A recent spectacular display of northern lights causes me to discuss the subject in reminiscent manner, and to corroborate my recollections I've just telephoned the Maine Audubon Society to ask what the songbird is that tweets "O Canada." I'm thinking back when the Canadian anthem was "The Maple Leaf Forever," and "O Canada" was still just a jolly snatch of old French-Canadian folk music.
I have worn a robin membership button of the Audubon Society since 1914, and this is the first time I've bothered them, which I think is decent of me and should be appreciated. The lady was pleasant and said she did not know, but somebody would call me back.
I think it is prudent to get all the little details in hand before tackling the main subject. So while we await to hear what that bird is, I'll proceed as best I can without the information. I believe I was about to mention Eddie Skillin.
Eddie was my closest school-day buddy, and we did many things together that I cherish in recollective moments, from dipping smelts to seeking will-o'-the-wisps in May meadows (of which we found many). Eddie and I each had a signal whistle to alert the other if one of us had an idea. Upon hearing it under my midnight window, I would arise and meet Eddie by the rhubarb and we would attend to our fantasies. Or he, me.
Like Shakespeare on the well-trod stage anon, we warbled native woodnotes wild, for our signal was (I think) the song of the white-throated sparrow, "O Canada," unless I have different information subsequently from the Audubon people.
It was about 2 o'clock on the morning of February 10, 1926, as my notes confirm, that the melodious strains of "O Canada" wafted my way and I found Eddie below when I descended and stepped outdoors. Before he spoke I knew why he was there. The sky was ablaze with great waves of northern lights, moving like ocean billows in a pageant of magnificent and majestic mystery.
Then Eddie said, "I was scairt you might miss it."
At other times I have mentioned other matters that Eddie and I didn't miss as we roamed the back country of Maine in other contexts. We would tuck necessities in our packsacks and set out for wonderlands afar, seeking adventure as befell, and managing always to get home the day before school opened. This was before traffic increased so thumbing a ride was possible, and before the growing deep sense of possession caused "Keep Out" and "Private Property" signs to clutter pleasant camping sites, and all the trout pools were full of bent bicycle frames.
Around town, Eddie and I kept abreast of all possibilities, and missed few of them. We did dip the first smelts and we cut the first fiddlehead ferns each spring, and we found the first cranberries in the fall. And if you heard the first four notes of "O Canada," you knew Eddie and I were assembling for action.
On the occasion now in focus, I answered Eddie's whistle as usual and the game was afoot, my dear Watson.
We went behind our barn where I got a ladder, and we stood the ladder against the henhouse and climbed to the roof. The slanting roof had a good foot of snow and we flopped on our backs so we were looking up at the sky. For some time neither of us spoke, being overwhelmed by the display. It was far and away the best display I've seen, and it continued the longest time.
Eddie broke the silence. He began slowly and came to this: "Were you ever out in the great alone, When the moon was awful clear, And the icy mountains hemmed you in, With a silence you most could hear.... While high overhead, green, yellow and red, The northlights swept in bars? Then you've a hunch what that music meant - Hunger and cold and the stars...."
I recognized "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" well enough, but whatever in all the world possessed Eddie Skillin to memorize it, I cannot suppose. But there he was on his back in the snow, full tilt in the Malamute saloon, gazing at celestial wonderment and saying, "I ain't so wise as these lawyer guys, but strictly between us two...."
The lights faded, but not right away, and I put the ladder back in the barn. Eddie started home, and a thin hint of morning was already teasing the sky. As it was still February the likelihood of a songbird's belting out the Canadian anthem at that hour was minimal, but there it was as I got back in bed, and Eddie was halfway home. "O Can-a-dah!"
When my Dad came down at breakfast time he said, "What goes on? From the bedroom window it looks like two people were bunking out on the henhouse roof!" So I told him about the display of northern lights and that Eddie and I had made the prints in the henhouse snow. He said, "Oh, so that's what it was. I didn't notice, did you put the ladder back?"
Judy Walker of the Maine Audubon Society at Falmouth did most graciously call me back with her assurance that Eddie and I were imitating a white-throated sparrow when we whistled each other. This is a good thing to know, and we thank her kindly.
• To hear recordings of John Gould telling stories at a recent luncheon celebrating his 60 years with the Monitor, go to www.csmonitor.com/gouldaudio