Pigeons. Not everyone loves them. In some places they’re so common no one really pays attention to them. But if you think they are just ordinary gray birds that mob statues and strut the city sidewalks, then maybe you should talk to Jeff Vines.
Twelve-year-old boys. Some people tend to overlook them. When you’re 12, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd of new seventh graders, to get misplaced somewhere between being a child and being a genuine teenager. If that’s what you think—or feel—then maybe you should meet Jeff Vines.
Jeff lives about eight miles down the road from the small town of Greenwood, Arkansas. The Vines’s home nestles among tall cedars and hickory nut trees, at the end of a graveled drive that curves upward and away from the highway. Let Jeff lead you, and you find yourself on a path that leads down a gentle slope, across a bridge spanning the brook, and over to some small sheds. Beyond the sheds, a basketball standard sprouts up in well-mown grass that was once pasture.
From the sheds come rustlings and flutterings and soft cooing sounds. Jeff opens the door of one shed and you quickly step inside. In the half-light, winged shapes blur through the air at the sudden disturbance, then settle back into their boxlike perches.
Pigeons. But not the ordinary kind. Among them are Jeff’s West of England tumblers, named for their place of origin and for a midflight maneuver they perform. Beautiful, with amber eyes and feather-duster feet, these birds are champions and have won national awards for their owner.
Jeff Vines. If pigeon breeding seems like a quiet, gentle sort of hobby, then somehow you aren’t surprised when you first meet him. He’s slender, soft-spoken and polite, with a ready smile. But ask him what he really likes to do and he glances over toward the hoop in the pasture. “I love to play basketball,” he says without hesitation. “And I like to run long distance, too.” You also learn that he is an avid baseball card collector whose favorite teams are the Dodgers and the A’s. “I like the Braves, too, because they have Dale Murphy and he’s a Mormon,” Jeff adds.
Raising pigeons is not Jeff’s whole life, then. It’s a hobby, one he began with his dad’s help when he was about seven years old. At first they were just pets to him. But then he became more serious about raising birds for competition and got some West of England tumblers. When he was ten, a young bird he had raised was judged champion of all breeds at the two-state Oklahoma-Arkansas fair, and Jeff came home with a two-foot-tall trophy. When he was 11, Jeff went with his parents to the national show in Peoria, Illinois. There, competing among thousands of entries, against breeders far older and more experienced, Jeff took first place in his category with one of his birds. He was by far the youngest national winner ever. Another trophy and stories in the hometown papers.
Yet when you ask Jeff what is the greatest honor that has come to him so far, he answers, “Getting the priesthood. Becoming a deacon.” He enjoys it, he says. “You do a lot of fun things.”
Just about the time he turned 12, other parts of Jeff’s life seemed to take on more importance, too. It was about that time that he made up his mind that he was going to get the highest grades that he possibly could. And after school started again in the fall, he went from being an okay student to earning a place on the honor roll.
Ask Jeff how he did it, what he did differently to improve his grades so much, and he sort of looks down and grins, “I just studied and did my homework.”
At the same time that Jeff determined that he was going to go for better grades, he decided that he would try to make his school’s basketball team. He didn’t, but says he’ll try again. And he’ll go out for the track team in the spring. You get the impression that he’ll keep trying, too.
You find yourself wondering how all of this fits together—school, priesthood, basketball, pigeons. Then you remember something Jeff’s dad told you:
The judges at competitions have a list of standards that they compare each bird against. They look at things like coloring, markings, the way the wings lie, the length of the muffs on the feet, etc. “Jeff has a copy of those standards,” says his father, James Vines, “and I’ve tried to teach him what to look for. He’s picked it up very well, compares his birds to the standard, and keeps the birds with the qualities he wants passed along to their offspring. Jeff has brought them a long way in a brief time.” In other words, Jeff has learned to recognize the ideal and to work toward it.
Jeff himself seems a little puzzled at first when you mention the possible connection between his hobby and his life in general. Yet when you ask him what his own standards and goals are, he quickly rattles off a list. “I want to make good grades. I want to be good in athletics. I want to learn my scriptures better and strengthen my testimony of the Church.” He knows.
The day with Jeff continues and you find yourselves sitting on the front porch in a rain shower too weak to send you indoors, too brief to cool the late morning heat. You talk about school and the challenges of being one of only a few Latter-day Saint students. Jeff seems to take it all in stride. You ask about his favorite subjects. “Science and social studies, I guess.” The worst thing about school? He thinks for a moment. “School lunch lasagna,” he says with a grimace.
By the time your visit is over, you have watched Jeff shoot baskets with his younger sister and two brothers. Seen him patiently push his young brothers on the swing. Visited the small bedroom he shares with the other boys and seen the models he’s expertly assembled, his favorite drawings, the scrapbook/journal he faithfully keeps.
Finally, as you leave a new friend behind and turn onto the highway toward town, you realize it would be easy to get lost among these rolling green hills. The kind of lost where you are just another 12-year-old starting junior high. The kind of lost where you live out in the country and only see your friends at school or church. The kind of lost that has to do with “who” not “where.”
Jeff Vines is 12 years old, in junior high, and living in the country. But a lot of people know who he is. Most importantly, he knows.