The symbolism was hard to understand. “WATCH OUT FOR NESTING BIRD-SHARP TALONS!” read the sign in front of the little Baptist church across from my bus stop. Interpreting this church’s signs had become an important aid in whiling away the time between when WMATA said the bus would arrive to take me to the Spectator offices and when it actually came. Normally the diversion provided by the daily message lasted but a few seconds before I had to admit to myself that I had drawn out every possible moral, theme, motif, and symbol and move grimly on to other time-killing pursuits. This particular message about the bird and the talons, though, had me wondering. The imagery eluded me, and left me regretful, probably not for the last time, that I didn’t know more about the Bible. Something about the wings of eagles or maybe the birds of the air flitted through my mind, but I struggled to make sense of this call for probity in the face of evil’s razor-sharp talons.
I’m sure that none of my fellow Metrobus sufferers at the stop even noticed the sign. I’m aware I have an unusually deep appreciation for church signs. The Massachusetts town in which I wasted away the time between junior high and when I could get a driver’s license — which still seems like a brief interlude compared to your average Metrobus wait — was home to another small Baptist church featuring an ever-changing sign. Now, the pastors of the Catholic churches I knew limited their messages to the time and location of the weekly Bingo night. The pastor of this particular Baptist church, however, obviously viewed the sign as his go-to tool for evangelizing, and the sun never went down on a one-line sermon that wasn’t impressively attuned to the day’s happenings.
So, for instance, on a hot July day the message would run toward the climatic: “PRAYER-CONDITIONED.” On the day of a big game for a local team it would be strategic: “NO ONE WINS WITHOUT GOD ON HIS SIDE.” On a slow day, though, it would venture into the indecipherable: “DON’T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE! — GOD.”
That last one was the source of a long walk’s amusement for my best friend and me. We came up with a number of interpretations of its cryptic message, but none of them squared with Baptist theology. It could be God warning His people to behave themselves, lest He have to de-scend on the Earth and sort things out. But didn’t Baptists hope for the Second Coming? And what was mankind up to now that was testing God’s patience as never before? Or perhaps the message was taken from that day’s Old Testament reading, and referred to God’s annoyance at a Tower of Babel or a Golden Calf. If so, the pastor was being too clever for his own good. It was with this rich background in inscrutable-church-sign exegesis that I approached “WATCH OUT FOR NESTING BIRD-SHARP TALONS!”
Accordingly, I had not considered the possibility that the sign might be literal and not figurative in its meaning until I became aware — far too late — of a dark figure swooping down from across the street. That’s right: a giant bird with its talons, yes, outsplayed, diving directly at my head. My thoughts came crashing down from the highly abstract to the immediate and physical. Even so, I barely had time to duck. I’m not proud of this, but as the bird, murder in its beady eyes, flew by inches over my head, such was my shock I let out a piercing scream.
In that same instant, the bird — it looked like a bald eagle or a peregrine falcon to me — was gone, and everyone else at the bus stop turned to me, torpidly curious (in the way only commuters can be) as to the cause of my outburst. As the bus turned the corner and pulled up to the stop, I realized that there was no way to explain to anyone what had just happened without writing a whole article. I lowered my head and got on without saying a word.