Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor

Chapter 9
Thunderbird’s Egg
Diann Thornley 

[p.129]The contrails, tinted red and white and blue, shape my sand-paintings in the sky. Like those formed by my fathers on the breast of Earth Mother, the creation of my patterns requires infinite precision. Like those produced of earthy pigments, my paintings do not last beyond the moment for which they were intended. The only chant which accompanies their completion is the roar of afterburners. But many of my People say they have great medicine, and some of my People call me Shaman.

 

I was born in 1995, the youngest of seven children, on the Navajo Indian Reservation that stretches across the southwest corner of Utah. My father named me Betsy Ablehorse, but by the time I reached my third summer my brothers and sisters and mother all called me Asks Why.

My great-grandmother was still living then. On winter nights when the wind whistled down from the stone arches of Moab or across Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, we would gather at Great-grandmother’s home. She had a tiny wooden house, and we would sit on blankets woven by her mother and listen to her tell of gods and dreams and other holy things.

Of course Great-grandmother’s tales were already old when she was born in 1910, but to my young mind they might have happened just the day before. I loved the story of Lost Arrows, who had a dream of a fish that talked. He swam the Colorado to find it and learn its secrets. Lost [p.130]Arrows lived well past one hundred summers and was a Shaman when he died. 

“Have you ever had a vision, Grandmother?” I asked her once. 

She smiled, a little sadly, and said, “The gods haven’t given dreams or visions for many generations. Lost Arrows was one of the last.”

“Why?” I asked. 

“Perhaps,” she said, “it’s because The People no longer walk in harmony with the Holy Ones. They’ve turned from the ways of Earth Mother.” 

I thought about that for a while, mouth puckered, nose wrinkled with the effort, and then I asked, “If I walk in the ways of Earth Mother, will the Holy Ones give me a vision?” 

Great-grandmother smiled again. “No, no, Asks Why. Only the young men of The People have visions. A woman of The People is born knowing the path she should walk.” 

I opened my mouth, but Great-grandmother bent down and placed her hand over it before I could ask why. 

 

The summer I was nine, Mother decided that I needed more responsibility, and she gave me charge of her sheep. Few among The People kept sheep anymore; most of my friends lived in the towns that had grown up around the government schools and old trading centers. 

It was a very long summer. I was out with the sheep for days at a time at our grazing grounds in Monument Valley. Alone I had plenty of time to think, and most often I thought about Great-grandmother, who had died the previous winter, and the tales that she had told. And the more I thought about them, the more determined I was to have a vision. 

I wasn’t entirely alone. A golden eagle had built its nest in a great, crooked tree further down the valley, and one day in mid-August I spent the whole afternoon lying on my back on a sunwarmed sandstone bluff watching it glide and circle far above me. I watched it, and I daydreamed about the old times when young men having visions rode on eagles’ backs and saw their futures unroll before them like the land below. 

The eagle made a great impression on me. As the sun set and the breeze came up, I stood up on my bluff on my toes and stretched out my arms and leaned into the wind. I could almost believe that I was flying. I wondered how that would feel.

[p.131]When the sheep were safely corralled that night and my supper fire had burned so low that it didn’t compete with the stars, I found myself still studying the sky. I fell asleep watching the most spectacular meteor shower I had ever seen. 

I woke to the noise of the sheep bleating in terror. Expecting a coyote, I grabbed my emergency lamp and .22 and sprang up to defend my flock. 

It wasn’t a coyote. Not more than one hundred yards away, flames leaped and danced like victorious warriors over a stand of sagebrush and snatched at the dry grass. The breeze sent the smoke full into my face. If I didn’t put it out right away, I realized, the fire would threaten my campsite and the sheep in their corral! Trading rifle for water pail, I dashed for the watering trough, jumping over rocks and sagebrush that lay in my way.

The sky to the east was turning pale, washing away the stars, by the time the fire was extinguished. My boots and Levis were blackened with soot, my shirt smelly with smoke and sweat, my eyes running and face streaked. I stood there on that patch of blackened, steaming earth and tried to imagine how the fire could have started. 

