A Christmas Story: The Birds on the Wire and the Man in the Tube

By John Kass

December 22, 2022

Just before they slid me into that MRI tube—and if you’ve ever stuck your head into a Magnetic Resonance Machine, you’d know how loud it can be in there with all the loud electronic pounding and buzzing and beeping going on—a nice technician asked me the important question.

“What kind of music do you want in there?”

Motown. Old school Motown.

My Papa Was a Rolling StoneI’ll Be There; Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me); If I Were Your Woman by Gladys Knight and the Pips; and War.

“War, huh (good God y’all)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, say it again.”

The Masters of War in the bi-partisan Washington Combine know there’s money to be made in sending arms to Ukraine, and power to be maintained, even as America is encouraged (and shamed) to stumble like a pathetic, needy drunk to the edge of the nuclear abyss.

In 1969, when the Motown hit “War” came out, Vietnam was raging, and I was in 8th Grade. Edwin Star said his protest song wasn’t a protest about Southeast Asia.

“War” was a protest song against the street gang wars that were ripping urban America apart. The gang wars are still ripping cities apart.  They’re ripping Chicago apart. And every day it seems, another Chicago cop commits suicide. I suppose you could call it war.

But alone in the tube I didn’t get “War.”

Instead, I got Nat King Cole crooning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jack frost nipping at your nose.” It’s a lovely song, Cole was a fantastic talent. But it’s not my idea of Motown. American kids on TikTok—who are eagerly giving up their brains to Chinese Intelligence to be sucked out with a straw–are preoccupied with versions of the song. It’s a thing. A thing to amuse China’s massive Ministry of State Security.

In that tube with those heavy beats backed by with high-pitched electronic trilling, I couldn’t think of Nat King Cole. I thought of the Christmas rush. Not enough time to do what must be done before Christmas, with guests coming over for Christmas Dinner and charcoal waiting, and church and ads to put together for my website and pies to pick up and copy to write for podcast sponsorships.

 And columns to write. Deadlines, and the rush of all the tasks undone were flowing at me in waves.

Strange ideas settle in that machine with you, and with that BONG BONG BONG BONG deeeip deeeip deeeip BONGBONGBONGBONG. I promised myself that if I ever did find the time, I’d write a story about an angel visiting someone inside the MRI tube.

The reason for the MRI? I’m scheduled for another shoulder surgery in a few weeks (the right one this time). And I’ve been getting that feeling that comes every year with increasing frequency: that I’m not prepared for Christmas, that I haven’t prepared as well as I should have, that I’ve let the world get in the way of the preparation.

And that feeling that I’m running out of time.

But just like that there was calm in the tube. I thought of birds on a wire. There was peace. Yes, the angry electric sound scanning my brain was still there, but it seemed at a great distance, as if it was locked away into a compartment.

And I thought of my favorite Christmas carol, Coventry Carol.

It wasn’t being offered to me as music in that MRI a day ago, but I could hear it. I could see the choir from King’s College, Cambridge and other fine choirs singing it.

It was soothing, like sitting on a park bench on a sunny Saturday morning.

Coventry Cathedral Ruins with Rainbow by Andrew Walker

Coventry Carol dates from England of the 1500s. It was originally sung in Coventry Cathedral, as part of Nativity stories. During WWII Coventry cathedral was reduced to ruins by German bombing.

The song is a cradle song, a lullaby in a minor key. In the tube I remembered hearing it on the radio as a boy of 9 or 10, coming out of a high fever after an ice bath in the two-flat on South Peoria Street; my mother and my aunts Fannie and Betty bustling about in a sunlit room with towels and blankets and that snap of sheets.

I didn’t know the name of the carol then, but years later I hummed it for my music teacher, Miss Bubna, and she told me about Coventry Carol.

If you listen to the words, you’ll see that Coventry Carol is a lullaby yes, but also a lament for all the infant boys of Israel who were murdered by King Herod.

