I got out of bed, pulled on my jeans and tee shirt, threw some water on my face, brushed my teeth, and headed downstairs to the kitchen where my mother, as usual, was drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette that hung off her lip, and working the NY Times crossword puzzle. It was a nice time for me and Ma, a little time when, once again, it was just the two of us like it was before the move to New York from Chicago, before Cathy was born, and before the cancer started.
Her crossword habit was unbroken and a source of amazement to the rest of the family because she was so good at it. She opened a well-worn Webster’s dictionary from time to time; it was next to her coffee and her ash tray. But to do the puzzle it only took her fifteen or twenty minutes during the week and a little longer on the weekends when the puzzle was more difficult. Sometimes she asked me for help on a topic I knew something about. If it had to do with snakes or natural history in general I could help but mostly I was at a loss. She would look over to me as I was working on a bowl of Cheerios and say, “eight letters for a venomous class of snakes.” I thought a minute, counting on my fingers and said, “pit viper.”
My knowledge of these kinds of things, especially reptiles and amphibians, was remarkable. Ma looked proud and said “Thanks boy.” Then she said, looking over at me through the smoke and over the steaming coffee cup, looked over at me with her strong clear blue grey eyes and said, “I have to go in on Wednesday and have another operation. They didn’t get all of it last time.” “I’m sorry Ma”, I said, which is all I could think to say. “It will be OK”, she said. “I just project past it, sort of leapfrog ahead in my mind. In a few weeks I will be playing golf again”.
I sat there a minute, put the cereal dish down in the sink, opened the basement door and descended the wooden steps down to the warm musty underneath of the house with its concrete floor and stone foundation, the pipes overhead covered in asbestos insulation, the furnace purring in the corner and, on the other side, the washing machine and drier. Across from the furnace I housed my collection of reptiles and the things they fed on, frogs and mice. I also had a pet skunk named Jimmy. Zoo keeping has its problems. Sometimes the snakes would not eat. I had an Indigo snake with a damaged tail brought from Florida by my parents. And he wouldn’t eat. I also had a box turtle I had sent away for and it came through the mail but only had three legs. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed and angry about all my crippled animals and my crippled family members. I made the rounds, feeding and cleaning where it was necessary, and picked up Jimmy who was a sincerely nice skunk as long as he was confined to the cage or the basement. But take him outside where he could smell the free air and the green grass and he became wild again and a hard-biting freedom-loving skunk! Once he was back cradled in my arms, he reverted again to the nice person he essentially was.
I was a little like that too. Around my own house I was a model of fine behavior out of respect for my mother and fear of my father. But outside the house I was a hunter. I hunted fun and mischief and what’s under girls’ skirts, and when I wasn’t in school or raising hell around the neighborhood or at my friends’ houses I was out in the woods with my sling shot or pellet gun stalking squirrels and rabbits and just about anything else that moved. My grandfather, Max, from North Dakota, was a big hunter so there was some precedent for my interests.
And so, after taking care of the animals, I put my slingshot in my pocket and broke down the pellet gun into two pieces which allowed the stock to go in one pocket and the barrel into the other. When I put on my jacket it was completely concealed. “So long, Ma” I said as I headed out the back door. “Be careful son,” she said and off I went. My usual hunting companions were not around so I recruited another kid I had recently gotten to know, another red head who lived a few blocks away and had no clue about hunting or snakes or things of that nature. But he was a good dude, nice personality, well behaved; the kind of kid I tried to be when I was around my own house. This boy, named Rory, was not doing much in particular when I passed by and called,” Come on Rory. Let’s take a walk and I will show you some new territory.” Rory had never spent any time with me outside of school. We had gone to separate elementary schools but now we were in seventh grade in the big high school. So today was a time for us to hang out and get to know each other. “OK Rick. Let me get my jacket and I’ll go with you.”
We headed down the suburban streets toward the south end of town where the Pelham Manor of Westchester County became Pelham Bay of the East Bronx, about a mile’s trip. Twelve year old legs can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. As we got down to the railroad tracks which took the commuter trains in and out of New York City, took my father every morning and Rory’s father too, the landscape began to change from suburban to rural.
The rural aspect did not come from farmland and old country villages; it came from two public golf courses nestled into this unusual corner of the Bronx between Pelham Manor and Long Island Sound and stretching over to Pelham Bay and City Island. The two golf courses, Pelham Bay and Split Rock, covered at least two or three hundred acres of land and had large swaths of forest and saltwater marshes where they bordered the Sound- a great variety of habitat. I knew every inch of it. This was a little remnant of an ecosystem that was one of the most bountiful and beautiful in the world before being overrun by people, their highways and parking lots.
Giant oaks, maples, sweet gum trees, and the long-plumed phragmites of the marshes still grew there undisturbed. Skunk cabbage, blackberries, mushrooms, and all kinds of flora flourished in large patches of woods bordering the fairways. Grey squirrels found a perfect haven in the oaks, making nests in the dead hollow places of the trees.
The hunting game required two hunters because a squirrel is very good at keeping the tree between you and him. Flattening out or hiding in a crook they can be hard to see if you have to go around looking for them. Or, they just keep going around the circle keeping the tree between you and them. Knowing that maneuver probably saved me a real bad experience with my father. A few years previously in a show of young machismo, I snuck up on him and dealt him a decent blow to his kidneys. All hell broke loose and in a flash I made it to the big round dining table and kept the table between him and me just like the squirrels until I worked around the circle and out the back door. Whew!
I trained Rory to take the sling shot and go around the tree to chase the squirrel to the other side where I waited with the single shot pellet gun. It was a pump up Benjamin and with seven pumps it was deadly on small game with a range of a couple of hundred feet.