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THE PELICAN


Big Air freeskier Bobby Brown launches himself into the sky from a ramp at Squaw Valley, mocking gravity, gyrating above the snow far below, executing a nearly impossible triple cork.

An Australian insect called the Walking Leaf takes camouflage to CGI limits.  On vegetation, it is nose-to-the-critter invisible, indistinguishable from the leaves beneath it.

These are Masters. They can be found everywhere. We live in a world awash with clever beasts and ingenious humans. We swim in a sea of improbable skills, all swirling around us in their many guises.

 Most mastery abilities, it must be admitted, are less flamboyant than a rump-flipping triple cork. But even more pedestrian mastery is so wonderful, so special, that it still surprises us and delights us when we encounter it. So it was when I discovered the secret talent of my friend, Jack.

I'll bore you with a few background details on Jack. He's fascinating, on many levels.

For one, Jack is a walking Rolodex. He holds in his head the names and information of so many personal friends that, if they were ever all accumulated in one spot, they could founder a cruise ship.

Jack is  a world traveler. Pick a city on a distant continent, and Jack will tell you where to stay, what to eat, what to see.

Jack is a collector. His home reflects his omnivorous curiosity with the world, and looks like the bowels of the Smithsonian. Here an original Marc Chagall. There a rack of Ottoman rifles. Around that corner, a collection of African masks.  The place is a mess. Exotic artifacts hang like southern moss from walls and ceilings.  Everywhere you step, you clunk into something ancient, carven, strange.

I had known all this about Jack for years. But I didn't have the faintest clue as to his true gift, his secret mastery skill. It was finally revealed to me the day I bumped into him, quite by accident, at a fair, where he was selling T-shirts for a screen printing business of his.

I barely recognized him. Rumpled polo shirt, crummy pants, beat-up shoes. This was Jack?

I tried to figure out what the heck Jack was doing. If he was here to sell, he certainly didn't seem to be going about it in the right way. Jack wasn't even making a pretense of going about it like every other vendor at the fair.

All the other vendors were manning tables at their booths, greeting customers with loud voices and low-wattage, synthetic smiles, hawking their wares as they scanned the crowd like osprey hunting for trout.

Not Jack. He stood away from his tables, a horseshoe-shaped work area piled with mountains of shirts and manned by a few of his employees. He looked about distractedly. Said nothing. Not a thing about his demeanor or appearance marked him as a vendor. Jack was invisible in plain sight, as unseen as a Walking Leaf on vegetation.

Here's how it went down: Customers would approach his tables, paw through the shirts. When they'd leave. That's when Jack woke up and made his move.

Snatching up whatever items had interested the person the most, Jack waited until they got about three steps away, then pounced. He approached them comfortably, told a joke, got them laughing, and offered them a deal — usually multiple shirts.  

Still juggling the schmooze, he'd hold a shirt up to their shoulders. "Perfect!" he'd say, enthusiastically. "A perfect fit."

T-shirts and cash exchanged hands. Every time. This went on all day. He kept going over to his table with fistfuls of cash. His record of success was mind-boggling. It was off the charts.

Clearly, I was in the presence of a master. Best salesman I've ever seen. Hands down.

I dubbed Jack The Pelican.

Why a pelican? A fat, dumpy shore bird? Hardly flattering. Well...

I once spent a pleasant afternoon at a breakwater in Florida, studying pelicans. All around them, other creatures scrambled for food.

Human fishermen cast into the surf and inlet, snagging their hooks on rocks and logs.

Flocks of seagulls, some of the best natural aviators in the world, wheeled and squawked and pooped while fighting over irrelevant scraps, dropping half of it. Hawks and ospreys soared high overhead, hovering on air currents pumping up from the hot sand. I didn't see a single one make a strike and come away with food.

Inefficiencies were everywhere, wafting on the breeze.

And then there were the pelicans.

The pelicans sat on boulders or pilings, fluffing and cleaning their wings, their big bellies humping over their feet, doing nothing. Until they decided they were hungry. Or bored.

Then they'd spring aloft, gaining 20 or 30 feet of air, spot a fish, roll over like a dive bomber, and plunge toward the water. Just before they impact, they’d slam their wings way back and stick their face forward like a hypodermic needle. They slipped into the water with a lack of splash that would do any Olympic diver proud.

And came up with a fish. Every time. Pelicans are masters. Just like Bobby Brown and the Walking Leaf.

And Jack.


Yours in Martial Arts,

Roger Salick