The gentle yet persistent pressure of the large hand on my shoulder didn’t stop until I mumbled something to indicate that I was awake.
“Time to get up,” a voice whispered.
I stuck my nose out from under the heavy quilt and mumbled, “Yessir,” into the dark, cold air.
The sound of my father’s receding steps indicated that he was already headed to the kitchen. Neither his light tread, even in his hunting boots, nor his whisper had awakened Pop who continued to snore softly from the large bed on the other side of the room.
I pried an eye open and lifted the thin curtain over the window beside my bed in the corner and peered outside. Frost-covered pastures stretched away to the dark, impenetrable wall of the distant, shrouded woods, all bathed in the cool, pale blue light of a nearly full moon. It looked cold outside because it was.
Reluctant to leave the warm embrace of his covers but excited about the day, I tossed aside my quilts and scurried across the cold hardwood floor of the unheated room to the warmth of the bathroom where Daddy had left the gas heater on. I quickly brushed my teeth and splashed cold water on my face.
Back in the bedroom, I plopped down at the foot of the bed. My clothes for the morning were draped across the chair at the foot of the bed. Scooting out of my pajama bottoms, I pulled on a pair of worn khakis and a pair of socks, and then another, then stuffed my feet into my hunting boots and laced them up.
Shrugging out of his pajama top, I pulled an insulated undershirt over my head, paused for a moment to consider, then slipped back into my pajama tops for added warmth before putting on a flannel shirt. With my wool jacket, cap, and gloves in hand, I slipped out of the bedroom and gently closed the door on my still-sleeping grandfather.
Five steps took me through the dining room and into the delicious warmth and rich aromas of my grandmother’s kitchen. Daddy stood at the sink, a cup of coffee in one hand, a thin slice of apple pie in the other. As the youngest of eight children, he still relied on his mother’s indulgence when it came to his sweet tooth.
She was at the stove tending to a cast iron skillet of scrambled eggs and sizzling sausage. The coffee pot sat warming on an eye on the back of the stove.
“Good morning, Dear,” she said with a smile and used the back of her free hand to push back a stray strand of her white hair.
“Good morning, Cat,” I replied – I had called her Cat since before I could remember – and hugged her slender frame and kissed her like I did every morning. And every evening. And at every arrival and departure.
“Have a seat,” she added. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.
But first, I rubbed his eyes with my knuckles and crossed the small room. “Good morning, Daddy,” I said and wrapped one arm around his waist and hugged.
“Hey there, Boy,” my father said and setting his cup aside, pulled me close with his free arm and kissed me on top of my head.
I looked up into his smiling face and grinned back.
Draping my coat over an empty chair, I sat down at my usual place at the breakfast table. Cat had already poured me a tall glass of cold sweetmilk. In the center of the table, a plateful of yeast rolls sat cooling under a clean dishcloth, surrounded by a saucer of pale yellow, hand-churned butter and jars of peach, pear, and fig preserves.
Daddy took over at the stove while Cat went to the pantry. He brought the coffee pot and a plateful of eggs and sausage to the table and sat down. “Ready for some hunting?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir,” I said and tried to stifle a yawn.
“I can tell.” he chuckled and ruffled my short hair.
Cat returned and Daddy and I rose. He held her chair, and when she was seated, we joined her. Daddy offered thanks, and after ‘Amen’, all three of us began helping our plates. Amid the soft clatter of utensils and plates, Cat and Daddy talked softly as the house slept around them, Pop in the back bedroom, my mother and younger sister in the front.
I listened idly and stuffed myself on my favorite breakfast. When the last crumb was tucked away, my father leaned back and said, “That was delicious, Momma. I certainly enjoyed it.”
“I did, too,” I chimed in.
“I’m so glad you did,” Cat replied with a smile.
I took an extra sausage patty and tucked it into a yeast roll, then wrapped it all up in one of my grandmother’s cotton napkins and stuffed it into his pants pocket.
Daddy and I got up and took our dishes to the sink.
