I work in a quarry. It's an interesting job that I usually enjoy but it does have its moments. The hours are long and the work is hard, dirty and dangerous. Basically we uncover solid rock, blast it into pieces and then crush it into even smaller bits which eventually end up as the base for highways or concrete or some other infrastructure construction need. I work in a union shop with a seniority list running from guys with over 40 years in the pit to guys hired earlier this year. The relationships between employees and management can lead to stressful situations and so too does the interaction among employees and shifts. Arguments, feuds and rumors are a normal occurrence and even attempting to avoid all the drama can by itself be stressful.
Last week at in the pit was more stressful than most. The contract with the company expires Jan 1st. On Sunday about 60% of us "red-hats" attended a meeting wherein we elected Chief Steward and other union and JHSC positions plus the members of our negotiating committee. Not everyone was happy with the results and they brought their frustrations to work with them. On the Friday before that meeting (the 19th) we lost almost half the workforce due to seasonal layoffs. (First year I've made the cut) In addition, many of the positions at the quarry were ended due to the reduced workload which meant those displaced employees had to 'bump' into other positions as their seniority allowed. As I've only got 5 years into the place it was inevitable that I would end up getting bumped from my usual job and that's exactly what happened. When I reported for work on Monday it was in my new position as laborer.
Working as a laborer in the quarry is considered the lowest position. All new hires start there and only by posting into other positions can one advance higher. When bumped into the labor job as I was it's not necessarily permanent - when the new season starts early next year and the company ramps up production again everyone returns to their regular jobs which means I'll be back driving haul truck full time. Until then I'm in the mud. Literally. A quarry is pretty much a giant stone bowl full of mud so most people prefer working jobs that keep them dry and out of the elements. As laborer one better get used to being wet, cold and muddy all day (and probably doing actual physical work).
I'm okay with being a laborer but not everyone feels the same way. Many of my co-workers loathe having to bump into jobs they may not want or they hate being bumped out of their regular job for the couple months this kind of thing lasts each year. Emotions can run high, arguments and bellyaching are common. Screaming matches or solo petulant fits happen almost every day. Such negativity can make a day seem even longer than normal and I'd be lying if I said it was easy to maintain a positive attitude in such an environment.
Adding to the stress of all the job-switching is the ever-present threat of more layoffs. We're basically working every week under a two week notice. Each Friday we wait for the letter saying our layoff date has been pushed back another week. For some people it's not a big deal getting laid off, it may even be a desired 'holiday' for a few but for the bulk of employees still working the layoff isn't anything to laugh at. Personally, I dread the idea and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to work. I'll take every day they give me and as much overtime as I can get.
Overtime is another work-stress inducing factor. The current workforce is basically split in half, two tribes with opposing views about working overtime. Many of the most senior workers refuse to work OT. They usually say it's because we have employees already laid off and it's "not fair" to work extra hours when our "union brothers" are at home. (An argument that doesn't ring true since most of them never work OT anyway. The pressure to do so is more intense now and that's what they're upset about) I'm of the mindset that those recently let-go workers will still be laid off whether we remaining employees work OT or not. Why deny myself the opportunity to make a few extra bucks? Since I'm hardly in a position to ride out a layoff with no financial worries I'm going to take every available chance I can to make extra money because my family needs it (and nobody is going to make me feel guilty about that.)
All those factors seemed to fuel the collective stress levels of everyone in the quarry. People began grousing and bitching about all kinds of things... having to work a different shift... discipline - why some are called out and others aren't... this foreman - that foreman, whatever. Whoever is in the white hat today, chances are at least half a dozen people are pissed at him (and he's probably pissed at at least half that many red-hats himself)... getting laid off, not getting laid off... working overtime.... equipment needing repair, again, still. ("It's in the system".) By end of shift Monday it was apparent there was no collective positive energy among us. By Wednesday there had been near-miss incidents and a couple machine-damage incidents. (Fortunately no injuries). By Friday any pretense of civility or tolerance over a perceived slight or management injustice was out the window.
The drama had already started by the time I punched the clock at 5:10 that morning and while I avoided getting pulled into it I still had to listen to it and have that negativity wash over me. I was informed that a guy had called in so I'd be driving haul truck all day which was a pleasant surprise. Aside from early start overtime I haven't been in a truck since getting bumped into the labor pool so the news I'd be spending the last day of a stressful week in my own comfort zone, behind the wheel of a 100 Ton Caterpillar 777C Haul Truck, was music to my ears. It was chilly, raining and windy with conditions expected to worsen as the day went on. With that kind of weather I was glad for the relative comfort of the truck cab. Another reason I was happy to drive truck (and a major reason why I keep that position unless forced from it by a 'bump') is the chance for some alone time.
