Coyote in that field

So Rob called me one afternoon. It was September 2010. He’s family, like a brother, my cousin, we had a connection. He wanted to tell me about some Coyotes he had seen, see we would do that, ya know, tell stories of wildlife and adventure. Maybe one of us had seen a cardinal in deep snow, or a hawk strike a squirrel on a bird feeder, a flock of geese flying in a V to the north.

I knew he was cutting wheat straw that day in the field across from his house so I presumed I knew this story. Of how the coyote would follow the bush hog and chase the field mice, easy pickings. But he said no, not this time. He told me “There were five big males up on the tree line, and they came down and encircled me on the tractor, paying no attention to the scurry of the mice.” Startled I asked “What did they want Rob?” He thought a minute then said, “They seemed to be interested in me. They were paying attention to me!” I said “What did you do, Rob?” “I went home and got the gun, when I came back to finish up, they were gone.”

Now this kinda set me back a little bit, because you see Rob was a part of the natural world, he was not separated from it. I had heard tole of a time he walked over to wild turkey in tall grass. As it hunkered down, he picked it up and carried it over to our uncle so they could admire the plumage and the wonder of it all.

And this is a man that I had been boating with in the Tar River and as we skipped by in our small wooden boats he plunged his arm into that dark water and grabbed the tail of a snapping turtle and pulled him clamoring into the boat.

Now the fear in me of this primordial, evil, swamp monster. For Rob it was a turtle.

We had been on many camping trips like that. We had been on the Pamlico, Pungo, Pasquatank and the Perquimans. We had explored the Scuppernong the Chowan, the Wiccacon and the Meherrin. We had camped on the Deep and the Black, the Middle and the Little.

But in that field across from his house, all of that would change.

Four or five days after that incident he had with the coyotes, Rob was finishing up in that field as it was getting dark. As he shut her down and was climbing back off that tractor, he stumbled and missed the lower step. He fell, hard, on his butt. He got to his knees and walked home. The house was dark, the boys were in bed, his wife had left a plate out for him. He ate alone, took a shower, and went to bed.

That night his leg got sore and swollen, discolored and hurt. By the time the sun came up, and they put the boys on the bus to school, they took Rob up to the hospital. They called me on the way and asked me to stop by the farm and tell these men he was to meet that he would be late and might not come at all. I just happened to be driving by the hospital when I got that call so I turned in, parked right next to the ambulance, walked in the door and there was Rob. He was in a split gown, on a gurney, and with a wink in his eye he told me he had one upped me, referring to a remarkable fall I had had while camping with him some years prior. I went on to take care of my errand, they took Rob into the back to see the doctors.

That leg got worse as time went on, he was in a lot of pain. Paralysis set in. His blood count was wrong, he became very sick. They could not tell what was wrong with him. And after four or five days they had to do exploratory surgery and they opened him up. His intestines were infected and rotten. They had to take out a lot of his intestines and sew him back up. And over the next few days it happened again and again. They did not know if he had been bitten by a snake, stung by an insect, or bitten by a spider. They could not believe he could be so sick because of this small fall.

But he had developed a compact syndrome. It is where the muscles in his leg were atrophying and his body was trying to absorb all of those toxins through his intestines. And the toxins were causing his organs to fail. And after surgery after surgery, twenty one surgeries, death set in. I leaned in to his death bed and I told him I loved him. And I asked him to save me a seat, maybe let me drive a little bit when I get there. Because you see for me, heaven is sharing a boat seat with Rob in a wild place.

The night of his passing a childhood friend who lives closest to that tractor was awoken by the sounds of coyotes howling outside of her window. She sat up and she thought of Rob. And I wonder, what did those coyotes want? I think maybe they wanted Rob. If he was here today, would he think they were evil? I don’t think so. They were no more evil than that turkey, or that turtle or me. I think they were there to take him to explore another wild place.

