The Boy awoke to the gentle yet persistent pressure of a large hand on his shoulder.
“Time to get up,” Father whispered.
The Boy stuck his nose out from under the heavy quilt. “Yessir,” he mumbled into the dark, cold air.
The sound of Father’s receding steps indicated that he was already headed to the kitchen. Neither Father’s light tread, even in his hunting boots, nor his whisper had awakened Grandfather who continued to snore softly from the large bed on the other side of the room.
The Boy pried an eye open and lifted the thin curtain over the window beside his bed in the corner to peer 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, he tossed aside his quilts and scurried across the cold hardwood floor of the unheated room to the warmth of the bathroom where Father had left the gas heater on. He quickly brushed his teeth and splashed cold water on his face.
Back in the bedroom, the Boy plopped down at the foot of the bed. His clothes for the morning were draped across the chair at the foot of the bed. Scooting out of his pajama bottoms, he pulled on a pair of worn khakis and two pair of socks, then stuffed his feet into his hunting boots and laced them up.
Shrugging out of his pajama top, he pulled an insulated shirt over his head, paused for a moment to consider, then slipped back into his pajama tops for added warmth before putting on a flannel shirt. With his wool jacket, cap, and gloves in hand, the Boy slipped out of the bedroom and gently closed the door on his still-sleeping grandfather.
Five steps took him through the dining room and into the delicious warmth and rich aromas of Grandmother’s kitchen. Father 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, Father still relied on his mother’s indulgence when it came to his sweet tooth.
Grandmother 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, Grandmother,” he replied and hugged her slender frame and kissed her like he did every morning. And every evening. And at every arrival and departure.
“Have a seat,” she added. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.
But first, the Boy rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and crossed the small room. “Good morning, Father,” he said and wrapped one arm around Father’s waist and hugged.
“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and setting his cup aside, pulled the Boy close with his free arm and kissed him on top of my head.
The Boy looked up into Father’s smiling face and grinned back.
The Boy draped his coat over an empty chair and sat down at the breakfast table at his usual place. Grandmother had already poured him 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.
Father took over at the stove while Grandmother went to the pantry. Father 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,” the Boy said and tried to stifle a yawn.
“I can tell.” Father chuckled and ruffled the Boy’s short hair.
Grandmother returned and Father and the Boy rose. Father held her chair, and when she was seated, they joined her. Father offered thanks, and after ‘Amen’, all three began helping their plates. Amid the soft clatter of utensils and plates, Grandmother and Father talked softly as the house slept around them, Grandfather in the back bedroom, Mother and Younger Sister in the front.
The Boy listened idly and stuffed himself on his favorite breakfast. When the last crumb was tucked away, Father leaned back and said, “That was delicious, Mother. I certainly enjoyed it.”
“I did, too,” the Boy chimed in.
“I’m so glad you did,” Grandmother replied with a smile.
The Boy took a sausage patty and tucked it into a yeast roll, then wrapped it all up in one of Grandmother’s cotton napkins and stuffed it into his pants pocket.
Father and the Boy rose and took their dishes to the sink.
“Leave them. I’ll wash up. You two get going,” Grandmother said.
Father pulled on his canvas hunting jacket, and picking up one of Grandfather’s old felt hats, kissed Grandmother good-bye. The Boy kissed her too, then pulled on his wool jacket. It had been Father’s when he was young as had the red leather cap with the fold-down earflaps lined with rabbit fur that he seated firmly on his head. The Boy treasured that cap.
With a final good-bye, Father and the Boy slipped out onto the screened back porch. Their guns, a Browning Auto-5 12-gauge shotgun for Father and a J.C. Higgins Model 36 .22 rifle for the Boy, were propped against Grandmother’s heavy, old buffet. There was a set of drawers on top where Grandmother 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.
