It was a blue sky Saturday as the current flowed swiftly by me. The April sunshine was beaming down, radiating life to a re-borne valley and to the sprouting hills above. My late morning began on a mountain bike, peddling the Fox River trail past the vintage Dutch Windmill, on route to my favorite shoreline location.
I arrived at a picnic table on the far end of Fabyan Forest Preserve. My private table was well hidden behind tall brush, between the river and the path. It sat underneath the branches of a giant old oak tree and is a place I hadn’t been to in 11-years. Sitting on top of the weather-beaten table, friends were there to meet me. I‘d observed Mr. Hawk before, perched atop the Old Man. The stout bird stood proudly on a sturdy arm that stretched up and over the rushing waters. I knew that arm well.
Like the Lion King of the river, Mr. Hawk looked intently over the hilly woodlands, and all creatures that dwell within. My relationship with the big bird was kept at a distance and in harmony with his domain. We were always aware of each other’s presence and I never bothered him when he was around. The King was my friend.
My best buddy, the Old Man, is the Granddaddy of the valley and elevated maybe 70 feet high. I met him in his twilight when he was a younger Grandpa, and he was as-wide-as he was tall. Before the path was refined for weekend warriors, I walked the train tracks that followed the same line north and crossed over the river island bridges. From the 2ndbridge over the water, is where the Old Man caught my eye. “Wow,” I thought. “Today I’m going to fly!” Eleven years ago, I hurried my 12-year old self over to meet Grandpa.
No other oak tree on the shoreline was mightier, and none earned my respect more than he did. My mature climbing buddy stood like Hercules guarding the river passage, as if he held watch since the river’s first drops trickled over his toes. I scaled him many times as a youth, in hopes of snagging the clouds. Weaker trees have dropped me, but not Grandpa. He served me faithfully in my play days and never let me down.
I noticed the Old Man lost more of his splendor since the last time we flew. Higher waters flooding the shoreline are eroding away his 100-year foothold. His weakening knees poked from the sweeping river and insects are slowly gnawing him like a cancer. His skin is cracked and peeling, and decades of violent storms have ripped limbs from his body. Lightning sliced off 1/3 of him, and a large section of his dried gut is exposed to his mother. A strong gust or a final bolt from above could fall the Old Man the next time the skies bring her fury.
Mr. Hawk remained perched on the arm of the Old Man, glaring down at me on a mission. I gazed back at him. A biker buzzed the trail behind the brush as the sizzling tires stole my attention. I turned my body to watch the speeding rider who was soon out of my sight. When I rotated back around to see Mr. Hawk, I got the jolt of my lifetime.
The hunter was airborne and diving, swooping in at my face. I saw The King soar over my shoulder before I ducked, burying my face in my knees and my forearms protecting my head. I felt the air from his wings trail past me before I tumbled forward off the table to the muddy ground. My heart was pounding fast and I was out of breath from the scare. It was the element of surprise that got me and it was a stealthy assault. For a split second I stared Mr. Hawk straight in the eye.
After I realized I was not the old buzzard’s meal, I jumped up to see what Mr. Hawk was attacking. The skilled hunter was in flight over the river bank with a tailed creature clutched tightly in his talons. Down river he flew until he was out of my sight. This all happened in a matter of seconds and it totally freaked me out.
For a moment in time, I thought I was going to be eaten alive by my friend Mr. Hawk. The terror made me want to go to the bathroom and I felt sick in my stomach from shock. A long while passed before I sat down on the picnic table. Eventually my nerves settled and I relaxed back to near normal.
While my close encounter today with Mr. Hawk was unpredictable, the grim future for my best climbing pal is clearly visible. The past decade his mother hasn’t treated The Old Man so kindly. One day there will be a changing of the guard in my valley and Grandfather’s reign over the river will be history.
Twenty-six more years has carried me into my middle-aged life and I remember those days like it was yesterday. The fate of Mr. Hawk is anybody’s guess. I’m positive he didn’t die hungry. Grandpa is long gone now and the ground he once shaded is cleared for shoreline recreation. Who knows how many boys climbed him or how many sets of wings he nested in his pits? Maybe hundreds or thousands, the answer I’ll never know. I do recognize I will always remember the King and the Old Man. Those were the days when a boy could fly.