|Oh thou sinner!|
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Copyright 2019 Erik Helm: Short Story, Fiction, Humor
The parishioners to the Lutheran church in the town of Brule’ Wisconsin were a grim lot that Sunday when that memorable day happened. The motley congregation filed in silently, and sat with bloodshot eyes and sweating foreheads upon the notoriously uncomfortable pews that wobbled as one sat down, and creaked when one moved. Old Toivo’s hair had been combed and scrubbed, but was already coming astray with his twitching. The Paulson family, all 14 of them, were in the front with the patriarch, Linus Paulson trying to busy himself with the missal, his hands shaking from a wee too much brandy consumed at the Saturday festivities the evening before.
As the Pastor, Fr. Larsson panned his vision over the assembling devout; he reflected that today’s sermon was overdue. He blinked his rheumy eyes and nodded with a smile to Leena, the oldest of the worshipers, covered from head to toe in black lace. There were moans and coughs coming from the back, where the less pious and roughest sinners and recalcitrants of the area were packed together and fidgeting. Funny, Fr. Larsson thought to himself, how they always pack to the front and to the back, and leave the middle like an empty purgatory inhabited only by a few ghostly figures. Yes, they all were suffering the after-effects of potent potables. He could even smell them from the pulpit. So be it. The lord moves in mysterious ways.
Fr. Larsson looked at his watch, and then at his trembling hands. “Never again!” he mumbled under his breath, as he thought back to the bridge, and the birth of today’s sermon.
There was a conspicuous silence as the congregation followed Fr. Larsson out of the clapboard church, and shook his hand with a greeting and forced smile. As the parishioners broke into family groups and retired home to Sunday dinner or to Michael's tavern, the later a little guiltily, the questions were murmured, “What had made him do it?” After all Fr. Larsson was as fond of his spirits as he was of the holy variety. Didn’t he come every evening to Michael’s for a wee drop of something medicinal already smelling if he had gotten into the sacramental wine? Didn’t he toast them and their families, and even perhaps before leaving, sometimes even buy a round? Sure, didn’t he carry in his jacket pocket a bottle with no label half-filled with some sort of medicine against the cold fitted with a cork stopper? What had filled him with such brimstone and gall as he railed against alcohol and sputtered and spat the words from Proverbs and Ephesians at them? Was it hypocrisy now… or was it…? The thought of a repentant temperance-pastor and crusader gave them all a bit of a thirst, and the talk turned to what was to be done… if anything… or would it all just blow over in time?
Ralph and Jake arranged their gear in the canoe carefully in order to prevent an imbalance. Duffle bags, picnic basket, cooler, and their fly tackle were strapped down as the sun rose over the birches and fir trees surrounding Stone’s Bridge landing. The two intrepid adventurers from the cities would be taking their first spring fishing trip down the Brule’ River for trout, and the May weather was perfect. Almost too perfect, Ralph thought to himself while glancing at the robin’s egg blue of the sky and the already warm morning sun. Perfect weather for a canoe trip, even if the fishing might suffer a bit.
There were a few splashes downstream against the weed beds as the trout showed themselves hungry and in pursuit of the mayfly nymphs that were climbing the waving fronds and hatching into little sailboats upon the glassy water. They launched the canoe after rigging up their fly-rods and pushed off, each taking turns at the paddle as the other cast to likely spots. The smooth flow carried them downstream slowly, and everything seemed to be in a nice rhythm that morning with the birds singing and swooping over the water, the splashes of trout, the whisper of fly-line making loops through the air, and the gentle hissing of the Brule’ as it wound its way sedately down toward Lake Superior.
Each angler began catching a few brook trout, and an occasional brown trout on the flies supplied at a local hardware store, and tied in a back room by a character called ‘Feather Betty,’ who also served the town as a sign-painter and local gossip. The trout sure liked her flies. They switched off on the paddle a few more times before rounding a bend and deciding to break the lemonade bottles out of the cooler. The May morning had blossomed into one of those rare spring days when the heat of the sun finally breaks through the wet of March and April and the foggy and cold memories of winter to release the denizens of the north woods from their many months of slumber. God it felt good!
Ralph handed a cold bottle of lemonade to Jake and they both drank deeply and dreamily. After the first mile or so of river, and six nice fat trout in the cooler wrapped in an old towel, they were casting lazily now, and more interested in just enjoying the spring day. A pileated woodpecker flew across the river and a kingfisher chattered, a young doe poked her head through a stand of cedars and drank from the river, and Jake spotted an otter slithering along the edges of the water. They began to get a hunger up for the cold fried chicken and summer-sausage and cheese sandwiches sitting in the wicker basket, but the only place to beach the canoe was up ahead a mile or so on a little sandy shore which offered a rustic public landing. No worries though, as the two anglers let the canoe float with the current, only keeping it straight by an occasional gentle stroke of the wooden paddles. Ralph even took off his shirt, and Jake let his bare feet dangle over the side to tickle his toes in the liquid mirror of the Brule’
Our two heroes were having a beer after lunch when Jake looked downstream and spotted an ominous dark cloud on the horizon. It is well known in those parts that Lake Superior, that greatest of the Great Lakes, with surface temperatures even on a sunny warm May afternoon under 40 degrees, is more than capable of making its own weather. Mariners more experienced with wizened eyes and calloused hands will head to a safe port rather than tempt fate with this inland ocean when the swells and clouds gather. Unfortunately when on a river…
“Hey Ralph,” Jake gesticulated with a shaky index finger, “Looky there!”
They stared at the advancing dark mass as the wind began to pick up, and came to the swift conclusion that they had better get the heck out of dodge as fast as the boat would take them. “How far is the takeout,” Ralph asked as Jake folded the river map. “About two miles… but river miles mind you, and there are a few rapids and ledges ahead of us.”
The two quickly packed up the picnic basket and cooler and pushed off downstream, this time with both men at the paddles, and using big strokes.
The front hit them and knocked them back upstream and toward the left bank after just half a mile was covered. The wind howled and the sun was suddenly shrouded from view. The temperature dropped by 30 degrees in a minute. They both knew they were in trouble.
As the front passed overhead, the winds died down just enough to allow the now worried friends to make progress down river. The trouble was that it was difficult to keep the canoe oriented properly. If it tacked just a little it caught the upstream wind and turned sideways. They began to fight every bend in the river when it started to rain.
Ralph asked Jake to hand him the green duffle bag. It contained his spare clothes and a sweater and rain jacket. He also told Jake that he had better put on his slicker as well.
“I didn’t bring one…” Jake said with slumped shoulders. “It was so nice out that I never thought to bring anything else but jeans and a shirt.”
“We can share,” Ralph countered, shaking his head. “I have a spare poncho in the duffle.”
Jake continued his furious paddling, propelling the canoe forward through some tricky ledges and fallen cedars. There was the sound of a zipper opening followed by a lingering silence behind him.
“What… what does that mean…?”
