A steady stream of tears soaked the lower half of the steering wheel and dripped onto the rubber floor mat below — sounding like raindrops hitting a canvas tent flap.
A day before, one of the world’s greatest outdoorsmen died at Evangelical Hospital in Lewisburg. Twenty-four hours later, I was taking his 8-year-old granddaughter to school.
"I miss grandpa," she said from the back seat. "I always wanted to go hunting with him and now I’ll never get the chance."
She was out of the car and safely into school before my eyes welled up. I could handle the call the previous morning that my dad had died. I even made it through a small viewing at the funeral home later that day without a major emotional breakdown.
But this was different. Her comment was so innocent — so sincere. All she wanted was a chance to go hunting with one of the world’s greatest outdoorsmen.
And I totally knew where she was coming from. It was the same way I felt about dad when I was her age and we were planning my first squirrel hunt. I couldn’t wait to take the modified .410 shotgun he gave me into the woods. One pull of the trigger later, and I was officially a hunter. Dad’s smile beamed as I picked up my first squirrel and he was grinning again the day we visited taxidermist for my trophy.
I couldn’t wait for each trout fishing adventure, each time we hopped in a boat or even simply the times I tagged along when he was working one of his hunting dogs on a quail or pheasant.
Isn’t it weird, though, how those feelings change as you age? As a teenager I remember more arguments than adventures. I remember thinking how silly it was to spend days on end standing by the same tree waiting for deer that never came. Dad always preached patience, but that was increasingly harder and harder to practice. To me during that time, he was just another guy who liked to hunt — not the great outdoorsman I remembered from my youth.
There was a fateful argument during which I declared I was done with deer hunting. It was a waste of time. Dad’s face went blank — my uppercut hit its mark.
But his look haunted me. I realized at that moment I crossed a line I should never have even flirted with. Dad had killed more deer in his lifetime than Pete Rose hit home runs during his 24-year major league career (160). Hunting to him was more than a hobby. So his firstborn son rebelling in this fashion was more than he could handle.
Later that year, I was back in the field with dad and my brother. As fate would have it, I harvested my first buck that year. As the three of us stood over it, his smile transported me back to the day I got my first squirrel. I could appreciate that look even more years later when my son shot his first deer.
In the days between dad’s recent death and his memorial service, we went through hundreds of photos, slides and Super-8 movie reels. So many images of him in his hunting and fishing prime — posing with countless deer he and his hunting buddies harvested, fishing in lakes, the ocean and on ice, goofing around at his old hunting camp, showing off his favorite hunting dogs with a pile of freshly harvested pheasant in the background — and so many more memories.
My brother and I didn’t get to see those days in person. In fact, I don’t remember dad shooting a single thing ever since Jim and I came of hunting age. He still carried his rifle during deer season, although that changed over time to just a small walking stick. He looked more like an aging Yoda than a rugged outdoorsman.
Dad leaves behind a colorful collage of ribbons won with his hunting dogs at field trials and hunt tests, a trophy from his days of near-perfect skeet shooting, numerous mounts of deer, pheasant and other game, memories of a small pheasant hunting preserve we shared as a family, well-worn-yet-cared-for firearms that are tied tightly into our family heritage and a coffee mug he was given when participating in a week of Scouting summer camp with his sons.
But, more importantly, he leaves behind a wife, two sons, five grandchildren and countless other family and friends who love the outdoors thanks to his passion and persistence.
You’d expect nothing less from one of the world’s greatest outdoorsmen.
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