Give Him the Bird

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The governor's day turns out to be a period of time that is not so recent. "When I was in about third grade, a gentleman down by our shopping center, a friend of me and my friend's families, got us interested in pigeons," he recalls. His interest grew until he had about forty birds stashed in a loft outside his sister's bedroom window. "I don't know if she's forgiven me for that."

The Fort Worth pigeon club to which Owens belonged met on Friday nights, when members would bring their birds and prepare them for the Saturday race. The pigeons were placed on a Railway Express train and taken 150 miles or so out onto the Texas plains. There the stationmaster would release them all at once, and they'd race home.

Owens says his hobby was a valuable preparation for life, teaching him about responsibility by having to care for the birds, and (note to current death-row inmates) "how to make tough decisions, if you had an injured or sick bird." Still, by the time he entered middle school, Owens says, he found himself favoring other hobbies over his birds. "When I got old enough for girls, I ditched pigeons."

Although Owens claims he now has no time or inclination to return to the hobby, he adds that "occasionally I'll see a flock of pigeons and wonder where they're going." And last year, just before the governor's widowed mother sold the old family home, Owens visited the place for one last look around. Even though three decades had passed, he still could see where his old loft had stood. The recollection of his beloved birds brought the governor to a realization.

"It turns out that six to eight years of pigeon droppings can do permanent damage to a lawn," he says.

Last spring, Adugalski returned to Sosnowka. It was the first time he'd been back since the day he left Poland nearly two decades ago. He brought a camera with him, and as he walked through his village, he snapped hundreds of pictures -- of every corner, every building in the town, and from every angle, as if trying to re-create a three-dimensional place in only two dimensions. He put them in a small album. "This," he says, "is my memory," and he opens it.

His first stop upon arriving in Sosnowka was his father's grave. "He drank too much alcohol, got sick," he says. The memories continued:

"Here is the church. The graves where we used to start fires when I was five. Here is the grocery market where everyone goes every day -- look and see how all the homes are now falling apart?"

"Here, this corner: Every day, every day, twenty, thirty kids would come: 'What are we going to do? Let's go to the orchard, steal some fruit!' Or, 'Do we have 22 guys? Let's play soccer...'"

"Here is where a friend of mine lived. He died of alcohol, too."

"Here is where I went to school, from seven years old to fifteen years old. One year I had to repeat."

"Here is the stream we used to go catch trout, by hand."

"Here is my house. And there, behind it, in the field, that's where we used to play Indians and cowboys; everyone had a slingshot."

"Everywhere you look, every street, I walked millions of times."

He points to small buildings along the route, usually behind a house. "There were pigeons here, pigeons here, everywhere pigeons. And here! Here! See this little house? This is where we kept our pigeons."

The prize money for winning big-time bird races is nice, and triumphing against the wealthy poseurs who enter 150 birds each race is particularly fun -- "The rich pigeon fucks, they just go and buy the most expensive pigeons," Adugalski sneers. "They don't breed. They just buy. And I still beat them."

But, he adds, that's not the best part of pigeon racing. Not at all. The best part is simply looking up to the sky and watching as the birds arrive, home at last after a long journey. "You see how they come," he says, "so sure of themselves, so strong, so confident. So happy they are home."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer