Some of the most remarkable events of my life occurred while I wasn't paying attention. I'm not unique in that respect; as you read this you'll probably nod out loud, knowing exactly what I mean.
What I found a little more surprising is that some of the most vibrant memories of my life concern seemingly insignificant events-incidents that had little apparent importance in the big scheme, but will probably live forever in the landscape of my mind.
Of course we remember high school graduations, wedding days, the births of our children and our grandchildren. These are important days, forever lettered red on the personal calendars of our existence. But it turns out, at least in my own fond recollections, that importance is not requisite to the building of a powerful memory. Some of my most vivid remembrances concern things that affected my life not at all. At least, they didn't seem to at the time.
I was sitting on the bow of the Phoenix one winter day just after dawn, drinking coffee and reading. Nothing unusual about that; it's how I began most days on the lake. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a quickly moving shadow which startled me up from my book. I looked to see a bald eagle banking in flight off the bow of our boat. This huge bird had just dive-bombed the dock for no reason that I have ever been able to figure out-although my Native American ancestors would probably have had a theory about totems and such. In any case, I was certainly paying attention now. He had flown so close I might have touched him if I'd seen him coming and didn't mind losing a finger or two. Amazed, I watched this majestic creature fly casually away from the dock and alight in a winter-bare tree only 50 yards away.
For many long minutes he perched on his branch in regal majesty, while I perched on my chair in slack-jawed awe.
I had never been that close to an eagle, nor do I know anyone who has. My heart pounding in my chest, I did not move, scarcely drew breath for fear of alarming the bird. Apparently he was not concerned about me, nor was he on a particularly tight schedule, for he seemed in no hurry to leave. He reigned over the world from his high throne, indifferent to my lowly presence.
It was finally time to take a chance, for this was something Roxanne had to see. I left my seat and called quietly to my wife without startling the eagle into flight.
"There's an eagle near our boat. He's sitting in a tree, you can see him perfectly, he's this close." The gap between my fingertips suggested the distance was about an inch. Might have been an exaggeration.
"I've never seen an eagle before," she announced with excitement. I figured that made me some kind of hero and I always take that type of credit whenever I can. We crept eagerly to the bow and I snagged the binoculars. Yes, the eagle was still there, but wait.
In the next tree was another one, presumably his mate. Two eagles, this close. Okay, perhaps a little more than an inch, but the binoculars turned my slight exaggeration into the whole truth. The eagles filled the entire field of view.
Trying to describe these spectacular birds with words makes me feel like a warbling pigeon, as writers go. Their massive shoulders would have made Arnold proud. Sharply hooked beaks, ferocious enough to tear a steel-belted radial off the rim of a truck. Powerful talons, gripping the thick branch with casual authority. Fierce eyes, seeming not just to see, but to penetrate. Not just to view the world, but to own it.
Suddenly one of the birds took wing, swooped over the lake barely skimming the surface, and returned to the tree in seconds with a foot-long fish flopping in his predator's grip. For 30 minutes the two eagles turned that hapless fish into sushi right before our eyes-sharing breakfast, I might add, much more graciously than Roxanne shared the binoculars.
I did not have my camera; once again, I was not paying attention, not expecting the unexpected. I have sometimes thought to regret that, but I've changed my mind. It is something, I believe, that is preserved more purely as a beautiful, vivid memory, one I get to share with Roxanne for the rest of our lives.
At least that makes a good story, since I didn't get a doggone picture.