Monthly Archives: June 2012

Jesus is just alright with me

This is a link to a great version of this song by the Doobie Brothers

Here’s a shock for you all – I teach 7th grade Religious Education for my church. Believe me, it often takes me by surprise, too.  Mostly when I am not prepared for the evening lesson.

Right about the time my daughter was conceived, I began my journey back towards my faith and God.  I put aside my old rhetoric about hypocrisy, money and other crap and just focused on being a good Catholic.  It worked for me.  It worked for my family, as we wanted to raise our daughter in a faithful way.

One day, at the end of mass, the Deacon asked if anyone would like to help out as a hall monitor.  Being that I was going to be bringing my daughter to CCD, and wanted to help out in the church a little more than just tithing, I volunteered.  Easy, I thought.  Make sure the kids are out of the halls and can find the bathroom.

Then one day I mentioned to the right person, that if they needed someone to fill in as a substitute teacher, I would be willing to give it a shot.  Two days later the Deacon asked me to teach a class.  Not just any class, but the 7th grade.  For the whole year.

And really, how do you say ‘no’ to the Deacon?

So I got my materials together, mentally prepared myself the best I could and showed up at the school.  As I was walking down the hall to my first class, I ran into a friend that also teaches religious ed.  When I told her where I was headed she replied, ‘7th grade?  Good luck, they’re the worst bunch to teach.

Oh, brother. What have I gotten myself into now?

So, I went into class with the mentality that it was going to be difficult to keep the kids focused (and it is, very much so).  Drawing from everything I have ever experienced, the way you keep a bunch of unruly kids in order is to lay down the law – in a clear, firm, non-jocular and paramilitary manner.

That works for about the first three classes.

One of my famous quotes – “Sure as I am standing here, you will remember me saying this to you”  (I say that because it sounds so ominous).  “Some day you are going to need to know how to pray.  Life is like that.  And what are you going to do when that time comes?  Stand there and say, ‘oh, geez, God, I, uh, well, uh, I don’t know what to say….how’s it goin’ up there?’  A lightening bolt will fly out of a cloud and fry you on the spot!”

For the most part they are good kids.  For the most part.  Some are more good than others.  I wouldn’t call them dumb or naive, not by a long shot.  But they are not street savvy.  So I try to spice up my weekly hot air sessions with little vignettes from my long, checkered and oft times misspent life.  They seem to like that, but I have to be careful what I say so they don’t decide to begin a ‘Birdlife’ of their own.

(Hey Teacher, I tried to make grease bread on the stove over the weekend.  Mom says the I ruined two pounds of bacon and Dad said I almost burned the house down…)

They throw some tough questions at me that I have to give serious thought to (on the fly, no less) so that I can formulate a lucid answer.

‘Was Hitler (or Osama binLadel) the Devil?’   No, but I am sure they are speaking to him right now.

‘Do aborted babies go to heaven?’    Everyone goes to heaven.  Jesus made sure of it.

‘Will I see my pet dog in heaven?’    As long as he didn’t pee on the carpet, ever.

‘Why do some people die young and others not?’    When their job is done here, God calls them home.

‘It says ‘thou shall not kill’, so what about eating animals?‘    The tastier something is, the more ok it is to eat them.

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’     For that one I usually break into a tale of the NJ Pinelands, foggy cedar swamps and the notorious Jersey Devil.

Being that they are only between 12 and 14, there are a lot of things that are very difficult to explain to them because they have not experienced life yet.  So it is a challenge to distill a response into language and terms that a pre-teen can understand.

I never, ever discuss sex.  I don’t even mention the word.  In all seriousness I am not comfortable talking about it, I don’t feel it is my place and I am not interested in answering questions about it.  Not ever.  They will find out about that whole world soon enough on their own.  No need to complicate things any further for them.

I try to get them to understand that their faith is important, but that they will come to understand that in their own time frame, like I did.  That being said, I also let them know that when they decide to get their heads out of their asses and look to the sky searching for God, that putting forth a little effort now will go a long way towards their enlightenment then.

It’s difficult because they don’t view CCD as regular school and think that it is mostly an hour and a half of boredom.  I understand that, but it is my job to push past that and get them to understand some basics about their faith.

