LITTLE WHITE DOG PRESS
The Beginning: My Early life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The longest journey begins with a single step.
It all began for me in 1946. My father, Gilbert Master, was a doctor in Philadelphia. For his relaxation, he would go bird watching. I would always tag along with him. I was four years old when I recorded my first list of nine birds in Morris Park, a small patch of green in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia. This paper and pencil list with place, date, time, weather conditions, and species was carefully laid in a shoe box with the hundreds more that would follow until sometime in the 1980s. That’s when I painstakingly entered them all into a “new” computer program called BirdBase.
The date was February 18, 1946. The weather was clear and cool. I saw and identified―with the help of my father―my first Downy Woodpecker, Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Starling, Cardinal, Goldfinch, Slate-colored Junco, and Song Sparrow. When I look at that first tiny list, a flood of memories follows. This was the beginning of a hobby, and later a passion that would last a lifetime. Today that list has grown to nearly eight thousand species from 105 countries.
West Philadelphia was a concrete jungle of row houses with postage stamp sized-lawns and a few plane trees, sycamore look-alikes, planted in the 1930s.
The only neighborhood birds we saw at that time were House Sparrows, Eurasian Starlings, and Rock Pigeons, all introduced from Europe in the nineteenth century, not very exciting. By the time I was twelve, I had my first bicycle, a fire engine red Schwinn, which gave me a freedom that I had never experienced before! I was riding everywhere on the weekends―to small corners of Overbrook to see and record birds. My early tools were a three power pair of opera glasses and my dad’s 1946 Peterson’s Field Guide to North American Birds, 3rd edition. I moved up to a six power pair of mid-quality German Army field binoculars that my mother’s brother, Uncle Vince Majeski, had brought back from World War II. Nearly every Sunday my parents, younger sister Julie, and I would take long family rides in my dad’s first car, a new 1949 Plymouth coupe, to places of natural history importance such as Cape May and Parvin State Park in New Jersey, as well as to Tyler Arboretum and the the embryonic Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. We also took many short jaunts to various parts of Philadelphia’s sprawling Fairmount Park, the second largest city park in the United States, where we would take long bird walks. On one of these walks, we spotted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a life bird for me. We hopped a fence and began stalking this bird. We did not see a jackbooted Philadelphia motorcycle cop approach us. Suddenly we heard a commanding gruff voice demand, “What are you doing here?” We were so startled by his presence that my father barely replied in a soft voice, “We are looking at a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.” The police officer stared at us incredulously for what seemed like an eternity, weighed the “sapsucker” answer, looked us up and down, nodded ever so slightly and finally said “m-huh.” He pointed to a grand house on the property saying, “This is the Commissioner’s house. Now scram.”
In 1943, my Grandfather Joseph Majeski purchased a vacation house, built in 1885, in North Wildwood, New Jersey. This became our summer residence and still is to this day. When I became aware of my surroundings at around age twelve, I discovered that we were only nine miles away from the tip of Cape May, the mecca of American birding for decades and the site of the largest fall bird migration in Eastern North America. Every fall my father and I would bear witness to the migration spectacle―so amazing and filled with such adventure and surprises that it formed a lasting impression on me. I now own that house and we are in our fifth generation of enjoying the magnificent natural splendor of the area.
There is a difference in meaning among the words “birdwatching,” “birding,” and “ornithology.” Birdwatchers are those who enjoy looking at wild birds whether it is in gardens, bird feeders, or in casual outdoor settings. They are some of the seventy-five million people in America who love the beauty of birds and enjoy watching the habits displayed by these feathered creatures. Birdwatching is the second most popular American hobby―second only to gardening. Birders, on the other hand, are those who go into the field, keep notes, make lists, and may belong to bird clubs and bird-oriented organizations such as the National Audubon Society. Many of these birders claim they do not keep lists. Everyone keeps lists! Their lists may not be written down or entered into computer programs, but these people keep their bird lists in their memory bank. They know what bird they saw, where they saw it, and the particulars of the sighting. Many birders’ conversations revolve around birds, no matter whom they are talking to. Some birders suffer from what Gabryelle Rowland, the non-birding wife of noted bird tour leader, Forrest Rowland, calls B.A.D.D.―Birders Attention Deficit Disorder. These folks are always birding. Someone afflicted with B.A.D.D. cannot finish a normal sentence if he or she sees or hears a bird. For example, while riding down the road in the middle of discussing the deepest of subjects, say, the meaning of life, a birder will suddenly blurt out, “Stop the car! Pull over! What the hell! I just saw a Painted Bunting! What is that doing in Ohio?” There is no cure for this malady, and it is contagious! Finally, there are ornithologists. These are professionals who study birds scientifically.