“Leave them. I’ll wash up. You two get along,” Cat said.
Daddy pulled on his canvas hunting jacket and picking up one of his father’s old felt hats, kissed his mother good-bye. I kissed her too, then pulled on my wool jacket. It had been my father’s when he was young as had the red leather cap with the fold-down earflaps lined with rabbit fur that I seated firmly on my head. I loved that cap.
With a final good-bye, we slipped out onto the screened back porch. Our guns, a Browning Auto-5 12-gauge shotgun for Daddy and a J.C. Higgins Model 36 .22 rifle for me, were propped against Cat’s heavy, old buffet. There was a set of drawers on top where she stored seeds for her garden, and in front of the drawers were two boxes of ammunition, one of Number 2 shot for duck hunting and another holding .22 long rifle cartridges.
Daddy seated Pop’s old hat on his head and dropped a handful of shotguns shells into the pocket of his hunting jacket. I put the entire box of 50 cartridges in my pocket. Ever alert, Scrappy must have heard our footsteps because he crawled from under the porch and extending his front paws, raised his hind end high, and stretched. With wagging of tail, he waited for us at the bottom of the steps, dancing in anticipation. Scrappy was a not particularly attractive dog. In fact, he was a mongrel with a thick body and short legs, mostly white with a few black and brown splotches. But what he lacked in breeding and aesthetic appeal, he made up for in loyalty and eagerness.
Daddy and I buttoned up our coats against the cold and hefted our guns, checked that we were both indeed unloaded and that the Safeties were on. With guns pointed toward the ground, we descended the steps. I stopped at the bottom and kneeled down to pet Scrappy who thanked me with a cold, wet tongue to the cheek, then nuzzled the pocket that held my sausage and yeast roll.
“Not for you, Boy,” I said and stood up.
We crossed the yard with Scrappy bouncing around underfoot. Past the plum tree, Daddy handed me the shotgun to hold while he crouched and slipped between two strands of the barb wire fence that surrounded the pasture. When he was clear, I passed him the shotgun and the rifle over to him and followed. Scrappy ran under the bottom strand.
The sun was just peeking through the bare limbs of the treetops in the far southeast end of the pasture, turning the frost-covered brown stubble of the pasture into a sparkling blanket. We paused here, and Daddy loaded two shells into the shotgun’s magazine, pulled back the bolt to chamber the first shell, then added a third into the magazine. He then rechecked the shotgun’s Safety.
I pulled out the spring-loaded rod from the .22’s tubular magazine and, one by one, dropped in 15 cartridges, then replaced the rod and pulled back on the bolt to load the first round. Just like my father I rechecked that the Safety was on. Daddy was a rigorous teacher when it came to most things, firearm safety in particular.
The sun broke free of the distant trees, and its low rays turned the brown, frost-covered pasture into a benign lake of shimmering gold. Daddy tucked his shotgun into the crook of his right arm. I paused and breathed deeply of the cold air. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and kitchens on the place tickled my nose.
Folding down my cap’s rabbit fur flaps over my cold ears and tucked the rifle into the crook of my left arm, then jammed both of my now-gloved hands into my pockets. Although, I was naturally right-handed, my eyesight was so poor in my right eye, that I had turned myself into a left-handed shot.
The dry, winter-brittle, and frosty stubble crunched under our boots as we walked across the pasture towards the old, old forest of oak trees that ran along the east side of the place. I had no idea how deep these woods went. I had never walked all the way out the other side.
As we crossed the pasture, Daddy and I hardly spoke and when we did it was in hushed tones as if in reverence of the dawning day. Scrappy trotted ahead on stiff, jaunty legs, nose to the ground, running down every intriguing scent. Occasionally, he paused, turned, and waited impatiently for us to catch up.
Eventually, we came to the edge of the wood, the immense trunks towered above us, dark and solemn. Bare, brittle limbs rattled and cracked in the wind-driven, bitterly cold air. I shivered as the breeze cut through all of my clothes. Even Scrappy paused before entering, perhaps like Daddy and me, not from fear or even unease, but out of respect for something ancient and wild, primeval and seductive.
