The Old Boy and the Man
by Pete Kauffman
I can’t call him my old man, even if he is. I can’t call him father (too formal) or dad because that’s what they call many lesser qualified people. So I resort to calling him Pops, which seems like a decent compromise; endearment without schmaltz. As we grow up together, there is a retrograde maturity that brings us to eye-level with each other, and it is unsettling.
When everything is up for grabs, it helps to go back where it all starts— there is the plangent overtures of a great horned owl, the waxing beaver moon, sunken below the tops of the precipitous hardwood ridges vaguely silhouetted like a supine comb in the pre-dawn. The frosted grass underpins the darkness with a light-infusing white. It is cold for this part of Kentucky, a still, bracing cold that Pops claims invigorates him. I hold his old Stanley thermos while he pulls on his gloves. We cross the creek, rocky with geodes, or dinosaur eggs, we called them, the ones you can smash open to see the crystallized minerals. It is this slice of woods, as wild a place to be found in this country, that brought me up.
It was only twelve or thirteen years ago when he would obligingly stop for sissy or me when we hiked twice this far to the saddle stand up top, but now he is heaving. His lungs aren’t doing him right. Pops is quiet. He never complains, but he doesn’t need to complain because I know he can’t even turn his head without a bone spur numbing his arm. We think he has a heart murmur. This is no place for him to keel over.
He shouldn’t hunt alone today, but not only because he has physical problems. There is more trouble, family trouble he is helpless to fix but still feels responsible for. Life is full of sucker punches and haymakers even when you don’t pick a fight. Come on. I think, It’s opening day.
Not all holidays are created equal. Opening day usurped Thanksgiving and Christmas way back and put them on par with Labor Day. It was one time when our workaholic consciences were laid to rest, and we spent the day at large, roaming the woods and fields without the slightest twinge about the half-finished fences. Traditions were born, like they always are on holidays. One was Pop’s breakfast of pathetic pancakes and elastic bacon, brackish Folgers, and entirely too much of his ad hoc humor for four in the morning. For the hunt, there was also the indulgent beef jerky and candy bars, two apiece. Then we would be gone into the darkness, scattered out over the farm or adjoining farm, still hunting, stand hunting. Whenever there was a shot, we all wondered and used the two-ways, and in the end Pops would try to put on a drive, a formality left over from his Pennsylvania mountain hunting that rarely produced deer. Then came the midmorning parley at the machine shed and the apocryphal tales as the deer were strung up.
Pops was about good times. The deer were only an excuse. There was a thermos of coffee for him, a thermos of hot chocolate for us, sleeping bags to keep us warm, and those candy bars shoved down our shirts to thaw. It wasn’t like he possessed unparalleled wood lore— we referred to Pop’s blind as a stink bomb or a madhouse and weren’t far off— but he had love and lots of it. It was not the hovering, maudlin sort; it was the kind that made the right choice so easy you couldn’t help but make it.
We have time. Pops pours a cup of his notoriously weak coffee and drinks it. I turn the cork on my Thermos, and it squeaks from the vapor lock. I wince.
“Don’t step on its tail.” he says in a vague attempt at humor. It’s not funny, but that’s no problem because of his self-sustaining humor. That is, he laughs harder at his own jokes than anyone else, and he can cheer himself up. His contextual humor, the sort that uses malapropisms and situation, is always funnier when you’re supposed to be quiet. Like in church. This humor, I believe, is how he survived seven sons.
The light comes, softly at first; then it is shooting light. The frost on the winter perennials, wheat, rape, rye, turnip, give a weak, green glow into the dawn, heightened by the vague tan of brush in the next field to the east. There is the watering hole to the north that holds water after the rainless fall, and to the west an acre of unpicked corn. Milo on the edges, hinge-cut trees to encourage brush.
Somnolence, except for a Carolina Wren that only defines the sounds of silence. Not only terrestrial silence, but also cognitive silence, that reminds me why I hunt, and deer hunt specifically. It is these moments of stillness that bring it back in a flood. I was raised to hunt—all of us were— but it took on an ineffable dimension from the time we were old enough to not be afraid of the dark. Scenes of deer hunts flash back: special rifles, hunting with siblings, the mingled happiness and sadness standing over our deer, that unmistakable footstep that you never have to guess about. The hunts with Pops were how most of us debuted in the deer woods, and none of us have forgotten it.
* * *
“I’m cold,” I whined. It probably wasn’t much colder than thirty degrees, but my nine-year-old self couldn’t produce enough heat. Pops poured a cup of hot chocolate, set it on the log. I hunkered into the apex of the barkless beech tree top shaped like a V, my too-small tan coveralls riding up on my shins and exposing them to the cold. I pulled my cap as low as I could and resigned myself to a morning of shivering.
“Deer!” Dad hissed. “Behind you.” This was usual, it seemed— the deer coming from an angle I couldn’t see. Pops raised the Marlin 30-30. I covered my ears.
“Hey, hey,” Pops was saying. “It’s a buck. I can’t shoot.”
So I extracted myself, trying to move with dad’s incongruous “hurry up, deer don’t stand all day” and “slow down, don’t spook him”, and the deer miraculously came on. I rested the legendary Marlin, nestling it beside a small knot, and carried on the family tradition of shooting my first deer with it. That buck was a fork-horn with one side missing that still hangs in my cabin. It was Thanksgiving, and when all the work was done and I could sit and revel in my first deer, I realized I still had half a Three Musketeers in the angled chest pocket of my coveralls.
* * *
I mention it, and he picks up on the thread of memory.
