Here is the second installment of Frank Gallo's story for his weekly contribution to our blog -- Frank is Director of the CAS Coastal Center at Milford Point.
I remember my first birds from when I was 3 or 4. They were a blue jay and a robin, shown to me by my cousin in a friend’s backyard. I saw my first bobcat when I was 6 in my neighbor’s backyard. It came out on a fallen log to chase a bird. They’re gone now, but we saw several in the woods over the years. There was a red fox den in what’s now a condominium complex that bears their name. We’d go and watch the pups play in the grass. I nearly stepped on a snipe in the seep that still runs behind the buildings. The resident great horned owl nested in the hill-top pines near the burned-down Boy Scout lodge. The chimney was all that was left of the building. To see it we’d have to sneak past the "mean man." He chased us once with a gun and fired it to scare us; we ran like rabbits. We were so scared we hid in the storm drain for hours before daring to run home. The concept of trespassing was beyond us; there were too many mysteries to unravel in the woods. In our wanderings we saw deer and skunks, rabbits and woodchucks. My youngest brother John found a roosting long-eared owl and a hooded warbler, and we all found a barred owl and a red-tailed hawk nest. The red-tailed hawks still nest in our woods, although the wood lot is much smaller than it once was. I’m glad at least a bit remains.
We tried living in the woods for awhile in a primitive tent camp on the hill. Later we built a fort in the woods, our first real club house, using wood scraps acquired from a completed housing project. One board, however, was acquired while the project was still running. The piece was a full 8x12 sheet of plywood; it was to be the backbone of the structure. It had a crack in the middle and had been discarded in a heap of lumber, so we felt justified in using it. It was sort of my first introduction to recycling. The question was how we were going to get it the mile down the road to our house. Running down the road in the middle of the day with a sheet of plywood over our heads seemed imprudent, so we did it at night. It never occurred to us to ask permission. It made a fine wall.
This collecting habit of mine continued into college. My ornithology teacher had taught me to skin birds for the teaching collection at the University. Periodically road-killed songbirds would find their way into my mother’s freezer, neatly sealed in labeled plastic bags. I don’t know what my mother thought, but at that stage, she’d long since resigned herself to my little idiosyncrasies. I guess she figured that small birds were no worse than frozen chickens or turkeys. Whatever her true feelings, she never said anything, at least not to me. I just figured she understood, being a member of the club, so to speak. Her stoic acceptance of my "freezer pet" collection did not, however extend to everyone. One of my prize acquisitions was a perfectly preserved barred owl. It was so large that its talons spilled out of its plastic bag. While the bird was residing in the freezer, my mother hosted a friend for the weekend. It must have been about 2 a.m. when a scream from the kitchen brought us all tumbling from our beds. Assembling hastily, we discovered my mother’s friend, one hand clasped to her mouth, the other waving violently at the open freezer. Apparently, in an attempt to get some ice, she’d met my owl. "Oh, that’s just Frank’s Owl," said my mother, as she shut the freezer and quietly led her friend back to bed. I don’t recall ever having that particular friend stay with us again. My birds moved back with me to school. I have my own place now, and I keep most of my freezer pets at work - one of the advantages of doing what you know and love.
To get a true sense of what I was like as a kid I have to tell one last story. When I was in sixth grade, two friends and I were at recess. We’d drifted into the woods and were turning over logs looking for salamanders. I flipped over one log, and beneath it was a garter snake and a dollar bill. Both my friends were afraid of snakes. One ran for the playground at top speed; the other jumped for the dollar. I jumped for the snake. We all did what made us happy. I find it interesting that we’d all do the same today.
(Dedicated to my Mom for letting me grow up to be me. Happy Mother’s Day! And to my brothers, partners in everything important.)