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Flying Attack Owls

Deborah Prum

As a child, I never wanted to sleep in a room with an open closet door. When I was about five, my parents took us to visit friends in Buffalo, New York. I bunked with Jimmy, also about five, who pointed to a closet and said, “You gotta keep the door closed at night. That’s where the ghosts live.”

I still shut all closet doors before going to sleep, especially in hotels. Many a time, in the middle of the night, I’ve jumped out of bed in a hotel room, realizing, YIKES! I’VE FORGOTTEN TO CLOSE THE CLOSET DOOR!

You may be tempted to feel scorn for me, but I will point out that I’m still alive, years later, possibly because of my due diligence regarding open closet doors.

Growing up, I felt comfortable with snakes, bees and spiders, but I feared birds, even though I briefly owned chickens. I blame both Alfred Hitchcock and my parents for this phobia. My folks allowed me to watch The Birds at way too tender an age. To this day, when I see a large bird perched on a branch above me, I assume it’s desperate to peck out my eyeballs.

I also feared the dark as a child. We lived on the second floor of a tenement. The only way to exit through the front of the building was down a gloomy stairwell past Pop Choinard’s apartment. Pop was an old French-Canadian guy who had bristly gray hairs sprouting on his face and out his ears.  A smelly cigar always hung from his mouth.

Being terrified of the pitch-black hall, I’d hurl myself down the stairs. Pop would snarl, “You sound like a herd of elephants.” However, because of the cigar, the French Canadian accent and the occasional inebriation, the words sounded like, “Death to small children!” Climbing down those stairs felt much like having to cross a bridge under which lived a hairy, smelly, possibly drunk, French Canadian troll.

I’d like to say that after years of reading self-help books, I’ve managed to tame these childhood fears, but no.

Not long ago, I attended a writer’s workshop on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Each of us eight writers stayed in our own beautiful cabin nestled in a forested hillside. The bathhouse sat on top of the hill. At night, in order to bathe, you had to trudge through the spooky woods. Later, you had to find your way back through the shadows to your own cabin among the eight identical buildings. 

Next to the door of each cabin hung a yellow construction worker’s hardhat, which we had to wear outdoors at night to protect us from the violent owls that lurked in the treetops and routinely swooped down to attack people. (For those of you who falsely believe I tend toward hyperbole, Google, “attack owls in the Pacific Northwest.”)

That week, I had to face a trifecta of my childhood fears: the shadowy dark, possible forest ghosts and probable pugnacious owls. Each night, I donned my hardhat and charged up to the bathhouse, making lots of noise. As I ran, I waved my flashlight, hoping to scare away ghosts of writers past. 

As I’m growing older, I am trying to grow wiser. I don’t want to waste my energy worrying about closet monsters, the dark and violent birds.  Dan Zadra says, “Worry is the misuse of the imagination.” Although the quote sounds like something you’d find in a Hallmark card, I believe he’s right.