The Birds of the Air

By Patrick Cook - Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA - 1 December 2013



They made my son Andrew the second wise man in the Christmas Pageant this year at St. Simons. This is miscasting on a grand scale, something like getting Roseanne to play Juliet. A slack-jawed shepherd, perhaps, or a flamboyant archangel, I could see; but one of the solemn, intellectual Magi-it's not Andrew, believe me.

St. Simon's is our parish church and school. It's the cathedral church, right downtown. Both of our kids, Andrew and his sister Jenny, go there. Jenny is in the second grade and Andrew in fourth. The fourth grade puts on the pageant every year, mainly because the fourth grade teachers, Mrs. Carlo and Mrs. Crain, don't mind doing it.

My wife, Carrie, had volunteered to help out at practices, and had come in to school a couple of days the last week before Christmas break. Final practice was the Saturday afternoon before Christmas. Dress rehearsal, when the angel's wings and Mary's halo had to fit, and the two halves of the camel had to demonstrate compatibility within the confines of a single costume. At least Andrew didn't have to be the rear end of a camel.

Since Carrie and Andrew were going to take a couple of hours at this, I figured I'd drop them off at church, leave the car there, and walk downtown with Jenny. I had to mail a few bills at the post office, which was on the far side of the shopping area, and then on the way back Jenny and I could do a little last-minute Christmas shopping, get a bite to eat, and be back in time to pick Carrie and Andrew up at the end of practice. It would also give me a chance to spend a little time with Jenny, who I don't get to see enough.

This is killing two or three birds with one stone, just the kind of little efficiency I enjoy putting together. I feel that, if I can make the things I have to do come out even with the time I have, then I'm in a certain amount of control. I enjoy that feeling.

One o'clock on Saturday, then, we pulled into St. Simon's parking lot, walked Carrie and Andrew to the church door, and stopped in to see the kids in their costumes. The shepherds were appropriately Middle Eastern, the Wise Men exotic, the angels heavenly. I looked around the church a bit, while the kids were sorting themselves out. St. Simon's is a beautiful old church. The stained glass windows depict the life of Christ, starting with the Nativity and ending with the Ascension, in glorious turn-of-the-century glass. Even on a gray day like that, it glowed.

Jenny and I waved goodbye to Carrie and Andrew, and then set off down Graves street toward downtown. We'd only gone about three blocks when I began to regret leaving the car behind. True, parking is a problem downtown; that's why I'd done it. But it was a cold day and a long walk for a seven year old girl. Besides, Graves street is the edge of skid row. Quite a few things happen on Graves street that I don't necessarily want Jenny to see.

I didn't turn back. The street was deserted ahead, a bleak asphalt and concrete picture dotted with gray snowbanks from last week's storm. Jenny got ahead of me a little, bouncing along in her blue down jacket and funny red hat-it's a knit newsboy hat, too big for her, that she's wearing this winter-and I let her go, warily of course.

Sometimes, when I see her or Andrew like that, out on their own a bit, not demanding anything-well, it's a good feeling. I imagine it's the way a father robin feels the first time the young birds start hopping around on the branches. He's still responsible, he understands that, but they're starting to grow up. At least, for the moment, he's not faced with those everlasting open yellow beaks.

The wind picked up, and Jenny turned her head from it, hands in her jacket pockets. I turned away from it myself, and it started to spit a little wet snow mixed with rain. This is just the kind of Christmas weather we get in Michigan. Jenny came back to get my arm around her, and there I was, Daddy the Necessary again. Lucky robins. This time of the year, they're down South, and don't have to worry about another brood until May.

We walked along, turned down Upper Main, and were soon in the middle of the shopping area, what's left of it. Then we turned down Lower Main, which is at a sixty degree angle to Upper Main. Lower Main used to be the skid row of our town when I was a boy. Even skid row changes after a while, in this case to another bleak street of county building, courthouse and offices, all anonymous, looking pretty much like a big hall of mirrors reflecting the gray sky. Skid Row itself, of course, hadn't gone away-just moved South, back to the neighborhood of St. Simon's.

