Blown Off Course
It is not until you take off your shoes and socks and roll up your pant legs on the first day of this trip to the rugged Northern California coast that you see it. A bird struggling on shore beneath the golden orange sails of a western sunset. It thrashes about at the base of a dune, out of reach from incoming tides.
At first, you think it’s a seagull, but you’ve never seen such a big one before. For just a moment you wonder what other kind of bird it can be. Then you remember hearing of an albatross, although you’ve never seen one. Never even heard of them except in a high school English literature class.
If you hadn’t slept through The Rime of the Ancient Mariner because you were high on pot and couldn’t keep awake, you might’ve learned a thing or two about it besides its bigness from the poem.
You planned on playing your guitar. For now, you lay it down on the blanket. Not something you would usually do. This mahogany twelve string beauty is a time-worn friend. You’ve had it for almost four decades. The moist salt air alone – without the gritty wash of windblown sand - could damage your beloved instrument. Then what would you have left? Nightmares. Shadowed sleep. Darkened images of body parts you and other Vietnam medics had to collect. “Bags of them,” you once wrote to a friend who quit writing back. “Too heavy” her last note on the backside of a Norman Rockwell postcard.
“Shit!” You get closer to the bird. Its breathing isn’t right. You can tell even though you know nothing about how a creature like this should breathe. It needs help. You quickly glance around. There is no one else is on the beach.
“It’s okay there, it’s okay,” you speak softly to not frighten it. Eyes opened wide, head bobbing side to side, it starts to get up. Its large, white wings, tipped with black and grey feathers, start to open but as you step forward to get a closer look, it plops back down and whines before snapping its hooked beak at you.
“All right, little lady.” You think it’s a female. You learned as a cub scout that female birds tend to be muted.
“You’re safe with me. I won’t hurt you.” You’ve said that before and meant it every word. But the bombs dropping on Vietnamese villages made you a liar. You think twice anymore about promis- ing anything. Slowly you sit down – a few yards away – and wonder what you can do to make it feel secure.
You sing. “This land is my land. This land is your land.”
What you really wanted to be was a balladeer, a god damn folksinger because you loved – ab- solutely loved – that music. You found it in your late teens somewhere between bluegrass and country ballads about living an honest, hard life. Music. Real music. Not that electric rock crap.
Instead, you were drafted. You argued with enlist- ment officers about that. Thought your principles mattered enough for them to not force you to serve. As a conscientious objector you were assigned to be a medical aide.
A heaviness envelops you now when you think about it, so you try not to. Your head is already
full of shelled-out life, government lies and man- grove swamps so dense they devour like quicksand. Together, they almost took you under several times. If your barrack buddy hadn’t shared his heroin, you might not have made it through. Might not be here now. Tough habit to quit, but you did. It was after that, once stateside, you discovered the spiders on the walls of the Arizona backwoods cabin you rent were not part of a drug crash. No one else sees them. The veterans’ hospital doctor says post-trau- matic hallucinations can show up like that.
“Just need to wait it out. It’ll be easier with a pre- scription to knock you out,” he explained.
The psychotropics were strong enough for a horse which you’re not.
Maybe sometimes a jackass. You think now you should have gone to Canada when you had the chance. Why the hell didn’t you?
You whistle to try to stop yourself from answering that question. Too worried about disappointing your family. Your country. Right now, none of them worth it. You focus instead on the bird. It is making strange squeaks. Another albatross lands nearby. Its thick body wags on webbed feet as it makes its way to the female. She tries to get up again. Can’t. You notice a band around the new one’s leg. It’s been tagged. Maybe her, too? Hard to tell with her legs tucked beneath her. The two make noises to each another until the second bird settles down right next to the injured one. You watch their togetherness, and something catches in your throat. You haven’t said your wife’s name in a long time. It was difficult learning how to pronounce it correctly. Vietnamese is not an easy language to learn. But you tried. You swallow, forcing yourself to think again of the bird’s band. A relief. It means someone is keeping an eye on them, or at least him.
