By Phil Herzog with Janet Ragland and David Hazard
One of the most painful events of my adolescence came at age 15 when my parents yanked us by the roots from our tony New York bedroom community in Bergan County, New Jersey and transplanted us squarely in the rural pastures of upstate New York. Several reasons were behind the move.
One was my parents’ forthcoming retirement to the area pop called home during his own youth, New Hartford, near Utica. The second was his career as a Pan Am pilot that allowed him to conveniently deadhead from nearby Hancock Field in Syracuse to New York’s JFK, where he’d depart on his monthly routes to London, Paris, Munich or Rome.
The biggest reason, however, was the growing angst and sleep deprivation my parents were suffering due to my escalating deviant behavior. They watched helplessly as I foundered in my adolescence, making increasingly bad choices that were yielding disturbing consequences. They anguished on the sidelines, bearing witness to my gleeful descent down a slope ladened with easy-access drugs and alcohol in my junior high years. Admittedly, I was a handful at home, school and the neighborhood — more than they could manage. The solution was simple. Move. And so we did.
But our upstate migration — the game-changer that was supposed to give me a fresh start with new friends, new surroundings and a slower, less complicated pace initially seemed more like a torture chamber. To the seemingly backwater dairy and poultry farming kids who lived in the country (I learned swiftly they were anything but backwater), I was the brash know-it-all new guy, an interloper from the terrible Big Apple. I dressed different, talked different, partied different, danced different, and now walked with a chip on my shoulder. I sorely resented my parents tugging our deep 12-year roots from one of New York’s more gentrified suburbs – Glen Rock, New Jersey — and plopping us down in the middle nowhere.
But as is it often happens in life, my most dreadful misfortune morphed into divine intervention. That intervention would come in the form of a brotherly bond of love and respect -– a “David and Jonathan” friendship — that within a few short months catapulted me from social obscurity to one of the cool kids. It was as if I’d gone from urban hipster to cool country boy in the blink of an eye, and it energized me because I was now becominging something new and different and, curiously, more authentic to my true adventurous self.
That friendship was with a boy named Dale DuBois, with whom I quickly became co-conspirator in scholastic crime by brazenly cheating, seated side by side in the classroom, on Algebra tests. Cheating and stealing, as I described earlier, were merely as sport to me. But in Dale I found an edgy, risky side that matched my own, which made smoking by the tennis courts, skipping classes and the habitual cheating and plagiarizing an absolute rush.
Outside the classroom Dale had the world by the tail — a raccoon tail (he never called it by its proper name, it was always a “coon” in hunting vernacular). In addition to being a strapping, ruggedly handsome six foot 3 inch, 230 pound tower of muscle, he was the only kid in our school district who threw a 90 mile per hour fastball with dead accuracy, and hit grand slams every so often, but only when he felt like it. Which made him a star, and by default as his friend, made me worthy of my new classmates’ respect.
What Dale mostly felt like doing on weekends or while playing hooky, regardless of his mastery on the baseball diamond, was explore the deep, dense Finger Lakes forests with me, his fresh-faced hunting apprentice. It was that sacred connection, a mutual love of the outdoors that cemented an unbreakable bond that endured until Dale’s untimely death from lung cancer a decade later.
Though the Finger Lakes may have been a cultural wasteland for a boy like me who’d routinely hop trains and buses to New York’s Shea Stadium to watch the Mets, or Chinatown to buy illegal fireworks (starting around age 12), my new home in the country was an exciting frontier that held the promise of one thing I’d always dreamed of becoming — a deer hunter.
As such, Dale made it his nearly daily mission, after school or on weekends, to teach me the wilds of the vast Finger Lakes woodlands, and in short order christened me his de facto woodsman understudy and game porter.
Dale taught me everything about the woods. How to survive in blizzard with nothing more than a few pieces of warm waterproof clothing, snow shoes, a blanket for a lean-to and a pack of matches. He taught me to fish for pike and perch, bass, and smelt on Lake Oswego, trout and walleye through the ice on Little York Lake.
He schooled me in the rudiments of trapping raccoon, mink, fox and muskrat, hunting ducks and geese, pheasant and grouse, many of which were shot or trapped on the 13 acres of the dense beaver pond wetlands behind our family’s property on Lake Como.
We didn’t just hunt, though. We killed game. Lots of it. Dale was a born woodsman and hunter and had an extraordinary knack for bagging trophy birds, fish and anything sizable with fur on four legs.
But the most fun — and the object of my fantasy — was the big game hunting. Every part of it — tracking, stalking, standing and occasionally shooting the Northeast’s most prized of all big game trophies — the wily whitetail.
Almost all of our successful deer hunts over a period of five years (until I moved to southern California following my college graduation) took place on private land along the base of Song Mountain Ski Resort north of the tiny hamlets of Preble and Little York. It was thick forest, the perfect place to be schooled in the art of patiently waiting, watching the landscape, searching for antler rubs, studying game trails, scanning thickets for a twitching ear or flicking tail…sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for three hours. Sometimes in a tree stand near a watering hole, sometimes on a bluff, occasionally in a blind near a game trail. But always in stealth silence…watching and waiting.
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