Lullay, thou little tiny child
Sleep well, lully, lullay
And smile in dreaming, little one
Sleep well, lully, lullay

Oh sisters two, what may we do
To preserve on this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
Sleep well, lully, lullay
Farewell, lully, lullay

Herod the king in his raging
Set forth upon this day
By his decree, no life spare thee
All children young to slay
All children young to slay

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and say
For thy parting, neither say nor sing
Farewell, lully, lullay
Farewell, lully, lullay

And when the stars fill darkened skies
In their far venture, stay
And smile as dreaming, little one
Farewell, lully, lullay
Dream now, lully, lullay


Stuck in that tube there was a millisecond or two amidst the electronic pounding, I thought of the song being sung in cold stone cathedrals, amid all that damp and fear of the 1500s, and those brutal, ambitious men in the pews, their heads bowed, their hands washed of blood, men who were seeking forgiveness of sins that they knew could not be forgiven.

With my my eyes closed, I watched passively as my mind grabbed at thoughts floating by, the victims of Herod, mothers shrieking, and all the things I must do in the next few days, with me alone inside that tube with finally grabbing a truth, that time is running short.

That drowning man, grabbed at the idea of the birds again.

First, I thought of winter and many birds on the wires, as in the photo at the top of this column. And the thousands of birds between the billboards on Archer Avenue and Pulaski, when I was a boy riding to and from the family supermarket with my father in his old push-button Chrysler.

They were starlings, I think, in a massive flock.

And I thought of one bird on one wire, alone, as in the Leonard Cohen song:.

Like a bird on the wireLike a drunk in a midnight choirI have tried in my way to be freeLike a worm on a hookLike a knight from some old fashioned bookI have saved all my ribbons for thee

Why the birds? I really can’t say. Was it an angel who read my thoughts? I don’t know, any more than I can tell you why Coventry Carol showed up in there. It was, that’s all.

Years ago, famed broadcaster Paul Harvey happened upon the idea of birds while telling a Christmas story. He said he didn’t know who wrote it. Harvey called it “The Man and the Birds.” It is a classic of American broadcasting, although now, Harvey’s story would make many in media a bit queasy. It would be considered heretical.

Harvey told the story of a good, decent man, who did not believe the story the magical holy men would tell in their churches about God coming to Earth as a man. The man did not go to church with his wife. He did not want to be a hypocrite. He said he’d wait for her to come home after church. He lit a fire in the fireplace. Snow began to fall, temperatures dropped to killer lows, and birds kept smashing into the picture window, trying to reach the fire to warm themselves.

He decided to help the birds. He put his boots and coat on and went outside, to help them into the warm barn so they might survive. But they wouldn’t go in. He couldn’t catch them. He tried shooing them into the warm barn, but they scattered and panicked. He tried enticing them into the barn with breadcrumbs. They avoided him and died.

The man realized that the birds must see him as a terrifying creature. They would not be led or shooed to safety and to life. They were afraid of him.

“If only I could be a bird said the man to himself. I could be a bird and mingle with them and speak their language and tell them not to be afraid, then I could show them the way to the safe, warm barn. But I would have to be one of them, wouldn’t I? So they could see, and hear, and understand.

“At that moment the church bells began to ring,” Harvey said. “The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells, Adeste Fidelis, listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.”


(Copyright John Kass 2022)

Comments 32

    1. Merry Christmas John to you and your family. We will pray for a successful surgical outcome. And thanks for sharing that Paul Harvey classic; one I had not heard before. We could use more voices like his today.

  1. John, I’m listening to Coventry Carol now. It seems fitting, as the early morning winds are howling and the temperatures are below zero. A good time to think on ancient music and what life must have been like then. A good time to give thanks for heat, light and shelter. Merry Christmas to you, your family and may God bless us, every one.

  2. Quite a timely and poignant column.
    So many thoughts and feelings.
    Sadly, it seems our country’s politicians and even the mainstream media are all to comfortable creating narratives and distractions.

  3. We all give our children and families nice presents. Give someone you don’t know and would like to help a kind gesture, lunch, dinner or perhaps even a present they can use (no re-gifting).

    JK, good luck with the gimpy wing. May it come out better than ever (like the bionic man).

    Thanks for all of the thoughtful articles that hold people accountable; because many Americans have forgotten how to do that……

  4. Luther is my first choice when I listen to Christmas music. Motown music makes us feel love, hope, sadness, and joy, that is what many are missing. Your writing though reminded me of another group, The Casting Crowns’ I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day and these abbreviated lyrics:
    And in despair I bowed my head
    “There is no peace on Earth, ” I said
    For hate is strong and mocks the song
    Of peace on Earth, good will to men
    But the bells are ringing (peace on Earth)
    . . . The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
    With peace on Earth, good will to men
    Open up your heart and hear them (peace on Earth)
    Peace on Earth, good will to men

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  5. Thank you for helping us remember what is most important in life.

