A Bird In The Hand Of A POW

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - August 03, 2005
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We all have watched a female bird working frantically on her nest with consecutive loads of twigs or string or grass, but we seldom have the luxury of witnessing the entire process with analytical appreciation, to empathize with a mother sparrow’s struggle to fulfill the demands of her instincts.

I had that rare opportunity in cell No. 8 of the cell block we called “Stardust” in Hoa Lo prison, downtown Hanoi. Day by day, my cell mate, Air Force Capt. Dave Hatcher, and I studied the construction of the nest in the eaves just outside our high, barred open window, and rejoiced at the “cheep-cheep” announcement of the new little family that had come to share our tiny slice of the world.

But soon thereafter the prison authority launched a cleanup campaign, sweeping years of debris from the overhangs. As the beautiful little nest disintegrated from the broom, cascades of moldering twigs, dead insects and tiny feathers swirled down, most of it baby birds, fragments of shell and all, bouncing off the window sill to the outside — all except for one scrawny, wrinkle-pink baby bird, all beak, mouth and noise.

By using our “tap code” on the wall we announced to our POW comrades in the seven other “Stardust” cells our immense good fortune. Of course, this launched a “name the bird” contest. The ultimate winner was “Charlie,” the name the GIs in South Vietnam used for the Viet Cong communist guerrillas. After all, our Charlie was a communist sparrow.

We made a little nest of shredded paper and covered Charlie each night with a rag for warmth. We made tempting rice worms and stuffed ’em down his gullet. We dripped water from our fingers into his usually open mouth, not really knowing if he needed water. And Charlie thrived! He was a most willing object of our affection, spending much of his day cuddled and stroked in the palm of Dave’s or my hand. We sent out daily progress reports on his development.

In a few weeks he began to feather and soon thereafter ventured his first flight. “He flew! He flew!” we tapped. But Houston, we had a problem: He only flew in tight left-hand circles. What to do?

Suggestions poured in from a whole cell block full of flyers. “Pluck a feather from his strong side and tie it to his weak side,” or “tie a little object under the wing pit of his strong side so he can’t flap that wing as hard.” Or “launch him at an angle so he can see what it’s like to go straight.” Or, from a Navy pilot, ”Hell, don’t worry about it; that’s how you Air Force guys fly all the time anyway!”

Soon the guards and the water girls (who filled our liter jugs twice daily) heard about Charlie. “Cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep?” they’d ask through the small, barred window in the door. The gruffest of the water nymphs once asked if she could hold Charlie, so Dave gently passed him out to her. She cradled him and stroked his head cooing softly, then suddenly drew him toward her open mouth and with a fierce face threatened to eat him. “Oh no!” “Oh no!” we cried, shaking our heads with feigned horror. “Please don’t eat him!” She giggled loudly and turned to her friends jabbering like, “These stupid Americans thought I was really gonna eat this bird.” This became a daily ritual with the water girls, laughing and teasing, then gently pushing Charlie through the little bars to go on with their drudgery.

Charlie brought joy to the entire Stardust, each man deriving vicarious comfort from imagining the stroking of a little furry being in his hand, the simple exchange of love and tenderness with another living creature.

One morning Charlie was pecking at ants on the floor and Dave was standing next to the bunks doing heel raises to exercise his calves. On a down stroke he felt a crunch under his heel and we heard an abbreviated little “eep.” “Oh crap, it’s Charlie!”

That night Charlie died. In the few short weeks of his life he had been the object of so much pleasure, and had allowed all of us — captives and captors — to show the better sides of our nature. We all missed him terribly. And the little bugger never did learn to fly straight!

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