The rhythmic tick-tocking of the old clock on den wall was the only sound as I entered the house. I had driven most of the night to get here. In nearly 3 hours it would be flydown time on the opening day of the 1999 turkey season. This was the first time I could ever remember being in my grandparent’s house without them. Both of them were believers in Christ and had gone to their eternal home now.
This would be the first time I had been back in several years. As I walked through the house and looked at the old back room, my mind flooded with memories. My grandfather, the man I knew as Pop, built this house when he was a younger man. It was he who gave me my love for hunting. We had made hundreds of hunts together through the years. But on this night two particular hunts stood out.
I woke up that morning to that old familiar tugging at my heel.
“Hey boy you wanna go huntin or you wanna sleep.” Pop asked in the darkness of the bedroom. The question had not changed in the last dozen years. Pop had woke me 12 years earlier with the same question. I was 24 yet even now I could not beat that old man out of the bed.
It was four o’clock and the thick sliced bacon, scrambled eggs and biscuits were already on a plate in the kitchen. Pop was dressed to go and I felt like I had been lazy to sleep so “late”. I had to hurry and eat. Pop would be hovering over me talking about missing flydown time even though it was a good hour and a half away. We were in my truck and headed down the road by 4:30.
After 10 seasons of turkey hunting I was beginning to get the hang of it. I had killed a few birds and prided myself on being an above average caller. As the years passed the main reason Pop and his friends wanted me along, short of fellowship, was my hearing. But as it turned out I wouldn’t be listening for Pop on this hunt. He had a spot he wanted to try alone. As we drove down the road in my new truck I couldn’t help but contrast it with Pop’s Willy’s Jeep that we rode in on my first hunt back in 1975.
By the time we made this hunt, Pop and I had both called a few birds to the gun. But he was largely of the old school. You built a blind and you sat in it as still as possible. You called no more than every half hour. He also didn’t buy into the necessity of camouflage and only his shirt and hat were camo.
“You just got to sat still” was his answer to my chiding him to wear more camo. I turned off the stereo as we pulled through the gate at the cowpasture.
As we stepped from the truck into the brisk spring morning, I helped Pop get his stool. It was too difficult for him to sit on the ground after a fall he suffered quail hunting one day at the age of 85. Until then he had been very active. He had suffered a broken collarbone and a badly sprained ankle. I was alarmed at how long it took him to recover. This would be the first hunt the two of us had been together on since the incident years ago.
Of course I expected everything to be like it had been in the old days. I never considered what it was like for Pop. We were walking through grass covered in heavy dew, moving closer to the woods edge when Pop pulled up suddenly.
“I got a spot picked out down yonder I wanna try. You go on down to the low place.” He whispered hoarsely. I knew the low place had always been the best area out here for turkeys to roost but I figured Pop had his eye on some other honey hole. I gave him the thumbs up and proceeded to the woods. I didn’t look back. I was thinking only of turkeys.
I gave no more thought to Pop after we parted. Pop had always been my mentor and I still treated him as such. However, when I allowed myself to think about it, I realized that we probably had only a few years left to hunt together.
I raised the first gobble that morning a good two hours after first light. I was as far to the east as I could get on the property. The gobbler was at least a half mile away across the property line so I didn’t get too excited about the answer. Nevertheless, I kept calling, doing a series every 15 minutes or so. I got one more answer from the distant gobbler about 8:30 but he didn’t sound any closer. It was time to check in with Pop, and I had a thermos of coffee calling my name at the truck. I was standing by a tree allowing the circulation to return to my feet when I saw the gobbler. The turkey just stepped from behind a tree and was there. No gobbling, no shuffling of leaves. He was just there. Not 30 yards away.
It seems I hadn’t learned enough about turkeys these last 12 years after all. I had given up on him because he only gobbled twice from a distance. Now I was in a pickle. And this was no jake. This was the oldest gobbler I have ever seen. As he stood facing the tree I was behind, I spied the curve of his spurs.
My gun was leaning against the same tree I was standing near. For now the tree was between the gobbler and me. As carefully as I could I reached for the gun then eased it up hand over hand behind the trunk of the tree. By the time I got it to port arms position, the old gobbler had me nailed. He took what seemed like one giant step and he was gone. In two maybe three seconds it was over. My opportunity to bag a trophy gobbler while on a hunt with Pop had passed.
I had wanted so much to get a gobbler when I was with Pop. I had killed my first turkey with him on our first turkey hunt. But since then I had not taken a turkey while hunting with him. I would have to wait for another morning. On the way back to the truck, I drug my feet like a disappointed kid. However when the truck came into view the pain of my missed opportunity was suddenly jarred into an entirely different perspective.
It was then that I saw Pop, the man who had taught me all I knew about the woods and hunting, sitting on his stool with his back to a pine that was no larger than 4 inches in diameter. It was certainly not big enough for cover. There he sat in plain site no more than 40 yards from the truck. I stood there a moment watching him as he tried to call on that familiar old Jet Slate. I noticed how his hands shook so that his calls didn’t sound much like a turkey at all.
And then it finally hit me. Pop had gotten old. He acted like he wasn’t ready to go when I walked up to him but the relief on his face was apparent. He tried not to show it but he was shivering with cold.
We walked quietly back to the truck with me carrying Pop’s stool and him holding my arm for support. He asked me about my hunt and I told him my story. He gave me the mandatory scolding for not “sattin still”. I just nodded and said I knew he was right. We were quiet for a long time as we rode back to the main road.
Then Pop said, “Buddy, are you goin back in the mornin.” I said I was and likely that afternoon as well.
“Well” he replied, “I don’t believe I’ll go.” Just like that it was over. I had hunted and fished with this man since I was 5 years old, but no more. After that morning Pop would never hunt again.
It turns out he had been uneasy and I hadn’t taken time to notice. As I disappeared in the morning mist he had been too unsure of himself to get far away from the truck. He was cold and he couldn’t get up from the stool to get back to the warmth of the truck. He was 90 years old and this had scared him. After this hunt he never wanted to get far from home. I tried to make hunting arrangements that would accommodate him better but it was to no avail.
I am 41 now and have had the good fortune to bag several more gobblers. I have messed up easily twice as many. During the 1999 season I went back to some of those old places and had the best 4 days of turkey hunting of my life. That was appropriate because these had been the sites in which I had learned to love turkey hunting. These places have since been leased to others and it is doubtful I will ever return to them.
Looking back I have learned to put things in perspective. The missed opportunities still sting. But I have learned to give thanks to God for the opportunity to merely be in the game these days.
I sat down to write this story about rituals, and hunting. But I guess in the end this is a story about the relationships we build through a mutual love of hunting and the outdoors. I hope it is also a reminder to savor every moment the good Lord gives us this spring. We never know when circumstances, illness or age will take them from us. I often wonder how sweet it would have been to bag that trophy gobbler when Pop was there with me. But more often I wish I had sat there with him. Next to that 4-inch pine tree. Exposed for any turkey to see. I wish I had let him call for me on that jet slate with shaky hands. I wish I had spent those precious hours just being with him in the woods…… one last time.
Chris Skates is the author of the novel, Going Green: For Some It Has Nothing To Do With The Environment. He has been published in dozens of national magazines and has authored multiple technical articles in his field of Chemistry. You can follow his blog at www.chrisskates.com