OWL PELLETS

Worth and I had known other for several months and had become really close friends. I was just short of 14 and he was 28. I knew he liked me a lot and in some special sort of way. Why else would he choose to spend his time with a scrawny kid like me? But I figured I liked him just as much as he liked me. Maybe more. In any case, I jumped at every opportunity to be with him, and it looked like he did the same with me. If anybody had asked me if I loved him, I don't know how I would have answered. I wasn't sure what that meant, but here was this warm feeling inside...

One weekend in March the two of us went on a camping trip to Mount Airy Forest, a big city park on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Worth picked me up at my home on Saturday morning, as usual just as dawn was breaking. The whole sky was pink. As we drove to the forest he told me in more detail about one of the purposes of our trip there: to study what owls eat. Together with friends in the Biology Department of the University of Cincinnati, Worth was engaged in a study of the feeding habits of several species of owls. He explained to me that owls swallow their prey whole or at least in large chunks, fur, bones, and all. After they digest the flesh, they puke back up (he said regurgitate) the fur and bones in an oblong gray mass, called a pellet. Because owls frequently roost in the same tree for days or weeks, the pellets could be collected under the roosting tree. By identifying the skulls in the pellets, a biologist could find out just what the owl has been eating over an extended period of time.

As he described it, Worth made the hunt for owl pellets sound as exciting as the quest for the Holy Grail, and I was chomping at the bit to join him in their pursuit. When we arrived at Mount Airy, we followed a small dirt road to the edge of a dense grove of medium-sized pines, part of a suburban reforestation project he was involved with. We began weaving our way back and forth under the pines, looking for owls’ roosting sites. Worth explained that these dense, medium-sized pines were a favored ecological niche for the long-eared owls, a species far from common in southwestern Ohio.

"Keep your eye out for ‘whitewash’ around the base of a tree," Worth told me. Whitewash was the name ornithologists gave to the white splashes of crystalline urine and excrement of owls and hawks.

We walked about 30 feet apart, our eyes peeled. Suddenly I spotted a tree with a lot of messy white blotches under it. "Worth!" I called softly, "Look here!" Worth approached silently, putting his finger to his lips as he drew near. Cautiously we moved closer to the tree and peered up through the dense branches.

"Look up there," whispered Worth, "against the trunk." And sure enough, near the trunk about two-thirds of the way up, perfectly camouflaged, stood a smallish owl, erect and silent. Focusing my binoculars on the owl, I saw that he was wide awake, his big head tilted downward, staring at us placidly with enormous yellow eyes.

"Do you see his long ear-tufts?" whispered Worth.

"I sure do" I answered, "They look like a donkey's ears." Perhaps I'd offended the owl, or spoken too loudly. Silently as a shadow, the tall brown owl leaned forward, half spread its broad wings, and eased itself into the air. Skillfully weaving its way between the pine boughs, it disappeared among the trees. "Shall we follow him?" I asked.

"First let's see what gifts he's left us," said Worth, pointing to the ground under the tree.

On the dimly lighted floor of the forest, among splashes of whitewash beneath the tree, were a number of small gray sausage-like objects. Worth picked up three or four of them and held them in the palm of his hand to examine. Some were pale and dry, but one was black and slimy. "This one he barfed up today," observed Worth. “The mucus on it is still wet.”

"Ugh!" I muttered, "Looks like dog shit!"

We sat down next to each other on a log, and Worth began to gently pull apart the pellets. From each pellet he extricated from the matted fur and bones one or two tiny, roundish or elongated skulls. Worth took a small magnifying glass from his jacket pocket and carefully examined the skulls. "This one's an eastern deer mouse," he said. "And this is a short tailed field vole." He pointed out the subtle differences in the position, shape, and sculpturing of the teeth.

He held out one of the dryer, fuzzier pellets to me. "Let's see what you can find in this one."

Trying to forget their resemblance to dog turds, I gingerly pulled apart the pellet, and from the matted fur extracted a minuscule, cone-shaped skull with a disproportionately large, broad, tapering mandible rimmed by tiny pointed, outwardly protruding, teeth. "This one looks different!" I observed, holding it out to Worth. "It’s got buck teeth!"

