Forced birdwatching with my uncle

One time when I was in high school my mom made me go on a bird watching trip with one of my uncles. He was a member of some ornithological club, and every time I’d see him, he’d be like, “Rob! What’s up buddy? You’ve got to come bird watching with me and the boys this weekend. Come on, it’ll be fun! It’s always good to pick up a new hobby, what do you say?”

birdwatching

And what was I going to say? I couldn’t be like, “No, I don’t want to go bird watching, that sounds boring, all I want to do is stay inside and play Nintendo 64,” because you can’t talk to adults that way, especially not your uncle, my mom would have been pissed. So I did what probably any other teenager in my situation would have done, I gave a really unenthusiastic non-committing response, a, “Yeah, maybe, that sounds cool,” and then I’d just answer every follow up question with simply a yes or a no, making sure to pause at least two or three seconds in between each answer, trying really hard to make it look like I was just barely paying attention.

But I guess my uncle either couldn’t take the hint, or he took it and he said to himself, nah, I’m not going to take that hint. He probably thought, sure Rob doesn’t want to go bird watching, but that’s because he doesn’t realize how much fun it is. I know, I’ll go behind his back to his mother and make plans for next weekend.

And you know, being fourteen is probably the worst age any human can be. You have pretty much all of the mental faculties that you have as an adult, like, I can remember all of my high school years as if they happened last year. You think for yourself, you have your own opinions. In any other time in human history, fourteen year olds were not only expected to be completely independent, but they were most likely already parents themselves. But when I was fourteen, for some reason it was totally acceptable for my mom to shout up to my room on Friday night, “Robbie, you better get to sleep, your uncle’s picking you up for a bird watching trip early tomorrow morning.”

My fate was sealed. “What?” I could scream and protest for as long as I could sustain my pleading, “You made plans for me to go on a bird watching trip?” it wasn’t going to change anything. And sure enough, before I knew it, seven o’clock rolled around and I was being forcibly dragged out of my bed to take a drive up to some remote bird sanctuary near Tarrytown, NY.

I had expected my uncle and all of his friends to be this bunch of nerdy looking doofs, but I got in the car, there was my uncle and two guys that, I don’t know how to describe them exactly, but they didn’t fit the description of what I had imagined a birdwatcher to look like. One guy had a black leather jacket, the other guy was wearing a knit cap, it wasn’t even that cold out.

And then, once we got going, nobody talked, there was no chit-chat. I’m thinking about my life right now, if I went on some sort of a trip with a bunch of my friends, and one of them brought along his fourteen year old nephew, I’d at least try to make conversation, “What’s up champ? How’s high school? You play any sports?” basic small talk, it’s not that hard. But this was awkward, no radio, the guy riding shotgun was chain smoking cigarettes with his right arm resting on the open window.

Finally we got to this wooded area, I’m not sure if it was a bird sanctuary, I didn’t see any signs, and what happened next always made me doubt if we were where I was told we would be. We hiked around for a while, my uncle had a map but wouldn’t say where we were headed, after about an hour or so we came upon this big tree.

“All right boys, this is it,” my uncle said as the other two guys started unloading a bunch supplies. Grappling hooks, lots of rope, some weird manual drill looking thing, besides the binoculars, none of this stuff looked like anything I’d associate with bird watching. “Don’t you guys usually carry giant books with drawings of birds and stuff?” I asked nobody in particular.

“Can it, kid,” did that guy just tell me to can it? “You’re the lookout.” I asked, “The lookout for what, aren’t we all lookouts? Aren’t we looking out for birds or something?” The other guy said, “Don’t be a wise guy, now just keep your eyes open.” I looked toward my uncle for something, I don’t know, reassurance, maybe a little information as to what was going on, but he just handed me a small backpack, he said, “Just hold onto this for a second.”

And then they all put on these harnesses and started climbing up the tree. I had no idea what was going on, but like half an hour later this park ranger shows up. The guys had pulled up their ropes so, unless you were looking straight up, you’d have no idea what was going on. “What are you doing out here?” the ranger said, “This is protected land. What’s in that backpack?”

I didn’t know what to say. I only hoped that my uncle had prepared me for this, that that’s why I was holding this backpack. I handed it over and the ranger undid the zipper. He fished inside for a few seconds and came out with a small pipe, a lighter, and a dime-sized bag of pot. “All right buddy, you’re coming with me.”

I should have said something, I should have told the ranger to look up, but I froze, I didn’t know what my uncle was doing with those guys up in that tree. Years later I read some article about egg-snatchers, how in the United Kingdom there was this weird secret society dedicated to collecting various types of eggs.

But I never got to connect the dots. The ranger called my parents, they had to drive north to pick me up, my uncle played dumb, giving my mom some bullshit like, “Well, we were all watching birds but Rob said he had to use the bathroom. We looked everywhere for him but he disappeared. Thanks for ruining our trip!” and then when my mom turned to yell at me, he kind of gave me a wink, but not a nice wink, like a threatening wink, like you ever tell your mom about this, a misdemeanor marijuana charge will be the least of your problems.

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