On a Saturday morning in the Spring of 2001, I was invited to ride along with a group of friends getting certified to drive their motorcycles on base in Guantanamo Bay. The military takes safety seriously and requires all bike owners to prove they know how to handle their ride. The plan that day was to end the course at the beach and have a picnic. Not a motorcyclist myself, I was a passenger on the course leader’s bike.
About an hour into the ride, and just past an area with a gorgeous view of the ocean, we happened upon two vultures eating a dead “banana rat” in the roadway. Properly called a “Cuban Hutia,” the vultures’ brunch was a large cavy-like rodent about the size of a racoon. With no natural predators, the base was overrun with them. They were called “banana rats” not because of what they ate, but because of the shape of their poop, which they left everywhere. I thought hutia were cute, which was a good thing because lots of them lived up on Chapel Hill where I worked.
When the two scavengers saw the line of us coming down the road, they left their meal and flew out over the field. Then one circled back. It headed straight for us, colliding with the leader sitting in front of me first. Then the buzzard lost its balance and slammed into my forehead, which, thankfully, was protected by a good helmet. My head whipped back as the sissy bar stopped my fall. In the words of the rider behind me, the bird then started rotating and flipped “beak over butt, beak over butt, beak into the ground-dead.” It was all he could do, he said later, to avoid the whirling buzzard and control his laughter so he could stay upright.
Although he too had been struck, Greg, the leader, never stopped the bike. Reaching back, he poked my leg to get my attention and yelled, “You Okay?”
“Humph… uh… I think so?” was all I could mumble.
“Good. We’ll keep going.”
After what seemed like another hour riding, we got to the beach. Once I got off the bike, my head felt “fuzzy” and I was a bit wobbly. I should have made a trip to the base hospital, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk into the emergency room and say I needed to be evaluated because I had just killed a vulture with my head. As a chaplain, I knew most of the staff, and this incident would be too funny to leave alone. So, I stayed at the picnic and when it was over, I went about my day as best I could.
That night I was scheduled to volunteer for the ten to midnight shift at the Iguana Crossing Coffeehouse on Chapel Hill. Unfortunately for me, the other volunteer was the flight surgeon.
“I heard you had a close encounter today,” he said while looking in my eyes. The story was already spreading like a disease. Then he went over to the wall phone and dialed. “I’m sending Chaplain Bender to see you. Yes, she really head-butted a vulture, and she has a concussion. Yes, she is leaving right now.”
It was only a three-mile drive to the hospital. When I arrived, my friends Ken and Vicki were already there. Ken was an emergency room nurse and Vicki his long-suffering (because of his sense of humor) lovely wife.
“I didn’t think you were working tonight,” I said.
“No, they called me at home. They knew we wouldn’t want to miss this,” he grinned. Wonderful friends, they stayed with me through neck x-rays and other tests until the doctor determined I would be fine, at least medically.
But the next morning, this appeared in my inbox:
A short time later, I got a call from the NCIS agent. “I’ve got a guy out there right now drawing a chalk line around the victim. Don’t leave town.”
Later I got a call from the Marine Colonel. In a voice reminiscent of his counterpart in A Few Good Men he barked, “Chaplain, you are a non-combatant and my Marines are a well-trained force. Why are you the only one here with a confirmed kill?”
It went on for weeks. Even the going away party a year later was not exempt:
Now I’d like to say that transferring to my next assignment would have ended the issue, but thanks to the wily emergency room staff my permanent medical record contains the phrase “Vulture Strike.” Since a review of my health record was required at each new duty station, every time I moved, I had to retell the story. It wasn’t even over when I retired 19 years after killing that buzzard. The woman reviewing my record for the Veteran’s Administration saw the phrase and not only did she ask me about it, but she scheduled me for an MRI to make sure I did not have a Traumatic Brain Injury and to meet with a neurologist to ensure there had been no permanent impairment. I believe she also accompanied my record with a note saying “Ask her about the ‘Vulture Strike’” because all the other doctors I met with for unrelated issues quizzed me about it. Why a gynecologist needed to know about my close encounter with wildlife is a question for which I don’t want an answer.
All of this focus on vultures over the last 20 years has caused me to develop quite a fondness for them. Likely it is to counter the guilt of having unintentionally slain one of their number. If I were a Catholic, I could be given some kind of penance to do. But as a Protestant, all I could do is create this memorial: 😊
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