My grandfather stood on my backyard deck overlooking the tree tops and the valley below. With his hands cupped to his mouth and head tilted back, he let out a screech, “Cheeeeeeewv.” We held our breath and listened. Nothing. Again, he screeched, “Cheeeeeeewv, cheeeewv.” We listened. Far off down the hill came a faint raspy reply, “Cheeeeewv.” Again, we heard the reply, only this time much closer. My grandfather answered with a screech and then there appeared a magnificent wild Red-tailed Hawk, with a 30-inch wingspan and bright orange/red tail feathers, alighting on a branch no more than 20 feet from us. I was awestruck. The hawk studied us for a few minutes before flying off. My grandfather would call several more Red-tailed Hawks to my backyard during the summer he visited California, when I was a boy.
My grandfather grew up in the rolling hills of central Wisconsin at the beginning of the 20th century. He was the eldest son of a Danish immigrant who homesteaded 40 acres outside the town of Waupaca. As a young man, he left the farm, studied journalism in Madison, and eventually became a professor at Oregon State. He never forgot, though, his rural boyhood – chasing rabbits through the damp green grass, digging up nightcrawlers, or learning to call Red-tailed Hawks out of the woods.
Several years after my grandfather died, Marcia and I were traveling with our trailer through Michigan and Wisconsin. On a whim, we decided to try to find the old homestead. With the help of the Waupaca Historical Society and a period map, we found the farm. An abandoned chicken coop, converted to living quarters long ago, was all that remained. Vines grew into the rafters and a tractor sat rusting in the front yard under an ancient walnut tree. August humidity made our clothes cling as we tromped around the site, looking for clues to my grandfather’s childhood – and in some sense my own.
I noticed a small family graveyard across the street and I eased over to study the markers. The grass was neatly trimmed around the marble and granite gravestones, old and new. A familiar sound from the edge of the adjacent woods caught my attention. But then it was quiet; again, I focused on the gravestones. “Cheeeeeeewv.” A beautiful Red-tailed Hawk suddenly swooped from a tree top, muscular wings beating the heavy air as it sailed past my head, across the clearing, and off into the woods. He made one last call, “Cheeewv,” before disappearing. In that instant encounter I felt a connection, this bird and me. This was my grandfather’s hawk.