The muscles in your jaws relax. Identification is a good thing. Unless it is not. Like when you had
to ID the torso of a Vietnamese woman a fellow medic brought to your attention. You knew right away she was your wife. She trusted you with her body then gave you a son who died in that same village raid. What you would have given to not know it was her.
Removing your glasses because tears make it hard to see through them, you lay down on your back and look up at the sky. You manage a few deep inhales and exhales: the type you learned in one of the after-war stress management classes. They help, but you really needed the anger man- agement sessions that were already full. Unexpected swells of rage flood you. They fill your lungs with rising waters you can’t bring closer or push away. They must subside on their own.
When they do, you drive to the ranger station to tell them about the bird. The next day you stop by the national park service office to find out what happened.
“Wisdom, the female, is quite a celebrity,” the ranger explains. “She’s 68 and that makes her the oldest known banded bird in the wild!” She was distressed, but he happily announces, “looks like she’ll bounce right back.” The other bird is her mate. His leg band helped them to connect the dots. Good thing; hers had been hard to read. The two were being monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The team had to travel some distance to get to the ranger station. “Those guys sure responded rapidly,” the ranger continues.
The ranger says the birds are eating as much squid and roe as they can. He adds that the wildlife agency is arranging for a plane to take them back home.
You discover Wisdom was first banded in 1956. Over the decades, less durable aluminum bands had been replaced with sturdier alloy ones. That’s how they know it’s her. The biologists at the agency believe she’d been on her way to her birthplace to nest. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is her traditional breeding and birthing site.
Curious, you look at a map and see it is a long way off from this side of the Pacific Ocean where you found her. Over there, located on the farthest edge of the Hawaiian archipelago, it is made up of two flats surrounded by a coral reef. Only hours away by plane. But by a bird getting ready to lay an egg?
“You’ll be pleased to know this will be her fortieth.” The ranger is happy. “The wildlife crew kept meticulous records on her. Told me she’s laid one almost every year since she first mated. Started at 12. They’ve been together that long. Guess those birds are pretty faithful.”
Suddenly, you are no longer listening. Your wife gave birth only once. You would’ve been faithful, too.
Unaware, as most people unfamiliar with the effects of war are, the park ranger keeps talking. He explains over your silence that the albatrosses were blown off course by severe coastal gales. Wis- dom grew weak trying to ride the currents that kept holding her back.
Just like you when you left Vietnam. Evacuation orders meant you couldn’t finish the burial rituals or make sure the ashes of your wife and baby, once pieces of him had been located, were placed alongside their ancestors. Harnessed inside the military helicopter, you prayed her family would understand, would be willing to finish the task. Your buddies encouraged you to believe that if you gave yourself enough time you would find ways to get on with your life.
Now you write poetry about fighting the Viet Cong, stories about walking up narrow rock pathways with fruit offerings for Buddhist stupas that tower over everything. You journal about standing in lines at urban soup kitchens because you can’t keep a steady, decent paying job. Then you turn those words into lyrics you sing in Maricopa County veteran centers because those who served in Vietnam relate to everything about your songs.
On the last day of your stay you return for one last look at the ocean. Remove shoes and socks. Leave the guitar in the car. The surf is too loud to try to hear what you play anyway. Besides, you really want to just stare out over the horizon towards Wisdom’s nesting spot.
You scan the water before you. Your heart skips a beat as you imagine a ship out at sea that might take you to Midway Atoll.
But its course is blindly charted. The vessel is headed straight into an ocean windstorm. It loses its bearing. Cannot bear the strain of being tossed about. Within minutes it is pulled apart at the seams. Disappears below the sea’s surface.
Your breath becomes jagged. You stumble a few feet, almost fall. For anchor, you dig your toes into the wet turf. Bend over to scoop up a full handful of the loose shore. Squeeze the damp grains tightly into a ball you hurl towards the waves. Grinding your teeth until they hurt, you cry out as loudly as you can.
“God damn it, I’m still here!”