In the Grip of Something Larger

There is a familiar odor in the air this morning. I take note but do nothing more than the usual weekend routine. Make coffee. Feed cats and dogs.

My night-owl wife gets her best sleep from two until ten, so I leave her a quiet house by taking our pets and my coffee out onto the deck. Outside, the air is humid and still. Thunderstorms may be on the way.

But there’s something else. Mixed in with a Texas spring’s earthy, floral aroma, I detect a kind of salty, petrochemical smell. It sets off a ping from a dark corner in the depths of my memory.

Taking a sip of coffee, my gaze lands on a bird feeder hanging in the shadows of a cedar tree. A chickadee swoops in, grabs a sunflower seed, and hustles back into the foliage. There’s no telling how often I have seen that little ritual, but this time it brings a blurry, long-ago memory into focus.

I recall a Cobra gunship flying so low I can see the face of the pilot. It’s tracing the gentle curve of China Beach, a well-guarded rest and recreation area for American servicemen in Vietnam. Below it, some of my squadron mates are playing shirts and skins football. Others are lounging on the sand digesting a Fourth of July picnic lunch of grilled steaks, baked beans, and coleslaw.

Weather-wise, it’s a typical tropical day for this time of year. Sunny, a few fluffy clouds, and a reliable breeze from offshore. At our hangar just a mile inland, the atmosphere would be hot and windless. Stifling.

All of sudden, the ocean breeze fades to nothing. Humidity wraps around us like a steaming hot tortilla. This gets everyone’s attention. At this time of year in this part of Southeast Asia, you just know rain is on the way.

We pack up and slog through the toasty, coral sand towards the road just beyond a scant tree line. Once there we watch the senior officers pile into the squadron’s lone pickup truck and take off. The rest of us will have to wait for the arranged arrival of a transport truck, not due for another hour.

The pickup had been gone for barely more than a minute when the storm jumps us. Gale force winds hit hard, toppling a palm tree a little way down the beach.

There are more airmen than can fit under the nearby cabana, so a few of us run to the single remaining wall of a cinderblock structure that’s not far away. The wind is blowing so strong that even with no roof over our heads, we’ll be somewhat protected in the leeward bubble.

Hunkering down after our mad dash for cover, we notice a little gray bird fluttering vainly against the wind. It looks tired and in physical danger from being repeatedly thrown to the ground by the violent tempest.

As one, we wordlessly edge along the wall away from the distressed creature in hopes it will seek refuge in this pocket of calm. Suspiciously, but not too slowly, the bird eases into our sanctuary.

We settle in, and I assess our little gathering. In a way, we’re all equals now, quietly watching a furious storm with ancient animal eyes.

I muse about how civilization creates a scrim between humanity and the natural world. How, unless we are one of the few who venture beyond the coop of modern life, it takes a camera to remind us of the indifferent immensity of nature beyond the screen. 

After an intense fifteen or twenty minutes, the storm passes. We soggy, chilled airmen stir as our shelter mate hops out into the gentle rain. It swivels its tiny head, carefully looking us over.

The bird’s black eyes sparkle. For a nanosecond, I feel one with it, connected in a way that neither feathers, nor brain size, nor any idea of civilization can deny.

“Goodbye, my friends,” says an odd voice somewhere inside, “May good weather be yours forever.”

I take a startled breath. The men around me gasp, too.

Deftly shaking off the rain, the gray bird launches itself up into the air. In no more than a second, it disappears into a bright, silvery sky.

My mates and I look at each other. One says, “Did you?” but lets it drop. We tacitly agree that confirming telepathic communication with a bird is a one-way trip to the loony bin.

Yet perversely, we betray not only our own senses but our presumed sanity. When the troop truck arrives, we climb aboard. We let it take us back into war.