By the time I was fourteen I was fully into birding. My father and I often drove to Tinicum National Wildlife Reserve, which became John Heinz National Wildlife Reserve in 1972. It is a 1,200-acre freshwater tidal wetland located in Southwest Philadelphia, only a mile from the Philadelphia International Airport. This was our favorite spot because it was close to our home, boasted an extensive bird list including many hard to find species, and best of all had a wonderful naturalist named Jim who showed us birds.
Jim was a middle-aged African-American. I never knew his last name. I did know he was a great birder, filled with bird knowledge that he was happy to share with us. Whenever we visited, Jim always had an unusual bird or two that he found to show us. Now, when I reflect on conversations with him, I realize that he was the rarest of birds. Over the years―with all of my hours in the field and serving on many conservation boards―I can recall meeting only six or seven African-American birders. Jim showed me my first Glaucous Gull and my first Iceland Gull, named every duck before it hit the water, and identified a dozen or more species of shorebirds, egrets, and herons using no field guide. He was always right.
Once you are aware of birds, they pop up everywhere. One cold spring morning we found an emaciated, recently dead Clapper Rail on our West Philadelphia house steps. No notes, no clues left behind. Clapper Rails are birds of the salt marshes―their closest habitat is more than one hundred miles away from our home. Was this an act of divine providence? A prank by one of our birding friends? Or one of those billion-to-one chances that a migrating rail just died in front of our door on its passage north? I always suspected it was a practical joke, but no one ever came clean. I know these jokes are too funny to keep to oneself for long and they eventually slip out. We never heard the rail’s origin, and I suspect I will never know the answer.
On another occasion, my father found the frozen carcass of an Atlantic Puffin on a South Jersey beach in the dead of winter. This is a small fish-eating bird in the alcid family, rare in New Jersey. He brought it home and placed it on our windowsill facing our next-door neighbor’s porch. It was so cold that it froze to the windowsill, but it looked alive, just resting. Alarmed, our long-time neighbor, Mamie Donnelly (an older woman living alone) called my father on the telephone to say that a bird has been looking into his window for three straight days, and he better do something about it. He moved it, but I never found out what he did with it.
Our best trips were always to Hawk Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Appalachian Mountain chain. This demanded early 5 a.m. starts and long four-hour drives in my father’s car, his slow dull-gray, four-door, stick-shift 1951 Plymouth. Today, this trip would take about an hour and a half to go the eighty miles to the 2,600-acre sanctuary in Kempton near Reading, Pennsylvania. We would shorten the time by singing songs and rounds and harmonizing with each other. My mother had a musical ear and taught us how to sing all the harmony parts.
We would play Geography, License Plates, and Trivia to pass the time. Finally, we would arrive at the legendary Hawk Mountain. Our first trip was in 1953, a mere two years after it was fully open to the public. We met Maurice Broun, Hawk Mountain’s first warden and then curator, and birded with him learning his method of pinpointing migrating raptors for others to see by calling out their position as they appeared over each numbered separate ridge in the horizon, a method still used today. One humorous story about Hawk Mountain that keeps reappearing and was told to me by a colorful Columbus, Ohio, birder, involves this method and Pete Dunne, formerly the Director of the Cape May (New Jersey) Bird Observatory. Pete was calling out raptor IDs using the Broun method for location. His raptor ID skills were especially sharp, and he could identify bird specks in the far distance by flight pattern, hints of color, and silhouette. “Female Red-tail over number one, male Peregrine over two, male Coop over one.” There was a young couple sitting among the group observing all of this. The young man in total frustration blurted out. “I can’t even see the damn bird, and he can see its testicles!”
