Photo: Rob Howard
Her father ran off when she was 12, leaving behind a wife, four children, 50 unmilked cows, and a trail of questions. The unflappable advice columnist Ask Amy gets to see what she’s been missing.My father called me one day last summer. “Um, it’s your father,” he said. “I shot a bear and now it looks like I’ve got to go to court.” I replayed his message a few times. His voice is nasal and gravelly and full of flatness and diphthongs. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. He asked me to call him back and left his number.
His wife, Pat, answered. I realized I had forgotten her name, so I just introduced myself and asked for my father. “He’s out back with his bees, but I’ll call him,” she said. I heard her Marjorie Main voice sail out the back door. “Charles!” I had never heard him called Charles before—it was a bit of a surprise. Back when I knew him, everyone called him Buck, the nickname his mother gave him as a child. He couldn’t sit still, just like a buck, the story went. I think of bucks as being majestic, many-antlered royalty of the woods, so his nickname never quite made sense to me, until I realized that the reference was most likely not to a buck but to a bucking bronco. Regardless, his nickname suited him. It is the name of someone who doesn’t want to be a Charles.
My parents were married for 22 years. They had four children. We were raised on a crumbling dairy farm on the fringes of a tiny village in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The landscape I know is one of crags, waterfalls, and glacially formed lakes alongside low hills called drumlins, tumbling and overlapping. It is sprinkled with tough-looking villages scarred by severe winters and ringed by farms and trailer parks strung along beside unruly creeks. Homely as it is, the countryside of my childhood brings tears to my eyes. I love it beyond my understanding. When I see news reports about heartbroken Albanian refugees who can’t wait to get back to their muddy villages, I understand.
Several years ago, after living in various cities, I bought a little house on Main Street in my hometown, and my daughter and I now divide our time between there and Chicago. My extended family, who make up about half the population of 450 in our village, laughingly deride us as “summer people,” the joke being that this is a place no one comes to on purpose—my hometown is the kind of place people dream of leaving.
I have a persistent vision of my father making his way across the field in back of our barn. Going somewhere! His step was springy and enterprising. He drew his bucket from a bottomless well of energy and cultivated a tough restlessness that got him into trouble. He loved shortcuts and windfalls and wayward moneymaking projects, sometimes involving other men like him, who, when things went sour, tended to punch each other in the nose. He was handsome like a B movie star, in the manner of Glenn Ford, but with the ego of a Caribbean despot. I loved to watch him but not, I think, in the way daughters commonly love to look at their fathers. He was like an animal. Unpredictable. He would crouch beside the belligerent Holsteins in our barn during the evening milking, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging between his lips, urging milk out of their udders and calling them goddamn filthy bitches when they shifted their weight and threatened to crush him. He would hop around on his haunches. He had springs in his work boots.
To make ends meet on our ever-failing farm, in between the morning and evening milkings, Buck laid iron with Iroquois Indians recruited from nearby reservations. He said he loved the work—being outside, climbing and dangling from the substructure of a building. One day my mother and I stopped at a muddy construction site outside Ithaca. What looked like a medium security prison but later turned out to be a Howard Johnson was going up along Route 13. We pulled in and checked around for a sign of my father. Scanning the skeleton of the building, I saw his unmistakable silhouette skipping along an iron beam, two stories up. His arms were flying out from his sides like a tightrope walker in the circus. He seemed lighter than air.
My father left when I was 12. It was a sudden thing, and as far as I know, beyond his travels to increasingly far-off construction jobs, he had given no warning that he would leave home permanently. Our 50 cows were in the field, needing to be milked. A neighbor helped out in the mornings, and my sisters, brother, and I did the second milking when we got home from school. Evening chores had always been a warm, antic time. In between hoisting milk pails, my sisters and I practiced cheerleading routines on the long concrete alley between the cows and sang Three Dog Night songs at the top of our voices. But now the milking became quiet. My 16-year-old brother handled the heavy lifting, and my sisters and I silently went about our business.
We didn’t know where Buck was, but after a few weeks he called from Lowville, a town along the Black River in the North Country. He had taken up with a woman named Joan, who waited tables at a truck stop he frequented while working a construction job in Watertown.
