Part Four: The Capture
“Today’s the Day!” the late treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, used to say every morning at the beginning of the day’s hunt for sunken treasure. And, after 16 years, it was. He found the Spanish treasure galleon, “Atocha” – all 450 million dollars of her. Which all goes to prove once again, sometimes you just have to BELIEVE.
For our little capture crew, the clock was ticking ever louder, increasing our sense of urgency. We just had to catch those birds today or start thinking about attaching a mail box to the pen trailer and begin paying real estate taxes. In the interest of saving time, I skipped the Five Star motel breakfast and went right to the hospital to have my stomach pumped.
The radio talked about President Obama’s visit to the nearby city of Flint the day before to discuss the cities’ crisis of too much lead in the drinking water. The sad commentary went on to say that not so many years ago, cars were being manufactured in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are being manufactured in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint. Though I wasn’t from the area, the comment stung. Then the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that said, “Clean Air Smells Funny.” It felt like “piling on.” But I guess it’s like my father said to me the day I left for college, “It’s a good thing you were born with a sense of humor, Son. You’re going to need it.”
“They’re early!” Flambeau announced. The birds were waiting for us, although still keeping their distance. The sun began its ascent from just below the horizon and as it rose, it cranked up the color volume and intensity of the bird’s white feathers. Soon, the sun’s rays were dancing magically on each bird to translucent and phosphorescent effect. We could only stand mesmerized as the episode of “Fifty Shades of White” played out before us. Whooping cranes never surrender their ability to surprise and amaze.
Then began the day’s match; a continuum of moves and counter moves. We would walk slowly with calculated steps to out flank and gently herd the birds toward the pen only to watch them drift warily away. Then we would get one, then two birds into the pen only to have the third and then the fourth accelerate away in the opposite direction. “Patience, Grasshopper” my invisible friend cautioned softly. It was soon clear that although we were making progress, it was not yet time to spring the trap. The first session of the day ended as the birds suddenly, as if having tired of the game for the time being, flew off and landed in a nearby ag field while we solemnly headed back to the road, then into town for a break.
“Having any luck?” Steve asked when I returned. “Not yet, but we’re close,” I answered. Just then another car pulled up and a woman rolled down the window and asked, “Have you seen any whooping cranes?” Steve and I just looked at each other and smiled. “You just missed them, but they’ll be back.” She pulled over and got out. “Where would be the best place to see them,” she asked. “Right where you’re standing,” I announced with great confidence. Just then as if on cue, we looked up to see the four birds flying towards us. “Here they come,” Steve said. They then turned just over our heads and did one of the most beautiful “fly-bys” I had ever seen and landed back near the pen. The woman squealed with childlike delight, her hands pressed hard against her mouth as she jumped up and down a few times. Steve and I looked at each other in amazement. “You’re lucky,” he said to the woman. Meanwhile, the voice of my invisible friend began yelling into my ear. “Hurry! Take her into town and have her buy you a Lottery Ticket… NOW!”
The woman went on the tell us she had seen one of the whooper chicks in a nearby county sometime back and that she was so moved by the experience she wrote a song on her way back home. “Want to hear it?” she asked. Steve and I looked at each other again. “Sure,” we answered. What followed was one of the sweetest, most sincere and joyful performances I had ever witnessed. It was as if she was channeling Shirley Temple to our Wallace Beery. How amazed and privileged I suddenly felt when she finished, for though I have seen many wonderful reactions of people to the birds over the years, this was undoubtedly a First. Steve and I could only laugh with appreciation as we listened to the echo of our own hands clapping.
Then Marianne, Hillary and Andy returned and we suited up for what we hoped was the last round of the fight. On the way out to the pen, Marianne received an important work related phone call. As she attended to it, I became aware of the pulsing sound of an airplane motor roaring to full power, then backing off to idle. Up above in the near distance, the pilot was executing a full acrobatic program. Loops, barrel rolls, Immelmann’s, lazy eights… a veritable celebration of flight. It was the perfect union of man and machine. “I’m going to wring this baby out,” I could hear the pilot whisper over the whine of the engine. And that’s when the voice of my invisible friend interrupted. “If that pilot really did have the Right Stuff, he’d be flying an ultralight!”
Then it was over as quickly as it began as the plane and its pilot returned to its roost. But they were immediately replaced by a series of the biggest, most beautiful clouds I had ever seen. Like an aerial lava lamp, they cast their spell as I stared skyward until my neck started to hurt. How incredible they were, I thought! Were they really up there all the time and I just never took the time to notice? Guess the astronomers are right. “Keep looking up!” Only do it during the day instead of at night. That way you won’t trip over anything in the dark. But the best part? No Federal, State or local taxes. Marianne finished her call and we resumed our march.