On the last day of class I bring in ice cream sandwiches (the round ones, not the cheap rectangles wrapped in tissue paper) to try and make up for being rough on them all year.  I don’t think it helps much.  Inevitably the ice cream melts and coats everything from their hands, to their desks, to their books.  And there is always one kid that doesn’t eat ice cream.  I just can’t get past that.  What kid, let alone one out of each class, doesn’t like ice cream?

So, you are free to call me a hypocrite, Sisters Nancy, Gale and Elizabeth.  I certainly have earned it.  You can gloat at me getting my comeuppance after the disinterest I showed in your classes.

However (of course there is going to be a ‘however’…) something must have gotten through, perhaps via osmosis –

(Osmosis – molecular movement from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration via a semi-permeable membrane, like my skull)

– because when I decided to get my head out of my ass and look skyward I not only found Him, but saw that He was pleased with my return.



I’ve introduced every member of the Bird Crew,  save one.

Before I go on, let me say this:  Walt could be the biggest, most annoying, cantankerous, button pushing, antagonistic motherf*^%#! in the world.  But if he liked you he would back you up through thick and thin.

I remember getting a ride home from work, one cold, snowy December afternoon and finding his legs sticking out from beneath my disabled vehicle.  I had broken a leaf spring and didn’t have a clue as how to fix it.  But for Walt that was as basic as watering the lawn (he is an excellent mechanic).  He had me mobile again in a few hours.

And that was only one example of the size of this man’s heart.  But I am not going to bore you with his virtues, because none of that is funny.

Walt lived in some, er, interesting places. I use the word ‘interesting’ when I am trying to be polite.  In actuality, Walt lived in some shiate holes.  When I first met him, he lived with four other guys in an apartment in Elizabeth, NJ.  Let’s break that down, shall we?


Elizabeth, NJ

Four other guys


It was an old, dark, dingy, smelly and vermin infested residence.  I came to understand that those adjectives would be common to most of Walt’s dwellings.

I was sitting on the couch one evening, watching television in the dark (not sure why it was dark) when I detected movement near my feet.  I stomped my foot once and thus began my running score against the cockroaches.  Another time Walt asked me to trap a rat that was visiting the storage space under the sink (I was successful).

This place actually had a dumbwaiter – a small, elevator-like device that ran from the basement through each floor.  It didn’t work, so they used the shaft to dispose of solid waste – broken furniture, old clothes, newspapers and other periodicals.

Fortunately for Walter, he was only residing there until he completed diesel mechanic school.  Unfortunately for his cohabitants, when he left so did the only person with any sense of hygiene.

Eventually he moved into a three story house with three other guys.

Walt occupied the third floor of this old, semi-Victorian house from the set of the Adams family.  It was old, dark, dingy, smelly and vermin infested.  It seemed that history was repeating itself.  Only this time, the vermin were mice.  But don’t mistake these mice for the kind of critters that invade your pantry and eat your stores.  These mice were food.

Food…for the snakes.  Yes, snakes, in the plural.  Every one of these knuckleheads had at least one.  There were multiple sub-species of pythons and boa constrictors and one King snake.  The King snake was the one you had to cautious of.  It was the meanest and most untrustworthy of the bunch.  All of these damned things were over 3 feet in length, which could set a visitor on edge, you know?

At some point in the evening, it would be feeding time.  All snakes would be extracted from their aquariums and dropped out onto the living room rug and a half dozen mice would be released into their midst.

The carpet was beige/green/brown colored to begin with.  But over time so much sand, dirt and other grime had been ground into it, that it more than resembled the outdoors.  But the mice were white.  They contrasted quite a bit on the rug.  All the better for snake vision.

You think the Nature Channel has some interesting footage of meal time in snakedom?  Try watching it happen two feet away from you  (beer in one hand, bowl of chips in the other).

For the most part, the mice didn’t stand a chance.  But life in an aquarium tank can slow a serpent down some.  And a wary mouse that is tagged as dinner can move pretty fast.  More than once I saw a mouse dodge a strike.  I think I even saw the mouse flip the snake the middle finger after one failed attempt.

