Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Uncle Budd

On Friday, August 28, 2009 Bernard (Budd) Chartier passed away at the Veterans Home in King, Wisconsin. Not only was he my uncle, but my godfather, and probably the main reason I got interested in birds. There is so much to say about the last 50 years I've known him, so I'll try to be brief.

Uncle Budd was born on April 4, 1921 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I was also born. He was the second oldest of four brothers, including my uncle Cliff (deceased), uncle Ed, and my dad George. Here he is (on the right) in a photo, probably taken in the late 1920s at the height of the depression, with his brother Clifford, behind the house that my grandfather, Joseph Chartier, built himself and where Uncle Budd lived until he was in his late 70s.

Uncle Budd was the birdwatcher in the family; everyone knew this but I am not certain at what age this interest began. My dad talks about Uncle Budd taking in injured birds like American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, American Goldfinches, and even an Eastern Screech-Owl, rehabilitating them and releasing them back into the wild. This was in the 1930s and early 1940s, long before there were licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Among his favorite birds were the Cedar Waxwing (they have "perfect plumage"), Purple Martin, and Tree Swallow ("their wings are so graceful, perfect"). Here is a drawing that Uncle Budd did, perhaps before I was born in 1957, of a Tree Swallow rendered with colored pencil.

Birds and music go together, and Uncle Budd taught himself to play the piano on an old upright that the family inherited probably in the late 1920s. He was able to play many other instruments as well, but for many years could not read music! He was able to play lengthy classical pieces on the piano from memory, even when he was into his early 80s before his memory began to let him down. He was able to imitate many birds, including the complex songs of American Goldfinches. Uncle Budd wrote a song for our wedding in 1979 and honored us by playing it for us at our reception. Unfortunately, we don't have a recording of "our" song from the reception (we were busy!), but my parents did get cassette recordings of Uncle Budd's piano playing in 1986 and 1991. I have recently converted these tapes to digital format and am still working through the files to determine the titles of each piece. Here is one sample from 1991, when he was 60 years old; a little past his prime but still way better than I could do!

Uncle Budd playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

In the early 1970s, both of my grandparents passed away, and Uncle Budd wrote the following song to honor their memory, recorded here in 1986.

Uncle Budd playing dedication to Joseph and Elizabeth

Even when he was in his 80s, he would entertain the staff at the Veterans Home, which they greatly appreciated as nobody had ever played the piano before.

Uncle Budd served in the U.S. Army from 1942-1946 in World War II, with his basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he told of enjoying the graceful aerial flights of the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers there. When I was a teenager, I painted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher for his birthday. He was then shipped overseas, into the Pacific theater where he served first in New Guinea, then on to Morotai in the Moluccas, and finally to the Philippines.

Uncle Budd's "war stories" probably more than anything else, is what got me interested in birds. He never talked about the horrible things that certainly happened during his service. Instead, he talked about the head hunters in New Guinea who were friendly and sociable during the day, but were apparently very covetous of his red hair! He vividly described the wonderful jungles of these paradises that war had inadvertently sent him to see, including many colorful species of parrots, which were among his favorites. A copy of Cooper and Forshaw's Parrots of the World was one of his prized possessions and I was mesmerized as he paged through the plates, pointing out the wonders he'd seen. Eventually, I got my own copy of that book and it is still on my shelf. It wasn't until field guides for these areas were available in the 1990s that I was able to give these to him as birthday presents, allowing him to recognize a few birds from so many years ago. He described the ponderous, soaring flight of the Palm Cockatoos in New Guinea, as well as the white cockatoo that was "rescued" from a nest that he purchased from one of the locals, which he trained to be his pet...one with a luxurous jungle to roam around in, coming back to Uncle Budd when he whistled. On Morotai, which he said was his favorite place and where he'd love to live, he raised a species of racket-tailed parrot that was similar to others in the region, but was different enough that it might at least have been an unknown subspecies. His description of another large, harrier-shaped parrot, can be found in no field guides today. Who knows what may have been in those relatively unexplored forests back in the 1940s? To this day, in some strange way, I view all the birds in the wild almost as my pets too, and I try to visit them as often as I can.

Uncle Budd's stories sparked my imagination and curiousity, especially about birds, though I still remember fondly the enthusiastic conversations about UFOs, Von Daniken's latest book, or the great beauty of Zha Zha Gabor! His great sense of humor, and hearty laugh, was infectious.

It is part of the job of a godfather to guide their godchild through life in some way. I was very lucky to have such an enthusiastic birdwatcher as my uncle and godfather, and he surely got me interested in birds, and influenced me greatly in my life, even though he probably didn't know he was doing it. At the age of 17, I saw my 300th life bird, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, in Uncle Budd's backyard. I now realize that it is very important for young people to have someone to spark their curiousity about the natural world, and I now try to do this myself whenver I can, whether it is doing programs on hummingbirds locally, or teaching the 4th graders in West Bloomfield about bird banding and the scientific method. I am grateful that Uncle Budd was a part of my life, and I'll miss him. I'm sure that now he's enjoying all of the birds in paradise. Here's one last musical piece from him. Goodbye Uncle Budd.

Uncle Budd playing One Last Goodbye