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Miracle of the Birds


Harry Buschman

The winter of '29 was my eleventh winter and the coldest winter anyone could remember. It was the first winter of the Great Depression and many tenement  families had already been evicted for non-payment of rent. There were record  snowfalls that winter, and now with the coming of spring, cold drenching rain flooded our cellar and found its way through the leaky roof of our fifth floor flat. In only a few short months we had gone from boom to bust and every day brought more bad news. It would take a miracle, people said, to put us back on our feet again.

My father was working three days a week for a school book printer and getting  paid for one. His brother had been a pipe-fitter, his sister had been a seamstress -- both of them were out of work and living with us. My friend Ernie's father had been a garment cutter, (sutz and cutz). Very few people "were" anything -- almost everyone was a "used to be" or a "had been." Everyone we knew had a sad story to tell.

When you have no money to pay your fare in life, you pray for a miracle. We all did that -- Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims -- we all prayed for deliverance, for some sign of Divine Intervention regardless of who it came from. People with no faith looked for help in their tea leaves or their Ouija board -- they read messages in their horoscopes and the lines in the palms of their hands.

We didn't go to St. Theresa's on Sundays any more. We had no money to put in the basket and my mother didn't feel it was right to go to church and ask for a miracle without paying for it. Instead, she would sneak in before the seven o'clock mass on week days, light a candle and sneak back out again, hoping that the Priest hadn't seen her but God did. It's likely He did, but there wasn't much He could do. He was great at things like parting the Red Sea, or casting Jonah up out of the whale, but He didn't know how to stop the steamroller of the Great Depression.

Children were happier in their own company. The worried faces of their parents revealed lines of strain and anxiety, and that terrified them. It was frightening to see the hunted expression in my mother's eyes when my father came home at night .... there was always the apprehensive question ....

"How did it go? .... everything all right?"

"So far .... Leslie got laid off today."

"My God, he's been there longer than you."

"I know. That's the way it goes, he made more money than I do."

So kids kept out of the way, preferring their own company to that of their parents. Ernie and me would look at each other and we'd know how things were going back home. We had no conception of the word "Depression" -- what it meant or where it came from. It was a word we never used, although we heard it every day. We were scared because our parents were scared. They were not the pillars of strength we thought they were. We knew enough not to ask for new roller skates, or money to buy a new "Tom Swift and His Flying Machine" adventure story because of the look in our parents eyes, a look of guilt and shame. Many parents felt they let their children down. They couldn't buy them the things they needed let alone the things they wanted. Food, a place to live, and all the love they had to spare -- they'd have to get along with that.

School was our entertainment as well as our education. There, the adults all had jobs and they were in a better frame of mind than the folks back home. If you couldn't afford it, you'd get lunch for nothing. There were things to do after school, games to play and books to read -- we'd stay as long as we could; until it was time to go home and see the unhappy faces again.

Our route to school took us past St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church on Classon Avenue. It was a church built in Spanish style, with white stucco walls and green trim. It, too, was suffering from hard times, and the small weedy park that separated it from the rectory was unkempt and littered with the debris of the past winter. Ernie and me would sit there if we were early for school and wait for the tolling of the nine o'clock bell in the tower. We knew from the first clang that we had exactly a minute and a half to get to home room.

Ernie was Jewish -- at least his parents were. He didn't look or feel any more Jewish than I did. I was supposed to be a Catholic, but with the way things were going, I didn't feel any real attachment to St. Theresa's. Both of us felt that God -- his and mine -- had walked out on us and the parishes of St. Theresa and Mordecai temple in particular.

One morning in early spring Ernie and me sat on a bench close to the belfry, and just before nine o'clock we heard the bell creak in its cradle. That meant the old sacristan was rocking it to and fro until it struck the clapper.

"Time to go, Ernie. You do your history? I didn't do my history."

Unlike me, Ernie would never think of not doing something he was supposed to do. "Yeah -- here. 'Retreat from Gettysburg.' Y'wanna copy it? Y'ain't got much time."

I figured I had a minute anyway if I scribbled real fast -- our history teacher, Mr. Finkel never read our assignments, it was just paper to him. Penmanship wasn't important.

