swan chaser

Ronald Pagodin, Sr. died this week. He was the father of my closest friend from high school (and college, and post college). His son Ron and I were bike riding, songwriting, music making, hanging out partners. When my mom phoned to tell me Ron's father had died, and though I haven't been in touch with Ron Jr. much since leaving New Jersey in 1993, I decided to attend the funeral, which was held today.

Ron Sr. was an intimidating man. I didn't dislike him but he frightened me so I avoided him whenever possible. It wasn't always possible. Driving to New Jersey today I remembered one such time; a moment I consider to be one of the most significant from my youth, a gift. And it was given to me by Ron Pagodin, Sr.

It happened like this.

Ron Jr. and I along with our friend Bill liked to camp in Swartswood State Park. Sometimes we would decide on the spur of the moment to drive up for the night and if we didn't want to bother with a tent, there was always the camper Ron Sr. kept up around there. On this occasion we arrived tentless to find the camper with Ron Sr. in it. He had donned his typical camping attire: a pair of cutoff shorts, a beer for one hand, and a cigarette for the other. "When it gets dark we'll go out on the lake in the canoe," he said. "Okay," we said. He left at that point to pursue whatever it was he was pursuing.

Later on, Bill and Ron got into a game of cards. I don't know what I was doing. Staring at the wall maybe. I hate playing cards, always have. Ron's father returned, throwing open the camper door and saying, "who's going out on the lake!"

I eagerly called out, "Me!" fully expecting two other "Me's" to chime in as well. They did not.

"You two pansies not up for it?" asked Ron's dad (I'm not sure if that's exactly what he said or not, though it is certainly what I was thinking).

Looking at me for perhaps the first time ever, Ron Sr. said, "Let's go." Minutes later, he and I--just he and I--put that canoe in the water.

There was a partial moon and plenty of stars. The quiet was deep and almost unnerving, the sound of the oars cutting the water, welcome. We paddled around for a few minutes, Ron Sr. wondering aloud why anybody would choose to skip a night like this for a game of cards. I wondered the same thing and said so.

There was a loud splashing from the other end of the lake, behind us. We turned in time to see a large white swan landing on the water. Ron turned the boat with a single deft stroke and sent us skimming toward the swan with no wake and almost no noise.

The bird knew we were there of course, but she did not fly off. We stopped maybe forty feet away.

"Let's chase her," said Ron and without waiting for my answer we were off, as was the giant bird. Her wingspan had to be ten feet, or maybe I was just smaller then.

"Paddle as hard as you can!" Ron hissed.

"Okay." I wasn't bad with an oar, Boy Scout merit badges and numerous camping trips being part of my past.

We cruised after the swan. She toyed with us, maintaining that forty feet of water whether we slowed down or sped up. Neither boat nor bird made any more noise than was required for motion.

"You know, if a swan is threatened it'll attack you with its wings. Those damn birds can really put a hurtin' on ya," Ron Sr. said at one point. It sounded as if he might be speaking from experience.

There was one other thing he said again and again, "Just breathe it right on in. Just eat it right on up." I assume he was speaking to me, or maybe to himself. Perhaps both.

We never caught up with the swan, indeed never closed the gap to more than forty feet. We stopped after a while and so did she, both of us floating as neighbors on the lake. Then she flew off, the report of her wings muffling numerous other night sounds that I hadn't noticed until they were briefly gone. Spectators.

During the car ride back to the camper Ron told me to hang on to it, not to tell Ron Jr. and Bill.

That I did. In fact I never told anyone about it until I gave the story to Ron Jr. and his two sons this afternoon. "I always wondered what happened," Ron said. "Dad never said anything either."

"To this day," I said, telling them the truth, "whenever I am struck dumb by the beauty of creation, which happens all the time, I hear Ron Pagodin Sr.'s voice in my head: 'Just breathe it right on in. Just eat it right on up'."

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