I hear the alarm clock click over a full second before the radio inside it warms up. The discordant sound of the AM band resolves itself into recognizable words and music just in time for the ‘off’ switch to be flicked. I can hear my father getting up, the springs creaking as he levers his feet over the edge of the bed. I have a few minutes now, while he puts in his contact lenses.
I go ahead and get out of bed, sliding my feet into warm thick socks and layering my shirts. Warmest pair of pants I own. Feet into the worn boots that have been my constant companions for years.
By the time he has his contacts in, I’ve already slipped into the kitchen to start the morning’s coffee.
It’s not quite four-thirty in the morning. In my opinion, not a time that humans should be awake and aware, but today is an exception.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and there are plates, bowls, and containers full of leftovers in the refrigerator. I help myself to a half-inch thick slab of ham the size of my palm, gnawing on it cold, and offer some to him as well as we wait for the coffee to brew. As with every year, we promise that next time, we’ll just start it the night before and leave it on.
Multitasking, old-school style: Food in one hand, a cigarette and a cup of coffee in the other. Never missing a beat as all the parts come together. Quiet conversation rules the morning. Not only does it feel somehow right to speak in hushed tones at this hour and in the low light, but we don’t want to make Mom up. She worked herself to the bone yesterday making sure that everything went as planned. Today she gets to sleep in. We discuss where we’re going and who will be sitting in which location, the fields of fire each of us will have, and extraction plans should fortune smile upon us.
We gather the rest of our gear and throw it on: belts with canteens, knives and a pouch or two filled with various bits that experience has shown to be handy. Coats first and then over them the vests of fluorescent orange color. Matching stocking caps that keep the ears warmer than I’d like to admit. Pop fills a Thermos of coffee to take along before prepping a fresh pot for when Mom wakes up.
The rifles rest behind the door, where they have been since one of us checked them last night. Clean and in good working condition. We pick them up and slip out the door, closing and locking it with more of the hush that has been our forte this morning. Down the walk to the vehicle. Rifles in first, on the backseat or behind the bench of the truck, and then we are in. It’s a short drive down gravel roads to the back gate of the neighbor’s property, and I’m quick to open the gate for him and close it behind the vehicle. Another half-mile of twisting pasture road and we hit gate number two. From here it’s afoot.
Outside the vehicle, we load the rifles before we begin the walk. Clicking sounds from each of them as rounds are inserted, and then the sharper ratcheting sound of a lever or a bolt being manipulated. Safeties click, hammers are lowered. We open the gate only as far as needed to slip through – there are cattle in this pasture.
Our walk is slow and measured, with moonlight our primary guide. Each of us carries a light, but rarely will it come on during our approach. We are familiar with the land we are on. Frost on the grass lends a shining, shimmering appearance to the ground, and where it changes its look, we know the terrain features follow suit. We walk on, each of us silently anticipating the morning to come. We pass beyond a trio of round hay bales, each as tall as we are. This is the halfway point between gate number two and the final fence.
In the distance, a truck horn. Cold, crisp air carries the sound to our ears from the highway a half mile distant.
Slow and steady now, still marching on, we come to the final fence. It is inches below chest height, a barrier of triple strand barbed wire nailed to split rail posts. The tension it once held is gone now, and we approach the same place we always do, where we know how much we can stretch it. Pop hands me his rifle. I lift a boot and plant it on top of the second strand of wire, pressing down hard and opening a gap for him to slip through. A moment later and I am passing the rifles over to him as we trade places and jobs. I hear the hiss as the barbs pass along the nylon of my vest.
We walk on, frozen grass crunching beneath our feet. Ahead and to our left is the area I called ‘the mountain’ when I was much younger. A raised mound that climbed a good fifty feet or more, it formed the back wall of a small pond.
It is here that we separate. I’m going to the top of that mound, with a panoramic view downward onto a pond and an open field. Pop will be moving ahead and right of me, into a copse of trees that provide him concealment and a break from the frigid wind while he observes a second field, one even wider than that I am watching.
At this point it is a matter of getting into place and waiting. At any time, either of us can turn and see the other. Even separated, there is a closeness. Apart yet together, we wait and watch. We may see a deer within our range, or we may not. Looking back now, I know how unimportant that facet of the hunt truly was.
I took my first deer from up on that hill, looking down into that field, on a year so bitterly cold that Pop had already come to my position and we had decided to go back. As we readied ourselves to leave, there was movement below us in the field. Within a minute I had put him on the ground. The thing is, I don’t remember that day specifically for being the time I shot my first deer, but as the time I shot my first deer while sitting next to Pop. He was right there on that mound beside me, shivering and cold, watching the spike through those beat-to-hell binoculars of his.
For this particular trip, I thought back to a time when I was sixteen (or maybe seventeen – there is a little temporal blur after all this time). The first hunt I actively remember was many years before that, and the last one we shared was in ’14. Through the years I’ve hunted beside him in rain, ice, snow, wind, and the occasional fair weather. Mountains to plains, hills and valleys, thick brush and wide-open fields. With rifle and pistol, classic designs to modern. We’ve brought home numerous kills to fill freezers with delicious venison (still a favorite meat today), and we’ve come home empty-handed as well. We’ve hunted with my grandfather, my brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and friends. Tips and tricks learned one year make it to the next. Each family member who learns something new passes it to the rest, and our knowledge is freely shared. When possible, we hunt as a family, and pool our numbers to speed the field-dressing and skinning. We’ve driven hundreds of miles to camp near our hunting sites, and we’ve walked from houses directly to stands no more than a hundred yards from the home we had slept in the night before.
Times have changed through the years, but this is the one tradition I still hold dear in my heart: the hunt with my father. Sure, some years we can’t make it for one reason or another, but the next year is there, and we can hold out hope that luck will hold and we’ll be together again in the field.
This came about from a prompt set out in a writing group: “Write about a holiday tradition unique to your family – any holiday works.”
The problem I ran into is that finding a standing tradition within my families is… I think the word ‘problematic’ covers it well. Religions run the gamut from Heathenry to Southern Baptist, Judaism to Wicca. Work schedules and distance rarely allow more than a few family members to gather in any place at the same time, and even then it is for short periods of time (and sadly, most often for funerals).
I began the challenge with a new Z262 short, convinced that I could come up with no tradition within my own group. It was during the course of thinking and planning for that short (which will come soon enough) that I realized there was something I considered “traditional”. I harvested a particular set of memories to give the sense of what it was like. What I cannot adequately convey is the bond that grew between a father and son with repeated forays into the woods.
To this day, I enjoy going into the woods — be it to hunt or hike, fish or camp. I am far more at home there than in any cocoon of steel and stone. It’s part of a heritage he handed down to me, and to others. Thanks, Pop. I love you.