- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Nobles: The late Roxie Laybourne, an unfeathered friend of Aves and aviators. While birds of a feather might flock together, there will only be one forensic ornithologist like Mrs. Laybourne. The diminutive birder spent 50 years at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History studying the fragmentary remains of fowl strikes and feather sticks to find the reasons for flight failures and the methods of murderers.

She was once called the “the Miss Marple of Eiderdown,” thanks to her expertise at identifying fuzzy fragments at crime scenes where feathers had flown. On one occasion, a murderous husband buried his wife’s body in the ocean so effectively that it never surfaced. However, the down coat that she was wearing did, and Mrs. Laybourne was able to match its feathers to those found in the back of her husband’s van, adding essential evidence for his eventual conviction. In another case, a wife used a feather pillow as a silencer for the pistol she used to shoot her husband. However, Mrs. Laybourne matched the microscopic feather fragments stuck to the bullet with those from the punctured pillow, leading to another conviction.

Mrs. Laybourne also saved innumerable lives of fliers — both bipeds and birds — by studying which Aves strike airplanes most often. (Seagulls are the most common airplane colliders, followed by waterfowl; pigeons and doves; blackbirds and starlings; and birds of prey.) Her work allowed airplane makers to build stronger planes and airport overseers to set up better bird-management plans. For those efforts she was given an eagle statue and a lifetime achievement award by the Air Force Bird Strike Committee in 1966.

Mrs. Laybourne was 92 when she died this month. The feather identification and analysis techniques she developed will continue to give wings to the field of ornithology, while the methods she found for unruffled flying will continue to keep airplanes in flight.

Knaves: Satirist Al Franken, for a misleading letter aimed at making a fool of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Mr. Franken’s political affections are as well known as the daily affirmations of his “Saturday Night Live” character Stewart Smalley. He’s taken ample liberties in producing his pointed comedies, many of which, such as his book, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” take repeated shots at conservatives and our values.

It was with this spiteful goal in mind that Mr. Franken sent a letter to Mr. Ashcroft last month soliciting his testimonial for an adolescent’s guide to abstinence programs in public schools that he was working on. Representing himself as a current fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, he claimed he had already received such testimonies from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, among other administration officials. He even added, in what was almost certainly planned as an explosive tagline when the hoax was revealed, “But most of all, be real. Kids can sense a phony a mile away.”

Fortunately, Mr. Ashcroft had sufficient sense not to even dignify the query with a response, and Mr. Franken apologized a few weeks later. The whole affair came to light this week, when both letters were published on www.thesmokinggun.com.

Mr. Franken’s sincerity is still suspect, considering he is currently promoting another book. Nonetheless, it can only be hoped that Mr. Franken has learned a lesson. Despite his ignoble actions, he is still just good enough, and just smart enough, and doggone it, just funny enough, for some people to like him.


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