Father seated Grandfather’s hat on his head and dropped a handful of shotguns shells into the pocket of his hunting jacket. The Boy put the entire box of cartridges in his pocket. The ever-alert Dog must have heard their 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 them at the bottom of the steps, dancing in anticipation. Dog 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 Dog lacked in breeding and aesthetic appeal, he made up for in loyalty and eagerness.
Father and the Boy buttoned up their coats against the cold and hefted their guns, checked that they were both indeed unloaded and that the Safeties were on. With guns pointed toward the ground, they descended the steps. The Boy stopped at the bottom to kneel down and pet Dog who thanked him with a cold, wet tongue to the cheek, then nuzzled the Boy’s pocket that held the sausage and yeast roll.
“Not for you,” the Boy said and stood up.
They crossed the yard with Dog bouncing around underfoot. Past the plum tree, Father handed the shotgun to the Boy to hold while he crouched and slipped between two strands of the barb wire fence that surrounded the pasture. When Father was clear, the Boy passed him the shotgun and the rifle and followed. Dog 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. They paused here, and Father 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.
The Boy removed 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 Father he rechecked that the Safety was on. Father 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 pasture into a benign lake of shimmering gold. Father tucked his shotgun into the crook of his right arm. The Boy paused and breathed deeply of the cold air. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and kitchens on the place tickled his nose.
He folded down his cap’s rabbit fur flaps over his cold ears and tucked the rifle into the crook of his left arm, then jammed both of his now-gloved hands into his pockets. Although, he was naturally right-handed, his eyesight was so poor in his right eye, that he had turned himself into a left-handed shot.
The frosty stubble, dry, winter-brittle, and frost covered, crunched under their boots as they walked across the pasture towards the old, old forest of oak trees that ran along the east side of the place. The Boy had no idea how deep these woods went. He had never walked all the way out the other side.
As they crossed the pasture, Father and the Boy spoke rarely and then in hushed tones as if in reverence of the dawning day. Dog trotted ahead on stiff, jaunty legs, nose to the ground, running down every intriguing scent. Occasionally, Dog paused, turned, and waited as if impatient.
Eventually, they came to the edge of the wood, the immense trunks towered above, dark and solemn. Bare, brittle limbs rattled and cracked in the wind-driven, bitterly cold air. The Boy shivered as the breeze cut through his clothes. Even Dog paused before entering, perhaps like Father and the Boy, not from fear or even unease, but out of respect for something ancient and wild, primeval and seductive.
The Boy pulled off his left glove, freeing his shooting hand, and with rifle at the ready and heightened senses, all three 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.
Father and the Boy 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, they cocked their ears for squirrel chatter and swept their eyes through the branches above for movement. Despite the cold, the Boy had already flipped up the flaps on his cap in order to hear better. Dog ran down every new scent he discovered whether squirrel or rabbit or ground-nesting bird.
The Boy 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. He knew that many of them were nearly 100 feet tall and twelve to 15 around at the base. He had read in his science book that white oaks could live to be over 300 years old. Had the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians hunted these same woods where he and Father now hunted? He was sure they must have.
Grandmother had always kept chickens, and one day as a small boy, he had run inside with a particularly fine, large chicken feather. Grandmother had given him a strip of fabric to tie around his head, and he had thrust that feather into his headband. Then taking up the bow and arrow that she had been instrumental in him getting for his birthday that June, he had practiced slipping, silently and undetected, about the farmyard and tractor sheds and tree-lined bayou.
Now he hunted the big woods for real, not pretend, and with Father, among trees so evenly spaced that they 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. He walked 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 just grew this way.
As they 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. They 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 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 the Boy of weeds growing up through the bleached, skeletal ribs of a dead dog he had once come upon in these very woods.
“Quiet,” Father whispered. “There might be a rabbit in there.”
The Boy halted, expectant. From the corner of his eye he saw Father slowly bring the shotgun to his shoulder. The Boy stared intently at the thicket and held his breath as he eased the rifle up to his shoulder.