The elevation surprisingly was only a little more than 1,500 feet, but as a thirteen-year-old, I felt as if I were sitting on top of the world. The Commonwealth was promoting the shooting of Northern Goshawks by offering a $5 bounty as late as 1951 when this horrid practice was mercifully banned. I saw my first Northern Goshawk in the fall of 1954 with Mr. Broun. The best part of Hawk Mountain bird trips was the meatloaf sandwiches my mother would prepare. The cool, crisp autumn weather, the hike up to the top and all the excitement gave us a hearty appetite, and mom never failed to provide.
I was both a Boy Scout and Explorer Scout. I concentrated on birds and, of course, achieved the Bird Study merit badge. Later, in medical school, I became a Bird Study merit badge counselor and had fun teaching young scouts this hobby of mine. I birded regularly until I was about sixteen, when I discovered girls and sports. Up until then, I thought all boys my age were also birding. Man, was I wrong.
My classmates at Overbrook High School didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was talking about when I got on the subject of birds. We were all about high school basketball, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Phillies, and the Warriors (later the 76ers).
Our hero was Wilt Chamberlain, a senior at Overbrook when I was in the ninth grade at Beeber Junior High. He was a legitimate seven footer, the best high school basketball player in the country and a model citizen, great guy. The Overbrook Hilltoppers lost only one game with him in three years, and that was the City Championship of 1955 against West Catholic High School. He went on to the University of Kansas, the Harlem Globetrotters, and then continued to dominate the sport with the Philadelphia Warriors, San Francisco Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Philadelphia 76ers. In my opinion “Dippy,” (our Hilltopper name for him taken from the constellation name―Big Dipper), was the greatest basketball player of all time.
I saw Wilt years later at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in Flushing Meadows. I was sitting in famed French champion Henri Leconte’s box in the third tier and I felt this huge presence standing next to me. It was Chamberlain. I said “Hey, Dip!” He knew immediately I went to “the Brook,” and we talked for two hours―games, scores, players, and coaches. When we finally got around to his book, which created a lot of controversy and derision about his boast of bedding twenty thousand women, a mathematical and physiological improbability, he told me he rued the day he wrote it. His mother never forgave him for that. He said the idea was foisted on him by his publisher who wanted to sell more books. I took it as an undeclared admission that it was a complete fabrication, but he never actually denied it.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I birded in some of my spare time while attending Ursinus College, a small liberal arts school in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1869, Ursinus produced one of the greatest of all modern American writers, “The Catcher” himself, J.D. Salinger, and thousands of physicians, dentists, lawyers, and teachers. Throw in a lot of ministers, scientists, and successful businessmen and businesswomen, and there you have the graduate picture. Ursinus was not only known for its prominent faculty and graduates, it was also a perennial contributor to the Miss America contest in Atlantic City and Liberty Bowl Queens in Philadelphia. The younger brother of the current Dalai Lama, Lobsang, an acquaintance of mine, attended Ursinus for one year until he was called back to help his brother. He died under mysterious circumstances in the 1970s.
My roommate of four years and closest college friend, Jay Bosniak, was a non-birder, but was a talented sketch artist and could draw birds—and just about anything else—beautifully. He is now a prominent orthopedic surgeon in Long Branch, New Jersey, and a noted painter of natural outdoor scenes in the cubist manner. Our other roommate, John Swinton, was a “closet” birder, musician, and poet. He became a Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and a published writer of poetry. I did not know he was a bird lover until many years later when we corresponded.
