This is Baker Road, a rural byway on the south and west side of Modesto just a stone's throw or two from the Tuolumne River. There are critters of all kinds along the river and scattered through the orchards and farmland.
Meet George Rogers, talking magpie, the 7-inch tall, winged sovereign of this enchanted lane where it would surprise no one to see the cow jump over the moon or the dish run away with the spoon.
The Banksons are the royal guardsmen of the king's roost. Their rural home has a majestic oak as a sentinel in back and an olive tree in front. Two or three dogs bark at the stranger who parks in the drive.
Kathy Bankson limps down the steps to quiet the dogs and welcome a skeptical guest. The strain shows through her smile. She said the pain (she's had four hip replacement surgeries) is usually 7.5 on a scale of 10. A few months ago, she couldn't get out of bed, and what's worse, she said, she didn't want to.
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It wasn't just the latest operation. It was the lingering grief from her son's death. Bo Bankson had brittle bone disease. After a lifetime of literally hundreds of painful breaks, he died Sept. 29, 2002. He was 23.
Bo had left his mother a single request. He wanted to go out like a Jedi because of his lifelong love for all things "Star Wars." He asked to be cremated and to be taken back home. His ashes sit on the mantel in the family room in a box topped by the carved cameo of a Panther. He went to Modesto High, loved the school, and the box and symbol came from there.
Kathy's deteriorating condition and mood were blown away by a gust of wind last March. The wind knocked down a nest of baby doves and another with three magpies.
One semicrippled baby blackbird with a yellow beak was the only survivor.
It survived because Bankson got up every two hours to feed and nurture it. She named the bird George Rogers, after a ditchtender who was like a grandpa to her during her childhood on the family farm. The human Rogers had once offered 50 cents for every magpie Kathy and her siblings caught.
"When I got the magpie, I immediately thought of George," she said.
Bankson was moving again because she had "something to take care of."
George II still was in his nighttime roost, a large cage on a table near the kitchen. George spends nights indoors. It's his choice. "I noticed him pecking at the screens and windows trying to get in," Bankson said. That was after she turned him loose.
What George wants, George gets. She lets him go out each morning.
This morning, George was waiting on his night perch for guests.
George greeted his subjects without prompting. "Whatcha doing?"
Without thinking, the reply came, "I came to see a bird that can talk."
"Kiss, kiss," said the bird.
It was time to bow before a marvel.
George flew from his perch and lit on curtains in the dining room. He did what birds do.
Bankson shrugged off the blotch on her table. "It's only things. All that really matters is real estate and kids."
The blotch was cleaned so George wouldn't track everywhere he landed.
On the dining room table, he hopped up to look at an intruder sideways. He literally looked up one side and down the other. "Whatcha doing?"
Shaking my head with wonder and awe, I noticed George walks with a limp. Honest, he holds up his right leg when he can.
Bankson laughed. "Is it any wonder he captured my heart? He walks just like me."
The question is whether the gait is out of admiration for his host or because of an accident with kite string a few weeks ago.
Bankson's family likewise is enthralled with "the bird."
"When my dad calls, the first thing he asks is, 'How's the bird?' " she said.
Every once in a while, George picks up a coin, paper or other treasure and flies to the computer. He stores all his treasures behind the monitor.
The dogs outside start barking and so does George. One time his bark is deep, and the next moment, it's a high yip. "Yes, he has two barks," Bankson said, nodding her head.
Bee photographer Bart Ah You joins the royal court, but something about him unsettles George. Bankson guessed that "it's either your camera or he senses you have a heart of darkness."
Ah You held his hand out in friendship -- and got pecked.
The second or third peck drew blood. Ah You laughed and tested the bird's vocabulary while he took several photographs.
"Don't shoot me," the photographer said.
"Don't shoot me!" corrected King George with the proper urgency.
The royal court, one and all, doubled over with laughter.
How did George learn to say that? Out of sheer necessity, explained Bankson.
She has a neighbor, a farmer, who thinks magpies are a pest and a target.
"I begged him not to shoot any more magpies. He said he still would, and I said, 'Please, no!' He replied, 'Then you better teach him to say, 'Don't shoot me!' It took two weeks, and then I stopped the farmer's wife and had her listen to George."
King George annexed more territory that day.
George's routine follows a pattern. He visits cousins in the oak tree every morning. Out of jealousy or mistrust, they peck at the newcomer who each time asks, "Whatcha doing?"
He hunts spiders and bugs in the morning. Bankson is his pointer. She turns over a rock or pulls back ground cover. Then she points and asks, "Want a bug?" He favors millworms, and he delicately snips off the end and then pulls out the innards. He then moves up the worm, section by section.
George knows when the kids across the street get home from school. He plays with them until dusk.
Sometimes the kids walk him home in the evening.
George's love for the kids does not extend to their father, a sheriff's deputy. When he comes home, George dive-bombs him.
George has picked up one recent bad habit that Bankson would like to trace to its source. "He says the F-word," she lamented. Her son Jake moved out a month ago, so he's been cleared.
She tries to correct George's bad habits but to no avail. "George doesn't listen to me. He's just like my kids."
When George noticed that Ah You might be too close to Bankson, he landed between them. He pecked at the photographer's legs.
Ah You backed up and George started to do a victory dance. He strutted up and down in front of him. And George laughed.
It's as if George knows, really knows.
George flew to the top of Ah You's car and did another victory dance on the roof. As Ah You got in his car, George Rogers said, "Bye-bye."
There may have been another final salute, but everyone was laughing too hard. And if he had, so what.
There are only three things that matter: Kids, real estate and birds that know what they're talking about.
Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2311.