Category Archives: Fatherhood and venison jerkey

MAIN STREET AND A WILD TURKEY

I turned right out of the driveway onto Main Street, as I do every weekday morning–the kids clamoring from the back seat for for me to pump up the iPod and give them something to get their day started. Music to them is about 3 cups of hi-test for me. God love ’em.

A quarter-mile down, as I pulled into the turning lane for a left onto Gibson Street, a big, black object flew across Main Street from my right, just low enough for me to catch a glimpse through the windshield. That’s one hell of a big blackbird was the first thing that popped into my head, followed within a fraction of a second by the realization that it wasn’t actually a blackbird. At that same moment, my 6 year-old son’s voice from the back seat: Holy crap! A TURKEY!

My wife told me the other day that Cam had confided in her that his vision, when it comes to certain animals in their natural habitat, is sharper than mine. His words: I see geese and ducks better than dad. And sometimes deer too. I know exactly where his estimation comes from.

We live in the Finger Lakes region in Upstate NY. Wildlife in our neck of the woods is enjoying a resurgence. Geese, duck, whitetail, pheasant, rabbit, red-tail hawk, coyote, beaver, heron, fox, squirrel. Bear are even starting to find the area hospitable. It’s a bitter-sweet resurgence though. I’m very excited that pheasant are back and that other game animals have healthy populations. But available hunting land is drying up, as are numbers of hunters in the field. Both are troubling from the standpoint of conservation. I saw a hell of a lot more deer dead on the side of the road this year, which, ironically, is also a hell of a lot more than I saw in the woods this year.

So, given the uptick in animal numbers, every car ride that involves a route even remotely close to the outskirts of our fair city includes wildlife-spotting, just like they did when I was a kid.

Deer
, I announce.
Looks like 4, no 5, no 7, reports Cam. No bucks though, dad?
Nope, looked like doe.

I hear geese, I state. Where are they at?
Got ’em, points Cam. Followed by a few make-shift honks into his closed hand, like he’s holding a call.

Recently, he’s taken to leading the spotting charge though. And he’s good. On a recent drive to my wife’s parent’s house, we were heading down our usual country road route when Cam says:

Geese.
Where? I ask, glancing both ways and up through the windshield.
Up ahead, over there.
Where?
He rolled down the window and pointed into the wind. It took me a few more seconds to figure the trajectory of his finger, but sure as shootin’…he had a string of 7 or 10 birds pegged just above the treeline about a mile away.

Good eye, bud. You got ’em.
His smile in my rear view mirror couldn’t have been any bigger.

But that turkey caught us all by surprise…as only the jarring juxtaposition of Main Street and a wild turkey can. And while I’d call it a draw on who actually saw it first, I’m sure the next time he mentions his ability to spot game, as compared to dad’s…his list will include that gobbler. Which is exactly how it should be.

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CHARACTER

I’ve been silently beating myself up a lot lately for being strict with my kids. Sometimes down-right hard-ass. I feel like I’m in a constant state of giving the evil-eye or saying use your head for something other than to put a hat on (which in turn draws the evil-eye from my wife). My struggle is between ensuring they have respect for others (and each other) and a voice telling me to lighten up, relax, let them be kids: Little lego-parts or several boardgames left out on the livingroom floor – no worries. Pushing each other into furniture, snowbanks or recycling bins on the porch – looks like fun. Leaving a prize in the toilet for whoever’s next in line – no biggie. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough for me. I get hung-up on the little stuff. And while I have theories, in the end I really don’t know why. Psychology is a bitch.

This past Monday, I had to work late and was subsequently late for my son’s wrestling practice – which I usually help coach. Still in my street-clothes, I pulled up a seat against the wall in the wrestling room with some other dads and watched Cam practice. He had no clue I was there. It’s been said that character is who you are when you think no one is looking. Well, I had a rare chance to see how my 6 year old handles himself thinking that dad wasn’t around.

When the coach blew his whistle, he listened. When the coach hollered “double-leg takedowns. Go!” he took his partner to the mat like the move was second nature. After he took him down, he extended his hand and helped him up. A dad sitting next to me hit my arm and said “you’ve got a good kid.”

