A Father's Tale
My grandfather was a WWII hero that had a bag full of jokes, a handsome smile, and a reputation for making friends with farmers. He was known to knock on little farm house doors and with a polite conversation and a handshake would make a friend. He chased rabbits, loved horses, and knew where every covey of wild quail was in Gaston and York County. My father was always along with him and his memories of that time with his father rival the tales in Robert Ruarks’ Old Man and the Boy. My grandfather died the year before I was born.
Growing up was a bit different in our family, Dad was fully occupied a growing small business. He tried to get me out as much as time and resources allowed but it was difficult for him to rival the outdoor culture he was raised in. Ever moment counted. Knowing this as a father today, I am intentional with my sons.
One of my precious possessions is a copy of Old Man and The Boy. My dad gave it to a teenaged me as a gift and as like most active boys, I said ‘thank you’ and put it on a shelf in my room - never cracking the spine. I did not see the personal note he inscribed on the title page:
I suppose God saved me seeing that until when I needed it the most when I finally opened the book as a young father.
To be fair, just as my dad was raised in a different time than me - I grew up so differently than my sons. There was less homework and once it was completed I was always encouraged to “go outside”. In fact this was obligatory unless it was raining. I would meet other kids down in the woods by the creek. We learned about nature and human nature naturally. We were wild until it got dark or the neighborhood dad with the loudest finger-whistle summoned every child in the neighborhood home simultaneously for dinner. We caught crawdads, crawled through culverts, made kudzu forts, killed copperheads, and smoked rabbit weed. The breadth of our journeys were as wide as the sound of the supper whistle. In the summertime, that meant about as far as you were willing to walk or peddle or paddle, knowing you just had to turn around by high noon.
Of course it’s natural to have a concern for your children, and I worry for them. It is ironic considering they are protected and safe for things like war - or perhaps even getting their feelings hurt. Sometimes it’s easy to believe they are giving away part of their soul into a screen and developing their minds and sense of self into an external hard drive. So much of who I am is a projection of an environment that God created for me and sharing nature with others was ‘natural’. My relationship with my dad growing up brings memories of good times outdoors. When I worry that I need to be more present for my boys - I invite them to go on outdoor adventures with me and they never resist. In fact, they are hungry to be asked and it gives me hope.
An early spring Turkey Hunt in the third grade brings back a fond memory. The first days of that school year, Dad handed me my own shotgun in the dove field, a bolt action, single shot .410. I wasn’t just going to sit with a BB gun and pretend, or get a turn shooting a coke bottle when the hunt was over - this was for shooting birds in the sky - for real. I successfully shot my first flying bird that morning. As soon as I knew it was hit, I put settled the butt down in the dirt and blew gunsmoke off the barrels like the cowboy movies. Dad immediately took the gun from me and said, “Maybe next year”.
So by the time Spring came and dad announced on Monday we were going turkey hunting the coming weekend. I was excited and nervous. Would I be able to carry a gun, or was I along for the ride? In school, I had a quiz on Friday reciting the U.S. presidents in order. I was so hell-bent excited on spending time with dad and hunting that I wasn’t studying much. By Wednesday the parental threat became that if I didn’t do well on the quiz that I wouldn’t be able to go. Turns out, Friday morning dad woke me up early in the dark and said, “let’s go”. Naturally I asked about missing school and he said it would be ‘alright’. I knew he was the ultimate authority in my life. I was barely awake as we took off toward the mountain. I could smell coffee. We winded through dark curves and our headlights sliced dense fog. A Snickers bar slid side to side in the tray on the dash as we went turned up the hills. When I proved to be awake enough by talking a bit, Dad said, “If you can recite the presidents perfectly you can have that candy bar for breakfast.”
‘ . . . Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan.” It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted.
We approached a farm gate with dim orange lights on the other side and a flannel-clad figure emerged and let us through. Dad spoke to this man in grunt-like whispers for a minute then the man’s truck drove off and Dad and I got out and set off on foot. I couldn’t see much in the broken moonlight, but Dad guided me deep into the woods. I felt safe despite the unknown ground underfoot. The kudzu and the creek were my familiar domain, but I would feel completely afraid and lost without my father in this foreign darkness. We reached a large tree and perched against it. As we sat in silence the world came alive with gentle sounds and faint light. Then, one by one there was a thrashing of branches and thump of the forest floor as turkeys dropped from their roost. I sounded like someone was dropping paint buckets from the limbs.
I take my boys out in nature - to hunt deer, turkey, and dove - we fly fish and hike in the mountains - these chances are few, but when asked the boys are always eager to go. I believe their desire to go is two-fold between an answer to a ‘call to the wild’ in every boys heart and a desire to be present with their father.
I used all the tricks: take extra snacks, wet wipes and extra gloves, socks, and flashlights — however, the number one thing that I must take is my full presence.
Trips outdoors with my father gave me a place to be heard. It was a place and a relationship wait should be. A place to discuss things I viewed as a wilderness- my futures unknowns: responsibilities, women, navigating finances.
There is more time behind my dad and I than between us - so we turn our energy to my boys.
Take your boy hunting, or forever be hunting your boy.
- Will Kelly