He grew-up in a small town, but not your average small town of the 1950s, this was the Atomic City. The home of the atomic bomb that brought the end of World War II. Even as a first-grader there was no issues of walking to school alone, after all, the threat was a Russian missile rather than the range of threats to children in a city today.
In 1956 when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev exclaimed “We will bury you,” the threat had a sharp meaning to children trained to slide their school desks against the wall and crawl underneath at sound of the civil defense sirens.
As a third-grader walking home from school with his friend Brad, they stopped at Brad’s house. In the garage was a large cage containing a couple very colorful birds. The elementary schooler stood in awe looking at those birds, unaware he was seeing his future.
The Atomic City was home to a lot of very eccentric people, Brad’s father was no exception. Those birds were kestrel falcons that Brad’s father had trapped using a small wire cage covered in nooses made from fishing line and used a mouse inside the cage to lure the falcon down.
Up to that moment, standing in Brad’s garage, that child was nondescript, but the sight of those falcons would light a path the child would follow the rest of his life. That nondescript child was me, and for the next 50-plus years I have followed the passion that was seeded in my blood on that day.
My first trap, made out of an old window screen stapled to a board, never got used. It wasn’t until fifth grade that I built an appropriate trap and had a bike to get where kestrels could be found. However, the long ride with my trap in my handlebar basket gave plenty of time for a mouse to chew the monofilament nooses, reducing the odds of trapping my first kestrel.
After a few failed attempts, finally I pedaled my way out of town to where there was a large double transmission line. There I spotted the first kestrel I’d trap. I went part way between two sets of poles and dropped my trap in the dirt of the parallel lane of the two-track. I turned around taking occasional glances over my back to see the kestrel hadn’t moved from its perch on the wire. My heart was beating so hard I could hardly breathe, notwithstanding I had pedaled my bike for several miles. I had gone several hundred feet away and thought I’d hide behind a bush, but when I stopped I noticed the kestrel was no longer on the wire, it was flapping around my trap, I had caught it!
I sat in the grass holding my very first falcon. I folded its wings closed and slid a sock over it, trying to avoid getting bit. I pulled the sock over until its head protruded from the hole I had cut at the end. Then I removed the nooses from the little falcon’s talons. Within seconds of having its feet freed it wiggled all the way through the sock and briskly flew away. I sat there sobbing, having literally watched my dream become reality and then slip out of my hand.
That wasn’t the end however, just a bump in the road that would only be one of many through the years. And, on that same day I found a second kestrel, catching it, getting it all the way back home to train as my first falconry bird. Over the years I have seen a lot of falcons trained to circle high above and dive at game birds flushed below, making my heart soar and my breath shorten as happened on the day I first viewed those kestrels in Brad’s garage.
Guest columnist Sam Crowe is an avid falconer and a resident in Banner. Center Stage is written by friends of the Senior Center for the Sheridan Community. It is a collection of insights and stories related to living well at every age.