My Author Interview is now available on line

27 Mar

I have an author’s interview now at http://www.smashwords.com/interview/balcom. The interview is part of the pre-publication promotion for my third entry in the Jim Stanton Mysteries series. I invite you all to check it out; and if you have other questions you’d like answered, let me know. Also, I’d appreciate it if you chose to share that interview with friends of yours.

Thanks

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The Legend of Cycle Davidson

3 Jan

After spending most of 11 uncommonly cold days in a deer stand without any interaction with a white tail deer, I had to realize I wasn’t going to have venison in my freezer this year, but I didn’t come home empty handed. All that time alone to think and ponder the sport of deer hunting, and I came home with this…

You don’t hear much about deer camp any more, but there was a time when taking off for the north woods with a bunch of like-minded cronies was, in terms of fall traditions, up there with Homecoming football, stuffed turkey and leaf burning.

Today there seems to be a lot of camaraderie still in the hunting, but a two-week adventure is not nearly as popular.

Some of that is a result of the massive changes that have occurred in two areas: Private transportation and the habitat of the whitetail deer.

When the troops came home after World War II, they came consumed by the belief that anything they wanted to accomplish they could. They’d walked across Europe to beat Hitler, hadn’t they?

These children of the Great Depression also came home to a prosperity of which they’d never dreamed. They embraced both of these realities with equal intensity.

And then there were the deer. In Michigan, prior to the war, the spotting of a white tail in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula was front page news in many communities. That all changed with modern farm practices, and as the deer moved south, they closed the book on “deer camp.”

Dutch Matthews was just one member of that Greatest Generation. He came back to the U.S. committed to living the rest of his life to the hilt, and that meant letting nothing stand in the way of his outdoor adventures.

In 1950 Dutch was a welder at the local manufacturing plant. He had risen from a buck private to a sergeant in the Army, and he had fallen in love with the idea of building teams and leading them into operational maneuvers.

He had also fallen in love with the vast wilderness that encompasses the PorcupineMountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Dutch’s outfit was comprised of a local banker, “Dane” Petersen; a main street merchant, “Rube” McCowan; and local baseball great Lefty Rhodes who also worked at the plant.

Like so many of these “deer camp” groups, these same players were known to fish, hunt and lie as a team at nearly every opportunity. And while the annual Deer Camp group normally consisted of eight, these four were the constants while other members moved in and out of the trips as other events in their lives dictated.

So it was in that first year of the 1950s, an accountant at the plant, William Davidson, joined Dutch and a couple of the other fellows at a lunch table. Most of the men didn’t know much about William. He’d only been at the plant for a few months, and he was younger, having spent the war at MichiganStateUniversity, earning his degree.

This day the talk was all about deer camp, just two months away.

The men talked about the all-night drive to the Straits of Mackinac, catching the car ferry at first light, and then getting off to drive to the St. Ignace rail station where they’d pick up a west-bound train that would, for a fee, drop them off, with all their gear and provisions, on a siding in the mountains.

William was overcome with envy as he listened to the men make their plans.

“How do you get home?” He finally asked the group.

Dutch answered politely, “Just like that only in reverse. We pack up, hike out to the rail siding, it’s only a mile or so, and the train picks us up, we ferry back across the straits, and then drive home.

“When does this happen?”

“We take three days to get up there, arriving on the fourteenth so as we can get set up and scout for sign before opening day on the fifteenth, then we hunt for 6 days, and we take three days to get back so as we’re home for Thanksgiving,” explained Rhodes, an inspector on the assembly line.

“Boy, that sounds like a great adventure,” William said in admiration. “How long have you guys been going up there for deer?”

Dutch answered, “This’ll be my third year along with Rube and Dane and Lefty here. We take new guys all the time. You a hunter?”

William shook his head. “No, I’ve never shot a deer. Hunted rabbits and squirrels with my Dad when I was little, but I haven’t been hunting since before the war.”

“Well, if you ever get the idea you’d like to join this outfit, you just let us know. Right now we’ve only got six set, and our limit is eight,” Dutch said as the bell calling them back to work sounded.

The men got up and left William alone, thinking and wondering.

Nobody had ever called William “Bill” or “Billy.” He’d never had a nickname. His light complexion, frail frame, glasses and lack of athletic talent had pretty much nixed his being “one of the guys” in high school. His intelligence, sense of humor and unassuming manner had also given him a pass from the hectoring so many  of the nerdy high school students experienced.

Since coming to this new town and new job, he hadn’t made any close friends with the exception of Mary Jo McCowan – Rube McCowan’s younger sister – who also worked in the plant’s business office.

William sat at the table, wondering if Dutch had meant it about joining that expedition. He couldn’t help but fantasize a bit, but he was brought back to reality when Mr. Gleaner, his boss, called his name. “William, William! What’s the deal? You need to get back to work!”

William jumped with a start, “Golly, Mr. Gleaner,” he said with his normal good natured smile, “guess you caught me wool gathering.”

The older man smiled in return, “Come on; you can daydream later.”

And that’s how William Davidson found himself aboard “The City of Petoskey” making his first voyage of any kind on November 13. He and “the boys” were among the crowd of the deer hunters, dressed in traditional red and black wool, munching on pasties and drinking coffee as the car ferry navigated the five miles from MackinawCity to St. Ignace.

He was beside himself with elation. He was one of the boys for the first time in his life.

At the camp, William immediately established himself as a good camp mate. While he hadn’t had much camping experience, he was quick to any task and almost immediately started anticipating needs – water from the nearby stream; more fire wood or kindling. Whatever he thought of, he just pitched in. Dutch and others observed this without comment.

On opening morning, the campers settled for coffee and donuts. Each had a sandwich and canteen, and they had all established their hunting spot the day before. Dutch and Rube had walked with William, found a likely spot where a deer had fallen to Rube their first year.

“You get here early and settle in; keep your eyes peeled and make sure your target is a male deer and not one of us,” Dutch said in way of briefing. “When you get cold, you can stand up, move a few yards and such, but don’t make too much of a fuss. Deer hunting basically comes down to seeing them before they see you. When that happens, you get a shot; when he sees you first, it’s likely you’ll never see him at all.”

William sat at his stump all day fantasizing that the deer of his dreams would appear at the next instant, but that didn’t happen on opening day.

In fact, by the last day of the hunt only William was without a deer. He had seen several does, but no bucks.