"Fantastic!" he cried. "You know what that is?" I shook my head. "What mammal's smaller than a field mouse?" he asked, "and eats 3 times its own weight of worms and insects a day?"

"A shrew?" I suggested, hesitantly. "Is that why it’s got such a big mouth?"

"Right you are!" laughed Worth. Through the magnifying glass he helped me compare the teeth of the shrew to those of the voles and mice. He explained that the sharp protruding teeth of the shrew were adapted to its carnivorous diet, whereas the flat, blunt molars of the vole were for grinding seeds and vegetable matter.

I was an eager student. By mid-afternoon I had already learned to identify the skulls of several different species of small rodents. But the owls had been eating other things, too. In some of the pellets we found remains of grasshoppers, crickets, and even crayfish. “I can’t imagine an owl fishing for crawdads,” I commented skeptically. But Worth pointed out that the pellets were proof.

We deposited the contents of the different pellets in plastic sandwich bags. To each bag we attached a slip of paper with the date and location of the find.

Sawwhet

Late in the afternoon, searching under the smaller trees at the edge of the pine grove, I found a number of pellets at the base of a tree that were smaller and stumpier (less elongate) than the others we’d been collecting. I called Worth to come look at them. The moment he saw them, he got excited. But at the same time, he put his finger to his lips, as a sign we should keep very quiet.

“These odd little pellets are too small and compact for a long-eared,” he whispered. “They could be a screech owl’s, but the habitat isn’t right. If I’m not mistaken, they’re from a sawwhet owl!” He looked at me appreciatively. “Sawwhets are a rare find here in southwest Ohio. Great find, David!”

I’d barely heard of sawwhet owl – though I vaguely recalled seeing a picture of one in my Peterson’s Field Guide. “Sawwhet?” I asked in the same low voice he was using. “Why do they call it that?’

“Because of its high, raspy call,” he said softly. And again put his finger to his lips.

“Why do we need to be so quiet?” I whispered.

In answer, Worth picked up one of the pellets and examined it. “Look at this one,” he said. “The mucus on it is still wet and slimy. With any luck, the sawwhet is perched right over our heads.”

We stepped back quietly and looked up through the pine branches. “Look!” I whispered jubilantly. “There he is! But it’s just a baby.”

About ten feet up in the pine, perched motionlessly on a thin branch a few inches from the trunk, was a tiny little owl with disproportionately big head and large eyes looking warily down at us.

“It’s not a baby,” whispered Worth. “It’s full grown. That’s as big as they get: about 6 inches long. What a beautiful little fellow! And such wonderful camouflage. You’ve got a sharp eye.”

“What’s that shiny thing on one of its legs,” I asked in a whisper.

In slow motion Worth lifted his binoculars and looked at the owl. “Good spotting!” he whispered. It’s a bird band.” He had explained to me a few days before how ornithologists netted and banded birds to study their habits and patterns of migration. Through the University he even had a license to band birds himself.

“Neat!” I whispered. “Who do you suppose put it on him and where?”

“Maybe we can find out,” said Worth. “But first we have to catch our little friend.”

“Fat chance!” I whispered doubtfully. “He’s already watching our every move.”

“And that’s the secret to catching him!” said Worth with a playful smile. “While one of us distracts him, the other can very quietly climb the pine the try and take him by surprise. Let’s give it a go.”

“Why don’t I climb the tree?” I suggested eagerly. “I’m smaller and lighter.”

Worth nodded in agreement. “Sneak up the tree as slowly and silently as you can. And try not to break any twigs.

