The osprey effortlessly soared over the marsh, his wings spread wide to catch the thermals rising from the sun-warmed water. The majestic bird, one of the kings of our area, floated through the air as he returned from his hunt for breakfast.
He outstretched his mighty talons and coasted to a landing on a branch high in a tree in front of me. As he settled on his perch, he folded his wings against his body and ruffled his feathers. He turned his head to look at me and acknowledged my presence by raising his tail and shooting remnants of his last meal into the air. The glob of matter tumbled through the air, gaining velocity as it fell over a hundred feet, and landed with an emphatic splat on the trail in front of me.
My mind, at first stunned by the awe-inspiring vision of a giant bird of prey, turned to horror as I eyed the numerous white patches scattered about. How many hikers and bikers had he nailed with his precision? And, worse, my path home led directly underneath him.
Before I continue this canard of my journey under this bird digesting his meal—the tale of his tail, if you will—or perhaps the word scuttlebutt will make you titter—you should know two things:
The San Francisco seagull incident
I’m scarred for life because of a seagull encounter. A carefree moment of joy turned to disgust in the blink of an eye. Quite literally, as you shall see. Or, in my case, not see.
When I was in my late teens, I vacationed with my parents and my sister in San Francisco doing all the normal things—restaurants, shopping, tour boats, an afternoon at Alcatraz because nothing says vacation like an afternoon in jail.
We were wrapping up another day of frivolity wandering around Fishermen’s Wharf, surrounded by throngs of tourists. Seagulls flitted overhead waiting for their opportunity to snatch debris left on the ground. A discarded wrapper. A spilt ice cream. A tasty morsel of shrimp served by the many vendors.
One of those birds, obviously quite well fed, flew over my head as so many others had. He lined up his sights, opened his bombardier doors, and released his load with precise aim that would make William Tell proud. His missile sailed through the air and perfectly threaded its way behind my eyeglasses. He scored a bull’s-eye—directly into my eye.
I didn’t instantly realize what had happened. I heard the gasps from the crowd. I felt the burning sensation. Half-blind, I clutched my face and sank my fingers into the goo, thinking my face was melting away like the bad guys at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My sister and I, like most siblings, picked on each other mercilessly. We still do. But in that one moment, and for the only time I can think of, she took the high road and stifled her laughter. Well, at least for a few minutes. She still retells this story with a glee that an only child will never understand.
As onlookers watched in horror, the offending matter rolled down my face. I stumbled about like Frankenstein’s monster, complete with guttural groaning.
Fortunately, it was San Francisco, so everyone assumed it was normal. Just another crazy street performer. A mime trapped in a box doesn’t compare. I could have made a fortune if only I had a hat on the ground to attract dollar bills.
After taking a few minutes to figure out what had happened, my father handed over his handkerchief. I soon filled the cloth with an incredible amount of… Well, you get the idea. You can imagine his reaction as I tried to hand it back to him. He suggested diplomatically I just toss it in the nearest trash can. He would get a new one.
In case I haven’t painted enough of a visual, a good friend and talented artist, Penny Blankenship, heard my story many years later and used her cartooning talent to capture the moment for all to share.
NOTE: If you would like to see some more of Penny’s work, you can visit her website Mutatoe. She also provided the illustrations to the book Let The Dogs Speak (this is an Amazon Affiliate link), Marianne McKiernan’s tale of dogs training at the Canine Companions for Independence as told from the canine point of view. The book is hilarious, entertaining, and heartwarming as you root for the dogs to complete their training (Spoiler: They don’t all graduate).
I make up stories for a living
The second thing you should know is that I have been accused of a vivid imagination. Or, as a coworker once said, I remember things better than other people do. For the record, even I understand better is not synonymous with more accurate.
The opening scene of Jaxon with an X is based on the cold, snowy morning I saw a coyote loping along the side of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee / North Carolina border deep in the Pigeon River gorge. I simply added a starving kid escaping the most unimaginable horror—and removed the coyote—and it was exactly the same. See? I remembered it “better.”
That’s a nice way of saying we authors probably don’t make the most reliable witnesses despite our attention to detail.
Defense attorney: “As the prosecution’s sole witness, you have described exactly what you saw. Is that true?”
Defense attorney: “You haven’t embellished it at all, right?”
Author: “No, sir. Not really.”
Defense attorney: “No exaggerations?”
Author: “I don’t think so.”
Defense attorney: “Exactly as you remember it?”
Author: “More or less.”
Defense attorney: “And you remember things well?”
Author: “I’ve been told I remember things better.”
Defense attorney: “I see. And what do you do for living?”
Author: “I’m a writer.”
Defense attorney: “A writer. Would that be fiction?”
Defense attorney: “So you make things up?”
Author: “I guess you could say that.”
Defense attorney: “And you get paid to do that?”
Author: “Well, not much.”
Defense attorney: “So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution’s star witness lies for a living.”
Back to our story
Scattered about the trail in front of me was the evidence of the osprey’s prolific production, a smattering display worthy of any modern art exhibit. Crossing underneath that tree looked as hazardous as the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. And, yet, that was the path home.
I lifted my head and stared into the bird’s eyes. He glared back at me. I took a step forward. He inched his tail up. I flinched and stepped back. The tail dropped. A smile spread across his beak.
No, really. He smiled at me. The beak flexed. It turned up on the sides. At least that’s the way I remember it. Better.
We continued our dance. Step forward. Tail up. Step back. Tail down. Step. Tail. Step. Tail. We were in the ultimate standoff. Or a really weird square dance.
My neck was growing stiff from looking up at him. I needed a solution. “Look, you crazy bird, I just need to get by. I don’t want to mess with you.”
He glared at me, taunting me to attempt to pass unscathed.
“Don’t you dare do it.”
He shifted on his perch, but I took it as a sign I might be able to move. I inched forward, my eyes locked on his, and muttered, “Just let me by, please. I’ll go quick.”
That’s the moment I became aware of the jogger. His face held a questioning look, the same anyone would have if they encountered a mentally deranged man involved in a conversation with a tree while surrounded by a milling pack of wolves.
The wolves are easily explainable. They’re Siberian Huskies. We get the wolf thing a lot.
The mentally deranged man talking to himself description, however, was a fair assessment. And a historically accurate description of a writer.
In an attempt to explain myself, I pointed up into the tree at the now unoccupied branch. The bird had done what birds do… fly away. I then wordlessly pointed at the droppings on the ground as if I blamed the tree for littering.
The jogger slipped to the side of the trail, a wide berth between us as he passed, his eyes wide in wonder. Once safely beyond me (and the wolves), he picked up his pace and ran. I’m guessing he shared his encounter with his wife over breakfast and his co-workers later in the day.
He had his story.
I have mine.
And, somewhere, an osprey laughs.
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