The rest of the party was busy making plans for departure, but they all took turns “driving” the gullies and ravines in hopes of pushing a buck to William’s location.

So it came to the final day of hunting, and William was up in the dark, preparing to hunt. He was disappointed that he hadn’t had a shot so far, but he was upbeat and joyous to be in that place at that time.

Dutch and Rube got up with him, and after he walked away from camp, they marveled at their new friend’s disposition and manners.

“Good kid, there, Rube,” Dutch murmured into his cup. “Gonna be a fine addition to your family from what I hear about him and Mary Jo.”

Rube just grunted. He knew he had no say in the matter, but he was just as certain that nobody was good enough for his younger sister.

“Could be worse,” he finally said.

Long about 9 a.m. Dutch and Lefty had finished their packing and decided to walk a large arc to get well upwind of William’s position, then to carefully sneak down toward the young hunter. “We don’t want to spook them,” Dutch said. “Our scent will move them, and we want them to walk into William, not race by him. Got it?”

“Right, Sarge,” Lefty laughed. “Nice and easy.”

As they were walking the large arc, William was back to his fantasy hunt, dreaming that his buck was en route and picturing where it would be when he first saw it. Dutch and Lefty closed in on William. He sat as motionless as he could, then he heard a small twig break right behind him.

He turned and there in a clearing not thirty feet from him stood a whitetail buck of barber shop calendar proportions. Just as he turned and raised his rifle to aim at the buck, Lefty came upon the scene from a vantage point some hundred yards away and couldn’t believe what he witnessed.

Lefty hightailed it out of there and nearly ran back to the camp, catching Dutch just as he arrived at the cook tent.

“You won’t believe what happened back there.” Lefty was panting from his run. “You won’t believe it.”

“Well, let it out,” Dutch said.

Lefty was bent over, his right hand reaching out to balance himself against Dutch’s shoulder as he fought to catch his breath. The rest of the party was sitting at the table, and all waited for Lefty to speak.

“I snuck down that last ravine; you know the one with the crick? And I climbed up the side and I had a perfect view of that kid on his stand and a great big ole buck just standing there awaitin’ to be killed. The kid eased around like he should’ve, raised his gun like he should’ve…” and here Lefty lost control and started laughing again as like to wet his pants.

“Come on, Lefty,” Rube cried out. “You mean the kid missed that deer?”

“Missed it, hell. That kid took aim and then racked that lever-action rifle five times without ever touching the trigger. Cycled every bullet he had right out of that weapon!”

“Oh, no!” Dutch cried out. “You mean it?”

Lefty told it again, and this time all the party got the picture. Their friendly young nimrod had fallen prey to the bane of deer hunting every where – Buck Fever.

“How we gonna play it?” Lefty asked Dutch and Rube as they watched the final moments of daylight dissolve into dusk.

“Like we know nothin’,” Dutch said. “Let’s wait ‘til he has a chance to tell us how his day went.”

When William walked into camp a few minutes later, Rube poured him a cup of coffee. “Didn’t hear you shoot.”

The younger man gave the older hand a smile that was half frown, and shook his head. “Oh, no, I sure didn’t shoot.”

“See much?”

“Just the buck of a lifetime.”

Lefty looked around at the other guys in the mess tent. “Far off?”

William looked around at the assembled faces and with a sigh of lost opportunities, told the story, finally coming to the end, looking at the unspent rounds on the ground, looking where the buck had been standing before it walked away. “I don’t know what happened,” he said to the group. “I guess I had a case of Buck Fever. But boy was that thrilling.”

Then the whole group started laughing, not at the young man’s mishap, but at the guileless way he told the whole story. As the laughter quieted, William asked in general, “Any of you fellas ever had the fever?”

Sobriety fell like a hush over the group. Like golfers who don’t want to hear the word “shank,” the seasoned deer hunter will never admit to the fever. Heads shook; some eyes were down at the table or suddenly fascinated with the patterns of ice that decorated the eave of the tent.

Dutch took the floor to end the silent lying. “If they’re honest, everyone’ll tell of having a touch, William, but nobody I know ever had a dose like yours.” That got all the heads nodding.

Dane Petersen then spoke up. “I guess this warrants a moniker, you know, to mark it in history.” Heads nodded around again, and William smiled. “I’ve never had a nickname.”

It was Lefty then, “You do now. Forever, you’ll be called Cycle Davidson. That’s a bet.”

The trip home was as much fun as the trip up, but, to William, shorter for the lack of anticipation. He knew he’d be making this trip again and again.

And he did. For four years, he joined the boys in the PorcupineMountains. There were good years and lean, too, the way deer seasons do ebb and flow, but the only constant was William’s lack of a deer.

Oh, he brought home venison from time to time when one of the other hunters scored twice and had William put his tag on it for the trip home, but he never saw a horn in all those hunts.

“Just snake bit,” was the judgment of the others. They’d watched him, practiced with him and consoled him. They put him in “can’t miss spots” and then shot a nice buck where William had kept watch the previous four days.

Then in the summer of 1955, William notified Rube that his sister was expecting their first child.

Rube’s first reaction was to congratulate the younger man, and then he asked, “When?”

“Late November, Doc says.”

“Sure makes it tough on you bein’ in Deer Camp.”

“Don’t suppose I’ll be makin’ it this year, Rube.”

II

And again in ’56, with Mary Jo expecting their second in late November, and again in the fall of ’58 when daughter number 3 was due – it appeared the short deer camp career of William ‘Cycle’ Davidson was over before it began.

With three gals in diapers, the Davidson family required both parents all the time and for the next five years William was in constant demand. Despite his continuing growth with the company, money for Deer Camp trips was better spent on a week at a lake with the whole family.

Always chipper, William listened intently to the stories that came back year after deer camp year, but after the great MackinacBridge opened in November of ’57, he could see the group’s enthusiasm for the trip ebbing.

“Hell, every Tom, Dick and Harry can just drive to our camp site now,” Dutch grumped to the group. “I even went up there to catch brook trout and hunt grouse this fall, and spent most of the first day just cleaning up the trash left all summer long.”

Then in the spring of 1959, Dane Petersen announced he’d purchased an 80-acre “Christmas tree farm” that just happened to be snuggled right up against thousands of acres of state game area in Mecosta County.

“Whatcha gonna do with it, Dane?” Dutch asked.

“Grow Christmas trees and deer, you numbskull. Hell, there’s more deer down here anymore than in the UP. We can camp there; hunt just the weekends, or the whole time. And, if you don’t bring home a deer, you can at least take home a Christmas tree.”