The moment of Truth. The birds were waiting for us as was that feeling you sometimes get towards the end of any game when, even before the points are on the board, you just know the game is won. We silently and intuitively began our choreography of capture as the birds, as if accepting their fate, succumbed slowly to our will. Marianne lured them into the pen. First Corky, then a wary Mendota, then a very reluctant Druid. Flambeau had drifted away from the others, so we closed the pen gate and slowly began to stalk him. A few anxious minutes followed, but soon he was in hand and joining his buddies in the pen. And that’s how you spell RELIEF!
But, no time for celebration. It was going to be a long ride back to Wisconsin. Besides, it was time for the boxes to appear. UPS, one of my former employers (really!) had already made their afternoon pickups, so transport was the responsibility of our own shipping department. We retrieved the cardboard bird boxes from the van and were soon back in the pen introducing the birds to their new temporary homes.
“Oh……………….Crap!” they exclaimed in unison. Now, if any of you have ever had the childhood experience of your older sibling and their friends trying to put you in the box that your mother’s washing machine came in, you know how much fun it can be. But then it wasn’t like we were a posy of crazy stage magicians planning on sawing the boxes in half! Anyway, the birds should have flown back to Wisconsin when they had the chance. “Case, ah… box closed!” The birds were soon in the boxes and the boxes were soon in the van. “Fasten your seat belts.” Then down came the pen, as quickly and efficiently as if we’d been doing it for years. Wait a minute! I HAVE been doing it for years!
Marianne, Hillary and Andy would be driving all night to Wisconsin to release the birds early the next morning while I was heading back to camp at White River Marsh. So as we said our goodbyes, I secretly wished that someday in the not too distant future we might do this all again.
Back on the road, a number of the neighbors were watching the finale of our little drama which had also become theirs’. We had each played our parts and played them well. And it was with heartfelt appreciation that I shook hands and said goodbye to these special people and this very special place. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if you could go to sleep at night believing it was like this everywhere in the world….and that all the crazy things you saw on the TV News each night were mere fabrications filmed on a Hollywood sound stage…. the same one where they filmed the first moon landing. “One small step…”
I started off down the road when I saw Mike’s pickup coming the other way. He stopped and rolled down his window. “My son and I were on an All Star baseball team for more than fifteen years, but I finally had to give it up this year. Too old. I personally hand made a bat for each player on the team. Turned them on my lathe.” With that he picked up a bat from the passenger seat and handed it to me through the window. “This is my last bat. I don’t need it anymore. I want you to have it.” Then, with biggest, most wonderful smiles imaginable he added, “Us old guys got to keep on hitting.” I was simply overwhelmed. I had been blessed with many gifts in my life but never anything like this. And no Jedi Knight ever held his light sword more dearly. It was pure magic… the bat and the moment, and there was no doubt in my mind that with it, I could hit any pitch out of any ballpark. “Thanks, Mike.” I said, as we shook hands and headed off in opposite directions.
The return trip was long but it went quickly. That was until I made that wrong turn… the one you are required to make on any memorable trip – and I found myself in downtown Chicago at 10 o’clock at night, speeding along in traffic at 70 miles an hour, bumper to bumper! Where were all these people going at this hour, I wondered? The Chicago skyline was breathtaking, but I could only steal brief glimpses of it because the driving demanded all my concentration. “You’re not in Kansas anymore!” my invisible friend yelled into my ear. That was an understatement. The murder rate was up 72% and shootings were up 88% over last year, with 1534 shooting victims by June 5th. As if under the influence of some mind altering hallucinogen, I’d traveled from “Mayberry RFD” to the futuristic sci-fi movie, “Blade Runner” with a pit stop at “Night of the Living Dead” in the space of several short hours. And although I love watching “Me TV”, this “time travel” thing was not at all to my liking. It was not hard to envision a Gary Larson or Gahan Wilson cartoon showing a room full of whooping cranes at a Human Eastern Partnership (HEP) meeting with a whooper in the front pointing to his power point screen and lecturing the audience, “In 2041 there were only 15 humans left in North America due to illegal hunting and loss of habitat.”
But soon it was all in the rear view, with only white lines and black night ahead. And soon after that, it was White River Marsh and camp. No homecoming was ever more welcome. I parked the pen trailer next to the other one, crawled into the camper and called it a day… or was it a week.
“So how was your trip?” the pen trailer asked the other.
“Oh, it was fine, I guess. A lot of just standing around, though. I’ll tell you all about it another time, but right now I’ve got to get some rest. That idiot wants me to follow him on another capture trip first thing in the morning.”
“What are you going to capture?”
“A feral cow!”
“Gosh! Some pen trailers get to have all the fun.”
– THE END –
In case you’d like to read the three previous chapters:
Part 3 – The Capture
Part 2 – The Capture
Part 1 — The Capture