Grandpa was a different kind of person. His taciturn nature only served to amplify his stern countenance creating the appearance of a severe and somewhat mysterious man. My friends would hang-up immediately when he answered the phone rather than ask to speak to me. I think it was mostly due to his gravelly voice, but he rarely smiled, and most people never saw him laugh. His laugh was wonderful though and it’s a shame more people didn’t get to enjoy it. Grandpa also didn’t talk on the telephone much and I think he felt put-out by the interruption it created when it rang. Whatever the reason, he sounded gruff when he answered, and it scared my friends into hanging up without speaking. In retrospect, it seems like maybe those occurrences added to my grandpa’s dislike of the telephone.
Grandpa was a private person. The fingers on my left hand are enough to count the number of times I ever heard him answer a question about himself. There were even fewer times I heard him say what he was about to do or where he was about to go.
By the time I was old enough to notice, probably about age eight or nine, he began going out onto the farm again after supper. This was usual during the summer, but he began doing it very early in early spring which was highly uncharacteristic. He would always take a napkin full of bread and meat scraps with him. I thought he was going back out into the orchards to work and was taking a snack with him in case he got hungry. A few minutes after the screen door banged shut, bouncing (as it did) several times before completely coming to a silent rest.
I would hear the tractor start-up and head west down the road in front of the house. Then the engine sound turned left just past our house, traveling south past the old, yellow brick schoolhouse, into the orchard. Soon the sound would fade into silence again. An hour or so later though he would return. There was never any discussion about where he went. Grandma didn’t ask any questions, so I certainly didn’t…and Grandpa never offered any explanation, at least not to me.
Then one night he asked me if I’d like to see where he was going every night after supper. I quickly said, “Yes!” and he took me with him that night. We walked across the yard and down the hill to where the green John Deere tractor was parked. He picked me up and put me on the tractor base near the padded black seat. He climbed up after me, sat in the seat, then picked me up and sat me on his knee. He started the tractor and off we went. We headed south on the lane just past the old yellow brick schoolhouse, along the edge of the orchard all the way back to the woods. On the edge of the woods, just to the west of the lane, there was a huge brush heap. At least two generations of fruit farmers had been piling tree pruning scraps from the orchards yearly pruning. Grandpa pointed about three-fourths of the way down that wood pile and asked if I saw the small dark opening. I did. He told me to sit on the tractor seat, be very quiet, and watch.
He climbed down off the tractor and walked toward that pile of brush. He took the scrap packet from his shirt pocket, opened it up and placed the contents on the ground about six feet from the opening. He slowly backed away until he was beside me once again. He told me to stay still and keep watching that dark spot in the brush pile. After a few minutes, a family of fox emerged.
The kits were darling! I desperately wanted to hold one and bury my face in its soft red fur. I wanted to hug on one, but I knew I couldn’t because they were wild animals. But oh! how sweet were those little faces and puffy tails. They were very skittish, darting eyes trying to see everywhere all at once. They continually looked to their mom to see what she was doing. She would take a bite of food very quickly then look up, look all around as she sniffed the air, then stare in our direction for a few moments to see if we were moving. Once she was sure we were staying put, she would glance at each kit in turn and then quickly take another bite of food and repeat the security scan of the whole area. She was continually on the lookout for any sign of movement or possible aggression.
One kit came out toward us, a few yards away from the rest of his family. He was very brave and curious. He sniffed the air, looked at us, and I think our eyes met. He gave a shrill whistle-like bark and trotted back to his family. He stopped and grabbed a mouthful of scraps and headed into the wood pile that was their den.
Grandpa continued to go out after supper every night. Three or four times a week Grandma and I would follow him with the car. We would sit in the car and watch as Grandpa would place the food down, farther and farther from the den (and a little closer to us) every week. Before too much time had passed, Grandpa started calling the bravest kit, Freddy. Freddy Fox was always the one who came closest, seemed the most curious, and was the most vocal. He would look us in the eye while the other kits would look away and try to not to acknowledge our existence. Had there been any holes in the ground in which to hide their heads, I have a feeling that’s exactly what they would’ve done.
By the end of summer, Freddy had come within a few feet of my grandpa. One night, before school started back up at the end of summer, I rode out with him again and he helped me down off the tractor. We walked a few feet and we could see the fox family coming toward us about 10 yards away. They saw me and slowed their pace. Grandpa whispered for me to squat down and be very still and quiet. He did the same right beside me. The fox family approached slowly, sniffing the air and eyeing me the whole time. They stopped. Most of them sat down but Freddy and his mom continued toward us. Then mama fox stopped walking and stood, sniffing the air, and looking all around. Freddy, however, continued toward us, moving ever more slowly as he got closer and closer.
Grandpa began talking to Freddy in a soft voice. Freddy’s ears perked up and pointed toward my grandpa. His eyes kept darting to me, but he would look back at my grandpa and continue toward him. Grandpa took the packet of food from his pocket. He unfolded the napkin, removed a very nice scrap of pork chop and held it out in his open palm. Freddy smelled the chop and licked his lips. Freddy looked at me again and stretched his neck as far as he could and still had to take two more steps toward grandpa before he could reach that piece of meat. He took it! Right out of my grandpa’s hand! He jumped backward out of reach and ate his prize while grandpa kept talking to him calmly. Freddy approached again and took another piece of meat but this time he turned tail and trotted back toward his family.
I gasped at that point, full of awe at what I had just seen. Grandpa placed the rest of the scraps on the ground and we calmly walked back to the tractor and then we watched as the rest of the fox family ate. It was a wonderful experience and even though over 50 years have passed, I still remember that evening with amazing clarity. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all was that grandpa had managed to get an 8-or 9-year-old to sit so quietly for so long. Perhaps he was more than a Fox Whisperer.
All these photos are courtesy of either Pexels, Pixabay, or Unsplash.