And it’s only October 29th. The economy not only has taken a toll on my bank account but also on my soul. When I was a child and our family was falling apart, a hunting or fishing trip with my father would seem to right the world. Up until this year, getting in the woods or on the water would change my perspective and give me strength to overcome the challenges. But I haven’t had a hunting or fishing trip with “heart” so far this year. With a senior in high school who’s worked his tail off to make grades that will allow him to attend one of the top engineering schools in the country, I wonder from where the money will come. Right now every penny is precious. Dare I spend money on hunting and fishing?
I manage a boat plant. The mantra in the boat manufacturing industry is do more with less; be profitable at a lower manufacturing rate. The plant I manage is the sole satellite plant left in the industry. Every other company has consolidated and brought all their operations back to their headquarters. It’s been a fight both tooth and nail to improve enough so that it made good financial sense to keep our plant open. No raises for 4 years, long hours doing more with less, and attempting to develop business for our company outside the marine industry has taken its toll. I’m soul sick and physically worn out. I hardly have the strength to do the thing that will heal me. I need a hunt with heart.
Oh, but I deserve this. My father was a coal miner and worked as hard as I do now to put me through college. While he was working his tail off, I was spending far more time hunting, fishing, and trapping than I did in class. Without telling him, I dropped out one semester to hunt and run a trap line. I need to remember that I was able to partake in “partial retirement” while I was young and could enjoy it.
After college I moved back home and went to work in the coal industry. I began to develop a pattern of working to exhaustion and taking a hunting or fishing trip to rejuvenate. On one such trip my boss called my mother and asked her to have me call him right away. I was camping alone on a lake. How, my mother wondered, was she going to get me off that lake? I wouldn’t come off even if she died, she thought. But I was a grandma’s boy and she had always been a little jealous of that relationship. The next morning she sent my best friend to the boat ramp to tell fishermen to be on the lookout for me, that my grandmother had died and the family needed me home. I got the news from fishermen in a bass boat in the glare of their spotlight while I was still in my sleeping bag. I lay there for quite some time, quietly sobbing. It was a beautiful morning with bass busting minnows on top as I motored back toward the ramp. It was no secret that I was Audie Mae’s favorite. I thought about how everyone would break down and begin the grieving process anew as I entered the room where they had gathered. I did not relish the thought. There was nothing I could do for grandma now. It looked like the fish were biting. I might as well stay and fish. And I did. Yes, I deserve this.
The list goes on. Instead of deer hunting one Thanksgiving, I took shotgun and spinning gear and floated down the upper St. John’s River to duck hunt and fish. I had just entered a serious relationship with my future wife. I often brought a sleeping bag along on such trips just in case the cat fishing was good and I wanted to stay overnight in the canoe. On this trip the fishing was excellent. I had met an old man in a beat up john boat early on the first day who said I should shoot a couple of coots and try using them as catfish bait. He was right. I ended up spending the entire Thanksgiving break on the river. By Friday, after not showing up for Thanksgiving dinner, my future wife was frantic. She called my mother asking if they should send out a search party. My mom laughed and said she had better get used to it. Still Nancy married me.
Three months into our marriage I was desperate for a trip in the outdoors. My wife is from Cleveland and her family didn’t hunt or fish. It wasn’t easy convincing her to travel to the coast with me to spend a romantic evening on a sand bar. It wasn’t a fishing trip really, although we would catch a couple of fish that I would grill on our hibachi, I explained. When we arrived at the beach on the intercoastal waterway we had canoed to in gathering darkness, it was covered with seaweed. Blind gnats swarmed in a cloud up to our knees with every step. Although blind gnats don’t bite, she was ready to leave immediately. Around midnight I ran out of bait. I told her we would leave in an hour if she would paddle with me out onto a flat while I cast netted a few more finger mullet. We turned the canoe over. Lucky for us, for October, it was warmer than usual. Wet, we stayed for 3 more hours. The fishing wasn’t great, but it didn’t have to be for me to enjoy the evening. We were on the water. It was a long time before she went fishing with me again.
