October 28, 2010
Illustration by Remington Arms Co.
When I was young, grandpa was the center of the universe. He took me angling for bluegills and bullheads in the farm pond down the road during summers when my parents dropped me off weeks at a time. He taught me to clean a fish and skin a 'coon, shoot a shotgun straight and cook a duck. Most importantly, he whittled my first bow of hickory and fashioned arrows from hardware-store dowels and added wild-turkey feathers, carefully split and flossed into place.
Later we traveled to bigger waters for feisty largemouth bass and fat channel cats. We shot chunky Illinois River carp with homemade longbows and fishing reels made from coffee cans holding surveying cord to bring our heavy fiberglass arrows, and skewered carp, back after a shot. We shored up two-by-four stands located in white oak thickets during muggy summer mornings, tidied shooting lanes and added fresh material to ground blinds assembled before my birth so they'd become part of the earth, the way an old stone wall melts into the landscape until it assumes all the properties of a God-made outcrop or ancient stump.
There were weekends to look forward to at Grandma and Grandpa's Randolph County, Illinois, farm down on Plum Creek, especially those days when the first frosts arrived and the leaves begin to color and attention turned to deer. That's when I got to sit with Grandpa in one of those roomy stands or blinds, watching and waiting quietly, absorbing and anticipating the day I'd be permitted to hunt and not just watch. When I wasn't along, he preferred to slip quietly through the forest alone, still-hunting and "having a look around."
There were other grandchildren about, especially during Thanksgiving vacation, the best week of the year, but I can't recall my grandpa paying them much mind outside of the house. I was his special pet because of the things we did together outside. There were a couple younger girls of my Aunt Cathy's and Uncle Dudley, a much older cousin and nephew belonging to my Uncle Kurt and Aunt Jenny; Cathy and Kurt my mother's people. All of us called grandpa Grandpa Bob, even the adults.
It was during one of those Thanksgiving gatherings, everyone before the wood-cabineted black and white television, younger girls noisily playing tag. Grandpa Bob winked me aside, whispering close. "Get your huntin' stuff, boy. Let's go'in kill a deer--get away from all this nonsense."
"My own stuff?" I asked, trying to hide my excitement.
"Yep. It's time. Unless you think you're not ready," he added, suppressing a mischievous grin. "Do it quiet like, lest the womenfolk put us to work around here doin' something silly."
* * * * *
We were in the blind below the house with a few hours of daylight remaining, Grandpa Bob in red-checked Mackinaw and ear-flapped hat and gray-wool bibs, reclined against the old hickory with legs stretched forward and hooked at the ankles, arms crossed over his chest with sheep-skin mittens tucked into armpits. I'd dressed in a thick wool sweater with a tight WWII camouflage shirt buttoned over, and rust flannel-lined farm dungarees, my perpetual Army-issue "Radar" hat pulled down over my eyes, on my knees shivering like a setter on point. My longbow was laid across the rotting stump creating a portion of the front wall of logs cut and arranged long ago and seemingly melting into the rich soil where we stabbed fresh boughs of cedar to complete the illusion of just another patch of brush. You could walk by the blind without knowing it was there. The bow held a bright-yellow cedar arrow with honed Ace Jet broadhead.
I stayed in that position the entire evening, on my knees, my wool-gloved hands clamped between my thighs, eyes scanning impatiently as if this might be the only time Grandpa Bob relented and allowed me to hunt and not just watch. The sun had settled and the cold was becoming oppressive. I heard them before I actually saw them, a distinct crunching of leaves, the rhythmic cadence of footfalls punctuated by long intervals of silence. A string of five does emerged first, nosing in the thick blanket of leaves, pausing, jerking their heads around toward the house, moving toward us again. If I was shivering before, I was falling into outright convulsions with the sight of those deer. They were well within my effective range but I'd suddenly lost all confidence and wanted them closer. I noticed that I had picked up my bow without remembering it or how I had managed without alerting the deer. I watched those deer as intently as a dog eyeing an unattended plate of steak.
