READER ALERT: This is not a story about ice cream. If it were, I’d be ordering a cone with seven scoops. Seven being a magical number for so many reasons. That cone would be one big leaning tower of deliciousness. Yes. Somehow I think ice cream would be a lot easier to swallow than parts of the story I’m remembering. I could be content with eating ice cream and telling ice cream stories. Sure. Just not cake ones. But this is not one of those stories. Besides, these days I don’t want cake for having or cake for eating. No. But back then, my mother insisted on cake. Call it tradition, or call it insanity. Or don’t.
Perhaps my story offers a smidge of tradition and a dash of insanity. Hm. But mom and dad were sometimes unconventional…and definitely crazy about birthdays, cake, taking pictures, and for sometimes making big adventure. And when it was my birthday, I was a little crazy too. As it turned out, my seventh birthday “took the cake,” as in stole it away from Nature. Here’s what happened:
It was July 16, 1973. I was turning a shiny seven years old. The day was brilliant liquid silver. It hung proudly on a grubby doorframe like a definitive pencil mark for measuring a whole year’s growth. It held like a firmly pounded nailhead for neatly centering the pictureframe of my young life. With the turn of a nob and swat of a swift screen door, I was happily OUT. Right at home in being outside in the great outdoors every day of summer.
I was a mover. I lived to wonder and to explore. My brother and I were all over the place. Slicing through tall quack grass. Up to our ears in little green apple trees in the mature orchard out back. As if with Granny Smith’s quilting needle, we threaded our way through dense willows catching water snakes at the footbridge. We hiked shirtless, sweaty and redfaced up mountain slopes, sometimes resting in pine stands until within a handhold of attending cliffs.
We’d let loose the dog who barked and nipped as we skipped the silty twisting aspen lane. Stopping only to watch a bird or catch a grasshopper to squeeze its legs. Kneeling to dig for antique treasures in a forgotten garbage dump full of moldy newspapers, bedsprings, Model A cars, thick glass bottles and rusty Campbell soup cans.
We lived in a turn-of-the-century, steel pitched settler home, with original wiring, porceline switch boxes, root cellar and mooncut shingled outhouse. The building should have been condemned. It was risky, one short away from lit up with drafty, sawdust insulated walls.
The home was built by the children of Mormon pioneers who had settled once Shoshone territory. They had tamed the land into a shining seven point “Star of the Valley.” In the early days of Star Valley, the Turner family built and ran a prosperous saw mill and lumberyard. During hard winters, some people renamed the place “Starved Valley.” The winters were hard and snowed in. A hundred years later no one would knew the valley as gaunt, well fed or otherwise, but Nature had regained its foothold on progress and overgrown former hints of civilization. This was evidenced by the demise of the saw mill. The roof swayed at its delapidated ridge. Its back lay aching and gray, it’s joist arms leaning on a shaky rough cut cane.
Towering above the house and stream stood the ridgeline and cliffs of Willow Creek Canyon, part of Western Wyoming’s Salt River Range. The creek curled around the yard forming a sleeping centuria of yellow willows. Just beyond a pushmower’s swath was a lot of rotting saw dust. The heap lay wounded as if struck by noxious stinging nettle and served us as a substitute sandbox. Bright orange poppies dotted a barbwire fence as forming a music staff that separated our place from crazy old Ray Martin’s junk yard. Both he and his property were a permanent misunderstood relique of which we were strickly forbiden to trespass. We obeyed our parents and the private property signs for good reason.
Beyond the kitchen window and our mother’s watchful gaze we played. Among the remnants was a twisted logging truck and an archaic oxidized caterpiller trackhoe. They sat silent, half burried in mud and saw dust, and tangled in thistles and willows. Next to the slivery mill, the machines made the ensemble complete. Nothing once mechanical and opperable could move or be moved. We were the only things alive. We were the hungry caterpillars churning feet, scrambling on and off self proclaimed playground features. So with imagination we taught ourselves to drive heavy equipment. We ran stiff manual stickshifts while spouting orders to an invisible work crew. It is amazing too that we survived all the rusty nails and sharp scrap metal edges in this world the Turners left us.
The forrest was slowly swallowing the sawmill like an patient anaconda in spite of the risk of tetnus. Inside the mouth lay a wild world and in that world were we longing to be wild too. Wild and free in mingling and connecting with God’s creatures and inspired creations. Sometimes co-creating with this great God, Mother Nature showed herself to us because we were Hers just as we were His. We loved our other worldly parents and they seemed to love us right back.
Nature was in the sun. It was in the whispering wind and babbling brook. It was inside photosythesizing plants and preening animals. The trees and woodland creatures loved us and lived out the ring of seasons with us. Nature called to us like a mother to its child in a magical language known but rarely spoken but for silent signs and portents. It spoke on the flap of wings and bleat of bird beak, on hoof, on whittling tooth and tail flap, in cones and seeds, and on soft fast padded feet. Mule deer, hawks, meadowlarks, jays, fox, skunk, badger, beaver, and black bear in silent surrounding.
Last fall a neighbor killed a large black bear on the property and dad convinced the man to give him what remained of the salty hide. A taxidermist crafted it into a bear skin rug. This effect found a menacingly place at ankles on our frontroom floor. We often rolled in thick black fur and dared to jiggle the enticing pink plastic tongue with tiny fingures. We played games of chicken between sharp omnivorous teeth and like amature ventriloquists made our best bear growling voices.
This was the world I resided in. Mid-July, every day was warm, bright, beautiful, blessed, green, and extending dreams. This particular day, though, my little brother stayed behind napping as we set out. My mother thought it alright to leave him home for a while. So we set off for a short walk with our big German shepherd, Zeke. We were as restless as the dog. Or perhaps we were out finding roasting sticks for a cook out that night. We walked, and talked and sometimes paused to carve our names into the aspen tatoo parlor. I gathered sticks. Tonight we’d have a fire in the ring out front and roast marshmellows until they burned black. With everything green and the stream only a few feet away we never had concern or fear of fire getting away.
