— You’re my big, bald buddy-boo.–
(John-3 to Dad)
As I readied to leave for my Rabbit Lane walk, I noticed a pungent odor from the little boy that hugged my leg.
“I’ll change him,” Angie offered. “You go ahead.”
Little John (2) responded, “NO—Dadda,” and I felt the dubious honor of being chosen by my son for this special duty.
Two years later, Caleb (3) wandered around the kitchen whining and crying for no apparent cause. As I approached him to see what was the matter, a powerful aroma quickly revealed the cause of his complaining: he needed a diaper change. I retrieved a diaper from the linen closet. Holding the diaper flat on one palm, I placed the other palm on top, and moved the diaper folds up and down like a set of jaws.
“I’m going to bite your bum!” I said with a mad scientist laugh.
Caleb froze for a moment, then began to squeal in mixed delight and anxiety, running in circles in the kitchen, holding his buttocks with protecting hands as I chased him slowly enough to not quite catch him.
With seven children, my wife and I changed diapers through at least 15 of the prime years of our lives. In my evening house wanderings, I often found neatly folded but soiled diapers on banisters, stair cases, and countertops, waiting expectantly to be conveyed to a more appropriate final resting place. Having addressed the immediate need to replace a dirty diaper with a clean one, Angie sometimes quickly moved on to other demands without discarding the soiled diapers in the outside trash. Those diapers that weren’t immediately apparent to my sight revealed themselves to my nose rather forcefully, sometimes after a day or two, as I walked by their hiding places. Sometimes the hiding place was the kitchen garbage can. One garbage-day morning before leaving the house to walk, I lifted the bag out of its can intent on taking it to the curbside can before the garbage truck came. Bending over the bag, I inhaled deeply as I gathered up the bag’s loose plastic to better tie the top. Up from the bag’s bowls came a malicious odor that elicited a regurgitating gag. As I took what was supposed to be a replenishing breath, the foul vapors spewed into my unsuspecting face and followed my nasal passages deep into my lungs. My stomach turned all the way to Witch’s Tree. I have never repeated that mistake. Instead, I take a deep breath and hold it while I complete the whole process of removing, twisting, and tying the bag. Thereafter, I forbade anyone to throw a dirty diaper into an inside garbage can. I held my breath just the same, in case of accident, disobedience, or treachery, and from memory-induced self-protection.
We have no more diapers to change, for now. Someday our children will bring their children . . .
* * *
The city animal control officer knew that I raised chickens and other birds from chicks that I purchased at the local feed store. She called me at the office one day and offered me two very young pigeon chicks that a resident had discovered on the ground hear her house. I was happy to say yes, and scrounged up an empty box from the basement of city hall. When she brought them to my office, I was shocked at their appearance. The chicks were, frankly, very ugly. Their feathers more closely resembled porcupine quills, sticking out from wrinkly, gray skin. Their heads were too large for their bodies, and boasted large bony knobs beside their beaks beneath their eyes.
Still, I pitied the ugly pigeon-lings, doomed to death without human intervention, and took them home to nurse. I shaped a small bowl in the straw in a vacant pen, and placed them in it, under a heat lamp. They bobbled their too-big heads and stumbled clumsily in the straw pecking at mashed grains. The pheasant chicks in the adjoining pen, by contrast, were petite and well-proportioned, each displaying a full dress of downy striped feathers. Half the size of the pigeon chicks, the pheasant chicks chased each other athletically around their pen, peeping happily.
As the pigeon chicks grew, their spines sprouted gray and white feathers, some with a metallic green and blue sheen. The knobby protrusions receded as their beaks lengthened and their bald skulls sprouted soft head feathers. In two months time, the ugly chicks had grown into dignified birds. When they fledged and began to fly around the pen, I removed the wire mesh from their window and allowed them to leave the coop. The now-adult pigeons flew in graceful circles around the house and garden with crisp, muscled wing beats. They seemed joyful in the knowledge of their new ability, coupled with their new freedom.