Ever impulsive, Dog bounded into the clearing, paused momentarily sniffing the cold morning air, and plunged into the thicket. The cottontail that Father 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, Dog in furious but futile pursuit. The two charged back into the woods, the rabbit desperately seeking cover.
Father exploded in laughter, and the Boy did too. They could hear the diminishing rustle of the chase. Father paused in the warm sunlight. The Boy, his rifle back in the crook of his arm, blew his warm breath on his cold fingers.
Father said, “One winter, I was still in high school, one of the farmhands and I were out rabbit hunting. It was cold like today, maybe even colder, and we came up on a place just like this.”
Father continued. “Well, there was a rabbit hiding in that thicket too. That old boy crept right up to that thicket and when he saw that rabbit – he had a single-shot shotgun – he leaned in with that gun, couldn’t’ve been more that two or three feet from that rabbit, and pulled the trigger.”
Father was laughing so hard, that tears were starting at the corner of his eyes.
“And missed him,” Father finally choked out, still laughing.
The Boy was grinning and laughing so hard, not just at the story but at how tickled Father was at the memory, that his jaw ached.
Father wiped his eyes. “Before that rabbit could even flinch, he flipped that single-shot around and whacked that rabbit in the head with the stock.”
Father 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.”
They were still laughing when Dog reappeared at the edge of the clearing, tongue lolling out, defeated.
“Got away, didn’t he?” Father called out.
In response, Dog sat down panting and waited for them.
Father and the Boy crossed the clearing and Dog fell in beside the Boy. There was a log, the remnant of a downed tree, at the edge of the clearing. The Boy started to step over it.
“What did I tell you?” Father said sharply.
The Boy 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,” the Boy offered in defense of his lapse.
Father 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,” the Boy said.
He and Father stepped on, then over the log and re-entered the woods.
“Now, let’s find a good, fat squirrel for your Grandfather,” Father 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, Father and the Boy continued to sweep the limbs above. They walked aimlessly among the thick, gray trunks beneath the lattice of bare limbs with no discernable pattern, deeper and deeper into the woods. The Boy savored the nip of the cold air and the relative quiet of the morning.
Eventually they were rewarded by the chatter of a squirrel calling or maybe admonishing another squirrel. The Boy 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. Father saw it too and nodded. Slowly and quietly, the Boy raised the rifle to his left shoulder. As the gripped the stock with his left hand, he reached forward with his trigger finger and gently clicked off the Safety. Just as he did, the squirrel paused, then scampered along the limb and resettled, partially obscured by a branch.
“Still see him?” Father whispered.
“Yessir,” the Boy replied. “I can see his shoulder right above that branch.”
“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure,” Father said.
The Boy 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,” the Boy answered and squeezed the trigger the way Father had taught him.
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, the Boy held his aim just as Father had taught him in case another shot was needed. It was not. The squirrel tumbled to the earth, landing with a soft thud.
Dog bounded towards the fallen squirrel. The Boy lowered his rifle, clicked the Safety back on, and started to run after Dog, fearful that Dog, more companion than retriever, might make off with the squirrel. Before Father could say a word, the Boy remembered Father’s injunction about running with a loaded rifle. With his rifle at his side, the Boy strode across the carpet of leaves and mast as quickly as possible. When the Boy got there, Dog was merely sniffing about and nudging the inert body with his wet, black nose.
The Boy lifted the squirrel by the tail. It was heavier than he expected, long and plump. His shot had broken the squirrel’s backbone right at the shoulder.
Father 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.”
The Boy’s chest swelled with pride for Father never praised lightly, even though he knew in his heart that Father could have easily made that shot. He handed the squirrel to Father, who hefted it.
“Nice and plump. Grandfather will be pleased,” he said. “Want me to carry him?”
“Yessir,” he said.
There was very little blood, but Father’s hunting jacket had a lined game pouch into which Father dropped the squirrel. “We got what we came for. Let’s meander on back.”
