Only the most hardcore literalist could go through life without using the symbols and metaphors which fill our lives. It’s interesting to me how we seem to prefer these symbols to reality so often. Perhaps it’s because they are often filled with non verbal meaning. You know what I mean, the “picture is worth a thousand words” thing. The example which seems to always come to my mind occurred when I was an airshow performer. I was performing in an airshow in Colorado. It was the early evening and I was preparing for the usual pre-show social activities when the phone rang. It was Steve Oliver. Steve called to tell me that our friend, Tom Jones, had been killed at the Oklahoma City Airshow. I was devastated. I’d only known Tom for a couple of years, but we’d become very close. Tom had helped me get better at aerobatics. He himself had recently been named National Aerobatic Champion. He was the first U.S. airshow pilot to fly a Russian Sukhoi SU26.
I dropped everything. I would fly to Oklahoma City to be with Tom’s wife, Kathy, and all the rest of his friends who were coming from all over the world to attend his service. My then-wife and I got on an airliner in Denver and the flight to Oklahoma City was somber for us both. It was raining in Oklahoma City. We worked our way out of the terminal building and stood on the curb, looking for our ride. It was then that my gaze lowered and I saw the symbol.
The starling was dead, but that wasn’t what made it the amazing metaphor that it would be for the rest of my life. It lay in the gutter which was running with a steady flow of rainwater. The water washed over its limp body and it had soaked its now-useless feathers. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Why had it died? How had it come to rest at the very spot where I stood? Why had it ended its life in such a sodden state, its feathers soaked and useless?
A couple of days later we laid Tom to rest at the cemetery. Someone had paid attention to some exquisite details. His coffin was jet black and perfectly mirrored. Tom had a heavily customized pickup truck with the same paint job. The truck had, “Tom Jones, Famous Stunt Pilot” beautifully lettered in gold on its side. The coffin had the same legend. It was beautiful.
I will always remember that day at the cemetery. I’ll always remember the service which had to be held in the FAA hangar at the Oklahoma City Airport in order to accommodate the hundreds of mourners. I’ll always remember the Russians, who made the long trip to the U.S. in order to salute their fallen friend and to report that, “when we heard that the laughing man died, our hearts bled…”.
But what I will remember most is the lifeless starling, its feathers soaked, never to fly again in the gutter at the Oklahoma City Airport.