Coach blew his whistle and started to get the kids lined up, smallest to biggest, for “wrestle-offs”–the two smallest kids wrestle to a take-down, the winner takes on the next in line and so on. Turning to go line up, Cam stopped and looked around, spotting me and my big grin. We exchanged thumbs up and I told him “you shoot first.” He turned and walked over to line up, standing taller than I think I’ve ever seen him. He was ready to roll.

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MOVING

We’re in a new house. Moved in on New Years Day in the middle of the coldest, snowiest winter week in Upstate NY so far this season. I’m not sure what we were thinking. But we’re in and settled and making it our own place nonetheless.

This morning the kids held me to my word that we’d drive by our old house on the way to the sitter (they catch the bus with her kids in the morning). As we pulled out of our driveway, the tune “Sing Along” by the Virginia Coalition came up on the iPod. Under normal circumstances, this song evokes a bit of nostalgia-like feelings. But as we turned onto our old street, slowing down to pass our old house–as I said “well kiddos, it’s still there,” looked in the rearview mirror and saw all three of them with their heads on each other’s shoulders– the song seemed a perfect and heartbreaking soundtrack to the sense of nostalgia we were all feeling.

While Cam was far too little, my daughter’s old enough to remember our place in Falls Church. She’ll bring up the cats we had or riding in the kayak with me on the lake, but she had no emotional tie to it. To her then-toddler-mind, the location was incidental, like furniture in a room, or a rainstorm. We were there, and then we were simply someplace else.

But this house was hers, and her brothers’ too. They built their blanket-and-box forts and pirate hide-outs in the backyard. Ran with their friends till they came begging, flushed cheeks and out of breath for “water, please.” Transformed their rooms into lego and lincoln log cities, musical stages and “no boys (or girls) allowed” space to be alone. Made s’mores over the firepit on summer evenings, helped grow veggies in the garden and water the flowerbeds. Filled the sidewalks with chalk drawings in the summer and dug tunnels and caves in the snowbanks I made from shoveling in the winter. Their growth was measured in over 4 years of pencil marks on the wall in the kitchen.

That house was theirs– they had put their childhood stake in the ground there. And while the new place is only the equivalent of three blocks away and I know they’ll make even more memories as they make it their own– it’s still a mighty tough stake to pull.

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THE DAHLONEGA PROJECTS

My wife and I lived in Virginia from ’00 to ’04 while I was in grad school for poetry. By ’03 we were already two kids heavier and I had started my second summer as a one-man freelance construction business to help make ends meet. I built decks, patios, pergolas and sheds – none of which I had experience doing before I landed my first job. Well, OK, I did have some experience. I helped my dad carry lumber for the deck he built on our house when I was in 7th grade. And I did have a decent collection of his power tools that I had borrowed and not returned. Like they say, you’re an expert till someone proves you otherwise. Yep.

I never planned on starting this business. One of my professors asked if I could help do some repairs on their deck. I said yes, and one total rebuild, one pergola, two field-stone patios, a retaining wall, a summer and half a fall later – I was a bona fide craftsman, or a certified nut…you make the call. All I know is that as a grad student and dad with a young family, I was grateful for the chance to make a good buck. But I was also grateful for fertile ground to dig into for my writing. Later that fall semester (just weeks after September 11th) I had an assignment come up in one of my classes that required writing in a formal structure. What follows is a collection of poems, specifically cinquains, that I titled “The Dahlonega Projects” after the name of the street my professor lived on. There’s a bunch, but they’re a fast read.

THE ESTIMATE

Paper-
work that explains
the cost of the mess that
I’ll make in back of their house this
summer.

BUYING MATERIALS

Only
dead-straight lumber,
galvanized nails and screws,
eighty pound bags of concrete and
patience.

BLUEPRINT

Each line
must be as clean
and straight as the finished
product, and the numbers had best
add up.

A CLEAN WORKSPACE

Scrap wood,
sawdust, tools, screws,
extension cords—all have
minds of their own by the end of
the day.

COFFEE

Nothing
begins before
I’ve made a pot and drank
my mind and muscles full-up like
Popeye.

SUN-UP

Before
the world wakes from
dream-silence into day,
from coffee to a hammer, stars
hang on.

LEAVING FOR WORK

My wife
blows a silent
kiss from the back door, while
the baby is still an hour from
waking.

LUNCH BREAK

Brown bag
lunches can’t be
beat, especially when
she’s packed a love note with the ham
and cheese.