“You got trees there now?”

“Some, but most of what’s there is too big for Christmas, but I’m startin’ a plantin’ program right now. Anyone interested can meet me there at 9 a.m. on Saturday. We’ll plant until 3 or so, and then I’ll feed the whole bunch barbecue. You can bring wives and kids. Hell, it’s not hard work… should be fun. I’ve got ten thousand seedlings, but we don’t have to plant ‘em all in one day.”

The word spread through the group, and on Saturday there were twelve families, including William and Mary Jo and the kids, ready to work and eat Rube’s famous barbecue.

That planting went so well, it became an annual event, and everyone who participated got invited to the farm for a cut-your-own tree outing in December.

That fall was the first deer camp at “The Farm.” Dane, Dutch, Rube and Lefty were the only campers. Dutch had bought a silver 13-foot bullet-nosed house trailer. He hauled it up the weekend before the opener and parked it close to the 20-footer Dane had installed earlier that fall.

The four hunters shot four deer in three days of hunting that first year. Their success was noted by the rest of the group, and that December at the tree harvest, William approached Dane with the idea he might want to resume his deer camp career if Dane thought there might be room.

Dane said he had nine blinds built around the property, placed to ensure good coverage and hunter safety, but as yet there were only eight guys signed up for the week. The spot was William’s if he wanted it.

“I’m in,” he answered.

His next stop was to find out who was bunking with Dutch, and the older man said making room for him would be no trouble. It was all set, and William went to work on making sure his rifle was sighted in at the gun range. He shot targets from a variety of positions so as not to be caught off guard.

He checked out his equipment and found that he’d put on a few inches around the middle since he’d last worn his black and red wool pants and coat. Mary Jo put an ad in the newspaper and sold those and used that money for seed to buy a new set.

By the weekend before the opener, he was ready and excited. But on Friday he got a bit of bad news. Dane called him. “Son, my eldest, Roy, came home just now from MSU and he brought a friend with him expecting there’d be no trouble if he came hunting this weekend…”

William’s heart sank, but true to his nature, he kept a light tone in his voice. “I understand. Will he be bunking with Dutch then?”

“No, but I just don’t have another blind to hunt out of.”

“Well, sure I understand. Maybe next year. Thanks for calling.”

Dane sat at his office phone for a minute, and then started searching around in his desk until he came up with a paper. He dialed the number of the elderly gent who owned the adjoining forty acres that separated Dane’s land from the state game area.

It took only a few seconds to find out that, no, the old timer no longer planned to hunt his forty; and, no, he’d given nobody else permission; and, yes, seeing the problem created by the unexpected guest, he’d love to have Dane’s people hunting there this year.

He excitedly called William. “Son, I just got off the phone with Doc Henry from Lakeview, you heard of him? No, doesn’t matter. He’s given us permission to hunt his property next to mine, and I know there’s an old straw bale blind on the northwest corner that should be good. That’ll be your place, okay?”

Williams’ heart soared, and he thanked Dane profusely.

After work, just before six, Dutch pulled up outside the Davidson home, and honked his horn.

William had his gear piled in the driveway and took no more than a minute to put it in the back of Dutch’s pickup and they were away.

“Well, Cycle, did you forget anything? Looks like you got enough gear to hunt the Porcupines for a week.”

“Nope, I think I got everything essential, plus I brought one of Mary Jo’s apple pies, a batch of her chocolate-walnut cookies and a big bottle of Jim Beam. I think I got everything.

“Did you happen to bring a deer license?”

The air just went out of him as William slumped on his side of the cab.

Dutch couldn’t help but chuckle, “We’ll stop up at Remus and get you one.”

“And I’ll have to listen to this all night like I have to listen to the Cycle story.”

“Think of it as dues you pay to an exclusive club.”

When they got to the campsite, and all their gear stowed, the pair joined the rest of the hunters around a roaring camp fire. Introductions were made, and Roy, Dane’s son, introduced William to his roommate, Harrison. “Harrison, this is Cycle Davidson; Cycle, meet Harrison, my roomie at State.”

The youngster shook hands, and then asked, “Your name is really Cycle?”

William frowned, but before he could answer, Lefty came up, put his arm around William’s shoulder and said, “It’s a well-earned nickname, that’s what Cycle is, and let me tell you all about it…”

Which he did to the laughter and mock horror that had been developed, choreographed and orchestrated over the years.

Through all this, William sat with a smile on his face and hid behind his good nature.

In the dark the next morning, he dressed, picked up his “day bag” with a thermos of coffee, a sandwich and an apple safely inside along with the tools he’d need to successfully field dress and drag home a prize if the red gods were ever to smile on him.

Dutch handed him a cup of coffee in the mess tent, and sat down with a crude map of the territory. “Here’s how this works. We’re here. You’ll go out the tent, turn left and walk due west ’til you reach Dane’s line fence. You’ll cross over that and you’ll be on a two-track trail that will take you along a windbreak line of poplar trees on your right and the mature yellow pines on your left. When you get to the end of the pines you’ll turn left and walk about 30 yards and you’ll find what’s left of an old blind built out of straw bales. There’s a bucket and boat cushion in there for you to sit on.

“It’s a bit rustic, but if you sit still you can command the entire open area between you, the road, and the state game area beyond the road.

“Good luck, and remember, know your target before you shoot!”

William asked, “What about you? Where will you be?”

Dutch pointed out the east side of the tent. I’ll have my lounge chair, a book and my gun right out there. Long about 10 or so, I’ll start makin’ breakfast for any who want it. I did the same thing last year and shot two nice bucks trying to sneak in here…”

William finished his coffee, and started out. “See you later.”

The morning was chilly and dark. There was a slight wind blowing from the west and the air was filled with fog and mist.  When he reached the end of the trail and turned left, he realized he was looking for a black cat in a coal chute, so he flicked on his flashlight and played it over the pines on his left as he walked in the field. There, on a point of pines, was the old blind. He stepped inside and found the cushion and five-gallon bucket as promised and just enough of the old straw bales standing to hide him.

He settled in, looked at his watch, and found he had fifteen minutes until shooting time.

Just minutes after shooting time arrived, William heard a clatter on the gravel road to his right and two does raced into the field, stopped and turned to look back.

