A FALL OF BIRDS
A gentle story of a boy’s last days alone with his older brother, of a wild white owl and a telegram before Christmas—all on the day before yesterday, in a time when a man still had to cross an ocean in order to find death in a war.
Ronald R. Jeffels
I remember him as though it were yesterday, but nearly twenty years have gone by since he stood leaning against the frame of the door reading the letter. I remember, too, that it was the first official envelope I had ever seen: brown glossy paper, ominous, bearing the black letters OHMS across the front. My mother came in fretfully from the kitchen. This ivas a dreaded moment for her. She knew by looking at my brother what the letter contained and she came forward without a word to kiss him. He ivas awkward and self-conscious and moved away slightly, not because her attentions embarrassed him, but because war is first of all a violation of woman's rights and, the gentleness within her.
“It's come then." Her voice was apologetic. It wavered, then broke, and I knew she was about to cry.
My brother nodded simply, as though this were the most usual thing in the world, as though it happened daily and ivas, after all, without particular significance.
“Does it sag when you have to go? Is it soon?"
“Not yet, not for another month. Now, Mother, don't worry. Everything's going to be all right. Nothing can happen and we'll all be home again soon." His tone ivas not, convincing.
I was seventeen. I knew Europe only from the geography books. France was a purple hexagon, Italy a brown top boot, Portugal and Spain an orange square, and Germany a black wolf's head. Their peoples were as strange to me as the inhabitants of
the moon. They spoke harsh ungodly languages in which it was possible to write romantic poetry or epic stories but totally impossible to make love, order a meal, or change trains. Yet this paper world with its cardboard, men and women was about to claim my brother. I found the idea improbable and unreal but frightening.
At night we watched my father bent over the newspapers, following the broad black arrows which showed the enemy armies poised along a thousand miles of frontier.And there were flashes of headlines announcing the mobilization of British troops, or the appointment of new generals, and pictures of civilians, collarless, in waistcoats, digging trenches in Hyde Park or drilling selfconsciously with bits of stick on the moors and commons of England. And women with brave, dead eyes stood in queues to have their babies fitted for gas masks.
My father had not forgotten the war because no man ever does, and he had a permanent mommy cough to remind him of what happened at Ypres. But as the years passed he remembered only what he wanted to remember, and the endless stories he told us as children were of good comrades, leave in Paris, and quick moments of happiness. For him the years in the trenches were all a remote, unreal dream.
He took me aside tivice as I was growing up. Once, soon after I ivas fifteen, he thought the time had come to explain the manly (continued on page U7)
(continued on page 48)
Continued from page 21
A FALL OF BIRDS
War was berets, poppies, the lament of bagpipes
manly art of self-control. It was an awkward bumbling interview, and we both came away from it flushed and embarrassed. I learned nothing I did not already know, except that now and then the aged think of the blood that once stirred in their veins. He took me aside a second time when Lome received the letter.
“You ought to volunteer, you know. Then you can pick whatever branch of the service you want. But when they start calling men up the way they did the last time, you might find yourself shoved anywhere.” He spoke in a monotone, completely without passion, but he was a silent man and I think now that it hurt him deeply to lose either of us.
That fall I wanted to register at the University. Lome had already finished his degree in history and was headed for a post in External Affairs, but in July of 1939, two months before the war broke out, he had been accepted by the air force.
“They wouldn’t take me. I’m not old enough.” Some of my friends had already been down to enlist but they were turned away.
“If it lasts, and it will, you’ll be old enough. In fact, you’ll be just the right age. So you’d better do one year at the University and then join up. I hat way they might take you as an officer candidate and, believe me, that’s a lot better than slogging it out in the trenches.” He knew because he had done his four years as a corporal in an infantry battalion.
War was an unreal thing to me and those of my kind who grew to young manhood in the late thirties. It was a Prairie morning at the cenotaph under the first snow of winter, with old men in berets, with red poppies, with the lament of bagpipes. It was Hell's Angels and All Quiet on the Western Front. It was the clear bold purple of the Victoria Cross worn by a local doctor. But it was still unreal. The meeting with my father left me frightened and full of doubts and I went to Lome as I had so many times in the past.
He was nearly five years older, sound, practical, and full of common sense, and as we grew up he helped me over the rough spots. No mood of mine escaped his attention, and he seemed to have an instant understanding whenever things went wrong. Sometimes he played the game of telling me what I was thinking, and he was more often right than wrong. I was closer to him than I have ever been to any other man.
We walked together down the long street that leads to the centre of the city. We passed the recruiting station where the first men stood in a queue waiting to go in. They smoked endlessly, shuffled their feet, and watched with growing uneasiness as the line inched forward. A sergeantmajor with a high proud chest and glittering medals marched up and down, and with his pacing stick he looked like some prophet of old bending a delinquent people to his will. He scowled and threatened, because he had spent the best part of his life putting clockwork motors into men, and if the toy didn’t run perfectly when the key was turned, he was an unhappy craftsman. He would have his work cut out with this lot.