“It means, my dear intrepid partner, that I grabbed the wrong duffle bag.” “The one with the sweaters, socks, and rain gear is back in the trunk of the car.”
“Umm… okay… so riddle me this… what is in that duffle?”
Jake turned away for a moment and twisted to look back as Ralph produced a large blob of colorful cloth.
“My kids costumes for the school play,” he explained, holding up what looked to be several clown outfits.
“What play?” Jake asked haltingly.
“Snow white and the Seven Dwarves,” was the reply.
“And, we have here Dopey and Grumpy.” “My wife sewed them out of wool and felt, so at least they will be warm.”
“I’ll take Grumpy,” Jake stated. “At least it fits my mood.”
They back-paddled into a little eddy against the bank, and dropping the little coffee-can filled with cement that served as an anchor, quickly donned the too-small costumes. Jake looked at Ralph and started laughing, realizing that he had to be a mirror image in his Dwarf-suit. A huge gray fake beard that was integrated into his tall felt stocking cap hid Ralph’s face. Built into the side were huge fake ears. His arms stuck out from the costume from the elbow down.
“What?” Ralph asked with a smile.
“You look like… I don’t even know how to describe it!”
“You too, but even if we look like clowns, nobody will ever see us, and we are sort of warmer…”
They pulled the anchor and continued downstream, the drizzle soaking the costumes.
Before twenty minutes passed, Jake pulled the canoe over again, steering towards shore.
“What’s up?” Ralph asked.
“My hands… I can’t feel my hands anymore… they’re freezing.” “Hold up a bit, I have an idea!”
Jake rummaged around under the costume and triumphantly produced a small mason jar filled with a clear liquid.
“Moonshine!” “I bought it from an old Scot in the parking lot of the gas station.”
“You’re not going to start drinking?” Ralph queried in alarm.
“No, this is pure alcohol.” “We can burn it in one of the tin cups with a little cloth to act as a wick.”
Well, as ideas went, it might have been a desperate one, but it worked. Jake tore off and twisted a piece of his costume cuff and placed it into the tin cup, covered it with the moonshine, took a sip for good luck, and using his Zippo lighter, touched it off.
“I don’t see any flame…” Ralph commented as Jake rubbed his hands over the cup.
“It’s alcohol, the flame is invisible.” Jake replied, as both of them began to heat their hands over the impromptu fire.
They left the cup to burn out by itself on the center cushion, and shoved off downstream, their hands now toasty-warm. They had the bridge in sight as they rounded a bend in the river. The takeout was a couple of hundred yards past the old bridge. They would make it after all. That is when Ralph, in the rear seat, began coughing. Jake turned to look just as the old seat cushion, made of foam rubber and vinyl burst into flames and spewed black smoke that enveloped the canoe. The tin cup had toppled over and spread the burning alcohol. They began beating at it with their paddles, trying to put out the fire, and causing the now out of control canoe to spin in circles.
Fr. Larsson stood in a melancholy mood against the rail of the old bridge and took a swig from the nearly half-empty bottle of the best the still in Iron River could produce. He flavored it with crushed juniper berries from the bushes growing in front of the sacristy. One thing was nagging at him, and he came here to clear his head. He had no sermon ready for this Sunday’s high mass. It was bothering him, and so he was drinking and watching the river flow, letting his thoughts float away… looking for inspiration.
From under the bridge came a sound of swearing and banging, and the smell of burning brimstone. Emerging directly below him, Fr. Larsson, to his horror, imagined he saw what looked to be four clown-devils shouting at him and dancing around in a large fire that floated on the river. He closed one eye… now it was two clown-devils. He smelled the burning, and heard the incantations of the devils as they shouted. “Jesus!… Holy Christ!… Damn!" chanted the figures as they spun downstream slowly and out of sight.
Fr. Larsson took a long swig from the bottle and splashed some across his brow. He then made the sign of the cross, and heaved the bottle far into the river. Whatever he had seen, it couldn’t be real… or could it? Whatever the truth of that vision was that he saw on the river that day, one thing could be sure… if it was caused by the shakes… the D.T.s or by temptation, he would not touch a drop ever again! He crossed himself again, and wobbling back toward town, began to get an idea for a sermon after all. “By God, I’ll give ‘em hell, I will!” he shouted to a confused grouse perched above him in a tree. “By God I will!”
Sunday evening saw a certain lack of jocularity in the patrons of Michael’s tavern. The jukebox wasn’t playing, and the dice-cups were all alone at the end of the bar, silent. Silent too were the usual suspects seated at the bar and at the few tables, nursing small tap beers and looking sorry for themselves.
The door opened and the pastor stood there blinking. He walked slowly forward, his hands behind his back, acknowledging the silent nods with a tip of his head. He sat down slowly at the bar.
By now every eye was half-downcast in a sort of shame, but half-trained on Fr. Larsson, waiting for what might transpire. The silence lasted a full minute.
“What the devil are all you starin at? Haven’t you ever seen a repentant man before? Fr. Larsson bellowed.
“Get everyone what they want, and make mine a double!”
Sunday, February 24, 2019
As this blog, and my writing ventures turn the corner after over ten years of essays, short stories and vignettes I sat down to reflect back and think about what Classical Angler means in both the literary sense, and the bigger picture of what the writing is stating. I also wanted to detail the creative process as well. How to do this?
I decided to interview myself.
Happy anniversary! Many have found a richer world of fly-fishing and inspiration here. I hope for much more. Writing, like a fine wine gets richer with age.
Question (Q): “Introduce yourself and describe your work.”
Erik Helm proprietor of Classical Angler fly-fishing and the writer best known for being long-winded… just kidding… I live in the Driftless region of Wisconsin where I guide anglers for trout and teach fly-fishing classes and schools, produce fly-fishing related leather craft, and write the Classical Angler Blog of literary explorations into fly-fishing.
I started all this in 2008. ‘Classical Angler’ came from a study of classical music I was undertaking on my own at the time, as well as an appreciation of ‘Classic’ fly-fishing… an era roughly from the late 19th century through the 1970s… the time of the great authors, books, and magazine articles. Sounds all planned out, but I really had no idea it would blossom into a side-hobby of writing short stories and essays. Some friend or another just suggested I start a blog. What’s that? I thought. Well, beginnings are sometimes tender and innocent things like childhood. The future is an open book, and you never know where it will go or take you.
I think of my writing as a blending of examination, philosophy, humor, nature and the essential spirit of fly-fishing as a sort of literary sport if you will… I don’t want to just write ‘How to’ or ‘Where to go’ articles. For me writing is all about the creative process; finding art and meaning in words and expression of the greater meanings of life seen through the looking glass of the sport of angling.