    Good luck with the shoulder. Modern medicine is amazing and you will come out even better than before. You will be able to throw that stick for the GS pup a long way.

    The Merriest of Christmases to you, Betty and the Boys.

  6. Great column, John! My random thoughts—if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we invent a silent MRI machine; there is a strong connection between Coventry Cathedral and the Chapel at Valparaiso University in my adopted hometown; Paul Harvey always had a perfect story that made a strong but subtle point.
    Merry Christmas! May your upcoming surgery and rehab go perfectly!

  7. Great writing as always. Best wishes with your surgery- ask for the Polar Cube- best thing for pain. And you’re much braver than I am- they had to send me to an “Open MRI”. I never knew I was claustrophobic until they put me in that tube. Merry Christmas to you & your Family.

  8. Γιάννη- Περαστικά σου! I just had an MRI of my head, seeing as how I started losing some hearing in my left ear. Thankfully, no issues other than the aging process and genetics!! But boy, that banging of the magnets really was annoying. Hell, I could 0even hear it on my left ear! Anyway, stay safe and heal quickly! We need you!! Καλά Χριστούγεννα!! Και ευτυχισμένος ο καινούργιος χρόνος!!

  9. John, Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    Wonderful column. We all need to sit back and understand what is happening around us. If we had a press that was independent and not bought off we would have a better city, country and world.

    My dad had a push button transmission Chrysler with torsion bar suspension, 1957 white New Yorker that rusted out too soon. Its demise coincided with that of our city. We would drive to visit his mother on Christmas Eve. She lived in the Back of the Yards.

  10. Merry Christmas John Kass, to you and your wonderful family, God’s blessings in health and happiness this day and every day.
    That first comment by Pat Hickey was true in every sense of loving and enjoying your words. Magical, mystical and heralding this season with such a wonderful story. Thank you John and Thank you God for blessing this man with that great ability to tell a story in fashion with the wickedness of present or the whimsical nature of the past.
    I hope your operation is the key to great health to come John, but do not forget to OBEY the person in charge of your rehab….
    Again, thank you for this and every word you put into writing …

  11. Wonderful column, John. We all are happy and sad at the same time. I don’t anything about Ansel Adam’s’ faith but there is a Cross in that picture..
    Merry Christmas!

  12. Very touching, John, but it would be more so without your utterly bogus suggestion that bipartisan support for Ukraine is motivated not by humanitarian concerns as well as, yes, our national interest c but, rather, by a desire to support “war-profiting by arms merchants,” any more than support for Lend-Lease aid to Great Britain before U.S. involvement in WWII was so motivated.

  13. Great, timely story. I’m hoping to continue to find those thoughts streamside rather than in an MRI machine.

    On another note. I cast right handed. Several years ago a wise person recommended that I teach myself how to cast left handed. His point was that one never knows if or when that may become the default. Your situation has stirred those coals. On my list for this year.

  14. Merry Christmas, John, to you and Betty and the boys! Hope you have a great holiday season before your next surgery. Prayers for quick healing. Great column today. 🌲

  15. Many decades ago when I drove a midnight truck for the paper during the Winter; whenever I stopped during the night, there would be starlings. They would be in bushes near building walls, huddled together staying warm and making little bird noises.
    Occasionally I would disturb them and they flew off in fear.
    I miss their sound on the dark Winter nights.

  16. Thank you for a year of thought and insight. Thank you for a year of helping remind me of what is important. Good luck with the rotator cuff surgery, mine was very successful due to the expert surgeon and the diligent physical therapist. Follow the guidance of the therapist, they will heal you.

  17. Pensive column, MRI’s will do that. It’s more than Christmas shopping, cooking and business deadlines. Tasks undone … and running out of time. Surgery is coming up and it’s a time to let go of whatever. Place yourself in God hands and the surgeon’s hands, trust in the love of your Family and let go. Prayers on your upcoming surgery, you had this before so at least you know the routine. Thanks for sharing the Paul Harvey story, a great reminder of God’s love for us all. I love watching the birds, too!

  18. Thank you for the fine writing and evoking the memory of my Dad’s push-button Dodge with its slant-6.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours from sunny south Texas.

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