Put your loved ones in a cauldron, figuratively speaking, and boil them down to their essence, the one physical characteristic that immediately springs to mind when you think of them. It could be their mouth, their eyes, their missing finger, anything.
When I think of my father, the first thing that comes to mind is the back of his head, and then I am instantly in the back seat of our 1951 Plymouth, staring alternately at the back of his head, the very top of my little brother’s head, and the crate of pigeons beside me as we zoom down the highway, headed for Nowhere, West Virginia, on one of our endless summer training runs.
My father was a pigeon man—a racing pigeon man—so I was, by default, a pigeon son, along with my brother. As pigeon sons, we were tasked with feeding the pigeons, accompanying our father on training runs, listening to his rants when his birds lost races, watching his fistfights with other men in the pigeon club, and—worst of all—taking turns cleaning out the pigeon coop, where a hundred birds processed pounds and pounds of seed each day, leaving us to collect the result and distribute it throughout the garden, creating giant flowers and zucchini as long as baseball bats.
The training runs would begin in earnest just before Easter and run right through the racing season. The first training runs were rather modest, sometimes as little as a few miles, but then the runs would be extended to 50 miles, then to 75 miles, then to 100 miles, then right on up to 300 miles, sometimes more.
My father would pore over maps the night before, picking just the right release points, which typically involved destinations with nearby diners. Of course, he never revealed this information to us, so we started out each morning knowing only the distance. And since the miles were bird miles, not car miles, there was no way for us to monitor the odometer to gauge how far we had to go.
This created the usual tension, including increasingly strident “are we there yet” whines from my brother, who had a low boredom threshold. But then, in mid whine, we’d be there, my father pulling off the road into an open area suitable for releasing the pigeons. He’d hoist the crate out of the back seat, carry it a few yards from the car, and wait for us to join him. Then one of us would be designated to reach down and open the crate.
You’ve seen this sight before, I know. Perhaps not with pigeons, but certainly with doves, as a cloud of wings bursts into the sky, feathers flying, and forms a flock that briefly circles in the sky, chooses a direction, and is gone. It’s a sight I never tired of, and it made the return trip all the more exciting, as we wondered who would get home first.
Sometimes the pigeons would win, and we’d find them happily eating in the coop. Other times, we’d win and have the pleasure of watching the birds circle the coop and land one by one with the precision of a carrier pilot returning from a mission.
So, that’s what I think about when I think about my father. When I think about my brother, I think about the scar over his right eye, the one that, when all the stitching was done, spelled, “OK.”
But that is another story