(This 912th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 14, 2008.)



The Robin-sized Burrowing Owl


Guantanamo is much in the news nowadays and, sadly, not for the best of reasons. Located along the southeastern shore of the island of Cuba, this United States enclave is now the site of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for prisoners of our wars in Southwest Asia. The detention facility, located in one corner of the enclave's 45 square mile rectangular area along the Caribbean shore, is not even in Guantanamo Bay.


Guantanamo has longer been known as the site of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, "Gitmo" to sailors. I sailed to that base in better times and I will tell you two stories about that 1948 visit.


First a bit of history. The 99-year lease assigning the use of Guantanamo Bay to the United States was signed in 1903 at the end of the Spanish-American War. During that war, our Marines had captured the bay to serve as a navy shelter for the summer hurricane season. When Fidel Castro took power, President Eisenhower, despite Cuban objections, insisted that the status of the base would remain unchanged. Today the lease is legally clouded, but this country clearly shows no signs of abandoning it.


None of that meant anything to me when in early 1948 I embarked with my ship, the USS Donner, for Guantanamo Bay. It was exciting finally to head to sea from where our ship had for months been anchored off the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia.


We had beautiful weather – in fact, too beautiful. Despite our having rigged an awning over the conning station, I was beet red by the end of the trip. The awning didn't protect us from water reflection.


The first episode took place as we sailed down east of the Bahamas through a series of tiny islands called cays. When we approached one of them named Bird Cay, quite appropriately a bird winged its way slowly out to our ship.


I watched as it approached, wondering what this bird would turn out to be. Its awkward flight eliminated sea birds like gulls or gannets. Much to my surprise, it landed on one of the ship's rails where it eyed nearby sailors sanding the deck. And even more to my surprise, it was easy to identify: it was a burrowing owl.


When the sailors tried to catch it, the tiny owl simply flew up to perch astride our radar screen. There it sat for about an hour before it flew back to its island home.


What that owl had in mind when it flew out to our ship puzzles me to this day. His visit remains the oddest birding experience I have ever had.


The second almost equally strange episode took place on the naval base itself. No sooner had we anchored when a message came inviting our ship's crew to play a baseball game against the base team. We did have a makeshift team so I, as recreation officer, signaled back that we would be glad to accept the challenge. A date was set.


This was one of the stupidest things I have ever done. We learned shortly that the base team often played against minor and even occasionally major league baseball teams. They were clearly out of our league and our experience underscored that evidence. I am not sure that we ever completed the first inning. After batting around several times, our opponents decided that we need only treat them to many rounds of beer at the Petty Officer Club. In relief we agreed.


But, as you might well imagine, that is not the reason I recall that episode. When we took the field to warm up, we took turns with the fungo bat hitting fly balls to our outfielders.


Trying to catch those balls turned out to be an almost impossible task. As the ball rose from the bat, it disappeared and only reappeared about twenty feet above the ground. Something about the hot, moisture-laden atmosphere made the ball invisible after it rose to that twenty feet. It was like playing at night with the lights only working to the height of a house. How any players were able to accommodate to that remarkable atmospheric phenomenon continues to escape me.-- Gerry Rising