As the light increased, so did the mystery. There hadn’t been just a fire. I was standing in a shallow hole almost as big around as the sheep corral. Soil and broken rocks had been flung in all directions. It looked as if lightning had struck-but there had been no lightning during the night.

 

Steeped as I was in the traditions of The People, my next thought was that it must have been caused by a ghost. Maybe even by the ghost of my great-grandmother as a punishment for my desire to see a vision.  I shuddered and whispered a few words to the Holy Ones, invoking their protection.

Steam and little curls of smoke still twisted up-looking like ghosts themselves- from the center of the hole in which I stood. I almost ran, but practicality stopped me. Something was still smoldering there, something which could flare up again if I didn’t make certain that the fire was fully out. I threw a whole bucketful of water over the spot—

—and a pillar of steam shot up with a whoosh!

I actually cried out with fear but I couldn’t run; my feet seemed to have been planted in the torn soil. I stood there shaking, staring, waiting for the ghost to materialize in front of me. 

[p.132]But as the first fingers of the sun reached over the mesa and touched the earth’s fresh wound, they found something that gleamed. 

Curiosity overcame fear. I crept forward, still whispering for the protection of the Holy Ones. I bent down to look first. Then I crouched to look more closely. And a disappointed, “Oh!”  escaped me. 

The gleaming object was only a rock. 

Or was it? I had never seen a rock like this before.

It was no bigger than both my fists pressed together, bubbly as boiling cornmeal, and shaped like an egg. I knelt down and studied it. 

From behind me I heard the cry of the eagle. It hung eerily on the morning breeze for several seconds. Still jumpy, I wrenched around. 

The great bird’s shadow fell for a moment on the face of the bluff where I had lain the day before, but when I looked up there was no eagle circling in the sky. 

A tingle started at the nape of my neck and made its way like a trickle of chilly water all the way down my spine. But it was a tingle of realization, not of fear: 

I had seen a vision!

Thunderbird had shown herself to me! 

Herself! 

Even that was a revelation. In all the ancient tales, Thunderbird had always been portrayed as a warrior, striking from the heart of the storm. But Thunderbird was a mother, like the earth! Her egg lay here in the mud before me, a few inches from my knees! 

With all the reverence in my young soul, I stretched out a hand to touch it, to stroke its glinting shell. 

It was too hot. I jerked my hand back, crying, “Ow!” Three fingertips were reddened. I pressed them against the cool metal bucket until the smart subsided. 

Throughout that day I was more vigilant of Thunderbird’s egg, cooling in the mud at the bottom of the crater, than I was of the sheep. By evening I could pick it up and hold it in my hands, though it was still warm. I brought it back to my campsite, gently washed the mud from it, and placed it in the nest I’d made in my floppy felt hat. And all through the night I held it close to my breast, warming it with my body as Thunderbird would have done. 

The next time I took the sheep home, I couldn’t suppress my smugness. 

“You look as if you have a secret, Asks Why,” my mother said.  [p.133]“You’ve been smiling ever since you came home. Can you tell us what it is?” 

I hesitated. Two of my brothers, Raymond and Thomas, were standing nearby. They would surely make fun of my story. But Mother asked again, “What is it, Asks Why?”

“I had a vision,” I blurted out. 

Mother turned away from her stove and looked at me with the same sad smile that Great-grandmother had always given me. “Women of The People don’t have visions,” she reminded me. Her tone bore gentle correction. “You know that; you know all the sacred tales.” 

Raymond and Thomas, twelve and fourteen, were snickering into their hands. “Maybe she did have a vision,” said Thomas. He took an empty whiskey bottle from the top of the recycler’s bin. “Uncle’s been looking for this all week! I think Asks Why took it with her and drank it!” 

“If you really had a vision,” Raymond challenged, “where’s your gift from the Holy Ones?” 

I had brought the egg with me, of course, but I kept it concealed, carefully wrapped in my bandanna. In the old times when a young man had a vision and received a gift—like the silver scales Lost Arrows received from the talking fish—he kept it in a tiny leather pouch which he wore on a thong around his neck. Only he could ever take it out and look at it; he was never to show it to anyone else. 

“You know I can’t show it to you!” I told him. 

Thomas waved the whiskey bottle. “I’ll show you! It’s right here!” 

