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A Way of Life

The day my aging father passed his favorite deer rifle to me caught me off guard. No matter how fast I blinked, I could not stop the stream of tears from welling eyes. Many would have read this as a sign of overwhelming happiness to have received a new rifle and pride of ownership. Those tears transcended written words to describe my feelings at that moment. They were tears of sadness that only you can understand. It was the end of a way of life that lasted more than a half-century. There were to be no more frosted mornings sharing a Pennsylvania deer hunt with the man I respect and love most. The sudden finality of the moment made me physically unable to look in his eyes, and it will be many years before I fully understand the tears either of us shed that day.

Over the years, this gentle man slowed many hunts to include 4 sons and as many daughters who wanted to love the woods as much as he. They went even before they were old enough to carry a weapon and cherished time spent with dad. He wore a broad smile and carried a light load when sharing his time afield. As the last honeysuckle patch of the rabbit and pheasant hunt approached, he would often tire of carrying his worn Browning and hand it to his son for help. The first few times it was unloaded, but that didn't matter when the pheasant cackled upon take off. Dad watched and beamed with pride as empty barrels swung in time with iridescent plumage. One day, a rabbit broke between us and the empty barrels remained in the upright safe position. On the very next hunt, those same barrels were loaded when his tired hands let his son carry the Browning through the last thicket. Not a word was spoken but we both knew what had just happened.

We shared many small game hunts at our farm including rabbit, pheasant, dove and groundhogs. Often, he would be tired from work and resting on the couch when his energetic son wanted to hunt. Many of those times, his son had already loaded the car with the guns still smelling of Hoppes and paper hulled shells he loaded himself. This was done before dad got home. His hunting jeans, a wool shirt and his small game jacket were carefully laid on his bed as though an invisible person had been wearing them. His license had been carefully attached through the same holes in his jacket and the Vibram soled leather boots were laid out with socks in each, laces loosened. Timing sunset, cat-naps and hunting was a delicate process for this son. You wanted dad to get some much needed rest, wanted to go hunting before the sun set and wanted to maximize your chance to go. Leading up to the question of going hunting to a resting father was always awkward and was never just a direct question. Sometimes the final question was answered by “after just 10 more minutes rest” and then it was off to watch the clock in the kitchen. The second hand seemed to go slower with each minute. He always smiled when he went to his bedroom and everything was ready to go. About this time, our Dachshund would be at the kitchen door whining and running in endless circles.

Dad had a way of always putting his sons on the trails most rich in game. In our younger days, we thought we were skilled hunters, but over time, we realized he had hunted our farm long before we were born. His years of experience had put us in just the right place at just the right time. Many ringnecks cackled and launched within easy range of his Browning only to fly by his waiting sons. Often, he had some sort of brush in the way preventing a shot… Rabbits were slit and innards flung into the sticker bushes where the dog couldn’t reach them. Retrieving the heart for Schatzi warmed cold fingers on a brisk fall day and we learned to toss the heart to her after a few pinched fingers. Blood soaked fingers were wiped on the frosty grass and dried on pants to keep the blueing on the guns clean of this corrosive fluid. It didn’t matter if doves, ringnecks, rabbits or groundhogs were hunted, just being there with dad was enough.

After a few decades of hunts with dad, the cycle reversed and we were slowing our hunts for him. For several years, we carried his deer hunting pack and rifle up the mountains to our carefully chosen spots. His still energetic sons had pre-season scouted these areas and dad was finally put in the best spots. Still later, lower spots on the mountain were chosen and flatter terrain suited his aging legs. On his last deer hunt with me, he watched as a magnificent 8 point bred a doe. No shots were fired as he felt the gene pool should carry on. As he laid down to rest on his back, a volley of shots was heard across the fields. He continued to lay and rest as he had already decided the deer were safe that fall day. In a flurry, 2 does rushed to his location and stopped with their feet inches from his head. He remained still and looked directly up at frosted whiskers and plumes of steam shooting from the nostrils of the fast breathing does. After nearly a full minute, they hopped into the pine thicket below him and he had hunted his last hunt.

As my tears splashed on that old 7mm mag, a flood of memories floated by. Though we haven’t hunted together for some years, I continue to learn from those memories. It takes time to figure out how much you missed during some of those hunts, and I am still trying to figure it out. Now in his mid seventies, he listens to stories of hunts I have experienced and the twinkle is still in his eye.

original text and photo by Peter Hauer

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