This was a familiar instant for William and all the rest of the people who made reading Field and Stream magazine a monthly habit. He followed the direction of the does’ eyes and sure enough here came a buck, racing over the road and closing on the does, moving from right to left. William raised his rifle, put the bead on the buck’s shoulder and swung with him as he galloped at full speed.

Without knowing it, William had pulled the trigger. Flame had shot out of the barrel in the half light, and the recoil had bounced the barrel up in front of his eyes. He racked in another load and got his sight on the buck’s shoulder, swung and fired again. This time he saw the giant buck flinch and slow a bit. He fired again, and this time the deer’s momentum turned it into a complete flip as his hind end overtook his front. The deer lay dead in the field, his antlers buried in the sod.

William looked around. The does were gone. He propped his rifle up against the bales and walked out toward his buck, but then he recalled his training about making sure the animal was dead, and hurried back to his rifle. He walked back to the deer, and careful to stay out of range of those deadly hooves, he poked the deer in the eye with the barrel. No reaction.

He felt a wave of relief pass through him. He knelt down and disengaged the deer’s antlers from the sod, turning his head over and counting the points. Nine!

He dragged the deer back past the blind and inside the first row of pine trees where he completed the process of field dressing his kill. He had participated in the process on deer killed by others, and he was confident if not skilled in removing the entrails, heart, lungs and so forth. He took his license tag out of his wallet and wired it to the deer’s antlers at the base and then returned to his seat in the blind.

He knew that he’d have to sit there a while, but eventually others in the party who had heard the shooting would be coming to help him get his deer back to camp.

About a half hour later, he heard someone walking through the pines in his general direction. He started to speak up, but decided to wait until they broke out into the field.

As he waited, he realized that it wasn’t a person making that much noise, and just then a four-point buck emerged from the tree line about thirty yards away and stopped with just its front half exposed. It was looking away from William, studying that area for signs of danger. William carefully reached for his rifle, and turning slightly on his upside down bucket he brought the sights to bear on the exposed right shoulder, thumbed back the hammer and squeezed the trigger just as he’d practiced.

Snap! He realized instantly that he’d failed to cycle another shell into the rifle after his last shot. At the sound of the firing pin hitting an empty shell, the deer snapped its head around to study William’s direction.

For a deer, there is no passing of time. The boys had taught William that. “They’re just there.  Wherever that might be, the animal is all there in the now. There is no time limit for them,” he recalled the instruction. He sat motionless and waited. After what seemed an eternity, the young buck turned its head back to the other direction and William slowly and carefully worked the lever action to discharge the empty and load a live round in its place.

He raised the weapon, sighted and squeezed. The deer bucked on impact, kicked twice and was still.

William racked in a new round, and then carefully lowered the hammer to the safe position before walking to the deer.

This one was dressed next to where the first deer’s innards still steamed, and then took its place alongside the earlier and much larger animal.

William sat in an almost stunned silence as some rain started to fall. He used wet leaves to clean his hands and arms as much as he could, then retrieved his hunting coat and pulled it on.

He knew some others would be coming, and while the letter of the law prohibited “group” hunting in favor of each hunter killing his own, he also knew that someone at camp would be glad to place their tag on the extra deer.

He didn’t know how long it had rained as he sat there, waiting, but as the rain let up, the visibility improved and he took note of his surroundings. The field in front of him filled the inside of a curved ninety-degree turn in the road as it went from being his northern boundary to his western boundary.

About seventy yards to his immediate west, and directly upwind of his position, there was a portion of a cedar slough that had been cut off by the road, and which jutted into the field.

As he admired the earth tones of the cedar swamp that made a back drop to the brown field, he realized that he was looking right at a majestic buck.

The deer was staring at him, and it might have been coming up out of the slough, but only its head and what taxidermists call the “cape” were showing. Its legs were hidden as was its body.

William doubted his eyes. He looked again, and again, and then it all fell into place for him. There would be no help coming from camp! They were probably laughing themselves sick thinking that he had been sitting over here shooting at a mounted deer head!

He could just see Dane and Roy and Harrison laughing as they brought his bucket and cushion to the blind and then choosing the perfect place to hang some moth-eaten mount… he was disgusted that he would again bear the brunt of their humor. And he knew he was getting just what he deserved after the buck fever incident those years ago.

As he sat there alternating between berating himself and feeling sorry for himself, a car full of hunters drove slowly down the road from his right through the curve and to his left. As the car moved slowly along, he realized his mounted head had turned and was following the car’s progress.

“My God!” He thought. “What should I do?”

As the car disappeared off to the left, the deer brought its attention back to William, but now William was sighting it down the barrel of his 30-30 Winchester. The crack of the rifle dropped the deer in its tracks.

William was back in the blind on his bucket when he looked at his watch. He was shocked to see that it was just ten o’clock in the morning. Three deer in about three hours?

Now there was a touch of paranoia in his thoughts. He had two untagged deer behind him, and he started to consider walking back to ask for help, but he couldn’t face the ridicule he’d have to take.

Then he thought, wouldn’t the joke be on them?

At that moment Dane’s truck rattled down through the ditch and up into the field. Dutch and Rube were in the cab with Dane. Lefty and another man from the plant were hanging on in the bed of the pickup.

Dane pulled the truck to a stop and folded himself out of the cab with a huge grin framing his ever-present cigar. Dutch and Rube were piling out of the truck with smiles of glee and Lefty vaulted out of the bed, landing with a thump and a giggle.

“Cycle,” he cried, “what’s all this shootin’ about over here? Sounds like a war!”

Rube had a sympathetic smile on his face as he walked up with a bottle of beer in his out-stretched hand. “Got some trouble here, Cycle?”

William looked from one smiling face to another, then shrugged and took a step sideways raising his arm like a game show emcee, “No trouble here as long as a couple of you guys will put your tags on my extra deer.”

Dane nearly swallowed his cigar.

Dutch put his hands on his knees and laughed so hard he got a coughing jag that made William fearful for the old man’s safety.

They were all talking at once, and William could see that they were not only happy for him, but they were feeling like they’d been tricked. “What did you guys think I was doing over here?” He asked

Lefty couldn’t talk, but he raised his left arm and pointed to William’s right. The younger man stepped out of his blind and looked where Lefty was pointing: It was a nice, but old and ratty deer head; mounted on one of the popular trees that lined the trail William had walked in on.

“We thought you were intent on killing Bambi there,” Lefty finally choked out.

