Friday, December 23, 2011

The Goblins of Christmas Present

            I am caught between two times.  I have left behind, long ago, the age of innocence, where Santa and reindeer brought happiness and magic.  I have not yet attained the ripened age of wisdom, where the joys of life are grandkids and reminiscing.  I am caught in the middle, where life meets work meets responsibility.  I like it like that and am more than happy to meet the challenges of each new day.  After all, that's what I am supposed to do. I'm a man, an adult, and a father.  But Christmas brings with it new challenges.  I am now also Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius (and my kids believe I have a good deal of Burger Meister in me as well).
           I am Frosty.  To two children there is nothing more magical on Christmas then some snow.  I must find that snow around the holiday.  I must somehow talk Mom into allowing those children to play in that snow.  Even if that snow is just a coating, and playing in it means more mud sliding than sledding.  It is my obligation to fight with the more sensible spouse in order for the children to decimate the lawn and ruin a "perfectly good" pair of jeans.  And sometimes, there is enough magic left in my old hat to find enough snow and a big enough sled for the entire family to have at least one good laugh.
            I am Rudolph.  No matter what the hour.  No matter what the conditions.  No matter what the traffic.  I must find a way to get us to our farm for Christmas.  We will brave the crowded highway.  We will brave the blowing snow.  We will brave the dark of night.  I will drive relentlessly over the river and through the woods.  I will get us there, all while the rest of the family snuggle into their heated blankets and comfy travel pillows and sleep the journey away.  They will awaken fresh and ready for the festivities (and sledding) with a groggy, "I can't believe we're here already.  Did you take a shortcut?"
            I am Yukon Cornelius.  I am the steadfast, burly explorer that needs to take on the Abominable Snowbeast.  I must tackle with fervor all the hurdles the holiday throws at us.  The gifts ordered weeks ago that never seemed to arrive.  The groceries that need to be procured through the enraged throngs.  The selfish siblings that try to steal the Christmas spirit with self-centered nonsense and no concern for the sadness they spread.  The true challenges that do not rear their ugly heads until we somehow reach adulthood must be met head on, and somehow brought to a happy conclusion.
            I am Santa.  The jolly old soul that spreads cheer everywhere he goes no matter the circumstance.  Without thought for bills or money or consequence, I must ensure the tree is surrounded and laid thick with wrapped boxes of very special things.  I must wear a smile and a twinkle in the eye. I am the magical guy in the red suit that sneaks in at night to fill the stockings and eat the reindeer food (and maybe sneak in some milk and cookies).
            I am Burger Meister.  In the end, I must play my favorite role of the grumpy old man who outlaws the toys.  The kids love the dad that grumbles all day about the mess and the toys all about.  I must be the burly curmudgeon that stomps through the house bah humbugging the season.  The performance is easy as I wait until all the gifts have been opened and then, with wrapping paper and boxes thrown all around the tree, the kids remember the stuff all the way in the back.  My grumpy heart melts at the wealth of school-made and homemade presents, at my socks and underwear wrapped in candy cane paper, at all the love our family has to give.
            I am all these things and one more, content.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good holiday.
God bless us, everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

            With the holiday bearing down on us like a wintry blizzard, my thoughts drift to so many present-surrounded Christmas trees of days gone by.  They haunt me.  The decorations, the smell of the homemade cookies filling the house, tins filled with sugary goodness stacked high throughout the house, sweet music floating in from the living room, and March of the Wooden Soldiers silently flickering in the corner.  The days prior were consumed by boxes from the attic brimming with collectible ornaments and trinkets made in different grades through school filling the space around the tree, waiting to be unpacked for another Christmas.
            I am overflowing with memories triggered by the smell of pine and baking cookies.  Some are of Army men under the tree or my first racetrack buzzing around wrapping paper on Christmas morning.  Others are of bouncing on Mom and Dad's bed as they pretended to sleep and the sprint to the Tree.  Memories of my uncle, withered by cancer, opening his presents on his final Christmas weigh heavy while my daughters' first holidays lighten my spirit.  My oldest found the box her first teddy bear came in to be the best toy anyone could ever make.  The food seemed to never end and relatives visited late into the night.  Many of those Christmases were snow-covered events with all the joy those flakes bring to young hearts.
            Of course, these vision are seen through the tinted glasses of childhood, where everyone is happy, the mood perfect and each present thoughtfully chosen.  There was no such thing as work or responsibility.  The presents somehow merely appeared and weren't saved for all year or bought with overtime money that had been squirreled away.  Each and every visitor stopped by the house to spread cheer and not out of feelings of obligation.  Dysfunctional was a good thing back then and the tinted glasses kept the holiday grand.
            With the blizzard of Christmas quickly coming, I prefer to don those childhood-tinted spectacles and keep the Christmas spirit.  Everything seems to sparkle.  I welcome the wintry weather.  The overtime doesn't seem to be that bad.  And the memories were worth the journey.  They haunt me and I do not mind...especially the smell of baking cookies.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Little Red Tractor

