Crow's curious free spirit touched the hearts of many

On a spring morning in 1956, the teenage boy in me could not resist the temptation to cut classes at Carson High School to go exploring along the abandoned roadbed of the V&T Railroad.

Hiking west near our house on West Robinson Street and through JohnD Winters' fields to his apple trees near Ash Canyon Road, I spotted a bird's nest, and clambered up to investigate. Two baby crows with unopened eyes sensed my presence, and with maws wide open, made a loud demand for food. I robbed the nest.

The birds were coined "Rock" and "Roll" in honor of my musical hero at the time, Little Richard ("Little Wretched," according to my mother). Only Rock survived infancy.

In seeking advice on the best way to feed my avian charge, I called my childhood friend Jon Vannoy, who was experienced in such matters. Rock would caw and open his beak, as I stuffed milk-soaked bread down his gullet with my little finger; later, he preferred raw hamburger.

Carson City was a small town of around 4,500 inhabitants, and all the neighbors were aware of my pet. I taught him to fly by placing him on my forearm, which I dropped in rapid movements, evoking an instinctive flapping of his wings. With short, low-level throws, he was almost able to take off, after a few crash landings.

Rock became proficient with practice, and could dive-bomb the magpies and elude blackbirds protective of their territory. He could spot a gnat at 50 paces, cock his head for a side view, then swoop down on the unsuspecting bug with precision.

Rock would not let our family leave home without him. He would get a good grip on the hood ornament of our 1955 Oldsmobile "Rocket" 88, lean into the wind as the car accelerated, and would finally be forced to spread his wings and let go at about 30 mph - one of the first piggyback launchings before the space shuttle.

In the summer, Rock roosted in Edgar Norton's willow tree and would peck on my bedroom window at dawn to say he was hungry - three taps (repeated, if I did not wake up). I would stumble to the refrigerator to get a bit of hamburger for him, and toss it on the back porch.

After eating what he wanted, Rock always broke up what was left of the morsel, and turning over leaves with his beak, would deposit his larder here and there, and re-cover the bits. I guess this was his insurance policy against the magpies. The problem was that he couldn't remember where he left his hidden treasure, and would systematically turn over all the leaves in the back yard until he finally found a snack and seemed satisfied.

In winter, I kept him in the garage, which had been converted into a pool room, where he would perch on the door runners. One Thanksgiving day, Rock was ensconced on top of some shelves in this room, observing my father, Dick Stoddard, my Uncle Denver and me engaged in a cutthroat game of pea pool. Dick had an easy shot to the corner pocket to win and collect a dollar from each of us. He was really rubbing it in by taking unnecessary practice strokes, re-chalking his cue, and thoroughly enjoying his advantage with unwanted banter, until someone impatiently said "Come on, Dick! Get it over with. We still have time for another game before dinner."

As Stoddard carefully lined up his final stroke, the forgotten crow in the corner decided the overhead runner at the other end of the room might be a more comfortable roost, and with a loud "CAW!," launched into an arc that brushed by Stoddard's head, causing him to flinch and let out a startled whoop as he miscued.

Our delight and laughter was short lived when we had to restrain the red-faced champion-to-be from dispatching my bird with a stick. That was the end of the tournament, as we repaired to the kitchen to refresh drinks and calm Dick's nerves. To his dying day, Stoddard accused my father of giving "that damned bird" the high sign.

Rock had an uncanny sense of time. At exactly five minutes to noon, he would alight on the same telephone pole at the edge of the school grounds opposite Mr. R.E. Walker's civics class. The students were distracted from the lecture by looking out the window to see if the crow was on time, and Mr. Walker (in frustration) would dismiss us early. As the lunch crowd exited, the bird would spot me in the throng and fly down to land on my extended arm, then side-step to my shoulder for the jaunt home.

Word got back to me that Rock made the rounds of the neighborhood in the morning, pecking on kitchen windows for handouts. Kay Winters would give him a tidbit, then it was on to Merle Benham's, Doc Petty's, Judge Badt's and Charlie and Georgina Oliver's. Once when Mrs. Oliver was hospitalized, the crow somehow sensed where she was and visited her with taps on her hospital window, which I am told lifted her spirits and speeded her recovery.

One day, Rock disappeared. Although we looked everywhere, he was not to be found, and I was to experience grief for the first time. I was shocked to find him on my back porch railing a month later, deathly ill with avian pneumonia. There was evidence someone had caged him, or confined him to a small space, and finally took pity when they realized how sick he was then let him go. Although we tried to save him, it was too late.

It would be difficult to have such a unique pet today in a Carson City grown 10 times in size and regulation, but in a quiet government town that only picked up the pace a notch when the Legislature was in session, he was tolerated.

Rock was an important part of my youth, and his curious free spirit touched the hearts of many during a brief life spent in an America lulled by the hope that peacetime brings.

• Denver Dickerson moved to Carson City with his family in 1954, when his father, Harvey Dickerson, was elected attorney general. Denver began his career in real estate in Carson City in 1965. His grandfather, Gov. Denver S. Dickerson, was the first to live in the Governor's Mansion (1908). Denver's Aunt June was the first child born at the mansion.

Editor's note: It is now illegal to take animals and birds from the wild and care for them without a permit.


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