William thought for a second, and then flashed them with a brilliant smile. “You guys know you taught me better than that. I was watching into the wind, not over there. I never saw it, and I don’t think I’d have wasted even one shell on it.”

Dutch nodded. “You’re right, William. We might have to retire that nickname, now.”

William winced at the thought. “Really? Why? I never had a nickname before, why would you take it away?”

Lefty sobered up quickly, wiped a tear from his eye and spoke up. “No way! Our friend here is known now and forever as Cycle Davidson. What the hell, he hit for the cycle today, didn’t he?”

Remembering November 22, 1963…

22 Nov

The day John F. Kennedy died is one of those events indelibly etched into my memory. Les Morford, our high school Civics teacher, looked over our heads to the classroom door with the little “gun port” window, and broke into tears.

What we hadn’t seen was the sign held up to that window, “JFK shot, dead” it read.

We sat silent as he hurried out of the classroom only to return moments later and in a tear-choked voice informed us that our President had been shot. Numbed by this political science teacher’s reaction, we moved like zombies as school was dismissed.

My next recollection of that day was walking to the doctor’s office. I had been suffering from athlete’s foot, and Absorbine Jr. wasn’t getting it done, so my mom had made a doctor’s appointment for me.

The doctor’s office must have been in mourning, but for a teen-ager who had not discovered the romance and pain of politics, my real issue was the itch between my toes.

My doctor (remember this was before we called them “health care providers”) had known me since we moved to town. He’d treated me for mumps and broken bones. He had been in my home and knew my entire family.

This was the fall, and the summer had seen my fastball go from 79 to something close to 85 mph. The doc was a big baseball fan, and as he examined my scaling, raw toes, he opened a commentary on my sport.

“I noticed you struggled at times in the late innings,” he said without looking up. “Did you know that Whitey Ford runs foul pole to foul pole and then walks back at least 20 times in the days between his starts?”

Ford was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Yankees and the gold standard for left-handed pitchers in those days when Sandy Koufax was still searching for the strike zone.

“That running,” the doc continued, “builds strength in the legs, and it’s that strength that makes for maintaining the velocity on your pitch in the later innings.” He looked at me, and added, “Do you ever run between starts?”

I thought about the basketball practice that had been canceled that afternoon, the wind sprints in the football practices… all that running came between the final start of last summer and the next start in the spring.

He didn’t wait for an answer. He scribbled a prescription on a pad, and got back to his business. “Have your mom fill this, and then soak your feet in this before bed every night, and this will all be history by next week. OK?”

I nodded, put my socks and shoes back on, and grabbed my coat. As I walked out of the office, he interrupted his conversation with his nurse, “Lefty, remember, Whitey Ford and his running, right?”

I nodded and the door slid closed behind me and I thought: “I didn’t know Whitey Ford had athlete’s foot…”

To many people the assassination of JFK marks a turning point in American culture and life. The sobering fact of what passed for modern life at that point was that the White House Press Corps turned a blind eye to presidential dalliances with movie stars.

At that point in time 16-year-old wannabe pitchers were not part of the dialogue on the tragedy even in our homes. We were simply dismissed; sent home, sent to the doctor’s office or to bed right after supper while our parents tried to come to grips with the new facts of American life.

That year was just the beginning of what may have been the biggest social upheaval this nation or the world has ever known. From the Beatles to Free Love to hair over the collar (or even in pony tails) everything that had been so established and set up for the future by the “Greatest Generation,” the folks who unleashed the atom to end wars and then stared down the Russians when they put their missiles in Cuba.

The emotional turmoil of JFK’s death would be seen by many as the first snowflake in a great social avalanche.

Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and the horror that has become simply “9/11” have all become special markers in our personal histories.

When our children came home shocked and upset at the terrorist attacks of 9/11, their status was far different from ours in November, 1963. They were fully invested in the dialogue at home, in the nation, and the world.

There are many in my age group who wistfully long for those simpler times before the 24-hour news cycle; when children (and women and African Americans) knew their place and kept it.

But such thinking is as sound as defying gravity.

We can hold dear the memories of that little boy saluting his father’s casket, and the brave bereavement of the president’s widow. They are images of strength and love.

But in the flow of time, the course of social development in America, JFK’s death is just a bookmark. It didn’t stop anything — unlike the doctor’s miracle footbath which stopped the fungus in its tracks.

It didn’t start anything, either, except for adding walk-and-runs to a young pitcher’s summer workout regimen.

This just never gets old…

23 Apr

There are some sensations out there that never get tired or old, and they are the sensations that keep us going back into the brush, the cold, the wet, whatever it requires to savor that sensation one more time.

And again.

One of those sensations is the anticipation as you walk in behind a pointing dog that is frozen in place by the whimsical aroma of “scent,” that tells the pup that the game is afoot.

Another, totally different, but just as thrilling, is the moment when a floating dry fly is intercepted by a trout. The rise comes as a “slurp,” “swirl,” or a “pop.” Regardless, the moment of the rise is instantly followed by the flick of the rod tip that “sets the hook,” followed in another instant by the surging, throbbing run of a hooked fish.

It is, for the angler, a moment frozen in time that can be re-created again and again without diminishing the first time or wearing thin in the repetition.

The moment a flock of ducks or geese commit to the phony set in front of your blind; that moment when all doubt of the outcome evaporates as the flying formation all drop their feet to use as rudders in the final approach to the “kill slot” you designed when you set out the decoys is another moment that never gets old.

In foraging, it’s the first mushroom found in a new woods.

In Iowa even the woods across the pond is somewhat new to us; the rest of the woods in this woods-rich environment all qualify as virgin to us.

But there is this one woods adjacent to Rathbun Lake in southeastern Iowa that just looked like it had to have morels in season.

I discovered the woods as I drifted across the lake two years ago when the connection between my gas tank and the motor on the duck boat broke just minutes after I had launched for an exploratory duck hunt.

The wind, what little there was, went to work drifting me to the shore opposite of where I had launched. I had ample time to observe the woods that was welcoming me. I also spent time plotting how I would walk my boat down that shoreline to another launch site, and calling the ever-patient, geographically-challenged partner back home to elicit her rescue operation.

She had never been to where I had launched. She didn’t have the maps, they were in my truck. She had to be talked in… but we lost cell service as soon as I hit shore, and she was flying blind until I hiked a mile up the hill into cell service.

But to the woods.

