cub Scout Troop #3??. My Aunt Fran (Puskaric) was the Den Mother, and we met at her home on Monterey St. which was off of Crawford. I remember being very excited about joining the troop and all the adventures that it would bring. Although I didn’t remain a scout long enough to really take part in all those “adventures,” the time spent as part of the den was a lot of fun. I may have only been part of the group for about 6 months or so. I don’t recall what the exact reason I left the troop, but it was most likely an issue of me getting bored and wanting to do something else. Call it an early form of ADHD!
As you can tell from my Cub Scout picture, I was pretty excited about the uniform. When I look at my photo, I think I look like one of those perfect little “Arian” child, about to march down the streets of Berlin in some horrible WW2 movie. Obviously, I was really proud of being a scout and of wearing the uniform.
As part of my Aunt Fran’s troop, we did a lot of cool things. In order to earn one of our patches, the whole troop made bowls for our mothers. Aunt Fran had gathered some old 78 rpm records that she no longer wanted. (I wonder if they would have been worth something today?) We then patiently waited while she placed each record into a warm oven in order to soften the disk and make them pliable enough to be shaped into the bowl. I remember how proud we all were of the end result, and how we couldn’t wait to take them home to Mom. I think mine survived for about 6 months before my mother was able to judiciously remove it from the end table in our living room and stash it in some hidden place in our home. Truth be told, it really wasn’t that attractive.
My favorite project as a cub scout was being able to earn my woodworking badge with a bird house I had crafted. I recall spending time with my dad in the garage and in his basement workshop, building the “perfect” birdhouse. We had to purchase the kit from Helmsteader’s in McKeesport, since they were the “go to” store for all Cub Scout supplies. Once we arrived back home from McKeesport, I tore into the kit and excitedly read the instructions, all the while just aching to grab a hammer. My dad didn’t disappoint, and soon I was hammering away under my dad’s guidance.
I remember having to patiently start pilot holes for the nails, glue the joints and sand the crap out of the birdhouse once it was assembled. I had been over zealous with the glue bottle and had managed to have runs on the back of the birdhouse. Dad told me to just take my time and try to remove them with sandpaper after they has dried. I sanded that little house until it was as smooth as glass before I submitted it to find out if it was “merit badge worthy.” I am happy to report that it made the grade, inspite of the very visible globs of glue, and I was awarded the “woodworking” certificate which allowed my mom to buy my merit badge at Helmsteader’s.
Once I earned my badge for the birdhouse, Mom and Dad let me hang it outside to see if any bird would decide to actually build their nest in it. I hung it on the side of the garage and watched patiently the following Spring to see if any bird would take a liking to it. It finally happened and soon a sparrow family called it home. I think that little birdhouse remained in place for as long as I can remember. Whether or not it continued to act as a recluse for birds each Spring is a mystery to me. Like most kids, I lost interest after that first Spring. Just like the 78 rpm bowl I made, somehow those special handcrafted projects seemed to vaporize over the years and the birdhouse was no exception. I have no idea what happened to either item. I’m sure they both met their demise by either falling apart or shattering.
I eagerly look forward to the opportunity to build yet one more little birdhouse with my grandson Jackson. I’m sure that in spite of my best efforts, it too will somehow slip away in years to come. However, just like my Cub Scout project, it will never escape my mind’s eye! The thought that it ever would is just “For the Birds!”