My dad was far from perfect. In that particular sense I am my father’s son.
He didn’t raise us to be perfect-only that we give our best.
I was 10 years old when I brought home a mourning dove I had found in the orchard across the street. The rescued bird had a broken wing, so I felt the need to save this vulnerable creature from certain death from cats and dogs or other predators.
A small cage was built with wire left over from the rabbit cages my dad had when he raised rabbits. I’d spend hours watching the dove. As I recall we always had some sort of animal feed around the house, so I probably gave him cracked corn, maybe even some soy beans from the nearby farms to eat. I called him “Dovey”. Soon the bird’s status changed from patient status to pet status. I decided I would keep Dovey as a pet.
A couple of weeks went by and it was obvious that the bird had recuperated enough to be turned loose. My dad came out to the garage one day and said, “Justin, you have to let him loose.” I insisted that I wanted to keep him for a pet.
My dad said, “I’ll make you a deal. You turn the bird loose and I’ll buy us some homing pigeons.”
My dad told of the time when he was a child and had raised pigeons in the city of Chicago.
The next day I turned the bird loose. I can still remember how good I felt that the mitzvah I did was successful as the bird easily flew away. I imagined when he landed in a nearby tree that he looked at me with gratitude and thanks.
Years later I read Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Holly Golightly’s words, “You musn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky.”
My dad was right.
Not long afterward, the Sears and Roebuck truck pulled into the driveway and set out a small crate. I peered inside to find a pair of racing pigeons. A Busch Bavarian beer can was wired to an inside corner of the crate with some water in it. When my dad got home from work we placed them in the loft he had built in our garage. There was a small opening in an outside wall that led to an outdoor fly pen. My dad was an experienced carpenter and, having raised pigeons himself, knew the exact specifications of what was needed.
Ken Smith and his son, Ken Jr. came over and decided they would raise birds of their own. Ken Sr and my dad were friends who served together on the Northbrook, (IL) Volunteer Fire Department. The rivalry was on.
As with any other hobby, one soon learns of other people who have the same interest. We visited nearby lofts and were given birds that were culled by their handlers. The birds were otherwise headed for the soup pot.
The Smiths and the Case’s soon became members of the North Shore Racing Pigeon Club. There were several books on racing birds, but the best information came from some of the old German pigeon fanciers, who reluctantly gave this little kid (me) pointers. The best advice I received was to make sure the birds had fly time of 30 minutes a day during racing season. “It’s a cruel thing to race a bird several hundred miles if it’s in poor shape.”
My dad and I spent many days after work driving to Elgin or Carpentersville (where my Uncle Nick and Aunt Marge lived) in order to release the birds. Many times they would beat us home.
Sundays were race days and after a mostly sleepless night I would awake at dawn to sit out in the back yard. Things were quiet and still. If the wind was blowing in the right direction I could hear the farmer at the St. Anne’s Seminary farm, two miles away, calling his cows. Soon I would hear my dad’s footsteps in the kitchen as he made coffee.
The excitement was unbearable as we would await the birds return. The first phone call of the day usually came from Ken Smith, informing us as to the release time of the birds. Any phone calls after that usually meant that someones birds had come home, most times before ours returned.
The first races of the season were 100 miles, starting in Blanchardville, Wisconsin. The last race of the season was 500 miles from Norfolk, Nebraska.
I look back at those times and see them as days of uncomplicated youth. My dad was always there, unlike me, when I had children of my own. Life has regrets that time can not easily reconcile.
He and I would talk of many things. Looking back, that was the best part of the whole pigeon venture. I learned of the history of our family and all sorts of things that were useful for a preteen young boy.
Mark Valeri told me a couple of years ago, how he loved and appreciated my dad spending time with him there in our back yard talking, joking and sometimes giving sage advice. A kid always wants his parents to be approved of by his contemporaries. That had not changed 45 years later after hearing Mark’s words.
When I was drafted into the army, my dad lost all interest in the pigeons. It was dreadful finding homes for my beloved birds. Some did wind up in Uncle Joe’s soup pot.
Perhaps my biggest regret is that my children never had the glimpse of their grandpa when he was young and energetic and in good humor. The good news is that if they look into the mirror or examine their own souls, they will recognize some of the same qualities that Henry Case possessed all those years ago. And they should be proud of that.
Happy Father’s Day.