Bobolink or chicken?

`THAT'S right -- I've been asked by the Program Committee.'' As Joe spoke, I sensed trouble ahead, trouble that his next words confirmed. ``Next Friday. They've asked me to give a talk.''

Don't get me wrong here. Elks, Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, whatever the organization, I believe one of the most important functions of any service club is to help its members to express themselves, with confidence, in public. But Joe.

Joe is a man with a mission. One of nature's fanatics. The latest bug to bite him was conservation -- in the form of those three pines in Yalder Park. What Joe fails to realize is that we are all conservationists, we all like trees, every one of us. Except those three old eyesores at the park entrance that the Town Council, after much petitioning, has agreed to have felled. Felled, with the backing of every member of the club -- except Joe. Joe, who on Friday would have before him a captive audience!

I did my best.

``Joe, I know how you feel. But this Friday -- lay off the Yalder Park trees! It's your first time, remember. Friday tell them something they'll want to hear.''

I might as well have spoken to the Yalder pines. You simply cannot argue with a man with a mission.

Joe fixed me with a fanatic eye. ``Something they'll want to hear!'' The tone was indescribably bitter. ``You know what you're asking me, of course. You're asking me to chicken out!''

Chicken out. Strange how those words struck a faraway chord. Memory vaulted back to when I was a boy of 14. And to a young woman who failed to recognize the tastes of her audience.

Our town's population in those days numbered around 15,000. A close-knit community whose civic pride had found expression in our large municipal theater. Every Sunday night local artists presented a concert -- the sort of affair that, today, we'd call a talent quest.

The theater held three audience tiers -- stalls, circle, and up above, the gallery. The gallery was the stamping ground (sometimes literally so) of the town's male youth, including certain rather uninhibited characters, known in those days as ``larrikins.''

My Webster's defines larrikin as ``Australian slang. A streetcorner rough, a rowdy.'' Applied to our local larrikins, the definition is somewhat harsh. Social nuisances, perhaps, but they were in the main without viciousness. The truth is nobody in our day took the larrikins very seriously. Nobody looked on them as symbols of social disorder. Nobody tried to analyze them; certainly nobody tried to understand them. By and large, they were regarded as temporary pests who would grow out of it.

However, back to the theater and the Sunday night concerts. As I've said, the larrikins would ensconce themselves in the gallery. Away up there, they could express themselves without undue interference. Not that they were out to make trouble. After all, they were still small-town boys. The baritone who had just given that spirited rendering of ``The Road to Mandalay'' might well have been the father of one of their number. The girl who sang so feelingly of Kathleen Mavourneen could have been another's sister.

If they liked an item, they were loud, even vociferous in their applause. But should they find any contribution to be lacking in appeal, their response could be more openly disapproving than that indulged in by folk in circle or stalls. They were pretty stern critics: They knew what they liked. And we schoolboys in the seats below used to envy them their freedom.

Clearly yet, I remember that Sunday night when a young woman for whom my heart, even at this far-off distance in time, can bleed a little tripped onto the stage to sing a song, the title of which was announced as ``Bobolink.''

I have had no contact with the bobolink. A book on birds tells me the usual habitat of the species is the northern US and Canada. Every winter it departs the Canadian cold and flies south to the pleasing warmth of the Argentine summer. A well-traveled bird, cosmopolitan in outlook, possessing a pleasingly musical voice -- there you have the bobolink.

At the breaking-up ceremony of a girls' college, at the opening of a new Sunday school, in fact in any place that held a captive audience, under social discipline, a song about the bobolink could prove a pleasing little musical whimsy. At a small-town, amateur-night concert, to such a widely varied audience, it was ill-advised, to say the least.

One glance at the score, another upward glance at the gallery, these should have cried their warning that to go ahead was plain madness. But there it was -- she was down on the program -- she was game.

The gallery listened to the first verse in suspicious silence. There was the feeling that whimsy wasn't exactly their cup of tea but they seemed to be prepared to suffer a reasonable dose of it. But the songwriter had not been satisfied with mere words. At the end of each verse, she required the singer to pause -- to listen expectantly, hand daintily cupped to ear -- then to break into a series of trilling cadences in imitation of the bobolink's song.

Surprisingly enough, this first warbling chorus failed to break the gallery's silence. It's possible that they were a little stunned. That any performer could have the iron nerve to go quite so whimsy on them must have shaken them a bit.

But then, when she'd completed the second verse, the singer did it again. Head daintily inclined, she paused -- listening -- waiting. . . .

The consequence was, I fear, inevitable.

Before she herself could supply the answering call, one rather hoarse bobolink in the gallery obliged.

Momentarily, the unfortunate performer faltered. You could see her shrink back into herself. She must surely have divined that the worst was yet to come. But this young woman had courage. Bravely, she trilled through the entire chorus of bird sounds, then went on to the third verse.

When again she paused, expectant hand to ear, you could feel the more sensitive souls in the audience shrinking in their seats, holding their collective breath.

As well they might!

This time, the bobolinks in the gallery had grown into a flock. Bass bobolink answered the call of baritone bobolink. The plaintive note of the tenor bobolink pealed forth through the old theater.

You could see the pianist hunch his shoulders, crouch down on his stool. The unhappy singer quavered, burst into tears, and fled the stage.

It was cruel, of course, the action of a bunch of insensitive oafs. Yet, looking back, I find myself wondering. . . .

Granted, it was indeed uncouth. But the regrettable truth is that it was also funny. You couldn't help feeling that, in a shamefaced way, even the most staid, sober patron of circle or stalls was laughing inside.

But was the insensitivity all on one side?

Hometown born and bred as she was, the singer must have been familiar enough with the tastes of the Sunday night gallery. In her choice of song was there perhaps a certain arrogance -- the arrogance that I recognized, and feared, in Joe?

Did that songstress intend to make the larrikins listen -- to make them like it -- even to help convert them to higher thought? And did they, in their turn, unconsciously recognize that arrogance -- resent it?

There it is. I told the story to Joe. Tried to make the point that today, close on half a century later, the Bobolink Principle still stands. Try to give them something they'll like to hear.

I don't for one moment think Joe will heed my plea. Plainly, to him, the attitude is so sycophantic. As he put it, so chicken.

Granted.

But it's a chicken that's smart enough to dodge the ax!

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