The does eased behind a wide oak and I brought the bow to bear, putting a dent in the string. I felt Grandpa Bob's hand on my shoulder and I strained to look over my shoulder without moving my head, craning slowly until I could see his face. He darted his eyes right of the does, to the declivity they had emerged from. I turned slowly to follow his gaze, finding the compact eight-point on the doe's trail; head low, high stepping in exaggerated fashion. The does darted forward and a low grunt escaped the buck as he closed ground in a slinking trot. The does crossed our bow and the string came back effortlessly, the buck clearing the big oak and the arrow on its way.
All I remember next is Grandpa Bob pounding my back and jostling me roughly, his ill-fitting dentures showing as he laughed and pulled me to him. I began to speak and he hushed me and we listened, hearing a crash and after a short time a coughing gurgle. Grandpa Bob was on his feet, laughing louder, roughing my head with a meaty hand. He finally spoke, "You got'em boy. You got'em."
"Let's go look at him," I gushed, jumping over the logs of the blind front, looking back to encourage Grandpa Bob along.
"Give'em a minute boy. Just a bit. Let's sit a bit and give'em a minute." He whistled then, a long, whispering release of air. "You done good. Real good."
It was dark as we made our way up to the house, each with a fist-full of antler, tugging and weaving uphill, the house's lighted windows flashing through nodding boughs, radiating perceivable warmth as we gasped our way along. I was 12 years old.
* * * * *
Perceptions are funny; the perceptions of youth that you slowly begin to understand are skewed by innocence, which dissolve with time. People you perceived as old when you were young are still alive--though certainly not all--and you come to comprehend they were not old at all, that it was only the way you saw them in relation to your station in life. Grandpa Bob is 93 now, Grandma Loraine dead 17 years, taken by pancreatic cancer, the diagnosis and passing a blur of only weeks, mercifully swift for all involved. I spend more time at the farm now, keeping an eye on him
and trying to keep the place from falling into decay, though the girl from the agency is on hand every day to see to his every need. His mind is still sharp but his body is failing him, his breath raspy and labored, coughing fits arriving sporadically to leave him gasping for life. He's not long for the world and it makes me sad and he senses this and says things in an attempt to comfort me.
"I'm going to die boy," he tells me, "Might as well you get used to that notion. I don't want you worrying yourself over it. It's not so bad."
I am here because I feel it's my obligation to console and ease the transition but find I'm the one gaining those comforts. I hate to think of a world without Grandpa Bob but he understands what must be and wants me to understand it as well. He has begun to talk about the end and I find myself shutting it out, trying to deny the inevitable. He has a plan, the ideals of which I understand, but am simply not prepared for.
"And what were them Eskimos like up there while you was huntin' caribou? Jolly people like you see in the movies?" He's questioning me about my recent adventure to Quebec.
"Well, yes very happy. Gentle and quiet really. They joke a lot and are always smiling. And they're not really Eskimos, they're Inuit. That's what they prefer to be called. I think the true Eskimos are farther west, like northern Alaska and whatnot.
"It's interesting," I tell Grandpa Bob, "you know, how the poorest people always seem to be the happiest. Those Mexicans when I was down there bowhunting Coues deer--those little whitetail I told you about. They've got nothing. Just the clothes on their back really. Work for something like five dollars a day plus meals. Laughing and playing jokes all the time.
"The African trackers in Zimbabwe, probably poorer than that even, and for the most part they just never seem to be having a bad day. Big smiles all the time, calling you Boss and genuine about it. You'd think they'd be envious but they don't seem to have it in them. This tracker, George, asks me about America, how many cars I own. I tell him I have two trucks, one run down and just a farm truck for chores and he nods and says I must be very rich. The thing that got me was I was telling him about my bird dogs, how I missed them because he'd mentioned wanting to see his children and how he missed them. His eyes get wide and he says, like he's amazed, `You have dogs for hunting?' And I say, yes, `A couple Labrador retrievers that fetch my birds for me and flush birds in tall grass,' and he nods knowingly and says, `Yes, you are very rich.' You couldn't convince him otherwise. I guess in his world you are just that, rich." Outside the elms bounce against a sharp-edged wind, the sky dirty and threatening.
