News & Politics

First Person: Building Bridges

When you put a city kid in the country, he gets acquainted with things like mice and snakes—and his dad.

Five years ago, my wife and I bought a small place in the woods of Rappahannock County. The plan was that it would be strictly a financial investment. It didn’t work out that way.

If there was a subtext, it could also be a way for Carol and me to expose our teenage son, Ben, to a world other than one where wildlife is seen only in alleys.

We weren’t sure how Ben would respond, although based on the First Law of Teenage Logic, it had to be a dumb idea because it was ours. And yet things kept happening that even he couldn’t find lame.

There was the morning we discovered a mouse giving birth in my waders. After mother and baby spilled out, she grabbed the hairless thing in her mouth and scrambled under the porch. Before they disappeared, I did manage to yell, “See you in the pantry!”

And the winter afternoon when six deer strolled out of the woods. A seventh hopped just behind, its right front leg hurt and dangling. Ben wanted us to apply a splint. I said my large-animal vet license had expired.

Then there was the night we turned on the lights to find a snake near the dining-room table. Ben and I, wielding brooms, wrangled it outside. Within 24 hours, Carol was able to close one eye.

Two nights later, I noticed something dark stretched along the ledge above a window. I asked Ben for a second opinion. He concurred. One thing was clear: We needed to get the snake back outside or we’d never see Carol there again. Snakes in your house are one thing. Snakes above your head in your house—that’s just not right.

Given the need for secrecy, we chose not to talk the snake down from the ledge (“It’s not you, it’s us”) and moved quickly to long-handled grilling utensils.

Snake removal usually isn’t a quiet business, but we managed to speak in whispers—although with more of an edge when the snake bounced off the CD player and began slithering under the couch. But we were on a mission, and soon he was out free-ranging with his buddies.

Carol never knew. Until she read a note I’d written to friends. She squealed, and not with delight. 

Over the years, Ben also learned how to dig a good hole. Funny thing about holes—creating one together can forge a bond, if only for a few minutes. I recommend this for parents who sometimes want to kill their teenagers.

In time we realized that holes weren’t enough. So we built two bridges.

Who cares if one was over a four-foot-wide gully and the other crossed a three-foot-wide stream—one that, because of drought, had no water. If digging holes can bring fathers and sons closer, hammering nails can make them borderline huggy.

It was almost 100 degrees the day we built the first bridge. I remember looking at Ben, sweat streaming down his face, and thinking: Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.

It was one of the best days of the summer.

Every time we go out to the Rappahannock house, I make a point of walking across the bridges. They’re four steps each. Sometimes I think that, with luck, years from now Ben will look down as he crosses the stream and remember how that bridge came to be. Perhaps he’ll even hear the sweet sound of nails going into wood.

Or maybe just his mother screaming.

This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.