Suddenly the rabbit made a right-angle turn … the cop turned into the ditch right on its tail.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 10, 1937.

“Look at that bird,” cried Jimmie Frise, “look at it travel!”

“It’s a flicker,” I said, looking out the car window. We were zooming along the highway. “Sometimes called high-hole or yellowhammer.”

“But look at it go,” shouted Jim, who was stepping on the gas. “We’re hitting forty.”

“It’s a member of the woodpecker family,” I explained.

“Never mind what family it belongs to,” said Jim, “just look at the speed it’s got.”

“It’s favorite food,” I declared, “is ants. And for the purpose of obtaining ants from their holes in the earth, you will note the flicker has a very long, round, slender, sticky tongue.”

“For Pete’s sake,” shouted Jim, “lay off and look at that bird dangle, will you? We’re hitting forty-five and we haven’t gained a yard on it.”

The flicker, with a final leap in its curious rising and falling flight, came to rest against the bark of a tall dead tree. Jim slackened the car speed to normal.

“Boy,” said Jim, “I had no idea birds could go so fast.”

“That isn’t fast,” I stated. “Forty miles an hour is one of the slow-going speeds amongst birds. The humming-bird is believed to travel at the rate of 110 miles an hour.”

“Get away,” said Jim.

“It’s a fact,” I assured him. “As the crow flies, it is about 2,000 miles to Mexico, where the hummingbird goes for the winter. So a hummingbird can go to Mexico in a couple of afternoons, stopping to see the sights on the way, in the Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon and so forth.”

“How about ducks?” asked Jim.

“Canvasbacks have been paced by aeroplanes,” I stated, “at a speed of 90 miles an hour.”

“Then,” said Jim, “I’ve been leading them too little. I’ve been shooting ten feet behind them.”

“If you are going to turn all my information on natural history into facts for your gun,” I said, “I will hardly be inclined to inform you. However, it would take a better mathematician than you to figure out the speed of a duck, plus or minus the velocity of the wind, head or tail, taking into account the exact distance in yards the ducks are from you, so as to have the flight of your load of shot intersect exactly the flight of the duck at the precise one-thousandth of a second that intersection must occur…”

“How fast,” asked Jimmie, “do black ducks fly?”

“They’re slower,” I said. “They go about fifty to fifty-five. So do partridge. A pheasant goes about forty to forty-five.”

“Their normal gait,” reflected Jim. “A mile a minute, normal speed. And we men move, normally, at about two and a half miles an hour.”

“Yes,” I said, “birds do get about.”

“What’s the fastest land animal?” asked Jim.

“The Indian cheetah, a kind of leopard,” I said. “It can catch any deer or antelope in the world in less than one hundred yards, and it doesn’t quite hit fifty miles an hour. But it’s only a sprinter, like all the rest of the animals. An antelope can go around forty miles an hour, but it tires. All animals, tire. Their hearts and lungs aren’t meant for sustained effort. But birds can go for hours. Some of the plover leave Baffin Land and go straight to Little America in the Antarctic, all in one jump.”

Science Means Knowing

“For Pete’s sake,” said Jim, who was driving along watching for more birds to race.

“Yes,” I said, settling down to the discussion, “and some of the Arctic terns…”

“Who,” said Jim, “collects all that stuff about Arctic birds, and why?”

“How do you mean, why?” I demanded indignantly.

“What I can’t figure out,” said Jim, “is where all this stuff about birds and animals and insects and things comes from. Who gets it? What for? There are so many other things to do in the world, like shoe-making and raising wheat and working for banks and so on. Yet apparently there are guys up in Baffin Land watching plover go away. And guys down in the Antarctic waiting and watching for the plover to arrive. Why? Who? Which? And who pays for it?”

“Jimmie,” I said pityingly, “science is above all mercenary motives. You wouldn’t understand. Science means knowing.”

“Knowing what,” said Jim, “and why?”

“Science wants to know everything,” I explained. “Nothing is too small or irrelevant or indifferent for science to know. Science observes and records everything. Science has an army, a vast, international army, devoted, self-sacrificing, more patriotic to science than any men ever were to any mere country, giving their lives to the gathering of knowledge, each in his different sphere. Watching birds, trees, animals, seeds, wind, rain, rocks, soil, sun, stars, butterflies, bugs; in fact, there is nothing you can think of, try as you will, that is not the subject of intense study and observation by some scientist or group of scientists.”

“What’s the object?” asked Jim.

