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Henry Marganski's newest brood of pigeons was born in February and March, in time to train them for the "young bird" season, which started this month. Marganski raises racing homers, pigeons that race back to the home loft from a distant release point. The sport is huge in Holland, England and Belgium but hasn't really caught on in the U.S. "Americans like action," says Marganski, a transplanted Pole. "Pigeon racing is more like fishing -- you wait."
What they wait for is the return of their entries, feathered thoroughbreds winging home from 100-300 miles away, flying at treetop level at speeds of 45 mph or more. The owner of the fastest bird gets a trophy and perhaps a few bucks, the stakes of friendly wagering. But the training starts early, when the pigeons are barely out of their down.
"I'm just a rookie," says Marganski, 73, who came into the sport in 1992, after his retirement. His loft -- a solid, ventilated pigeon coop the size of a tool shed -- sits behind his Concord Village home in South County. Marganski constantly checks feed and water, opening and shutting doors to let birds in or out. The young birds need lots of attention, especially during the first seven weeks, when their primary flight feathers are developing. The pigeons spend this critical time hovering around the loft, sitting on the roof and taking short flights. "They are easily spooked at this stage," says Marganski, a slight man with merry blue eyes behind plain-frame glasses. "I lost five young ones earlier this year when ducks flew over and scattered them. They probably died in the wild." He compares the fledglings to a toddler: "You take a 2-year-old two blocks from home, he can't find his way back. The same with young birds. They fly too far, and they can't get back."
One day, they will disappear temporarily. "That's called 'tripping,'" says Marganski. "They fly off into the neighborhood -- who knows where? -- their first time away from the loft. This is the time you can basket them, take them on training flights, take them five, 10, 15 miles away from home, up to 50 miles." This builds up a bird's wings and respiratory system and hones its navigational powers. Marganski has 26 pigeons, unlike other owners or "flyers" who keep 60 or more. They take their birds out daily; Marganski is lucky if he does it twice a week. "I don't want the pigeons to take up all my time," he says. "I'm already busy with other things." He's involved with his North City parish, St. Stanislaus, known among Catholics for its polka Masses. He's an avid gardener and active in the Polish-American War Veterans Association. He spends Wednesdays at Jefferson Barracks, where he stands as part of the honor guard at veterans' funerals.
The personalized plates on Marganski's Jeep Cherokee read SYBRAK -- short for Sybirak, "Siberia" in Polish. Marganski's 30-month stay in Siberia indelibly stamped his character. He was only 11 in February 1940, living near the town of Jezierzany, when the Russians came in the middle of the night, taking him, his family and neighbors prisoner. A labor camp 4,000 miles away in Siberia needed fresh bodies.
"I had two pigeons at the time -- my pets," says Marganski. "I asked the Russians if I could take them along, and they said yes. Then we were on a train, 60 in a boxcar; somebody said, 'How are you going to feed your birds when we don't have enough?'" At one stop, he saw his brother Ignatz and gave him the birds. Marganski never saw Ignatz or the pigeons again. In Siberia, he worked in the forest, sapping pine trees to make turpentine, worrying about bears and wolves. His family subsisted on coarse bread and, in the spring, mushrooms. His father, assigned to a cavern, where he made wooden casks for the turpentine, died during the second winter. "We couldn't dig a grave, so we buried him in snow," says Marganski. "In spring, we went to dig him out for a proper burial, and his body was gone."
In the summer of 1942, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Soviets needed more troops. Marganski's older brother was consigned, and the family traveled along as refugees, which took them to Iraq and Palestine. In 1946, the family emigrated to the U.S. In St. Louis, Marganski found work with the old Ozark Airlines and, later, TWA as a ground-equipment mechanic. He tried racing pigeons for a while in 1962, but the results were poor and he got discouraged. Thirty years later, he felt he had to try again.
Marganski can't explain his affinity for the birds. "I just like pigeons," he says with a shrug, "not only racing pigeons but acrobatic rollers and fancy pigeons."
Marganski and his wife, Shirley, are in the basement of their home, showing bird catalogs and pigeon photos. He ambles over to the trophy shelf and pulls one out, a first prize for a 240-mile race held in 1996 that was won by one of his birds, a blue chick hen with no name. None of the birds has a name. This one was No. 8453. "He was a good one," says Marganski in his slightly halting speech. What became of No. 8453? "Well," he replies, "the very next race, he never came home."