I went outdoors so I couldn’t hear their laughter. But that night, when my three sisters were asleep in the little room I shared with them, I unwrapped Thunderbird’s egg and stroked its shiny surface and prayed. 

When I was fourteen we had a unit on astronomy in science class at the government school. We learned about the stars and the planets and their moons. We learned to recognize constellations and to plot the movement of the stars and planets. And we learned about asteroids and comets and meteors.

“Sometimes,” the white teacher said, “meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere. Usually they’re small enough to be completely consumed by the heat of entry and they never actually reach the ground.” He paused. “A large amount of meteor activity is called a ‘meteor shower.’ Did anyone read the extra material in the blue box on page 185?”

[p.134]Only one hand went up, at my left. I rolled my eyes: Teddy Many Bears.

Despite the image conjured by his name, he was not plump and cuddly-looking. He was lanky, he wore glasses, and he should have been called Knows Everything. “Two of the major meteor showers happen during the summer,” he said. “They are the Delta Aquarid meteors in late July and the Perseid meteors in the middle of August.” 

“Have any of you ever seen a meteor shower?” the teacher asked. 

This time, mine was the only hand up. 

“Will you tell us what it looked like, Betsy?” 

I wasn’t sure how to describe it. I settled for, “It was kind of like—the sky was raining bottle rockets.” 

The class laughed. 

The teacher didn’t; he seemed genuinely interested. “Where were you when you saw it?” 

“Out in Monument Valley,” I said. “Herding sheep.” 

My classmates, including Teddy, stared at me with a mixture of awe and disbelief. None of them had ever herded sheep. I added, with the air of an expert, “It’s easy to see meteors out there. There aren’t any city lights to get in the way!” 

“And what time of the year was it, Betsy?” 

“August,” I said. I thought of that night five years ago—and of the fire the following morning, and Thunderbird’s egg, tucked safely into my belt pack with my plastic lunch card and my pens. 

The teacher nodded. “Then you probably saw the Perseid meteors,” he said. With the next breath he continued his lecture. “Occasionally meteors aren’t completely vaporized during entry and they strike the earth. Does anyone know what these are called?” 

Teddy Many Bears raised his hand again. “Meteorites!” he said. 

“That’s right. Have any of you ever seen a meteorite? Several have landed in this part of the country over the years.” 

No one would admit to ever having seen a real meteorite, even in the Museum of Science. So the teacher brought out a display case and passed it from table to table. 

“You’ll notice that they don’t all look the same,” the teacher said. “Some look like lava from a volcano and others look metallic. Many of the metallic ones have a high nickel content.” 

I craned my neck, trying to see the collection, until the case reached my table. And then I practically recoiled. 

[p.135]There in the center of the case was something that looked like Thunderbird’s egg.

At first I felt betrayed. Cheated. I was useless for the rest of the day. After school I took a long walk, leaving the town behind. Yes, even my family had moved to town by then. Mother had sold her sheep, and she and Father had bought a used Ford pickup truck with air conditioning, a CD player, and a double cab so Mother and my unmarried sister and I wouldn’t have to ride in the truck bed. 

I climbed up on a rock, drew up my knees and wrapped my arms around them to make a chin rest, and looked out over the desert. 

A golden eagle was flying. I watched it for a long time, until it came around in its circle, dipping down as it passed over my head. For a moment I was cooled by its shadow. I heard the rush of its feathers in the wind. “Just believe!” they seemed to whisper. 

And something occurred to me. 

lt only made sense that Thunderbird should lay meteorites for eggs. After all Thunderbird wasn’t an ordinary bird; she was the deity of the storm and the heavens! 

Besides, the tokens brought back by others who’d seen visions had all come from nature, too: a puma’s tooth, a Gila monster’s tail, the silver fish scales of Lost Arrows. lt wasn’t the object itself which was significant; it was what that object represented. 

I cradled the bulge in my belt pack as I walked home. 

 

Raymond enlisted in the Aerospace Force the next year, and my parents and I drove him to Lackland Aerospace Base in Texas to enter basic training. There was an air show going on in San Antonio at the time, and we spent half the day watching the aerial circus. 