AN ASIDE ON CONSTRUCTION WORK

The act
of creating
a structure from nothing
but imagination and will:
power.

WORKING IN THE HEAT

Let sweat
drip from my nose,
run stinging into my
eyes, make my hands slick and my throat
dry out.

MEASURING TO 1/16th OF AN INCH

The gap
left from being
off by 1/16th is
the drip from the pricey faucet,
at night.

RIGHT TOOLS

Without
power tools I
might as well be at a
buffet with no plate, silverware,
or cash.

WOOD GRAIN

The wood
will tell you what
side of the board should be
facing up. Read the directions:
cup down.

HALF UP-FRONT

The thing
about making
a deposit that size
is that the first withdrawal is much
bigger.

VIBRATION

My hands
feel like they’re in
gloves made out of millions
of ants more hell bent to finish
than me.

LOCATION

If dogs
live where you work,
expect the back yard to
be a war zone, fully armed with
landmines.

WINDS OF CHANGE

Owners
will think of more
and more things that they wish
done, usually at breakfast or
sun-down.

NAILS vs. SCREWS

Construct
a line with just
any words and you get
a line. Build with guts you’ll be a
poet.

THE COLOR OF LEAVES

They would
generally
go unnoticed if not
for the persistence of the birds
singing.

SEPTEMBER 10th 2001

Planes from
Baltimore and
National mixed engine song
with classic rock. I’d look up for
‘copters.

SEPTEMBER 18th 2001

My saw
ripped into live
coverage, broadcasting that
we should go on living. The sky
was dead.

EXPECT LITTLE COOPERATION

Making
a living by
the hour can be done
if the Sun God decides he likes
your work.

POST HOLES

Six holes
one foot, two feet,
three feet, four feet deep through
roots as thick as my forearm, all
by hand.

LAYING OUT THE PATTERN

Field stone
resists being
fit together like tight
puzzle pieces, likes to have room
to breathe.

80 POUND BAGS

With no
place to put them
close to where I needed
them, I climbed roughly two hundred-
ten flights.

CLEAR VERTICAL GRAIN

Cut from
the heart of old
growth cedar, the wood begs
meditation, vision and a
sharp blade.

WISTERIA

Thirty
years of growth that
was cut away in a
few hours was just a trim for the
old boy.

HARRY MOTIVATES THE HELP

I would
work in any
heat from dawn till dusk just
to hear him ask you want a beer,
brother?

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE PROJECTS

As long
as there is light
in the mind of a home-
owner who believes revising
is fun.

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SNOOZING GOOSE

I should start out by saying that my dad and I have not had good luck when it comes to hunting geese together. We’ve largely been relegated to the January bonus season since most good hunting fields aren’t cut by the early (September) season and we’re usually in our treestands after whitetail during the regular (November) season. Needless to say, by the time we’re clear of our other outdoor past-times to get out in January, the birds have been shot at in enough through the fall that the only way they’re going to come into our field is if we we’re in town having breakfast. But I suppose that luck doesn’t have to be defined by whether you actually knock down birds, as as much as it does having an entire morning to talk, enjoy coffee from a thermos and some nice pipe tobacco and discuss the estimated time of departure for the flock of over 200 geese that overnight on a lake not a quarter-mile to the west. As I get older, I’ve come to value the latter definition of luck as much, if not more than the first. Well, this season my dad and I were determined to get out when the birds were still dumb and plentiful. I had an additional good-luck charm that I was bringing out too: one of my boys.

My middle child, Cam (I call him Hammy) turned 6 this past summer. He’d been talking about goose and deer hunting for the last two years and at 6 was already a more accomplished fisherman than I was at 13. One example: Father’s Day 2008, not yet 5 years old, he sat for 4 hours in a canoe casting for bass. That little sucker caught 5. I mean legitimately…casting a crankbait on his own, hooking up on his own, lifting the fish into the boat on his own. These weren’t dinks either. 12″ – 15″ the lot. I unhooked them, but hell, at that point he’d done all the work and I was ready to buy him his own Ranger boat. So, having turned 6 and having concluded that I could probably learn a thing or two by including him in the field this season, I suited him up for a morning amongst decoys.