Father and the Boy walked closer together now and talked softly as they walked, while Dog ranged off in first one direction and then another. Despite their apparently aimless drifting, they soon arrived back at the clearing. The meadow was bathed in warm sunlight, and selecting a convenient limb on the downed tree, they sat.
The Boy reached into his pocket and pulled out his sausage and roll wrapped in Grandmother’s napkin. Walking in the cold morning air had made him hungry. He was unwrapping his snack and about to offer Father part of it, when Father 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,” Father said and took a big bite.
“Um-uh,” Father said. “That’s good.”
The Boy dug into his and agreed. They munched slowly, and Father told stories of other hunts, other days, and other dogs, but especially stories of duck hunts over on the River, the Mississippi River. The Boy loved to hear Father’s stories.
Redbirds and blue jays joined the finches and sparrows that darted across the meadow. A raucous murder of crows flew in, scattering the other birds, and lit to peck among the scrub. One particularly large crow settled into a tree along the edge of the clearing and began to chastise Father and the Boy with insistent cawing.
“Bet that rascal has been in your Grandmother’s garden and fruit trees,” Father said.
Father took his last bite and wiped his hands on Grandmother’s napkin which he stuffed back in his pocket. “You’ve never fired a shotgun, have you?” Father asked, even though he knew the answer.
“Nosir,” the Boy said. He had seen Father shoot and had pleaded, but Father had always said ‘Not yet.’
“Stand up,” Father said.
The Boy leapt up in anticipation and Father handed him the long, heavy shotgun.
“Now aim down the barrel at that crow.”
The Boy looked down the length of the barrel at the little bead on the end. “There’s no rear sight,” he said.
“Just look down that rib,” Father said, then added, “Put your left leg back a little and lean forward just a little bit.”
The Boy did as instructed, but the gun was heavy. Father must have noticed.
“Perfect,” Father said. “Now stand easy.”
The Boy 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,” Father said. “It’ll push you back and the barrel will rise but hold steady and the barrel will come back down.”
The Boy 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,” Father said.
The Boy lifted the shotgun and tucked it tight against his left shoulder. With his forefinger he flicked off the Safety. He placed his left cheek against the cool wood of the stock and sighted down the rib, placing the bead squarely on the squawking crow. He squeezed the trigger.
The sound was deafening. The heavy gun slammed his shoulder back and the barrel rode up just like Father said it would. But his stance was good, and he was braced as Father had taught him. As he rocked back forward and the barrel came back down, all he saw was a cascade of tattered black feathers fluttering to the ground. The crow was completely gone.
“Wow,” he said under his breath. He was both in awe of the destructive power of the shotgun and in some way that he 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 Grandfather who loved squirrel stew. This was another. Still, he had fired a shotgun and hit what he had aimed at.
“How’d it feel?” Father asked.
“Like getting punched in the shoulder,” he 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.”
The Boy looked over at the limb where the now-obliterated crow had been and gulped. But he was still a boy, and that thought fled from his mind as he hefted the 12-gauge. “When can we go dove hunting?” he 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.”
Father stood and took the gun. “Now run pick up that shell.”
Father 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,” the Boy said and went to the spot and cocked his arm.
“Pull,” Father shouted.
The Boy hurled the shotgun shell as hard as he could. It arced through the air, a small tumbling, red cylinder against the pale blue sky. Father 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,” Father said and set the Safety as he lowered the gun.
“Wow,” the Boy 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 aim a shotgun, you point it.’ And practice. Lots of practice.”
“Is that why you don’t need sights like on a rifle, because you point it?” the Boy asked.
“Exactly.” Father nodded.
“But how do you figure out where to point the shotgun?”
Father 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,” the Boy said. “I just know how to throw it where you’ll be.”
“Do you think about it?”
“Nosir, not really. I just know.”
“But you didn’t at first, did you?”