As a haul truck driver my job is pretty basic. I drive the truck to wherever we're hauling from, back it under a loader who loads it with 75-90 tons of rock then drive it back to the Primary Crusher and dump it in. I do that about 26-32 times a shift. Sometimes I haul other stuff and dump it other places but that's about it. Sure, it's a little more complicated than that and some people are better suited for it than others. It's the perfect job for me. Thanks to 'the gift that keeps on giving' (brain damage) I function better within a structured environment. My thoughts have a slyly easy tendency to scatter and my on-demand memory recall is limited to those things I do or use all the time. The simplicity at the core of a haul truck job is the back and forth, everything else by necessity fits that rhythm (which is part of the shared pulse of the quarry in operation.) I'm comfortable behind the wheel and I'm pretty good at it too.
Another big bonus to driving truck is being removed from other employees and all the various drama and negativity they might be emitting. Aside from the radio I speak to nobody except at breaks and at the time-clock. Usually that's enough to get through the day with a positive mood and stay out of the personal drama but on Friday things were so intense that even the truck wasn't sanctuary enough. Even the radio chatter dripped with a negative vibe that was palpable enough to deepen the wet weather chills. Despite everything I might have found solace in the haul truck that day had an early morning near-miss erased my comfort zone so even the act of driving held no meditative release. It's pretty hard to relax again after nearly going head-on with an errant pick-up truck. An outside contractor driving on the wrong side of the road. Had I not stopped my truck (even empty, a bruising 235,000 lbs) it would have rolled over that pick-up like it was made of tinfoil.
By mid-morning I was on the verge of succumbing to the creeping malaise of depression lapping at the foundation of my positive attitude like some malevolent tide on an ocean of negativity. I no longer smiled, nodded or waved at any of my fellow truckers, I was ignoring the loader operators by staring at a crossword puzzle I had no interest in doing. The day appeared to be moving in slow motion, shift's end so far in the future it seemed unattainable. The collective negativity of the week pressed down on the quarry like some oppressive fog, threatening to drag me into depression's abyss. Or, to put it another way... the fuzz was rapidly wearing off the peach.
Normally the sights of the quarry and surrounding area supply enough wonder to lighten any mood. There are numerous birds and animals that make the quarry their home and it's not uncommon to see deer, coyotes, raccoons and other creatures as well as numerous species of birds. Usually when I catch a glimpse of one of the quarry's natural denizens I'm excited enough to forget whatever immediate issue might be weighing heavily on my mind but on that Friday nothing showed itself, or if it did I was too close to the abyss to notice it. Even the display of fall colors on the trees surrounding the pit held no attraction to me. I knew then I was definitely falling sway to the week's negative vibes because that natural palette normally fills me with awe and gratitude that I can work in a place where such wonders can be found.
As the noon hour drew closer I began to think about everything that had brought the quarry to this moment, to this collective spiritual depression which beckoned for me to cede emotional defeat and embrace the negativity of despair, frustration, anger and sadness which grows like mold on a man's soul if left unchecked by the power of positivity and light. The thought of spending time with my co-workers during the impending lunch break knotted my stomach and filled me with dread. Even thinking about home, about my wife Tammy and our furry "kids" Isabeau & Iggy brought me no relief. Where my thoughts of them should have instilled strength and empowerment they were instead twisted by the increasing negativity of my own mood into a bitter sense of selfish want to be anywhere but at work, a feeling of resentment and anger toward the very thing that gives me the means to support them. I was beginning to hate my job.
And so it was as I pulled away from the loader on what would be my last trip to the crusher before lunch that a thought crossed my mind... "I wish I had my bible". I don't profess to be a Christian or practitioner of any organized faith. I'm not sure I could answer the question "Do you believe in God?" because I don't know how anyone else defines God. I do believe in a higher power. I do believe we are all connected to a common collective energy. I do believe I have a soul (for lack of a better word) and that my soul is the pilot of my spiritual journey as my id is piloting my subconscious and I am the driver of my waking thoughts. So I guess... Yes, I do believe in God... but I don't believe anybody else shares my definition of God.
So why read the bible? Well, like other religious books... those of the Bahá'í Faith, or Buddhist texts, or Sikhism's Adi Granth, or The Qur'an, the holy book of Islam (and more from those and other faiths), The Christian Bible is a very powerful book full of teachings, history, guidance and lessons. Reading it brings a certain peace that helps me shed the blankets of negativity life layers on my spiritual energy. It reinvigorates me emotionally and sharpens my focus on life and the ones I love. Reading The Bible helps bring me balance (and balance is key.)