I pulled off my left glove, freeing my shooting hand, and with rifle at the ready and heightened senses, all three of us stepped into the still dark, still shadowy world of the woods. The ground was covered with a carpet of brown, fallen leaves and mast, thousands upon thousands of acorns, food for deer, squirrel and turkey.
Daddy and I spaced themselves about 15 feet apart and moved as quietly as possible through the sparse undergrowth. Amid the soft rustle of leaf and the occasional crunch of acorn underfoot, we cocked their ears for squirrel chatter and swept their eyes through the branches above for movement. Despite the cold, I had already flipped up the flaps on his cap in order to hear better. Scrappy ran down every new scent he discovered whether squirrel or rabbit or ground-nesting bird.
I wondered if these woods were old enough to have been here when the first white men came to clear them for farming. The trees had to be old. I knew that many of them were nearly 100 feet tall and twelve to 15 feet around at the base. I had read in my science book that white oaks could live to be over 300 years old. Had the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians hunted these same woods where we now hunted? I was sure they must have.
Cat had always kept chickens, and one day as a small boy, I had run inside with a particularly fine, large chicken feather. She had given me a strip of fabric to tie around my head, and I had thrust that feather into my headband. Then taking up the bow and arrow that she had been instrumental in getting me for my birthday that June, I had practiced slipping, silently and undetected, about the farmyard and tractor sheds and tree-lined bayou.
Now I was hunting the big woods for real, not pretend, and with Daddy, among trees so evenly spaced that we could have been planted. But then again, every one of these old trees had a lot of roots and needed a lot of room to grow. I had walked the edge of these woods in the summer too when it was an emerald world of perpetual shade, shade so complete that there was practically no undergrowth. Maybe they had to grow that way.
As we moved deeper, the rising sun cast golden rays through the thick trunks creating long, dense shadows. Waking birds, finches and sparrows began their morning songs. We came to a small sun-filled clearing, a nearly perfect circle of brown grass, dominated by the scarred, shattered carcass of one of the old trees. Struck and split open by lightning, it had collapsed, falling to the ground in disarray. Slender saplings grew up through the broken branches, creating a small thicket. It reminded me of weeds growing up through the bleached, skeletal ribs of a dead dog I had once come upon in these very woods.
“Quiet,” Daddy whispered. “There might be a rabbit in there.”
I halted, expectant. From the corner of my eye he saw Daddy slowly bring up his shotgun. I stared intently at the thicket and held my breath as he eased the shotgun up to his shoulder.
Ever impulsive, Scrappy bounded into the clearing, paused momentarily sniffing the cold morning air, and plunged into the thicket. The cottontail that Daddy suspected might be in the thicket erupted out of the other side, a long, low, sleek gray missile zig-zagging across the clearing, its white scut held high, Scrappy in furious but futile pursuit. The two charged into the woods, the rabbit desperately seeking cover.
Daddy exploded in laughter, and I did too. We could hear the diminishing rustle of the chase. Daddy paused to enjoy the warm sunlight. I dropped my rifle back into the crook of my arm and warmed my cold fingers with my breath.
Daddy said, “One winter, I was still in high school, A.J. and I were out rabbit hunting. It was cold like today, maybe even colder, and we came up on a place just like this.”
A.J. had grown up in the place, and I had known him all my life. It was funny to think of Daddy and A.J. being not much older than me and hunting together. A.J. like Daddy was grown and married. And had children. I often played with his son Willy who was my age.
Daddy continued. “Well, there was a rabbit hiding in that thicket that day too. A.J. crept right up to the thicket and when he saw that rabbit – he had a single-shot shotgun – he leaned in with that gun, couldn’t’ve been more than two or three feet from that rabbit, and pulled the trigger.”
Daddy began to laugh so hard, that tears were starting at the corner of his eyes.