Worth quietly stepped back into the clearing a few feet from the tree, in full few of the watchful owl. Then he raised his arms and began to slowly wave his hands. From its hiding place the wonderfully camouflaged owl stared at him intently – its small body hunched as if ready to fly, but completely motionless. In the meantime I very quietly circled around to the other side of the pine and, stealthy as a hunting cat, began to inch my way up the tree. The closer I got to the owl the more vigorously Worth moved his hands. The little owl, with a kind of startled frown, kept his big eyes riveted on Worth. When at last I was within reach of the owl, I very slowly lifted my hand until it was just inches away. Then, with a quick movement, I reached forward and grabbed the bird from behind. The surprised little owl struggled for a moment and then just stared at me fearfully with its huge beautiful eyes...

“Great catch!” cried Worth, “An Indian stalker couldn’t have done it better.” He made his way to the trunk of the pine and reached up, “You can hand him down to me. Be very careful not to hurt him.

I lowered the frightened little owl down to my Worth’s outstretched hand. Tenderly he took it from me. Softly he smoothed its ruffled feathers while he spoke to it very softly in a soothing voice. Amazingly, the little owl seemed to relax and look less frightened, as if it somehow sensed Worth was its friend and wouldn’t hurt it.

With Worth's magnifying glass, we read the tiny numbers and address on the small metal band around one leg. Worth told me we would send the number on the band, with information on where we found the owl, its habitat, and what it had been eating (which we would learn from the pellets) to a central clearing house. From there it the data would be forwarded to those who had banded it, whom we could contact to learn where and when the bird had been banded.

The little sawwhet owl was so beautiful and alert that I at once fell in love with it. I asked Worth if we could keep it as a pet. “We can make a big cage for him, with pine branches for him to perch on,” I suggested.

“I can understand your desire to keep it for a while,” said Worth. “But it’s a wild animal. It has just as much right to live freely as you and I do. It belongs to the forest, not to us.”

After admiring the marvelous little bird for a few minutes, we took it back to the pine where we’d found it. Worth gently lowered it onto a branch, on which it firmly closed its talons. Then, very slowly, he opened his hand. For a moment the little owl clung to the branch, staring at us with its large luminous eyes. It moved its wings a little as if testing to make sure they were still there. It blinked a couple of times. Then, spreading its graceful brown wings, it soundlessly flew to a higher branch in the tree. From this new, higher perch the small owl swiveled its head over its shoulder and stared down at us with its soft, questioning eyes. Finally, it again spread its broad, short wings and gracefully zigzagged its way through trees, vanishing into the depth of the grove.

Worth and I turned and looked at each other. His face was aglow. There was something warm and glowing about the way he smiled at me – a smile that somehow included the owl, the forest, and me in a sense of total wonder and joy.

“It would have been fun to keep him,” I said. “But I’m really glad we let him go.”

“I’m glad you feel that way,” said Worth, putting his hand softly on my shoulder. It was the same strong, warm hand that shortly before had so gently held – and then freed – the owl. I looked up into his blue-gray eyes, and he looked into mine with a dreamy look that made my whole body tingled.

As we examined the pellets of the sawwhet owl to find out what it had been eating, Worth paused for a moment to share with me his feelings about freedom and confinement of wild animals.

“As you know,” he said, “I do sometimes keep wild birds and animals in cages or terreria for a while, to observe them and learn more about them – and to enjoy them. The scientist in me argues that that’s okay. But there’s something else in me – the poet maybe -- that feels it isn’t right to confine another creature or limit its freedom, just because I happen to be bigger or stronger. Do you know what I mean?”

I told him I knew just what he meant. I sometimes had similar feelings myself – though I’d never thought about them so clearly, or discussed them with anyone. I liked the way he, as a grown-up, shared his thoughts and feelings with me as an equal. After all, I was just a scrawny 13-year-old kid! Somehow it gave me more self-confidence. A greater sense of worth.

While most of our attention in Mount Airy Forest that day was given to the collection and study of owl pellets, we’d kept our eyes and ears open for the various denizens of the pine forest, large and small. We tried to link events together and follow clues. For example, a racket raised by a flock of angry blue jays led us to the new hideout of the long eared owl we had flushed earlier in the day. By the end of the day we had observed by sight or sound, or by tracks, leavings, or other signs, over thirty species of birds and more than a dozen mammals (not counting the assortment of skulls and bones and shells we’d discovered in the pellets). For each Worth had some exciting story about their habits, idiosyncrasies, and lore. It was all a marvelous and unforgettable adventure. But for me the high point of the day was capturing – and then setting free – the sawwhet owl. Everything that day in the forest seemed to fit together so beautifully and naturally: the pines, the pellets, the owls, the wonder of it all.