The Boy thought for a second. “Nosir. I threw behind you all the time.”
“That’s right. But with practice you learned how to throw the football so that the ball and I got to the same place at the same time.”
The Boy was excited now. It all made sense to him. “Can I try?” he asked.
“Sure,” Father said and handed him the shotgun.
On his fourth try the Boy hit the empty shotgun shell that Father sent sailing through the air. Just like when he was learning to throw passes, he had been behind on the first three times. Father threw one more and when he hit that one too, Father said, “Let’s stop while you’re ahead. Besides, it’s about time to head back to the house.”
They gathered up and pocketed their empty shells, then turned towards home. Dog, who had found other things to do during shotgun practice, rejoined them as they 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 they were no longer hunting, the Boy picked up the occasional stick and threw it for Dog to chase.
They 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 Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s 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.
Dog headed to the slough that meandered though the upper pasture for a drink of water. Father and the Boy continued across the brown stubble of the pasture, talking now about the college football season. They might even be able to pick up a game on the television this afternoon.
They reached the fence, unloaded their weapons, climbed through one at a time, and crossed the yard where Grandmother’s chickens, rusty Rhode Island Reds and speckled Plymouth Rocks, clucked and cooed and pecked about in the bright sunlight. They stopped at the back steps to clean the squirrel. Grandfather must have seen them coming because he came out onto the porch shrugging into his coat.
“Let’s see what you got there,” Grandfather said.
The Boy held his trophy up high.
“Whooeee,” Grandfather said. “That looks like a good one. Got your knife on you?”
“Yessir,” the Boy answered and fished out his pocketknife.
“Good for you. A gentleman always carries a pocketknife,” Grandfather said.
Grandfather came down the steps, leaned over the Boy’s shoulder, and with his forefinger traced the first cut down the squirrel’s snow-white belly. Grandfather pulled out his Dr. Grabow pipe and pouch of Carter Hall. Soon Grandfather’s head was crowned with a blue halo of pipesmoke. The Boy drank in the rich aroma and skinned and gutted the squirrel at Grandfather’s careful instruction.
The Boy kept the tail for himself. Everything else, hide, head, and entrails he took out back followed by a cavalcade of curious chickens. He tossed it all over the back fence into the pasture. Dog nosed around but found nothing interesting. Crows soon gathered.
Returning, the Boy put the cleaned and skinned squirrel in the pan Grandmother had provided and started up the steps.
“Hope you’re looking forward to squirrel stew as much as I am,” Grandfather said.
The Boy turned and wrinkled up his nose and mouth in disgust.
Grandfather threw his head back and roared with laughter. Father too.
“Good. More for me,” Grandfather said, still laughing.
On the porch, Father and the Boy propped their guns in the corner for cleaning later and emptied their pockets of ammunition. The three of them shrugged out of their coats and entered the warmth of Grandmother’s kitchen. The Boy was the last to enter. He 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, sometimes with Father, sometimes alone, always wary and alert, yet comfortable in the wild, never with any sense of fear of my surroundings or 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 Father had promised, with practice I became a good wingshot. That accomplished, Father 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 Father and Grandfather taught me with others.
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 Father. 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 Father and Grandfather.
Age has slowed my step but not my ardor the wild places. I still get out there, 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 Appalachians with a Boy beside me, and it struck me as it sometimes does: I am Grandfather now.
In the low rays of morning light, the Boy and I 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 Father and Grandfather and all they taught me. I found myself wishing they could be here seeing what I am seeing. And often, like that morning, I found myself speaking to them as if they, and not the Boy, were standing at my side.
“Did you say something, Grandfather?” the Boy at my shoulder asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did,” I replied.
He looked up at me and asked, “What’d you say?”
I looked at the smooth, eager face of the Boy beside me, then back across the magnificent vista stretching before us as if looking back across time to another frosty morning and whispered, “I said, ‘Thank you.’”