“And missed him,” Daddy finally choked out, still laughing.
I was grinning and laughing so hard, not just at the story but at how tickled Daddy was at the memory, that my jaw ached.
Daddy wiped his eyes. “Before that rabbit could even flinch, A.J. flipped that single-shot around and whacked him on the head with the stock.”
Daddy started laughing all over again. “Only rabbit we saw that day. It was so cold I couldn’t even feel my fingers or toes by the time we got back to the house. But we got a rabbit.”
We were still laughing when Scrappy reappeared at the edge of the clearing, tongue lolling out, defeated.
“Got away, didn’t he?” Daddy called out.
In response, Scrappy sat down panting and waited for us.
Daddy and I crossed the clearing and Scrappy fell in beside us. There was a log, the remnant of a downed tree, at the edge of the clearing. I started to step over it.
“What did I teach you?” Daddy said sharply.
I looked back, abashed. “Always step on a log, not over it, in case a snake is coiled on the other side.”
“But there won’t be any rattlers out. It’s too cold,” I offered in defense of my lapse.
Daddy squinted that way that only he could. “Make it a habit and you’ll do it all the time. Without thinking. You won’t have to ask yourself if the snakes are out or not.”
“Yessir,” I said.
I stepped on, then over the log, and we re-entered the woods.
“Now, let’s find a good, fat squirrel for your grandfather,” Daddy said.
The air was still cold, but here and there a squirrel poked its nose from its nest, drawn by hunger and the warming sun. Spaced out again, Daddy and I continued to sweep the limbs above. We walked aimlessly among the thick, gray trunks beneath the lattice of bare limbs with no discernable pattern, deeper and deeper into the woods. I savored the nip of the cold air and the relative quiet of the morning.
Eventually we were rewarded by the chatter of a squirrel calling or maybe admonishing another squirrel. I followed the sound and finally spotted the squirrel. It must have been 30 feet up in the tree, plump and gray, acorn in its paws, gnawing away and chattering. Daddy saw it too and nodded. Slowly and quietly, I raised the rifle to my left shoulder. I gripped the stock with my left hand and reached forward with my trigger finger and gently clicked off the Safety. Just as I did, the squirrel paused, maybe he heard the metallic click, then scampered along the limb and resettled, partially obscured by a branch.
“Still see him?” Daddy whispered.
“Yessir,” I replied. “I can see his shoulder right above that branch.”
“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure,” Daddy said.
I centered the blade of the front sight into notch on the rear sight and aimed so that the squirrel’s shoulder was right on top of the front blade. “I got ’im,” I answered and squeezed the trigger the way Daddy had taught me.
There was a sharp crack. The recoil of the rifle ejected the spent cartridge and the bolt cycled back forward loading a fresh cartridge. Through it all, I held my aim just as Daddy had taught me in case another shot was needed. It was not. The squirrel tumbled to the earth, landing with a soft thud.
Scrappy bounded towards the fallen squirrel. I lowered my rifle, clicked the Safety back on, and started to run, fearful that Scrappy, more companion than retriever, might make off with the squirrel. Before Daddy could say a word, I remembered his injunction about running with a loaded rifle. With my rifle at my side, I strode across the carpet of leaves and mast as quickly as possible. When I got there, Scrappy was merely sniffing about and nudging the inert body with his wet, black nose.
I lifted the squirrel by the tail. It was heavier than I had expected, long and plump. My shot had broken the squirrel’s backbone right at the shoulder.
Daddy walked up beaming. “That may be the finest squirrel I’ve ever seen taken around here,” he said. “And that was some good shot! Why, no more’n you could see of that squirrel, I doubt I could have made that shot.”
My chest swelled with pride. Daddy never praised lightly. Even so, I knew in my heart that Daddy could have easily made that shot. I handed the squirrel to Daddy so he could heft it.
“Nice and plump. Pop will be pleased,” he said. “Want me to carry him?”
“Yessir,” I said.
