An eagle flies gracefully over the prairie and leads me to animal adventures where I frolic with bears, beavers, squirrels, and porcupines. I bring my young son Gary with me. We go fishing with bears named Blackie, Brownie, and Slicky and collect feathers from the eagle’s mountaintop nest.
It felt natural to take Gary to join other adventuring animals squatting in a circle and wearing beaded vests as we played games and told stories. It was 1959 when we started in the YMCA Indian Guides program in Wilmington, Delaware. We met with other fathers and sons to develop our imaginations in an atmosphere of Native American lore. We made boats, a church and aircraft models in our workshop at home and played in the woods. We adopted animal spirit names. Gary was Diving Eagle. Our motto was “Pals Forever with my Dad.”
Two years later we moved to Bradenton, Florida, and my second son, Bryan, joined us as Hunting Eagle. In addition to meeting in various homes, we occasionally took field trips. Once when camping in Myakka State Park, I set up a large teepee, and we told stories around the campfire. When Diving Eagle and Hunting Eagle graduated to Cub Scouts, my third son, Scott, came of age as Flying Eagle, followed by my blonde-haired David, Golden Eagle.
All four of them, pals forever with Dad, Bald Eagle.
Our years of outdoor adventures in Boy Scouts and outings with family and friends formed wild, wonderful shared memories that bond us as father and sons today. There is nothing like paddling my canoe, even in the rain, out to an island campsite. Our only ambition is to set up and cook dinner. Soggy meals, followed by snuggling into my mummy bag, brings an unforgettable peace. And the calls of a loon and songs of birds bring me joy. Nothing feels much better than the warmth of the sunrise and the sound of a fish splashing while sitting on a shoreline rock. We Eagles share these memories.
Northwest Native Americans have a tradition of carving totem poles, often depicting a story of tribal history. Since the Indian Guides days, I’ve wanted to design and carve a Delp Family totem pole. At the turn of the century, my wife Stephanie and I moved to our home on a wooded acre in Temple Terrace, Florida. Surrounded by big shade trees, the urge to carve a totem surfaced again. I wanted to fashion a totem to represent the bond I have with my four Eagle pals who now lived far away. One tall cherry tree nestled in our backyard had its top blown off by a hurricane, but it was re-growing. That was it! That resilient tree would become our totem.
Although most totem poles are carved out of dead logs, I decided that ours would have only an open face, leaving the back side to continue growing. I consulted with my son David, a graphic designer in San Francisco, and he gave me the encouragement I needed to launch the project. Our goal was for each of us to design, carve, and paint his distinctive eagle face on the totem. One by one, they sent me their creative drafts. On a trip to Lake Tahoe in the winter of 2010, David and I drew my Bald Eagle pattern to fit over the exposed trunk. My dreams were coming alive. That spring, he came to visit and we made the first cuts into the wood. What a thrill, with chainsaw and chisel, to open the face of the cherry tree and expose the beautiful grain as my sculptured Bald Eagle emerged at its base.
I fashioned a solid 12-foot-high scaffold to support us over the next two years as each son came to trace his design on the totem, then sculpt. After exposing the wood grain with a final sanding, it felt bittersweet to cover it all with a base coat of gray paint. We painted bright colors over our finished spirit animals and the scaffolding finally came down. My dream was real, finally.
Over the years, edges of the old bark regrew – an indication of the life remaining in the cherry tree as well as the bonds existing between eagles. This went on through my 90th birthday in 2017 when we were all together for a celebration and took an historic photo of the five of us standing by our totem.
Three years later, I discovered insects had eaten their way up from the roots into the back side of the tree behind the painted faces. I hadn’t detected their destruction before it was too late. The tree was too far gone and would soon have to come down. I was sad to part with the symbol of lifelong bonds between me and my sons. I had hoped it would outlive me.
A year ago, Golden Eagle (son David) and I took a trip into Alaska and saw hundreds of authentic Native American totems. When I asked a totem carver what they do to preserve them, he said they do nothing: they just let them go back to the earth. So, a few months ago, I got out my chain saw and dropped the tree and the symbols it bore onto its final resting place on the forest floor.
With eyes closed, I see my eagle soaring far above, looking down on the remnants of our totem. Even as our totems turn back to soil, I know my sons are always with me, pals forever.
Charlie Delp is a plant pathologist and distinguished OLLI leader who has decades-long experience volunteering with hospice and Compassion and Choices. Charlie will be teaching an online course this summer called Compassionate Choices at the End of Life. Here is the course description.
“People often express the desire to have some control over the conditions of their end stage of life. But laws can make these decisions confusing and difficult. Learn about the pertinent Florida laws and to what degree they permit people to take control of their end of life experience. We will discuss current state of Florida forms, including advance directives, designation of a healthcare surrogate and living wills. There will be an opportunity to practice your important “Conversations” with your family and physicians.”