Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Necessity of Alarm Clocks

As a young teenager, getting permission to hunt by myself was always a big deal. One fall morning, I persuaded my parents to let me hunt with my best hunting buddy growing up. We'll call him Roger (I could say that I changed his name to protect his identity, but then, really, how would you know?). Better than that, I was privileged to take my dad's prize Belgian-made Browning A-5 12 gauge shotgun, famous for recoil that could pummel the unsuspecting shoulder and knock slobber from your sinuses. It was a beast, but it was mine for a day!

We set a time and place to meet in the squirrel woods across the road from my house, and up the road from his. We wanted to hunt early, while the squirrels were most active, so we decided to meet at first light at the big oak that stood at the center of that part of the woods. We knew it to be a den tree, and to contain more than one family of squirrels.

Active imagination and youthful anticipation kept sleep at bay, so I got up early and dressed. I packed a lunch and my hunting vest and took out, still too dark to see anything but the stars still twinkling overhead. The walk to the big oak was less than a half mile from the house, but I just couldn't wait at home, so I decided to walk on over, and just wait for Roger at the tree.

Down the drive, maybe 100 yards east down the gravel road, then north in the neighbor's drive. I would follow that drive up to the creek, then head west to the wood line. I followed the wood line north through a pasture, then a grassy opening, until I arrived at the small opening that led to the big oak.

It was still dark when I arrived at the opening, and even darker inside the wood beneath the fall canopy that had not yet fallen. I decided to sit at the base of a small cottonwood and wait for dawn. I sat on my vest, and cradled the Browning between my knees, barrel straight up.

When I awoke, the sun was up and Roger was yelling for me. He hadn't seen me, nor I him. As sleep faded and the haziness turned to sharp focus, I saw them. Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands...

In the wee hours of that morning, some kind of spider invasion had happened while I slept. Garden spiders were everywhere, as far as I could see. They were on my boots; my pants; a web was under construction between the cottonwood and my gun barrel. Above my head.

I jumped up, dropped the Browning, and brushed my clothes. No, I beat my clothes as if I were on fire while screaming like a schoolgirl.

When I was sure that I was not about to die from spider poison, and that arachnids had not taken residence in my hair or laid eggs in my inner ears, I stopped to evaluate.

Vest, gone. Stripped when I realized I was not on fire and that it had lots of pockets.

Jacket, gone. Again, pockets.

Hat, gone. I used it for a while to beat the spiders to death. Lost it while running and screaming like a schoolgirl.


Dang... it was still in the twilight zone.... on the ground.... Dad would not be pleased.

It took a few minutes to gather my wits and return to the meadow and retrieve my hunting clothes and gun. Carefully, I picked up a dead tree limb to use in defense against the marauding spiders. A very long tree limb.

Eventually I gathered my clothes and my gun, and met Roger under the tree. He had heard me screaming, but did not see the garden of spiders. I don't think he believed me, either.
We hunted the rest of the morning, but I never saw a squirrel.

I was too busy looking toward the ground.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

You and Me

"Cold" just wasn't a strong enough word.

I had been in the stand since well before first light; first, stumbling through thick briers and underbrush before walking in circles looking for the blaze orange strip of plastic that led to my stand.

Ten degrees was the readout on the thermometer when Dad and I left camp, but another front was crawling through, dropping the temp toward zero along with a heavy, wet snow.

My stand was high in a dead oak tree, still strong, despite years of decay and rot. The wind rocked the stand a little, but that was not so bad. I couldn't help, though, but wonder about the weight of the snow now piling up on my stand, the limb on which my stand sat, my gear, and on me.

By eight-fifteen, there was about two inches of snow on the limb where my rifle rested; the overcast skies above heavy with snow yet to fall. The ends of my soda can were bulging with the expanding pressure of frozen Diet Coke trapped inside. I had tried to take a drink earlier, but I couldn't pull the tab because I could not feel my finger tips. So it was sitting on the stand, the lone item that was not hidden in camouflage or blaze orange.

By nine o'clock, I mostly held my head down so the snow would not fall behind my glasses and get into my eyes. My runny nose would run down the tip, but would not drop; it froze in the hairs on my upper lip. From time to time, I had to wipe it off. I never understood why it would freeze, when I was breathing out warm air through my nose. I guess some things aren't meant to be understood.

I was careful to look around, always watching for the deer that we had come to find. While some hunt for sport, some for trophies or recognition, we hunted for food. Not that any other reason is bad, the reasons are just different. When you hunt for food for the table, you go out earlier, stay out longer, and come back later than most.

But on days like today, the deer tend to find a dry spot in coverage and bed down, wait it out. The hairs on the outer coats are hollow, and hold warm air as insulation from harsh winter weather. They can be found covered in snow, bedded down, quite comfortable.

I voted to bed down myself. I had lost the feeling in my feet hours ago, and I could feel my sinuses about to drain down the back of my throat, causing a coughing fit that would render my wait in the stand worthless.

With great effort, I stood as quietly as possible. Dad was still in the woods somewhere, and I didn't want to ruin his hunt with my noise. Just as I stood, I heard a crash at the base of the oak. I looked over carefully, hoping to see the buck I have worked so hard to harvest, but instead saw the Diet Coke can on its side, spewing its contents all over the underbrush. I knocked it off when I stood.