Every moment of it thrilled me. But the show that made my heart race as if it had wings itself was the one performed by the Aerospace Force’s official demonstration team: half a dozen F-22 fighter aircraft painted red, white, and blue with a stylized representation of Thunderbird painted on their undersides! Their loops and climbs and dives, their head-on passes with only inches to spare replayed in my mind long after the show ended. 

Sometime during the night, I realized what my vision meant. 

“What do you have to do to ride a Thunderbird?” I asked Raymond the next morning.

“First,” he said, “you have to be a pilot.” 

[p.136]“How do you do that?” I asked. 

He laughed. “You have to join the Aerospace Force. But you have to be an officer. That means you have to go to college. You’ve got your work cut out for you, Asks Why.” 

I was fifteen by then, and everyone in my family still called me Asks Why. 

Getting to college, I knew as well as Raymond did, would be a feat all by itself. My family was as poor as everyone else on the reservation. Very few young people ever got to go to college. 

“If you can make good grades,” the counselor at the government school told me, “you may be able to get a scholarship. I suggest you put your emphasis on mathematics and the hard sciences.” 

The sciences were hard, all right. Math was even worse. Sometimes the studying made my head ache; sometimes it made me feel rebellious. What did math have to do with flying, anyway? When I couldn’t stand .it anymore I’d run to the outskirts of town and out into the desert. 

Feeling the wind in my face reminded me of my goal; watching the golden eagle soar overhead reinforced it. And when it dipped low over my perch, its flight feathers would whisper, “Work and believe!” 

I wondered if Lost Arrows had had to work so hard to achieve his vision. 

I didn’t graduate from high school as valedictorian, but I was near the top of my class. “You have every chance in the world of getting a scholarship,” my counselor had said when the time came to consider such things. “You just need to apply for one.” He added, “I know of one you might be interested in. Aerospace ROTC at Brigham Young University has a new four-year scholarship available only to native American cadets.” 

“Why?” I asked, wrinkling my nose. “That’s the Mormon school, isn’t it? The one with the good basketball team?” 

The counselor nodded. “I guess Mormons have a warm spot in their hearts for their Lamanite brothers,” he said in answer to my question. 

“Lamanite?” I asked. 

“That’s the Mormon name for you native Americans,” he said. 

I asked, “Why?” 

He shrugged. He wasn’t a Mormon either, and he didn’t know anything else about it. Instead he said, “BYU ROTC also has a good history of getting pilot billets. I thought that would interest you the most.” 

“Definitely!” I said. 

[p.137]So I applied, and I received my scholarship, and in the fall I moved north to Provo.

It was like moving to another country—maybe even to another planet! No coed dorms. No smoking, no drinking—you couldn’t even get a soda pop with caffeine on campus! And with the kind of hours I spent at my studies, I really could have used a little caffeine from time to time. 

I majored in physics—the hardest of the sciences in my opinion. But physics also answered questions I’d pestered my mother with as a child. Why is the sky blue? What are rainbows made of? What makes ripples on a puddle? How does an eagle glide? I also learned what mathematics had to do with flying. 

The only question physics didn’t answer was why girls were not supposed to have visions. Not that it mattered anymore. Many times at night, while my roommates were out late with their boyfriends, I’d get my Thunderbird egg meteorite out of the back of my dresser drawer and unwrap the bandanna to stroke its metallic surface. 

 

I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Aerospace Force on April 25, 2017. I was twenty-two. Three months later I entered Undergraduate Flying Training at Williams Aerospace Base in Arizona. 

The hours of study required in college were light by comparison to UFT. Even with fewer pilot allocations available than in years past, the wash-out rate averaged 30 percent. I thought that was murderously high—until I learned that in those same years past wash-outs had reached 50 percent. 

The classroom work was tedious, the jump training only marginally interesting—but the instructors had to make sure we’d know how to escape a dangerous situation before we got ourselves into one. 

As part of jump training we went parasailing. Some of my fellow trainees called it waterskiing on air. Wearing full flight gear, including an open parachute, each of us took a turn on the tow rope that trailed behind a military truck. When the wind caught the ’chute, you went airborne. When you reached two hundred feet, you dropped the rope and began your parachute descent. 

