Burton on the Bay:
Of Birds, Fat Cats and Underdogs Guess Who's Sitting in the Catbird Seat
For a man's house is his castle
-Sir Edward Cole, 1664
The old couple's name was Clisdell, I think that's how they spelled it, and they lived on the outskirts of the village. As a New England youngster, walking by was exciting, and usually it was walking. With gas at about 10 cents a gallon during the Great Depression, there wasn't a lot of riding in motor vehicles.
What made the Clisdells' small white house a landmark was the tiny front lawn. It was filled with bird houses, feeders, also small windmills and weather vanes, all made and painted in the little cottage - and all for sale.
On windy days, all the blades of the glistening white windmills twirled round. How fascinating they were, and often on breezy days my sister Ruth and I, taking the round-trip five-mile hike to and from the village, paused to watch the windmills and weather vanes working.
The birdhouses were equally captivating; some had windows painted on them, bright red roofs and chimneys. I fantasized about having one mounted on a tree at the north side of the house and watching birds setting up a household.
That's what the Great Depression was all about; fantasies, daydreams, the day when there would be money in the pockets, perhaps a lawn with glistening windmills, weather vanes, birdhouses and feeders, with bluebirds, robins, cardinals and other songbirds flying to and fro. And the time to watch all the action. Ah, the dreams of a country boy's imagination when times were tough and the money to buy or the time to build such ornamental fixtures was scarce.
Billy Burton's Proudest Possession
One day when I was probably about eight or nine and was toting a sack of groceries from the village, Old Man Clisdell was setting up a new combination windmill and weather vane. It was a hot summer day, and I paused under the shade of the big horse chestnut tree on his lawn to watch.
He noticed my interest, invited me to look over his wares, perhaps a couple dozen in number, carefully explaining which birds would be attracted by which birdhouses. The size of the hole and whether or not there was a perch at the entrance determined the species most likely to take up residence.
There were no tags listing prices, but he told me they ranged from 35 cents to a dollar, which was a lot of money back then. It was the first time we ever talked, though usually there was a wave from him or his wife from inside the window as I passed. They were old and stayed pretty much indoors. I had never seen them in the village, less than a half mile away.
But he had once been a boy and obviously didn't forget it. He sensed my longing for a windmill, one in particular and priced at 75 cents. It was white with red and black trim, windows painted on the side and a real doorway cut out in the front, and a tiny windmill at the top.
"Tell you what Master Burton," he said. "I'd like to give it to you, but I can't, we need the money. But I will sell it to you for 25 cents, and I'll hold it for you until you get the money." I promptly made the first business deal of my life, and probably one of the most satisfying in the approximately 65 years since.
Allowances for kids were unheard of back then; it was a penny now and then. But the occasional penny was quickly spent on penny candy.
Old Will Brown didn't see me at his candy store for a long time; every penny that came my way went into a jar, into the cap of which I had cut a slot for a homemade bank. One Sunday I counted 16 pennies, nine more to go, and when I saw Aunt Caroline Burton in church, I told her of my hoard, probably anticipating a little contribution.
Auntie, a school teacher making perhaps $20 a week, listened carefully and struck a deal. If I would promise to brush my teeth twice daily, she would give me that nine cents. Now, you probably know what it's like to get a kid - especially a boy - to brush his teeth regularly, but again I struck a deal, probably the very best of my life because in my early 70s, I have all my teeth but one.
Auntie drove me to Mr. Clisdell's house, and there he was sitting in the window. He came outside, I gave him a shiny quarter, which carefully went into the pouch pulled from his pocket before he took the birdhouse down and handed it to me. At the time, it was my most precious possession ever.
Auntie drove me home where I gave her the 16 cents from the jar, and she stayed long enough to help me mount the birdhouse on a foundation of beanpoles from the vegetable garden. I couldn't wait for the first gusts of wind to turn the arms of the windmill and the arrival of the first interested bird (which later was a song sparrow).
It didn't take much to make a kid happy when times were tough.
Banned on Our Roads
All this came back to me the other morning when I read in the Sun about Vernon Lohrmann Sr. and Jim Teague, old Anne Arundel Countians who make their "getting by" money by selling birdhouses, wishing wells and other lawn ornaments along Ritchie Highway. They bring in two thousand bucks a year between them, and now the county says they've got to have a vendors permit - at a tab of $250 a year - or pay a fine that can be as much as $500.
I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Clisdell, who presumably once had been farmers. There was no government help for farmers back then. I imagine the Clisdells lived on their vegetable patch, what little money they had saved, maybe a little help from also hard-pressed relatives - and the meager income from their lawn ornaments. They had chosen to live with independent dignity.
Their home was their castle, and they could sell out on the lawn what Mr. Clisdell made in the small shed. It probably made the difference between the independence and dignity of living contentedly in their own home and the dismal poor farm that didn't shut its doors until the waning years of World War II.
Then I thought of Lohrmann and Teague, who the law claims are vendors, which technically they are. But like Mr. Clisdell, they choose not to be idle; instead to make a few bucks selling crafts to supplement meager Social Security checks.
Obviously, there are many commercial vendors who set up shop, no expenses involved, to sell crabs, vegetables, fruits, plants and just about anything else alongside the road. It's their business, and they make their living at it, and some do well - at the expense of legitimate businessmen who pay rent, help, utility bills and such.
But somewhere, somehow, there must be a way for the bureaucrats and the politicians to make provisions for the elderly who try to grasp a little respectability via a little extra and much needed cash flow while keeping their minds and hands busy. Or for entrepreneur kids who want to sell lemonade or Koolaid by the roadside.
The minds of Anne Arundel County bureaucrats and politicians work in strange ways, too often not for the benefit of the underdogs who try to retain what little independence and peace of mind they have. With their fat cat retirement systems, bureaucrats and politicians need not worry about selling a birdhouse by the side of the road. Such is not the case with some of their constituents.
Enough said ...
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VolumeVI Number 28
July 16-22, 1998
New Bay Times
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