Pete and Juno
December 6, 2001
What should we name our new pet? "Pete," suggested my father. But I had read the instruction manual. A booklet about parakeets explained that if your bird is male, its cere (or "nose") will be blue. This one was sort of beige. Evidently, we had a female. "Okay, how about Miss Pete then?" The name stuck.
Miss Pete was very young when we got her. As she matured, her cere did become bluish, so we might have been premature in assessing her gender. And she acted like a male, too.
I would hold my forefinger up to the cage so that she could kiss it, beak to fingernail. If I had been gone for a time and she was glad to be reunited with me, she'd get excited after a few pecks. (This was especially true when we went on a three-week trip in 1959, leaving the bird in my Grandmother Buckingham's kitchen. When we returned to pick up Miss Pete, she heard our voices at the front door and let out a shrill call.) While exchanging pecks with my fingernail, she would arch her back; a faraway stare would come over her eyes, and her pupils would contract for a few seconds. Afterwards she'd relax, her eyes would dilate back to normal, and she'd look like she could use a cigarette.
Whatever her gender, this parakeet never learned to talk. We never really tried to teach her. According to the book, that is done by repeating phrases over and over.
And she couldn't fly very well, either, as we discovered one evening when my mother was washing dishes. The parakeet sat on her shoulder, eyeing the glistening plates and the glittering soap bubbles; finally, she took off and flew awkwardly into the sink. Other times, she'd crash into a wall and sink fluttering to the floor. We didn't let her fly much.
If Miss Pete couldn't speak English, I had to content myself with speaking her language. Jzzh! Jzzh! Jzzh!
Down in Livermore, Kentucky, my other grandparents also got a blue parakeet. Major did talk.
Mostly he'd repeat what people usually said to him, alternating "hello, Major" with "pretty bird." Whenever my grandmother changed his water dish, she'd ask him if he wanted "fresh water," hoping that he'd learn that phrase as well. Sometimes he would say other things, including impressions of my uncles and other visitors.
One day I was visiting with Major and accidentally bumped his cage, causing him to flap his wings. Automatically, I apologized, "Sorry, Miss Pete. Uh, I mean Major."
That evening we let Major out of the cage, and he was strutting around, talking up a storm. And among the many words that came out of his tiny mouth, I distinctly heard him say, "Sorry, Miss Pete."
I was amazed to find that far from requiring repetition after repetition this little bird was able to remember a sentence that he had heard only once, hours before, and speak it so clearly.
My little play had a cast of four: Jo Ann Prichard, Eloise Gulliford, Terry Rockhold, and Dick Minter. The text was partly in Latin, partly in English.
The two girls begin with the prettiest song of the play, a duet about the queen of the pantheon, Juno.
And I also composed the music, which looked like this in my notebook:
After this opening duet, the boys enter to belittle Juno and insist that Jupiter, the king of the gods, is the deity who should be worshiped. Resignedly, the girls sing, "The boys are right, as usual but we must disagree!" This leads to a song whose title means "Our Queen and Our King."
The boys agree, and all four join in a hymn, "Juno, Jupiter, praise we owe to you." They close with the following words sung to the British national anthem, God Save the Queen:
Now clearly this last tune was "borrowed." But I had composed the other six songs, or so I thought.
Later I was looking through some music that had been in my piano bench for several years. On the last page of a piano solo arrangement of "Stouthearted Men," the publisher had included an ad for other sheet music. The page began like this:
As I had probably done before, I idly played the first five-measure excerpt. I was amazed to hear myself playing an arrangement of the first five measures of "Junonem, Tam Caram"!
I was not then familiar with "The Blue Room," an old Rodgers and Hart tune. I have heard it since. Starting with the sixth measure, its melody diverges from "Junonem, Tam Caram," even becoming slightly syncopated.
Obviously, I had learned the tune from having played this snippet. In writing the Juno duet, I thought that the notes just "came to me" out of nowhere, when really I was remembering them. After five measures my memory ran out, so I continued by extrapolating the melody, then adding a simple eight-note bridge to complete the song.
If memory can play such tricks, how can one be sure one is creating a tune rather than recreating it?
I haven't composed anything since high school. The risk of unintentional plagiarism is too great.