The campfire

We returned to Worth’s car in the late afternoon, shouldered our backpacks, and hiked half a mile or so back into the forest to a remote camping area. In a small clearing we set up his pup tent. We built a fire between three stones and prepared a meal. We made “sis kebab” by skewering meat and vegetables onto a spit we’d whittled of green sassafras, to add flavor, and brazing it over the hot coals – together with corn on the cob -- which we roasted like marshmallows, golden brown and a bit burned. I told Worth it was the best meal I had ever eaten. No doubt the chilled night air, held at bay by the warm glow of the fire and of the friendship we shared, added to the tantalizing flavor.

Long after dark we continued to sit around the fire, telling stories and sharing things that only close friends talk about.

"Have you ever thought about what you want to do, or be, when you grow up?” Worth asked me, tossing another branch on the fire. It raised a shower of sparks.

“For a long time,” I answered. “When I was five years old, my mother took me to my father's law office on the top floor of a giant building in Norwood. In his office he had a great big desk and a pretty secretary. I was greatly impressed. For years after that, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a lawyer like my daddy. ‘That way I can sit behind a big desk and look at a pretty lady all day, just like he does,’ I told them!"

"Do you still want to be a lawyer?" Worth smiled.

"No way!" I laughed. "I want to be a naturalist. Like you."

"So that you can hide behind a tree looking at pretty ladies?" chided Worth.

“No” I retorted. “So that I can grovel on my knees looking for pretty awful owl pellets.”

"Pretty awful sense of humor!" Worth chuckled.

“You should talk!” I said. "But seriously! I'll take the owl pellets any day."

"In preference to the pretty ladies?" he joked.

"You'd better believe it!" I muttered, prodding the hot coals until the sparks flew.

We stared silently into the embers for a moment, until finally Worth spoke again.

"I think you've got what it takes make an outstanding naturalist," he said.

"Really?" I asked, looking at his angular face in the firelight.

“Yes,” he said. "You have good eyes, good ears, a good mind, lots of curiosity, and a big heart."

"Big heart?" I said, wondering what that had to do with it.

"I guess I mean a certain feeling. A lot of caring. A sense of wonder. A passion for life. A feeling of oneness . . ."

"A feeling of oneness?" I interrupted.

"Yes. How can I say it? A feeling that you're one with, somehow a part of -- I guess I mean in love with -- the intricacies, the splendor, the diversity, the enchantment, the excruciating beauty – the intricate interconnectness -- of the natural world."

He was fumbling for words! I couldn’t believe it! My friend, Worth, who always had just the right word for everything! It was as if he were trying to share something that somehow he couldn't or shouldn't say. Nobody had ever talked to me like that. A strange feeling crept through me. My heart beat quickened and again – as after we’d set the owl free -- I felt a tingling warmth flush through my whole body, from my face to my groin. Confused by these odd feelings, I poked furiously at the fire.

"You really care about me, don't you?" I asked shyly.

"I'd be a fool not to," he replied. "I think you're exceptional."

We were sitting so close that our shoulders almost touched. I had a sudden urge to snuggle up to him, but still didn't quite dare. "I'm sleepy," I pretended. "Let's head for the tent."

We carefully put out the last flickering embers by pissing on them. Then we crawled into the pup tent. Worth turned on a big camp flashlight and stood it in a corner of the tent.

As we spread out the bedding on the floor of the tent, it somehow turned into a playful tug of war. Worth pulled the old comforter toward the back of the tent, and I ferociously yanked it toward the front. Soon we were tugging it this way and that. I tried to jerk it out of his hands and he from mine. Each of us, refusing to let go, tried to take possession of more and more of the comforter. Before we knew it we were wrestling wildly.