Campsite in the woods

Driving north on the two lane highway, running 45 mph, I down shifted the truck, put my blinker on while lowering the drivers window, and stuck my arm out signaling a left turn. I looked with trepidation into my rear view mirror and saw the nose of the Honda on my butt dip below my tailgate, the eyes of the young man driving got wide and came closer to the windshield. I hate a tailgater, I was running the speed limit too. I saw him consider passing me, dipping left just a bit, but there were cars speeding towards us in the oncoming lane. “That is why I’m stopping, you doofass, cars are coming.” I muttered. Forced to come to a complete stop due to oncoming traffic, the line of cars behind me began to stack up. When I had a chance, I punched it, darting behind a quick car and before a school bus rumbled by, timing it so the bus driver did not have to brake.

Safely off the two lane and on the muddy farm road I pulled to a complete stop right before the first real mud puddle. I got out and Coker jumped out right on my heels. I looked at the milk chocolate mud puddle and decided I did not want the goo on my wheels and figured I would just walk the rest of the way. I looked across the open space of the wheat field, now just sprouting, and noticed what a lovely spring day it was turning out to be.

Coker stuck his nose in the puddle and took a drink. “Quit Coke, damn.” He looked at me with a chocolate mustache and drank a little more, then trotted off smelling a clump of grass before taking a quick pee on it. He is a Parson Russell Terrier mix, basically a huge Jack Russell. He loves to ride in the truck and walk most any terrain with me. He was nose to the ground smelling for field mice I am sure.

I walked around the mud puddle knowing it was a deep one. I remembered the tadpoles that had hatched out last year, mono-limbed like sperm and looking for purchase. One day I asked my cousin why he wouldn’t fix this old problem of the puddle with his tractor. It wouldn’t take an hour. He said it cuts down on those that should not be over here, and the speed of those that should. Speed I thought. He was on to something there.

Coker was well ahead of me now. I walked slowly, heading aimlessly across the wheat field, leaving the black top well behind. The Honda long gone now replaced by more traffic speeding unimpeded. Where are they all going? I thought. Away from here, that is clear. I lumbered along the muddy roadside, more of a path to the back of the field. I was heading towards the tree line where the campsite was.

I noticed a red shouldered hawk watching me from a high branch of a yellow pine near the edge of the field. Both eyes forward, piercing the light between us. He was sizing me up maybe, watching to see if I might make a field mouse run. Or it could be he was judging Cokers weight, deciding if he was worth it. As I looked at him, and continued walking towards him, he collapsed from the limb and with out urgency moved south, down the edge of the old grass runway until he flared and came to rest on a limb of a White Oak. I love a bird of prey.

Coke and I kept walking, heading towards the woods. If we are always going somewhere, we will never get there will we? Nor will we value where we are. I thought of the young man in the Honda. If heaven is elsewhere then this place is no matter.

The small muddy farm trail had petered out at the tree line. The path to the campsite lay ahead.

Coker on the path to our campsite.

Johnny Appleseed

The trees are magnificent standing guard over the old colonial, they are huge and dense evergreens with boughs and limbs draping to the orange soils of the farm. There are three of them, huge Magnolia grandiflora, or bull bay, more commonly known as the southern magnolia. They bloom creamy white saucer shaped flowers up to nine inches wide. They are native to North Carolina and are found south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. They have large dark green leaves that can be eight inches long and five inches wide with hard and heavy timber. The magnolia has been used to make furniture and veneer for doors and cabinets. But these trees, these three trees, they are special.

One of three big Magnolias in front of the old colonial.

As a small boy I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap one evening. I was on a sleep over at the farmhouse he shared with my grandmother and I had crawled onto his lap while my grandmother cleared the dishes and fixed us all a small bowl of peaches for dessert. The sturdy upholstered chair held us both with ease as it sat squarely on the braided rag rug that wound around the living room. I was sitting sideways on his lap looking up under his chin playing with his waddle. He took my hand, stopping my play, and told me he was having Déjà Vu. He may not have used that term, I was too young to have known its meaning, but he might have, because in a way, he did not seem to be talking just to me.

