(Originally posted February 25th, 2010)
Some stories are real, some are…???
Propped on my elbow, lying on the desert floor with the strong smell of sage filling my nose, my mouth tasted of dust and I could feel the warm sun and cool breeze on my exposed neck. I heard whispering, “the wind is in our favor, so they can’t smell us. If this stalk’s been successful, that herd will be just over this little knob.”
I whispered back, “now I see what you mean, these antelope are hard as hell to get up on, they must be able to see over five miles. I didn’t believe you when you said we were going to see thousands of antelope and be lucky to sneak up on one. You were right.”
“It will happen, we just have to be patient. This may be our chance.” As the old man rose up and looked over the horizon, I knew he was going to get a shot. He whispered, “Ok, they are just over the rise, and they don’t know we are here,” as he looked through the binoculars. “On the far left of the heard is a doe lying down and looking away. I’m sure it is a doe so you are good to take the shot. Remember, take your time, breath and squeeze.”
He handed me he binoculars. As I tried to hold them steady I could hear the exhale of his breath as the rifle jumped in his hands. Smelling the gunpowder and watching through the binoculars I saw the doe go limp. “Good shot!” I shouted. Quickly, counting the steps, closing the distance on the dead animal, I stumble on the tough sagebrush and grinned when I saw how well the beautiful creature had been shot. I yelled back, “heart shot, over 300 yards!”
Watching the old man hobbling and trying to catch up I saw him smiling like a little kid. It was fascinating to see just how excited he was. Living his whole life in Maine, he knew how to hunt deer and had every year since I had known him. Now we were together in Wyoming hunting antelope, something I had been doing since I moved here to work on the gas pipelines six years ago.
Growing up, my fondest childhood and adolescent memories of my father had been of our hunting adventures. I started hunting when I could walk. I didn’t carry a gun that early, but I would walk the fields with Dad and feel big. My little legs were slow and Dad was strong, fast and always patient. It was precious time, time that was just Dad and me. During the hunting seasons we would hunt most weekends; pheasant, duck or deer. During my teenage years I was a little harder to wake up. I had a part-time job and I’m sure I had a little of the teenage grump that all teenagers have, but we still went out more weekends than not.
Looking back on those times I remember walking all day, learning the definition of “Hell’s half acre”. Rarely were we successful in bagging our quarry. However, through that time spent together I acquired a love of the outdoors that I will have for life. In hindsight the best memories involved sitting in the duck blind, during a stretch when we would rarely even saw ducks. Enjoying the warm midday sun and taking turns reading aloud my eleventh grade English assignment, Longfellow’s THE COURTSHIP OF MILES STANDISH. I don’t get home much anymore, but I still make sure Dad always has a copy of that book in his duck blind.
My Dad took a closer look at the antelope he’d just shot and puffed out this chest, “Not a bad shot for an old man.” He smiled and took a deep breath while he looked around at the silent openness and listened to the wind. “There really isn’t anything out here.”
“Nothing but the wind.” I replied. I added, ” Congratulations, that was a really good shot.”
Looking at me with a twinkle in his eyes he said, “Thank you, son. I love you.”
“My pleasure.” I smiled. “Now you killed it so you get to clean it. Just do it the same way you would a deer.” I began walking toward the truck. I paused and turned, “I love you too Pop. I’m glad you were able to come out.”
With a glow on the horizon and sky that doesn’t end, sunsets on the high-plains of Wyoming can be magical. Recounting the day’s hunt we headed back to town in the gigantic American-made truck. With success under our belt, the earlier challenges of finding antelope had faded away as we started to drive next to private land, land filled with thousands of those antelope critters.
“I hate to admit how much I like these fancy heated seats you have. ” I looked over and told Dad. I was driving. Not only was I driving, I was driving Dad’s truck. As long as I can remember, if the old man was in the car, he was the one driving. No one ever drove his truck. I guess change happens.
We were staying at the nearest motel to the public land where we could hunt. (It should have been called the A Coal Train Goes by Every Fifteen Freakin” Minutes motel. Across the street from the motel was a dirt road that crossed the train tracks. Federal law required the train to blow its whistle as it approached the dusty intersection.) The rooms of the motel were old, the carpet worn out and musty. The TV had a pair of vice grips to turn the channel. Our hostess/manager is, to say the least, interesting.
“Do you think she’ll have a bra on today?” I asked Dad.
“God, I hope so!” he exclaimed.
Her age was difficult to guess. She had at least three teeth strategically placed in her smile, a buzz cut, was easily 250 pounds, and chain-smoked Bronco cigarettes. As far as clothing, our hostess apparently only owned one set, size XXL, of sweats. In previous years when I had hunted the area I had always camped alone. Several months ago, when I first found the motel, the hostess had smiled and warmly invited me in. As she waved her hands and kept talking, I remember losing my attention to what looked like two huge grapefruits stuck in her shirt that kept bouncing off her belly, but this was basically what she said… “If ya kell somten, yous can use dat table round-back to butcher it. Each room has hot water and fresh towels.”
As I listened I knew I had to stop looking at her breast, but they were huge, not attractive, just hypnotic. I also knew this was the only room around for over 100 miles and Dad had specifically said, “I’m too old to sleep on the ground. Besides, I need to be close to a restroom, you’ll understand when you get older.” (I would learn more about the male prostate than I would ever want to know on this trip.)