This part of Iowa is mostly oak and hickory. There are many other types of trees, but the overwhelming population consists of red and white oak and hickory – smooth and shaggy bark hickory. There are occasional cottonwoods, some scattered other softwood trees that morel hunters are familiar with, but our mushrooms here mostly live where tag alders and other dense growths abut the taller, harder species. And if there are cedars mixed in, that seems to be a good combination as well.

As I drifted toward that far shore, I knew, just knew, that woods would hold morels.

The following spring didn’t afford much time or interest in being out there, but the thought of combining an early season bluegill search with some morel hunting never faded. The woods, I knew, would hold morels.

Boy howdy, did it ever.

That first morel, some 20 minutes into my first walk in the woods, was a glowing yellow/orange omen in the shade of those alders. It was keeping company with four other of the same coloration and size. They weighed in at about 5 to the pound.

In the next hour and a half I caught 12 more of these giants and one Johnny-come-lately “gray” that had just emerged.

This spring has been abnormally warm. We had 80 degrees in March; I picked morels in March for the first time in my life. The spring is so early that it caught everyone and everything by surprise. The turkeys behind the house have now been gobbling off and on for 6 weeks as the overnight lows have flexed from 33-65.

The morels on this trip were past prime. The ‘roons were still very edible, but certainly not as great as they would have been earlier.

One of the challenges of finding mushrooms in a new environment is learning nature’s keys to the beginning of the season. In many places – Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon – the flowering of the lilacs in the yard send foragers afield.

That was way too early here. Trip after trip in March were fruitless long after the lilacs were in full bloom. But what I noticed and will investigate further is the Mayapple. Also known as the “umbrella plant,” this early spring resident of our woods grows a single white bloom in the spring, then turns that flower into a single “apple” that matures in late summer.

We had an excellent crop of the green apples last May, and we were planning on making “Mayapple jelly” later in the year, but the entire crop was consumed by the critters in our woods before they ever got “ripe.”

But looking at the morels we caught in the “later stages” of this unlikely year, we should have been catching morels when the first blooms appeared on the Mayapples. We’ll test that next year, you can be sure.

We’ll also find another woods to explore for the first time… because that experience of going out there and finding the first morel in a new woods just never gets old.

(Any morel hunter who can recall the times when the ‘roons seemed to appear after you had already looked at that spot and found none will understand why we think we “catch” them rather than finding them – dhb)

To make plans for life, you have to be alive

31 Mar

Everyone has core beliefs that chart how they live, how they behave and how they react. Those beliefs are trained into us as children, worked into us by experience and ingrained in us by outcomes that seem to reflect their validity.

The Golden Rule was trained into me. Not the sarcastic “he with the gold rules” rule, but the Christian version that dictates we treat others as we wish to be treated. I was raised in traditional Methodist family; baptized into the faith as a baby; indoctrinated into the church as a youngster and “got my Bible” as a 13-year-old.

I quit Sunday School about then when a teacher told me that God wouldn’t love a kid who missed a Sunday because he was hunting with his dad. I was willing to turn the other cheek, treat others – even the bully down the block – as I wished to be treated, but I wasn’t going to miss a day hunting with my dad.

When I turned 16 and a car gave us access to Michigan’s trout streams, my church attendance became spotty as well until one day my maternal grandmother – who had only just come to peace with the fact her children danced and played cards – challenged me about my lack of attendance.

“Gees, gramma. When I’m not in church right now, it’s because I’m fishing up on the Manistee… Gramma, there’s not much closer to God than standing waist deep in a trout stream on a beautiful spring morning, really.”

Her response was gentle and firm: She told me that if she could believe I was spending even one minute of that experience contemplating my immortal soul, she’d be okay with it… but she didn’t. “Mister, you need that hour every week. We all do.”

And I came to believe that if you did the right things for the right reasons, good things would come your way, and that with the Golden Rule became my personal approach to life.

And in many ways it worked beyond my dreams until last year. My family has had to face few of the dire challenges families routinely face. Our children were born healthy and bright. We grew in our chosen fields, and despite having to move frequently, we found ourselves fortunate in the wonderful people we met in our travels.

We had been so fortunate that I found we were really unprepared for suddenly without warning facing complex real-time and emotional upheavals.

It started in March of 2011 when I was unceremoniously fired from my job. No warning; no explanation. At age 64, I was suddenly on the outside of a profession that I had cherished for 36 years, and I had to come to grips with the fact that profession had no use for me any longer.

Hundreds of applications received no response whatsoever. The few responses I did get were either that I was over-qualified or were boiler plate that they had found someone who “better fits” our immediate needs – code for younger.

We had always been careful with money so we didn’t have too much to worry about in that quarter, but I struggled finding myself unemployed and unemployable for the first time since I was 16.

The retirement dream was never mine. I figured I’d work as long as I was able to perform to my standards, keep up with the pace and make a difference. I knew in the back of mind there would be signs and I’d have time to make plans for a change. I’d have time, say, to upgrade my vehicle while I could still qualify for a loan. Maybe do some final investment in the home to make the later years more comfortable. Who knew?

I fretted for almost a year. Then, on March 9, 2012 – just 12 days shy of my first anniversary of “being retired” – I got a perspective jolt.

We were notified that day that Susie was suffering from endometrial cancer and would require a radical hysterectomy. We were directed to a gynecology oncologist at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in Iowa City who would do the specialized surgery.

Dr. Goodheart – no kidding, I’ve collected names that go with titles and I know this gentleman started out thinking he would be a cardiologist, but he is in his true calling if not his name. (Aside: Our first mortgage loan officer’s name was DeNial. The bone surgeon who operated on my hands when I was 15 was Dr. Patella.)

We’ve all heard the repartee: Serious? Serious as a heart attack. Cardiac arrest has little on cancer. On Monday we were Iowa City with an appointment. After his own inspection, surgery was scheduled for Wednesday and the rest of Monday was spent in pre-op tests. It was a 12-hour day, and we were grateful – if you’re not exhausted in these circumstances, sleep is hard to find.

Despite my cautions, Molly and Casey declared themselves “all in” on Wednesday. Casey would pick Molly up after work in St. Paul Tuesday night, spend that night in Rochester where Casey lives and meet us at the hospital at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

I had explained that if the operation was successfully completed through laparoscopy as planned, their mom would be home on Thursday, and they could come down for the weekend. It never occurred to me that they were coming for me and not her… I can be really dim at times.

We got together at 10, and they talked with Susie and touched her, wished her well, and finally we were sent off to the waiting room. I had been told that we would be notified when she went into surgery, updated during the surgery, and told when she was done.