At Ursinus I often took walks along the Perkiomen Creek where I spotted Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles. Great Crested Flycatchers gave their signature “wheep” calls. Red-tailed Hawks were at the top of the food chain. These hour-long respites relieved the stress of my pre-med studies. My Peterson Field Guide was always nearby. I also played basketball and was on the track team for relaxation. Teaching at Ursinus at the time was a young professor, Dr. Robert Stein, who was busy separating the Traill’s Flycatcher Complex into two species, Willow Flycatcher and Alder Flycatcher. They are in the genus Empidonax, which translates to “gnat killer.” There were ten species of these small flycatchers in this genus in the U.S., and they are among the most problematic species to identify for most birders. These two look-alike species are best told apart by their voice. I frequently saw Dr. Stein walking into the field with his recording equipment. I regret to say I didn’t have a clue what he was doing. I missed an opportunity to participate in the making of an important ornithological discovery. His contribution remains on the list of American birds, as there are now eleven species of Empidonax flycatchers recognized in the U.S. today.
During medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in the mid-1960s, my field trips dwindled to a few a year, mostly in Cape May in the summer and fall. I do remember one frigid February Sunday however, when my father and I dragged along a classmate, Dick Lynch, who had never birded before, to Swarthmore College out on the Main Line. A flock of White-winged Crossbills was being seen in the Swarthmore woods on a regular basis. These would be a new bird for me, a “lifer,” as we birders call a new bird to our list. Their bills actually cross over each other as an aid to pry open cones for their seeds. The three of us struggled through a blinding snowstorm for two hours until we discovered the flock of some twenty birds calmly feeding on hemlock cone seeds. The exhilaration I felt on this success quickly warmed my frozen fingers and toes. We celebrated with a thermos full of hot chocolate. Dick thought we were crazy. He never looked at another bird after that. He made a career of medicine in the U.S. Army and was one step away from becoming its Surgeon General.
My summer jobs, ages eighteen through twenty-one, were working as the Nature Counselor at Camp Akiba in Reeders, Pennsylvania, located in the green and then unspoiled Pocono Mountains. This was an ideal job for me―outdoors, great kids from the Philadelphia area, delicious food from Chef Max, nightly basketball games among the counselors, lots of birds to look at, beautiful female counselors, and a healthy salary to help pay for my college education. I couldn’t believe my good fortune―interpreting nature and getting paid for it. The camp was owned by “Red” Sherr, a former professional basketball player for the Philadelphia Spas, a team in the country’s first professional basketball league. His daughter, Lynn Sherr, a fine athlete in her own right, became a famous news anchorwoman for a national TV syndicate.
Music played a big part of our summers in the Poconos. I formed a doo-wop group with Kenny Goldblatt and the Kornfeld twins. We sang Motown and rock and roll hits in four-part harmony with that special “Philly sound,” in the evenings to the delight of the campers and the other counselors. At Overbrook High School I had formed a singing group called The Cashmeres. The other members of the group were Brent Edwards, Harold Saunders, Johnny Gonzales, and Lenny Borisoff (later calling himself Len Barry). Occasionally Jimmy Mealey sang bass and Jerry Gross played piano. Lenny couldn’t harmonize to save his life. I tried to teach him, but he just couldn’t hear the harmonies.
He would follow me in the Overbrook halls and beg, “Bernie, my man, hit a note.”
I would sing a simple middle C, and he would always miss his harmonic note. I made him our lead singer. We were the main act in all the Overbrook talent shows and performed at parties, “hops,” and hospitals all around Philadelphia. We even had club dates and made a few bucks. The summer I graduated, Lenny, Jimmy, and Jerry joined two guys from West Philadelphia High School and formed The Dovells, a name taken from the popular Hotel Deauville in Miami. That fall they recorded a number one hit, “The Bristol Stomp,” and “went gold” selling over a million records. This led to a world tour with Dianna Ross and The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and the musical genius, Ray Charles, all now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I went to college that fall. The Dovells went to the Apollo Theater.
The famed Harlem’s Apollo Theater in New York! This was the apex showplace for all rhythm and blues artists. The one and only James Brown and his Famous Flames, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles had all played the Apollo. Adoring fans would line up for hours to buy tickets to see the best in the business. That night, The Dovells were on the same stage with Little Anthony and The Imperials, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, The Cadillacs, and the great comedienne, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a regular at the Apollo. It was a night filled with superstars. These five handsome white kids from West Philly simply “turned out” all the other acts and tore the place up with Lenny leading the beautiful tight harmonies in their soulful Philly sound coupled with their street-smart inner-city choreography―splits, twirls, and cool coordinated steps. The jam-packed African-American audience couldn’t believe their eyes and ears. They had never seen anything like this and went wild with appreciation. They were dancing in the aisles, standing on their seats, and gave a long, standing ovation. They wouldn’t let them off the stage and their applause begged for two encores.