We got to the post office, where I bought stamps, mailed the bills, and looked at the company box. Sometimes there is important mail on the weekend, like a check. We were just out the post office door when Jenny ran over to the bridge. This is the bridge that leads to the west side of town, crossing the river between concrete walls. Jenny had run over because she'd heard ducks quacking. When I got over there they were swimming around down below in the river. It looked dangerous for them in that black water, rushing as it was, although when I looked closer, they were actually out of the current. I couldn't see what they were quacking about.

We walked back toward the shopping district. Jenny was full of questions for me, Daddy the All-knowing. "Why are they still here, in this cold weather, Daddy? Why don't they go South for the winter?"

"Oh, some of them stay quite a long time. As long as there's open water and they can find food, they'll hang around."

"What do they eat?"

"Little plants that grow under water."

"Why don't they get cold? That water was icy."

"They have a down jacket, just like you. Under their feathers. That water never touches them. They can stand around in a blizzard with their heads under their wings and be just as cozy as in Summer."

I had to be a little careful here. The truth is, I didn't want to go on too much about the cozy down jackets the ducks wore, because I was afraid Jenny would object to the connection between the ducks and her own jacket.

Once I'd taken the kids out to a farm-one of these museum-farms, you understand, where they show you how farming was in the last century. We got up close to a caged chicken, and for some reason I started pointing out where the drumsticks came from, and the breast and thigh, and how the wings folded now, but were rigid when fried. Something about the connection between the actual chicken and food really bothered Jenny and she wouldn't eat it in any form, even McNuggets, for a month.

I couldn't have her associate her down jacket with the swimming ducks, either. I know how they get duck down, and it isn't any prettier than the way they get drumsticks. She might refuse to wear the jacket entirely, which is about ninety bucks down the drain.

I started to talk about migration. I told her about birds that fly South for the winter, like robins or woodcocks; about ones that stay, like cardinals and blue jays. We have a rare little bird here in Michigan, the Kirtland's Warbler, that nests in six counties up north and winters in the Bahamas. I told her about that. The idea was to snow her with so much information that she wouldn't have time to think about the jacket.

I managed to maintain this conversation until we got to Polzen's. I picked up Carrie's sweater, Andrew's watch and some scarves for the women at the office. Back on Graves street, we went into Leonard's. Leonard's Cafeteria, in my opinion, makes the best burgers in town. It's an old-fashioned steam-table place, and I eat there whenever I'm downtown.

Jenny and I got trays, ordered an oliveburger, chicken soup and coffee (for me), and cheeseburger and milkshake for her. We sat at the window table. We piled into the hot food in silence. The best thing about Leonard's burgers is the wonderful fresh buns he makes. Jenny and I both love them. I was on coffee number three (Leonard's Bottomless Cup!) when I started hearing a conversation at the table next to me. It was three men, all in identical blue jackets with gold lettering.

"How'd he last in there, anyway? For, what, five weeks?"

"Two days short of six weeks, what I figure. He got in there on November fifteenth. Hey, he pretty near didn't last. No food, nothing but a cotton shirt. Only thing saved him was snow blowing in through cracks in the boxcar. He ate that."

"Lucky he didn't get wet. That would have killed him, for sure."

I knew what they were talking about. It had been in the newspaper. It was a young kid, about nineteen, whom they had found in a boxcar out at Fisher Body Number Two, the auto plant. He had gotten aboard with a shipment of car doors at one of the border factories in Mexico. They ship them here to be upholstered and wired. He had expected to get out of the boxcar in Texas, but he was locked in, and stayed right there until he was discovered by men unloading the boxcar here. Now he was in St. Anne's hospital, recovering from frostbite. I turned to the men. You can butt in on conversations in Leonard's; it isn't a real private place. "You guys see this kid?" I asked. "Were any of you there?"

"I was," said the tallest one. "I had my forklift in the boxcar, unloading it. I heard a moan, kind of. You don't know what's in a boxcar. We get raccoons, skunks. I looked, and here's this kid. Skinny as..." He looked at Jenny. "Real skinny."