There was very little blood, but Daddy’s hunting jacket had a lined game pouch into which he dropped the squirrel. “We got what we came for. Let’s meander on back.”
Daddy and I walked closer together now and talked softly as we walked, while Scrappy ranged off in first one direction and then another. Despite our apparently aimless drifting, we soon arrived back at the clearing. The meadow was bathed in warm sunlight, and selecting a convenient limb on the downed tree, we sat.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out his sausage and roll wrapped in Cat’s napkin. Walking in the cold morning air had made me hungry. I unwrapped my snack and was about to offer Daddy part of it, when he fished his own out of his pocket.
“I’ve been sticking a piece of ham or sausage in one of your grandmother’s rolls before heading out for the day for a long as I can remember,” Daddy said and took a big bite.
“Um-uh,” Daddy said. “That’s good.”
I dug into mine and agreed. We munched slowly, and Daddy told stories of other hunts, other days, and other dogs, especially stories of duck hunts over on the River, the Mississippi River. His stories were always vivid, so rich in in detail that I felt like I had been there with him.
Redbirds and blue jays joined the finches and sparrows that darted across our little clearing. A raucous murder of crows flew in, scattering the other birds, and alit to peck among the scrub. One particularly large crow settled into a tree along the edge of the clearing and began to chastise us with insistent cawing.
“Bet that rascal and his kind have been in your grandmother’s garden and fruit trees,” Daddy said.
Daddy took his last bite and wiped his hands on the napkin which he stuffed back in his pocket. “You’ve never fired a shotgun, have you?” Daddy asked, even though he knew the answer.
“Nosir,” I said. I had seen Daddy shoot and had pleaded, but Daddy had always said ‘Not yet.’
“Stand up,” Daddy said.
I leapt up in anticipation and Daddy handed me the long, heavy shotgun.
“Now look down the barrel at that crow.”
I set the shotgun to my shoulder and looked down the length of the barrel at the little bead on the end. “There’s no rear sight,” I said.
“Just look down that rib,” Daddy said, then added, “Put your left leg back a little and lean forward just a little bit.”
I did as Daddy instructed. The gun was heavy and hard to hold up for very long. Daddy must have noticed.
“Perfect,” Daddy said. “Now stand easy.”
I lowered the heavy barrel.
“That shotgun’s going to kick when you pull the trigger. Make sure it’s snugged up tight against your shoulder,” he said. “It’ll push you back and the barrel will come up but hold steady and the barrel will come back down.”
I nodded. “Yessir.”
“And another thing. You’re shooting lefty, so that empty shell is going to be ejected right across in front of your eyes. Don’t let that bother you. It won’t hit you.”
“Now aim and fire,” Daddy said.
I lifted the shotgun and tucked it tight against my left shoulder. With my forefinger I flicked off the Safety. Placing my left cheek against the cool wood of the stock and sighting down the rib, I placed the bead squarely on the squawking crow. I squeezed the trigger.
The sound was deafening. The heavy gun slammed my shoulder back and the barrel rode up just like Daddy said it would. But my stance was good, and I was braced as Daddy had told me. As I rocked back forward, the barrel came back down and all I saw where the crow had been was a cascade of tattered black feathers fluttering to the ground. The crow was completely gone.
“Wow,” I said under my breath. I was both in awe of the destructive power of the shotgun and in some way that I couldn’t describe, abashed. A living creature, even one as rapacious and irritating as a crow could be, simply no longer existed. The squirrel was one thing: that was for Pop who loved squirrel stew. This was another. Still, I had fired a shotgun and hit what I had aimed at.
“How’d it feel?” Daddy asked.
“Like getting punched in the shoulder,” I replied and clicked the Safety back on.
“You’ll get used to it. But that was a tight, heavy load for duck, not birdshot. Still, it shows you how devastating a shotgun can be. That’s a good thing to remember.”
I looked over at the limb where the now-obliterated crow had been and gulped. But I was still a boy, and any thought of remorse fled from my mind as I hefted the 12-gauge. “When can we go dove hunting?” I asked, assuming that was the next logical step.
