Peter the Crow, a Children's Story

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My dad had pet crows when he was a kid. They were the heros of my favorite bed-time story. The picture above is a portrait of the infamous Peter painted by Charles Culver in 1950. Culver traded it to my dad for some scrap lumber to use for making frames.

When I was a boy my dad told me stories about when he was a boy. And when my dad was a boy, he had some crows.

He had three crows and they were all named Peter. This might have caused a great deal of confusion if all three Peter the Crows had lived with him at the same time, but they didn’t. He had one crow named Peter after another.

All three Peter the Crows were very different. They all did different things and they all had different tricks. The only thing that was the same about all three was that they lived with my dad for a while and they all flew away one day. They flew away because that’s what wild things do when they grow up. If you don’t believe me, ask your mother. She’ll tell you that some day you will fly away too. That’s what wild things do, no matter how much you love them or how much they love you.

Now, there’s a few other things that most crows have in common. They all like shiny objects. They can all learn to talk if they spend enough time around people. And they all have a sense of humor.

The first Peter the Crow was especially fond of shiny things and made lots of trouble because of this. When Dad was a boy and the first Peter lived with him, plastic had just been invented. It was very different than the plastic we have now, and at the time it was called Bakelite. Bakelite came in pretty colors and patterns like you only see now in fancy pens and bowling balls. Everyone wanted it, especially Peter the Crow.

The neighbor across the street had clothespins made of bakelite, all in different colors, and when Peter saw them his eyes lit up. Every time the neighbors did their laundry, Peter would wait until they went back in their house and he’d fly over to steal those clothespins. He’d land on their clothesline and walk up and down, back and forth on it a moment, like a tightrope walker at the circus. He wanted to be sure that no one saw him. He wasn’t ready to be chased yet.

Then he’d pull off the clothespins, one at a time, and fly up to the roof of the neighbors’ house with them. All the clothes would fall off into the mud under the clothesline and get all dirty again. Peter thought this was very funny. Sooner or later he’d look at all that wet muddy clothing and start to laugh, “caw, caw, caw”. He just couldn’t help it, it was that funny. All that laundry would have to be washed again.

When the neighbors heard him laughing, they knew what that meant and they would all run out yelling. Peter didn’t care. He just flew up to the roof and stood on his pile of stolen clothespins and laughed. The man who lived there would stand in the yard and shake his fist at Peter and yell and that just made Peter laugh all the harder, “caw, caw, caw”! Pretty soon though, that neighbor taught Peter to talk, just by yelling so much. So he would stand in the yard shaking his fist and Peter would stand on the roof and shout back, “Go to Hell! Go to Hell”! I’m sure he didn’t pick up language like that in our family.

Sometimes Peter would fly into their yard and start laughing even though there wasn’t any laundry out. By then, he had those neighbors so mad that they couldn’t remember if they’d had to wash the mud out of their clothes again, so they’d all run out anyway. That was really funny. They looked pretty silly standing there yelling at a crow for no reason. He even got them to run out in the middle of the night once, yelling as usual. Everyone laughed at them that time.

But when winter came, the first Peter the Crow was all grown up and flew away. He had been doing that tightrope act a lot before he left and my dad thought maybe Peter went to join the circus. All the circus people spend the winter in Florida, so that’s probably where Peter went.

But not all crows steal and swear and run away to join the circus. Don’t think that. Let me tell you about the other Peter the Crows.

In the summer my family spent a lot of time sailing their E scow, which is a small, fast sailboat made especially for racing. There were races almost every day on the lake where we live and my family liked very much to win them. My Grandmother was the captain on our boat and my dad and grandfather were the crew. So it was natural for the second Peter the crow to want to be a sailor like the rest of the family.

Learning to sail takes some time, though, and for a crow it’s not so easy to make yourself useful on a boat. So at first, Peter just flew along ahead of the boat cheering his family on. Once he understood his interest, my dad put a small basket on top of the mast for him to ride in. On old oceangoing ships this was called the crow’s nest and it was where the lookout stood and kept an eye out for land, changes in the weather or dangerous reefs. It was a lot of fun to sail a boat that had a real crow in the crow’s nest. And it was handy too, because the boat never ran into any reefs that summer and my family always knew where land was, thanks to Peter in the crow’s nest.

