The Mission

What really makes the swallows come back to Capistrano?

"Got that?" He drank from a cup of coffee.

"Yes, sir."

I pointed out with no drama whatever that the birds were already here.

"What's that?" he asked.

"The birds—er, swallows—are already here," I said.

He looked at me with his watery eyes.

"So, do you want me to say it now?"

He said nothing. I clarified the question. "So you want me to say right now that the swallows are here?"

"No," he said. "Not now. Just have a seat there."

He indicated a metal folding chair next to the desk he had established in the painted key under one of the gymnasium baskets. So I sat. The phone rang. As he reached to pick it up, he said, "Now," and waved me toward the door.

"Mission control!" he said, in a voice that sounded suddenly like a much younger newsman's. And then, looking at me, but speaking into the receiver, he said, "Hello, Toronto!" He waved at me furiously, not a get-lost wave, but more like what a movie director might do to stoke a fire beneath the butt of an actor. I opened the gym door and peered into the sky. The swallows were still out there, scores of them, screaming around in something like a fast-moving little black cloud, rising and falling among the pepper and eucalyptus trees.

The old guy began slapping his bare palm on the desktop and then waving me in furiously, mouthing what I took to be "NOW! NOW! NOW!"

And so I proclaimed it: "The bells are ringing! The swallows are here! They're here! The swallows are here!"

He waved me closer, smiling now, encouraging me. Into the phone, he said, "Wait . . . wait a moment, Toronto, I'm getting a message." And then he asked me in a way that allowed Torontans to hear, "What's that? They're here?"

I nodded.

He nodded furiously as you might to a really thick child and waved encouragingly. He prompted me again: "They're here?"

I proclaimed it again: "The swallows are here! The bells are ringing, and the swallows are flying around the mission!"

"Toronto? Mission control, here! The swallows have arrived right on time at . . ." He paused to look at his watch and to record for Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the exact time of arrival.

I watched in amazement. And when he hung up, the phone rang again in his hand—and again after that and again and again, and I repeated my performance perhaps a dozen times, alerting radio listeners around the country and around the world that a miracle had happened, that swallows were arriving as they listened, that they were participating in a miracle that stopped us all momentarily in the dry round of doing and getting that might otherwise persuade us there was nothing else but here and now, duty and obligation, scientific predictability, mechanical certainty.

I never asked the radio man if this sort of performance could get us into trouble. And he never seemed worried about the possibility. In the short breaks between calls, we said almost nothing. He poured me a cup of foul-tasting coffee, which I drank gratefully as a sign that, in selling the story of the swallows and drinking bitter coffee, I was grown up. Outside, the swallows arrived on time, shoring up the faith of thousands.

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