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Boobies and silence 

The Observer — whose knowledge of birds declines sharply once you get past "crispy" or "original" — was recently informed by our avid birdwatching deputy that a mysterious and never-before-seen visitor to these parts has birdwatchers flocking to Lake Norrell, way out near the end of Col. Glenn Road, a few miles over the line in Saline County.

The Brown Booby is a seabird, one of those web-footed fowl with long and narrow wings that normally calls tropical seas home. This specimen is clearly the Amelia Earhart of the species, given that it has somehow got turned around, stubbornly refused to ask for directions, and managed to wind up several hundred miles from the nearest puddle of salt water. It showed up at the lake a few weeks back, skimming the water to feed on perch, and has since caused quite a stir among the feathered faithful.

The novelty of seeing the Brown Booby — it's apparently what birders call an "Arkansas First State Bird Record" — has made it something of a local celebrity among fowlfinders. Many of them have travelled hundreds of miles to crouch in the bushes around Lake Norrell, just to catch a glimpse. Folks gotta have a hobby, we guess.

While we get the Loch Ness Monsterspotting aspect of the interest in checking out rare birds, we must admit that photos forwarded to The Observer prove it to be — to our eye, at least — a singularly homely creature. As the name suggests: It's brown. There's also, we suppose, a certain "boobiness" about it: short legs, webbed feet, a white chestpatch and an ivory-colored bill.

That said, we're all for the underdog — or in this case, underbird — getting his or her day in the sun (there seems to be some disagreement over whether the creature is a male or female). Shine on, Mr. or Miss Brown Booby. Wing your way eventually back home to the sea, and take some of Arkansas's good will toward wayward visitors with you.

The Observer's boy Junior is 12 now. Like nearly every kid in America, he's off for the summer, lazing away his days in front of the TV and computer. Or, we should say, his nights. Like his old man, Junior is something of a night owl, and would live the life of Count Dracula if he could, snoozing all day and skulking through the wee hours.

While Junior is able to pull that off due to his life of summer leisure, some of us still have to work. Problem is: Junior is pushing 6 feet tall, and moves with all the grace and silence of a frightened rhinoceros with an inner tube wedged around its head. He thumps through the house. He clanks dishes. He slams the microwave door, and when he goes to the faucet for a drink, he sounds like a French Legionnaire who has been lost in the desert for a month before happening upon a kitchen sink. Compounding this is the fact that The Old Man has become something of a light sleeper in old age. And once we're up, we're up. There's no going back to Dreamland.

What with all that, The Observer decided to buy some earplugs the other day: those bright orange hunks of foam rubber that shooters use to keep themselves from going deaf. That night, we smushed up a pair, shoved them firmly into our ears, and lay back to sleep the sleep of the blissfully ignorant. Let our Lovely Bride, who normally snoozes like she's been shot with a Bond villain's tranquilizer dart, keep an ear on the smoke detectors — not that we had anything to worry about with our t'ween night watchman on patrol.

The next morning, with Junior shipwrecked in his bed, The Observer got up and went into the Great Hall, where Our Lovely Bride was enjoying her coffee, toast and newspaper. She smiled and spoke, but no sound came out. We thought for a long moment that she was messing around. But then she spoke again, like a heroine in a Chaplin flick, and a silent horror stole over us: This was it. Some microstroke in the middle of the night, maybe. The Other Shoe had finally dropped, and struck us down in our arrogant folly! Oh, sound! Music! Beautiful noise! Why have you forsaken us?

The Observer reached up to touch our ear — to feel for fever, maybe. It was only then that we felt the smushy round end of the earplug. We yanked it out, and the silent house rushed in: the ticking clock, Junior snoring in the next room, the rattle of the newspaper, Spouse crunching her toast.

Never has normal sounded so beautiful.

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