He told me of sitting on his grandfather’s lap when he was a boy, much like we were doing that summers eve. He was playing with the skin of his grandfather’s throat where a wicked red scar raced across the side of his neck. His grandad told him he that back in the war he was fighting a Yankee, firing back and forth with a blue coat hiding across a small draw in a hardwood forest, all the while using a White Oak for cover. He stepped out to fire his muzzle loader and was struck in the neck by a musket ball. He was imprisoned in Pt Lookout, Maryland and walked home to that old colonial after the war.

My grandfather was rubbing that scar in his mind’s eye, while I was rubbing his neck in my Grandmother’s living room.

Late in 1865, after the Civil war the family story goes, a walking confederate soldier came to the house seeking food and shelter. My great great grandfather Thomas Foushee Hogan was there recovering from his grievous wound, but he gave generously food and let him camp and rest. The soldier was so appreciative of the care and help, he planted magnolia seedlings in the front yard, Johnny Appleseed style. Three tiny Magnolia grandiflora were put in the ground that day 156 years ago and I am here to tell you they are huge now. They provide care and shelter to the old colonial as they shade the home from the western sunset.

The Big Rock


Exploring the woods around the airport I found a big rock. Not at all a small rock but a big one. I knew it was in the woods to the east of the airport hangar, I remembered it from my childhood. Our family always called it the Big Rock. So I went looking for it.

My cousin Rob Hogan on the left. I am on the right, King of the Hill! Photo by Bob Hogan circa 1964

I had always assumed and imagined the Big Rock traveled a great distance from the north on the back of a glacier whose icy tentacle placed it just so, then left it to cook in the Piedmont heat like a lump of sourdough, before racing back north, melting in the rising heat.

Boy was I wrong.

I spoke with a friend of mine who studied archeology in graduate school and showed him the Big Rock. When I shared with Chris Senior my suspicions of how the Big Rock got here, its imaginative journey, he did a big eye roll.  “No Don, the glaciers did not come this far south. This rock has been pushed up from below.” Evidently the big granite bolder was part of molten rock way below our feet and pushed up by volcanic activity hundreds of millions of years ago. And, he went on to say that likely the Big Rock was the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and that this was a tough little nugget that erosion was still working on. “Little nugget” may be a stretch, I thought, the Big Rock is huge.

Standing over 8 feet high and with a circumference of over 40 feet, putting the diameter at the base least 12 feet or more, this is one Big Rock!

The circumference is almost 40 feet and if I did my math right that would put the diameter over twelve feet. It is over eight feet tall, and by any measure a Big Rock. “I am not a geologist” Chris qualified, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it. Native peoples would have used this rock as a meeting place, a road side attraction of sorts. They all would have known of this rock and how to get here.” Can you imagine, the plans made through millennium to meet at the Big Rock where Chris and I were standing today? I could. It had been the case in my childhood.

The Occaneechi, Haw, and Eno were early people to live near the Big Rock and the airport I know and love. I am sure many footpaths and trails crisscrossed the farm. As European surveyors and explorers traversed North Carolina in the early 1700s, John Lawson met the Occaneechi tribe in 1701. Maybe they met at the Big Rock? I don’t know if they did or didn’t but according to what I learned from my friend Chris, they just might have. My understanding of the Big Rock has changed and my imagination has too.

Yes, I am sure they met there.

Airplane! Airplane!

February 28th 2021

I wanted to learn more about the grass strip of land we fondly call the Hogan International so I reached out to a man who lives in Elizabeth City, NC who was a local to the property in his youth. I knew he had an interest in flying and that it went way back before his days in the Coast Guard took him from our area. Greg Duncan turned out to be a wealth of knowledge. He knew the property very well having spent many an afternoon there while growing up. He said in the early to mid 1970’s there were as many as 5 or 6 planes that lived there in its heyday. I say lived there because flying as a hobby takes on a life of its own it seems.