I see somewhat of a vacuum out there in this genre. Articles and books with actual literary content have been on the decline for the last 40 years, and I miss reading the stories and articles in the outdoor magazines I picked out of my dad’s library and curled up with for hours on the floor before the fireplace in long dark winters. Later, after writing for several years (sometimes appalling poorly), I started collecting classic angling books and articles by such authors as McQuarrie, Gingrich, Lyons, Haig-Brown, Atherton and many others, and discovered a sort of symbiosis between my ideas and thoughts and their explorations… an echo with or of what I was trying to say and how I was trying to say it… an affirmation at least for me from a past where creative writing could stand on its own without as many imposed limitations of commercialism. My blog began to provide the perfect vehicle for that freedom of expression. Freedom means not having to confine the realm of artistic expression to less than 750 words or something like having a picture inserted between each paragraph to hold attention span.
Q. “Can you describe your creative process?”
(Chuckling and shaking head while smiling)… Well… I think each process is unique- each work different in its journey. I guess if I had to categorize them, they would fit into several vague paths…
Some works, like ‘Ephemeral’, are like giving birth. The idea is born and it just grows until it comes out all raw and screaming and crying and shouting with joy. The works that develop like that often require little note-taking or planning. Instead, they are born on the spot like Jazz Improv, and are both exhausting and exhilarating to write. Also, with pieces of this type I don’t like to disturb them by over-editing afterwards. The mood, mindset, or passion of the voice of the piece… its soul… if that doesn’t sound too hokey, can be upset and actually ruined by afterthought and picking and poking about. I would almost rather scrap a piece entirely, which does get done, than ruin the fluid thought process which makes it unique. Some pieces are very unique… like something cooked up on the stove without any recipe, and should not be fussed with by adding, subtracting, or even trying to coax it in a different direction. Each piece has a growth process that should not have me forcing any pre-conceived ideas upon it. Each word, sentence, or paragraph effects the one following… each turn bringing new discoveries and influencing new thoughts and ideas. I guess every artist has a different method… Mozart wrote everything down straight out of his head with little or no corrections. He saw and heard the piece in his mind. Beethoven, on the other hand was a meticulous editor, scribbling and erasing and adding and annotating until his scores were often notoriously undecipherable, yet they both produced beauty.
I have had several pieces take me a month or more of note-taking on thoughts and ideas before I actually sat down and wrote the piece… so yea… there are endless paths to the fruition of an idea. It all starts with the idea… the inspiration. Sometimes those ideas came to me all at once… at 3 in the morning while lying in bed, or while fishing or taking a nature walk. Sometimes the ideas are a dead-end or a failure. I keep several notebooks full of ideas for essays and writing. On occasion I will page through them and find a neat idea that remained an orphan and adopt or merge it with something else and it turns out better after sitting a year on the back burner. I guess one never knows…
One trap I have fallen into several times is taking too big a bite or too wide a view of a subject. Often the ideas get all muddled up and clarity is lost. It’s like a soup with one too many ingredients… it loses its unique taste trying to be too much…. Too many blended ideas and the individuality is sacrificed. I usually try to scrap these and approach them later, but most of my works, including the short stories are actually composed or written in one session at the computer.
Q. “Why the essay? Why do you find this so compelling versus developing much longer pieces?”
Great question! I guess I feel that the essay, long or short, offers a completion, a framing if you will, of an idea, and is accessible to the reader. I like to compel thought with my writing and weave themes in a more artistic expression than possible with chapters or some other format. Maybe it has to do with my personal creative style, but I like to create and then more on to contemplate another work or creation. The essay allows the writer to examine things and proffer an argument even if it is hidden. Often my vignettes have hidden subject matters. Take ‘Gas Station Flies’ for example… ostensibly a piece about history and nostalgia, the hidden subject emerges as the author as a child peeping through the trees with his father at a famous river… it is a piece on growing up… a piece about memories and change. These themes sometimes emerge from nowhere as I am writing… and I love that process! I like not knowing! Let the piece tell me what it is all about. Sometimes the actual subject matter shifts right before my eyes. I find that so amazing and fulfilling… at least when it works…
Q. “And the short stories?”
The short stories by necessity are far more planned. I usually have a framework written down as to the theme or themes and where I want it to begin and end… the subject too and some of the detours, but the writing process still tends to be eclectic. I do like to add mystery and a bit of horror at times as well as local history. It seems to draw in the reader when a story begins innocently enough, but then becomes far more than one thought after the first few paragraphs. I am a very avid reader of the genre of the short story, especially 19th century and early 20th century authors such as H.H. Munro, Somerset Maugham, and others like Checkhov who have the amazing talent to start their stories not always at a definable point or beginning, but in the middle of nowhere and travel through the story in non-linear directions. My chosen wider subject matter, that of angling, can only accept so much pushing at the boundaries of convention, and I do try to push as hard as I can sometimes. I think convention is dull or boring… repetitive and stale. How many stories can you read where a man catches a fish? Hemingway pretty much owns that! But… what about a story with masked themes where the reader forgets all about the fish? That speaks to me.
Q. “I notice you switch voices and moods in your writing between pieces. Is there a reason for that?”
All artist are nuts! (Laughs) or just human…
Well… the mood of the writer and their voice can change… must change I believe. Many writers in a genre like this have one established voice, be it humor, philosophical, romantic, serious, happy or sad. Established voices work. They are predictable. Read some authors out there and after awhile one becomes kind of lost. Each piece is the same. We go fishing, then a reflection and philosophical detour, we come back to the fishing, another reflection, a laugh, and a predictable conclusion. I like to vary the mood. I never want to write two similar pieces in a row. Two pieces of humor for example… I try to include a different tonality in each piece. I often write to a background of classical music, and choose the music or composer based on the piece I am trying to develop. For passion I might play Beethoven, for jazz madness… Mahler comes to mind… Poetic subtlety… Bach… We are getting back to my pre-natal stages of development as a writer. Why, by accident I coined the term ‘Classical Angler’… because the various moods and passions govern music and our interpretation of music. They mimic our humanity. Instrumental music mimics the human voice that expresses our existence. Often I find writing about fly-fishing as satisfying or even more so than actually going fishing. When ideas flow like rivers the catch becomes more permanent and the journey is its own reward. Fishing can often be kind of one-dimensional, but writing can be almost four-dimensional… More freedom to go beyond the rivers into our own existential being…
Experiences on the stream have moods as well: frustration, elation, reflection, joy, wonder at nature, fear of nature, centering and mindfulness…The themes I develop should reflect those moods if crafted properly. Formulaic writing may be successful in many instances, but it bores me.
