"Downy"



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Mashed Potato Clouds

Danger, suspense, courage, persistence and triumphant love - possibly just another afternoon spent digging red licorice out from between my teeth while watching pretend images whiz across the big screen at my local multi-plex. More than likely. But then again, sometimes thrilling adventure can be witnessed in the most unexpected of places - actual reality. Sometimes the hero of the story can be five inches tall, covered in downy yellow fluff. This is a tale of real suspense, courage and triumphant love. This is the true story of “Downy", the yellow peep.

It all began on a breezy, Saturday afternoon in Idaho with the sun playing peek-a-boo from behind mashed potato clouds. My teenage daughter, Nina (that’s nine-a, not nee-na), and I had decided to check out a property for sale about fifteen miles north of Sandpoint. The hamlet of Sandpoint adorns the western most curve at the top of Lake Pend Oreille (that’s pon-da-ray, not pend-or-ee-ill) in the Idaho panhandle. The name in French translates as “ring of ear”. Personally, I have always thought that it more aptly should be called Question Mark Lake since the lake more resembles that punctuation than it does a human ear plus it would be a lot easier to pronounce and a whole lot easier to spell.

After a lunch of tuna sandwiches and salt and vinegar potato chips we climbed into our tan ‘72 Dodge Dart, the latest experienced automobile given to us by my dad, Jack. Daddy, who was seventy-three at the time and still arguably the best mechanic this side of the Mississippi, had always supplied us with free vehicles. They unfailingly looked a little worse for wear but were always in top running condition and the price was right. The Dart’s battery sticker was an exclamation: C.R.A.P. (Cut Rate Auto Parts). That battery could mystifyingly keep the headlights burning bright for an unlimited number of hours after the car had been turned off (it turned out to be a yacht battery).

My Dad is cool. When younger he won first place in stock car races with the old jalopy he had turned into a blur of speed, performed in a country music band (playing songs like “Tennessee Waltz” and “Hear That Lonesome Whippoorwill” at Trestle Creek Inn near the tiny town of Hope), moved massive amounts of earth with a bulldozer, felled a scandalous amount of trees, built our home himself including electric, plumbing, water well, etc. and wrote poetry to boot. In his seventies he often could be found careening around sand dunes on the Oregon coast in a homely dune buggy that he had built from scratch. When the young whippersnappers with their shiny new buggies got stuck in the sand my Dad would graciously pull them out with his muscle buggy.

Nina and I drove north out of Sandpoint through the tiny suburb of Ponderay (pronounced pond-er-ray). It used to be an insignificant little village but once the new Walmart went in it gained in prestige despite its unpretentious spelling. The trip was uneventful as we headed north in the direction of Bonners Ferry passing through truly idyllic countryside featuring lush stands of tangy fragranced evergreens and sunlit pastures with frolicking calves, colts and fillies. I love the place of my birth - majestic mountains, enchanting forests, lakes, rivers, babbling brooks edged with glistening moss, rocky cliffs with splashing waterfalls and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. Magical. It used to be inhabited mostly by loggers and lumber mill workers and their families. Now it hosts wealthy entrepreneurs and movie stars.

We were getting close to our destination when we saw the most delightful sight on the road just ahead of us. A mother and father goose were protectively ushering a column of downy little goslings across Highway 95 North. We slowed down and then stopped to give them the right of way just as if brightly vested sixth graders had walked across the road in front of us holding out their hunter orange flags and “talk to the hand“ palms to stop traffic in a school zone.

Noticing that there was an unpaved side road branching off in the same direction that the little family was headed we turned off the highway and after driving a hundred feet or so we parked our car so that we could get out and watch them continue on their journey.

After navigating safely across the highway and dirt road the little gaggle proceeded to travel across an unfenced meadow and then began to climb an embankment which had been built up to carry the tracks for a railroad. As they were beginning to cross the tracks my first thought was how lucky it was that no train was coming at that time. No sooner had the thought formed in my head and almost as if on cue, I heard the loud warning whistle of a locomotive. I looked in the direction from which the threatening bellow came and saw a train rounding a bend in the tracks, about half a mile south of where the little goose family was crossing the rails.

Nina and I held our breath as we looked on in horror. The goose and gander sensed the danger and began frantically hustling their little brood on over the tracks. The little goslings were no higher than the rails they were crossing so it took some determination, it seemed, for them to climb and flutter over the man-made obstacle course. It appeared that the family was making it across just in time as the train came barreling down upon them, wheels rumbling heavily over the spot where they had been crossing.

