Readers' Submissions

I Want to Fly Again

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • April 28th, 2007
  • 16 min read


China Hotel Guide
• Huaan International Hotel
• Marco Polo Hotel Shenzhen
• New Times Hotel Shenzhen
• Pavilion Century Tower Hotel

I have two parrots. Both are African Grey parrots and if you know much about parrots you’ll immediately recognize this particular breed as the most intelligent. A brief Google on “Alex the African Grey Parrot” will reveal many links talking about a specific African Grey raised in a laboratory and taught many things related to communications with humans. I’d provide you a link and try to explain just how well they can communicate, but I’d be cheating you on just how intelligent these creatures really are. Pick a few links and read and you’ll probably start to become at least a bit interested in their abilities. I’ll say just this, they can communicate in your own spoken language with a larger vocabulary and better context than any other creature on earth including chimps that sign, dolphins that ring bells or type on computers, anything. Jane Goodall who has spent her life exploring the communication abilities of chimps said she was blown away by the abilities of the African Greys after being introduced to Alex and watching him at work. Most parrots just repeat what they hear without knowing what they’re saying, African Grey’s can learn what the word means and how to use it in context. Amazing. This submission isn’t about how well parrots can talk, or even fly.. but the observation of both my parrots is what sparked this week's topic.

When I first bought Caesar (a male African Grey) I knew they could talk well and I searched out a respected breeder in search of good stock, after all they live in excess of 70-80 years and you don’t want to get stuck with a stupid one, you just can’t divorce them. This breeder showed me a cage with 5-8 young greys and I sat there for a few hours watching them waiting for some sign like I normally do when picking out animals. Usually they exhibit a trait more often than their cage mates or something that makes them stand out and in this case one bird just sat still and looked back at me while the others went about playing. I figured this might be another Socrates or an Einstein or something so I took him. The breeder explained how on young birds he’d cut just one wing so they’d have enough control to fall safely if they fell, but no flight abilities to escape with. Escaping means almost certain death as young greys spend over a year with their parents in the wild learning how to look after themselves.

As he grew I gradually cut both his wings, but only half way. Enough so if he flapped real hard he could think he’s flying why gliding down to the floor. All this time I thought I was doing him a favor, but in reality I was doing myself a favor. Without the ability of flight he was easier to control and I didn’t have to worry about things like leaving windows or doors open. By his third year I’d started to think I made a mistake so I let his wings grow and started helping him exercise muscles he’d never used. Within six months he’d learned to fly, but never really well or coordinated. It was always like he was glad to get where he needed to go, but no joy in the actual flying. Once he got loose and eight days later after pinning flyers on every telephone post in town a lady called and said she thought he was in her garden and had “damaged” her cat. Arriving I found a mere shell of the original bird, eight days without food or water and he was almost dead. The cat would live but without two toes and would probably have a healthy respect for birds in the future. At the time Caesar was using close to 1000 words, after this he didn’t speak a single word for over six months. The trauma of being “free” stuck with him. He’s now in Hawaii awaiting the proper timing of the right permits from CITES (international endangered species organization) with a brief lift of Thailand’s bird flu ban.

18 months ago I figured that Caesar should be rewarded after his long journey with what every male wants when arriving in Thailand, a Thai female. Searching around the best breeder I found was a dirty place ran by a guy whose only knowledge of parrots was what they were worth in baht and he was the best there was. You really can’t sex (tell gender) grey’s as adults by the way they look, blood tests are always required. As babies there’s a brief window where if you’re paying attention you can increase the odds of choosing the desired gender. Picking out a young female grey I took her home in my pocket because the guy didn’t even have a box. No feathers, not weaned, I wasn’t sure she was going to live. I heard through the local pet shop owner mine was the only one that did live. So now I had another parrot and she matched the first.

This time I wasn’t going to cut her wings. Instead I called a screen company and had every window and door in my place screened and as I fed her with an eyedropper I awaited her first fledging with a bit of excitement. It was pretty unremarkable. One day instead of walking on the floor she lifted her wings up and looked at each one in turn, flapped them a few times until her feet lifted off the ground, and then flew to the top of her cage where there’s a perch and playground. Nature is often amazing and this was one of those times. She instinctively knew how to fly, but over the next year she became the consummate flyer and even learned to hover like a helicopter. More importantly, having freedom of flight means she always flies back to get cage to poop. This feature can’t be over-rated. She loves playing ‘tag’ with my housekeeper and they’ll chase themselves all over the house tagging each other. If she really likes a new persons she’ll “tag” them to see if they want to play. The coordination and skills to this day, she’s about 14 months old, continue to improve.