"He could hardly move," said the short one. "I was outside the boxcar, myself. We carried him to the nurse's office. Wheeled him in an office chair."

"You have a fund for him, don't you?" I asked. I knew they did; it had been in the newspaper article. It was for his hospital expenses. I handed them a five dollar bill. The truth is, I was touched by the story when I read it. Here I look at this town as run down, fallen from former glories; this kid thinks it's the promised land.

The men thanked me and left. Jenny and I left too, to walk the six more blocks to St. Simon's. With the wind at our backs now, and a little hot soup in us, we were ready.

Back at the cathedral, Carrie and Andrew weren't quite finished. Glitches in the rehearsal. Jenny and I sat in a back pew to wait for them. I was looking around the church, when I felt Jenny's shoulders shaking next to me. She was crying.

"It's the boy in the box, Daddy. Why was he in the box?"

"No, no, honey. It wasn't a box. It was a boxcar. Like a train car, you know? One of those cars on a train."

"Why was he in there, though? In the train car? Why did he go in there?"

"He was trying to come to this country, but he isn't a citizen. He's not allowed to live here, or work here. He had to sneak in if he wanted to work."

Jenny continued crying. I thought it was pretty terrible myself. Still, I had to come up with something to comfort Jenny, and I looked around church. My eye lighted on Andrew, the wise man.

"Look, honey. Baby Jesus was cold too, in His stable. But there were wise men who brought Him presents. Did you see Daddy give the money to those men in Leonard's?"

"Yes. I saw you."

"Well, those men were like the wise men. They'll give the money to the boy and he'll be all right. Just like Baby Jesus."

Jenny wasn't buying it. Nothing, no warm hospital bed, no fund, no story would erase the vision from her mind, that six cold weeks of clanking darkness and starvation.

Meanwhile, things were starting to go awry down in the sanctuary. Practice had been just a little too long for the fourth grade, and tempers were getting short. The angels had poked the shepherds with their trumpets, and the shepherds had retaliated with their crooks. The camel's south end had revolted against its north end.

Fortunately Andrew, with his shoe box of frankincense, wasn't involved, but his mood was not good. I didn't think Carrie was going to be cheerful after dealing with those characters all afternoon either. Of course, Jenny was still weeping. And I, Daddy the rock, was going to have to hold all this together, at least for the ride home.

I looked around the church again, this time at the great Nativity window in the south transept. It's a gorgeous old thing, filled with blues and reds, golden crowns and rich brown robes. Everything is present at once, shepherds, angels and magi, dove, lamb and rooster. The star illuminates the straw, Mary and Joseph; the ox and ass are in shadow.

I know this grand scene is meant to symbolize a number of things. Of course the shepherds are the Jews, through whom salvation comes, and the magi are the gentiles, who are also invited to the feast. At the same time, shepherds and kings are the nobles and peasants, all classes being included in the Lord's worship. The star, straw and animals are the natural world, which joins the human in adoration. All ordered, from star to straw; all focused on the baby in the center, who blesses them with godly precocity.

Well, this is hardly the world we've got. What we've got is men at bloody war with the natural world, each other, and God Himself. What we've got is cities that rise and fall, and men desperate enough to risk death to find work.

I wanted to shout at poor Jenny, to wake her up. There are men who freeze in doorways twenty yards from here, the birds and beasts die to keep you warm, we are none of us wise men, not me, not your brother.

I looked again at the window. Actually, it's not quite as serene a picture as it seems at first. The rooster is there to remind us of the cock that crowed at dawn on the day of the Crucifixion, and two of the wooden beams cast a shadow on the stable floor which forms a cross. Then I looked a little to the left, at the next window, which is the Flight into Egypt. The King of Heaven, a refugee on Earth.

I didn't say anything. I held my arm around Jenny, and began to weep a little myself. For the birds of the air. For the Son of Man, who had nowhere to lay his head. And in gratitude for the heavenly Father, who is Necessary, who is the Rock, who is all-knowing. So I don't have to be.




Copyright © 2013 Patrick Cook. All Rights Reserved.