The Cardinal and Mr. Smith’s Plane

Stories from the Creekbank is the first short story collection from author Curt Iles


The bird crashed into the plate glass window. My friend and I walked over to where a red cardinal lay on the grass.

She said, “It’s dead.”

“Let’s watch for a while. I’ve seen birds, knocked silly from a collision, get up, wobble around, and fly off.”

But it was evident this cardinal’s flying days were over. He was D.O.A.

I took his body home, and my young granddaughter joined me for a backyard bird funeral.  Don’t laugh. I’ve officiated at many animal funerals in my life.

Pondering the cardinal’s sudden death, I thought about this: he wasn’t eaten by a cat, starved to death during a harsh winter, or wasted away by disease.

Mr. Cardinal died doing what he loved best: flying.

* * *

Then I recalled the story of James Smith, Jr. and his flight over Dry Creek.

In early December 2000, Jim Smith took off from an Austin, Texas area airport, bound for Gainesville, Florida. He was flying to the manufacturer’s plant of his Team Tango experimental plane.

Mr. Smith, an experienced pilot, had retired from the military as well as school teaching. At age 73, he still enjoyed flying and adventure.

I’m sure he was proud of his plane.

Flying solo across the South.

The wind in his hair.

A contented smile on his face as passed over the vast pine forests that cover Southwest Louisiana.

Then something happened as he flew over my hometown of Dry Creek. Folks heard the plane’s engine sputtering as it came over low in the clouds.

This was followed by a loud crash in Bundick Swamp.

The next day, searchers found Mr. Smith’s body and his plane in Bundick Creek.

* * *

A few days later, I hiked into the swamp to the crash site. The fuselage was buried in the creek, but there were no broken limbs along the bank. Evidently, the plane had plummeted straight down.

Bundick Creek is a very special stream in my life.  It’s where I learned to swim and was the site of baptisms during my childhood. My Dad and I set trot lines along it, and it was always a good spot to crawl up on wood ducks.

I sat on the Bundick sandbar and wondered about this man named Jim Smith whose life ended near the community I love.

I never met him, but I know I would’ve liked him, and I believe he would’ve liked a place called Dry Creek.

In the end, James A. Smith, Jr.  was a man who lived life to the fullest, even to the end. He was doing exactly what he loved best- flying.

There are all kinds of ways to die at 73. Most of them involve a slow decline in health.  That slow creeping death never touched Mr. Smith. His life didn’t end in a nursing home or on hospice.

The chances are slim that we’ll live and die doing what we were born to do.

Mr. Smith did, and I guess so did the red cardinal.  Flying.

Two life lessons.

A plane flying low over Bundick Swamp in Dry Creek, Louisiana.

A red cardinal buried in my backyard.

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