I always took my time descending, maneuvering to catch the best thermals so I could ride the wind for as long as possible. If I closed my eyes I could imagine myself as an eagle, flying wingtip to wingtip with [p.138]the golden bird which had borne my dreams on its back since I was nine. And if I ignored the snugness of my jump boots, I could feel the nudge of the meteorite egg lying in a leg pocket of my flight suit. 

My instructor wasn’t pleased. “Ablehorse,” he said-at least he didn’t call me Asks Why—“if you keep this up you’re gonna find yourself flying hang-gliders for some air show instead of fighters for the Aerospace Force!” 

The desert of central Arizona reminded me of the one in southern Utah where I’d grown up, with cacti and canyons and even a golden eagle who let us share his sky. On my early morning training sorties, when the air was still crisp enough to make you shiver as you taxied out for takeoff with the canopy raised, I could imagine the joy the eagle felt rising to meet the sun. 

A few times, practicing maneuvers, I was doing aileron rolls when the sun edged over the horizon, and I would hang there inverted for a moment, watching from this unusual perspective as it rose completely.  Even the eagle couldn’t do that! 

I was two months from graduation when the accident happened. Returning to the classroom for debriefing after my own sortie, I found my instructor pacing. He only did that when he was severely agitated; I’d seen him do it when my tablemate failed a check ride. 

My guts knotted up. “I hooked it, didn’t I?” I said. 

He shook his head. “No, you passed your ride. But somebody didn’t.  I saw the crash trucks taking off as I was heading back here.” 

A little later we learned that neither student nor instructor had escaped the disabled craft. 

“Bird strike,” someone reported. “Big one. Crash crew said the canopy was smashed in and there was blood and feathers everywhere. Both men were probably dead before the trainer augured in.” 

“It was probably that eagle,” suggested someone else, adding a string of adjectives the like of which I’d never even heard back home. 

“I’ve watched it for a few months now, hanging around right in the flight path. If the wildlife backers weren’t such fanatics we could’ve shot it when it first showed up and maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” 

I suddenly felt as if I was going to vomit; I whirled around and left the room. 

I spent the rest of the day searching the sky for my eagle. 

It never appeared. 

[p.139]Pilots are as superstitious about flying accidents as my People are about death in any form, but they deal with it in a different way. That evening my classmates drove into Phoenix to a bar called Wings, a legend among pilot students. They took a holocube of the dead lieutenant and added it to the collection stacked on a shelf behind the bar, then they spent the rest of the night getting fall-down drunk and making jokes about canopy ornaments shaped like eagles and picking feathers out of the pilot’s teeth. I didn’t go along, as I usually did. I heard the jokes from the lieutenant one door down from me in the quarters when she came staggering and giggling in at three in the morning.

That was the morning I reported to the commandant. 

“I have to leave, sir,” I told him. I stood at stiff attention. 

Colonel Haversack had bushy eyebrows, and he drew them together as he told me to be at ease and take a seat. “Why, Lieutenant?” he asked. “From what I understand, you have a fine record here. You’re in the running for Distinguished Grad, and you have less than two months to go.” 

I steeled myself. “It’s the eagle, sir,” I told him, unable to meet his gaze. “Its death is an omen. Some kind of evil is following me.” 

Colonel Haversack didn’t laugh. He furrowed his brow and considered for several minutes. And then he said, “What drew you to become a pilot in the first place, Lieutenant Ablehorse? It had to be something momentous. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a native American woman come through UFT in all my years here.” 

I drew a deep breath. And I told him about the eagle I had watched when I was nine and about the vision which had come the following morning. I told him of the Thunderbird show I’d seen in San Antonio, and how the meaning of my vision had made itself plain. He smiled a little at that, but not unkindly, and so I told him of the eagle which had been my strength through high school and how the eagle here had lifted my spirit when the demands of the training might have crushed it. 

He listened to it all, nodding occasionally; and when I finished he leaned back in his chair and thought again. 

“Lieutenant,” he said at last, “in the mythology of your people does the eagle or the thunderbird have greater medicine?” 

“Thunderbird, sir,” I said. 

[p.140]“Is the thunderbird’s medicine great enough to ward off whatever evil the eagle’s death has brought?”