Grandpa Bob cocks his head and smiles at that. "I'm proud of you boy. You've lived life right. Got out there and seen some things. I sometimes wish I'd done some of them things like Fred Bear and Ben Pearson," Pearson his all-time hero, a guy who could shoot, who seemed to enjoy archery for its own sake, to his mind not the showman like some of the others. "But I had me a time right here at home, I can tell you. Hard to imagine God made any better game than the whitetail deer," and he trails off, staring off into the distance, smiling crookedly.
Nancy, the visiting nurse practitioner, pokes her head around the corner, a plum-dark face with friendly eyes and deep smile lines. "I gotta leave a bit early today," she says, slipping in swiftly on quiet crepe-soled shoes, adjusting the plastic tube that feeds Grandpa Bob oxygen. "My boy's playing in the basketball game for the district finals. Me and my husband's going to watch him play."
"Thank you, Nancy," Grandpa Bob says. "Us boys'll be alright."
"Okay then. You stay warm now."
I walk Nancy to her car, chatting along the way. I hold the door as she slips in and she looks up and starts to say something, pauses, makes a face and starts again, "He don't have long," she says, nearly whispering. I don't say anything. "He wasn't so stout he'd been gone long ago. He's gone longer than the doctors expected€¦" She trails off.
"Why are you telling me this?" I ask without edge.
"I see how you love him. How close you two are," she pauses, as if choosing her words. A cold wind runs up my back to cause an involuntary shiver. "Well€¦. I just worry about you." There it is again.
I stand holding the door, waiting for more until I realize I'm expected to say something. "I'm okay. I really am. He's made me understand, and that makes it better." She smiles and reaches for the ignition and I push the door closed and watch her drive away.
I reenter the house to find Grandpa Bob standing in the living room, dressed in worn red-checked wool. He must have pulled them on right over his flannel pajamas. He's breathing through an open mouth and steadying himself on the back of the sofa. I look down and see his old longbow and leather quiver of cedars lying across the cushions. As far as I know he hasn't shot that bow in years.
"It's time," he says simply. It's something we have talked about, but I'm not prepared for this.
"Today's not good," I try. "It's too cold out and the snow is starting to fly." He simply stares, a slight grin starting at the corner of his mouth.
We work our way down the slope behind the house, me steadying him by an arm, his bow and quiver hung over my opposite shoulder. He shuffles along, dragging his worn boots through the leaves and a fresh blanket of recently fallen snow, leaning well back when we approach a limb, lifting his foot without bending the knee, leaning forward again. He begins coughing and it seems it will not stop and I see it as a reprieve, an excuse to turn him around and head back to the warm house. "No!" he gasps, pulling forward with more determination. So we push onward, descending slowly, the snow covered field giving way to oak woods as the slope gathers into a perceivable ridge and I see the blind ahead. We pause, Grandpa Bob catching his breath, his coughing miraculously under control. He looks up and says, "We're almost there."
I set the bow and quiver aside and help him climb over the ring of logs at the blind's front, brushing away snow to create a clean patch of ground and piling some brush back into place. He reaches for me and I grab his hands and lower him into a sitting position. I reach back and find his bow, extracting a cedar shaft from the back quiver and nocking it, placing the bow across the rotting stump at the blind's front. I look back and his back is against the old hickory, legs stretched before him, his arms crossed to cover his chest, mittened hands stuffed into armpits. He's smiling, looking up at me admiringly. I kneel and look at him shortly, taking him in my arms and hugging him firmly.
"I love you grandpa," I say, a lump forming in my throat.
"I love you too boy. I'll be alright. You take care." And I turn and start toward the house, wiping tears from my cheeks, refusin
g to look back. And I just keep on going. It's all I have to give a man who gave me the world.