I was driving to work one morning using my customary route, an eight-mile trek down a scary two-lane drag strip with no stop signs or lights, followed by another seven miles down a safer, divided four-lane. I always breathed a sigh of relief when the narrow road ended and the big road began.
The two-lane shoulder was narrow, the ditches deep. Caution was the rule for most drivers…lots of fatal accidents on this stretch of highway. This was the main route from my rural home in Hollywood, South Carolina to my work in Charleston…the notorious Hwy. 162. The 55 mph limit didn’t stop an occasional drunk from careening down the road at 90 mph and slamming into one of the huge Live Oaks along the edge of the road at Brittain’s Curve, the halfway point of my journey down 162. These very old, stately trees had witnessed wagon traffic a century or so earlier. Now they were pockmarked by makeshift crosses and wreaths one wouldn’t have seen back in wagon days.
Successfully navigating the deadly curve, I came to a long straightaway. Traveling another quarter mile or so, I spotted a critter in the road ahead…small, fuzzy, and barely moving. I quickly determined that it was a bird swaying dizzily on the yellow line. I slowed down, edging over to the right. Didn’t want to startle it. Glancing down, I realized that it was okay… a bit stunned but not squished or seriously wounded. It had managed to stay in the relative safety of the center of the road despite a few half-hearted hops.
My first thought was to pull over and see if I could rescue the hapless little critter from certain doom. But this could be dangerous, not to mention foolish. There were plenty of folks from these parts who would swerve all over the road trying to hit a snake. I am fairly certain that a few malcontents (or teenagers) would do the same thing to score a bird hit.
My rescue effort would probably come too late, I reasoned, recalling a previous futile effort to save a huge turtle meandering across a busy road near Columbia, our state capitol. I had hastily pulled off the road and run back to the turtle just in time to hear the loud, sickening crunch of its shell under the tire of a big pickup truck.
Back to the bird. I kept driving, but couldn’t stop thinking about the pitiful, confused critter on that narrow strip of yellow painted asphalt. Should I pull over? The little devil on my shoulder piped in, “Hey fool, this is Hwy. 162. You could get yourself killed.” As I drove on, a fierce debate raged between the little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other… each forcefully presenting their case. Finally, the little angel said, “Hey, traffic isn’t that bad this morning and you don’t open your store for another hour. Go back and help that little birdie!”
I found the safest turn-around spot I could find about a mile past the bird. I had to step on it to get back in time to implement my little rescue mission. Luckily, right next to where the bird was performing his dizzy dance, there was a closed-down antique store with a gravel parking lot. I pulled over, got out of my truck, and walked to the edge of the road. By this time the bird was no longer in the temporary safety zone provided by the yellow line. It had moved about a foot over into the lane closest to me. I cautiously waited until an oncoming car drove by because I didn’t want to startle the driver. I mean, if I didn’t know what was going on and I saw some lunatic up ahead running onto a dangerous road to save a stupid bird, I might just swerve over and kill two birds with one bumper. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood, South Carolina.
After the car passed by I carefully but quickly walked over to the little bird. Reaching down to pick it up, it didn’t protest at all. I fancied that it might have been grateful, or relieved, or whatever it is that birds feel prior to getting smushed. I gingerly carried the bird back to my truck and put it on the passenger seat right next to me. It just sat there. Didn’t budge.
Continuing my commute to Charleston (and safely off Hwy. 162), I pulled over at the John’s Island turn off a few miles down the road. There was a large convenience store on the right and I found a parking space away from the building next to some bushes. I reached over and rolled down the passenger side window. Looking down at the bird, I motioned to the window and tried to shoo him out. In an instant, the frightened little critter flew out the window and perched in one of the bushes. It sat there looking at me for a minute before flying off. I tipped my hat and I fancied that its solitary tweet was bird talk for “Thanks!”
My story could end with me launching off into some nitwit commentary about what a swell guy I am and how other folks should follow my example. Had my tale ended there, however, I would never have written it because there is really nothing extraordinary about saving a critter in the road. Plenty of good folks do that sort of thing every day. A ho-hum melodrama at best.
What makes this story a bit different is a most ironic twist of fate. I know enough about constructing a short essay that, when irony defines the story line, it should be at the end of the piece, so I end with this:
Earlier, while driving back to rescue the bird, I was traveling a bit faster than I normally do. Before I arrived at the spot where I would pull over to help the stunned bird in the road, another bird flew into my windshield. In my rear-view mirror, I saw it tumble disjointedly, feathers flying. It landed, torn and broken, on the pavement. It was killed instantly. Quick. Merciful. Into God’s waiting hands and still burned into my memory twenty-five years later.