Then, half way through our romp, Zeke caught wind of something in the trees and took off after it. The next thing we knew, he was in hot pursuit of a small brown something, followed by a similar larger, looming shape. “Moose!” my father called. Mom pulled me in close to her, as my father ordered us to stay behind the tree’s protection. The dog continued chase as the cow and baby zigged and zagged the grove of aspens, crossing, then looping back around. “Stay where you are,” my father shouted. This is when he did the unthinkable.
Dad unbuckled his belt and slid it from his pant loops. “I’ll be back.”
We waited there, frozen, forcing ourselves to breathe, while trying to glimpse the recklace path taken by beast and beast and dog and man. We worried with every anxious, canine bark, and moose bleat. With broken branch and dad’s shouting…
“Zeke! Zeke! Come here! Get back here!” I was terrified for all of them. For my dog, for my dad, for the baby moose, for its mother. So terrified I didnt’ know whether to cry or not cry. And so I cried, and still I tried to keep my eye where I thought the sounds were coming from in the thick green, quaking trees.
And then we saw my father half wrestling something. Something I thought to be my dog, Zeke. Only in time we realized it was not.
Zeke could be heard farther away, up the drawn, up the bench, above and out of sight. Still in pursuit. No. It wasn’t Zeke my dad was clutching. It wasn’t Zeke he had caught in the loop of his brown leather belt. Brown, and bawling and lurching with all it’s might with primeval survival instinct. It wasn’t Zeke.
“Dean! What are you thinking!?” my mother screamed. “What if the mother comes back?!” “You have to let it go!” “Let it go!”
“Calm down!” he shouted back. “It will be alright. You two go home. I will be down with the calf as soon as I can.”
“But…Dean!” my mother said.
“Go!” my father shouted. And so we went.
My mother and I ran, until from the pseudo safety of the yard, we waited, watching from the lodgepole fenceline for two bobbing, lurching, straining figures to appear through the curving trail and treeline. The barking became less frequent now. We wondered if our dog had driven the mother deeper into the trees, or up the canyon. We wondered if the silence meant harm had come, or if the chase was somewhere distant and circling back toward my dad and the calf.
Minutes of waiting stretched beyond real and probable estimates. Our toying with what ifs began to lose weight in the fright, and unknown. It teetered on almost calm, numb and empty now. We realized emotion could not serve the moment. Only faith. And so we prayed.
I looked up through tears and peered into the distance, “What’s that?!”
My mother paused and squinted as well. And then she answered slowly,
“It’s daddy. He has the calf.”
Mom scrambled across the yard, trampling a patch of spearmint and hopps. She clawed a threaded padalock and swung the door open. She grabbed a braided cotton stock lead from a hook on the tackshed wall and scurried back to the fence. Dad was getting closer. Noises growing louder. The calf was still fighting, jumping every which way. They inched toward me as I watched in disbelief.
“It’s going to be alright, honey.” my mother assured me.
“Uh huh.” I squeeked.
“You’ll get to see the baby and maybe even pet it for your birthday. Won’t that be nice?” my mother asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Dean! I got a rope from the shed.” My mother handed a loose coil to my father.
“Make a slip knot.”
“Won’t that hurt it?” she asked.
“Here! Then you hold it.”
My mother made a loop. Before long my father had the calf secured inside the yard. It tugged and bawled and bawled and tugged until it was exhausted and nearly hoarse. In time it seemed to give in and tocalm. My father held it close. In time both their breathing synchronized and slowed toward normal resting rate. The wild look in their eyes softened.
“What now?” my mother asked.
My dad stepped back. The baby moose slipped to the ground to rest.
“It will be okay here for a little while. We’ll take it back to the mother in an hour or two.” My father wiped the sweat from his face and sat down.
“Let’s go make it a bottle. You can feed it if you’d like.” said my mother with a smile.
As we walked across the gopher pocked grass, I stole glimpses at my sweaty, slouching father. He was grinning.
“Happy Birthday!” he called to me. “Now. How ’bout a glass of water?”
I hurried to the house and back again with a cold glass for dad and a bucket for the baby.
“You can touch her if you want,” he said.
And so I nervously did. As my emotions swirled among my fears and questions, I searched for an answer. Was this the best birthday or what?
At least we were alive. My father smiled a smile that seemed to say Thank you. Right then, I felt he’d do or give me anything a father could within his power and believing. It was in this moment I felt a Happy Birthday in the making with what I was experiencing.
In that very moment, with all my seven year old senses, knowing and emotions I was witnessing a miracle. I was loving Nature. I was trusting my father. And I was feeling that warm, brown baby mooose. I pressed a rubber baby bottle to a soft, resistant nuzzle. Warm cow’s milk leaked out, sweet, and messy.
Life was this way today…sweet and messy. As exasperated as God and Nature may have been with my parents and a lifetime and world of senseless human acts, Life was a blessed miracle for living. Today I was alive and making my seven year old dream come true. With arms around a baby moose, face to the sun, I chose to smile, Even between life’s fears and tears, you might find smiles and moose tracks.
(I have grown to love hiking the Uintah and Wasatch Ranges near my Utah home. I have hiked up on moose from time to time. In fact I have encountered a mother moose and calf twice in the last few weeks. Knowing animal behavior, and looking back, I can’t believe I lived this childhood story and that it didn’t end differently in someone being injured. Unbeleivable. I often wonder if the mother moose and calf recovered in reuniting. My father assured me they did later that afternoon. I’d like to believe it so.)