My father told my mother that he had sold our herd of Holsteins. The next day two huge cattle trucks belonging to the Gunzenhauser Dairy in Cortland drove in and took the cows away. It was April and raining a cold, hard rain that was sluicing the last vestiges of dingy snow into the creek. I watched from the driveway as our cows slipped and slid through the mud and were prodded with electric shocks onto the trucks.
Like most farm kids, I had a love-hate relationship with our cows, but when they were gone I found I missed them terribly. They showed up in my dreams, roaming through my mother’s flower beds, lowing quietly, and letting me know that we had failed them. Our old red barn was like a cathedral looming over the landscape. It was the size of an ocean liner with enormous rooms, milking parlors, and lofts. After the cows left, I couldn’t go inside it.
We had an auction. The Munson family ran all the auctions in our area, and they handled things. About 100 people crowded onto the property just outside the entrance to the barn. Glenn Munson, who was a junior at our high school and had muscular dystrophy, called the auction in a speedy high-pitched singsong auctioneer voice, swaying back and forth in his wheelchair like Stevie Wonder at the piano. Our neighbors bid on our rusty farm implements, milking equipment, even the leftover hay stacked in our barn, and loaded our worldly goods into their pickups.
Later in school, whenever Glenn wheeled by in the hallway, I felt him looking at me compassionately.
The summer after my father left, my brother quit high school and hitched his way to Scandinavia. My sisters and I continued with high school, all ambitious, high-strung overachievers. We were cheerleaders and athletes and student body presidents. We starred in the school plays. Our mother went to work as a typist at Cornell University. She typed very fast, almost 100 words a minute. She would come home from work and lie down on her bed, still wearing her coat, and then rise with a sigh in the dusky half-light to make dinner. After years of cooking and baking large meals of meats, preserves, breads, and pies for her big family, she stepped down to hot dogs served from a pot on the stove and buns pulled out of plastic sleeves. All spring and summer, she sat out on the front stoop in the warm evenings, listening to the peepers on the creek, smoking cigarettes, and playing the same Three Dog Night song, “Out in the Country,” over and over on our record player.
One night about a year after my father left, Joan—now his second wife—called. “Where is that bastard?” she asked. My mother said she didn’t know.
My father surfaced again several months later. He had taken up with Jeanne, a family friend. Buck and Jeanne started moving around. They lived on Long Island while he worked construction. They lived in Vermont and Connecticut, where he found jobs on farms; sometimes he trimmed trees. Then they moved to Port Allegheny, in North Central Pennsylvania. Jeanne was sick for a long time and then died of emphysema. My brother told me she smoked right next to her oxygen canister. He thought she might blow herself up.
When I went to college, my mother quit typing and enrolled at Cornell as a full-time undergraduate. After she got her bachelor’s degree, she went on to get an MFA at Cornell. She taught at Cornell and later Ithaca College.
Our old red barn fell down, a victim of decay caused by a hole in the roof that my father had always been meaning to patch. The absent barn left an enormous empty space next to the house that I couldn’t look at. An elderly neighbor who lived up the road left his house to my mother when he died, and she moved away from the empty farm to that little place, which is lovely and ghost-free.
Like the man himself, my feelings about my father seemed to wander. There were the years when I avoided thinking about him because remembering him made me too sad. There were the times when I actively fled from the memory of him because I was worried that his hard luck would rub off on me. There were the men I avoided because they reminded me of him, and the men I wanted because they reminded me of him.
Buck did what he did best. He kept moving. The marriages increased in frequency, if not duration. After my mother, Jane, he married Joan, then Jeanne. After Jeanne died, he married Jean. That one didn’t last long—her children intervened.
Then came Pat. Pat worked at the bottle factory in Port Allegheny and retired on disability.
My father had become the many-married protagonist of a George Jones song. Remember the old joke about country songs—that if you play them backward all the hard luck reverses itself and the dog comes back? Sometimes I fantasize about playing my father’s song backward. The wives fall away, one by one. The barn rights itself, our possessions return to their rightful owners, the cows back themselves off of the cattle trucks and into their assigned stanchions, and I look out the window and see my father striding across a field, going places.
Buck took to driving around in a gigantic rusty delivery van. One day about 15 years ago I was drinking coffee with my mother on her porch. He drove slowly by. I caught a glimpse of his profile. It was shockingly like my own. “Isn’t that your father?” my mother asked. “Yup. That’s him,” I said.
