An eagle flew over the farm today while I was mowing the front field.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s after we had nearly poisoned them into extinction with DDT, so it’s still a thrill every time I see one.

Like it was yesterday, I can remember the first bald eagle I saw in the wild. It was at Ralph Stover State Park in Pennsylvania, near the Delaware River. A spring day. Late morning. Probably about 1978. My friend Chris Coffin was teaching me how to rock climb.

He always made fun of my caution on the rock, because he knew I was afraid of heights and only did this to practice confronting fear. He would tell me, “One of these days, you’re going to make one of those moves where you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you’ll have no choice except to peel off.”

Well, it wasn’t that day. But I was on belay, a hundred or so feet above a stony creek with one foot wedged into a narrow crack and the other nosing around for a chip of rock big enough to carry my weight, when he calls out, “Hey. There’s an eagle.”

‘Where?” I yelled back. Since I tended to hug the rock, I had a very tight range of vision.

“To your right. Heading towards the river.”

By the time I worked my head around far enough to see, there wasn’t much left of him as he flapped and coasted off. Just the impression of a large-bodied dark bird with a hint of white head and tail washed out against the bright sky.  And just like that, a milestone passed. I had seen an eagle.

Chris was seven or eight years older than me. He’d been in the army. A Cold War tank commander in Germany who talked about watching and waiting for the Red Army to sweep across the Fulda Gap. Chris was like a big brother for a few years. Then I moved to Baltimore and we drifted apart.

Turns out he was one of the first hundred or so Americans killed in the Iraq war. When we think of soldiers killed in wartime, we’re inclined to think of young lives wasted too soon. Chris was an MP in the Army Reserve. He was in his early 50s. Seems like he was too old to die in a war.

I think of Chris Coffin pretty much every time I see an eagle.

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