Before I go any further I want to make it clear. Reading The Bible (or other religious texts) isn't something I'm doing every day. When I feel the need to read... I pick up the book. For awhile I carried a bible in my lunchbox. I'd sit by myself at break-time and read it which got me through a pretty rough patch, a period where the gift that keeps on giving was becoming a more insistent threat knocking on emotion's door and I was run down physically. I weathered that storm, regained my balance and stopped carrying the bible to work each day which is why, on that Friday, when I seemed unable to maintain the spiritual energy needed to keep all the infectious negativity at bay... that Friday when nothing worked... I wished I had my bible... but of course, I knew I didn't have it and I couldn't get it so the thought came and went.
So there I was, driving away from the loader and dreading the seemingly inevitable fall into an emotional funk which would do no one (especially me) any good. I wished, for only a second, that I'd brought my bible with me because it's worked for me before. If I had it lunch-break would have been a breeze. I could have picked some verse or a psalm and brought things back into balance. But I didn't have it and the reality that I'd be in close proximity to so many negative energies within a few minutes of dumping my load and parking the truck was weighing heavily on my mind as I neared the long, steeply graded incline rising from the quarry floor.
My primary focus then was navigating the truck around the curve at the base of the ramp while maintaining the proper speed for the downshifting to come. At that point I basically keep it straight and sit back, letting the automatic transmission gear the truck down as it ascends the ramp. It's a slow climb, there's time enough to look around and time aplenty to let everything on your mind come crashing back heavier than ever. By the time the truck was halfway up the ramp I was almost resigned to defeat, almost ready to let the negativity enfold me, become me.
And that's when I saw the American Kestrel.
And everything changed...
For those of you who don't know, the American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America. Adult birds are only about 12-14 inches long. They're very pretty birds, the males have grey-blue heads with black-striped white cheek patches, spotted breasts & backs and sport long rusty-colored tails. (The one pictured is not the one I'm talking about here.)
It's not uncommon to see Kestrels at the quarry. They can often be spotted hunting by soaring on the thermals that rise beside the haul road ramp. It takes some rapid wingbeats and constant adjustments but they can actually use the thermals to hover in one spot. Many times in the past my mood has brightened considerably after seeing Kestrels during the slow climb up and out of the pit but I was already too far gone that Friday to pay much heed to this Kestrel. I saw him cross the road at cab-height (13ft) about 50ft in front of me but aside from recognizing that a Kestrel had flown by I paid it no further heed, neglected to track it's path with my eyes. Had I done so I would have seen it circle back to pass in front of me again. I didn't see him do a U-turn so it was with some surprise that I greeted his 2nd pass across the haul road. The fact he'd done it at the same height and same distance in front of me was also surprising but again my rapidly deteriorating mood wouldn't allow me to enjoy what I was seeing. Proof that I was precariously low spirited indeed.
Then the Kestrel crossed the road again and this time I had to really notice him because he flew right in front of my truck, maybe 10 feet ahead. When he was right in front of me he turned his head and he looked directly at me! It was like he hesitated for a split-second, just long enough to turn his head and look me right in the eye. Needless to say, that got my attention. I really looked at the Kestrel for the first time, my eyes tracking him to the right as he drifted with wings outspread toward the edge of the ramp which drops off almost vertically to the pit floor 100 ft below. He began moving his wings as he caught a thermal, small adjustments which at once halted his forward path and then kept him hovering on a plane parallel to the quarry floor.
The Kestrel continued to hover as my truck growled into a lower gear on its slow crawl up the ramp. He was perhaps 40 feet away from me, I could see every detail of his feathers. Like, I mean every detail of every feather. The bird was so sharp and so in focus it was as if I was looking through a high-powered telescope or super-binoculars. He stood out from everything else. I don't know how else to describe it. He seemed bathed in a luminescent glow, one which illuminated and sharpened every barb of every feather so I, from 40-50 feet away (wearing glasses) could clearly see the Kestrel and all of its parts in exquisite detail. It wasn't like he was 'shining' or had a visible glow or aura of light surrounding him. It was like everything else in the world, including the normally brilliant fall colors, had suddenly stopped being colorful. All the colors were still there of course but everything was cloaked in a translucent matte finish, except the Kestrel which, against that flattened background, shone like nothing I've ever seen.
I was awestruck, gazing in wonder at the Kestrel's magnificent beauty. I wasn't puzzled by the strange phenomenon which rendered the world uniformly drab while bathing the bird with light seemingly in his plumage as much as on it. I wasn't so awestruck I forgot I was driving a truck loaded with 90 tons of rock - part of me continued to do all the necessary things to pilot the huge vehicle toward its destination. What I didn't notice at the time seems trivial now in light of subsequent happenings but it was strange enough I should have noticed...