I woke him up at 4:30 a.m Thanksgiving morning. His first comment: I didn’t know there was a time on the clock this early. Brilliant. He was into his long-johns and camo faster than scat. While he enjoyed a breakfast bar and some juice, I checked weather.com for the morning’s forecast. Cold. Clear. Wind barely above 5mph out of the SW. Not good for getting the birds off the water, but good for a comfortable first-time-out for Hammy. Dad arrived, all smiles for our new pint-size bird-dog. We loaded our gear in the truck and hit the road.

I’m always surprised and proud at how well Cam operates in situations where I think he might struggle a bit. Last winter he wanted to join the pee-wee wrestling program (another thing dad did that he wanted to do). I thought he’d have a tough time actually mixing it up with the other boys, but I planned on helping coach, so we gave it a try. He’s back at it again this year and loves it. This morning was another one of those times. Goose hunting requires that you set up your spread at least an hour before daylight. There’s no light an hour before daylight. None (read my post – ELEMENTS – to see how well I’ve handled the dark during hunting season growing up). So we gave Hammy a head-lamp. He started carrying decoys into the field like he’d done it his entire life. Game on.

By 6:30 we were set up. Dad and I had our layout blinds concealed as well as we could in a cut soy field. Hammy’s cover was a magnum goose shell- which fit him much better than it fit me when I used it the year prior. At sun-up, we were a few whispy clouds shy of a blue-bird sky. By 7:30 we had a couple sets of birds check us out and keep flapping. Cam did well. He sat as still as he could and enjoyed his breakfast bars and juice boxes. At 9:30, the faint sound of snoring drifted out from under the plastic shell of the giant goose.

The snoozing goose

Sensing no impending rush of birds anxious to light in our field, dad and I decided to start packing up. No wind. Blue sky and bright sun. A snoozing goose. No sense pushing our luck.

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In memory

For my nephew, rest in peace kiddo…

STEPHEN JACK

Short days.
Bright leaves.
Summer daydreams
have run off—
like little boys
for pick-up football—
till we call.
They always come.

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Aleida

I just spent this past Sunday with my 7 year old daughter at a lacrosse tournament. She was playing with the 3rd and 4th grade girls team, invited because their numbers were thin and she’s tall (and quite coordinated) for her age – and I was asked to help coach. I worried a little that the age/skill difference (and the fact that she had never played a real game before) might make her shy/pensive/un-assertive. Quite the contrary. She had a ball, and I found myself uncharacteristically silent several times throughout the day, just watching her run, laugh, scowl and chase the fast-break, take a breather on the side-line with her goggles on her forehead and a Gatorade in hand. At those specific moments, had I tried to offer some sort of instruction or encouragement, I’m sure my voice would’ve cracked (that’s a no-no, by the way. No emotional stuff, dad.). I did holler though when she scored a goal, her first, and my voice cracked like puberty had made a comeback.

The last couple days I’ve been thinking about how far she’s come from the pudgy bundle we brought home that cool Virginia November almost 8 years ago. Throw in any number of Coldplay, Dave Matthews, Augustana, Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake tunes that happen to be playing on my iTunes and voila! I’m suddenly up to my eye-balls in nostalgia. We had Aleida while I was in grad school at George Mason for poetry. A good deal of my writing was about my every-day…trying to make connections between my past and my present. Having our first child made for a pretty deep pool of “writing matter.” Here’s a section from my master’s thesis (a book-length poem about fatherhood, fishing and the landscape(s) of America) that I just re-discovered, in which I talk about Aleida:

[34]

Most pools have been filled in with concrete to keep
kids from swimming. Suckers run in fractional numbers.
Land around the cemetery has been cleared. Wooded places,
have been cleared that used to feel as if, in being there,
your steps were the first. Dogs are not allowed.
Plots are allowed only two arrangements per—
tasteful, modest arrangements.

Dad took my daughter to look for suckers this spring.
In a small piece of slack-water above the fourth bridge
they found three fat lakers holding in the shade.
He lifted one toward my daughter, her eyes wide
& then wider, the fish working its mouth, waving its tail
back & forth. Not sure what to make of this creature,
she screamed when she touched it, laughed her child-laugh,
wiped her hands on her pants as dad returned the fish to the water.

Yep, connections between my past and my present. Fatherhood, much like fishing or poetry I’m realizing, is about paying attention to the small things…before those small things grow up and head into the current of their own life.

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