"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Of Birds and F-4 Phantoms

“Birdies are peckers”, said Jonathan Bradley as he watched the pigeons poke and peck at the crumbs and popcorn fed to them by the bums at Farragut Square.

“Yes”, said his mother, “but they are also the rats of the skies”.

Jonathan had a difficult time imagining these bobbing and cooing birds as nasty gutter animals with sharp teeth and beady eyes.  He had a worse time imagining hundreds of these flying rats perched in the sycamore and dogwood trees, swooping down to bite the children sailing boats in the water fountain; or landing on the neck of the homeless men sleeping on the long benches by the petunia gardens.

Jonathan loved birds – cardinals, finches, crows, mockingbirds, blackbirds, and doves.  He watched them peck at the birdfeeders in his backyard, stood under the trees on the front lawn when two times a year migrating robins crowded the branches and cackled from morning to bedtime.

He knew when Spring was near when he heard the cardinals change their song.  He knew that a thunderstorm had passed when he heard the first birds come out from hiding and start to sing.  When he got a little older, he started to draw birds and had a knack for capturing their attitude – the way they slept on a telephone wire or squabbled with each other.  Other children got the feathers right, the coloring, and the point of the beak; but only Jonathan captured a bird’s essence – what it meant to be fidgety, quick, and alert; to sleep with one eye open; to leave the wire for the open air in an instant.

Jonathan sat under the cypress tree by the old farmhouse his family rented in Tuscany, and watched the airshow of the swallows and swifts catching insects.  They dipped and dived over the sunflower fields, flew low over the late harvest wheat, and cruised the stagnant pond by the tool shed. 

On day trips to Siena, Jonathan caught pigeons in the central piazza. At first, seeing so many slow-moving birds in one large, open place, he was sure that catching them would be easy; but each time he crept up on one, it flew out of his grasp at the last minute.

Like a predator Jonathan sat, watched, and waited.  He picked out the slowest, the fattest, or the ones that walked with a wobble, and culled them from the flock.  He got so good at hunting that before long he could capture the youngest, most agile male birds.

Jonathan loved wading birds, water fowl, birds of prey, and woodpeckers. He looked forward to October when he could tramp through the cornfields and startle a coven of blackbirds; or walk through the thick brush along the the path to his grandmother’s house and watch pheasants and woodcocks burst out of the bushes and thump the air.

More than anything else Jonathan was amazed at flight.  He watched the Tuscany swifts and swallows for hours.  They were so quick and agile and could turn in an instant in an almost impossible maneuver, defying gravity, torque, and the laws of motion.  He was as fascinated with birds of prey as his friends were with dinosaurs. Eagles circled so high that they were no more than specks against the clouds, and then as they accelerated became missiles of power, speed, and accuracy.  Cooper’s hawks could fly through the forest at high speed without hitting or even grazing the trees.  Harrier hawks could hunt or fish and came out of nowhere, extending their talons at the last minute and sinking them into their prey.

 

He listened to his other grandmother’s stories of their house in New England where the back woods and fields were filled with Baltimore Orioles, bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, and Scarlet Tanagers – birds that he had never seen in Washington, DC, nor in the West Virginia hills where his family had a summer home. He collected Birds of America, Raptors of the American East and West, and reproductions of Audubon’s prints.  For every birthday and Christmas his parents gave him a new book on ornithology, bird watching, or taxonomy.  His favorite present was a tape of songbirds, and every night he listened to the songs of marsh birds, woodland birds, and sea birds; and the shrieks and cries of hawks and eagles. He and his father went owling on summer nights in West Virginia, and once they spotted a saw whet owl, the smallest species of the owl family, no more than a few inches high and no bigger than a wren.

Jonathan could have pursued any one of a number of professions as an adult.  He could have been an ornithologist, taxonomist, naturalist, artist, or field guide. Instead he became a fighter pilot and flew F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam.  He enlisted with no hesitation, easily went through flight school, and was sent to war.  He knew where he was going and what awaited him; and imagined it with exhilaration.  There was a moment when the boy who loved eagles became the man who wanted to be one.

When he was at the controls of the Phantom, he was an eagle, a swift, and a harrier hawk.  He had the power, agility, and sheer force to soar into the clouds and skim the treetops in seconds, and then unload his vengeful might on the enemy below.

Jonathan flew many missions.  He provided air cover to ground troops and screamed over the tree line at full thrust, incinerating everything below.  Palm trees went up in flames like dry Christmas trees, thatched huts were blown to smithereens, and after one of his scorched earth runs nothing was left. 

He dropped napalm on suspected Viet Cong positions along the sea or riverfront, and pulled up at full power to escape the blast and sucking vacuum of the explosion.  He did close air support, firing his .50 calibers at the fleeing enemy.

Each time he went on a mission, Jonathan felt like a god, an avenging angel, Shiva the Destroyer, a master of the world.  He was in the world of hawks, eagles, and condors who had no predators. He was at the top of the phylogenetic chain, unchallenged and unparalleled in power and sheer destructive force.  While flying he was in another world, a world of mythic battles and superhuman energy and Will. When he returned to base the exhilaration lasted for hours.  He only wanted to be back in the cockpit of his Phantom, back over the jungle, back to raining fire and death.

Man was never meant to fly, and yet he did.  Not only did he fly, but he flew like a bird.  He soared, dived, attacked, and killed.  He was a majestic eagle.

In Vietnam Jonathan read stories of the great Aztec warriors who wore animal skins and bird feathers on the battlefield.  They were not only dressed to look like panthers, cougars, and eagles, they were these birds and animals.  They were possessed by their spirits and killed with pure primitive will and undivided purpose.

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Jonathan felt possessed when he dived down from great altitudes and let all Hell loose with his rockets, cannons, and napalm.  He was no longer human.  He was superhuman, a man with the spirit of an eagle and the vengeance of a god.

He served three tours in Vietnam and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of America’s highest honors.  He won the Silver Star for exceptional bravery, and received many honors and medals.  He never received a Purple Heart.  He knew that it was more than just skill that had kept him out of the sight of enemy gunners.  He knew that he had been ordained, chosen, and anointed.  He was Shiva, Kali, and Genghis Khan.

Needless to say, he reluctantly left the service.  The only flying that could possibly come close to that of a Vietnam pilot was an Alaskan bush pilot, and for years he flew Twin Otters into the wild.  He was one of the most fearless and sought-after aviators in the state, but his reputation never survived his feats of daring.  He flew his plane through mountain passes, up and down rivers, and over the tundra just like he did in Vietnam; but the old workhorse was no F-4, and his daredevil flying took its toll on wings, struts, and engine.

One day he never came back from the far North where he had been flying solo – on his ‘own’ mission, he said.  They never found his plane, but because the mountain range was so high and inaccessible, no one was surprised.

His obituary ran in the Anchorage and Nome papers, mentioned his distinguished war record and the Alaskan company he flew for, but very little else. He had been a very private man, and few knew of his vision, the mythic nature of his thunderous, annihilating bombing runs, and his sense of pure Will and supremacy.  In a secular, unambitious, and fearful world, Jonathan Bradley was a god.

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