Back in the 1920s and '30s, when T. Halter Cunningham was growing up in Chevy Chase, he was the second son, literally and figuratively. Cunningham, who died of cancer June 1 at age 82, never seemed able to measure up to his bright, charming and handsome older brother. "He was an outlaw, always the little brother," his son Tom Cunningham recalled.
Maybe that explains why he gravitated to the outdoors, to nature's wildness, wherever he could find it. And maybe that's why he identified with the majestic peregrine falcon.
He started hanging out with the Craighead twins, neighborhood boys who grew up to become renowned naturalists and grizzly bear experts at Yellowstone National Park. While still teenagers, Cunningham and the Craighead brothers, Frank and John, taught themselves the ancient sport of falconry.
Here's how the Chevy Chase trio would capture a peregrine falcon, as Halter Cunningham recounted to his son: They got themselves a pigeon, most likely from Dupont Circle, and outfitted the bird in a pigeon-size leather vest. Sewn into the vest were several looped slipknots made of fishing filament.
Back then, falcons migrated along the Eastern Seaboard, so the three took the pigeon to the beach, preferably Chincoteague Island, tied a long cord to a leg and then released it into the air. It wouldn't be long before a migrating falcon missiled in on the hapless pigeon at 100 mph and with talons embedded bore it down to the sandy beach. As the falcon tore into the plump breast of its prey, it would get its talons caught in the slip knots, which allowed the bird's captors to use the cord attached to the pigeon to reel in the falcon. (Falcons, of course, are now a protected species, so capture would be illegal.)
Cunningham kept his falcons, two or three a season, on homemade perches in his back yard on Thornapple Street. He trained them to hunt on Chevy Chase Circle or in open fields nearby. In a few days, he'd have the raptors spiraling high into the air in search of prey and then returning to the gloved hand of their young keeper, often with a bird impaled on their talons. Cunningham would release the falcons when it was time for them to migrate again; he didn't want to domesticate them.
His falconry exploits pretty much came to an end when World War II broke out. Having already dropped out of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, he enlisted in the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor. In August 1942, he waded ashore with the 1st Marine Division in the first wave that landed on Guadalcanal. Wounded in battle, he was awarded a Purple Heart.
After the war, the inveterate outdoorsman worked for a couple of years as a game warden on the Chesapeake Bay before taking over the family business, Lanman Engraving Co. Running the company wasn't something he had planned to do, but it thrived under his leadership. Lanman became the largest privately owned pre-press and commercial printing enterprise in the eastern United States, producing the color pre-press film for Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic publications, L.L. Bean catalogues and Disney publications.
One Sunday afternoon in the early 1950s, a friend took him to a polo match in Potomac. "When he saw it, he said, 'This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen,' " his son recalled, "and he said, 'I've got to play this.' "
There was only one problem: He didn't own a horse. In fact, he'd never ridden a horse. No matter. He bought himself a polo pony and taught himself to ride every afternoon after work. Once he could stay on a horse, he started "stick and ball," practicing polo.
"Over the next 15 years, that's all he did," his son said. "My father was passionate about the game of polo."
He became one of the top players on the East Coast, as a sampling of articles from old Washington Post sports pages attest: "Halter Cunningham scored five goals to lead the Washington Polo Club to a 10-7 victory over the Maryland Polo Club yesterday at Barnsley Field, Olney, Md." (July 23, 1956)
In a 15-1 Washington Polo Club victory over Warrenton, he scored seven times. (June 24, 1957)
"The business damn near went bankrupt," Tom Cunningham recalled, laughing. "Its role was to support his polo addiction."
He was in his fifties when the addiction finally dissipated. His back no longer could take the pounding.
His outdoors addiction never ended. A fly fisherman, duck hunter and hunting-knife craftsman, not to mention maker of hand-tooled leather belts, he reconnected in later years with his beloved falcons, serving on the board of the Peregrine Fund. The magnificent bird, decimated by the pesticide DDT, had disappeared from the eastern United States by the 1960s.
With DDT banned in 1973 and with successful reintroduction programs by the Peregrine Fund and other groups, the peregrine falcon came off the endangered list in 1999. Cunningham attended the de-listing ceremony in Boise, Idaho.
The Chevy Chase kid who, in his own words, "got my religion" from the outdoors, could not have been more thrilled.