The Big Bird Man

My son and I recently attended a local comic-con. We enjoy walking the aisles, scoping out the cosplay costumes and meeting artists.

I met one local artist that really stood out—unique style, down to earth personality, and super talented. We made a connection and I may hire him for some commission covers down the road.

Always at these events are a lineup of celebrities. Now, I’m not one to go all weak in the knees because So-And-So is in the building. Or Guess Who is taking selfies and signing autographs. As I sit here typing this, I can’t think of one mainstream actor, actress, or other Big Name that I’d stand in line for.

But this year’s comic-con was different.

Because the Big Bird Man was on the docket. Caroll Spinney. The guy in the great yellow-feathered puppet for nearly fifty years. He also worked Oscar The Grouch.

I saw his bio on the website before we went and informed my son that I didn’t care what he busied himself with while I waited in line, but, by golly gee, I was gonna hug this man and tell him what Big Bird did for me.

Really, sounds corny, right?

Picture this: An only child back in the early eighties. A tube television—one of those monsters that occupied an entire third of a living room’s corner and had to be worked manually—no remotes. Sculpted brown carpet. Brown paneled walls.

Dad’s at work. Mom’s cooking or cleaning or studying.

Only a couple of Boston Terriers and my own imagination to keep me company. Now, I can’t remember what came on first, Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street, but I do remember at one time PBS ran them back to back. But when the show went off the television screen, little Beth kept it going in the living room. No time for boredom when my imagination could carry on the episodes, mashing and mixing the characters and adventures.

Big Bird’s giant nest occupied one corner (completely invisible to the rest of the universe, mind you, as was Mr. Roger’s Trolley), Oscar’s can occasionally showed up. Sometimes the fix-it guy set up shop if need be. And I’d yack and chat and pretend for hours. Who knows what my mother thought. I likely went on with this for quite some time before I realized talking out loud to invisible beings was generally frowned upon.

That imaginary place, where anything can happen and anything did, and where I, a scared little girl, could control outcomes and interactions and other’s reactions, was of vast importance to me, even if I didn’t know it then.

It remains of vast importance to me, evidently, because, all grown up now, that imagination muscle—having been dully worked for far longer than most people willingly admit to exercising it—serves as an escape. A place to control and vent and fly away on yellow feathered wings—with the help of Little Miss Muse, of course.

And I was going to stand in line and tell Caroll Spinney these things. Hug him tight. High-five. Something.

Then the day came to meet him.

And I was smacked head-on with numbers. He did his Big Bird gig for 50 years. The man is 85 years old now. And he’d just had cataract surgery. He couldn’t stand. He could barely see to do autographs.

My number, that double-digit weight that starts with a four and ends with a none-of-your-business, also hit me.

No spring chicken am I.

I looked around. Most of the people in the line were my age or a little younger. All waxing nostalgic over yellow feathers.

As the line snaked down the chute, an overwhelming sadness enveloped me. I wondered if he wanted to be at the signing, fans lining up, taking selfies, demanding that he sign this bobble or that stuffed creature. His wife helped. The staff at the comic-con helped and directed. By the time I reached the table where he sat, I told the staff not to make him sign anything for me. He was already tired, and the line had just started.

He wore heavy glasses to cut down on the glare from the fluorescent lights. He didn’t stand. We were directed to sit in a chair next to him. We could put an arm around him. He wasn’t sure where the cameras were.

I almost left the line.

I didn’t post the photos from that meet-and-greet because by the time I sat next to him, I was trying not to bawl and didn’t trust myself to speak. I just whispered in his ear, “Thanks for the memories, Mr. Spinney.” He nodded. I’m not sure he heard or understood what I said.

His wife assured us as we waited to see him that he loved being out and meeting fans. Loved the autographing and the photo ops. I hope so. I hope he enjoyed himself despite the struggles he was having.

His work gave this timid little girl a place to work out imagination’s mechanics. A place to dream and to feel competent and safe.

He’ll never know that. Not really. And that’s okay.

I can only hope that when I’m 85, someone, somewhere might think, “Wow, she’s that old? And she’s still writing? I remember when I read…”and that person might go on to tell about how a line in a book or a connection with some fictional character that I made up opened up a pathway of imagination for them.

A place to feel safe.

A place to escape.

A place to dream…

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