“They did what?” I leaned closer straining to hear my elderly aunt’s thin voice.
“Your dad and Uncle Wally took three young great horned owls from a nest and raised them.”
I shouldn’t be surprised. Wisconsin farm boys in the 1930’s hadn’t yet read the “Keep Wildlife Wild” billboard. Capturing wild critters continued to intrigue my dad. I recalled him bringing home a six-toed, feral kitten which we named Copy Cat. It became a beloved pet. He also tamed a crow and taught it to say “hello.” It hung out with him anytime he worked in the garage. And once he tried to convince my mother to let us keep a baby skunk. I was young enough that I don’t recall whether he was actually holding the kit when he asked her, but I remember her reply. “The neighbor called last night complaining about our dog digging in her yard and you want us to get a skunk?”
I leaned closer to my Aunt Evie. Since neither my dad or uncle were still alive, she was the only person who would know the story. “I suppose Dad or Uncle Wally climbed the tree and snatched them. I wonder if they had to distract the adult. Owls would put up a fight.”
“Wally would have sent your dad up the tree. He was the better climber.”
I imagined how the scene might have gone. My dad, at nine years old, could have studied the messy owl’s nest far up in the pine tree and said, “I’ll do it.” He grabbed the trunk as high as possible, dug in with the sides of his worn boots and shinnied up to the first branch. On to the second, then the third.
“You’re almost there, Johnny,” my uncle called. “The mother’s still gone. You got pockets in that coat?”
“Yep. My dad reached up into the nest. Feeling the downy feathers, he grabbed the first owlet. He held it a moment, feeling the fast thump-thump of its heartbeat. He dropped it into his pocket and WHACK!
“Ah!” My dad looked up. A huge owl hovered just above him, its deadly talons outstretched, preparing to dive-bomb him again. My dad snatched the other two wiggly owlets, dropped them into pockets, and climbed down the tree.
“Ha, ha,” my uncle chortled, “that was so funny.”
My dad felt his scalp wet with blood. “She nailed me good.”
“Aw,” his brother said, “you’ll live.”
I blinked, coming back to the present. “Do you know what happened to the owls?” I asked my aunt.
“The boys hunted for them, bringing them gophers or mice to eat. And they set up a makeshift nest in the barn so they’d be warm and dry. As the spring became summer, the owls learned anytime the boys grabbed their guns they’d get fed. They took to flying above their heads. When they got tired, they’d rest on the boys’ shoulders.”
“That’s a wonderful story,” I said. “Thank you for sharing.”
Shortly after my aunt and I got together, she, too, passed away. I treasure the gift she left me. It’s comforting to imagine my dad with the wild critters he tamed curled around his feet, flying above his head, and resting on his shoulders. And therein lies the power of story.