            The local Girl Scouts recently asked me to help them with building a float for the town-wide holiday parade and tree lighting ceremony.  Seeing as both of my daughters are scouts and my wife has not only been a volunteer helper for several years but is now making her rookie appearance as a troop leader, it was difficult to turn down such an "opportunity".  They had planned for months to get their hands on a decent size trailer to cover in Christmas lights, center a tree, lay out wrapped gifts, and top off with an inflatable snowman.  One sticking point for the float was the means of towing it in the parade.  They did not want a simple car or truck pulling their creativity down the street.  The girls wanted something a little more memorable.  And so, my three girls decided to offer an antique tractor from our farm to pull their float.  It would keep with their 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts celebration as it is an old piece of Americana.  But it needed to be transported from our farm down to the city and it needed a driver.
            To say the least, I was not entirely happy about borrowing the truck and trailer for transporting the old tractor from work and making the late night trek through the mountains for three hours after work.  I did not look forward to arriving at the farm at dawn to load up the old iron and head back to the city with my heavy cargo and little sleep.  I especially did not want to attempt to find a parking spot on my crowded street and fight to get an old farm tractor off the trailer among all the tightly parked cars.  The whole ordeal seemed rushed under the time constraints and left little sleep for the delivery person, me. 
            With the tractor delivered and hooked up to the float, which was wonderfully done by the scouts, the final step needed attention.  The scouts wanted their float to be pulled by Santa.  I had never played Santa before and my daughters actually wanted their Grandpa to fill in, due to his extensive experience with the role.  Their concerns were not quite satisfied with Grandpa's lessons on being Santa over the previous weeks.  They quizzed me on Ho,Ho,Ho's and proper Santa laughs and waves.  The scouts wanted a traditional suited jolly fellow but some how the suit was misplaced.  I wasn't especially keen on parade route waving and jelly-bowl-jiggling laughter, especially on minimal sleep.  But I stuffed my overalls with a Santa belly, donned my snow-white beard, fitted my Elmer Fudd rabbit-fur hat, and presented Farmer Santa for the tractor-pulled, 100 anniversary Girl Scout holiday float.  Grandpa's stern warning of the importance of playing Santa weighed heavily upon my shoulders.
            The tractor rumbled to life and the float lurched forward, blaring Christmas music.  The old, dim headlights seemed brighter than usual.  The Christmas lights behind the tractor had more sparkle than usual.  The float was well received by the community and all the scouts that hadn't had a chance to view the completed project.  We rolled along the parade route at a snail's pace, the Girl Scouts walking behind their float waving and glowing.  And somewhere along that route the magic of the season swirled.  In the crowd along the sidewalks, kids yelled out for Santa, grown-ups waved, and the older folks nodded their approval with a twinkle in their eyes.  Most had never seen an old tractor up close, and Santa was up the in the seat.  I waved without thinking, smiling behind the beard and the ho,ho,ho's seemed to flow out.  It was easy to have a glow about you with so many people smiling and waving and looking on with a little amazement at the whole scene
            At the end of the parade route, by the town Christmas tree, the crowd closed in around the girls and I parked the float in its designated spot.  People flocked to it, asking for pictures with Santa and a chance to climb aboard the old red tractor.  Christmas cards were created, the girls took turns taking pictures in front of their creation, and I was far from tired.  I was given the greatest Christmas present ever.  I was given the chance to bring smiles to so many people, most I didn't even know.  I was given a chance to be Santa.  Folks are still talking about Santa and the old red tractor from two weeks ago, happy at the memory.  And I am thankful for the opportunity and the Girl Scouts for allowing me to have it.  Merry Christmas from Farmer Santa.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Success Through Failure