As we wrestled, I got an erection. At first I hoped he wouldn't notice. But after I spotted a telltale bulge in his pants, too, I kind of hoped he would.

Worth at last ceded defeat and let go. I took advantage of the truce and threw the comforter over his head, holding it there with a neck lock, from behind. He pulled at my arms and gave feigned cries for mercy, but I hung on fiercely. Gasping for breath, he grumbled, "You fight more like a boa than a boy!" That made me squeeze him even more tightly, wrapping my whole body around him. At last he wrangled himself free.

Sinking back on his haunches, he panted for breath. The bedding was a shambles. With all our roughhousing it had become hot and humid inside the closed tent. I pulled off my shirt and threw it at Worth, who laughed good-naturedly and threw it back at me.

"My God, you’re strong for your size!" Worth puffed, looking at my skinny body admiringly. "Pure muscle! Not a drop of fat!"

"Feel my biceps!" I said, flexing my arm.

He leaned forward and felt the small round bump of muscle on my arm, which I proudly made jump up and down by gyrating my fist back and forth like the head of a hunting snake. At 13 years old -- almost 14 -- I was still small for my age, relatively immature, thin as a rail. Yet my shoulders and arms were disproportionately strong, probably because since I was tiny I’d loved to climb to the tops of tall trees and rock them back and forth like a pendulum gone bananas.

"Hard as rock!" he said, pushing his fingertips into my knotted biceps.

"Hard as a . . .” I almost said something that rhymes with rock, but decided not to. Close friends as we had become, he was still, after all, an adult. I didn't know quite how far I should go with him. "I can do 18 chin-ups," I bragged, as he felt my biceps

"18 chin-ups! You're joshing me!" cried Worth in disbelief. "Tomorrow you've got to prove it."

"I'll prove it right now." I responded. My sleepiness had vanished. "Bring the flashlight." I crawled out the front end of the tent and Worth followed. Not far from the tent we spotted a young red oak with a horizontal branch about seven feet off the ground. "Lift me up to it," I commanded. He gripped my skinny chest in his strong hands and easily hoisted me up to the limb.

In rapid succession I did a dozen pull-ups. Then I paused momentarily, to get a response. "That's 12!” counted Worth, “You said you could do 18!"

"Just watch!" I continue to do more chin-ups: 13, 14, 15 ... 16..... 17.

"Come on, you can do it," Worth cried, urging me on. Gritting my teeth, I barely managed to pull myself up again until I got my chin over the branch. "18! Hooray!" whooped Worth. "You did it! Unbelievable!"

Thrilled at his praise, a new wave of energy surged through me. "I'll bet I can do another!" I gasped. Putting everything I had left in me into it, I hauled myself up again.

"19!" shouted Worth. "I can't believe it!" Determined, I struggled to pull myself up yet another time. With my last ounce of strength I inched my skinny body upward, upward, until I barely managed to graze the branch with my chin.

"20!" cried Worth. "You're a boy Apollo!"

Suddenly I felt weak. My hands slipped from the branch. Worth caught me in mid air. I wrapped my arms around his neck. He held me against his chest for a long, wonderful moment before he gently put me down.

"I never did that many before!" I grinned ecstatically. "What have you done to me?"

"Nothing more than you've done to me, my friend," he laughed.

"Come on," I said, grabbing his hand and pulling him towards the tent. "Time for bed."

Then I had a second thought. “But first show me how many chin-ups you can do!” I challenged him.

At first he protested, arguing that his body was much heavier than mine. But I insisted, pointing out that his biceps were much bigger, too. At last he sprang up to the branch, and with considerable effort managed to do 14 chin-ups.”

I was in seventh heaven. “With daily exercise” you could do much more,” I kidded him.

“Don’t make fun of an old man, Hercules” joked Worth, good-naturedly tousling my hair.

We crawled back into the tent and again arranged the bedding. Stripping down to our under-shorts, we climbed in under the covers. Worth had arranged the bedding so that the same comforter covered us both. For a while we lay side by side without touching, without speaking, as if waiting for something. I wasn't quite sure for what: perhaps a goodnight hug.