I carefully lowered my rifle and my backpack by rope; then climbed painfully down the seventeen ladder steps to the snow-covered ground.

When it is cold like that, and still, and overcast, the sound of the snow falling is fascinating. Nowhere else in nature is found that muffled sound of a heavy snowfall in the hardwoods. Occasionally, you hear the limbs shift under the weight, and some old dried leaves will rattle, but mostly you hear.... you hear.... the sound of nothing.

I walked out of the woods to the ancient logging road that wound through the hardwoods, up to the pine thicket, then to the edge of the bean field where we were camped. The remains of the morning fire were still smoldering; probably the only thing that could survive the cold snow was fire.

As I approached, I saw my Dad's Remington 742 leaning against the camper, and I was glad to see it. It was never a good thing to be the first one back to camp on a tough day, so at least I wouldn't have to live with that. Not today, anyway.

As I opened the door, I saw my Dad standing there, making sandwiches.

"You a quitter?", joked my Dad, knowing that he had quit first.

"Yep, I'm a quitter... just like you", I replied, knowing we would be back in the woods in just a little while.

"You know," my Dad said "there are only two kinds of people who would hunt in weather like this."
"Really?", I said, knowing I was about to gain some of my Dad's quirky wisdom.

"Yup. You and me."

I was a sophomore in high school that winter we camped along the edge of the state park in West Tennessee. It had been a difficult time; my older sister in college, Dad's work not going well; me growing too big for my britches as sophomore boys will do. But how I cherished those words "You and me". How I cherish them even more now that Dad is gone.

I wanted something hot for lunch, to warm me on the inside. I looked through the groceries we had brought, but didn't see anything that we could whip up in a hurry. So, Dad walked out into the snow with a cast-iron skillet, set it on the fire, and dropped a hunk of butter in to grease the pan. When the butter was sizzling, he dropped two peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the skillet. The bread soaked up the butter and quickly began to sear the bread. He flipped them over, repeating the process for the second side.

I cannot tell you how tantalizingly wonderful that sandwich smelled! The warmth of the fire, the toasty bread and melting peanut butter... oh, I cannot tell you the wonderful flavors we enjoyed! They were so good, Dad made us two more, and cooked them on the fire, just to make sure the first was not a mistake.

And as good as the sandwiches were, they could not compare to the warmth of the camaraderie we shared around the fire. Even at night, sleeping inside the frosty camper, we talked well past talking time. We talked about work; about school; about life. Something special was happening to us at camp, and it started with the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. And it never really ended until my Dad went to his eternal home last Easter.

You and me. These are powerful words.

And I have tried to fry those peanut butter and banana sandwiches a few times since then.

They are awful.

Some things aren't meant to be understood.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Speaking in Tongues

I have always known my father to be a caring, loving father. But I forgotten how "holy" he was until recently when I was walking through some old memories of my dad when I was a young pup of 9 or 10.

One specific remembrance comes to mind of a sweltering southern summer morning when we wanted to go to the River. Now, the River is not necessarily a holy place, but we spent a lot of time there, and when we weren't there, we were thinking about being there.

On this particular day, we needed bait so we could bait our lines stretched across the muddy unknown bottom of the River. We stopped at a deep drainage ditch, full of the previous night's rainfall. The ditch was about three and a half feet wide, and the spot we were working was about six feet long. The water was probably only two feet deep, but at that time, that was deep water to me.

We were seining that little stretch of water for crawdads. Catfish love crawdads, and plus, they were free, if we could catch 'em in our seine. Those little devils are fast.

Dad stood on one end, his work pants rolled up to his knees revealing pasty white legs and bare feet. I stood opposite my dad, wearing denim shorts and a shirt my mom had warned me to not get dirty. The Tennessee clay oozed between my toes, triggering all kinds of fight or flight responses in my kiddish mind.

The job was simple, really. Hold the net to the bottom of the ditch, and across to both sides, creating a trap from which the crawdads could not escape. And while holding the net tight in those three dimensions, I would walk the net- and the bait- towards my dad. I had to keep the net on the bottom, and against both sides of the ditch. In my good shirt. Barefoot. And those little suckers are fast.

Dad was in a bit of a hurry, because it took some time to bait all the lines, wait for the fish, and then run the lines to gather the fish. Back then, he could get impatient really quickly.

I was not in much of a hurry, due to the shirt and bare feet mentioned above. And again, those little suckers are fast.

I think I had fallen two or three times and wasted ten minutes, with nothing to show for my effort (not even a clean shirt) when I heard my dad really get in the spirit- he raised is hands to the air, looked into the heavens, and let fly with a long string of words unknown to my ears that signified one thing- daddy was speaking in tongues!

My dad put on a verbal display of spirituality that would make a charismatic blush with envy. His voice was as strong as any preacher, unknown words flowing like milk and honey. And while I didn't understand the words, I wondered if the expression on his face was what Moses looked like when he came down from the mountain to find all the golden idols his people had made in his absence.

Suddenly fearing that my dad was about to call down fire from heaven, I made well sure I got my sticks in the muddy bottom, my net across both sides, and with a mighty rush we must have wiped out two full generations of crawdads in one fell swoop.

We hurriedly got our gear back in the truck, and with our hard-earned bait, we fished until well after dark.

We never spoke of that day again, but one question has always lingered.....

Who was the interpreter?