Hawk in the wind

While out for a mid-day walk in the biting January cold, I turned the collar of my coat up against the windy gusts that ripped the surface of the river, tore at the branches of the trees and sent dry leaves spinning upwards like whirling dervishes.

Standing on the concrete jetty behind the old mill, I suddenly looked up and chanced to see a red-tailed hawk overhead, struggling in flight, making little headway against the wind.

Buffeted, he braced, buckled, then barrel rolled directly into the wind; veered, braced, then buckled again; momentarily held tight, then was suddenly swept away, cast off into the southwestern sky, pummeled by a sea of pounding air.

His heroic efforts brought to mind Saint Exupéry’s description of flying into the rushing winds off the coast of Patagonia in the mid 1930s. According to Saint Exupéry’s account, “For three months of the year the speed of these winds at ground level is up to one hundred miles an hour.”

“In the first place, I was standing still. Having banked right in order to correct a sudden drift, I saw the landscape freeze abruptly where it was and remain jiggling in the same spot. I was making no headway. My wings had ceased to nibble into the outline of the earth.

“There was no longer a horizon. I was in the wings of a theatre cluttered up with bits of scenery. Vertical, oblique, horizontal, all of plane geometry was awhirl.

“Whenever I seemed about to take my bearings a new eruption would swing me round in a circle or send me tumbling wing over wing and I would have to try all over again to get clear of all this rubbish.

“I was wrestling with chaos, was wearing myself out in a battle with chaos, struggling to keep in the air a gigantic house of cards that kept collapsing despite all I could do.

“The first blow sent me rolling over and over and the sky became a slippery dome on which I could not find a footing.

“Here where I was, facing west, I was as good as motionless, unable to either advance or retreat….So I let myself drift to the left. I had the feeling, meanwhile, that the wind’s violence had perhaps slackened.”

Saint Exupéry concludes with this observation: “The physical drama itself cannot touch us until someone points out its spiritual sense.”

For me, it was much the same with the hawk.

“The Elements” in Wind, Sand and Stars, pp. 58-68.


A Mozart murdered

The world was stunned and silenced on that bright November day,
When a mad assassin’s bullet took that gallant heart away.

Last Saturday my daughter called to report that she and my son-in-law had made it to Dallas in good stead.  Their flight was on time, smooth, uneventful.  “We walked over to the grassy knoll to see the site of the Kennedy assassination,” she told me.  “I guess the anniversary is coming up on Monday.”

Her words momentarily shocked me.  I had forgotten all about it.  Without thinking, I said:  “Did you see the Texas School Book Depository, the building where Oswald lay in wait for Kennedy’s motorcade to pass by?”

“Yes,” she said.  “They call it something different now.”

I could see it in my mind’s eye:  a seven-story brick structure, a grassy knoll in downtown Dallas, a November day forty-seven years ago.  I was ten years old at the time, peeking at slides under a microscope which a classmate, the son of one of the town’s doctors, had brought to our fifth grade room, when the announcement came over the PA system:  “The President of the United States has been shot.”

At the time I had no words to describe my reaction. The announcement seemed surreal, as though it had come from another place and time light-years away.

It was only later that day when we were sitting in the cafeteria that the final faltering words of our principal struck home:  “The President of the United States is dead.”

If that announcement defined a horrendous act that occurred at a moment in time, it also foreshadowed a decade of violence.  Soon the war in Vietnam would escalate, civil rights workers would be murdered, race riots would break out in Los Angeles.  By the end of the 1960s two additional national leaders would be struck down.  Within a few short years another president would resign in disgrace.

Those of us coming of age in those turbulent times lost not only the innocence of youth; unconsciously, we witnessed the loss of national potential and promise.  By the end of that decade, if we had sent a man to the moon and returned him safely to earth; as a country we had also stained our hands with the blood of thousands of innocent lives.  The torch had been passed to a new generation—a generation of promise—and somehow we had failed to carry it forward.

In the concluding lines of his classic, Wind, Sand and Stars, Saint Exupéry writes:  “I am not weeping over an eternally open wound.  Those who carry the wound do not feel it.  It is the human race and not the individual that is wounded here.  What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness.  It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.”