The Mission

Thirtyyearslater,Icanfinallyrevealmyrole 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, California. 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. Once, the school principal, Sister Aletha, asked me to beat to death with a Louisville Slugger some winged bats that had nested in a gap in a wall behind the mosaic of the Virgin outside her office.

I followed orders.

With this rsum, 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, then a diminutive bedroom community surrounded on all sides by dirt. In Mission Viejo, the 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. Fear of disease followed the birds into our community each year: we greeted the swallows as Algerians in Camus' ThePlaguemet the sudden appearance of dying rats.

One summer, a neighbor paid me $2 per week to hose down the nests; I hosed assiduously, daily, the swallows 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.

Eachyear,bysomemiracle—whetherof biology or theology seems the only fact in dispute—the swallows 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 miracle to St. Joseph, on whose feast day it occurred; 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 spoke openly of what we also knew to be true: the birds did not, in fact, arrive on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19. They arrived days, even weeks before. And days and even weeks afterward, too. Indeed, it seemed to me that the swallows darting around the towers and treetops of the mission on March 19 were not arriving at all, but had been around for days and were scared into flight by the thousands of tourists who descended on the town that morning to see the miracle.

Perhaps, I used to think, the real St. Joseph's Day miracle was the simultaneous, invariable arrival of RVs and fat people in San Juan.

MyjobonMarch19,SisterAlethatoldme, was to herald the seasonal return of the swallows. When I raised concerns about the miracle, she tolerantly explained—as she 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,” I was told.

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 professional significance that the swallows had come.

“What are you supposed to say?” Sister Aletha prompted me during a brief rehearsal.

“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.”

IawokeearlyonthemorningofMarch19 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. He told me to sit close. His breath was like an open grave. He ran me through the drill: when so ordered, I was to open the door to his studio and, when he pointed at me, let him know that the bells were ringing and the swallows had arrived. It was most important that I said “swallows” and not “birds,” he said, because “birds” could be anywhere, but “swallows” could only be here at the Mission San Juan 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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