Though pigeons are capable of strong flight, the two birds spent much of their time mingling with the ranging hens, pecking at specks of seed on the garden ground. Still, every day they flew up from the hens and circled the yards, as fast and powerful as falcons. One hot day a flock of wild pigeons descended upon the fields to feed upon wild weed-seed. Moving on to graze elsewhere, the flock coaxed my pigeons to join, and they all flew away together. I missed my two pigeons when they were gone. But I took pleasure in knowing that I had raised them from chicks, watching them grow from their ugly-duckling stage until they were fully fledged fliers.
Growing up in New Jersey and often visiting the Big Apple of New York, I had come to perceive pigeons as junk birds that polluted bridge bellies and building cornices by the millions, soiling sidewalks and crowding plazas, swarming like mosquitoes, taking aim at unsuspecting pedestrians from marquee-top perches. My opinion of pigeons softened on the public plazas of Lisbon, where Brian (2) fed and chased thousands of tame pigeons, some of which would perch on his head and eat out of his hand. Now, my two little pigeons had shown me a more exalted view of the species. I have come to admire pigeons as strong fliers and survivors of harsh urban environments, purring with confidence from their perches, their feather patterns as unique and beautiful as sparkling snowflakes.
* * *
Walking on Rabbit Lane one evening after dinner, Caleb (5) said to me: “Dad, you’ll know this because you’re an attorney.”
I sucked in some air and prepared to give an intelligent answer to a boy with high expectations of his father. His question caught me completely off guard.
“Dad,” he said, after an ominous pause. “How do airplanes fly?”
Caleb believed that I, his father, was an intelligent, informed man, and apparently assumed that this was because I was an attorney. In fact, the sweet boy thought his dad knew everything. My legal training and law practice, however, did nothing to prepare me for this question. Luckily I knew the rudiments of aerodynamics and explained to him how the shape of a wing in motion causes the air coursing over the curved part of the wing to travel at a different speed than the air passing under the wing. These different air velocities cause a higher pressure to exist under the wing, creating a condition called lift. The higher pressure pushes up on the wing. With fast enough speeds, the lift is sufficient to raise the plane into the air despite its enormous weight.
Caleb did his best to take in this explanation, nodding seriously with his new knowledge. I believe he was convinced that there was no question his dad could not answer. I was glad he didn’t ask me anything difficult, such as, “What do I do if I’m bullied at the playground?” or “What is pornography?” or “What can I do to be happy?” Actually, though, these questions are much more important than “How does an airplane fly?” and I need to be ready to intelligently discuss these and other life questions with my children when they are ready to ask them, as they work to navigate life’s pathways.
* * *
There came a time when we moved John (4) into Brian’s (12) bedroom, where they shared a bunk bed. John felt proud to have part ownership in his big brother’s room. One evening I heard John calling repeatedly for Brian.
“Brian, Brian, Brian, Brian”—over and over.
Finally, I called, with some irritation, “Brian, will you please answer your brother!”
So, Brian called, “What?” with some irritation of his own.
John answered, “Don’t come into my room—I’m changing.”
I rolled my eyes with exasperation. It had taken longer for John to get Brian’s attention about changing his clothes than to just change his clothes. Of course, the situation wasn’t about changing his clothes so much as it was about asserting himself in his new surroundings. A few years later, I overheard an older John (10) say to his little brother, Caleb (8), at bedtime, “I’m going to tell you a story.”
* * *
Two types of doves grace Erda, the native Mourning Dove and the imported Eurasian Collared Dove. Upon taking flight, the Eurasian Dove spreads its tail feathers into a broad fan. The Mourning Dove’s tail forms the iconic “dove tail” where the feathers begin to spread wide, then curve back in upon themselves to form a rounded diamond shape. The Eurasian sports a black collar around its neck. The Mourning Dove softly calls, a sad, haunting sound, while the Eurasian utters a harsh sneer that often startles. During hunting season, the Eurasian is fair game: kill all you can kill. To take the Mourning Dove, however, the hunter must have a state permit. Then he can kill all he can kill. To me, both are beautiful. In the dawn of misty mornings, the Mourning Dove coos softly, sounding so very sad, its cry floating low over the ground with the mist.