This gives me a chance to compare and contrast Caesar and Junea. Caesar is the intellectual. Having his wings cut he had to learn to do everything the hard way and think his way around problems and as a result by 14 months had learned about 200 words in three languages and was starting to put them into context. Junea is the athlete. She knows only about 20-30 words and could care less about learning more. Caesar is a rather serious guy, watches everything around him, and studies everything. There’s not much he hasn’t learned how to do including using the light switch by his cage to turn on the lights when I ask him. Junea is happy go lucky, a real card. Her sense of humor is keen and her desire to play and laugh strong. One day when they meet I think they’ll compliment each other well. I care for and raised both parrots, but their personalities are very different. Why? I think it’s because one had to compensate for the lost of a natural physical ability and the other didn’t. Without further studies I don’t know this for sure, but I feel confident I’m correct.

I see a bit of both of them in myself. I used to love to fly and I use the word fly metaphorically. My entire life used to revolve around keeping physically fit and I’d test myself in some pretty extreme ways, from rock climbing to sky diving, three professional sports, martial arts, but mostly the endurance stuff. I ate up any sort of activity where I could watch my competition fade off one by one as I kept going. Giving up or not finishing wasn’t an option. My physical abilities gave me confidence even when they shouldn’t have. As I got older I’d refine my abilities to include more skills, from higher forms of martial arts to the eye and hand coordination needed to be a competitive shooter and competed at Camp Perry’s High Power annual events. I took many high performance driving classes and competed to further build my skills. Anything at all that took speed, coordination, and endurance, gave me joy Using these skills better than my competition gave me satisfaction. Junea is the same. She’s sitting on her cage door watching me, as I approach she doesn’t move at all with only her eyes following me. To her this isn’t an opportunity to be held and maybe put back inside her cage, it’s an opportunity to impress and play. As my hand gets within centimeters of her she simply falls backwards without a movement other than to loosen her feet and let her weight carry her back to the floor head first. Falling the meter to the floor without movement and then at the last second she opens her wings, spins about, and skims the floor before flapping a few more times to carry her to the top of the refrigerator across the room. She stands there waiting for my repeated attempt and will do this several times for the pure enjoyment before letting me catch her.

Some years ago I had my wings clipped. I went from being in my prime to being in a wheel chair unable to move my lower body. I was told I’d never walk again. Every move after that involved pain and planning for what I call the economy of movement, being able to get the most done with as little movement as possible to avoid the pain. Like Caesar I had lost a natural and instinctive ability and now had to learn to compensate. At the same time I didn’t believe the doctors, and I still loved a physical challenge. I never gave up trying to walk again and I upset a lot of people in my life who cared about me and saw my attempts as pure vanity and self-illusion. I think if I’d had Caesar back then he would have understood.. but no one else did. They only saw the pain and undignified exhibits of my physical self where I saw hope and opportunity. The fat lady hadn’t yet finished her song and there had never been a physical challenge I couldn’t conquer and this time in my life was not a time to start.

It took a while, a crazy old Chinese doctor in Korea, time using a walker, more time on crutches, and finally a cane. I had to find things I loved doing that required me being on my feet more than I hated the pain, so I built the woodshop I’d always wanted and would stand at my benches building furniture as long as I could. From the studs I built the shop to a finished product, electrical, HVAC, built in work benches, free rolling assembly tables, wood working benches, finishing room, vacuum system (for chips/dust), machines. All alone and most of it while dragging myself around on the floor or from support to support. My Father helped with the ceilings but stood by and let me do the rest as I requested. In a separate out building I also built a machine shop where I designed and constructed special one-off weapons for law enforcement and military. One shop earned the money to pay for the other. Three years later I walked back into my doctors office to find him doing paperwork and when he looked up his face registered shock, then he scanned me for braces or aids, and then pure delight as he realized it was for real. During my treatment we’d become good friends as he had cancer and was also fighting for his life. I think he felt comfortable confiding in me as a patient since we were almost the same age and I was there everyday, yet not a part of his immediate circle. I was thrilled he was still alive, he was thrilled I could walk. It worked for both of us.