He drove past the house, turned around down the road, and then came back.
I hadn’t seen him in many years, but he was the same kinetic man I remembered. He crossed his legs at the knee and his free foot dangled and jangled as he spun out his schemes. He was looking into emus. He was thinking about livestock or maybe soybeans. He’d read an article about Nova Scotia and thought about maybe moving up there for apple picking season. I pictured him driving to Nova Scotia and sleeping in the back of the delivery van, parked in an orchard—which turned out to be exactly what he did.
I realized that I was relieved he’d left us. All I had to do was look at my mother, the college professor, sitting on the porch in the house she owned. More than once she’d said that if Buck had stayed, she’d be living in a trailer, and I knew this was true. My father’s life tended toward chaos, and he didn’t like to be alone.
I married the most un-Buck-like person I could find, but the marriage ended anyway. I resolved to be the kind of mother that my own mother was, and I succeeded. My daughter and I spend our summers in the little house on Main Street, next door to my aunt and just up the street from my mother, my sister, and various other aunts and cousins.
Over the past 10 years, once or twice a summer I’ll look out of the front window to see Buck standing on my porch. He’ll stay for the length of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, talk maniacally about his latest venture, jump up suddenly—and leave. A few years ago, he started keeping bees at his place in Port Allegheny. Sometimes on a visit he’ll leave me with a jar of honey, which is the palest yellow, like sunshine in deep winter. I try to make the honey last, since I never know when I’ll see him again.
I hadn’t heard from my father in over a year when he called and left his message saying that he’d shot a bear.
I decided to make the drive out to Port Allegheny on the day after Thanksgiving. The cartoon topography of low hills and valleys was awash in tints of brown and gray; it was Andrew Wyeth season, a sadly beautiful but depressing time of year brightened, for some, only by the prospect of venicide. Gunfire rang out all morning in the field surrounding my house, and Toad’s Diner was filled with camouflaged deer killers swapping hangover lies over their morning coffee.
Fortunately, the three-day-long bear hunting season in Pennsylvania had just ended, and deer season didn’t start for another day in Port Allegheny. I figured that if I made it out of my home county alive and raced for the state border, I had a chance of completing the trip without being taken down by a stray bullet.
As I neared Port Allegheny, I stopped for coffee at a gas station and picked up a local paper: No bear deaths were recorded from the latest three-day shooting spree; my father’s off-season August kill had been the only bear felled by man in the area all year.
I crossed the Allegheny River at the edge of town, following his directions. The country was rough and rolling and it reminded me of him. I knew his place from the number of vehicles in various states of repair parked beside and behind the house. When I turned in to the driveway, a large Ford flatbed truck followed me in.
My father hopped down from the cab and said hello. He looked old. Tired. His hair was close-cropped, as if he had cut it himself looking at his reflection in the kitchen window. He’d had some health problems, including a small stroke the previous year, but after a few days, he’d hitchhiked home from the hospital. A blood clot in his leg was killing him, he said. He had a pronounced limp.
Pat was waiting for us inside. She was boarding three hunter brothers from Ohio. They slept in bunk beds upstairs but were now out stalking game on the state land. I heard gunfire ring out occasionally, bounce back and forth off the hills, and carom through the valley.
Over tuna sandwiches at the kitchen table, Buck started to tell the bear story. He produced some papers, which he said illustrated his claim of self-defense. The bear wasn’t his fault, he said. The bear was the bear’s fault. But I had a feeling that both of them were simply being true to their natures.
Buck told me he first saw the bear when it ambled down off the ridge by the house and helped itself to a garbage can full of cat food on the back porch.
In defiance of every known stereotype, my father is a cat man. The few times from my childhood when I can visualize him being still, he is sitting cross-legged in a ladder-back chair, smoking a cigarette and stroking a house cat, Godfather-style. Here in his kitchen I noticed he had at least two cats that periodically curled around his ankles.
After the bear had its fill of Friskies, my father told me, it scrambled back up the ridge and disappeared. It was a male. Young. Big. My father said he was a beauty. The bear had a tag pinned to his ear—this was not his first taste of kibble; he’d been caught and tagged before by the game warden. Buck had a feeling that this bear had been released into their back woods the previous week. The game warden had a habit of taking captured bears on tours of Boy Scout troops and schools before releasing them—Buck felt that this bear was particularly bold and was probably used to being around people.
