When I was sixteen years old, I was about to play baseball and came upon a wounded bird part-way up the rightfield line during pre-game warmups. Wounded is too kind. This bird, a robin, had been maimed. It looked like it had been caught by a dog or cat that tore into it but lost interest before the kill was made.
The robin’s wings were missing feathers, there was caked blood around it’s neck, one eye had been torn out, and a leg was broken. It was huddled in a patch of crabgrass in foul territory. A missed ball disturbed it and I saw it flitting about in an agitated state when I came to retrieve the ball.
The bird, such as it was, could neither walk nor fly. Its bloody neck seemed unable to support its own head and struggled pitifully to stay away from me.
I tossed the ball back to the game but the problem of the bird remained. I thought something should be done, but didn’t know what. I had been playing catch with Mark, our shortstop, and he was no help. He was just fine with ignoring the bird and loosening his arm.
I really thought the bird should be put out of it’s misery. I don’t know where such a thought came from, as I had never done such a thing before. I was raised in a modest home in a suburban neighborhood near Cleveland. We didn’t shoot horses when they broke their leg. We didn’t see horses. Hell, we hardly saw birds or squirrels. I did not know what euthanasia was, and probably had never heard the word.
My father’s uncle once told a story about when he was a boy, probably in the 1930s, he went to spend the summer on a distant relative’s farm in northern Minnesota. That side of the family had homesteaded around the turn of the century up there, thinking they were getting a deal on land but ended up in a swamp, and worked the iron mines to survive. During the visit, the patriarch of the family was demonstrating his new rifle’s accuracy, and shot the family dog at a distance of over 100 yards. It was probably for the best that none of the neighbor’s children were playing in the swamp that day.
I had nothing like that cold, cold blood in my veins as I contemplated killing the wounded bird. Mark took the ball to play catch with someone else, completely abandoning my moral dilemma. He was able to make his decision and he was fine with it–he cared nothing for the bird, or for my concerns on the matter.
Now this post is simply about a young, silly, and innocent boy of sixteen who lacked the maturity to kill a living thing in pain. I could do it now with hardly a blink. I’m not proud of that; I’m just aware of the difference now. I don’t think I’m at all like that ancestor in northern Minnesota who sighted his rifle with the family pet. There is a Penelope Fitzgerald novel, The Blue Flower, in which one of the secondary characters takes a sack full of unwanted kittens to the river to dispose of them. I think the world needs folks like latter, but has a few too many of the former.
I did end the bird’s misery. I placed my spiked baseball shoe over it, and pressed down with my weight. I went, then, to play the game, but I have no recollection whatsoever as to how the game ended.