“I tell you,” Pops says. “My best memories are of hunting. Vacations and the like never produced anything worth remembering. All of you shot deer, I guess, and I was with most of my children when they took their first deer. ‘Cept for Mike— he was thirty feet up that pine in Michigan. Crazy boy.” He shook his head in proud disapproval. “And Ervin, he came into the shop, bobbing his head like this,” Pops demonstrates, the trademark laugh now born. “Twice in the lungs, about two inches apart. Typical. And Tim, shot that tall nine on youth day.”
A fondness replaces his brooding gaze, the nostalgia smoldering in his eye like a dying ember. I hear something in the leaves and tell him.
“Huh? Can’t hear it. But I can’t hear like I used to, I got that ringing in my ears.” He holds the rifle anyway, the muzzle pointing to the floor of the blind. His rifle is a new .308 bought with his meager inheritance, and he wants to kill one deer with it.
“Can’t see that gun without thinking of Grandpa,” he says, using “Grandpa” for my benefit, but he is talking about his dad. I brace myself for the story that will follow, the story about him and Grandpa the last time they hunted the Tuscarora Mountains in Pennsylvania together; how Pops, because of Grandpa’s multiple sclerosis, carried the old bolt action 30-30 for him all the way to the top. And how it took them two hours to climb the mountain to be there before daylight, and how they would strip down to put on long johns to endure the old army-style mountain hunting, and how they would build a fire to roast the many sandwiches and drink coffee.
Pops finishes his story, lifts the rifle again, and sets it in the corner. The eye flames again under a different spark. “Shouldn’t point my rifle down like that. Don’t want my bullets to run out,” he explains.
“Not funny.” I reply.
“Sure it is. When your sense of humor matures, it will be.” And there it is, the offset of his lower jaw that portents an attempt at humor, something that really shouldn’t be funny but is— that old indomitable goodwill that made him tell the humorless paramedics he was trying to fly after falling eighteen feet as a fifty-five year old man. He wasn’t finished yet.
It is exactly a year ago since I was going through a personal crisis myself, and now the roles are reversed except I don’t have the resources to help him like he did me. It must be a lonely life to be a venerable old man and know so much and be perceived as having it figured out. Everyone leaves you alone when you need help. I have never seen my father through these eyes before. He is more human than I thought. I see myself in him.
“My toes are cold,” Pops whines. “When are we going to see a deer? I want some coffee.”
“Crybaby,” I say and pour a cup for him. The coffee smells like dishwater. “We’ll see deer.”
He grows silent and stares, brooding to the left, and I watch to the right. A squirrel trapezes in the oaks, three crows fly the length of the hollow in missing man formation. A red-shouldered hawk circles high, its white breast alternately lit like some strobe light in the morning sun that has not risen high enough for us. The white frost on the green, the golden light now brushing the tips of the tallest tree gives the world a juxtaposition of idiotic, idyllic appeal.
Pops has that brooding stare again, looking—but not seeing, I’m sure—out the left window of the blind. I wrestle his attention back to a time when him, little sister, and I were up at the saddle stand and brought home three deer in a single morning.
“Yeah,” he says, his mind having already slipped the fragile bonds of memory. I give up.
I hear it again; this time I am sure.
“Deer.” I hiss.
Hunting in the blind makes it difficult to pinpoint the direction. It seems to be on the left, but I glance to the right over the plot to make sure. The buck is already well into the field, crossing fast, a dark and chesty deer, white antlers glowing in the shadowy field.
“You should shoot it,” Pops is saying. “You sure you don’t want to shoot?”
“I can’t,” is my lame reply. Then, “Slow don’t, don’t spook him.”
He is having trouble getting into position, too many clothes, hat in the way. He drops to a partial crouch to utilize the rest. An interminable moment follows. A line from William Faulkner comes back, and I feel humble, and wise, just like Old Sam Fathers to the boy. “Shoot quick, and slow.”
Pops is out of control, the shakes in spasms. “Why am I shaking?” he asks. I am shaking too and don’t know why; I shot one for the Pope and Young record books once and shook less. Through my binoculars, I see an antler rising from the food plot. We drink another cup and polish off the candy bars, unwilling for Opening Day to be over by eight.
We drag the buck nearer to the field lane and stand admiring the symmetry of the antlers. A beautiful eight, long tines arcing in with the mains reaching for each other. Pops likes antlers, just like the next hunter, but despite our proselytizing for trophy hunting, he remains a meat hunter.
“Biggest buck I have ever killed,” he says; then with equal weight, “Boy, he stinks.”
We leave the deer and walk out to get the truck. After a little piece, we turn and take in the vista behind us. The sun has finally partially illuminated the russet corn, cutting back the rime in a clean line. The light is glinting off the beeches, skeletal in the newly departed frost, the last few leaves breaking away and falling, falling. We watch, still as it is, yet changing so fast from summer to winter we hardly have a chance to watch autumn. A walnut rolls into my throat, but I swallow it. It seems so still, life in death, or death in cyclic life. Yet it is a present, hardly held, but for a moment, I clasp it and linger. We stand side by side, silently, and in all this mashup of reversal, we hold a singular moment of memory in birth; something shared, something timeless, a father and son being and doing what is best, a respite in the constancy of change.
“That was a memorable hunt,” Pops says.
It’s not fair, I think. “It just isn’t fair that I have such a good one. He was the sort of father that never tempted me to wish for another, even as a teenager.
I help him get the deer into the freezer, and while Pops fusses about the smell, I remember the time that I, as a squeamish lad, had gagged as he eviscerated my first deer. As I skin the head for a European mount, one of the brothers pulls in.
“Where were you hunting?”
“I took Pops.” I said.
Pete Kauffman is living out his days on a woodland Kentucky farm. He likes words, especially in sentence form.