He called the game warden, who came out, and together they baited a barrel trap with rotted meat and honey. The warden told my father to fortify his beehives.
Buck spent the morning installing fencing at his apiary. His biggest fear was that the bear would destroy or permanently disrupt his hives. As he told me this, he gestured out to the back field, where wooden trays of beehives stacked waist high were surrounded by a low electrified fence. It looked like a stalag in miniature. I imagined groups of worker bees smoking cigarettes and hanging around the prison yard, planning their escape from the queen.
After working on the fencing all morning, he and Pat went into town. On their way back to the house, a neighbor who kept goats flagged them down and said that the bear was back and had been lying in the road. The neighbor had to get out of his car and kick him out of the way. “That bear wasn’t afraid of anything. He was crazy,” my father said.
Buck raced back to the hives to finish the fence. He said the bear was watching him from the edge of the tree line.
That’s when my father’s instincts, running as they do toward the hair-brained, violent, and adventuresome, made him decide to take matters into his own hands, so he went and grabbed his 20-gauge shotgun.
When Buck got to this next part of the story, he started to sound wounded and practiced, like a man on the witness stand. He said he called the game warden a second time. Whatever. He got tired of the whole business.
The next time the bear came down the ridge, my father was waiting for him. He says he waited until the bear got close enough—about 25 feet—and then he shot him in the chest. The wounded bear fell down but then managed to scramble back into the woods.
That’s when the game warden showed up. He asked my father what happened to the bear.
Buck said, “I just shot him.”
They went into the woods and found the bear, crumpled in a heap—dead.
The officer wrote up a ticket. Buck showed me the receipt. I recalled how my father had always railed against the system. He was a refusenik when it came to taxes, licenses, permits, paperwork, child support, insurance, credit cards, and savings accounts. Somehow he managed to square his feelings enough to cash his Social Security checks, but paying for a dead bear? That’s where he drew his imaginary line.
Buck decided not to pay his $800 fine, $2 per pound of bear. He called one attorney who said she wouldn’t take the case because she sided with the bear. In the end, he retained the services of an old, retired lawyer in town. I pictured the two of them shambling up the steps of a courthouse, each wearing his only suit, my father managing to look somehow handsome with his necktie knotted thickly against his throat.
The argument was self-defense: The young bear, a menace, not only damaged his hives but charged down the hill at him. My father was being scrappy, his favorite attitude.
The judge said they could take payment in the form of a money order.
There would be an appeal. My father pulled out some papers to show me and started shuffling through them. There was a precedent. He thought a lawyer for the farm bureau over in Harrisburg might agree to represent him.
I asked my father if he’d learned anything from killing the bear. I asked him if he saw the bear as a metaphor for something else and if he could explain that to me. The questions I really wanted answers for went unasked. I wanted to know who he was, what he longed for, and why he left all those years ago, cleaving my childhood in two.
“Ummmm, I don’t see things as metaphors for other things,” he said.
I asked Pat what she thought of all of this. She said she had cooked bear meat before and that it could be very tasty as long as it was not old and tough.
My father walked me to the car. We had spent the bulk of the day together. I realized that in my whole life, I had never spent so many hours all at once with him. We said goodbye and Pat came out. I waved to them both as I drove away.
I wondered if I would ever see my old man again. I guessed there was a chance I wouldn’t. I reflexively looked in the rearview mirror, but he was already gone.
My father doesn’t see things as metaphors for other things, but I do. As I drove away, I tried not to think about the jobs, the wives, and the children that he left, but about the bees and the honey they make. The honey stands for the sweetness of life, while the bee brings the sting. My father, the self-aggrandizing bear killer, was both the bee and the honey to me.
A few days ago I got an envelope in the mail. Inside was a tear sheet from a notice put out by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau about a new state regulation that expands the means by which farmers can legally kill game, including bears, ... causing or about to cause damage to farm crops, fruit trees, vegetables, livestock, or beehives.” That part was underlined. My father attached a note:
I made enough noise that the state changed some of its rules. Now we have a right to protect ourselves and our stuff.