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  • Writer's pictureEric O'Link

The Boy and the Pidge

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

Sometimes a trip comes together in a delightfully unexpected manner. Such was the case this Labor Day weekend, when I found myself jetting to Chicago to pick up a pigeon.

A pigeon? Yes, a pigeon.

But let me back up.

One of my children is on the autism spectrum. Autism looks different in everyone. H is one of those “high functioning” kids who would probably fall under the Asperger’s diagnosis if it was still used. That means you could easily mistake him for a neurotypical kid. And in many ways, he’s just like any other kid heading into fifth grade. But his life isn’t easy. School is challenging, because staying focused on stuff you think is boring – like homework – is hard. Reading social situations is harder. It’s difficult to make friends when you aren’t always sure what the others around you are feeling, and what’s OK (or isn’t OK) to say next. Emotions are overwhelming. H frequently feels misunderstood. Some of his classmates have become great friends. Others have been mean.

Every parent wants a wonderful childhood for their kids. It’s heartbreaking when you see your child struggle and, despite your best efforts, are unable to help lift the burden of the continual difficulties posed by autism.

One of H’s bright spots are our family pets. Our house is practically a zoo. Of course, we have a dog – a golden retriever named Huckleberry. We also have an aquarium of colorful tropical fish. And a goldfish in a bowl. And birds – plural – in the form of two parakeets and three button quail. The dog is ours; the fish are mine (except for the goldfish, which arrived with a birthday party and never left); the birds are my wife’s. H loves them all.

The first parakeet came to us from some friends, whose daughter saw it being picked on by other parakeets at the pet store and couldn’t bear to watch it suffer. They swooped in to rescue it, then begged us to take it since they knew my wife had experience with birds. Eventually a second parakeet joined the flock, but the two parakeets became the best of (noisy) friends and fly away anytime anyone gets near them. Not much fun for a kid.

Next, we hatched button quail. They are small, cute, quiet, and prolific layers of teeny tiny eggs. H plays with his favorite, Twitter Nickel, but let’s be honest: Button quail are known for their egg laying, not their intelligence. (It’s been an instructive year for yours truly.)

Through these experiences, H has developed a keen interest in birds. Fifth grade seemed like a good time to get a bird he could really bond with. Then my wife began reading about pigeons.

Wait, pigeons?

Contrary to their reputation as flying rats, it turns out pigeons make excellent pets (better than parrots, in fact). They are smart, clever, affectionate, clean, and relatively quiet. They were bred to be domesticated. My wife pulled up the Google and found Great Lakes Pigeon Rescue. She reached out. We were approved for adoption; she began receiving regular text messages with potential pidge pets.

Fast forward to the end of August: A picture text message arrives featuring a white male pigeon with a grayish head and a speckling of green/purple iridescent feathers around his neck. His name is Tundra.

Something feels different about this one; something feels right. You trust your gut in situations like this. We show the picture to H. He’d rejected the others, but he likes Tundra.

Tundra will be our pidge.

Slight problem: Great Lakes Pigeon Rescue is based in the Chicago area. We are in Minnesota. If we drive, they’ll send Tundra with a volunteer to meet us in Rockford, IL. That’s an improvement over driving to Chicagoland, but not much. They offer to ship him overnight, but it will cost $70 and he won’t arrive until after school starts. If I was a bird, I’m not sure I’d enjoy leaving my familiar foster home to be put in a box and sent through the express air cargo system. Plus, H’s brain will be going bonkers on the first day of school thinking about the soon-to-arrive pidge.

What if we flew to get him? Wouldn’t that be more pleasant for him and more fun for us?

This is an idea I can get on board with. Labor Day weekend is six days away, but I have a theory about flying on Saturday: It should be cheap because not many people will be traveling in the middle of the holiday weekend. I click open my web browser and start checking airfares. My hunch is correct. We communicate with Susan, Tundra’s foster “mom,” and agree to meet at Chicago Midway International Airport. After a flurry of logistics planning, I book tickets: From MSP to MDW on Southwest, and back again on Delta (because Delta allows pet birds in the cabin, whereas Southwest does not).

A few days later, H and I are driving to the airport. He is over the moon excited. We check in at MSP’s Terminal 2 and find almost nobody in the security line. We breeze through TSA. As we’re collecting our belongings, I ask one of the TSA officers about clearing security for the flight home: We will have a bird in our pet carrier. We won’t be able to take him out. What do we do? “Ask for a hand inspection,” she says. “They’ll take you to a private room and hand inspect the carrier.” No problem. We know our plan.

We chill at the gate. Or, rather, I chill at the gate while H fidgets. Waiting is hard when you’re a kid. It’s worse when you’re waiting to get on a plane so you can fly to Chicago to meet your new pet pigeon. “Where’s our plane, dad? When will the plane get here?” I pull up, and have an answer: 15 minutes.

Before we board, I use FlightAware to check the direction of landing traffic at Midway and see that flights are coming in over Lake Michigan. It should be a stellar view of downtown if we sit on the right side of the plane. We queue up, board, and pick seats right at the front of the wing. Not as far forward as I would have liked, but I roll with it since I want to get off the plane as quickly as possible. We have fewer than three hours on the ground in Chicago.

Before long, we’re roaring down the runway and airborne, climbing past scattered clouds above the Twin Cities. As we turn southeast and point toward Illinois, the clouds become more numerous. I’m treated to the view of a brilliant, backlit skyscape of broken cumulus. The window seat is a gift that never stops giving.