I broke the silence. “That tug-of-war sure was fun!”

“You sure wore me out,” Worth agreed. Suddenly, on a whim, I gave the comforter a big tug, leaving Worth uncovered.

"Hey, what you think you're doing?" laughed Worth, hauling the comforter back to cover himself again. I clung onto it fiercely, like a leech. With his next big tug I found myself sprawled on top of him. That led to another sweaty wrestling match, which gradually mellowed into something more like hugs.

What happened after that? I remembered it later like a kind of a wonderful dream. Or rather, like awakening from a dream into a more complete state of being. I remember becoming aroused, and then realizing, as I had in our previous tug of war, that he was aroused, too. Cautiously, playfully at first, we touched each other with a shoulder or a thigh, and before we knew it, our bodies were pressed together.

"My goodness, you're pretty well developed!" said Worth with a chuckle as he gently took my young shaft in his hand. At his touch I felt a warm surge of delight pulse through my whole body. It was something like what I had felt a hint of when we sat next to each other by the campfire, but now it had a different, more visceral kind of warmth.

For an instant, a strangely distant part of me felt an element of embarrassment, even a bit of fear. Yet, more immediately, I felt empowered and proud. That stronger, more noble feeling won out. I snuggled closer, pressing myself against him. Worth gingerly slid his hand under the elastic of my underpants, and I lifted myself up a little so he could slip them off. Then I plunged myself down again on top of him, my arms around his neck, his arms around my waist. Never had I felt so close to anyone before. For me this was not just play or experimentation, though it had elements of each. It was something much more liberating. Much more profound. Like the release of the owl to the forest. How soft and powerful its wings were!

With me still on top of him, Worth reached one hand back into his knapsack and pulled out a small bottle of what smelled like my father’s shaving cream. He told me to lift up a little, and smeared some of it on his belly. Then he gently eased me back down. "Feel better?" he asked.

"Uh-huh," I confirmed, thrusting against his belly in total bliss.

We were at it a long time. Although I was almost 14 years old, I was still at the front edge of puberty. I had not yet masturbated to climax. Nor even seriously tried, though I had played around a lot for years, mostly by myself but occasionally with other boys. But that night I came very close to exploding, though I never quite managed it. It was all so strange and marvelous. I wasn't sure what was happening to me, but I felt I was on the brink of something wonderful, like I was going to burst with happiness. I must have hung there on the brink for at least an hour, sweating, panting, groaning with suspense and delight. Worth was infinitely patient, holding me tightly and stroking my head and back. Sometimes he would slip his hand between our bellies to reposition my throbbing protuberance, smear on more shaving cream, or provide a bit of extra stimulation. At last, exhausted, I slowed down. For a long time I just lay draped over his body, breathing hard. Finally I tumbled to one side, and gradually fell asleep, his arms around me.

It was wonderful to feel so totally loved.

The next morning I awoke before it was fully light. My mind was in a dither. I cautiously scooted out from under Worth’s arm, so as not to awaken him, and opened the zipper of the tent, peering out into another world. Outside, the forest too was just beginning to stir. A Carolina wren yawned its first melodic "teakettle" refrain. What I guessed was a chipping sparrow started to fiddle its dry trill. Worth slept on. I slipped on my clothes and quietly crawled out of the tent. I ambled over to the oak tree where I’d done chin-ups the night before.. All 20 of them! More than I'd ever done before. It must have been all the excitement and roughhousing in the tent that had given me a new source of strength.

I rubbed my eyes. Did all that really happen just last night? Now it seemed so long ago, like a haunting, magical dream.

I stood there alone and mute as the new day came fingering its way through the forest. I shook my head, trying to see things more clearly. Slowly but relentlessly, the Big Questions came welling up into my brain.

The night before, everything had seemed so perfect, so natural, so right. So good. So innocent. I had felt so totally loved . . . so alive . . . so content . . . so at peace. But now, by the breaking of day, standing solitary before the world, I was suddenly gripped by a sense of fear. Like waves on a dangerous beach, one dread thought broke over me, again and again: What would Mother say if she found out? I felt my face grow hot with the thought of it.