“To know all,” I quoted, “is to understand all. When these vast armies of science have probed all life to its uttermost and secret end, life itself will be understood. Truth will reign at last.”

“Yes,” said Jim, “but what have the habits of Arctic terns got to do with truth?”

“Well,” I said, “for example, one scientist spends his life up in Baffin Land living in an igloo and eating blubber, in order to discover that terns can keep on the wing for 100 hours. Then another scientist makes a study of the tern’s heart structure, to see how it differs from human hearts, say.”

“Ah,” cried Jim, “some day they’re going to graft bird hearts into us humans, so we can live for a thousand years!”

“No, no,” I shouted, “science is not interested in mankind at all. It is only interested in truth.”

“For what?” shouted Jim.

“Don’t let us quarrel,” I said. “If you don’t understand about science, you don’t understand, that’s all. Some people live their lives perfectly happy, never wondering. Others are filled with a divine and insatiable curiosity. You are interested in a flicker, because you see it travelling parallel with you at a speed that surprises you. The minute you have observed that phenomenon, which is purely personal, you forget all about flickers. But I, on the other hand, like to know all about flickers, what they eat, how they are specially equipped for that eating, how they live, where they nest and why, how many eggs they lay…”

“It’s just a hobby of yours,” said Jim. “Now my hobby is Russian pool. I like to know how a ball, hit a certain way, causes another ball to do a certain thing. You want to know why about birds, and the answer doesn’t matter. I want to know how about pool balls, and the answer saves me maybe fifty cents a game. Knowing about birds isn’t going to get you anything. Knowing about pool balls makes me money. See?”

“Between us,” I muttered, “we’re a pretty good example of the human race.”

“Mmmmm?” said Jimmie.

“Look,” I exclaimed. “Ahead of us there, see that bird?”

Jim crouched and stamped on the gas. The car leaped forward.

“It’s a dove,” I said, “a mourning dove, one of the fastest fliers, doing maybe fifty miles an hour. If it just follows the road…”

“Watch me,” said Jim.

Just Observing Nature

He kept his foot on the gas, and the car gained speed furiously. The dove, with quick, headlong wingbeats, fled away ahead of us. Jim got the needle up to fifty-five miles and still the dove, as if co-operating, held its course straight up the highway.

“We’re gaining,” cried Jim.

“Don’t overtake it,” I warned, “and scare it. Maybe we can pace it for an even mile, and then we can write to the ornithological journals. This is what I mean. We’re scientists, Jim. We are adding to the great…”

A brown blur zipped alongside of us and passed us.

“Speed cop,” gritted Jim, taking his foot off the gas and touching his brake carefully.

The cop coasted ahead, watching us in his mirror and slowing as we slowed. We drew off to the side and stopped. The cop, the very set of his head indicating outraged sensibilities, swung his large leg stiffly off his cycle, and lifting his goggles off stern eyes, turned and walked back towards us.

“Weh-hell,” he said. “Weh-hell, what a hurry we are in this morning.”

“Sir,” said Jimmie, “we were doing a little scientific experimenting.”

“Experimenting, eh?” said the cop. “Weh-hell.”

He put a very unfriendly little chuckle in between that weh-hell.

“Yes,” I inserted, “we’re interested in ornithology. We were pacing a dove.”

“Pacing a which?” asked the constable, flipping the leaves of his notebook for a nice clean page.

“We’re interested in birds.” I explained. “The speed of birds is a subject of intense interest to the scientific world. We were in the act of pacing the speed of a dove, mourning dove, when you overtook us.”

“Professors, eh?” said the cop.

“No,” said Jim, “not exactly professors. But the world of science includes many like us, who contribute millions of important facts to science. For example, how fast does a dove fly? Professors could come out in their cars every day of their lives, looking for a dove to race, to test its flying speed, and never see a dove, much less encounter a dove actually flying straight along a level stretch of highway. Such coincidences come only once in a million years, and we were actually checking the speed of that dove when you interrupted us.”

“How fast was it going?” asked the constable.

“We had it held at exactly fifty-six miles an hour,” I stated.

“I paced you at sixty-one,” said the cop.

“We were trying,” I said, “to establish a fixed distance from the bird, and hold it for one statute mile, and then you had to come along and spoil what would perhaps have gone down in history as one of the greatest records in science.”

“That certainly is too bad,” said the constable, closing his book and returning it to his breast pocket. He rested his elbow on Jim’s window. “Why don’t you have some kind of sign painted on the back of your car? So we’d know you were making experiments like that?”