I have to say that for something that normally moves so slow you can mark time by it’s progress, when food was on the table, er, rug, things sped up measurably.  But only for a few seconds.  The snake would strike, coil and compress the rodent-du-jour, then flip it around and begin ingesting it.  The swallowing process could take a few minutes.  Afterwards, if the snake was still hungry, it would go for another helping.  If not, it resumed it’s normal, lethargic state.

A five foot python needs a few mice to fill it’s belly.  But it would only need one rat.  That is, if the rat didn’t fight back.  And fight back they do.  Rats are mean critters and although they eventually do get eaten, a full grown rat can impart some damage on a lethargic snake.  So much so that the boys would need to knock the teeth out of the rat first, so the snake wouldn’t get gashed.

What kind of a pansy snake needs to have it’s food disabled first?

And not any old rat would do.  No, these friggin snakes had to have white, pen raised rats (that ran upwards of $10 each).  Because normal, garbage rats (that you can get for free) have diseases that could make the snake sick.  Who wants a sick snake on their hands?  What fun would that be?  A sick snake doesn’t eat.  Other than eat, the only think a snake does is lay around motionless and what fun is that?

As you might imagine, there were a lot of mice in this place.  But only for short periods of time.  When there was an abundance of mice, I was known to entertain the troops by juggling three mice, demonstrating a mouse’s inherent adhesive properties by flinging them onto the drapery (they stick) or by demonstrating various high-wire and rope climbing abilities (using string hung from the ceiling).  Birdwell’s visiting Mouse Circus.

Sure, you have to be careful not to get bit.  Fortunately for me (unfortunately for the mouse),  mice come complete with a handy grabbing attachment – their tail.  If they try to bend around and bite your finger you can pinch the skin around the scruff of their neck.  That will quell most mouse antics.  If not, they got flipped into the snake tank.

What? They’re rodents for crying out loud. Vermin, pests, carriers of disease, unwelcome eaters of your Fruit Loops.

Personally I don’t have too much of an issue with snakes.  As long as they are not posing any threat to me or mine, I leave them alone.  Should that line be crossed, however, I bisect them with whatever tool might be handy (stick, shovel, firearm, sword…).  Once I bisected a black snake on the side of the road when I ran over it with my bike.  Another time I lambasted a four-footer into the next life with an oak branch.  I skinned that bitch and archived it.  Then there was the garter snake that latched onto my dog’s nose.  A quick swipe with a garden spade both unlatched it from him and cut the snake into equal parts.

I am not the only one participating in said dispatching.  I found the remains of a 3 foot something while hunting.  No skull, skin or flesh remained.  From the position of the stout branch across the bleached white vertebrae, it was obvious that the serpent had crossed the line.

A complete set of serpent vertebrae was quite a find. I scooped them up, reassembled them at home and ran a stiff copper wire through them, effectively resurrecting its serpentine self.

A place of our own (in the Pines)

The night we conceived of and initiated our search for a new camp was not a regular, weekend long camping trip. Dollar and I were back at Camp Wheel Rut on a Friday night just hanging out, having a few beers around an open fire (12 pack of Guinness, 12 pack of Bass Ale, I remember it specifically).

We had been talking about finding a new location for camp. We wanted it to be off of any established trail, especially any that were frequented by dirt bikers. Someplace we could stock with firewood and not have to worry about other folks finding and abusing it. We also wanted to be left alone. We had been developing this xenophobic thing ever since our first weekends were interrupted by dirt bike racket way back at The Rock.  And wouldn’t it be great if we could build a shelter, so we could leave the tent behind?

It wasn’t like we couldn’t see the forest for the trees (a good fitting analogy, don’t you think?), we were in the middle of the largest wilderness area in NJ. Down the fire road a few hundred yards the pine trees came in real tight on the left. A low, swampy area ran along the road off to the right, then the heavy pines started again. We traversed the 10 yards of wetlands, then the land began to rise slightly. And a slight rise – even if only a few inches – means the difference between wet and dry out there. We began looking for a place to put a camp. After a while of bushwhacking we found an area where the pine trees were a little higher, offering much desired overhead cover. As fate would have it, there were three trees almost 8 feet apart. There was a small clearing, no more than 10 feet across in front of that. We decided that would be the place. The significance of 8 feet? A sheet of plywood is 4 x 8. Two sheets along side each other is 8 foot square. Plenty of room for two, or even three people to sleep comfortably. Any guests would have to bunk in the woodshed.