There was an office in the oldest wooden hanger were Bob Hogan, the owner, ran the business of flying. Outside the office there was Amoco Brand gasoline for sale on the honor system. Those in the know, like the owners that stored their planes there, knew where the key to the pump was hidden. Using the key they could get gas on their own. The price per gallon was written on the wall of the office, and the money was put into a metal “lock box”, each purchaser trusted not to cheat. Supplying gas was a safety issue for Mr. Hogan, Greg said. “They all topped their planes off with fuel after each flight. They did not want to risk flying to Horace Williams (a larger airport nearby), potentially low on fuel, just to gas up.”

Greg reminded me of the “banner fliers” that used the airfield. I remembered them from my youth. These were somewhat daredevil fliers that would use the field on days the town of Chapel Hill had big gatherings of people outdoors. The occasional street festival, large University graduation celebrations, and UNC football games, were the banner fliers bread and butter heydays. They would use the airstrip for takeoff and landing and use the adjacent hay field to set up their banner accoutrements. The setup was basically a goal posts of sorts sticking up into the air ten feet or so with a cable stretched between. The cable was tied to a banner that was laid out in the hay field backwards. A pilot would take off from the airstrip with a big hook on a chain trailing from its tail. They would circle back over the hay field low and slow. The pilot would fly between the uprights of the goal posts allowing the hook at the end of the chain to catch the cable stretched between. The pilot would then stomp on the gas, the plane would accelerate, the hook would pull the cable and the banner into the air. With luck and a prayer the whole thing would unfurl behind the accelerating airplane and rise into the sky! The banners would be pulled to Chapel Hill and over the big crowds with messages that encouraged them to “Drink Pepsi” “Hate State” or the occasional marriage proposal spelled out for all to see (or worse, see picture below).

Photo by Fred Stipe

Greg also encouraged me to contact Susan Hogan the daughter of the late Bob Hogan, pilot, owner operator, and my uncle. Greg thought she might have some pictures and more context about the airfield. And she did. Below is a picture of Bob Hogan’s Cessna taken in the early 1980’s.

Fasten your seat-belt’s. The next stop is Hogan International! You can see the grass strip in the center left bisected by a dirt road and the adjacent hay field on the center right where the banner fliers would set up.
Bob Hogan’s Cessna tucked into it’s hanger. All three are long gone.

Susan was a wealth of knowledge. She told me of late day/early evening flights when torches would be set out in the dark to mark the airfield. She spoke the names of the airplane owners she remembered from her childhood. Names like Mr Marley, Emerson Ford, Don Johnson, and the vague and mysterious “Chick” a character she knew only by stories. She told me that the airport was much more than an airfield to her family. It was the home of the family pet cemetery, the end of the rainbow bridge. It was the final resting place of every dog, cat, sheep, and parakeet they had owned in her lifetime. She went on to tell me it was the location of the shared, extended family, vegetable garden, and one of, if not the best, wide open space to safely learn to drive. For Susan the Hogan International was much more than an airstrip.

Ohh and she told me why they call it the Hogan International Airport. Her mom and dad and another couple flew Bob Hogan’s Cessna hop scotch style to the Bahama’s one summer, dodging thunderstorms along the way and having the time of their lives. An international flight, well I’ll be.

Loss of a Friend

February 13 2021

Yesterday, on the farm, we suffered the loss of a friend. Friendships are hard to come by, take time to mature and grow, and add meaning to our lives, so I do not take this loss lightly. On the farm there are a variety of animals and over the last fifty years or so, when it was a dairy, there have been hundreds of animals. But since the mid 1990’s we have had a dwindling number of farmers as well as animals, the latter reduced to mostly pets.  Yesterday we lost one of our pets, a sheep, our oldest Horned Dorset ram. He died peacefully in the barn where my nephews nursed him after a terrible night of being unable to get to his feet, hidden by the dark and alone. He was ten years old, a ripe age for a sheep by any measure. We had been watching him closely, knowing death seemed close to our old friend.

Wait…a sheep you say. Don’t be so dramatic you think. And you would be right in some ways, because death on the farm is not personal and it can be very common.