“That’s what I was saying,” I explained. “These opportunities to serve science only come by accident, and you never know when the chance will offer. It may be a hundred years now before somebody, somewhere, has another chance like this to pace a dove. Maybe a whole century.”

“I certainly am sorry,” said the cop, sadly. “I’d hate to be the guy that spoiled a thing like that, specially as I am very interested in nature myself.”

“Are you?” I said eagerly. “What’s your specialty?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the cop, modestly, “I observe groundhogs and things. I take a special interest in hawks. I’ve followed at hawk around eleven concession roads.”

“Really?” I cried.

“Oh, yes,” said the constable. “Life is pretty dull, just sitting along the road, looking at cars whizzing by and chasing silly people and having to listen to all their excuses. Nature is a great relaxer, don’t you think? I get a lot of pleasure out of just observing nature, kind of.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s funny how we meet, we nature lovers.”

“Say,” said the cop, suddenly, “there’s a jack rabbit up here a-ways; he gives me a race every now and then. A great big jack rabbit. I never thought to see how fast he goes. There’s an idea.”

“It certainly is,” Jim and I both agreed.

A Right-Angle Turn

“I’ll drive up ahead, you follow,” said the cop, “and if he’s around we can chase him and see his speed. My goodness, I’m sorry I never made a note of his speed. I bet he goes forty.”

“Oh, no,” I laughed, “not a jack rabbit, not forty. I bet a jack rabbit can’t do thirty.”

“Thirty!” said the cop indignantly. “Listen, boy, this is one of the biggest jack rabbits in the country, I tell you, and if he doesn’t go better than forty, I’ll eat your shirt.”

“Let’s go,” said Jim, who liked the cop best as a nature lover and didn’t want to get his rougher nature roused.

“Let me drive,” said I.

The cop tramped his engine into life and with a wave led us on. For six miles we scooted, being scientists, at about fifty. Then the cop slowed and coasted cautiously ahead of us.

Suddenly, out of the ditch by the road, a large fuzzy fawn-colored jack rabbit leaped, with a big lazy leap, and a flirt of his hind legs.

Straight down the side of the highway he ran, in long, bounding leaps, his ears laid back or cocked forward, as he seemed to look back, out of his bulging eyes, over his shoulder.

The cop increased his speed. So did we. The rabbit let her out. The cop crouched low and drew closer to the rabbit. We drew closer to the cop.

I watched the needle. It rose from twenty to twenty-five; to thirty. It hung at thirty, while the cop with all the cunning of a scientific observer, increased his pace almost imperceptibly. And the jack rabbit, with ears laid flat, began to let fly with his long hind legs to show what a jack rabbit, in this spring of the year and the young wheat sprouting, can really do.

“Thirty-two,” cried tensely. “Thirty- five. Jimmie! Thirty-seven! This will make a wonderful record to send to the scientific journals!”

I was clutching the wheel, keeping as close as I dared to the motorcycle, and the cop, all crouched down, was keeping as near as he dared to the brown racing ball of fawn.

Suddenly the rabbit made a right-angle turn, a wild leap across the ditch.

The cop turned right on its tail and automatically I whipped the wheel to the right, and, with a thud and a rattle and violent bump, we too went into the ditch, narrowly missing the cop, who, with his cycle, was all of a heap up against the snake fence.

“Hurt?” I shouted, scrambling out of the car.

“Forty-one miles an hour,” said the cop. “Thirty-seven,” I corrected. “Thirty- seven. I was looking at the speedometer.”

“Look here,” said the cop, rising angrily, “I’ve a good mind to run you in so as to have your speedometer tested. I tell you it was forty-one. I was looking right at the speedometer when the darn thing made that jack-knife turn…”

“How about getting me out of the ditch?” demanded Jim, who was still sitting in the car and looking a little shaken.

“Okay,” I said.

With a fence rail, the cop and I turned Jim’s wheel and eased him up enough to let him drive safely out of the ditch. There was only a slight shimmy in his front axle. The cop tried his machine out and it was in good shape. He walked over to us.

“Well,” he said, grimly. “What do you say? Was it forty-one or not?”

“It was forty-one,” said Jim emphatically. “I made it forty-one.”

“How about you?” said the cop.

“I guess it was forty-one, all right,” I said. “Okay,” said the cop, buttoning his breast pocket where the little book is kept.

Editor’s Notes: Russian pool is a particular type of pool from Eastern Europe.

This story appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing (1980).