“When you learn how to shoot birds on the wing. You have to learn to aim so that your shot and the flying bird arrive at the same place at the same time. Hand me the shotgun.”
Daddy stood and took the gun from me. “Now run pick up that shell.”
Daddy checked that the Safety was on and took his shooting stance. With his free hand, he pointed to a spot well off to his left. “Now stand over there,” he said. “And when I say ‘Pull’, throw that shell as high and as far as you can.”
“Yessir,” I said and went to the spot and cocked my arm.
“Pull,” Daddy shouted.
I hurled the shotgun shell as hard as he could. It arced through the air, a small tumbling, red cylinder against the pale blue sky. Daddy traced its path with the barrel of the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Another explosion and the shotgun shell went spinning off in a different direction.
“Like that,” Daddy said and set the Safety as he lowered the gun.
“Wow,” I said for the second time that morning. “How did you learn to do that?”
“Your grandfather taught he. He must have told me a thousand times, ‘You don’t so much aim a shotgun, as you point it.’ And it takes practice. Lots of practice.”
“Is that why you don’t need sights like on a rifle, because you point it?” I asked.
“Exactly.” Daddy nodded.
“But how do you figure out where to point the shotgun?”
Daddy thought for moment and finally said. “You know when we’re out in the backyard running pass routes and throwing the football?”
“How do you know where to throw the ball when I’m running a down and out route?”
“I just do,” I said. “I just kinda know how to throw it so you can catch it.”
“Do you think about it?”
“Nosir, not really. I just know.”
“But you didn’t at first, did you?”
I thought for a second. “Nosir. I threw the ball behind you all the time.”
“That’s right. But with practice you learned how to figure out how fast I was running and in what direction and how hard you had the throw the football so that the ball and I got to the same place at the same time.”
I nodded to myself. It all made sense.
“And now, you don’t even have to really think about it, do you?” Daddy asked.
“Nosir,” I replied, then added, “Can I try it?”
“Sure,” Daddy said. “I think it’s time.” He handed him the shotgun.
On my fourth try I hit the empty shotgun shell that Daddy had sent sailing through the air. Just like when I was learning to throw passes, I had been behind on the first three times. Daddy threw one more and when I hit that one too, Daddy said, “Let’s stop while you’re ahead. Besides, it’s about time to head back to the house.”
I agreed. That 12-gauge packed a wallop. We gathered up and pocketed our empty shells, then turned towards home. Scrappy, who had found other things to do during shotgun practice, rejoined us as we re-entered the woods. The sun was nearly directly overhead now and shone down through the skein of bare branches overhead, creating pools of brown and gold on the forest floor. Now that we were no longer hunting, I picked up the occasional stick and threw it for Scrappy to chase.
We cleared the woods and stepped out into the pasture. It was warmer, not exactly warm, but warmer in the direct sunlight; all the frost had been burned off. Half a mile away stood my grandparents’ white, clapboarded house among the trees and outbuildings, the smokehouse and hen house. Smoke, thin wispy pillars of gray, rose into the still air from their chimney and the chimney of every other house on the place.
Scrappy headed to the slough that meandered through the upper pasture for a drink of water. Cat’s milk cows, mostly fawn-colored Jerseys with a couple of black and white Holsteins, heads down, nibbling at the sparse growth, drifted across the pasture from the distant barn. Daddy and I continued across the brown stubble of the pasture, talking now about the college football season. We might even be able to pick up a game on the television this afternoon.
We reached the fence, unloaded their weapons, climbed through one at a time, and crossed the yard where Cat’s chickens, rusty Rhode Island Reds and speckled Plymouth Rocks, clucked and cooed and pecked about in the bright sunlight. We stopped at the back steps to clean the squirrel. Pop must have seen them coming because he came out onto the porch shrugging into his coat.
“Let’s see what you got there,” he said.
I held his trophy up high.