            Welcome back.  Hunting season has drawn quietly to a close.  This season was the first of hopefully many that was not focused mainly on the pursuit of game but my children's hunting experiences.  My wife also made her return to the woods after a few years off, staying in the house and/or cabin to tend to cooking chores and the children.  The kids were usually good for only a short while out in the woods and so my wife kept the fireplace, and hot chocolate, warm awaiting their early returns.  This year saw the beginning of the next generation of hunters in our family spread their wings and join us in the hunt.  And so, these past few days were dedicated more to their experience outdoors and the time spent with parents and grandparents without distraction than to actual hunting.  I, along with others, passed on some opportunities to harvest an animal in exchange for my kids being able to see those same animals.  Their beaming faces and the excitement of the moment, of being in such close proximity to the wild, was satisfaction enough for a lifetime.
            However, in the failure to harvest a deer, success grew.  My kids tried harder each day to see the deer sooner and sooner.  They began to try to anticipate from where the animals would come or at what time.  They tried to put the lessons they learned just the day before to use.  They were never discouraged by the lack of success and merely tried harder the next day.  They looked forward to trying harder, to improving, to persisting.  They were not discouraged.  They were determined.
            In the last few days, my children taught me plenty.  They taught me several lessons from my childhood that I had forgotten, and thinking about it now, probably most of us have forgotten.  They taught me to stay focused and determined, to not give in.  They sure didn't.  They also taught me the joy of discovery, as they happily went about the task at hand or sat patiently listening.  Everything to them was new and exciting.  My kids did not worry about the day ending or problems at work.  They did not spend their day before it even started.  They were just happy to spend time and to be doing something together.  And when that something turned into nothing, they simply shrugged, tried to figure out what could have been done differently, and looked forward to trying again tomorrow.  Life had returned to being simple.
            And that is exactly what I hope to continue to do, return to being simple.  To take each day for what it is and try harder tomorrow.  To not worry about the things I can not control, but figure out the things I can.  To not waste the time I have on days that have not arrived yet.  Being simple.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Seasonal Friends

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part V)

           For a short time, our hunting party grew and there were several seasons that saw an eight person "hunt".  We hunted with Danny (the wanna-be cop who eventually became one) and Chester (the twin), Drew (the chain-smoker who tried), Tony (the fishman that wanted to hunt), Steve M. (the old truck driver), all friends and quirky.  Danny would carry so much ammo that he sank in the marsh and couldn't get out.  Drew would shoot anything, usually at close range, and leave only feathers, and shoot the feathers again for good measure.  Tony was easily distracted and would work the field edges of the line until he wandered off only to be seen again for lunch.  And lunch was Steve's nap time until we headed home.  Chester liked to four-wheel the trails but didn't like the leaves touching his Jeep. 
            The years were good and the seasons near comical.  A bird a piece was a good take and I cleaned them all.  (This was a chore of much distress for the "hunters".)  Those were good years.  They started in the early '90's.  Pheasant season was the time of year my brother, Jason, and I actually saw eye to eye.  We had many close moments in the woods during that time, hiking, hunting, and just talking.  We spent so many weekends hunting back then that the rest of our friends, the "hunters", all applied for their hunter education cards.  They all went together and happiness ensued.
            By 1995, my parents had bought 50+ acres in Laurens, NY, right between Cooperstown and Oneonta.  A raw piece of land for hunting in rural NY.  It was shotgun country on top of a hill that swept into a valley.  My parents and I both bought our first ATV's to explore this paradise.  We bought wall tents and expedition tents, and spent every chance we could four hours from the city.  Deer came back into the picture and they were here to stay.  Laurens, NY became Stress Mountain and that became Deer Camp.

            Thank you for following along in my early exploits as a young hunter.  I thought it appropriate to share some stories during this time of year.  The story continues but for now it is time to be in the woods.  This blog has been interrupted for the end of hunting season.  When it returns so will thoughts on the "real" world and the woods will be left behind for now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Growing Up

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part IV)