As we neared the hotel, I was pondering the fact that after I paid our rent there I’d been able to buy leftover doe antelope tags, how we now had a place to stay, a license to kill and I knew the area. I was glad that at last Dad and I had finally stopped talking about it and were actually doing it. We were on an antelope hunting trip in Wyoming and we’d bagged one.
The lights of the truck swung onto the motel. The hostess was coming out of the office, and with a quick glance we were able to identify. “No bra…ugh,” Dad moaned.
We both laughed.
Dad worked his way out of the truck. “I have to hit the powder room, then we’ll drop the antelope at the locker and go get some supper.”
Even though we had not walked that far during our hunt, the high Wyoming planes are hard on a bad heart. Dad was beginning to stiffen up. His excited hobble to the antelope I’d seen earlier was now much slower and more exaggerated. Dad was getting old. I was reminded of when Dad would tease me on my birthday, “Boy, your getting old! How does it feel to be thirty?” (Or whatever the birthday happen to be.)
My best response had always been, “Great, how does it feel to have a 30 year old son?” (or however old I was). That usually shut him up. It had always been in jest and playful. But at 40-years-old I was beginning to see an Old Man where my Dad once was. Dad was still there but the Old Man was someone new. That smile I had seen earlier was Dad, it may have even been Dad as a kid. It was good to see.
The Cavalrymen Saloon had been built in the late 1800s as a stop for the railroad. A town of 87 tough inhabitants had built up around it. The smoke-stained saloon still had the original ornate wood bar and pressed tin ceiling. The walls were covered with stuffed, dead animals or pictures of smiling men standing over dead animals. It was not necessarily a politically correct scene, yet it was appropriate. During hunting season the owners would rent out beds in the rooming house dorm they had upstairs.
Sitting on old wood chairs on the well-worn and uneven planked floor of this saloon, our waitress took our order,
“Feel free to help yourself to the salad bar,” she said as she began to walk away. There was a heavy thud on the ceiling from the floor above. I saw the facial expression of the waitress change as she stopped and looked at the ceiling.
With a heavy sigh she bellowed, “God damn it. Raymond! Get upstairs and tell them boys this is their final warning, they got to keep it down or get the hell out!” I heard her mumble, “I knew they was trouble when I saw that bottle of Jack and all that beer.”
Still dressed in our camo hunting clothes, with our wind-burned faces, Dad’s and my gaze went from the angry waitress to each other. With a snicker I said, “I guess we better not bitch about the food, she looks tough.” This comment had more insight than we realized when we saw the contents of the salad bar; brown iceberg lettuce, dried fake ham shavings, cottage cheese and crusted vanilla pudding…and that was it?
We had dropped the antelope off at the meat locker to be processed into steaks and hamburger and we now found ourselves at the only restaurant in town. The one gas station in town sold hot dogs and burritos, I didn’t count this a restaurant. The locals did. Telling stories with the other hunters at the supper tables clustered in the Saloon, we enjoyed one of the worst meals I have ever paid for. I got to watch Dad recant the story of the arduous stalk and the long shot,
“Dead as doornail at over 350 yards.” I don’t know how dead a doornail is, but I was sure the distance of the shot would be over 400 yards by the next day. I think story embellishment is part of the ritual of dinner and drinking after a day of hunting.
“I’ll have another Beefeater martini on the rocks,” Dad told the waitress. Martinis were back in fashion again, but Beefeater, on the Rocks with onions, that really was an old man’s drink. I wondered what my Jim Beam on the rocks said about me? Enjoying our cocktails, we talked of our strategy for tomorrow’s hunt.
Upon returning to the hotel, we avoided the trauma of seeing Three-Teeth Above Free Ranging Grapefruit in a Dirty XXL Sweatshirt. New adventures were on the horizon.
“God damn it, how did I forget my t shirts!” Dad exclaimed, followed by a frustrated sigh. “I packed and repacked for this trip.”
Dad forgot his t-shirts? He always over-packed and is over prepared, or a t least he would never admit forgetting to pack something. “Here, I have an extra.” I said, handing him a t-shirt of mine.
“Thanks, Son.” Dad borrowing clothes from me, that was another first.
Next on the agenda were the pills. I had heard stories about old guys and pills but this was my first experience actually witnessing it. Again the Old Guy began to creep in on my Father.
A regiment of small colors is produced and put on top of the TV with the vice grips for a knob. An explanation of each is then offered. “This one is for my heart, and these are for my blood pressure, this is just a vitamin your Mother wants me to take. Now this, this is Flowmax, it’s suppose to help with the number of nightly visits to the powder room.” Dad put the pills away and got into bed.
“OK, Dad, I got it, enough with the prostate stuff. You forgot to turn the bathroom light off.”
“No I didn’t, I want to see where I’m going when I have to get up to go to the bathroom.”
“Now you sleep with a nightlight?”
“That’s enough!” He said with that authoritative tone I used to hear when I would test my boundaries as a kid.
“Goodnight, Pop. That was a fair 200-yard shot today, for an Old Guy.”
With a laugh he replied, “It was 400 yards and yes, it was a hell of shot, for anyone.” Just over a fading whisper, “We have a big day tomorrow, it’s your turn.”