“Whooeee,” Pop said. “That looks like a good one. Got your knife on you?”
“Yessir,” I answered and fished out his pocketknife.
“Good for you. A gentleman always carries a pocketknife,” he said.
Pop clomped down the steps, leaned over my shoulder, and with the forefinger of his large, weathered hand traced the first cut down the squirrel’s snow-white belly. He pulled out his Dr. Grabow pipe and a pouch of Carter Hall tobacco. Soon his head was wreathed with a halo of blue pipesmoke. I drank in the rich aroma and skinned and gutted the squirrel at his careful instruction.
I kept the tail for himself. Everything else, hide, head, and entrails I took out back followed by a cavalcade of curious chickens in their rolling, stiff-legged waddle. I tossed it all over the back fence into the pasture. Scrappy nosed around but found nothing interesting. Crows soon gathered to peck and fight over the pile.
Returning, I put the cleaned and skinned squirrel in the pan Cat had provided and started up the steps.
“Hope you’re looking forward to squirrel stew as much as I am,” Pop said.
I turned and wrinkled up his nose and mouth in disgust.
Pop threw his head back and roared with laughter. Daddy too.
“Good. More for me,” Pop said, still laughing.
On the porch, Daddy and I propped their guns in the corner for cleaning later and emptied our pockets of ammunition. The three of us shrugged out of their coats and entered the warmth of Cat’s kitchen. I was the last to enter. I paused and stared off a last time across the pasture at the dark wall of the distant woods, then closed the door against winter’s cold, this day’s hunt over.
I would hunt those woods many times in the coming years, in all weathers, sometimes with my father, sometimes alone, always alert for moments of wonder and attentive of any danger, but never with a sense of fear, not fear of my surroundings nor fear of getting lost in the big woods. I had been taught well.
In coming years, I would hunt other woods with other people, and as Daddy had said, with practice I became a good wingshot. That accomplished, Daddy took me dove hunting as promised. But that is a story for another time.
Sometimes, I simply walked the woods, not hunting at all. And as the years went by, I hunted less and less and walked more and more. I became a Scoutmaster and avid backpacker. I hiked in the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies too, the Sierra Nevadas and the Tetons, the Grand Canyon and southern Patagonia. I shared the things Daddy and Grandfather taught me with others.
My father’s birthday and deathday both come around every fall, within three weeks of each other. So, it is inevitable that as the sun begins its slow march into the southern sky and the days begin to shorten and the shadows lengthen, my mind turns more and more often to him. When the leaves change color and the air turns sharp, I pull out William Faulkner’s The Bear and read that finest of all coming-of-age/hunting stories for the umpteenth time, and once again I can see and feel and smell the big woods that I had once trod with Daddy and Pop.
Age has slowed my step but not my ardor the wild places. I still get out there and traipse around, and I still share the lessons that were handed down to me. Early one brisk morning this fall, I stood on a mountain ridge in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Standing beside me was one of my grandsons, just a few years older than I was on my first squirrel hunt with my father. It struck me as it sometimes does at unexpected moments that I am grandfather now.
In the low rays of morning light, we stared out across fog-filled valleys. The surface of the fog was placid, smooth and featureless. Distant peaks rose from the fog like blue islands in calm, gray sea. It was one of those scenes of such transcendent beauty that your breath catches in your throat. I have experienced this many times, in a High Sierras meadow bathed in alpenglow or deep in the Grand Canyon with its walls bathed in the crimson of a setting sun or the intense turquoise blue of a Patagonian lake.
As so often happens at these times, I found myself thinking of my father and grandfather and all they taught me all those years ago. I found myself wishing they could be here seeing what I was seeing. And often, like that morning, I found myself speaking to them as if they, and not this young man, were standing at my side.
“Did you say something, Pop?” Jake asked.
“I guess I did,” I admitted. I looked at the smooth, eager face beside me, then back across the magnificent vista stretching before us as if looking back across time to another frosty morning and whispered, “I just said, ‘Thank you.’”