While sitting on my bunk, living in a homeless shelter on the south side of Chicago, I thought about another life I had lived. Back around 1987 or so, the girl I was living with, Sharon, took me to a place in southern Wisconsin, just west of Lake Geneva called JES Exotics. (The name is now Valley of the kings for some reason). The owners, Jill and EJ rescued big cats from bad situations and gave them a nice place to live out their lives. They never bred them as there are too many in captivity already, and when they died they never even thought about pelting them for money as they respected them as family. I found the place was a lot of fun, and a real experience to get that close to a tiger, of which at the time they had over 14. To look into the eyes of a tiger sitting less than a foot away from your face, through a fence, is profound. Power, calmness, vast abilities with no pretense... it is the closet thing I can think of to looking God in the eyes.
I learned a lot up there, like how dangerous cold weather can be. There was a cold January night, where the only warmth to keep me alive was a distant light across a field of deep crunching snow, the earth a blank white jabbed with dead random sticks with stark black sky filled with gleaming stars that don't care if you survive or even know you exist. Bound up by clothing that fights your every movement, boots that weigh you down and a searing in your nose from the frigged air bringing tears to your eyes. You have no choice but to suffer, no option but to push on, in the distance you see a car pass along a country road, a warm cocoon of light, comfy and headed home, you think I will never taker that for granted ever again.
The old farm was a group of variously sized buildings arranged by some long forgotten reason in occasional patterns, big here, small there, like a rocky outcropping in the middle of a corn field savanna. Since the changeover from a home for cows to cats, a second silvery webbing of chain link fences have grown between them, confusing any rhyme or reason to the original layout. I think back now and see that I have been drawn to many intricate places like this.
On one trip up to see the big cats, I came across a man and a woman digging a hole. It was in the courtyard formed by the side of the farmhouse, some large cages and sheds, all nicely manicured with flowers and stuff. The hole they hole digging was big... 6 foot by 6 foot big, so I asked them what it was for. They said one of the tigers had been very sick and would soon pass on, so they where digging the hole to bury it. It was one of those moments in time where your eyes open up and your life changes. I looked around and saw that it wasn't just a pretty flower garden, but a well maintained grave yard, all nice and neat. The people doing the digging where older than me, and I wasn't helping by standing there, so I jumped in. Thus started my volunteer work at JES, helping to clean pens, give tours and all the basics at the beginning. That first year I would drive up on Sundays to do what I could around the place and visit with my favorite cats. Then, as the weather got better, Jill mentioned that I could set up a tent out in back and stay over if I wanted.
Ahhh, those summer nights in the tall grass between the back fence and acres of young corn growing and swaying in long rows, with nothing but my truck and the occasional chorus of roars from the lions at night, vibrating my air mattress beneath me. Back then, out in the country like that, I'd have my old 30-30 lever action Winchester close by as I slept. Waking late at night, I'd crawl out of the tent to relieve myself, not worrying where it hit as I look up at the thick carpet of stars glowing in a stunning explosion of silence overhead.
Oh great, it's getting late and I feel like I could write for hours. It saddens me to think I might not be able to pick up this rhythm again, but I can't go back to how I used to be, sacrificing everything for my own selfish wants. I have a job here and need to learn a new balance and moderation in my life.
Glad I went to bed at the right time last night, thank God I learned that lesson! My I.C. (At the mission, I.C. stands for In Charge, some say it means In Christ, but all the guys just know it's the program guy that is in charge of a set work group.), so, yeah, My I.C., Cook, went and messed up big time and got dropped from the program. The rumors are flying about backsliding and I feel bad for him, the temptations are strong. The thing is, I am now next in line to be the I.C. of my crew. that gives me an extra $5 in my gift money, but most importantly, I get a two hour walk instead of just one. This is a whole new kind of stress... I've never been a boss before, and this is a tough crowd.
Let me go back to my early days at the farm. EJ and Corey, his son had set up a shooting range way out in back of the farm with a pile of rail road ties on a berm as a back stop. I enjoyed seeing the lions and stuff, but it was really nice to be outdoors and do some target practice too. I'm not even close to being a marksman, but I like the amazing workmanship that goes into the guns. My Smith and Wesson 686 revolver has a side plate on it that you almost can't see till you take the screws out and tap on the opposite side. At the end of the day of shooting, I would dig through the logs looking for slugs to see how they performed upon impact. My dad had guns, but my mother had him sell them off when I was around 5 years old. It's too bad as I have seen many fathers and sons that grew up with tight relationships through the hobby of guns and the trust that comes with it. My Dad and I did a lot together, that has served me well over the years, like fixing cars and repairing things around the house. But those where things you had to do, not things you chose to do.