I finished copying Ernie's homework just as the first clang of the bell sounded. The great iron bell never failed to launch the pigeons out of the belfry and they took off with a slapping of wings just above our heads. At the same time, another crowd of pigeons at our feet were startled into flight, and for a moment the air was full of pigeons flying in all directions. There were crows and starlings too, and perhaps because of the mix of species and the ringing of the bell, combined with the spectacle of Ernie and me waving our arms at them they panicked, and three of them flew headfirst into the white stucco wall of the church.

We felt a pang of guilt, but only a momentary pang, we knew we'd be late for  school if we stayed in the park any longer. The bell was already into its third clang.

Like most boys our memories were short, and by the time we finished baseball  practice that afternoon, we had forgotten all about the pigeons. I remember Ernie had just nailed down the job of shortstop and I was still in the running for first baseman along with "Skinny" Bettelheim. Coming home through the park, I remember Ernie saying ....

"Well, if you don't get to play, I won't either."

"C'mon Ernie, don't be a shithead -- coach wants you for fifth grade shortstop. I'll get on the team somehow."

Then we noticed a crowd at the side of the church and we speculated that  somebody had dropped dead there -- crowds always meant excitement. But then,  when we got closer, we saw they were staring at the wall. Father Florio was standing with them in his Sunday vestments holding a Bible and a gold crucifix on a long staff. A disinterested altar boy was standing next to him swinging a thurible.

"Geez," Ernie said, "that's where the birds flew into the wall this morning, ain't it?"

"Maybe they're buryin' the birds," I suggested.

"Ain't that Mrs. Esposito -- down on her knees?" Father Florio was reading from his Bible and brandishing his crucifix. He peered at us over his thick spectacles and gestured with the Bible for us to move along, but we were too interested in what was going on to pay any attention to him. "They're lookin' at the wall," Ernie whispered, "I wonder if they know who did it."

It was the stain left by the birds on the wall! Two of the dead birds were lying on the narrow strip of grass at the bottom of the wall and one was in the path in front of Mrs. Esposito. "Madonna, Madonna .... Hail Mary fulla grace, blessed is da fruit-a-da womb Jesus," she mumbled over and over. Father Florio gestured to everybody to keep back, apparently Mrs. Esposito was getting her steam up.

What they were looking at, of course, was pigeon guts. Somehow they were splattered on the wall in such a way that they suggested to Mrs. Esposito the image of the Madonna and Child. By sheer force of will she convinced thirty or so people around her, (including Father Florio) that a miracle had occurred. The pigeons internal organs, had created a holy icon.

"Mary, shes'a comma! Bringa good times back again." She held her rosary beads high and looked from the stain on the wall to Father Florio and back again. She finally turned to me and said, "A miracle -- a miracle." She pronounced it "mir-RACK-a-la." She motioned for me and Ernie to kneel down next to her. "Ask the Madonna for something," she said.

I kneeled down awkwardly and so did Ernie. "What'cha gonna ask for," he whispered.

"That the coach picks me for first base .... how about you," I replied.

"I'm Jewish, I can't ask for nothin' -- you take my wish .... besides," he looked at Mrs. Esposito and back at me. He lowered his voice so that only I could hear. "I don't go for this kinda stuff -- I don't think it looks anything like a Madonna anyways."

I had my reservations as well, and now that Ernie was sowing seeds of doubt in my mind the image on the wall was looking less and less like the Madonna and Child and more and more like what it was. Furthermore, it looked like rain was on the way -- what would happen then?

Toward dusk, rain did fall, and as you might guess, most of the miracle ran down the wall and was washed away. A few hardy shreds remained, but they looked exactly like what they were. I still had the wish Ernie gave me but I wished that standing up, with little hope that the Madonna would pay any attention to me. It would have taken more than a miracle for her to get my father to work full weeks again.

I did get the first baseman's job though -- by default, not by a miracle. The school nurse wouldn't let "Skinny" Bettelheim play ball without his eyeglasses and the coach wouldn't let him play with them.

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