Think in the Morning occasionally offers Guest Posts that we think our readers will enjoy. Raven Man is a short story by Mitchell Zucker.
by Mitchell Zucker
Uncle Dean’s not my real uncle but he might just as well be. He’s the old guy who lives in back of the grange hall and knows more about model planes than anyone in the world. And not those snap together plastic jobs — no way. He builds flying models out of balsa and tissue and silk, every kind of model imaginable. He has a Sopwith Camel, a Spitfire, a P38, a Cessna — you name it, Uncle Dean built it. But my very favorite of all is his radio controlled glider with the four-foot wingspan called Raven Glider. From a distance you’d swear it was a real raven. It even fools the birds and they fly around checking it out when it runs out of gas and it’s gliding just like them.
Uncle Dean sends Raven Glider up with a tiny booster engine sitting on top of the wing and he controls it with a CB radio. When he wiggles the control stick on the radio it sends signals to things called servo motors inside the plane that push the rudder and run the flaps. He can do loop-de-loops, figure eights, barrel rolls just by wigwagging on his little control stick. And when the engine runs out of gas he can fly it, sometimes for hours, when he catches the warm air currents drifting over Melbourne Hill. When it finds a good thermal, Raven Glider rises in slow spirals, exactly like the ravens in back of the ridge. And before long the birds join it, playing follow the leader or practicing trick flying, with all of us laid out on our backs in the meadow watching this show going on in the sky.
Uncle Dean talks with the ravens through his control stick, feeling what the birds say by how close they fly to Raven Glider. By shading the wind from Raven Glider, he can feel the birds sending messages: go right, go left, good wind straight ahead, things like that. He calls this flight talk.
One day the two of us were flying a rubber motor Piper Cub he helped me build, when he noticed the ravens flying a weird formation, rising over Melbourne Ridge in tight circles then breaking off in our direction then repeating the pattern. Uncle Dean studied the scene for a few minutes and decided to see what they were up to. So he launched Raven Glider and flew far away from the birds so he wouldn’t spook ’em with engine noise. Then, when he was high above them and the engine ran out of gas, he did a slow bank and began a long slide right to them. The ravens were riding the coastal currents coming off the ridge and when Raven Glider arrived they all began soaring in a giant circle which took them clear over Melbourne Ridge, almost out of range of the transmitter.
“Better pull her in,” I suggested; but Uncle Dean was kind of puzzled and let the birds call the directions. When they began a smaller circle on the far side, he announced that we had best climb the ridge because they wanted to show us something. As we headed up the trail, with his hand wigwagging like mad on the control stick trying to keep up with them, the birds and the glider started making tighter and tighter circles and losing altitude. We reached the top in time to see five ravens directing the glider down the ridge, while Uncle Dean’s hand slowed down on the control stick. It was too late to return to higher altitude and I was certain it would crash into the manzanita brush back of the abandoned mill — when suddenly Uncle Dean let out a, “HOT DIGGITY DOG IT’S ABOUT TIME!,” and he shut off the transmitter.
I didn’t know what he was yelling about, but I did know that those ravens were controlling the glider, flying wing tip to wing tip, bringing it down right into a pile of brush. If it wasn’t for the last circle over the brush top, as though they were signaling to us, we wouldn’t have known where they all came down. We worked our way through thick berry brush and manzanita until we came to a small clearing, so small that even Uncle Dean could never have landed in it. But there sat Raven Glider, slick as ever, and surrounded by five ravens, each almost as big as the glider.
“You stay hidden here and watch what happens, otherwise they might spook and leave,” Uncle Dean whispered, ” He then took off his hat, stood up and slowly bowed to the birds, just like in old war movies when a fighter pilot meets a really great ace. The birds hopped in back of the glider while he joined them and squatted Indian style. Then they began the craziest powwow ever held. The birds suddenly started squawking and clacking and flying straight up and down trying to explain something or other. Then Uncle Dean jumped up and took the glider and pretended he was flying, with birds hopping and flying and jabbering away, with arms and wings flapping like mad. Uncle Dean made the craziest clacking sounds I ever heard from a human being and didn’t give in one inch when the ravens got bossy. They must have talked and squawked like that for the best part of an hour; but when it was all over and the birds took off, the only thing Uncle Dean would say was that the ravens were good fliers because they knew how to carry a lot of weight.