“All right, all right. Have done. No talking and no smoking when you get inside the armory. Once in, strip. And I mean
We fished and camped. It was all rich, secure, endless — far from the terrible events of Europe
strip. Fill the bottle and it's sir to the MO. Got it?”
At night the same men would appear in the streets, ill-at-ease and self-conscious in their thick rough uniforms, to wander in vague discontent with loneliness cupped in their chests. Already I identified myself with them, and as we went home Lome and I talked quietly about the strange digestive process inside the belly of the armory which transformed men like ourselves into soldiers.
THE DAY AFTER the letter arrived he suggested we take a few' days off and go shooting at a lake just north of the city. After an endless summer the stubble fields w'ere black with mallard and teal, and Lome loved hunting. My parents had a small cottage there and as children we spent the vacations together exploring the surrounding woods, seeking out birds’ nests, or wandering along the beaches toward the point where the reeds grew' straight and green.
We borrowed a car. loaded our gear and set off on a Friday afternoon about the third week in September. All the summer folk had returned for the opening of school and the little village shops and the single hotel were battened down for the winter. We drove at dusk through the empty streets, where the wind stirred the poplar leaves into a last flutter of life or exploded here and there into little brown puffs of dust. I remember that the silence depressed me. because we never came in the fall and usually these same streets were full of children playing children's games. And the familiar cottage was suddenly an alien place with its shuttered windows and dead lamps.
For two days we wandered along the side roads under an autumn sun. Here and there the threshing machines puffed their
long ribbons of chopped straw into the air and the piles grew into pyramids of gold. Throughout the day the hunters' guns echoed and re-echoed across the lake and the broad wedges of duck veered suddenly and fled down the wind. Along the circle of the horizon the smoke from burning stubble fields rose in slow' columns, marking where the harvest had already heen lifted and the land put to rest.
For some reason Lome did not want to hunt and so we fished along the point where the marshlands begin and caught perch and pickerel which we cooked and ate at night. It was all rich, secure, endless, and there was comfort in the thought that we were so far separated from the events that were crushing down on Europe.
He made up his mind suddenly. Lie wanted to visit the island which lay across the lake to the north, a favorite place for boating and picnics. We both knew it well for we often rowed across in the skiff, and I think Lome wanted to make a last pilgrimage to a place he loved and which recalled our childhood together. So we got the skiff down to the water's edge, loaded it with bedding and food for three days and set out.
Erom the beginning he had trouble with the engine. It coughed and died, coughed and died again and again before he got it started and we were under way. The wind cut down sharply as we left the cover of the shore and broke the water into little tempered blades that chopped hard at the sides of the boat. Halfway across the visibility suddenly dropped and it began to snow. Lome swore roundly and nursed the engine. Neither of us exchanged a word and I began to wish we had never come.
The engine finally gave up three hundred yards from the shore, so w'e nosed the boat in with the paddles. The reeds
grew everywhere in thick rustling walls along the fringes of the island and we had to jump in up to our knees to get the boat ashore.
“All right, let's get the camp set up as soon as we can. I'll pitch the tent and you see what you can do about a fire. Damn it all, why did it have to turn out like this? We should have known better, coming out here at this time of the year." He began to ¿oss the duffle bags ashore and I went in search of wood. By now the snow drifted down in great wet flakes, but it turned to ice water as soon as it touched the trees and reeds and in the dying sun the whole island shone and glistened.
We brought the fire as close as possible
to the tent and cooked our supper. Then w'e lay in our sleeping bags, w'atching the flames turn to coals and the coals to white powdery ash. Lome smoked his pipe and we talked quietly about what would happen to us both if the war lasted.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. But 1 don’t see that it can last for that long — a year, maybe eighteen months, but no longer. And no matter what the old man says they won’t take you. You’ll still be under nineteen before the whole thing packs up. You want to know why I’m going? Well, for the first time in my life I can get away and be on my own. Straight from university into External Affairs . . . sure, it sounds w'onderful. But I’d like a chance to spread out before all that starts.
This way 1 at least get to see something of Europe.”
There was more to it than that but men never list patriotism as a reason for joining up. And soldiers are great optimists, because the laws of chance can never go against them and each man knows that he will come back.
I wakened a dozen times during the night. The ground was wet and the cold crept in under the floor of the tent and through the sleeping bag. Lome slept on but he turned restlessly, mumbling black dreams to himself. Dawn came just after five and there was no further use trying to sleep. I got up, built the fire, and by the time he stirred I had breakfast ready. In a remote but suddenly mature way I felt responsible for him.
We decided to try for the early flights of ducks as they left the shelter of the island to beat north to the feeding grounds. The boat was a dead thing, clammy to the touch, sodden with last night’s snow. But the sun began 10 warm the land and the lake steamed.