I hesitated. Then nodded. “I think so, sir.” 

“Then don’t give up your dream, Lieutenant,” he said. “If you’re meant to fly a Thunderbird, then your thunderbird will get you there. Stick it out.” 

Colonel Haversack was a wise man, I thought as I strode down the corridor from his office. If he were one of The People he would probably be a Shaman. 

Returning to my room I removed Thunderbird’s egg from the back of my dresser drawer and placed it on my desk where I could see it while I studied. But the next morning I slipped it into the leg pocket of my flight suit. 

My hands shook all through my flight preparations: running through the system checks, firing up the engines. My instructor watched me from beneath gathered eyebrows. “Are you all right, Ablehorse?” he asked. 

“Yes, sir,” I said. But I wasn’t sure of that.

“You filed a different flight plan from the one we briefed in the classroom,” he said. 

The original one would have taken us over the area where the accident had happened. Nothing in the world could make me fly out there. I only said, “Yes, sir,” and looked straight ahead.

 He studied me for a long moment before he shook his head and muttered, mostly to himself, “Crazy Indian!” 

It was the hardest training sortie I ever flew. I think I had my teeth clenched the whole time. But as I banked the craft around on the final approach for landing, I glimpsed its shadow skimming over the ground before me. It wasn’t shaped like my aircraft; it was shaped like Thunderbird. 

I finished UFT as Distinguished Graduate, pinning on my wings on 29 May 2018. There followed another year of lead-in training with the F-22 before my first duty assignment took me from Luke Aerospace Base in Arizona to the Middle East. 

 

Desert Storm had been part of my military history class at BYU, and my instructor, Major Carson, had shaken his head as he talked about it. “That conflict was the first in which we played a major role in the Persian Gulf region,” he said. “If events continue as they have, many of you may [p.141] well see duty over there.” The Mormon cadets had exchanged remarks about something called Armageddon and the prophecies in their scriptures.

I hadn’t set much store by Mormon prophecies, but on my first day in Dhahran, trying to get some crew rest in quarters with faulty air conditioning, I wondered if my being there would be enough to qualify Major Carson as a prophet. 

I served in two Middle East conflicts, Desert Fist and Sand Lion, before I pinned on major. By the time Sand Lion began, I was a senior captain recently selected for promotion, and I was a flight commander. 

We were returning from a pre-dawn attack on a target just outside of Esfahan, Iran, skirting Qomsheh and heading for the Gulf, when my wingman was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Our warning gear detected its launch and we took evasive action, but the SAM kept its lock on my buddy’s bird.

I can still see the explosion of its impact, still remember how I thought I would suffocate before I saw the billow of his opening parachute—and only then realized that I had been holding my breath. I radioed in for the rescue ‘copter, ordered the rest of the formation on home, and began to orbit my downed wingman’s landing site. 

Captain Eddie Fox was a Sioux from South Dakota. Though the languages and customs of our respective Peoples were as different as they were from the white culture, we still found we had much in common. We shared histories and legends, and in time we discovered that we were in love. 

“In the old days,” I had asked him once, “was it just the young men of your people who had visions, or could girls have visions, too?”

Eddie had laughed at that. “Among my People,” he said, “if a girl claimed to have a vision, she’d be accused of drinking too much whiskey! Why? Do Navajo women have visions?”

I remembered fourteen-year-old Thomas waving Uncle’s whiskey bottle. “No,” I sighed. “Everyone would accuse a Navajo woman of being drunk, too.” 

So I didn’t tell Eddie about my vision or about my goal, but I loved him anyway. 

The sand of the Iranian desert was pale compared to the red and orange sand of southern Utah, and the smooth faces of dunes reflected the rising sun like mirrors. The glare kept me from actually seeing Eddie below, but I knew where he was and I could see an Iranian truck heading [p.142]in his direction. The E model of the F-22 has a multi-barrel twenty-millimeter cannon and I put it to good use, stopping that truck. My fighter took a few rounds of antiaircraft artillery in the process, which ripped up my port stabilator some, but I kept up my orbits.

I kept an eye on my fuel readout too, knowing that when it reached bingo I’d have to leave whether the Search and Rescue ship was there or not. Maybe it was just my tension and I was checking it more often than I thought but that readout never seemed to change. 