* * *
The doves occasionally pecked at the seeds in the flat-dish bird feeder, but most often pecked in the grass, cleaning up seeds spewed by finicky House Sparrows. Watching, fascinated, from the living room, Hyrum (7) determined to catch his very own dove. He schemed and planned and consulted. Having made his plans, he placed a large shoebox up-side-down on the grass, propped up one end with a stick, and spread seed under and around the box. It took several days, but the doves finally began to peck at the seeds despite the presence of the raised box. Seeing that the doves would eat even inside his trap, Hyrum tied a kite string to the prop stick and ran the string across the grass, over the porch, and through a small hole in a living room window screen. Kneeling on the couch, he waited and waited, watching for just the right moment. As a dove finally stepped beneath the box to peck at seeds, Hyrum pulled the string and dropped the box on top of his prey.
“I caught one! I caught one!” he cried with delight, slamming the front door behind him as he ran to the box, the rest of the family close behind.
Reaching a hand under the box, Hyrum carefully grasped the dove and pulled it out of the trap. I helped him cradle the dove gently so as not to hurt its wings or legs. Hyrum held the bird proudly, a huge gap-tooth smile on his face. I watched Hyrum watch his bird, and saw the boy’s look slowly change from one of triumph to one of awe at the soft beauty of the bird. After proudly showing his prize to all of his siblings, he opened his hands to release his catch. The dove’s wings whirred as it rose into the air, brushing past Hyrum’s face.
* * *
I sat next to Brian (12) on his bed one night. Without talking, we gazed westward out his window, watching the alternating white and green flashes of the airport lighthouse.
After several minutes of silence, I asked sincerely, “How ya’ doin’ son?”
“I’m alright,” he said.
“Are your friends treating you good?” I inquired.
“Are they asking you to smoke, or drink, or do drugs, or look at porn?” I asked.
“Good,” I said, “because real, true friends wouldn’t push you to do things you don’t want to do.”
He did not respond. I could sense a touch of sadness in his brief responses, as if maybe he had some friends that weren’t true. Maybe he felt that he had no real friends. But he didn’t volunteer, and I didn’t pry. Instead, I put my arm around his slender shoulders and he snuggled into my side, each of us looking silently out the window into the night.
* * *
In the dark evening after work and dinner, I carried a flashlight to the chicken coop to gather the eggs. Reaching into a nesting box in the dim light of the coop, I was startled to notice in the box a small, furry, gray face, with tiny, black beads for eyes. It sat unalarmed under the beam of light, probably unable to see me for the glare. It turned its head to show me its profile, and its pointed nose resembled a short bird’s beak. The mouse seemed to have transformed into a little mouse-bird.
* * *
Caleb (5) had been struggling. Thinking it might help, I invited him to go for an evening walk with me. Just the two of us. He responded enthusiastically. I asked him where he would like to walk.
“Rabbit Lane,” he said matter-of-factly, as if there were no other place to walk.
John (7) wanted to go, too, but I told him that this walk was just for Caleb and me. Hyrum (2) begged to go, also, and received the same answer.
Caleb looked up into my face and asked, “Am I in charge of the walk?”
“You bet!” I answered.
Then Caleb spoke to his little brother, “Hyrum, you can come on my walk if you want to.”
Caleb’s generosity of heart touched me. Sharing candy or toys is hard enough, but to share his time alone with dad was downright magnanimous. He quickly found that inviting Hyrum to share his walk gave him power over the situation, not to mention the good feelings that come from living generously. Had I invited Hyrum, or encouraged Caleb to invite Hyrum, I would have taken away Caleb’s power and may have led to resentment.
With his new awareness, Caleb then invited John to go, too.
“That’s fine,” I explained, bolstering Caleb’s empowering invitations. “But I need everyone to understand that Caleb is still in charge of this walk.”
And out the door we went.
* * *
Harvey had told me about the “Easter Egg” chickens that lay pastel blue and green eggs. It was hard for me to believe him, but I couldn’t think of why the old man would lie to me.
“The real name of the breed is Araucana,” he told me.
I took the children to the feed store where we looked in the catalogue at pictures of the many breeds. Sure enough, the Araucana breed was pictured there. I still wondered about the eggs. We decided to give it a try, and ordered one rooster and several hens. Eight months or so after we brought the chicks home, the fully-grown hens began laying eggs. Not white. Not brown. But pastel blues and greens of many hues! We gathered and fondled the eggs carefully, gawking. Even holding the marvels, it was difficult to believe that the eggs had naturally come that way. Seeing our first success in the egg effort, Harvey joked with me, “You don’t even need to dye them at Easter time; they come pre-dyed!”
