Tuesday, May 13, 2014
We'd spotted them on our way home from ice cream, great bold blobs of white a half mile off the road, where the river cuts a gorge in a broad chunk of pasture. I turned the car around and circled back to look again, but all we could tell was that they were big and they were white and there were dozens of them maybe. It was dusk, and I wanted to believe that maybe the whole bunch was bedded down for the night.
Grandpa and grandma were hosting what our grandkids call "a sleepover," all three bedded down on the couches and floor upstairs, even though there's a perfectly good bedroom down. They wanted to be together, I guess, and, besides, who knows what kind of monster might be lurking a floor away from grandpa and grandma.
She'd told me the day before that she wanted to come along with me and shoot pictures at dawn on Saturday morning; but dawn comes terrifyingly early in May. So when the eastern sky began to glow--and it was a gorgeous dawn--I just let her sleep.
But she was the one who remembered those big white birds we'd seen on the river. "Let's go," she said when she woke up, and I was game. So the two of left. She's finally old enough to sit on the front seat of the Tracker. If she hadn't been, I would have broken the law.
Back we went, a couple miles south of town, following the snaking Floyd as best you can from the highway, back past the spot where we'd seen them at sundown the night before. But no one was there.
"Look," she said, and pointed to the sky. There they were, a posse of pelicans, not more than thirty feet up, wings stiff and solid as if they'd just decided on a runway and were preparing for landing. We followed 'em, and they did.
We pulled off the highway, tried to figure out the best way to get close, and settled on a low-maintenance road just east of where we'd seen them come down, on the river, in pasture land with grass so short the whole field wore a military haircut.
I turned off the engine. She said we needed permission to walk out there, but I told her no farmer was going to care if all we were sporting was a camera; and off we went, on the hunt. A couple hundred yards upwind, we tried our best to be stealthy and unseen, but a couple of white heads poked up above the bank just high enough to get an eye out east, and soon enough--long before we could get a really good picture--the whole bunch went up in a slow flurry. Pelicans are big birds.
That's them, up top. I'm no wildlife photographer, but when that cloud of white went up, it was something to behold and I was glad my granddaughter was seeing it.
"Can you shoot 'em?" she asked.
"Why would you want to?" I said.
"Be fun," she said.
She's 13 and she's got an air rifle we use for target practice out back of our house.
I shouldn't have been as stunned as I was at that moment. After all, I was just a little boy when I shot my first sputzie from between the rafters of my friend's barn on the night of a sleepover of my own a half-century ago. And I remember, even younger, coming along with a neighbor on a trapline and watching him push the barrel of his .22 down on the forehead of a opposum, still alive, in a trap set in a culvert, then watching that animal frantically try to paw the bullet out from his brain before finally heaving himself over and dying.
I remember those two moments of my boyhood more than a thousand others because they taught me something real and graphic about life and death and our hold on both of them, images I'll carry to my grave.
Later, on our way back home, we came up on a pair of Canadian geese and their ample store of goslings, and my granddaughter grabbed this shot, sweet as anything, don't you think?
"Can you shoot 'em, grandpa?" she asked me.
"Why would you want to?" I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
There are lessons in life you can't learn from a teacher or a grandpa. Like grace. You don't learn grace from the wisest preacher on earth. You learn grace only when it comes up and slaps you upside the head, only when you experience it first hand.
Like a lot of things. Take it from a man who taught kids his whole life: I wish it weren't so, but there's only so much you can learn in a classroom or on a Saturday morning.
Life would be so much easier if that weren't true. There are things she's going to have to learn on her own, by herself. So says this grandpa anyway.
Oh, yeah--here's another shot she took. Isn't it beautiful? Pardon my braying, but I'm a grandpa.
But then again, I'm only a grandpa.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:33 AM