Q. “What are some of your favorite pieces you have written?”
The next one! (smiling)
Seriously… I don’t know. What I like and what the reader likes are often very different. Some pieces stand out to me, but fail to inspire the reader or miss the mark. I aim too high or too low or simply obscure too much… I am told, or have been told that I am at my best from or in a free-form mode… like jazz. I like ‘Dear Theo’ for that reason… for its sheer uniqueness of subject matter and framing. One current author wrote me concerning it that he thought it “Amazingly inventive.” “The Stand” is possible my favorite short story, and short and eclectic pieces like “Depression and Blue Winged Olives” keep coming back to me as compelling. I sometimes wonder what went into it… what drove it when it was written… or other pieces as well, but have to just say… “Well, there it is!” I can never recapture the mood so to speak. “Water-Putting” is a neat little journey of humor and truth as is “Its Complicated.” That last one I never remember writing… It just seemed to appear before me already written… I don’t know…
Q. “They say no writer is ever born a writer, instead they have a hundred lives before they begin to create.”
I agree. I was never a writer until middle age. In fact, although a notorious book-worm, my grammar and spelling was so poor that it drove my parents nuts! I guess I was always creative though… it’s in the genes. My dad was a classical pianist and history buff. Mom was amazing artist and painter of regional acclaim in Wisconsin. She produced thousands of oils, watercolors, sketches, pastels, drawings, etc. So many varied styles and explorations. Amazing artist… I think I got the creativity from her. That and I am an only child, so I was left to entertain myself often enough. There was always music and art in our house on the East-Side of Milwaukee. We had a saying, or my parents did… “Bored? Go mow the lawn!” That could translate as ‘There are a million things to do and explore in life… Boredom is a sin.’
I first tried writing in college. I had an amazing creative writing teacher… a gal who back in the day smoked in the classroom, looked like a cleaned up version of Janice Joplin, and urged us to always explore. I loved writing poetry. She hated it as it was awfully contrived, and she was right. However, she found my creative stories to be very original. She said I knew how to tell a good story.
But I never did anything serious with writing until after both of my parents passed away. As a form of catharsis I wrote a long memoir entitled ‘Up on Downer,’ referring to the street we lived on in Milwaukee, and a play on words. Yikes… it would require a year of editing for subject and consistency if it were ever to be publishable, but it taught me about writing, especially the voice, and how important it is in relaying a feeling or a mood underlying a subject.
It wasn’t until a year or so after starting ‘Classical Angler,’ that I sat and re-read some of the pieces I had written and realized they had some promise. What I lacked was freedom. The pieces that failed were too contrived again: too methodical. The works that sang were less constrained. I began to find my voice or voices. I began to write with confidence. That was a long process, and I still struggle. However, producing something that can be read and enjoyed is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I spent much of my adulthood for some reason trying to be a business guy… to prove something to myself… from Information Technology to retail management and everything in between. Funny if we find ourselves back at our own roots sooner or later. I guess writing makes me happy, and that I am thankful for, even if the process of general acceptance can be naked at times, and people don’t read in depth anymore, the creative process has to come out. I write for the few people who will appreciate it. I feel lucky to be able to create.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Two old friends have an adventure of a lifetime along a northern Wisconsin trout stream… one that they might want to keep amongst themselves for obvious reasons. Copyright 2019 Erik Helm
The plan, as Ed explained it to Pete, his life-long friend and fellow fly angler, was to fish Moose Creek in Northern Wisconsin for brookies. They would park the old Buick at the highway bridge, wade up the creek carrying their lunches, and be able to fish right until dusk without having to retrace their steps after dark by utilizing a dike which lay at the upper stretches of the creek, and ran back to the road through a cranberry bog after skirting a local lake.
This idea emerged after last year’s trip to this same river led to stubbed toes, a dunking or two, a lost wading boot in the bog, and an exhausting trek back out following the meandering river back downstream to the car, and missing the evening rise for fear of being trapped after dark. This seemed like a better plan Pete thought to himself, but asking Ed anyway “Are you sure about that dike short-cut… Is it public…?”
“Old railway bed, I checked with the guy at the gas station, and he says it’s fine.”
It was a warm sunny morning when they parked the car at the bridge after a drive of six hours from the city.
“Risers!” Pete said as he looked over the bridge into the little creek as Ed busied himself with waders and assembling his Garrison bamboo rod, his cherished possession. Pete had purchased a Payne rod ten or so years ago, but he always was jealous of the Garrison. Ed felt the same way, he was jealous of the Payne.
It had always been like that for the two old lifetime friends. Since they met in grade school, they had always done everything together, fished, hunted, dated and even married two sisters, having the ceremony together at the same church. The friendship had warmed to a form where polite teasing and friendly competition always formed a background to their adventures.
Ed opened up the sack with his lunch to check it before stuffing it into the back pouch on his vest, and the smell of burned bacon wafted forth. Betty was a great cook, Pete reflected, but she always burned the bacon. Everything Ed owned tended to smell a bit like bacon, even his fishing tackle. Pete’s wife, on the other hand, had a thing for cabbage, and cooked it into everything, even the eggs. His lunch would be stuffed cabbage rolls wrapped in foil. Between the two of them, they smelled like a cheap diner blue-plate special, but Ed liked burned bacon, and Pete had an affinity for cabbage. The friendship fit together like two puzzle pieces.
The rising trout were a good omen as the two friends fished their way up the stream. The air was filled with little brown mayflies, and each angler had several dozen flies they had tied in the weeks before the trip that matched the hatching insects perfectly, even if Ed’s flies smelled a bit like burned bacon.
By the late afternoon they had made their way a mile up the creek and stopped for lunch. Both Pete and Ed had released a dozen brook trout in the ten to thirteen inch ranges, and kept several of the largest for the ladies to cook for breakfast. They paused for an hour after they had eaten and smoked a pipe, quietly enjoying the beauty of the conifer forest, the spring warblers, the wood ducks flying overhead, and hidden calls of woodcock and bittern.
They needed this trip away from the noise and fast pace of the city and their jobs, Ed thought. They were both nearing retirement age soon, and the thrill of business was slowly being replaced with a longing for memories made in quiet places.
Pete thought about the time in their early teens that the two of them discovered his dad’s beer stash under the porch, and climbed an apple tree to drink a few in secret, feeling like men, or at least playing at being one. The beer was warm and kind of skunky, but neither of them would admit it or say anything, so they finished drinking them while telling stories of the future, and what they would do when they were older. The problem became how to get out of the apple tree. Pete’s legs didn’t work right after the beers, and Ed was seeing double. They both had thrown up their dinners, and it took them several hours to sober up and get down from their perches among the branches.
Ed reminisced upon the time when he and Pete had first hunted grouse together. Pete’s first hunting dog was a remarkably dumb lab named ‘Pep’, short for Pepto-Bismol because that damn dog gave anyone hunting over her a case of sour-stomach. Sure enough, Pep never did flush a bird that day, but instead found a skunk, and deciding it might be a funny kind of grouse, chased it into some bushes. They returned to the car and drove home with Pep in the trunk covered in tomato juice. They both had to burn their hunting clothes.
Funny all the memories that old friends can share, and through all of them, they had kept the vast majority of any misadventures to themselves, despite temptation after a few drinks to tell the boys a hell of a story. “Let’s keep this to ourselves,” became their oath of silence.