The male Araucana chick we bought grew into an enormous rooster, twice the bulk of the hens, with long, curved tail feathers colored dark brown, black, and red, contrasting with the rest of the light-colored bird. As the hens were taking naturally to laying and brooding, the Araucana rooster began to show aggression towards nearly every moving creature, regardless of species or size. He began to charge at me, each time backing off, but becoming more and more bold with the passing days. He soon charged me so close that I put a boot hard in his breast. He seemed to fly backwards at the impact, with nearly six-foot wings flapping and voice box squawking alarm. Upon landing, he came right back at me, unphased. The children named the rooster Hitmonle, after the evil cartoon character.
One afternoon, Caleb, only 18 months old, came toddling into the garden with a wide smile as he approached his dad. I thought of the threat too late. Before I could act to prevent the attack, Hitmonle charged Caleb, propelling himself in the air with wings spread and claws bared, the long, deadly spurs flinging forward like quarrels from a crossbow. The flying fury struck the stocky toddler in the face, knocking him to the ground. I moved quickly to prevent another attack, and found that one three-inch spur had punctured the skin only a millimeter from Caleb’s eye. That moment decided Hitmonle’s fate. He clearly had no place at my home with my family. I carried Caleb crying into the house. Armored with leather gloves and long sleeves, and wielding an ax, I cornered the monster, pinning him against the chicken coop wall. With both feet clamped in one hand, and the wings clamped under my arm, I laid his neck on a board and hacked off his ornery head with the ax. I have never raised another rooster.
* * *
Caleb, almost five, became indignant with me for parking my truck in his bicycle parking spot in the garage.
Hyrum, almost two, came to me with a piece of white paper on which he had drawn random swirls and loops and circles. His free hand had circled round and round, as if chasing his toddler thoughts. He pronounced, “I drew a poem for you, Dad.”
* * *
I worked with John one Saturday teaching him to fix broken and bent hoses with connectors and new ends.
“I’m a good worker, huh Dad?” he said to me.
I saw his question as an expression of his young hopes: a hope that he is good enough; a hope that his dad thinks he is good enough; a hope that he has value and that his dad will validate his value. I don’t do it often enough.
* * *
I carved a walking staff from two-by-two pine lumber. It stands seven feet tall, rounded on the top, with a screw and washer in the bottom to keep it from splitting and curling with heavy use. Rubbing in mineral oil gave it a rich but humble shine. It makes a straight, stout, smooth staff. A leather patch glued and tacked to the staff forms the grip. I tied waxed cotton string every inch of the top one-foot, leaving tiny loops, then wrapped the same top one-foot with strips of various colored leathers, gluing and tacking the ends with decorative upholstery tacks.
The tiny loops were for feathers. Harvey showed me how to attach feathers to the staff through the loops, as the Indians do. Holding a banded pheasant feather with the quill pointed inward, I drew my sharp knife toward me, carefully slicing away the top half of the unfeathered portion of the hollow quill. I slipped the cut end through one of the tiny loops and folded the end over itself, thrusting the cut quill end into the hollow, round, uncut portion of the quill. I added a dab of glue for strength. In this manner, I attached the bright orange feather of a Red-shafted Northern Flicker, the blue-black feather of a Stellar’s Jay, the white-dot-on-black feather of a Downy Woodpecker, a light- and dark-banded tail feather of a Ring-necked Pheasant, a long iridescent tail feather of the departed Hitmonle, and the black Osprey feather I found on the rocky shore of a high mountain lake. I tell everyone this last feather came from a wild turkey; maybe it did.
I sometimes carry the staff on Rabbit Lane, even though the road is level-flat, just because I made it, and I like it. I like the feel of the stick striking the ground to give strength and stability to my legs and feet. I like the grip of the leather patch in my hand, and the swing of the weighty staff. I stop to hold the staff up for the morning breeze to catch the feathers fluttering loosely like small kites or ship sails, to speak to the spirits that soar, and to express my wish for my own spirit’s flight.