Serious hobbyists share a certain sense of devotion to their favorite pastimes. You can see it in the earnest way the butterfly collector pins his new Monarch to its post; in the concentration of a Sunday painter putting a last touch of red acrylic to the canvas: in the steady gaze of a fisherman as he casts his handmade lure out over the water.
You could hear it, too, in the voices of the men who gathered Saturday night at the Metropolitan Washington Racing Pigeon Concourse in College Park. Their hobby is pigeon racing, and their enthusiasm was evident as they prepared their birds for the last big race of the season - a 250-mile fly from Parkersburg, W.Va. They cupped the birds gently in their hands; banding their legs with a counter number; scooting them safely into cages on a truck.
The man chosen to liberate the birds, Sam Weaver, closed the panel truck and headed up to Parkersburg. Sunday morning he released the birds and within a few hours, the club members began searching the skies above their homes. But there was a headwind and it was seven and a half hours before the winning bird, belonging to member Gen Dennison, arrived home.
Alan Johnson, 11, along with the rest of the concourse members, spent most of Sunday, a perfect October day watching the sky, waiting for the birds to return. So did Mel Kaplan, who said he felt "like an idiot sitting and waiting for two or three hours looking at the sky.It is something that gets into your blood, like a disease, and you can't get rid of it."
"We had good returns with the birds, even though the race was as slow as it was," said Kaplan, who lives in Lanham and jhas been a pigeon fancier since he was a boy. "If there is red bad weather or rain, the birds are defense less and over half never come back."
Johnson's father, Paul, who lives in Wheaton, is also a long-time pigeon enthusiast. "This whole thing is an art," he said. The distances from release point are all computed by an engineering firm, and the birds are all let go at the same time. An owner is not allowed to counter his own bird or handle it after it has been marked."
No one understands the difference between pigeons," said Kaplan. "They see all those dirty birds downtown and if somebody next door has homing pigeons, they see them as the same."
The art of racing homing pigeons may be disappearing, according to the club members.Local legislation tends to limit the acreage requirements and setbacks for pigeon loffs, and members say avenging neighbors are always after them and their birds.
The Prince George's County Council this week passed a bill that changed setbacks and put pigeons in a separate category from poultry. "We should at least by happy for that," said Kaplan.
"I once had a Mt. Rainier health inspector come to my home and visit my loft," said Jack Jackson. "And he said this is nice.I've never seen anything like this before. The neighbors complain because they see pigeon droppings around on the ground, on their cars. What they don't know is that there are a lot of common pigeons around here, too, I had to get rid of my pigeons because of neighbors' complaints. But the pigeon stuff iss still there and my pigeons are gone."
"We always let our pigeons out on an empty stomach to exercise, so I know we don't cause the mess," said Kaplan.
In the way of all sports for hobbiest, each of the men at the concourse has his own theory on breeding and racing pigeons. The club has over 80 members from four area clubs, and races sometimes have more than 400 entries.
Kaplan, for instance, exercises his birds twice a day, morning and evening. And he puts out his older and younger birds at different times. "You get the birds when they're young, or you raise them outside so they begin to know the area. They are ouput out every day and then go out on two or three mile tosses. After two or three weeks they begin to roam, but they are bred with the instinct to come home, and they do."
Henry Wehausen, an 82-year-old enthusiast from Riverdale, spends most of his time at a loft he shares with another man. "I clean the coop every day, and when they get to fighting or flying about outside, I get a can and just rattle in and they fly right back in to roost."
Jackson says that 90 per cent of all the lofts he has seen are very clean. "It takes about three hours a day to do all the work on them - feed, clean up and exercise them. It's a great sport, and a lot of young people are getting interested in it."
The members talk about "being captive" to their sport. Fifteen of them came to the public hearing last week to support county legislation that some say is "really no good because it doesn't change the space." They love the sport and want to see their sons carry on the tradition they have maintained.
Jackson, an outspoken advocate for looser restrictions, is one who rails at the code that made him close his loft and get rid of his 45 pigeons. "I'd start building me a loft tomorrow if they'd let me. I love it that much."