Thursday, November 18, 2004

Curtis, the Birthday Buffalo: Part I

Yesterday's wordless post introduced you to Curtis, the Birthday Buffalo. This item entered our household in a flash of inspiration by my husband. It probably is the oddest birthday gift I've ever received. One of the kids was so excited about Curtis that he begged me to guess and nearly let the news slip several times.

"Why a buffalo?" you might rightfully ask. It's a long story. So I'll tell it, shall I?

When I was a small child, my parents took me on yearly visits to the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles. I LOVED the whole place, especially the insect and butterfly collections. But there was one room that positively freaked me out: the North American animal hall.

I still remember the room through the eyes of a three-year-old child. It's huge and imposing, and the lighting is somewhat eerie. The vast empty floor shines in a scary way, and all around its perimeter are large cases that display the most impressive collection of taxidermy you can imagine. Each case is a convincingly rendered natural habitat with a mural background and, depending on the animal, a burrow or tree or river or grass. To my three-year-old sensibility, every animal looked thoroughly alive (though by now they must be pretty moth-eaten). I kept standing outside each display, waiting patiently waiting for the animals to change position.

At one end of the room is an enormous diorama of the plains, a showcase for bison. The first time I saw them, their size alarmed me to my very core. I could practically smell their breath. I looked at one bull, and was horrified to see that, as the light gleamed from his massive eye, he was staring directly back at me with a vengeful authority that rushed goosebumps over my skin. I had seen live cattle many times, and didn't trust their unpredictable gaze. But never had I encountered an animal of this scale, and the pictures I'd seen in books hadn't prepared me for actual size. I don't think I was old enough to comprehend that they were dead and stuffed. How quickly could my little legs run; how far away were the doors? I was certain that in an instant the bison bull would paw the native prairie grass, snort, and trample me to pulpy death right there in the hall. In a fit of instinctive terror, I momentarily lost my ability to breathe, as if I'd been struck in the chest by a boulder, knocking the wind out. I couldn't even utter a word to express this primal fear.

When I got my breath back, it was only to sob. I began to shake and weep, and demanded that my parents take me out of there. This was an emergency! At first they laughed and tried to convince me to stay (through pure reason--a pointless tactic to use with a small child), but when I couldn't be swayed they recognized my earnestness, and carried me away.

That's all I remember of my first museum visit--seeing a dead bison bull and high-tailing it out of there! And [almost forever]afterward, though there were many excursions to the museum, I could not be persuaded to enter the animal hall. (However, I will confess that each time I was overcome by a frisson of morbid curiosity. I just didn't ever act on it.)

In intervening years, my parents never forgot my "buffalo attack." It was a constant source of amusement to which they frequently alluded. Any time there was an opportunity to work bison into a conversation, it was taken. In an a joking effort to get me over my irrational fear of gigantic quadrupeds, my mother now and then brought in a bison-related item. It was her own zany attempt at "aversion therapy." A few times she bought buffalo burger at the grocery store. Perhaps if it were dead, couldn't stare at me and tasted good, I would enjoy and feel in control of it? Another time she found a sweatshirt that had a vintage flour-sack design with a buffalo on it. She gave it to my then boyfriend, thinking I would cosy up.

There's also the side issue that I like things that represent early America and things Native American. In fact, I'm part American Indian (but not of a Plains tribe). So introducing Curtis to our home was not a random act or a complete impulse buy--although, in truth, I suspect it was sort of an impulse buy. There was a funny logic behind the odd adoption of Curtis.

Yes, well, now that Curtis' legitimacy is confirmed, what about his utterly un-bovine name? Why not something more obvious, like "Buffy," as our small child suggested? Well, not Buffy! That sounds like a sorority girl or a vampire slayer, both inappropriate choices.

It had to be something evoking "big" and "solid." We looked at him for a couple of days, waiting for a personality to emerge that would tip us off. The only things that occurred to me were "Manfred" and "Artemus." I like "Manfred"--sounds ancient and powerful--but then I remembered that Byron's character of that name was kind of a self-destructive jerk, and this creature didn't strike me that way. "Artemus" came from a sculpture that is suspended on the exterior wall of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, New York. It is a life-sized bison charging through the brick wall from the inside, seemingly into the street two floors below. It is beguilingly realistic, incorporating bricks that seem to burst out as the powerful animal breaks through. The local newspaper had a naming contest for the sculpture, and "Artemus" won. I decided against "Artemus" because it was too easy and unoriginal.

Then the gift-giver offhandedly suggested "Curtis." I laughed, thinking this sounded like something inane that Monty Python would come up with, like Eric the Half-a-Bee, Stig, and Doug. But I had to give it a chance just in case. As often happens when I'm in a quandary, I polled my best friend in London. Her definitive opinion, which I always trust, was, "Really, definitely Curtis. I mean Curtis the Buffalo, he is a square and honest kind of guy." So that settled it.


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