With evening approaching and the sun beginning to angle, the woods and river cooled and mists began to rise along with the trout, giving an otherworldly almost spooky church-like atmosphere to the upper stretch. It was worth all the planning though. As dusk set the two friends caught more trout than they had ever caught before, and Pete hooked one while his fly was dangling beside him in the water between casts, while Ed managed to hook a trout on his back-cast. The fish were suicidal now in a crazed frenzy to eat the falling spinners of the brown mayflies that hatched all day.
The last light faded from orange into pastel pinks and fuchsias as the mists rising from the creek and surrounding bog became thicker. It was time to go. They could keep the trout fresh in the cooler in the car and breakfast tomorrow would be heavenly.
Ed led the way through the bog to a small rise that indicated the side of the dike or railway grade dimly appearing through the growing fog which smelled and tasted like something from prehistoric times. Whippoorwills began to call all around them, and darkness blanketed the woods.
They were ten feet from the dike when Ed stopped.
“Shh…” he whispered. “There is something big and dark standing out in the cranberry bog right ahead of us… Don’t look like a tree, kind of like a bear or some animal…”
Pete had better eyes than Ed. “That’s a Moose,” he exclaimed in surprise, trying to keep his voice low.
“Shoot. Moose are unpredictable and dangerous. Does it have antlers?”
Ed squinted through the fog. “Yup, big rack too. I can see them clearly outlined against the sky.”
As darkness settled into inky blackness, the two stayed very silent and still. Neither had any idea what to do at this stage, and the thought was beginning to occur to them that they may have to spend some time stuck here until the moose, still dimly outlined in the near distance, moved on from its feeding. Ed found a large boulder nearby, and suggested that if they were going to be stuck here for a bit, they might as well be dry. They climbed the knobby chunk of granite careful to not make an errant sound.
It became obvious to both of them before long that they were well and truly stuck. The moose might or might not be still there, and they could no longer see through the fog and moonless night to be certain.
“O.K., let’s take inventory,” Pete quietly murmured. “I have a bag of peanuts, what do you have?” “A half a pint of peppermint schnapps,” Ed replied. They had left the half-full thermos of hot coffee back in the car because it was such a nice day. Both of their minds ended up focused on that hot coffee as a light drizzle began to fall, and their backs began to ache from sitting on the uneven cold rock.
After midnight, they broke down. Ed offered the schnapps to Pete after taking a swig himself, and Pete opened the peanuts. “Wait a minute Pete!” Ed exclaimed. What if Moose like peanuts? I can smell them like anything, and I bet the moose can too.” The peanuts were put away, and a long silence began. After an hour a staccato rattling was heard.
“What’s that?” Pete asked in a hush. “My teeth!” Ed answered. “I’m freezing, and I can’t feel my feet!”
“We need energy… food. I am so hungry I could eat my hat.”
“Kind of like the Donner Party…”
“What…. Eat each other and our hats?”
“No, as in we need food and we are marooned. Moose don’t eat trout, get it?”
“Cold trout? I can’t see my pocketknife to clean them.”
Hunger and cold can drive men to do things they might think themselves incapable of in better circumstances. The raw trout tasted like bog, slimy and silty, and made an interesting combination with the last of the schnapps. They almost gagged, but managed to eat a trout apiece to help keep them warm through the night.
The two old friends spent the night on a cold knobby boulder in a cranberry bog miserable with the drizzle surrounded by woods noises that to both of their now acute imaginations sounded like a huge moose on the prowl. In the weak dead hours of pre-dawn, they managed to nod off to sleep, propped against each other for warmth and stability.
A cloudy and misty dawn broke slowly into the forest and bog, the light increasing until the two anglers could begin to see again. Awake, but bleary eyed, they both peered through the banks of fog and into the heart of the cranberry bog in the direction of the road and the position of the moose the night before.
“I can’t see it,” Pete sputtered, “It must be gone by now…”
“No… there it is!” Ed chattered through his teeth, “It hasn’t moved!” “It’s in the same place as last night.” “It’s huge! I can see its antlers from here!”
“Wait a minute…” Pete exclaimed, the increased volume of his voice causing Ed to cringe. “I smell foul here. No moose is going to stand out there in a field all night and not move. I am too tired and cold and hungry to care any more. I am going to creep forward and check it out.” They decided that Ed would follow behind, and if Pete got mauled, he was in charge of breaking the news to Erma, Pete’s wife. Pete figured he had the better end of the stick.
The two crept slowly forward on the relatively dry abandoned railway dike toward the outline of the moose, appearing now menacingly large before them. Fifty feet away they paused. Pete spoke first, standing up and clicking his tongue in disapproval. “Look Ed, It has wooden posts for legs!”
“I’ll be a monkey’s…” Ed began, trailing off into silence. They walked up to the moose. Ed knocked on it with his knuckles. Wood. It was over life-size and was painted black. They could see the highway now clearly as the meager sun began to burn off the fog of morning.
They walked around the moose and stared at it from the front. A stylized moose it was. Looking not half like Bullwinkle the billboard proclaimed cheerfully…
“Visit Scenic Moose Lake! Next Exit.”
“I’ll be damned…” they both exclaimed quietly.
“I feel like an idiot,” Ed admitted.
“That is beside the point Ed,” Pete laughed rather seriously.” “The point is I feel the fool too, but the important thing is to keep this to ourselves. Nobody, even our wives must ever hear of this.” “Even our wives?…” Ed grimaced. “Yea, especially them. You know the boys at the lodge and the tavern would here of it sooner or later, and we would be the butt of jokes forever.”
They came up with a story. The car broke down, and they had to spend the night huddled under blankets until in the morning, when they discovered the problem: wet spark-plug wires. That would do the trick, Ed thought aloud. “Yea… Betty is always nagging me about getting the spark plugs changed anyway. She would get a chuckle out of that one, and it would only cost me a few bucks for new plugs.”
“I am serious about the silence thing Ed,” Pete said shaking his head and smiling. “I think we should take an oath.”
“What… like double dog dare, or spit and shake… that sort of thing?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of something else… If you tell anyone, I get your fly rod, and if I tell anyone, you get mine as a penalty. That should keep our mouths shut for a while.”
The two old friends shook on it and the oath was taken.
Ed got the nickname of ‘Bullwinkle’ a few weeks later. Pete was referred to as ‘Moose’ for the rest of his life.
It was worth it, Pete reflected as he landed a nice trout on his new Garrison rod. Pete was in the distance, proudly playing a fish on his equally new Payne.
Author’s note: On a trip to the Brule’ river in northern Wisconsin, I passed a field on foggy autumn morning and glancing to my right, spotted a huge bull moose with black fur and white antlers standing in a boggy lowland, partially shrouded by the enveloping mists. I was pumped to see such a rare sight in Wisconsin… until…
Out in the field stood a perfect replica of a moose, made of plywood and life-size, and painted black with white antlers. Some farmer’s idea of a joke. I felt the fool. Now that might make the basis for a good story I thought… until three years later here I am with the idea fully formed. A fishing trip and an oath of secrecy… else the fool!
