They tread through the tall grass, quiet as a whisper. Their prey is spotted, a dash of red-brown between the green blades. The three of them make darting eye contact and silently drop to their soft bellies. Breaths are held, afraid that any noise will give them away. The target moves into sight. Their muscles ready for action. Their camou-painted faces tense.
Suddenly, they spring. The beast is wrestled to the ground, giving up easily due to the shear amount of force.
The warriors rise. Holding their prized bear.
Their prized wooly-bear that is.
Mark Slade and his two young sons, Hunter and Cole, have many favorite daily activities. Going on stealth wooly-bear hunting trips is one of them.
“Sneaking up on them is key. We practice sneaking. They’re getting very good at it,” Slade says of Cole, 4 and Hunter, 3.
Slade spends as much time with his kids as possible, having only returned from a tour in Afghanistan about 16 months ago.
“When he left, Hunter was only 10 weeks old,(.)” Slade’s wife Kate says, remembering how difficult it was to have him leave.
Slade joined the Army National Guard in April of 2002, after watching the twin towers crumble.
“I could not just stand by; I wanted to be a part of something bigger. Defend my family and this country.”
But serving overseas was much different than Slade had in mind. Mistakes were not an option, he says. So being afraid was not an option for him either, claiming that fear leads to mistakes.
“At one point, my guys and I were living in a makeshift tent that we built out of busted parachutes and plywood. We lived there for weeks,” Slade said.
But it wasn’t all difficult. Small things made it better. Skyping his wife and baby boys “brought light” during his year away from them.
“So did playing Lady GaGa songs, trying to annoying the Taliban camped nearby. Oh, and the Wild Turkey whiskey Kate illegally sent me,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s true,” Kate chirps in. “I would send it to him in Listerine bottles. Although after he hinted that it had a slightly minty taste, I switched to sending it in maple syrup bottles. Better after taste.“(.)
Although Slade is back in Manchester, Vt., he still sometimes has trouble with memories. A snowplow or car will backfire, and he immediately goes into defense mode, literally hiding from what his mind tells him are gunshots.
“It’s like he can’t even control it. It’s just his normal reaction now,” says Kate.
But Slade just shrugs when that happens, and moves on. He now focuses on being a family man and student (here) at Castleton Sate College. When he isn’t taking classes, he is working on finishing his house.
“His house is amazing, he does great work,” says close friend Tyler Emond. “But everything he does is for his family, even the house. He built his kids an indoor jungle gym! Even at my age I’m jealous.”
Slade may seem like the ideal father and husband, but there was an off-kilter time in his life when he was younger.
“When I was 18, I was a male stripper. I had a job, but needed the extra cash. It worked well. The song I stripped to the most was….Oh god; I can’t believe I’m saying this…’It’s Raining Men(.),‘” Slade admits, his face turning a deep shade of rose.
The job didn’t last very long, several months at the most. Instead, he decided to become a fire fighter and was recently honored for 10 years of service.
“Ten years. That makes me feel old. Especially here with all these 18 year old kids zipping around on skateboards. I feel like Billy Madison sitting in a classroom full of little first graders. I mean, I’m MARRIED,“(,) he laughs.
Slade has been with his wife Kate since they were seniors in high school, but their history goes back much further.
“Mark and Kate knew each other in kindergarten,” says mutual friend Molly Smith-Leach. “Although back then Mark was shy, kind of fat and hated Kate. Always said she had ‘the cooties.‘”
Slade has gotten over the cootie phase he says, and is always anxious to spend more time with his family. On any given night, you can find the four of them in the kitchen, making goat cheese pizza together. The dogs barking at their feet, the boys “Tebowing” in their footy pajamas, and Kate half wondering why she didn’t have a daughter.
“This is my world,” Slade says, a smile on his lips that only a parent could understand. “It’s chaotic, expensive, exhausting and completely wonderful. I would never change a thing…. Okay; I might change the whole stripper thing.”