It was mid-November and I was standing on the shoreline of Winona Lake, next to my stacked pier sections and boat lift. A north wind was blowing down from Lake Michigan and blasting across Winona, kicking up foot and a half waves, topped by gray whitecaps, smashing into my seawall. The wind carried an icy drizzle with it, running down the back of my neck. Winter was definitely on the way.
Far across the lake I could just make out several hundred, if not a few thousand, geese, ducks, coots and other wildfowl which had stopped off on Winona for the night during their winter migration. The was a cacophony of hoots, quacks, honks, warbles and just about any kind of bird noise you could imagine, echoing over the water, spanning the entire lake. About five hundred yards from where I was standing, a gaggle of swans paraded regally by in single file. I could just barely make them out in the fading winter light. I raised my binoculars, rested my elbows on the pier sections, and began to count. One…two …four…six…seven. Unusual. Swans mate for life and travel in groups of mating pairs, so I expected to count ten, twelve or maybe fourteen, which would be five, six or seven pairs. But there were just seven swans.
I scanned the procession and noticed that one through six were pure white with the prominent black eyes that swans have, while number seven was spotted gray. Seven was not maintaining his distance from Six. He was about five feet behind, rather that the customary three feet between the others. Also, his long neck was drooping lower that the others. I thought to myself that Seven was sick, tired from the migration, or very old. Maybe all three.
Suddenly, based on an imperceptible signal from one of the swans, all seven swans began a unison takeoff run. I could hear each swan suck in enormous breaths of air. I could hear each of their powerful wings beat the wind looking for enough lift to get airborne. One through six soared up into a climbing left turn. Seven was struggling. I could tell he recognized the others were airborne. I heard Seven take in three or four huge breaths as he reached inside for a maximum effort. The trailing edges on his wing tips were cutting little furrows in the whitecaps. With a final effort…Seven didn't make it. He settled back into the water, folded up his wings, and gasped for breath.
Oh, no I thought. What is going to happen to this lone, worn out swan? To my astonishment, all six airborne swans continued their left turn and then landed on either side of Seven. They formed up in their queue and began leisurely swimming. I continued to watch. This time Seven was not last in the line. He was three. Interesting, I thought. I wonder why the change in position? Suddenly as before, an imperceptible signal was given and another mass takeoff was in the works. Except this time, Seven was not seven. He was three. I do not know if it was the lift provided by the stronger front two swans, but I saw Seven soar into the air with all of them. I was so thrilled I jumped up and down and yelled, "Go Seven, you did it! Climb!"
I watched them fly out of sight. I haven't seen them since. I often wonder about Seven. Is he still flying? Probably not. But I learned this about those swans…they were looking out for each other and they were not going to leave a friend behind. That we should do so well.
Men are odd, solitary creatures. I should know, I am one and I am very odd. Most men have many acquaintnances, but it is rare they have any friends. Is there a difference? Absolutely, but few men know it. An acquaintance is someone you might hang out with after work. Share a pizza with. Go over to his house and watch a ballgame. Maybe work out with. Bike with. Run with. Swim with. Race with.. Kid around with. And that is where it stays. It doesn’t get past these artificial activities.
Friends, on the other hand, may do all of those things above, but call you at two in the morning and say I've got a problem and I need to talk to you. Can I come over? And you say sure, I'll put on the coffee. And when those two friends sit down across the kitchen table, you never know what it is going to be. It can be " I think I getting a divorce". Or " I've been cheating on my wife." Or " I think I'm drinking too much." Or " I think I'm going to lose my job." Or " I might have a drug problem." Or " a problem with porn." Or " I think I'm bankrupt." You just never know. But they need someone to talk to and you are the only one they can level with, and vice versa.
I am a rich man, as I have nine friends. Few men have two. I have professionally represented six of them. I have given legal advice to all of them upon request. We have swapped secrets for years and all of us can keep our mouths shut. We don't give advice unless asked. It is enough to sit silently and listen. Few understand that.
Sometimes that is all that is needed to sort through a problem. I frequently get phone calls from these guys. My wife knows who they are. If they read this blog, there will know who they are.
Recently, one of my friends called late in the evening about a long term legal problem. Lynne and I were lying in bed and she could hear half the conversation. When it ended, she said to me, "What are your wounded swans going to do when you are gone? I can't help them with their problems." "They won't expect you to," I said. "You are not me. You are not their friend." True enough.
All I know is this. If you are my friend, you will get my undivided attention anytime or place. Your secrets are safe with me. And I will never try to run your life. Because in the end, we are all wounded swans trying to get airborne and we leave no man behind.