Winter brings on a time for reflection and creativity. Here are two of my latest projects.
Rebirth of an American Original:
I purchased a highly used Savage Stevens 311 side by side shotgun in 20 gauge this winter. This blue-collar piece of Americana looked like somebody had glued shotgun parts to a stock for a Daisy red-ryder BB-gun. Selling for less than $100 new, these shotguns were made bombproof. They were utility no-frills hunting tools and had to function even after being thrown into the back of a pickup or carried on a tractor. No room was left at that price point for aesthetics. A walnut stock was eschewed in favor of beech wood. This was sprayed with a mix of stain and varnish that often aged badly, melting and fading unevenly. Checkering was burned in poorly and often crookedly as well. It was a diamond in the rough, with nice casing to the metal, but would require the stock to be altered and refinished. As I looked at it in the gun shop, I saw both the flaws and the possibilities. The challenge? Could I manage to restore this and make it look like a respectable side by side? I had never refinished or reshaped a stock before.
|Raw stock with bad finish and crappy checkering|
|Sanded and re-shaped|
|Staining in progress|
After 3 weeks of work, this is what came out. I took the stock down with sandpaper and files, reshaping the squared off blocky looks to a more slender and elegant form, and re-sculpted the grip. I took off some of the burned in checkering as well. Then came hours of hand sanding using progressively finer papers to achieve a glass like surface of wood. Every step was done without any use of power-tools. I like to feel the raw material in my hands and let the material and my fingers guide me instead of trying to force myself on the subject by grinding away with impersonal electric appliances.
Multiple stains were tried on scrap wood until I finally was happy with the coloring. The bare wood beech stock had little grain to it, so that would have to brought out as well. How it would turn out was a mystery since I was on un-trodden ground here at least for me. It was all a great experiment. The two color and two-part staining worked out beautifully, especially after copious rubbing with a tack cloth.
Now for the finish…
Ah, Tung-oil… the stuff of frustration… will it ever dry?
Six coats of thin Tung-oil went on slowly in the late morning sunlight of a cold January. Every day the stock was sanded with wet-dry paper and another coat of oil rubbed on by hand with my fingers.
Finally assembled, the old Savage-Stevens was now unrecognizable from its original form. It had arisen from rust and dust and poor machine finishing to glow with pride.
Hunting with it for the first time was a joy, even if no bunnies were actually harmed, and the day consisted of wandering around the woods and briars with a shotgun in hand.
|In the field|
What mattered is the pride of ownership I felt at having something I was proud of and labored over lovingly for all those weeks.
Handcraft can be so fulfilling.
The second project was a commission from a client and friend. He saw several of the first leather rod tubes I handcrafted and wanted one to fit several Joe Balestrieri bamboo fly rods which were being designed and built for him.
The problem: Each of my prior rod tubes looked beautiful, but were not, at least in my opinion, ready for production or sale. The finishing processes were just not quite up to par.
I challenged myself to make a piece of art worthy of the rods that were going to be carried by it. No corners would be cut here. Time would be taken to ensure a perfect fit and finish. I also wanted it to be ornate, unique, and rather antique looking.
The owner is very happy with it, and I am proud to have produced a little piece of art out of time and leather. I can now make these to custom order. Price is $700 for the standard model pictured below.
Monday, December 17, 2018
The end of trout season found me putting away gear, and so, to the dreaded overstuffed closet I went. I was clearing space on the top shelf consisting of hats of all variety when it occurred to me that I have a rather large and cumbersome collection of fishing hats in various styles and states of decrepitude. As I sorted through them, each brought back memories. An old Hardy ball cap that I had worn for years while chasing steelhead in the western united states almost got discarded after last year I tossed in the washer and dryer and it turned into a frayed rag, but yet it still sat there with its sweat stains, little holes marking where I stuck flies as I changed them.
Dad’s old Irish hats were stacked in the corner. They get rotated and used each winter season because they hold different kind of memories, and they keep my ears warm, and the snow off my neck. There was an old waxed cotton cowboy hat that sort of melted and deformed and thus fell out of circulation. Tweed caps filled a box. I wear one of them every year on the Brule’ river, and their inner brims were still filled with flies. In the back, buried under yet more hats was an old cap from the first fly shop I worked in so many years back. I took it out and hung it next to my tying area for inspiration.
Sometimes rooting around through old things spurs thought, and I began to ponder the fishing hat as an object symbolic of more: of time, of history, of expression. I may have traveled to the rivers and came home with images of water and fish burned into my cortex, but the hats retained even some of the dirt, the very substrate under the rivers. They weren’t just hats, they were pieces of my angling history.
Sidetracked from my gear organization task, I paged through old copies of fly-fishing magazines and books looking for hats and found a treasury of ads and photos that had one thing in common: that of a lack of commonality. Every hat that could be imagined was donned by the anglers: terry cloth, tweed, straw, the ballcap, the bucket hat, the English driving cap, Irish walking hats, cowboy hats, trucker caps, packet hats, trilbys, even Bavarian alpine hats. Then I looked in a new magazine, and every picture had the same flat-brim ballcap. The variety had disappeared. I had a long discussion with other anglers older than I regarding fishing back in the day and the hats they wore and an idea emerged…
Back in England and in America as well until the turn of the twentieth century, there was a required ‘look’ to going fishing including proper attire, and topped by the finest in fashion chapeau. Sometime in the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1980s a change took place. Anglers no longer wanted to wear a ‘uniform’. They did that five days a week on their job. Fishing became a time for getting away from the factory and office, and an increase of working class anglers and hunters filled the outdoors on weekends. They finally had some leisure time. Entire trains were nicknamed ‘The fisherman express’, and ran out of the cities on Friday evening bound for the woods and streams. The people that left the cities behind also left the dress code behind. They escaped. Wearing a tie and coat with a derby was no longer socially necessary on the stream. People began to express themselves.
A time capsule emerged in 1973 in the form of descriptions of a group of anglers fishing Wisconsin’s Wolf River amalgamated from several of those conversations I had.
There was no look in common to them other than a ‘going fishing’ look, and every one of the anglers had their favorite fishing hat, unless their wife had finally made good on her promise to destroy it. That was one thing they did have in common: the universal detestation of their chosen hat by their wives… That, and a sort of lack of affectation to ‘coolness’ inherent in the varied old hats. The hat itself was a symbol of turning their backs, and breathing free… of escaping the cities… of non-conformism while not trying to look like a non-conformist.
Stumpy showed up in the fishing camp that year with his old gray felt fedora; the top sporting a large hole. As he told it, the hat blew off his head ten years back or so when he was playing a large trout. It had floated downstream and an otter swam out from some rocks on the bank and grabbed it, towing it ashore. Stumpy gave chase after landing his fish, and the hat lay in the grass on the bank soaking wet. The otter was nowhere to be seen. He was reaching down to pick it up, when the otter reappeared by chewing a hole in the very top of the hat and popping out, looking at Stumpy and squeeking. It then jumped into the water and swam away, its squeeking teasing Stumpy like laughter. He never sewed it up, he said, because “The otter must have done that for a good reason.” The rest of the gang speculated behind Stumpy’s back that he was a better angler for it anyway, because his brain now got exposed to more fresh air.
