On a stormy day in 1998, a flash of lightning in a microburst blasted a pine tree at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Tucson's south side.

In the charred remains and splintered wood, the head chef at the VA saw more than just a damaged tree; he saw a symbol of freedom.

"The way the two branches were left, I just sort of envisioned an eagle," said Michael Pal, the VA's head chef.

As it turns out, this chef is handy with a chain saw. For 30 years, he's been carving ice sculptures.

After getting approval from the head of the hospital, Pal went to work on the tree stump, carving a large eagle with raised wings.

For 14 hours - on his own time - Pal stood on a scaffold in the searing heat of an August summer sawing into the wood of the tree. He used two gas-powered chain saws, which he passed back and forth to an assistant.

"The tree was still alive and the pine was still wet, so it was a rather messy job," Pal said.

Though more experienced with ice, Pal said it was the heat of August, rather than the material of the sculpture, that proved the greatest challenge.

In the end, Pal carved an 8-foot-tall eagle atop a 7-foot base. He said he could have spent weeks detailing the sculpture, but he had to get back to work. At the VA, Pal prepares food for patients and volunteers who dine there.

While Pal said he could have spent more time on it, Pepé Mendoza, the VA hospital's spokesman, said the sculpture is a fitting tribute, especially because of its location within the hospital's memorial park honoring prisoners of war.

"It really captures the attention of the people coming through," Mendoza said. "We get a lot of positive comments."

A plaque below the eagle identifies the sculpture as "Winged Freedom" and dedicates it to former prisoners of war, who sacrificed their freedom for others.

"Please take a moment to enjoy the artwork and reflect upon the sacrifices endured by all service men and women who were taken prisoner," it reads.

Almost sold out

There are only a few copies of the Tucson Oddities book left. Online orders are no longer being accepted. The remaining copies are available in the lobby of the Star, 4850 S. Park Ave. The book costs $14.99 plus tax. Questions can be referred to oddity@azstarnet.com or 573-4232. A new stock of the Tucson Oddities book, along with Volume II, will be available in the spring.

Contact reporter Dale Quinn at dquinn@azstarnet.com or 573-4197.