We moved off silently, perhaps five hundred yards from the shore and let the boat drift. There was no sound, no wind, no movement anywhere on the island. Now and then a quick eddy broke on the lake as a fish suddenly rose and fell away.
We rounded the point of the island and the first flight of mallards crashed through the reeds, straight-necked, wings pounding, their feet leaving long slashes across the water. Lome had the shotgun but for some reason he didn't move. He had his back to me and I saw him drop his head like a man with a sudden need to pray. I whispered and nudged him with the paddle but he remained where he was. The ducks raked the air, gathered formation, wheeled against the sun. and then were gone suddenly across the trees.
We drifted on and I could find nothing to say. Then he turned, straightened his shoulders and shrugged in a helpless way. his eyes fixed on the barrel of the gun. Then he put it aside, picked up the paddle, and drove the boat ahead with long strokes.
I saw it first: atop the dead spar of a jack pine an enormous snowy owl, with tufted feet and ears, as motionless as white marble. For a long moment he stood sentinel over his lake and then his eyes turned in our direction. From the boat looking up I could almost sense the bird's fear, l.orne slid his right hand back and drew the gun to him. I heard both hammers click back into the firing position. The sound startled the owl and it took the wind on great slow wings, climbing into the sun and coming straight over our heads.
Lome fired the first then the second barrel and the thunder of the gun broke over the island and the lake, cracking the silence. The reeds and the bushes were suddenly alive with wings.
But the owl flew on, flew on momentarily. because then it faltered, dropped one wing, and toppled quietly and without protest like a d-y leaf taken by the storm.
I heard Lome groan and he kept the gun to his shoulder still sighting along the length of the barrel. Then he lowered it slowly until the muzzle rested on the prow of the boat and I saw some of the life go out of his body. He waited for an endless moment and then paddled on to where the owl floated head down near the reeds. He leaned over, picked up the bird with some difficulty, and with infinite care placed it under the tarpaulin. As he turned toward me I could see the disgust in his face and -we made our way back to the camp.
He kept repeating: “I don't know why
I did it. The bird had no chance, not at that range against a shotgun. It was stupid, stupid and useless.”
He refused to look at the owl so I went over to examine it. The wings measured a good four feet across, and the belly was as white as a bride’s veil. The charge from one of the barrels had taken him full in the chest, but there was no blood, and he remained as beautiful in death as in life.
The owl wore a metal band around its right leg and 1 pried open the catch with my pocket-knife. It had been released eight months earlier from an experimental station in Montana. There was a code number to identify it for the official records and the finder was asked to return the band to the group of researchers who were studying migratory habits. The place, the time, and the manner of death were also to be mentioned.
We left the bird on the island under a pile of dried grass and branches and went home. I mailed the band and just before Lome left for the air force received a reply thanking me for my cooperation and enclosing a small brochure describing the nature and extent of the experiment.
I REGISTERED AT the University a week later and settled down to a long winter of study. Lome wrote frequently, now from Brandon, now from Trenton and Toronto, and finally in July of 1940 he was posted overseas to a fighter wing. All that summer in England he flew sorties against the French coast and he wrote to my mother frequently about the wonders of flying and the new wisdom that had come to him.
Then late in September 1 had a letter from him. a letter which I still keep. It has none of the extravagances young men write in time of war: it is simple, direct and candid and it shows the measure of him as a man. Flying was a passion for him and in the air he discovered a richness in himself that he had never known to exist. He was proud of his skill as a pilot, proud of his squadron, and proud of the fear that accompanied him whenever he flew. During that summer he was twice promoted and at twenty-three he was a flight-lieutenant with the violet and white striped ribbon of the DFC.
We had the news by telegram just before Christmas. Most of my mother died on that day. And then a letter followed from his squadron commander .. . Nothing much was known about his disappearance. He took off alone from a station in southern England for a mission against a target in the Pas de Calais area. The ground crews watched him climb against the sun as he set course for France. He was missing, presumed dead. And the letter was full of praise for Lome's courage: he was held in the highest respect by his friends and his superiors. The squadron commander was sorry that he could offer no real comfort because words were useless things on such occasions. However, my parents could feel proud of the way in which Lome had always carried out his duty — he was a good officer and a good comrade ... I remember that even in my grief I felt an infinite compassion for any man who had to write such a letter and I wondered how I might have done it myself.
Two months later we had a small parcel through the Red Cross in Geneva, together with an official letter confirming his death. His aircraft fell in the shallows just off the French coast and his body was picked up from the water by the German battery who shot him down.
The Red Cross returned his wallet, a pipe, a broken watch, and a silver identification bracelet he always wore on his left wrist. I still have the bracelet. It reads: TK63482, F/L Webster L.J., 3/6/18, C of E. ★