Carl always wore a brown wool hat his uncle had bought in New York after he returned from WWII. He got off the ship and realizing he had no civilian hat, went straight to a store run by an old Jewish man named Isaac. It had pheasant and grouse feathers stuck in the band, and Carl had turned down the brim in front so that it came down nearly to his nose.
Joe had an old ballcap with the logo of some farm machinery company. It was so stained with oil and grease that the name of the company was now unreadable. Joe had found it in an irrigation ditch near a farm while walking in to fish the Oconto River twenty years back. He had misplaced it one year and showed up with a newer cap, and not had a single fish rise to his fly. When he returned the next year, the old cap returned with him cocked at a jaunty angle, and he had out-fished everyone. Since then, he kept it in his safety deposit box at his bank. All his luck was contained in those old oil stains.
Whitey donned a tan bucket hat with blue and red banding. Stuck to the band were small spinning lures, a half-dozen flies, and a blue jay feather he had found.
Lou wore his masterpiece of angling: his fly hat. For ten years, he had always stuck any fly he clipped off his leader into the hat, and never removed it. Somewhere under those hundreds of matted and tangled flies was an actual hat, but no one in the group had ever seen it. It looked like some sort of abstract sculpture. One time while fishing with the group, Lou had been attacked by a dive-bombing red-winged black bird defending his territory. The bird had become entangled in the flies, and Stumpy and Joe had to use a pliers to free it. They were laughing so hard that Lou got sore at them and later after dinner, poured clam juice into their waders. Joe and Stumpy fished the next day surrounded by a cloud of flies they couldn’t shake. They finally dived into the river to escape the hungry hoard.
Frosty had the most dilapidated hat of the group. It started out as a fine Stetson, but his wife had washed it, and it lost its form and much of its color. It looked perpetually droopy and soggy, and the crown had bumps and warts sticking out all over. He had set fire to the front brim one evening lighting a cigar to keep the mosquitoes away, and the hat had smoldered for twenty minutes, creating a large brown and black-rimmed hole. A hillbilly would have scorned Frosty’s hat, it was just that bad… or good… depending on who was talking.
Fred was the only angler in the party that had a new hat. He had bought an Irish walking hat in green Harris Tweed because he said he always wanted one. The actual reason, which came out around the fire after a few glasses of brandy was that his wife had actually burned his old fishing hat in a garbage can in the back yard. The divorce followed shortly after.
These stories made me reflect that these old hats were more than just hats now. Maybe they had become a mold of the head and personality of the wearers: a now seemingly empty vessel full of thoughts, memories, destinations, and companions. Donning them again was like putting on a magic mask that both transformed and empowered the wearer. Luck flowed in the fibers, the cloth and the sweat, and you can almost hear the riffles in the stream… even if they now smell a bit fishy. One more reason to keep and wear that old fishing hat… a new one would have no stories to tell.
Saturday, December 1, 2018
Copyright 2018 by Erik Helm
14 years old for a boy is a shadow of in-betweens: no longer a boy, not a man, a time of identities and impressions, of questions and dreaming: a time of forming.
In 1979, I lay on the couch watching the winter’s fog through the windows meld and blend with my father’s pipe smoke as he kept me rapt with attention. The subject was hunting, and dad was half dreaming and half lecturing, surrounded by gun digests and outdoor magazines.
For Christmas that year I had received a .22 rifle, and had then passed a hunter safety class and joined the local Junior Rifle Club. The shooting and hunting drew my father and I together in mutual interest at a time when everything else was pulling us apart.
I was a good listener, and Dad was a fine talker and storyteller. He kept me glued to his words as I imagined the north woods of Wisconsin and hunting, I conjured images of red-checkered jackets, the smell of pines and the soft crunch of footsteps on new-fallen snow. Dad and I held classic sporting rifles, and he pointed ahead to show me the way.
|My father and his father in law William Theisen examine a Herter's catalog 1971|
Those daydreams on the couch listening to dad would be the closest we ever came to hunting deer together. Life got in the way, as it always seems to, and the unexpected roadblocks hidden around the corner prevented the father and the son from turning the dreams into reality. We did hunt squirrels once together later that year while on vacation, but never saw any. I got up early the next morning, and without dad, shot two by myself. I cleaned them, and dad cooked them. Larger game would have to wait until the tendrils of time collided randomly in the future… or not.
Dreaming takes on a different substance or concreteness to a fourteen year old. I spend countless hours on the floor with old copies of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, full of rich prose and informative articles. For a city boy, it was like an overdose of adventure novels, Hemmingway meets H. Rider Haggard. Clarity and exuberance… Dreams…
For Dad, dreaming about hunting was probably as good as actually hunting, and far safer and resulted in less anxiety. Dad was an armchair outdoorsman, but nobody knew more, or had read more on the subject, or any subject he was interested in, I thought, than my father. He was a methodical reader and planner. Sometime that winter, he created a list of hunting necessities. It would never be completed. I found it tucked into an old notebook recently. When he made it, he was the same age as I am when I am writing this. The notations in the Herter’s catalog now yellowing with time, and wrinkled much like the corner of my eyes now.
|Dad's hunting list|
He had one thing covered: rifles. Dad had purchased over the years a collection of fine used bolt-action rifles: Mausers, Winchesters, Remingtons, Sakos, Brownings, and his treasured possession, a Steyr Mannlicher model M carbine chambered in 7X57 Mauser. He cared for them meticulously, but I only remember him shooting one of them when I was around eight. Once again, it took someone else to take him to a range. Alone, he was not enabled or empowered. The Mannlicher was his deer rifle, even if it had no scope mount. When in his old age, he gave me all the rifles to place into storage, he kept one in his little apartment: the Mannlicher. It came to symbolize a dream deferred yet kept alive behind a bookshelf. Maybe some day…
All life is mere memories and dust, and then he was too.
In 2017, I prepared to move to the Driftless area of Southwest Wisconsin, a place of trout streams, hills and valleys, and nature and scenery like those dreams of boyhood. A city boy moves to a town of less than 600 people. I had placed several of Dad’s rifles behind the refrigerator under a sheet to hide them in my apartment in Milwaukee. The Mannlicher sat there after his passing until unshrouded before the move. I had never hunted either. The light of the sun shined full on the rich bluing and deep wood; the rifle was as beautiful as it was patient… waiting…
As I packed the apartment and planned the endless life-changes before me, I enquired into the availability of scope mounts. It turned out that they were harder to locate than I thought. No dice, until after the move I found them online and ordered a set. Dad also left me a Leupold scope that probably had been intended to top the rifle in the first place. The 1970s were finally being assembled some 38 years later. I had some notion of actually shooting the thing, but had not shot a gun in around 30 years myself. I vowed after my move that I would explore new things, and this would be on the agenda.