The next day, when I told my pals Raisin, Aura and Tookie what had happened up there, we all agreed that the birds must have been teaching Uncle Dean some fine points of flying and he was probably going to build some kind of new radio-controlled raven.
Sure enough, for the next six months Uncle Dean stayed in his shop day and night, with black paper covering the windows so we couldn’t peek, and a big painted sign nailed to the front of the door: ALL UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT, and underneath: Only Authorized Person — Uncle Dean! But one day when he was in the woods taking a leak I managed a peek, and frankly I was disappointed. I was expecting to see a giant raven with feathers and all, but there didn’t seem to be anything special going on. He was just building some kind of plain looking glider and fooling around with the transmitter.
I saw very little of him for six whole months, but once in a while, when I caught glimpses of him feeding his chickens, he looked thinner as though he wasn’t eating enough. I was beginning to get worried that maybe the ravens had tricked him, pretending they had told him something important just so he’d stop flying. Ravens can be pretty sly and bossy and it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least.
But then early one morning in September, while I was eating breakfast, I heard the scream of his Spitfire overhead, which was his signal that a flight was about to take place. It made a beautiful low rolling turn over Comptche Post Office, did a few figure eights over the store then headed home, with kids running in from all over the place. I jumped right out the kitchen window and began running as fast as I could, with Raisin Aura and Tookie right behind. Sure enough, bunches of ravens were circling high over Melbourne Ridge and the air was clear and heating up so fast you could feel the thermals pressing against you.
Everyone knew we were about to witness something special but we sure weren’t ready for what happened next. Uncle Dean was standing beside his model starting box in the meadow butt naked as the day he was born, except for this weird Indian head band and arm band, and surrounded by every one of his models. There must have been twenty or thirty of em. When we were all assembled and staring, with our mouths opened, not knowing what to say, he presented each of us with a model and told us it was a gift. He gave me Raven Glider, and I stood there crying without really knowing why. Then he made a little speech:
“I sure hope you enjoy your models and … er … always remember that the secret of flying is understanding flight talk and knowing … aww … forget it ….” He then took off a cloth from what must have been the world’s clumsiest glider, with a big bulge in the middle of the fuselage, big enough to hold a CB transmitter.
He made some final adjustments and launched the glider free-flight with the rudder set for a long turn. When it ran out of gas and began drifting towards the ravens, I noticed that the band under his arm began vibrating and something was moving under his head band, one of his servo motors was thumping against his brain.
Before we knew what was happening, he turned to the gang of us and ordered us to stay where we were and study the sky. He then started slowly jogging down the dirt road and up the ridge trail, picking up speed and kicking little puffs of dust as he headed to the top, faster and faster until I finally realized what was happening and began screaming “HE’S GONNA FLY! HE’S GONNA FLY! HE’S GOT THE TRANSMITTER IN THE GLIDER AND HE’S GETTING MESSAGES FROM THE RAVENS! THEY’RE GONNA FLY HIM! THEY’RE GONNA FLY HIM!!!”
Sure enough there went Uncle Dean, naked as a baby, running faster than I ever seen him run, up and up, then up and over the Melbourne Ridge.
Raisin, Aura and Tookie didn’t think he was flying all that good, but I thought so, especially when they all disappeared over the state forest heading towards the ocean and I heard his call echoing off the mountains, just like a real Ace
“TALLYHO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O ! ! ”
Uncle Dean, Dean Mackenzie, lived in Comptche with his wife Marta from 1970 to 1997, when he flew with the ravens. His paintings were regularly shown at the Mendocino Art Center and Northern California galleries. For many years he worked as the night watchman at the Fort Bragg Mill, and then was assistant Post Master at the Comptche Post Office. Earlier in his life he was a highly successful commercial artist in New York City where his work appeared regularly on the back cover of Life magazine and countless other publications. During WWII he served with the Marines in Guadalcanal. He had a warm and generous personality and was well loved by many.