The clouds thicken into a solid overcast as we close in on our destination. We descend through a layer of gray into the open air below and see stacked layers of cloud decks. Only pilots and airline passengers are privy to these secret views of the sky.

Eventually our 737-800 drops into thick mist and we rumble along at 4,000 feet, passing Midway and heading out over Lake Michigan. We bank 180 degrees, swinging around to line up on the approach to 22L. I start looking in earnest for downtown Chicago through the murk beyond the window.

At last, the ground materializes. I glance out along the wing, then backward. I see fuzzy dark rectangles rising above the perceived horizon behind the wing, quickly disappearing behind us. The Willis Tower becomes obvious as the slightly taller gray blob before the city is lost from view. This is how it goes with the window seat: Sometimes the view you are counting on becomes a non-event because of weather or your flight’s routing.

The final approach into MDW is as thrilling as I remembered. We come in fast and low over seemingly endless blocks of houses – “This is terrifying!” H exclaims – before gliding over the Cicero Avenue and 55th Street intersection at the last possible second and thumping down on the runway.

We pull into the gate and are off to find Susan. Shortly after I text her to tell that we’ve arrived, she calls. She can’t wait for us at the arrivals pick-up area; the police officers are shooing her along. She says she’ll make a loop and look for us at door number 2. We find door 2, make our way outside, and see her Prius pulling in. Perfect timing! We exchange hellos, hop in the car, then head to the Midway cell phone lot for the bird exchange.

H is often shy around adults, but Susan puts him at ease instantly. He knows they share a mutual love of birds. When Susan brings Tundra out of his carrier, I am surprised by how large he is. I am used to small household birds. He is also beautiful, almost majestic in his own way. I never thought I’d say that about a pigeon. He sits on H’s hand. H adores him.

After a short conversation, during which Susan tells us a bit more about Tundra and offers us a few tips, she gently puts him into the pet carrier we’ve brought along. We drive back to the terminal and say our goodbyes. After all, we have a plane to catch.

Immediately, it’s obvious that the return trip is going to be different. We barely step out onto the curb when we catch the eye of a Southwest flight crew waiting for a shuttle. Is that a dog? No – a bird? A pigeon! So cool!

We check Tundra in at the Delta counter and pay his $125 pet-in-cabin fare. He is a conversation starter, that’s for sure. H and I pause to admire the hanging bird sculpture – fitting, isn’t it? – in the terminal before heading down the escalators and toward security.

It gets even more interesting at the security line. I tell one of the officers that we need a hand inspection of Tundra’s carrier.

“For that?” he asks. He looks at me skeptically. “What is it?”

“It’s a pigeon,” I reply.

“You can't hold it?” He means hold Tundra and walk through the metal detector so the bag can take a trip through the x-ray scanner.

“No,” I say. “We just adopted him. He doesn’t know us. If we take him out, he’ll fly.”

“Wait there,” is his gruff reply. “I have to call a supervisor.”

He calls over to one of the other TSA officers. They want to know what we have in our bag.

“It’s a…pigeon,” he replies, as if he can’t believe he just said that.

Eventually a guy wearing a black vest approaches us. This must be the supervisor. He also looks at the bag skeptically. Evidently, they don’t get many birds coming through the security line.

Mr. Supervisor takes Tundra’s carrier around the metal detector, then motions us through. On the other side, he waves down a female TSA officer, who either has experience with birds or likes birds (it isn’t exactly obvious why we need her, specifically, but it has something to do with us having a bird). We go into the dreaded “private screening room,” where the lady officer picks up Tundra with both gloved hands and lifts him out of the carrier. Mr. Supervisor gives the bag a good feel around, then declares we are good to go.

“Hey,” I say, “now you have a good story from work today.”

“Yes, I do,” he says with a chuckle.

We head back to Concourse A. We’re definitely getting looks; people want a peek at what’s in the pet carrier. Probably expecting a cat, since it seems like the new thing is to take your doggie on a leash through the airport. Nobody is expecting a bird, that’s for sure.

We make friends with the pizza-makers at Woodgrain Pizzeria when H holds Tundra up to see the red-tiled wood-fired pizza oven. The pizza is good, better than your typical airport food court fare. There’s just enough time to eat, then head over to the gate to board our Delta Connection flight home.

As we step aboard the CRJ-700, there are curious inquiries about our pet carrier. Everyone around us is amused by the pidge. “Maybe you should send him up here to help us get home,” jokes the captain. A guy sitting in first class says, “A pigeon? I have a letter I need to send.”

I say to H, “I think you have just become the most interesting passenger on the plane.” Everyone in first class laughs.

We find our seats near the back and carefully maneuver Tundra under the seat. H takes the window this time. As we jet home, he checks on Tundra and talks to him frequently.

We climb back through that same layered cloudscape. Somewhere over northern Illinois, the gray begins to brighten. I peer through the window intently, as I love the moment when the plane breaks through the overcast into the sunshine while wisps of cloud whip past the wings.

Again, the weather provides the unexpected. This time, it’s thrilling. We burst into the sunshine. Our CRJ surfs the cloud tops, chased by an airplane-shaped shadow surrounded by a rainbow halo. It’s one of those perfect moments when flying becomes poetry in motion.

We touch down in the Twin Cities at sunset. MSP is quieter than Midway. By the time we pull into the driveway, it’s long after dark. Our quick-turn trip to Chicago Midway has been a success. Tundra is home with his new family.

Like so many other happy gatherings around the globe, aviation made it happen.

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