Re-created Miracles

More than 25 years later, I can finally reveal my role in a Nixon-era scandal worthy of the White House itself. I was 13, an eighth-grader at the Old Mission School in San Juan Capistrano. A good kid, a great student, hoping to be a priest, I was entrusted with all the really important duties. I ran letters into town for the principal, a task that required me to walk briskly through the haunted mission grounds of still fountains and manicured hedges behind the school, through the dusky public admissions gate, into the bright light of the real world outside the mission walls, and back again. I raised the American flag in the mornings and folded it in the afternoons. And I beat to death with a baseball bat the winged bats that occasionally nested in a gap in a wall behind the mosaic of the Virgin outside Principal Sister Aletha's office.

With this résumé behind me, it was with no surprise—but much fanfare—that I was chosen in early March 1974 to assist in the mission's chief public-relations event: the return each St. Joseph's Day of the famed swallows of Capistrano.

In San Juan Capistrano, the arrival of the swallows has been a major chamber of commerce event since the 1930s. But I grew up in nearby Mission Viejo, a diminutive bedroom community surrounded on all sides by dirt, where swallows were unwelcome pests—giant, feathered wasps without stingers whose mud nests grew like cysts in the eaves of homes that still smelled of fresh stucco and pine. My memory is foggy on this, but I seem to recall that fear of disease followed the birds into our community each year, that we greeted them as Algerians in Camus' The Plague met the arrival of rats. One summer, a neighbor paid me $2 per week to hose the nests down; I hosed, they rebuilt, and I hosed the nests again. I quit within a month or so when, poking around in the sodden ruins of one, I discovered gasping baby birds; they died before their eyes ever opened.

My job on March 19, Sister Aletha told me, was to herald the seasonal return of the swallows. Each year, the birds by some miracle—whether of biology or theology seemed the only fact in dispute—travel 7,500 miles from a small town in northern Argentina to San Juan Capistrano, arriving precisely and (as an Argentine writer put it) "all together on the 19th day of March." All together. We Catholics attributed this to the miracle of St. Joseph; there is, I suppose, a kind of spiritual symmetry in the fact that Joseph was not only Jesus' dad but also a carpenter, and that these little birds are also builders. The more enlightened Catholics among us attributed this phenomenon of distant travel and Mussolini-like scheduling to biological imperative—and the miracle, of course.

But few of us could speak openly of what we also knew to be true: the birds did not, in fact, arrive on March 19. They arrived days, even weeks before. And days and even weeks afterward, too. Indeed, it seemed to me that the shapely clouds of swallows darting around the towers and treetops of the mission on March 19 were not arriving at all, but in fact had been around for days and scared into flight by the thousands of tourists who descended that morning to see the miracle. When I raised this possibility with the nuns of Old Mission, they tolerantly explained—as they might the problem of evil in a world run by a very decent God—that the swallows I saw before St. Joseph's Day were "scouts" sent as a kind of advance team.

"And those that arrive after St. Joseph's Day, Sister?"

"Don't ask so many questions."

On March 19, 1974, my job was to suppress all doubt and wait for the one sign that signaled the official arrival of the swallows: bells ringing out in the Old Mission. At the sound of the bells, I was to burst dramatically into a makeshift radio studio set up in the musty school gymnasium and announce to an aging radio personality whose name was supposed to (but did not) impress me with its historical significance that the swallows had come.

"What are you supposed to say?"

"That the swallows are here, Sister."

"And how do you say it?"

"With great enthusiasm, Sister."

"And how would that sound?"

"The swallows have come."

"Like you mean it."

"The swallows are here! The swallows are here!"

"You'll do."

I awoke early on the morning of March 19 in my Mission Viejo bedroom with a feeling like swallows in my belly. My mom dropped me off early at school, and the birds in my stomach flew faster still, as if they were reflections of the real swallows overhead. They were everywhere, voracious little creatures grown hungry on a trip one-fourth the circumference of the globe. Inside the gym, the esteemed radio personality was talking into a phone. He looked up at me with watery eyes. His hair was white, his hands shook with a subtle tremor. He was telling someone to call him back in a few minutes.

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