Peter watched very closely whenever my family was sailing to see if he could find a job to do. He learned to say sailing words like “come about”, “hoist the spinnaker”, “rotten wind”, “watch your head” and “buoy”. He learned that you never say ‘rope’ when you’re sailing, you always say ‘line’.

For a while, Peter tried to help out in rough weather by untying the lines that held up the jib and the spinnaker. These are extra sails you use when you want to go fast, and if the wind gets too strong, you take them down again. But the knots were too tight for him to undo with his claws and beak. Then he decided to repeat everything my grandmother said to her crew, just to make sure they heard it. But he could tell that was getting on people’s nerves after a while. So he thought some more about what to do, and by the middle of summer he had a great idea.

As much as he wanted to be a sailor, sailing just isn’t suited to crows. So Peter became a fisherman instead. Often, fish are attracted to the wake of a boat and come up to see if there’s something to eat. Peter would follow behind the boat and watch for fish and when he saw one, he’d drop down and grab it and bring it to the boat. So for the second half of the summer, my dad, his sister and my grandparents had fresh fish for dinner after racing. That made everyone happy, especially Peter, who now felt like he had something to contribute to his family.

Then summer was over and the boat was put away for winter. Peter stayed until the lake froze over and then he finally flew away. My dad thought he might have gone to New Orleans, because it’s a port city. There are lots of fishing boats there and there are even some old sailing ships with crow’s nests.

The third Peter the Crow came to live with my dad the year he started middle school. All summer Peter lived with my family at their cabin on Torch Lake, but when fall came he didn’t fly away with the leaves. Instead, he followed them to the house in town where they spent winters. Every morning he followed my dad to school. While dad sat at his desk in the classroom, Peter sat on the window ledge and looked in. All my dad’s classmates wanted the teacher to let Peter inside. Every morning someone said, “look, there’s that crow again! Let him in! Let him in”! But the teacher didn’t think that was a such good idea. He felt having a crow in the classroom would be too exciting and no one would learn anything.

Finally one morning Peter flew up and tapped on the window as class was starting. He waited and tapped and waited until the teacher looked at him and then he said “Look, there’s that crow again! Let him in, let him in”. Well, that teacher had never heard a crow talk before. He wondered what else this bird could learn so he went over to the window and let Peter in. From then on, Peter was the first one into the classroom every morning. He liked to perch on top of the flag that stood in the corner.

In fact, Peter was probably the best student that teacher ever had. He learned all the states and their capitals. He learned the names of constellations and the names of the bones in the human body. He learned the multiplication table. He even learned to sing a song the kids made up about him. It went:

Jackie had a little crow, little crow, little crow.
Jackie had a little crow with feathers black as coal.
Everywhere that Jackie went that crow was sure to go.

It turned out that the teacher was wrong about Peter distracting the kids from their studies. Peter picked things up so quickly that some of the kids got embarrassed that a bird was getting better grades than they were. It made everyone work much harder to learn as fast as they could. Peter might have been the first crow to ever learn to read and write if the teacher hadn’t caught him telling my dad the answers to math tests. After that, Peter wasn’t allowed to come to school anymore and that spring he flew away too, like the other Peter the Crows.

Dad would never hazard a guess as to where the third Peter the Crow went. He always told me that if I learned as fast as Peter and knew math and geography and could sing a little bit, I could probably go just about anywhere and do okay.

He also said he really missed having the third Peter the Crow around when he went to law school and took his bar exam.

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John T. Unger poet

I'm best known as an artist and designer. Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects.

Before becoming a visual artist, I spent 15 years as a poet. I studied poetry at Interlochen Arts Academy, Naropa, Stone Circle and on the streets. I performed my work for years at Stone Circle, solo shows, poetry readings, and at Lollapalooza in 1996.

I still write poems, but only if I can make them fit the constraints ofTwitter.

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