I had the major tools. They smelled faintly of pipe smoke and storage boxes, of oil and wax and dream preservatives. He left me a Herter’s knife for skinning, leather slings, an LL Bean jacket, and hunting boots. I just had to fill in the rest and make it happen.
I was and am lucky to have supportive friends who invited me to share in their deer camp last year, and to hunt with them. I debated it until the last moment, and then purchased a license and sighted the rifle in at a local range. The skills I left at 19 years old, that of a competition rifle shooter, came back slowly. Age played a part too, but skills practiced through hundreds of hours have a way of seeping in forever. They announced their awakening with the first ‘BOOM” of the Mannlicher. Silent for so long, it was mute no longer.
I learned a lot last year, but only spent about 10 hours hunting, and never had a shot. Our deer camp ended deer-less.
This year I decided to hunt squirrels alone in preparation for deer season. I would use Dad’s classic browning .22. It turned out that I enjoyed it immensely. It brought together the splendor of nature and discovery and learning with marksmanship and exercise and solitude. Several squirrels were dispatched with offhand shots and clean kills. They would be prepared in a stew the morning before the opening of deer camp and shared with all. The stew turned out superb. Serendipity… Or foreshadowing…?
I had one goal for the nine-day season: to shoot a deer. To do it my way, stalking or still-hunting without the aid of tree-stands, blinds, or anything else: traditional hunting the way dad would have done it. Fortunately, all of us at camp based in my friend’s wood heated cabin had the same philosophy. Do it right, with sportsmanship and restraint.
The alarm rang at 5 a.m. and we awoke to a landscape of silent darkness and new-fallen snow. We brewed coffee in an enamel percolator, downed oatmeal and doughnuts, and bundled up. The rustic cabin and classic gear and rifles surrounded us like a black and white photo newly colored. It could have been the 1970s. Opening day…
It was cold. I startled a grouse as I made my way down the path from the cabin. I had decided on my own to explore some deer trails we had discovered early this spring while planting trees on the land. What I actually found was the most awful tangle of thorns, weeds, brush, and branches possible. A deer could have been twenty feet away, and I could have passed it unseen. I found deer beds, but no tracks in the snow. Nothing was moving that morning except me, and I was progressing as slow as the tangles necessitated. I saw no deer, but made the acquaintance of squirrels, birds, and a turkey.
After several hours of this futility, I returned to the cabin with cold feet. Dad’s hunting boots were the one thing he got wrong. They were fine for upland game and such, but standing and squatting in the woods when it was 16 degrees found them inadequate. After a snack of sausage and cheese, two of us drove to town where I solved the problem with boots two sizes too big and rated for 40 below. No more cold feet.
In the afternoon and evening we capped off opening day by hunting some public land we wanted to explore. I crawled through barbed wire and brush to discover a maze of deer trails and tracks. A cold wind blew up the valley, and nothing moved. I found a trail cam tied to a tree aimed at a buck rub by accident while taking a pee. It was pointed squarely at me. I hoped that the owner appreciated the diversity of wildlife it captured by accident…
The second morning broke colder than the first: eleven degrees by the thermometer. We decided that I would proceed to the top of the hill where a saddle and dirt track provided a clearing and a field of view. The other hunter that morning would hunt in the hinge-cuts he had formed through countless hours of labor to provide ample cover for deer, and allow them to pause, bed down, and browse for vittles. I started out in darkness ahead of him and carefully climbed the hill scrambling over trees and under limbs, pausing from time to time to listen, moving as silently as possible up the edge of a gully.
Arriving at the top, I crept into a thicket of weeds next to a large boulder adjacent to the gravel track on the ridge top. It was just getting light; the sun edging awake to illuminate the frost that covered every surface like jewels. A thousand points of light danced and flickered. I sat down in the weeds and hid myself, concentrating on silence and slow breathing. My breath came in clouds that fogged my glasses. I relaxed and sat listening to the morning sounds: a staccato of tentative percussion freezing and thawing, clicking and rubbing gently on their native instruments.
An hour passed. The quiet was deafening. I could hear my heart beat.
The slumbering stillness was broken by the sounds of deer moving through and up the gully to my left. All of a sudden my tranquility was broken as adrenaline flowed and I began to get nervous. I clicked off the safety on the Mannlicher and took several deep breaths, closing my eyes and listening. There it was again. Whatever it was, it had run up the slope and then paused near the top in the brush, moving every 20 seconds or so.
As quietly as falling snow, a deer crept tentatively out of the brush. I was in perfect position as it moved forward onto the gravel track. I raised the rifle and took sight. Where the deer should have been was just a huge blur. I looked over the top of the scope. Weeds. The weeds I was hiding in were obscuring my sight-picture. The deer took several steps forward completely unaware of me. I sighted again. Now the deer progressed into the brush on the other side of the ridge and paused. It all but disappeared. All I saw was its outline. I placed the crosshairs where the shoulders should have been and squeezed the trigger. The thunderclap broke the silence with a sudden brutality.
Had I hit it? I heard the deer run, breaking brush, and then silence. I waited as more deer sounds came from the gully. I chambered another round, working the bolt smoothly. Silence returned to the ridge top. The deer moved off to the left in the heavy brush. I waited five minutes more and carefully stood up. I walked to the deer trail where I had shot at my quarry, and followed the path downhill for several yards. A single drop of blood. Then more blood appeared hidden in the brush. I moved onward several more yards until it looked like something sprinkled blood on the brush and branches. I looked down the trail and there it was. I had shot it through the heart, the cleanest of kills. For a moment I paused and wondered if that shot, obscured by brush as it was, was guided from above. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I could smell a faint whiff of pipe smoke.
I thought it was a doe, but it turned out to be a button buck. After returning to the cabin to inform my partners, I dressed it out and we dragged it up the hill to the awaiting jeep. Hung from a tree in front of the cabin, a bottle of bourbon and cups were produced, a toast declared, and I took my fingers and dipped them in the old tin folding cut and sprinkled the liquor on the deer thanking him for his life and sustenance. Then I downed the fiery liquid myself.
My friend turned to me and said, “Well, your father finally went hunting…”
It meant something. Something deeply personal.
I sit here writing this in winter as I watch the snow fall, and think back to that winter of 1979, and all the unfinished things in our lives. The fabric of time had collided once again all these years later, and what Dad had started as a dream shared with a boy, fueled by books before the fire in our living room on the East Side of Milwaukee had seeded and germinated in the hills of the Driftless. Dad finally went hunting. I know he was there.
There will be wild meat this winter. It will feed the mind and the soul, and maybe somewhere a smile will appear deep in the woods at night, and in the cold darkness of forever, a wisp of pipe smoke may arise from that smile.
Thank you dad.