Shame and Mother went hand in hand. She had schooled me in bodily shame. Never in my life, that I could remember, had I seen her undress, or undressed. Nor had I allowed her to see me naked since I was about 9 years old. I had learned to hide myself, at least from her. That was the way we both wanted it, or so I thought. From the time I was small she had warned me and scolded me about the nastiness of certain parts of the body and the godliness of privacy. As boys do, I had rebelled secretly and creatively against her puritan morality. But deep inside I had never completely shaken off its coils.

As I stood under the red oak, looking out into the awakening forest, I recalled with a shudder one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing episodes in my life. It had happened not that long ago, when I was 12. As we did each summer, my mother, father, and brother were driving from Cincinnati to our summer cottage in New Hampshire. We’d been traveling all day. I was sitting on the back seat next to my mother, who looked like she was sleeping. It was a warm, sultry afternoon, and my fantasies got the better of me. With the gentle movement of the car I had got an erection, which, at my age of pre-pubertal stirrings, insistently demanded attention. Stealthily I put my hand over my fly and cautiously began ever so slightly to squeeze my eager little dingus.

Then came the lightning bolt, as if hurled by Zeus himself. "David! Don't do that!" my mother hissed. “Take your hand away.”

I wanted to die, to vanish like a melting snowflake. I had no choice but to take my hand off my fly, exposing the still prominent if rapidly shriveling protuberance in my pants. It was the last thing in the world I wanted my mother to see! I would rather have had my fingernails pulled out, one by one. For a desperate moment I thought of opening the car door and flinging myself onto the highway. Instead, I put my hand to my side and just sat there, burning in Hell's furnace. The endless minutes and hours dragged by . . . until at long last we arrived at Silver Lake and the ghastly trip was over. No one ever discussed it. But the dread memory still hung around my neck like an albatross.

What, then -- I asked myself as I stood under the red oak -- would my mother say if she found out what I’d done with Worth last night? Again I felt that branding iron of shame searing my forehead. It was too much for me to handle. My shaken mind retreated backwards like a shriveling horse's cock into its black sheath. Backwards into the blamelessness of early childhood, into the comforting arms of perceived innocence.

No, I didn't want to face Worth. I didn't want to face anybody. I just wanted to disappear. I wanted to go home.

Yet at the same time I dreaded going home.

I felt a sudden urgency to pee. Stepping up to the trunk of the oak, I pulled my guilty member out of my pants. It was red and sore from the previous night's long adventure.

As I gingerly shook off the last golden drops, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I twisted round – and looked up into Worth's beaming face. "Early bird catches the first worm," he chuckled as I hurriedly pulled up my zipper. He held out his arms to me, invitingly. Lovingly. The same old Worth!

It was like the sun bursting out from behind a black storm cloud. Without an instant's hesitation I leaped into his outstretched arms, hugging him for all he was worth.

That was all it took, at least for the time being. No big deal. The spell of shame was broken. The curse lifted. Christ it was wonderful to have such a wonderful friend! To feel so totally loved and completely accepted. To be completely me. With nothing to hide. Well . . . from my mother maybe. And maybe from the world. But not from him. And not from myself!

Somehow he made me and my body, even with its defects, feel whole and strangely, magically, beautiful. I was no longer that defective, scrawny little runt. Instead I was a slender, attractive young man, worthy of being respectfully adored, of being loved. And I had discovered that it was within my burgeoning power to return that love, in my own way, with joy.

Suddenly, home and Mother, with all her fearsome morality, were far away. Once again everything seemed natural and good and right. Including -- and especially -- last night. Our union was cause for celebration and pride, not blame or shame. If we must discretely hide our communion from the world like a buried treasure, so be it. It would be the world's loss, not ours.

For me it was the beginning of freedom. Freedom to be myself! A kind of letting go. For the first time since I could remember, I felt bathed in love. Unlimited and unlimiting love. Strangely at peace. And clean!