The air show

Returning to the city, after a brief spell in what the city calls “cottage country,” one is of course impressed by the noise. It is often deafening, and never more so along the Lakeshore of the Greater Parkdale Area than during our annual air show. From my eyrie, or ivory tower — up here in the High Doganate — I am treated to five days of it. The last three are performances, for the crowds at the “CNE” (the Canadian National Exhibition), and are best viewed free, from the roof of my building. But before that we have the rehearsals, mounted as if for my private and exclusive entertainment, to the west of the CNE grounds, over Humber Bay. From a chair on my balconata I can see the whole, tediously repeated display. Or even if I am not watching, there is the roar of jet engines, and every few minutes one could swear that an airliner was about to crash into the building. How exciting.

My father was an old Spitfire flyboy; I was not raised without an appreciation for aeroplanes. Though let me add, that after the war, papa’s interest turned to gliders, bi-planes, and gyrocopters. The point was not so much to watch the things in action, rather to get oneself up into the sky. He was also fascinated by aerial photography; and by the slower-motion acrobatics.

Come 1946, he and his brother (now also deceased) got their hands on an old Tiger Moth. Papa told his mother to look out for it, and she was standing by the river outside her house in Port Credit when he came winging by, barely above the treetops, probably in defiance of every municipal by-law. He waved with the wing-flaps, then shot up the river, intending to fly dramatically under the railway bridge. On approaching it he found it was hanging chains, however. Chains are death on a Tiger Moth, and on spotting them, he was compelled to do a steep and sudden climb. I think of grandma, watching the whole performance; of women, generally, trying to make sense of that boyish quality, in boys and in men.

Now, aeroplanes make a lot of noise, and are really quite awkward. The most they can do is a few rolls and spirals, and that only at considerable risk. Most at the air show merely fly fast, an empty accomplishment when one considers the speed at which interstellar objects whiz about, in perfect silence.

There is another air show to be seen off my balconata each year, reaching its crescendo around this time. The performers are my Parkdale swallows, preparing for migration. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them provide enchanting acrobatic displays each evening. Their show begins as the sun goes down, creating, I should think, the ideal condition for them to see the late summer insects in the air. They are bulking up for the flight south: it is in fact a feeding frenzy.

These are fearless creatures. They can fly, for their size, as fast as any aeroplane, casually execute 9G turns, and vanish at speed through cracks and openings no cat could pass through. What have they to fear? From a distance they would seem to be bats. Too, from close up, as one or more of them unexpectedly whip by, a few feet beyond the balcony rail. Their chirping to each other, their fluty pew-pew in flight, conveys I know not what instructions; it is a miracle that none ever collide.

It is a miracle to amaze even my purple finches, which have appropriated this side of my building from the sparrows, have learnt to trust me as a fast food supplier, and join with me to take in the spectacle. There is a young male who longs to be a purple martin instead — the variety of swallows on view. (We’ve had barnswallows, and cliffswallows, too, but nothing like the theatre of the purple martins.) In his looping, finch-like way, “Robert” as I call him tries to execute a roll, and plummets several storeys before recovering. I feel for him. I, too, should like to be a purple martin, instead of a purple prosewriter.

I am in confusion, currently, about the schedule. The barnswallows left promptly each September 5th, for Parkdale-on-the-Amazon, returning to breed again the next May. The martins, too, will soon disappear, but I’m not yet sure of the date. I suspect they aren’t, either. I’ve only seen them in the last three years. I haven’t seen their Bradshaw posted. I suspect they are currently adjusting their timetable to take in our spring insect peaks.

The noise hits you hard, upon returning to the city. But also, one returns enlivened to the works of nature, even near the centre of the sprawling metropolis. The city is largely indifferent to its works, but there is no law that commands indifference, and I know of several ornithological types who’ve gone to fine trouble to help e.g. these swallows return to their old grounds around Grenadier Pond in High Park, nearby. God bless these people.

Properly conceived, the city should become a giant aviary. Just as we garden, we should encourage a broad variety of birdlife to make passages here, by provision for them in food and housing. The city could be a paradise if we wished.

Well, that is my opinion, and I am sticking to it.