Trying to stay unflappable in a birdbrain world

Trying to stay unflappable in a birdbrain world

Sometimes I forget I’m supposed to feel a frisson of excitement when I see seagulls wheeling above the car as I drive to work in the morning, as if it’s just another day, just another sight.

But then I remember it’s anything but normal and it matters.

When you live so close to the ocean — as my wife and I have done since the turn of the century — you tend to become inured to everyday realities like the warming of the Gulf Stream, beach erosion and the long odds facing loggerhead turtles as they hatch and struggle to survive in a world that seemingly couldn’t care less.

So it’s important to be aware of one’s immediate environment.

Seagulls sometimes get a bad rap.

They’re called “rats with wings” and other unflattering things, owing to their relative position on the aquatic food chain, which places them squarely in the scavenger class, an evolutionary truth.

But they are kind of beautiful if, like me, you’ve spent most of your life in landlocked Ohio and, if you were very lucky, you might have made a couple of trips to the Atlantic growing up.

My family ventured as far as Virginia Beach one summer and Cape Cod the next, and it must have been in that early-'70s time frame I began to associate seagulls with happy days spent riding the waves on inflatable rafts, enjoying clam chowder at lunch and savoring shrimp Alfredo at dinner, sunsets to come.

Days at the beach were memorable because they were so rare.

And now, well, I’m reminded of a passage in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” still the best example of sports literature extant, in which he reminds himself, even as a Major League pitcher, to take it all in.

In his incendiary diary of the 1969 season, he writes words to the effect that it’s important to remember to “tingle” — a lovely word — whenever he does something as routine as walking across the outfield grass on his way to the mound, thousands looking on.

He understood something essential about seeing seagulls.

I’ve been searching for a corollary in my pre-Carolina life, and I think I found one in the horse-drawn buggies that were so commonplace back home, but something that lured tourists to the Amish/Mennonite/Pennsylvania Dutch enclaves even as those of us who lived near them seldom gave them a second thought.

Familiarity creates a cleavage between, for example, those who know predators inhabit local waterways and ones who wouldn’t know an alligator from a crocodile even if it bit them.

Which brings us back to seagulls. They have a distinctive call, one that can be described as “screeching” or “squawking” or “crying,” even “laughing.” They supply much of the soundtrack to a day at the beach, even when it’s so cold folks build snowmen on the sand.

But they can be raucously disruptive as well.

When I was in college, I spent spring break in Clearwater, a Florida town whose west side collides with the Gulf of Mexico. Having already experienced the craziness of Fort Lauderdale the year before, I was ready for a more peaceful week, just me and my friends relaxing in the womb of innocent teenage diversions.

Foremost in my mind was returning to South Bend with a tan, a solitary pursuit that found me most mornings on the beach, content enough and happy to enjoy the scenery, which one day included a very pretty girl who was wearing a skimpy lime green bikini.

We had just established eye contact when I became aware of a seagull circling overhead and, like a bomber targeting Haiphong Harbor, it promptly proceeded to drop its load on my head. Not wanting to appear less than cool, I calmly got up from my towel and began running to the water’s edge, hoping the pretty girl in the skimpy lime green bikini would think I was just doing what I did every morning, challenging the Gulf and making it my home.

Unfortunately, my headfirst dive into the waves resulted in the realization the water was only a couple of feet deep, and the ensuing collision between me and the sandy bottom created a spinal snap and back aches that plagued me for many, many years.

Curse that seagull, anyway.

So that bring us to Monday afternoon when, as I was preparing to enjoy a double-cheeseburger with everything from our spot on Atlantic Beach, a seagull flew over my shoulder and, just like that, grabbed a bite from my sandwich and flew away, over the ocean.

“What the heck!” I said, turning to my wife. “Did you see that?”

Busy with her scrumptious shrimp taco, she feigned faint interest and raised an eyebrow before going back to her smart phone, leaving me to ponder the latest chapter in my ongoing seagull odyssey, one that suggests an aggressive side to the species I’d known all along.

As everyone past infancy knows, there’s a scene early on in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1963 thriller, “The Birds,” in which Tippi Hedren is attacked by a single seagull, one that takes a bite from her forehead, drawing blood, as she motorboats across Bodega Bay. In that instant a sort of ornithological Armageddon is unleashed.

I must keep that in mind as I see those seagulls circling every day.

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