Overbrook High School was not only famous for its world-class athletes but also for the star entertainers it produced. The list of singers includes Len Barry and The Dovells; The Orlons (songs “South Street” and “Don’t Hang Up”) of Lansdowne Avenue; blues singer Solomon Burke; Dee Dee Sharp of “Mashed Potato” fame; and Randy Cain, tenor with the Delfonics (“Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” and “Oh Girl”). Len Barry, as a solo performer hit number one on the pop charts with his song, “One, Two, Three,” covered later by many pop singers including The Chairman of The Board, the legendary Frank Sinatra. Dovell bass singer, Jimmy Mealey, wrote “Here Come The Judge.” Frankie Smith wrote “Double Dutch Bus” sung by Raven-Symoné from the Cosby show. At the very top of this monument to Overbrook talent sits the world famous mega-movie star, Will Smith. Not to be overshadowed by this list of luminaries is Guion Bluford, the world’s first African-American astronaut in space.
After graduation from Ursinus, I married my college sweetheart, Inge Habeck, a beautiful and intelligent young woman of Estonian ancestry. She helped me as we struggled through four years of medical school together. We had our first child, Ken, during my first med school year. I took extra jobs to supplement the monies our parents were giving us to live. Following my first year of college, I applied and was accepted to work for the National Park Service in the Washington, D.C. area as a Park Ranger Naturalist. I took residence in Georgetown at the Sigma Phi fraternity house on K Street during the week, and drove home to Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey to be with Inge and Kenny on the weekends. The rent was only $30 a month. I owned my car outright, and gasoline was relatively cheap then. I made a great salary including mileage for my car, and my expenses were low. I only ate one meal a day to keep my expenses down. All the important and interesting national monuments and museums including the Carter Baron Theater were on National Park grounds and were free to me. I was invited to many picnics as I walked around the parks. My job was great. Every day I drove to a different park and gave interpretive nature demonstrations with my black rat snake, turtles, and insects and led general nature walks for inner-city school kids. They loved it, and I loved it. My office was in Rock Creek Park, another beautiful city park much like Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Here, my first sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America, stunned me. In 1940 the great cartoonist, Walter Lantz, modeled Woody Woodpecker after this species. I saw and heard my first Northern Parula high in the treetops along the Chesapeake Bay with the bright morning sun showing off its multitude of colors. This little gem is one of the smallest warblers in North America, barely more than four inches long. A little ball of feathers, it migrates all the way to Middle America and the West Indies in the winter. Its magenta and violet breast bands on top of its yellow chest are set off beautifully against its greenish back. Its song is a signature ascending buzz with the last note flipping over. I currently have them nesting in my home patch. When I hear the resident male sing, I always think of my first one, that beautiful Maryland morning. My most unforgettable bird memory that summer was hearing the ethereal harp tones of the Veery every morning outside my office. It remains my favorite bird song. The Catharus thrushes have the best songs. Their syrinx, an organ analogous to our larynx, allows them to harmonize with themselves. Mystic Buddhist monks in Tibet can do this too. The money I made that summer would ease our money problems in the coming year.
Graduation day arrived on June 11, 1966, the same day as the birth of our second child, my beautiful daughter, Dana. I ranked third in my class and received the Obstetrical Prize, the Physical Diagnosis prize, the Dean’s Award for best clinical student, and a gold fob for my Lambda Omicron Gamma professional fraternity’s highest academic average. I was selected to intern in my profession’s best hospital teaching program at Doctors Hospital, Columbus, Ohio. Ten days after Dana’s birth, I loaded everybody into our 1956 Chrysler and hit the road for the Buckeye State.
Stay tuned for more from Bernie Master’s personal memoir, No Finish Line. To be published one week from today.