Not long after that nigh time ‘Black and Tan’ tromp we made a trail in a long, lazy ‘S’ pattern. The lean-to was around the last bend and you could not see it through the scrub until you were less than 20 feet away. Anyone coming down the fire road was heard long before they began walking down our trail, that is, if they could find it in the first place. Between the switchbacks and false ending we engineered, you could find yourself lost before ever seeing our lean-to. Meanwhile, we could listen to your every step.

This is a view of the lean-to as you approach on the trail we made.  As you can see, it was well hidden.

That is my girlfriend at the time, posing to show height. (She was about 5 ft.).  To the left of  her is the ‘bar’.



This is a front view into the lean-to, from the fire pit. Notice how neat and tidy everything is.

(It must have been taken just prior to leaving).



On subsequent visits, we cleaned up the area a little and began moving in construction materials. We built our lean-to with longevity in mind. We worked out some drawings and obtained supplies from wherever we could, mostly dump sites and abandoned homesteads we came across in our exploration trips. 9 Pallets, 3 sheets of plywood and 6 aluminum poles made the structure on top of which everything else was built. Eventually we found some corrugated steel for the roof and once that was in place it leaked no more.

If any of our parent’s ever wondered what good could possibly come out of all those ‘forts’ we built in our backyards when we were younger, well, there you go. That place kept us dry and sheltered for years. Last I heard (which was a few months ago) it was still standing.

At first we didn’t have a table, as such. We had a bar. It was a 2×6 lashed between two trees (lashed with rope, we tried to keep as many trees alive and untouched as possible) with another 2×6 nailed flat on top of it. We liked it. We were comfortable hanging at a bar and it served us well.

We picked up a few fire bricks on one of our excursions that served as the walls for our fire pit. We needed to be careful about fire – more so than usual – because this place was a friggin’ tinder box. You can understand why this place has so many devastating fires; the forest floor is covered in dry pine needles. We certainly did not want to be responsible for an inadvertent conflagration.

We found a 10′ length of aluminum gutter on one of our scavenger hunts. Initially we intended it for the back of the lean-to, but we found a much better use for it.

Relieving one’s self was not as easy as usual. Anyplace other than the small area in front of the lean-to was dense scrub and getting far enough away to keep unwanted odor from wafting through camp was tough. Then, having to do it sixty or seventy times a night (the beer, you know?) was an issue.

We shoved the gutter out into the scrub and angled it down into a small hole. It was genius, pure genius (from a guy’s perspective, at least). It also served quite well for carrying waste water out of camp – you know, like left over wash water, pasta water and the such.

We stored almost all of our supplies in plastic 5 gallon buckets. When you snapped a good, tight fitting lid on those things they are water and animal proof. And it was a convenient way to unload/load the lean-to. They made convenient places to sit your ass, or prop up your dogs after a hard day. They were good for holding and dispensing water. Plus we got to inventory all of our shit each time we visited. It was a pleasurable past time, as we danced around the fire, drank copiously and ate equally copiously (eating, drinking and dancing like fools).

This is a shot of the infamous Dollar, cooking, taken from the woodshed.  You can see that things were a little tight in camp.




Dollar salvaged a couple of old kerosene lanterns. After a year or two, we had enough supplies stored that when we wanted to go camping, we only needed to bring minimal gear and food.

It really was cool. There were times that we entertained friends and family by bringing them out there with nothing more than a canteen of water. You can imagine the looks of disdain and moans of disbelief when we would offer hot beverages –  then proceed to build a fire, boil water, pull out packets of hot chocolate and instant coffee, serve and sit back and gloat as everyone sat there wide-eyed and dumb-struck with a steaming mug in their hands.
Talk about a cup of s.t.f.u
Silly flat-landers. We weren’t farking around.

It probably won’t appeal to most folks, but some of the greatest times I have had camping were out at that place. There was something about being camped out deep in the Pines, at a lean-to of our own construction, so secluded that it wasn’t on anyone’s map.

We had everything we needed for an enjoyable weekend. (pretty sure this shot was taken when we first rolled into camp and ‘inventoried’.)

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