The Kestrel was hovering on an updraft, barely moving his wings to hold position just ahead and 40-50 feet to my right and he stayed there! The truck was moving, (albeit slowly but still) there's no way that bird should have been able to maintain that position relative to my truck without a lot more wingbeats and maneuvering. I've seen lots of Kestrels ride the quarry thermals and they always need to work at staying relatively stationary over one spot. When they do move from one spot to the other it's always either a tilted-wing turn into a soaring glide or it's flapping wings. This Kestrel did neither. It just stayed to the right and 40-50 feet away from the front of my truck. I didn't think about that seemingly impossible feat much then, if I even noticed it at all, my attention was solely on the amazing details of the bird's physical being, clearly visible despite my 54yr old eyes and the distance between it and me.
Don't get me wrong, this didn't last for a long time. I don't want to imply this (dare I say) impossible feat of aerial maneuvering went on for an extended period. I doubt 20 seconds passed from the moment I met the Kestrel's glance to his departure. As amazing as his ability to maintain the same relative position to a moving object without exerting any apparent physical effort... a bird maybe not breaking but definitely bending the laws of physics (as I understand them, at least)... as amazing (and in retrospect almost unbelievable) as that was... it was what happened next that was really amazing...In short, the Kestrel left.
That's right, he flew away. But it was the way he did it and what happened then that is at the heart of this story. The Kestrel had been hovering off the right-front side of my truck for just a few seconds that seemed longer. Not minutes longer, just time extended with no sense of how much but feeling longer than the few seconds it really was. During that brief span of time the bird never looked at me again, never gave a glance in my direction. The Kestrel maintained his physics-defying feat basically facing away from me but I was able to see his right side because he was angled slightly that way and he was pretty much 'eye-level' too. I wasn't looking up or down at him. (Not a bird's-eye-view one sees every day, not even avowed birdwatchers like me.)
The Kestrel appeared to be scanning the long-grass and shrubs covering the earth sides of the ramp looking very much like Kestrels do when they're hovering on the thermal updrafts. In other words, except for the lateral motion (and ascension) in sinc with my truck's movement and the incredible clarity of detail emitted by the light enveloping him and nothing else... he looked like a normal Kestrel behaving normally (notwithstanding the direct eye-to-eye contact he initiated.)
When he left the Kestrel did something I've never seen a Kestrel do... He turned one wing and suddenly he was vertical, his back toward me. Wings outspread with his long tail pointed straight down... the bird presented the shape of the cross. For a heartbeat, maybe two, the Kestrel held that position and then with a flick of his wings he arrowed down and out of sight. At the precise instant he folded his wings and started the dive two things happened... All the colors of the world came back. Whatever opaque blanket covering it during my time with the Kestrel was lifted and uncountable millions of color combinations, hues and shades again painted the world alive. At the same time the blanket of negativity was lifted from my mind and I felt peace and positive energy wash over me. Everything that had been straining my spiritual energy was condensed in force and stature to a mote of dust. In an instant... I had balance.
My very first thought was of my wife and our furry 'kids', a vision that filled me with emotional strength and resolve to banish the negativity, depression and anger from me, to again embrace the positivity that is life. My second thought, even though it never actually materialized as a thought, was gratitude. The beauty of the day, of the place I work... that I'm able to still do so at something I love... for the family I do it for. All of these feelings came to me as I delivered my load to the crusher and then parked for lunch. I exited my truck knowing no matter what happened next, no matter what form negativity wore it could not touch me, could not upset my balance. And it did not. Not that day and not since. Sure, I've been momentarily upset over something or other since then and I've personally had some days better than others but I've not again been anywhere near as close to the abyss as I was that day.
So, did God send me that Kestrel to calm the chaos within me? I'm thinking yes. The onus is on me now to understand why, to learn the lessons (because there is always a lesson.) Your answer will of course be dictated by your definition of God. I'm sure some will take the bird's 'farewell' posture where his silhouette closely resembled a cross as proof of God's hand in things. For others the physics-defying aerial ability of the falcon will add weight to the argument this was God's work. And then there is my testimony of events, an honest and true account of my feelings and state of mind before, during and immediately after my encounter with the Kestrel. Believers will see God in my words. Unbelievers will call me a liar, or delusional. "It's all in his head!" Others will simply see a story, one of millions uploaded to the internet every day.
It took some thought before I decided to write the story of what happened that day. I haven't told anyone about what I experienced with the Kestrel, not even my wife. I felt I needed to tell the story here. Maybe I'm supposed to, I don't know. All I know is that now I'm moments away from hitting the "Publish" button and posting this to whatever audience and whatever effect... it's the right thing for me to do.
I'm not in the habit of telling anyone what to think or do but... if you think there is someone who would benefit in some small fashion from reading my Kestrel story... someone who might enjoy it... or understand it... or maybe even need it... why not take a moment and share it with them by sending them the link.
If you'd like to learn more about Kestrels... there is lots of info here