—until I headed back to base with Eddie safe in the SAR ship behind me. Then my readout plummeted. I touched down at Dhahran with too little fuel left to even taxi in, and for the next hour or so my ground crew crawled all over my bird, examining its shot-up stabilator and speculating on fuel consumption. I heard about it when I got back from my post-flight debriefings.

“No way that flap shoulda functioned, ma’am,” my crew chief said, jerking a thumb toward the stabilator. “One of those hits clipped a hydraulics line; you lost a lotta fluid. And we still haven’t figured out the fuel thing. We thought maybe your fuel gauge was faulty, but—” he shrugged, “—it checks out okay.” He could only shake his head. “We shoulda been picking you out of the Gulf, ma’am,” he said. “That bird shoulda been swimmingl” 

I had to agree, but deep inside I had a feeling about what had happened. 

The news pool heard about it, of course. Eddie and I found ourselves cornered by a couple dozen people with microphones and cameras, and we spent the next hour and a half answering their questions. 

“Captain Fox,” someone said, “what was going through your mind during the time you were stuck out there?” 

Eddie laughed self-consciously and ran a hand through his sweaty black hair. “This is going to sound kinda strange,” he said. “Maybe it was the heat or something. I knew I could hear F-22 engines, but every time I looked up all I could see was a giant bird, and I thought, ‘I’ll be all right. Thunderbird is protecting me.’” 

I remembered the fuel readout and the way my F-22 had soared and circled so effortlessly over the place where Eddie waited, despite its damage, and I felt a thrill run up my spine. That night I told him about my vision. He didn’t laugh or accuse me of drinking too much. 

Half my clan was waiting at the airport when I arrived home from Dhahran. They had seen my story on the nightly news; I was a hero. 

[p.143]I was more than that. The tribal elders sprinkled me with sacred corn pollen and called me Shaman. 

That meant more to me than the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was presented the same day I pinned on my gold major’s leaves. “Well, Major Ablehorse,” my commander said as he shook my hand, “I expect after this you could ask for just about any assignment you wanted and you’d probably get it-short of Chief of Staff!” 

I didn’t want to be Chief of Staff. I knew what I wanted. And when I submitted my next “dream sheet,” I asked for it. 

 

The U.S. Aerospace Force demonstration team still uses the F-22 for its aerial shows. I put in more flight time now than I did even as a combat pilot. And I do a lot more traveling! 

We recently did a show in Dhahran. Going back there gave me an eerie feeling, as if I were taunting the Holy Ones who direct The People’s fates. So I went out to the flightline early, while only the ground crews were there, and I sprinkled sacred corn pollen over the swept wings and the bubble canopy of my aircraft. 

I think every sheikh in Saudi Arabia was in attendance. It was a proud moment for the U.S. Aerospace Force. 

But today is prouder still—at least for me. I’ve come home. Today the Thunderbirds fly over Hill Aerospace Base in Ogden, Utah, and my whole family is there, from my parents, whose hair is now white with the snow of many winters, to Raymond, who wears the proud stripes of a chief master sergeant. Eddie, my husband, is there too, on leave from his test-pilot post at Wright-Patt. 

With the ritual precision which is the soul of this tradition, I mount my aircraft. My crew members secure my harness, my crew chief hands me my helmet. 

The scream of the jets sends a ripple through the crowd filling the stands. I speak to my wingmen as my craft rolls forward and they follow, one by one. 

The sky over Ogden is very blue today. So clear that if you look long and hard you can see eternity. This is my sand floor, the surface on which I will paint for my People. As one, my team and I activate the contrail dye. 

Red billows from the exhaust nozzle of my aircraft. The color which the sun paints across the sky as it sets, the color of the desert’s rock [p.144]and sand. The color of The People. This sand painting in the sky is for them. 

I smile under my oxygen mask as the pattern takes shape: a great bird with red and white vapor for wings. In the pocket of my flight suit, Thunderbird’s egg presses against my leg. The smile widens when I think of how my family greeted me at our reunion yesterday. 

They didn’t call me Asks Why. 

They called me Flies With Thunderbird.