My plan was to get word they’d started, and then go off in search of a shopping list of things we can’t get in our rural home … anything to keep from sitting, stewing in my own juice. I hadn’t planned on quiet, assured, moral support, but it dawned on me as my kids handled me over the next four-plus hours that I was indeed being adroitly handled by experts.

I appreciated it.

Susie had been told by a friend who had survived cancer surgery that the most difficult period is after the surgery, waiting for the pathology reports.

Dr. Goodheart was totally encouraged when he met us after Susie was in recovery. He told us that the operation had gone perfectly, and was a complete success. He said he didn’t see any sign of complications (code for indications the disease had spread) and then he started the count down: Of course, we’d have to wait for the pathology report on the samples such as lymph nodes, etc., to be sure of what to do next if anything.

Your life goes on hold waiting for the pathology report.

There’s an old gag about being so old you never buy green bananas. Waiting on the pathology reports is about as old as you can be. We were about to buy our fishing licenses when the local gynecology department handed us over to Goodheart. Our life went on hold.

Two of my favorite truisms are: “Want to hear God laugh? Make a plan.” And, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans…” Do the right things for the right reasons and good things will come your way?

Praying for the strength to be the man she thinks I am and the man she needs me to be became the litany of my daily walks. The spring-like weather has me searching for morel mushrooms while she recuperates on the couch, reading so she’ll be prepared if she can make the next book club meeting she’s supposed to host in May.

Experience, I’ve always believed, is the best teacher because it gives you the test first and the lessons after. Cancer is experience of the cruelest kind, but when it threatens the one you love more than life itself, it’s a sure cure for feeling sorry for yourself.

We are hosting a wedding between Casey and the lovely Jessica in August. It is to take place on the dock on our pond. It is a scene that Jessica has fallen in love with. Our lives have broken into two halves: Before the diagnosis and after.

Before the diagnosis, I had arranged a bloc of rooms at a local motel for wedding guests. Before the diagnosis, Susie had started contacting caterers to establish a time when the kids and Jessica’s parents could meet them, perhaps sample their wares before committing.

After the diagnosis Susie was the first to stir and start thinking about the future. She confirmed the time of the kids’ visit and then re-called the local providers to nail down firm appointments. It was tricky, but she persevered – call, sleep; call, sleep. She got it nailed down, and then rested.

She built a list for how I’d have the house ready for the visit. Life happens while you plan? You can only plan if you’re alive.

We are alive. The pathology report came back in short, direct statements. Stage 1 cancer; minimum invasion of less than 15 percent; and, the kicker, no further treatment indicated.

“It’s like I got my life back,” Susie said on hearing the report.

For me, too. Time to “get over it and on with it” where living is concerned. Time to buy those fishing licenses.

Birthday thoughts

2 Mar

Sixty-five years ago today, as a blizzard rampaged through central Michigan, Georgia Pearl Puffpaff Balcom went into labor for the second time in her life.

Clifton Waldo Balcom loaded his 6-year-old son, Richard, and his suffering wife into the family car and, despite the warnings of hazardous conditions, negotiated the 50 or so miles of M57 from Lincoln Lake to Carson City.

On March 3, 1947, Georgia delivered her second son, David Harry, so named on the condition that he would never be called “Davey.” That day she also consigned herself to 18 years of torturous agony at the hands of Rheumatoid Arthritis that had attacked her after the birth of her first son. Doctors had predicted that her apparent recovery from the dread disease could be derailed by a second pregnancy, but she was adamant that Richard not grow up an only child. Her pain would eventually be put to an end at the hands of Lupus. She was 48.

She has always been the standard for courage and commitment for her younger son; a standard he has never attained.

I couldn’t help but think of all this as I set out today to walk with the veteran Ark and tyro Kris as the first flakes of a forecast blizzard started drifting down through the stark reddish brown limbs of our forest.

The dogs romped in the skiff of snow, but the big, wet flakes were piling up fast. In fact, as we turned the corner to start a second lap around the woods, the snow had erased all sign of our first passage. A lap is only a quarter of a mile.

The quiet of a winter woods became muffled in the falling snow. The silence was accented by occasional sounds that are always out there. A flock of north-bound geese, snows and blues by the sound of them, passed over head but out of sight in the white-out sky.

An energetic squirrel tried out his “chuck a chuck” call, but gave it up after a few seconds.

Early March in Michigan is high school basketball tournament time, and everyone expects a blizzard during the tourney, so my birthday blizzard story was told and retold as I grew up. Even then I noticed the snow got deeper with each telling, but the real message was about the commitment my parents demonstrated to insure that I got a healthy start.

So what would they think of their younger and only surviving offspring if they could tell me? Georgia would be 95; Cliff would be 106.

It’s hard to know. It’s even hard for me to know how to react to this “milestone” birthday. My friend Jim Whitney in Pendleton, Oregon, drilled a point home when I asked him how it felt to turn 60. “I’m grateful when I think of all the guys I knew who didn’t make it that far.” Amen to that.

And I’m grateful for the good fortune that has blessed the people I love. Susie, Molly and Casey are and have been for the most part healthy and hardy all their lives. All of us at this age have friends who have had to deal with one of those tragic losses, and I’m very glad not to be one of those.

Kris’ ears flopped as he puppy-galloped on his stubby little legs to keep up with the long-legged Ark, and I remembered those days when my little legs were not able to keep up with my older brother and his friends. Like Kris, I whined in my frustration, and then celebrated wildly when I caught up with them. I didn’t know then, and Kris can’t comprehend, how keeping up with bigger and older makes a youngster strong.

Watching him romp gave me thoughts of what’s ahead. I’m coming to grips with the probability that my working career is over. I’m looking forward to the freedom to fish while others work; hunt the weather I want rather than the weekend weather I get.

I’m excited to consider becoming involved in a project to provide food to hungry people in our part of the world, and, as I’ve preached to my children, friends and strangers for years, the fastest way to getting over the blues or the blahs, is to get involved with helping strangers.

As I walked in that snow-filled woods this morning, I thought about the courage and commitment that my parents demonstrated 65 years ago, and felt an overwhelming urge to keep making a difference as long as I’m on this side of the turf.

The Lovelorn Mallard

16 Feb

When the lure of the Red Drum (red fish) called to us this winter, we went to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. There was a familiar “deep South” feel to Grand Isle and surrounding environs, with their elevated homes and businesses, lush green “winter” look and the contradiction of grand homes and estates on one side of the navigation canal and the shotgun homes and trailers on the other.

