free·dom – the condition of not being controlled by a situation, another, or a belief.
The red-crested woodpeckers wake me every morning at my home on Hippo Wallow Pond. There weren’t many there before, I’ve been told, so I must have brought the rest.
Every weather report last November said this past winter was going to be brutally cold. Remembering my saintly grandmother, I knew the birds would suffer; to help, some friends and I built a multi-station bird feeder and heated bird bath that wouldn’t freeze. After all, birds, like people, need to drink every day.
When the snow fell hard and the arctic winds blew, I stocked Birdville with warm water and seed. Soon dozens of struggling birds arrived and, among them, were six red-crested woodpeckers.
I loved to watch them; one day, through a snowfall that fell with a hypnotic swirl, my thoughts traveled back through time to nearly a quarter of a century ago…
We worked among the mountainous villages south of Lake Atitlan; a deep-water lake surrounded by three, large dormant volcanoes. Guatemala’s violent civil war raged everywhere. Rumors floated that armed insurgencies controlled the valleys around us, and through which the flat roads wove.
We knew this report to be true since just a few weeks earlier a friend, Mike Duvall, and I saw them while riding motorbikes on dirt trails. We rounded a mountainous corner and roared into an armed encampment. A few rebels bathed in a creek while others strolled casually about. All, as did we, froze, certain that someone was about to die.
No one moved. No one shot. No one said a word. Slowly… oh, so slowly… we turned our dirt bikes around and left.
A few weeks later, elders from the Mayan Indian village of Santo Tomas visited me because they wanted their children to study. They asked for help. I said I would go.
The night before we travelled, I checked road reports for civil unrest, not for weather. The flat roads were still closed because of the insurgency so we took a dangerous road used by speeding sugar cane truckers, instead.
Santo Tomas was quiet when we entered. Those still on the streets scattered when we drew near. The Guatemalan Air Force had bombed nearby mountains the night before, we were told, and no one knew what villages had been hit.
For two hours that day, we hiked with the elders to visit nearby villages inaccessible by road. When we returned just before sunfall, one man, unknown even to the elders, approached me and urgently said, “You must leave now. Soon there will be problems.”
As we go through life, we need to sometimes stop and ask ourselves, “What are we are doing, and why are we doing this?”
Sometimes these pauses-to-reflect happen with considerate care and we learn what we are willing to fight for. At other times, they are borne in the flurry of split-second reactions. If all goes well, through them we discover who we are and see what is essential to our soul.
Loading my staff into our van, I said I would meet them later at the main road and drove alone to the village’s central square. There I parked our pickup, climbed on top of the hood, leaned back against the windshield, and sat.
The only thing I had going for me, I knew, was my bad Spanish accent and the color of my skin.
Minutes became an hour, then two, and then three. I left.
Over a decade later, when I received the Guatemalan Congressional Medal in recognition of the Mayan Indian lives I helped save during that nation’s bloody civil war, we learned that an aerial bombing had indeed been planned for that mountainous village on the evening of our visit. The presence of us foreigners complicated operations which were postponed, and eventually cancelled.
The grace in our humanity is that we can make choices. We can reach far and risk everything for that which is important to us, or not. Every day we decide.
Now, it’s a quarter-century later and I’m in a safer place with red-crested woodpeckers that wake me up in the morning. They see their reflections in my oversized windows; they attack their reflections and imaginary enemies throughout the day, banging their heads against the windows.
Suppose these beautiful birds could just turn their heads and notice the incredible world that surrounds them. Are they free enough to just fly away?
Bismarck-native Patrick Atkinson is the founder of The GOD’S CHILD Project international charity (GodsChild.org), is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts in human trafficking and street gang violence, and is an award-winning author with six books in worldwide distribution. He lives in Bismarck, Minneapolis, and Guatemala, Central America.