I could tell a thousand more stories of why I deserve my present discontent. Of my son falling overboard in the presence of a 10’ alligator and lifting him back into the boat by the nape of his life jacket, continuing to concentrate on fishing with spinning rod still in hand, while my wife looked on in horror from the back of the boat. Of taking friends on float trips that lasted predawn to midnight without food or flashlight; of skinning spotted skunks in a basement and running out the tenants for a week; and even though family and friends knew my propensities, the countless hours they worried when I came in late or didn’t show up for days. Need I go on?
By this stage in my life I thought things would be different. Unlike many of my friends, I’ve never been on a guided hunt, although I have guided several dads and their sons to their first spring gobblers. I’ve never laid eyes on Alaska or the Yukon, never shot a monster buck, a bear, or a moose, or a big horn sheep, and never caught a salmon.
But here’s the scary part. I seem to be approaching the age where trips with “heart” don’t hold the same allure. A great trip used to need 3 elements. It had to be physically demanding; I had to have an encounter with game even if it was just sign; and it had to be in an area that was pleasing to the eye even if it was just a pocket in an otherwise suburban environment. Getting lost for a few hours made for a really great trip. A storm made it a really, really great trip. Throw in an encounter with a water moccasin, rattlesnake, alligator, or shark and it was a really, really, really great trip.
Right now I’d settle for a few days at our hunting camp in the Allegheny Mountains with my Dad. My fondest childhood memories revolve around Camp. I remember squirrel hunting with Dad, and him stopping on the way up the mountain and holding me close with his hands over my heart. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I discovered why he held me that way. He said he would ask if I needed a rest and I’d always say no. After a while, he would stop and put his hand on my chest. He said at times my heart beat so fast and hard it scared him. We would continue after my heart slowed down.
Now Dad is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I took Dad to camp 3 times in 2010 while I still had extra cash. Almost all of the old guys, men my father’s age-his best friends, who were responsible for building the camp, have passed away and the camp had fallen into serious disrepair. In the winter of 2009-2010 along with my wife and 2 teenage boys, I began to renovate the camp. In September of 2010 I took Dad to the camp to finish what was left by the contractors I had finally hired.
The trip from South Georgia where I live now to our camp on the West Virginia-Virginia border near the Snowshoe Ski Resort was a hard one. Dad would ask the same questions over and over. He soiled himself. This was our last trip to Camp, I thought. But a strange and wonderful thing happened as the week progressed. As if waking from a sleep, Dad began to come around. Things went exceedingly well until toward the end of the week when he insisted on staining the rafters. He got the idea after seeing how the bare wood I had stained around one of the new windows turned out.
At 82-yrs.-old my father is a heavy set man. I could hear his labored breathing as I worked in the living room as he applied the stain to the rafters in the kitchen with a sponge mop. He splashed stain on the newly painted walls and it dripped on the new vinyl floors. But I made 3 times the mess when I was able to get the sponge mop away from him. I gave him back the mop. With a steady, heavy breath, Dad worked for 4 hours without a break. It took a while to touch up the walls and clean the floor, but low and behold, how beautiful the ceilings looked!
Dad and I traveled to Camp again in October with two of my best friends from South Georgia. I took a spike buck for the freezer with my bow and bagged a turkey on that trip. Dad enjoyed the trip immensely and recovered further. That Thanksgiving my 15-yr-old son Luke went back with Dad and I and Luke bagged his first buck.
On that trip Dad insisted on taking Luke to his can’t miss stand in the low gap at the head of the hollow behind the camp. I left early and from a vantage point on the side of the mountain waited for them to come up the hollow. An hour later I heard rocks clanging as Dad slowly made his way. It broke my heart to see how he used his rifle as a cane struggling over rocks and fallen branches. When I came down to greet them, Dad asked me to go on with Luke. In all the years we had hunted together, I had never been to Dad’s stand with him. Although I knew the general area, I listened intently as he described the exact location of the tree we were to stand behind. It was important to him that he pass on his stand to one of his grandchildren. Dad told us he would take his time and meet us there.
Dad never made it to the stand. After Luke and I went around the next bend in the hollow, Dad walked back to camp. Later that evening during dinner, he declared what I already knew- his hunting days were over.
As sad as that was, still Dad’s mind had recovered to a degree I thought impossible. But a year later he’s lost all that ground and then some. I need to get him back to camp. I need to get back to camp.
They say in the end you regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did. This Thanksgiving I’ll spend the money to take Dad back to camp. I need it; he deserves it.