It brought back memories of our short stint in Natchez, Mississippi. It was a great period in our lives. Our children were the only white riders on the school bus, and while they were treated nicely by the other children, they took away a real awareness of what it means to be a minority in America. None of the other neighborhood children attended public schools, and thus did not ride the bus.

While we were there only a short time, it was a learning experience in a whole new world out there.

Hunting ducks in shirt sleeves on Thanksgiving; it was the “early season.” And there was a quail hunt that allowed me to win a regional writing award for my newspaper.

But as the drive to the Gulf provided me with plenty of time for nostalgia about our time in Dixie, one part of that story kept haunting me, and that was the episode of the lovelorn duck.

Our home in the Natchez Trace Estates consisted of a nice home, some outbuildings and a portion of a 2 to 3-acre pond; one of series of ponds that snaked through the subdivision. It was pleasing to find out right away that a hen and drake mallard pair called our pond home. We arrived in fall, just before hunting season up north.

In those days, Susie stayed home to help the rest of us settle in, and she had turned her elementary education background full force on our family. She exercised her bulletin board decorating skills without fail at every holiday opportunity. She had boxes and boxes of appropriate materials for any holiday Hallmark could think of.

Then she read about wild mallard duck eggs for sale at a local feed store, and she began a hunt for an incubator so our kids could watch the miracle of birth up close and personal.

All she needed were some duck eggs, and as the hunting season wound to a close in late January, the pair of mallards on our pond answered her call. The hen just started laying eggs willy-nilly around the yard. Susie collected them and placed them in the incubator.

This all tied together the morning we discovered that an owl also called our neighborhood home, and it had in fact attacked the drake mallard. I learned of this wildlife tragedy as I came home from hunting Louisiana’s famed Catahoula Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The kids met me as I backed the duck boat into the car port, excitedly describing the headless drake and wondering what had happened to it.

I explained again the natural events of predator and prey, and, as usual, they pretended to understand, but still felt sad for the drake.

The next day, I got a double-barrel taste of the sadness when I came home to hear about the hen. Susie had a pent-up day’s worth of anecdotal evidence that the hen was grieving the loss of a loved one, just like we would in similar situations. I don’t believe in personification with animals. They’re animals, and I love them as they are, I don’t permit myself to give them opposable thumbs or the ability to weigh options and select a course of action. I love Bambi as the fantasy it is, nothing more.

To a busy editor without much of a reputation for sympathy, this was just column fodder, and that weekend I wrote about the tragedy that we were witnessing as day after day the hen appeared to mourn her departed partner.

On the last day of the season I hunted, and when I got home, on a whim, I tossed a drake mallard decoy into the pond near where the two live birds had spent so much time loafing together.

The hen was fooled completely.

She was so excited she couldn’t leave that decoy alone. She preened in front of it; dived under it to come up in the mallard version of the Missionary Position, but it was unrequited in every possible way.

She would literally swim in circles around it for a time, quacking and even moaning before flying off in a huff only to come back over and over again with the same results.

This went on for two weeks, and the editor couldn’t resist updating the readers on these very human-like conditions being displayed by a mallard hen in our pond.

Then a sympathetic reader who had the ability plus a romantic turn, showed up on February 14 with a wild mallard drake he’d captured. He’d trimmed the bird’s flight feathers so it could move around without much danger that he’d fly off.

The hen happened to be in the next pond down the street when this obliging gent explained his intentions to Susie, then proceeded to pull the bird out of its cage and toss it up so it could glide/fly down the slope of lawn to the water. As it lit, it let out its amazing “qwik, qwik” call that seems so soft yet carries so far.

The hen heard it and came flying over the levee, spied the newcomer and with a series of welcome “hey, hey, hey” calls lit right next to the drake. He noticed her, too. After a series of flirtatious head bobs, they apparently reached some mutually agreeable conclusion, and started swimming side by side off to the part of the pond where the shoreline was less maintained… the mallard equivalent of “get a room?”

Suddenly the hen stopped and looked back at the decoy swaying on the breeze, and then, with a “don’t ever say I didn’t give you a second chance” approach, she circled the decoy twice, clucking at it. Again, the non-responsive phony stayed mum.

Then, with an almost audible “sniff!” she pecked that decoy right in the middle of the back so hard it bounced on the end of its cord and sent ripples all around the pond. Then she regained her composure, shook to get every feather in its proper place, and with what was obviously a new swagger to her tail feathers, caught up with her new beau and sailed away to matrimonial bliss.

Post Script.

While that final scene with that decoy made one last entry in the newspaper, it wasn’t the end of the story.

Susie and the kids, with the help of the incubator, brought off a clutch of two baby mallards – a hen and a drake. (Yes, you can sex wild birds easily at birth: the hens have orange bills; the drakes have olive green bills otherwise they are identical in their appearance.)

Meanwhile, the newly weds wasted no time on their own, actually building a nest in the tall weeds and one day some time after our pair emerged they paraded their own clutch up and down the pond.

The incubator’s chicks had gone swimming the first day, but they imprinted on Susie who took them down to the water while natural born chicks imprint on their mom. These critters feed themselves, clean themselves, and are in every way imaginable, self-sufficient from birth. Chick starter on the porch for the Balcom clutch proved to be a big hit with the wild bunch, too, so pretty soon it was possible to open the front door and find all the babies and two adults in the yard.

Susie’s birds had to be coaxed into the water at first, but then they were more often out there swimming than crawling all over her and the kids in the living room.

Interestingly enough, while the mated pair had no problem mixing our hen baby with their brood, the drake would have nothing to do with our drake baby. Our little guy was ostracized from all the group swims, preens and bug hunts. The tiny hen who was his clutch mate stayed with him, choosing her birth-partner over the adults and other babies.

And, when it finally came time for our babies to abandon us completely to live with the wild birds full time, it was heartbreaking to see the wild flock packed around and under the hen and drake as the sun went down, while our babies were 10 feet away, silently living alone.

The final chapter was written one night on the wings of death as the owl took our baby drake; left the body and took the head as is their want. Within hours, our baby hen was just another part of the wild brood.

Years later, it was great to be back in the sun and warmth the South offers during February. It is a great place and a great time to be out there, enjoying the wildlife lessons available to anyone who takes the time to observe and learn.