On closer inspection we could see that not all family members had made it across the tracks safely. Next to the steel rail on which the train wheels were pounding their metal fury a little yellow blur was pacing back and forth like a miniature cardboard duck in a carnival shooting gallery .

Finally the train disappeared out of sight heading north and the countryside was once again serene and quiet, that was except for the incessant, screeching peeps of the one little gosling who had been so cruelly separated from his family. Traumatized, he decided to run back down the embankment in our direction. Poor little guy was in the throes of a major panic attack and totally disoriented - not unlike myself on my first day as a freshman at North Idaho Junior College.

We tried to herd the little fella back in the direction of the embankment and tracks so that he could join up with the rest of his family. As we got close he zigzagged in an attempt to evade us. Then finally in a daring move, he charged straight forward through the gap between us and dashed across the meadow back towards the road and our parked car. We had to race to get ahead of him so that we could block his way and force his retreat in the opposite direction, back towards the tracks. He turned and scampered diagonally back across the meadow. At that angle he wouldn’t connect with the tracks for awhile so once again we ran ahead to block his path and forced him to veer more in the direction of the tracks. As we got closer he did a fake-out maneuver and then hid in a little tuft of foliage.

All was quiet for a few moments but as we approached his hiding place the loud, frantic peeps started up again and he fled his cover and began to run horizontal with the embankment. That's when we saw it. A metal culvert crossing, meadow level, below the tracks. It was about the size that a toddler could squeeze through. We knew then that perhaps there was a good chance that we could get little “Downy” to his parents’ side of the tracks. We blocked any direction that didn’t lead to the cylinder beneath the railroad and finally got the little yellow peep ushered inside. It took both of us using our legs as barriers to block his way back out of the culvert. He stood his ground and mustered up as much threatening menace as he could as he challenged us with a growling hiss. Although thoroughly intimidated by his show of strength we held our ground. He finally decided that his only viable option was to travel in the direction directly behind him through the dark tunnel. He swallowed his fear, made a military about-face and marched bravely into the darkness.

After a few moments we couldn’t see him anymore inside the unlit passageway but we could hear the faintest pitter-patter of tiny webbed feet. We got down on our hands and knees and peered through to the far end the of the culvert and could see that the bottom half was in dark shadow, but the top half revealed bright sunshine filtering through green grass. Finally we saw a little yellow head pop up into the sunlight. The tiny explorer glanced left and right, accessing his new surroundings. Full of heroic resolve, he continued on his journey into the unknown territory before him, still peeping out his distress signal.

When he was out of sight we quickly climbed up the embankment, crossed the tracks and sat down on the other side so that we could see little Downy as he continued on his way. We could not get a visual of him as he had disappeared into a thicket of pussy willows, cattails, ferns and cottonwood to the right and just below us. We were nonetheless able to ascertain his precise location by the frantic peeps that continued to issue forth out of his little beak as he trudged onward in his quest to find his parents.

Finally we heard the sound of a solitary questioning honk emerge from out of the thicket. In reply, the peeping of our invisible little yellow voyager got even louder and more shrill. Then we heard another questioning honk. It sounded surprised and hopeful. It was followed by jubilant parental honks tumbling together in celebration and mingling with the ecstatic peeps coming from the tiny little trekker. A visual was not necessary for us to know that we were witnessing the happy reunion of parents and offspring. Such a symphony of relief, happiness and pure joy I will never forget.

The peeping and the honking eventually subsided and the forest once again became as it was before. Such a brave little “Downy” to have escaped the clutches of the menacing humans and to have found his way in the wilderness and through the darkness to be reunited once again with his family.

It’s difficult for me to understand how some people actually believe that animals do not experience true emotions. No person on earth would ever be able to convince me that the pure joy evident in those grateful honks was any less real than what human parents would feel who have been reunited with a toddler who had wandered off from a cozy campground and been missing for a summer’s morning. And no one could ever convince me that defiant little Downy did not deserve a medal of honor for demonstrating such unflinching courage under fire.

I smiled at my own offspring as we climbed back into our Dodge Dart after the captivating events of that afternoon. We never did get around to checking out the property that was for sale but we were genuinely grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed firsthand such spectacular drama. Danger, suspense, courage, persistence and triumphant love, all happening on a breezy afternoon while the sun played peek-a-boo from behind mashed potato clouds served up on a heavenly, blue Idaho sky.