             There were a good number of years lost between those early days and my next turn as a hunter.  I forfeited alot of time afield to pursue school and sports and, to a lesser degree, girls.  I foolishly let time slip by without making time to be in the woods.  As a family, we still camped occasionally, until my parents bought a house in the Poconos.  We water skied and casually fished but hunting was on the sideline.
            In 1990, with the end of high school near, and my eighteenth birthday come, gone, and behind me, I started my walk in the woods anew.  I applied for and obtained my firearms purchase permit.  I bought, with money saved from several jobs I held, a Ruger 10/22 and a Mossberg 500 combo shotgun, both for $199 each.  I let out on my own with a tent and a packed car and toured the campgrounds of New England.  And, most importantly, I didn't go deer hunting.  Instead, my brother and I chased pheasants.  The season was longer and the action faster, and the access better.  I was outside again and hunting.
            Small game season was something to plan for, pack for.  I set up a hunting box for my gear, collected maps of management areas, and began driving all over NJ in search of hunting grounds.  I drew maps, took pictures, and hiked miles, looking for spots to hunt.  The search for places to hunt small game became a safari in itself.  Finding and mapping a new spot was almost more important than finding animals to hunt.  Fishing and camping helped find new spots, as most of my public fishing spots were also on gamelands.  And so I became a fisherman by way of hunting.
            In that return to hunting, the group was small, my father, brother and I.  We hunted pheasant along the Delaware River from the Gap to Milford, PA.  A tangled mess of briars broken occasionally by a cornfield.  The strip of WMA's was along the Old Mine Road, a sort of forgotten road back in time with only one lane and dozens of dirt tracks spewing off of it, leading deeper into the woods.  The bird hunting was okay in those years but it came with a price.  The parking lots were crowded, as were the primary fields, the ones the stocking trucks could easily navigate.  Many of the hunters were yahoos with itchy trigger fingers and untrained house dogs.  The horror stories are many but easily overlooked.  Some were quite memorable, however.  The hunter that beat his dog senseless for not coming to heel and wanting to hunt with our lab instead.  The hunters that left their beagle in the parking lot because he wouldn't run rabbit.  The near brawl in the field with the two men that shot at us through a thicket at a hiding bird and then sent their dog to fetch the downed bird  after it flushed  and we shot it.  There was the guy who shot the perched bird out of the tree, ten feet above us and our parked trucks, fifteen minutes before opening day.  And the numerous pellet showers we took during water breaks in the middle of the fields.  The stories go for a long while but they bring smiles now and no regret or anger.  For in those same fields, I have seen the "elusive" New Jersey black bear, cuddly as ever.  I have watched eagles soar above the Delaware and have laughed with friends.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Through the Early Years

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part III)

          I still carry those licenses from the first couple of years.  I hold them every once in a while and cherish them.  They are pristine, almost, not filled, no tags torn off.  I only hunted deer back then, and the seasons and management were much different than today.  The deer did not seem as abundant nor as willing to be seen as they do today, especially in NJ.  There was only a doe "day" and a week long buck season.  Between work and school, archery season did not count, Dad fit ducks and pheasants in between work shifts, of which there were many.  That left that one week for deer camp.  Schools in NJ (and in the shadow of NYC) frowned upon hunting and there were no sick days or school closings allotted for hunting.  I realize there are still mythical places where family traditions and hunting rites live on and are accepted even by the local board of education as viable, important tools in the growth of a community and it's children.  Where I came from, and the timeframe I grew up in, that simply is not the case.  (Perhaps it is a contributing factor to our current social situations?)  And so a week a year it is, with school and work, at best two weekends and maybe a day during the week.
            Our deer camp was a small "farm" in northern Jersey that backed up against some public land.  My father worked with the old man and, as with most deer camps, traded some chores around the homestead for permission to hunt.  During the year we would periodically stop in and check on the old farmer and his wife (Ann & George) and lend a hand with any chores that needed to be done.  He had a single calf and a flock of chickens.  His garden was huge with an additional cornfield.  The occasional bear would visit and come knocking on the kitchen door.  This little farm was the base of operations for more than one urban hunter and we spent more than one night sharing the living room floor with several hunters. 
            There was a Christmas party and a couple of unforgettable Fourth of July picnics where one of the other hunters (I believe his name was Cliff) brought a truckload of Macy's-quality fireworks.  We dug holes in the ground for the spectacular mortar shells and were awed by the massive shower of sparks that followed that evening.  The early '80's  (1982, 1983, 1984) were a magical, romantic time for me and my early hunting life.  Nothing could replace the memories of that little place - the picnics, the living room floor, the seeming feeling of camaraderie.
            During those early years, the hunting wasn't all that successful but it matter not at all to me.  I spent alot of those seasons shivering on a rock or tree stump listening for deer.  My father would make circles around me trying to drive the deer toward me.  Often I would fall asleep from the boredom and silence, or I would play air guitar with the butt stock of my shotgun, or simply daydream.  A couple hours would go by but it always ended the same, with my dad saying, "Did you see the deer go by?"
            I only half-believed then and I still only half-believe now.  The real truth was he tried to keep my interest even though we had not seen anything.  He'll never admit it but his laugh and smile give it away.  The amount of deer, or other wildlife, we saw back then was never important to me and the fact I drifted off to sleep was nothing.  The importance was in the early mornings before the sun rose, bumping along in the old Chevy on our way to the woods.  It was the time spent with my dad and his hunting buddies, being let into the secret club.  It was the feel of that old side-by-side 16 gauge.  Nowadays, it is just plain illegal and improper to allow a 10-year-old to sit alone in the woods with a gun, but back then, to me, it was pure magic and a solid foundation for the future.