story by Lee Siegel
illustrations by Alfredo Garma
Whenever I fly, I think about pigeons. I can’t help it, especially if I’m on a flight from the Big Island back home to O‘ahu. It’s the same route—so I was told about a year ago on a Hawaiian Airlines trip from Hilo to Honolulu—that racing pigeons fly in the Hawai‘i pigeon races. C I was eager to get home that evening and didn’t really want to engage in conversation with the big guy sitting next to me on the plane, hogging my armrest, blocking my view out of the window and looking suspiciously like he wanted to chat away the impending flight time. Look around—you can spot them on your plane—the gregarious, well-meaning folks who take comfort in yakking to the stranger strapped into the adjacent seat as a captive audience.
I don’t mean to seem misanthropic, but I’ve had bad luck with such friendly travelers. I’m never seated next to some gorgeous woman who tells me something interesting or exciting, a thrilling story about swimming with sharks in the Great Barrier Reef perhaps, or climbing Mount Everest, or doing humanitarian work in a refugee camp in Darfur. I’m never seated next to an astronaut, senator, film star, neurosurgeon, a CIA or FBI agent, or even an exotic dancer. No, I’m inevitably next to loquacious life insurance salesmen and realtors, or maybe a dental hygienist, a bank teller, or a grandmother from St. Louis on her first-ever Hawaiian vacation. That one showed me an entire album of photographs of a baby who looked like Bruce Willis. Politeness constrained me to say how cute he was. “She,” I was corrected and informed that, not only was the three-month- old pretty, she was brilliant as well. I’d tell you about all the clever things she can already do, but it doesn’t make for entertaining inflight reading.
Wary as I am of talkers on planes, and nervous about the big guy whose right shoulder was pushing against my left, I had taken the inflight magazine out of the pocket of the seat in front of me and started to work on the crossword puzzle at the back of the magazine with an air of concentration that insinuated “do not disturb.”
Ten minutes into the fifty-minute flight, the man next to me couldn’t resist reaching over to put his finger in the middle of my crossword puzzle: “This one. Thirty-three down. ‘Nelson’s nemesis at Trafalgar’—don’t you know that one?”
It did, in fact, confound me. “Surely it should be Napoleon,” I reflected, “but the right answer has only seven, not eight, letters. It doesn’t fit. Neither does Bonaparte.”
I had to admit that I didn’t know.
“It’s pigeons. P-i-g-e-o-n-s. You know, the birds that crap on Nelson’s head in Trafalgar Square over in London.”
During the remaining forty minutes of flight time, I learned a lot about pigeons.
“Many people think that pigeons are pests,” the discourse began: “You know ‘rats with wings’ that make our cities filthy and spread diseases like avian flu. They’re poisoning them at a lot of the hotels in Waikiki and at the International Market Place, too—that’s what I’ve heard anyway. I guess they don’t want those birds doing to the tourists here what they do to Admiral Nelson in London. But I like pigeons. In fact, I’m in the business of making pigeons happy and healthy. I’m the chief sales manager for the avian branch of Farmacopia, a veterinary pharmaceutical company. That’s why I’m here. There are more than 200 pigeon racers in Hawai‘i. We’ve got a lot of good customers here for our medications and supplements. I come over every year during the racing season.”
I closed my copy of Hana Hou! in surrender. That’s when I learned that I was, at that very moment, doing just what hundreds of Hawai‘i’s racing pigeons were doing that week—flying as fast as I could from the Big Island back home to O‘ahu. And the birds would do it faster than I would if we included travel time from my hotel to the airport in Hilo and home from the airport in Honolulu.
“They average about thirty, forty or even fifty miles an hour,” I was told, “but pigeons can easily fly at sixty miles an hour and have been clocked at up to 100. I admire and respect them. You fly a pigeon in a plane from O‘ahu over to the Big Island, a couple of hundred miles away from home, to a place he’s never been before, and let him go, and he flies straight home. There have been birds that made it back to their lofts from thousands of miles away. And why do you think they’re so intent on getting home?”
“For food?” I guessed.
“That’s what most people suppose. But think about it. You’re not going all the way back to Honolulu to eat, are you? No, there are lots of good restaurants on the Big Island. It’s the same for the birds. They don’t have to fly 200 miles across the ocean for a meal. The streets of Hilo have plenty of pizza crusts, hamburger bun crumbs, bits of malasadas and other leftovers that pigeons like to eat. And, if you’re a pigeon, you can always head for a park where you’ll be sure to find some sweet little old lady who will feed you quality seed a few times a day. In the wild, pigeons fly away from home to find food. There are, however, fanciers who think their birds will race home faster and not be tempted to eat just anywhere if they give them particular treats. I had one customer here in Hawai‘i who used to have marijuana seeds waiting for his racers. The judge didn’t buy it when the racer claimed in court that he was innocent of the charges on the grounds that he was only growing the marijuana for his pigeons. He swore he never sold it or used it himself.
“I don’t think the pot brought his pigeons home any faster. And I don’t believe it’s the food. So, what do you think it is?”