Sometime after World War II a creature moved into tunnels beneath a nursery school and summer camp in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The children who attended the Alexander Camp called it “Bird Legs.”
“There was a legend about a monster called Bird Legs,” said Kaye Giuliani. “Scared the hell out of everybody.” Giuliani is Ernest Kendall’s granddaughter. He founded the camp and nursery school in 1947 after nearly 20 years as the principal of the Capitol Page School in neighboring Washington. I was interviewing Giuliani in her Maryland home about the school and camp’s history when she mentioned Bird Legs.
The Alexander Camp occupied a six-acre tract in Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Four Corners neighborhood. For much of the last half of the 20th century, the site had been used as a private school and camp. In 1997 its last private owner sold the property to the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission which had plans to redevelop it by expanding the neighboring North Four Corners Park.
Like much of the property’s storied past, the Bird Legs legend quickly faded once Montgomery County razed the school buildings and allowed the grounds to lie fallow for 20 years before completing the park expansion. But to former campers and students, the story lives on in personal narratives and in posts to social media sites.
“[My] memories are packed with stories about the summer overnight jambories [sic.] and the counselors story telling (birdlegs) around the night firepit,” wrote one alum in 2011.
As a member of the owner’s family, Giuliani — who attended the school and later worked there — had inside information on Bird Legs. “The origin of Bird Legs was my dad’s secretary, who somebody teased her and said she had [the] legs of a bird,” she recalled. “And so for some reason when making up this story, they incorporated ‘bird legs’ as a kind of a point, a jab to the secretary.”
Bird Legs lived in tunnels beneath the property. An intermittent stream, wet only during rains, passed through the property’s eastern edge. Culverts and drain pipes had been installed to direct the water. Those pipes gave Bird Legs access to the grounds.
“Bird Legs lived down in the big sewer pipe down by the bus garage/workshop. He would come out at night when there were overnight camping to get kids to eat,” another alum remembered.
According to the legend, Bird Legs emerged from the tunnels and prowled the property. “A lot of stories about Bird Legs peeking in the window and stuff like that,” Giuliani said.
Camp counselors and the kids brought Bird Legs to life around jamboree campfires where the stories were shared. “One of the counsellors would dress up and sneak up on all the kids and scare them,” wrote one former camper on Facebook. “Yes, bird legs was a big part of the occasional jamborees.”
Giuliani said that Bird Legs had one objective: to scare the hell out of the kids.”You know, he wanted to take kids underground. You know, it was just terrifying. I think the great thing about a really good childhood is the terror, the magic, the risk.”
New generations of neighborhood kids playing in the park didn’t know about Bird Legs. They appropriated the overgrown field as their own and they crafted stories about pixies cavorting with fireflies around an ancient black walnut tree. Bird Legs didn’t even haunt the grounds as a ghost of childhoods past.
“I remember Bird Legs stories at Alexander Camp,” one alum wrote to me on Facebook. “I still call North Four Corners Park… ‘Bird Legs’ Park.
When the Montgomery County Parks Department graded the property and diverted the drainage, Bird Legs’ habitat followed the character down a deep dark hole. Bird Legs may be gone, but as Giuliani and others affiliated with the former school and camp prove, he’s far from forgotten.
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein