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The Phoenix One Journals      Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America

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It Was Only A Pigeon...

The morning of my birthday, a week before Christmas, I woke up at one of the more pleasant spots along the western edge of the North American land mass. Carpinteria State Beach lies just south of Santa Barbara, and unseasonably warm weather provided a summer's day in December.

After we walked on the beach and the bluffs above it, Mark, Marvin and I departed reluctantly for Los Angeles, where our presence had been requested at a party I couldn't miss because it was being thrown in honor of my birthday.

Not far from the beach, we stopped at a supermarket to buy sandwiches for lunch. Mark parked the Phoenix across two spaces in the most distant section of the parking lot, and we headed across the asphalt to the entrance.

Suddenly Mark exclaimed, "What's that?" and I turned to see a wild hubbub in a low shrub.

"What is it?" I asked, and Mark, peering into the branches, replied, "A bird."

Sure enough, a gray pigeon was trapped in the bush, struggling frantically to free herself. I looked closer and saw that her foot was wound tightly in a snarl of fishing line. The line was tangled in the bush, trapping the bird inextricably.

I began to pull the line from the shrub, but I soon realized that liberating the pigeon would provide her with only a short reprieve from another entanglement. Unless I could remove the snarl from the bird's foot, it would only be a matter of time until the fishing line caught on something else.

The line was wound many times around the little ankle and claws, a tourniquet pulled so tight that the flesh bulged around it. "Why don't you get some scissors from the truck?" I said, and Mark ran back to the Phoenix. While he was gone, I did my best to free the pigeon from its painful bonds. Terrified, the bird would flap its wings wildly, then hang limp. I struggled with the fishing line as the bird alternated between frenzied activity and utter immobility.

I'd made a little progress when suddenly, in a burst of frantic energy, the bird broke free from the bush and my hands. Beating her wings wildly, she flapped her way out of my reach. Dangling from the snarl of fishing line still enshrouding her left foot were my keys.

Mark was returning with the scissors, and "She's got my keys!" I yelled. Mark ran after the bird as it flew toward the store. The pigeon made an unusual silhouette against the sun as she struggled to fly with an unexpected payload.

Flapping her wings madly, the bird struggled to gain enough altitude to reach the roof of the supermarket. It looked as though my keys would soon be gone with the wind.

But the pigeon miscalculated. She cleared the first row of tiles without allowing for her dangling cargo. When the keys hit the rain gutter, they fell, landing with a loud bang on a metal newspaper vending machine and startling an old man pushing a shopping cart.

So I got my keys back after all, which means the only unfortunate part of the incident is that the pigeon escaped with the snarl of fishing line still intact, still binding her little foot, still threatening her with entrapment at every turn. It would have been a better birthday story, I thought as we drove south, if I'd retrieved my keys and disentangled the pigeon, too.

"It was only a pigeon," said my sister later, and of course she was right. It was only a pigeon, too stupid to recognize friendly hands. Even so, I'd wanted to free her, and I felt like the stupid one for not holding the bird more tightly.

By the time the sun set on my birthday, the pigeon had all but vanished from my thoughts. It fluttered in front of me one last time before I fell asleep. "I chose to go," she seemed to say. "It wasn't your fault. You tried to hold me."

It was true. The pigeon had flown, her will defeating mine. How many times have I acted similarly, frantically evading the very hands that might bring me comfort, beating a fast retreat from help I could not recognize?

I decided, before I closed my eyes on the first day of a fresh year on earth, that this year I'd try not to be a pigeon myself. Better to face my fears and learn life's lessons than flap away still snarled in the past. And to those who've tried to help and failed— a thousand thanks, and it wasn't your fault. You did your best. I chose to flap away. The keys were an accident.

Pasadena, California
January 3, 1999

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