As fall approaches, I am drawn to my tree stand, which has sat idle for a number of years. Sitting in tree stands and watching nature up close has been a big part of my life. It is the setting of a family tradition of hunting, watching owls and blue jays land on branches six feet away, listening to coyotes howl on a far ridge, and climbing down and sharing peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with a loved one. As much as I want to keep this tradition alive for my children, it has not been easy. I am the proud father of identical twins. One is a boy, and one is a girl. My daughter is transgender. Because of the fears of others, we have had few opportunities to share in my beloved family tradition.
Recently a very special law enforcement officer invited us to the rifle range to shoot with his kids. They all had a great time. The kids asked if we could do this more often, and I struggled with how to explain that the Rod and Gun Club might not be accepting if they knew who we are.
On the way home the kids asked me about my father's deer-hunting camp in the Adirondacks. I told them a story about a special Winchester rifle and how it saved my life. I remembered the day clearly. It was 1978, a few short years after the Vietnam War had ended, and I was home on leave from the Air Force on a surprise visit. My father had been very sick that past year, and he was still recovering.
A slight fog was lifting off the Sacandaga River as he and I traveled along Route 30. We were late because I had had trouble finding a pair of hunt-worthy boots. My dad was giving me some goodhearted ribbing because I hadn't been ready to go. (Normally I would have been better-prepared to go on this hunt, but my hunting gear was stashed away some 4,000 miles from home at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.) As he chuckled, I could tell that he was really happy to have me home. He punched the old Dodge truck into overdrive, passing two logging trucks that were struggling to make it up the hill. He saw me tense up, and he laughed again, reminding me that he still had good reflexes.
As we slowed to go over the old bridge, I thought about the previous evening's storytelling session with the deer camp regulars, thinking that it might have been my last opportunity to hear skilled hunters and even more skilled storytellers relive their glory days. With each round, the feats of common men were transformed into legendary hunting lore. Hunters blended fact with fiction, describing how each trophy buck succumbed to their skill or amazing luck.
As my father and I watched the sun rise on the river, we saw the largest buck we had ever seen chasing a doe across the fast-moving river. My dad slowed down and said, "Can we cut them off?" I had already started to slip on my uncle Bob's old hunting boots, and soon we were walking toward the first rise on the peninsula, looking toward where the deer had left the river. My dad whispered that he was going to walk down to the pond on the far side of the property. I was to wait 15 minutes and then slowly move down the steep slope through a stand of small pine trees to push the deer toward him. As I made my way through the clearing below the pine ridge, two partridges flushed to my left. The loud noise startled me, and I paused before taking another step. As my right foot landed, the ground beneath me gave out, and I slid into a hole, breaking old boards. When I came to a stop, I realized that I was dangling in an old stone well.
The only thing that was holding me in place was my dad's old .32 Winchester Special rifle. The barrel was wedged in a rotting board, and the shoulder stock was rocking on the stones. As I wondered if the old rifle stock was going to break, I kicked my boots off, jamming my toes in between the slippery stones so that I could climb out of that small well. Climbing out on my bare feet, I took off searching for my dad. Soon he spotted me and whistled. He asked me if I was OK, and I asked him if he'd seen the deer. He said that he did not give a damn about the deer, and I saw the worry in his face.
Telling my kids this story, I had their full attention. I saw in their faces the same intense look that I had when my uncles told me their hunting stories. Our kids do not have many family traditions, and I was really surprised by how much the story piqued their interest. They asked whether I still have the rifle. When we returned home, it was soon in their hands, solidifying the story as true, making a lost tradition come alive.
I wish that parents of transgender kids had more opportunities to pass on these types of traditions, but we are more often struggling with daily survival. It makes me very sad. The sadness I feel is not about losing hunting traditions; it is about losing family and missing school performances, lacrosse games, family meals and the many special moments that cannot be captured by phone or Skype.
I sometimes wonder whether we could still have lived together in the same town. Could I have created our own hunting traditions in Maine? Moose hunting, grouse hunts on the Golden Road and snowshoe hare hunts in the big woods? Maybe someday we will recover and start new traditions.
Just like my dad, I am a storyteller. Stories are powerful tools. Stories can open people's eyes, their hearts and, if we are lucky, their minds. Maybe, if I can promote change, I might start to sleep well again. I might quit worrying about the kids' safety and saving for college and medical bills that insurance companies do not cover. Maybe someday the stories will no longer be about the transgender experience but about me sitting in a tree stand with my grandchildren, telling them the .32 Special story as we share a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.