Feature Story

The Bird Man

Bird Man
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Starlings
Ice Tire
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Solo Road Trip, 1980's

Nothing holds as much promise for a photographer as a cross-country road trip. In the days before digital cameras, that meant buying 20 rolls of Tri-X and 20 rolls of Plus X, and you were good to go. I always loved ripping those yellow Kodak boxes open and throwing the plastic containers into various parts of my luggage, in shoes, in socks or rolled up in t-shirts. Then there was that one container that didn't have any film in it at all. That one had a special place.

In the early 1980's, uncertain of what direction my life would take, I decided that 640 dollars was enough of a nest egg to hit the open road in my trusty 4 Wheel Drive Subaru wagon and head toward California with only one rule. Take as long as you want, and always stray from the main roads. It was summer when I left and after a few months working in various Hollywood crew jobs, I decided it was time to head home in time for Christmas. I was pretty sure I was done with Los Angeles. Little did I know I would return years later and raise my family.

On the drive back, I hit the mother of all snowstorms. It lasted two or three states. I still drove like I had just robbed a convenience store and put that Subaru through its paces. Nonetheless, I started to get very tired. The white on white was starting to lull me into a deep sleep.

I gave up on side roads at this point. It was just too damn cold to shoot. I turned into a rest area filled with big-rigs and automobiles, all of us pretty weary from trying to stay in our own lanes. Then, I put my seat all the way back so I could lay flat and I was out cold in less than a minute. I figured I would give myself 30 minutes. I looked at my watch. It said 10 a.m.

The next thing I remember was that I was flying. I was amazed at how easy it was. I could dive and turn and swoop just by thinking about where I wanted to go. I looked around me and I was surrounded by a huge flock of starlings. They didn't seem to mind that I was accompanying them on their journey through the grey winter sky. I was shivering though. I remember thinking that I wouldn't last long up here in the clouds because I felt my hands were numb and my feet were starting to ache.

Then I heard the loud blast of a trucker's horn and I woke up staring at the ceiling of my car. I wasn't flying after-all, but to my surprise, out of all three windows that were within my field of vision, the sky was black with starlings. They moved like a great school of fish, forming patterns of light and dark as they changed direction. There must have been ten thousand birds.

I looked at my watch. It read, 4:30 P.M. I had really been out. I guess I needed to sleep more than I was willing to admit. But, what happened next was very strange.

I turned my head to the right to stretch, and there was a man, an old man, standing at my window looking down at me. He didn't move. He just stared at me like he was looking at a pond. I thought maybe he didn't see me, that some reflection in my car window hid me from his view, but then he smiled like he could see that I was waking up.

I got out out of my car, but not before grabbing my Canon A-1 on the floor of the passenger seat. As soon as I opened the door, a rush of cold air swept in and did a good job of waking me up. The man watched as I stretched my arms. I pointed my camera at the sky while yawning and shot a few frames. I had the wrong lens and had no idea where my other gear was, so I shot some more. It must have rained while I was sleeping because the snow was gone, except for a few places. I must have come out of the mountains, but it was still pretty chilly.

"Pretty wild, huh?", I said to break the silence.

"Starlings. Listen to them," he said raising his chin to the sky.

"You taking a break? It's pretty rough out there."

"What?, he asked. "A break?" He seemed confused.

"A break from the drive. You know, what with the snow and all. It's pretty hellish of there.

"Oh. yes. The drive. Yes. I 'm taking a break and I noticed you sleeping there. I was worried."

He went on to tell me that he was from Pennsylvania, and that he had been driving trucks for 30 years. He said he lost his wife and the first fortune he had ever earned. He said he liked the road, and he told me a long story about fighting in World War II and how he got wounded, and how all of his friends had long since passed.

I asked him about his truck. He turned and pointed to a long trailer attached to a red truck.

I told him that I always wanted to drive a truck. And then I did something I don't often do. I knew that I wanted to document this day, but instead of asking if I could shoot him, I pointed my camera at the sky and made sure he was in the frame. I still don't know why I didn't just ask him. There was something strange about him I couldn't put my finger on. His clothes looked fairly worn and I wondered why he had no gloves.

I excused myself to go to the restroom. He said he would keep an eye on my car for me. As I walked away I wondered if he wasn't going to rifle through my car. I don't think I even locked it because I got out so quickly to shoot the starlings. Now it would seem rude to lock the car when this old man just offered to guard it.

I went into the concrete building. I must have been in there for three minutes. When I returned to my car, there was no sign of my new friend. I looked over at the red truck just as the driver's door opened and a man stepped down from the cab. It was a large black man with a wool hat on. He walked toward me and I asked, "Is that your red truck?"

"Yes, sir. I own that baby. Paid it off last year."

"Do you have a partner?" I asked.

"You mean a driving partner. My wife used to ride with me until she left me for some idiot at the drugstore. Can you believe that?"

He smiled and walked past me.

I got back in my car and turned the heat on. I threw my camera back on the floor where it lived.

As I slid the car into reverse, the snow started coming down again pretty heavy as I moved toward the on-ramp. I started slipping in the fresh snow, but I could feel my Subaru transferring power to each wheel. I loved that car. Then, just as I got back on the highway, about a quarter of a mile past the rest area, I saw a lone figure. He was standing at the side of the road, hands in his pockets, huge flurries of white snow blowing past him and around his face. He had no emotion on his face that I could read. He looked right into my eyes and turned his head as I passed, our eyes locked for those few seconds as I gathered speed.

I quickly turned to look in my rear-view mirror. He had pivoted his body to see my car driving off. The next thing he did, I will never forget. He saluted me. A slow and deliberate salute that he kept to his forehead without ever taking his hand down. I watched as the old man became engulfed in a cloud of white snow blowing off the highway from passing cars, as I headed home, hoping to be with my family for the holidays.

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Hi there!

thought you might like this story!

http://jpgmag.com/stories/10924

Thanks,
—The JPG team

8 responses

  • Lisa Bruder

    Lisa Bruder said (20 Mar 2009):

    This story inspired me to enjoy the quiet moments and look at the world with a wide open mind. Loved the story...couldn't stop reading!

  • Michael Adams

    Michael Adams gave props (20 Mar 2009):

    Great story. Really makes you wonder and you have some very fitting images to go along with it. I like the shot of him!

  • Chris Ragazzo

    Chris Ragazzo said (20 Mar 2009):

    Michael,
    A good friend thinks he was a guardian angle looking after me.
    Powerful thought to consider.
    Chris

  • Jamie Webb

    Jamie Webb (Deleted) gave props (21 Mar 2009):

    truly wonderful story!!! its nice to think that he was a guardian angle!

  • Jason Pepe

    Jason Pepe gave props (5 Apr 2009):

    Great story, enjoyed reading and wondering. You had me right there!

  • May Kintanar-Afenir

    May Kintanar-Afenir gave props (22 May 2009):

    What a great experience...thanks for sharing!

  • Ken Neoh

    Ken Neoh said (13 Jun 2009):

    I am totally absorbed into your narration. amazing story. amazing encounter.

  • Mike Melnotte

    Mike Melnotte gave props (14 Jun 2009):

    I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

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