I’m far from normal as my skeletal structure was heavily damaged and anatomically not much is the way it should be. I can’t run, and every step I take exacts a measure of pain which is a pleasure to feel. If I must I can walk quite a ways and sometimes I’ll test myself by covering 10-20k’s in an afternoon knowing I’ll pay for it over the next few days as things swell up and any movement becomes costly. Mostly I’ve adopted my “economy of movement” plan to preserve my broken hip joints, blown knees, broken back (in two places) and all the other broken stuff. Yet a day never goes by when I don’t wake up wanting to go on the run I used to complete every morning of my previous life.

I miss flying, the long runs by the beach, the easy way I could scuba dive all day and still feel refreshed for my evening run later that night. I still love to jump out of planes, but the last few seconds when I know I’m going to smack the ground horrifies me as it can sometimes come at a high cost. I haven’t regained control of my right foot nor any of the feeling but if I strap it tightly in the custom plastic brace I made that no one knows I’m wearing but myself, I can walk with only a slight limp and after buying an old 5-speed manual clutch car and having it towed to my place I sat in it for hours every day for months learning to drive a manual shift using muscle memory alone. I wanted to drive my sports cars again and this was the price. People who drive with me for a while get a bit startled when I tell them I can’t feel the foot and most of the leg that operates the gas and brake, not realizing that there are always other ways to get the job done if you’re determined. I still race when I have the opportunity and while I’m not as smooth on the heel/toe shifting as I used to be, I still do ok.

Some have taken pleasure in calling me a “gimp” and I smile at this. They have no idea what being handicapped is all about, and that being a gimp is a state of mind and not a state of body. I take no enjoyment in feeling pity for their handicap.

Yes, I want to fly again. I’d also like to be 25 again, to relive parts of my life, have another chance at a certain marriage, do a few business deals over, and brush my teeth better so I’d have less cavities as an adult. Most, I’d like to avoid many things I’ve said and done in anger. We all have physical abilities we’d like to experience again and parts of our lives we’d like another shot at. These are normal desires. Unfortunately they’ll never be anything more than desires so we must make choices. We can either learn from our past to help pave the way for a better and smoother future, or we can react in the usual negative ways like we’ve never learned a thing. Some say it’s natural to become angry, strike out, seek solace from another and I’d agree. What I don’t agree is that we shouldn’t learn from these experiences and use what we’ve learned to grow and make future disappointments/crisis a more positive experience with as little of the anger and negative feelings as possible. While anger is natural it’s also selfish and self serving helping to mask reality in a more appealing cover. As natural as anger is, so is learning and improving our understanding about its genesis. As humans we don’t learn to fly from instinct, but rather from experience and knowledge. The weight of anger and life’s disappointments are way too heavy to achieve lift, learning to fly means finding a way to reduce the weight and drag or better yet.. leave it behind. We can all make the choice of flight. I might not ever run again but you can be certain I’ll learn to fly. My late mother used to tell me we as humans can learn many things from the animals we keep as pets, all that’s required is to pay attention. Caesar and Junea have been very generous with me.

There are certainly things I miss though. I miss Jimmy my Australian Shepherd who moped around the entire three years I was in the hospital and rehab, and until I lost my cane would walk slowly by my side leaning his weight against my bad leg trying to support me and keep me from falling as I did many times when learning to walk again. He died of old age months before I made the move to Thailand. As he got old he lost the ability to run and then to climb stairs and get in/out of the car. He didn’t mind leaning on me to lift him in the car when we went places or letting me hold him when the vet made her final visit to my ranch and helped him pass without pain. I miss watching Caesar with his economy of movement and his limited flight abilities because he reminds me so much of myself, and I miss the frequent dreams I used to have where I’d be running along the beach in Okinawa, the Tijuana River basin, Chenju Island, and the many places where I’ve enjoyed my runs. The running dreams are infrequent now, but I think I enjoy them more. For a few moments in time I’m flying again.. running once more with my troops in full kit or along San Vicente Blvd on the medium. Then I wake up and I must admit that for a few moments I allow myself the luxury of feeling sorry for myself, but it quickly goes away when I walk out to the living room and pour myself a glass of juice and opening Junea’s cage door watch her stretch her wings one by one after a nights rest before flying around the house and doing her tricks with the grace of a gifted gymnast. I’m sure Caesar is going to think she’s one fine female when he finally arrives. I continue to observe and learn…

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

Many guys come to Thailand for the birds…