But hear me out, for all these last ten years this sheep was the alpha of our little flock of mismatched barnyard pets. A few sheep, a few goats, a few cows, and a spattering of teenagers. All of them watched his every move when around the barnyard. He would prance and pose when on alert, and always get to the grain first or there was hell to pay. He came to the farm at just the right time, this alpha. He filled a void after the death of my cousin, just a little bit of that void. You see this sheep was the first addition of livestock after my cousin’s death at the tender age of 54, suffering a quirky farming accident in that very barn yard. Gone leaving fences to mend, sheep to shear, cows to get up, and boys to raise. And those boys, those teenagers, have spent nearly half their lives with that sheep and notably…not their dad.

The Horned Dorset is an ancient English breed known for being a good wool producer and good to eat. The lambs fatten quickly. The breed’s most notable feature however is that they are aseasonal, meaning they conceive year round. Most breeds conceive in the fall and lamb in the spring. Any sheep herder can see the value of this attribute right away. You can have lambs year round. Because of these attributes you might be surprised to learn they are threatened. Ever since scientists at NC State University developed the Poled Dorset, poled have no horns, the world wide number of Horned Dorset has collapsed. Farmers prefer not to battle a 250 pound ram with horns come spring shearing! We shear our sheep each spring more for their comfort in our hot weather than the 7-9 pounds of wool we get in return, though for the last few years our sheep-shearer has been processing the wool into socks and hats. Our summer heat would threaten the sheep’s health without a close shave, this isn’t cool southern England.

Over the last ten years this ram grew big and strong. He matured into a robust healthy dominate male, the alpha, siring many lambs. He learned from the other animals, and the fence, the extent of his domain. He learned to tolerate the veterinarian, and the sheep-shearer, and other tasks we asked of him. And we asked a lot. He became none other than the mascot of UNC athletics; Rameses XXI, the 21st mascot over 97 years on the farm. Both my nephews grew right along beside him, learning to walk the fence line after storms, to do the chores along with school work, and to bottle feed babies born in the bitter cold. Ohh, and take him to the sidelines of UNC football games. This ram arrived on the farm just at the right time for those of us that were feeling a void. His passing sounds the echo of the loss we suffered ten years ago with the death of my cousin. Both went down in that barn yard, both unable to get up. So yes, this common sheep’s death was different, and personal.  

Rameses XXI and one of his lambs along with Olive and me. 2018

Hogan International

February 4th 2021

Hogan International Airport is a tongue in cheek loving nickname for a part of our family farm that is now known as the Hogan’s Magnolia View Farm. The farm is named for the huge majestic Southern Magnolia trees that tower over the old home place. The farm has several sections and one holds a grass landing strip active with airplanes from the 1920’s to the 1990’s It has been mowed, not plowed, for most the last one hundred years creating a diversity of plants and insects most often associated with prairie. We call it the Hogan International and if you come along with me and visit you will see how funny the nickname is. There is nothing international about the grass strip that served as an airport all those years ago, the “airport” is very much tied to place, this one particular Piedmont North Carolina place.

There are a few old buildings around the grass strip including a hanger built in the 1930’s to hold a canvas covered airplane. There is a modern hay barn designed for protecting square baled hay , and a walk-in refrigerator (um-hum) that, for a time, served the purpose of a smoke house. When family members killed deer they would process then hang the animals in the walk-in refrigerator to cure.

Since the early 1990’s, after the planes were silenced, the hanger became my cousins wood shed for his firewood business. He took trees destined for the landfill by road builders and development activities in the area and spend hours cutting, splitting, and stacking wood in the hanger where for a year of covered seasoning the green wood was transformed to prized seasoned firewood. Year after year in the early fall he would deliver to excited customers.

For most of my life the hanger has been a place to meet, have coffee, and maybe watch the sun come up in the East. There is a nice long open view to the East. The long grassy runway runs north to south and is book-ended by yellow pines to the south and open fields to the north. It is a welcoming space with a big sky. And when I close my eyes, I can hear the refrain echo through generations “Let’s meet at the hanger in the morning.”