The author takes us on a fictional journey into a hard world of family, loss, and the bonds of hunting.
Looking out the family room window I could see the barn entrenched in the dormant grass of winter, a sentinel in the field of knotted overgrown apple trees. I recall handing dad each board, intently watching his strength nail the scraps of wood into place. He would smile back as we talked about birds and our pair of English Setters, Pearl and Daisy. Hunting season had come again, and the dogs knew it as well. Our Pilot radio played in the background, Paul Harvey’s voice crooning us with another story.
The outline of where the basketball hoop used to be had somehow survived the years, like the shadows on the sidewalks of Hiroshima. Dad had ripped the basketball hoop two weeks after my 15th birthday. Only the nails would remain. Mom wanted to blame his actions on stress and work, but we all knew the real reason. A bottle always kept him company whenever he lingered outside around the barn. He thought he could hide the schnapps inside a wheel of the tractor. Sometimes I’d go out there and steal a few sips. I knew he knew, but what could he say? To this day I’ve spoken very little of those events to my own family. Memories are sometimes best reserved for your own heart.
Winter arrived early that year in the Midwest. The fall harvest was well beyond our expectations. The phone calls from the bank stopped. Men dressed in suits no longer came knocking on the front door. Mom and dad were both happy again. I would watch while they danced circles in the kitchen, listening to the Righteous Brothers play from the radio. I would spend afternoons with Pearl and Daisy fishing for crappie. They became my best friends. Dad and Daisy were leaving that first Saturday in November for their annual ring-necked pheasant hunt. Before climbing into his truck, he leaned over the hood, smiled at me and said, “Come on Amos, grab Pearl and jump in. Let’s get your dog on some birds.” Dad had never asked me to join him on his November pheasant hunts. We spent the better part of the day walking the valley behind our dogs, watching their tails stand at attention, the silence of their bells alerting us to birds. Walking back to the truck that evening, dad placed his right hand on my shoulder.
“Amos,” he said, “I’ve made many mistakes as your father. The liquor became too comforting, too strong for me. I . . . I thought it would help me to escape the worries of the farm, of the war. I know you have been stealing sips here and there. Be stronger than I was, son. I beg you to stop.” Tears were slowly rolling down his face. Dad and I hugged; we made our peace that night. We both promised to never pick up a bottle again. Neither of us ever raised our shotguns that day. It was perfect.
Dad had been away for two days quail hunting with his old Navy buddies. The ground was hard and white and brittle that night, like old bones. Pearl and Daisy were sitting near the fireplace. Snow had been falling for hours. The smell of turkey scented the entire kitchen and family room. Mom and I could see flashes of light down the end of the drive and we went to the window, both of us pressing our faces so hard against the glass that for a moment we thought our heads might go through the panes.
Pearl and Daisy moved through the living room at a nervous pace, both barking, whimpering, and anxious to bolt out the front door. Flashing red lights from the sheriff’s car followed behind. We began to notice the silhouette of a man walking down the drive. I opened the door, attempting to get a better look. Daisy rushed out the door at full speed to the figure coming down the road. I clutched Pearl in my arms. I could feel her trembling. She was not alone in that feeling. It was the sheriff. The sheriff, my Uncle John, dad’s eldest brother, delivered the news. John’s beard was covered with flakes of snow. Hands shivering, his nails dug deeply into dad’s Parker shotgun. John mentioned finding the shotgun lying on the ground. Looking down through water-filled eyes, his words displaced by tears, John muttered quietly, “I guess this shotgun belongs to you now, Amos.” I took the gun by the stock. It was so cold.
Uncle Sam came calling for me soon after dad passed. I kissed mom goodbye. We both cried. Pearl and Daisy escorted me down to the end of the drive, where a cab awaited. I clutched onto my pups, not wanting to leave them. Vietnam became my home for the next three years. I trudged through the most vile, evil, I could imagine. Death become a welcome thought, something I came to accept. I longed for the companionship of Daisy and Pearl. I missed the days before the war, days when dad and I would trek through the woods, watching the dogs point pheasant. Nightly I clutched the cross that laid across my chest while on patrol behind the wire.
Once home, away from the sounds of the mortars and screams of war, I made my peace with God and with myself. I was eager to hear the sound of bells again. Pulling the Parker into my hands, gripping the wooden stock and feeling the coolness of the barrel, a warmth of memories flooded through my mind. I spent the better part of the evening cleaning the barrels. Arising the next morning I stuffed my pockets full of grandma’s fruitcake and mom’s peppermint candies. I watched as Pearl and Daisy excitedly began waving their tails. Walking into the woods, I eagerly waited to see the rise of my dogs’ tails. The outing into field was bittersweet. It had been the first time I had hunted behind Daisy without dad.
I spent the weeks leading to Christmas helping mom shuffle through boxes we found in the barn. I came across our old red and green bubble lights, my favorite, along with strands of garland. In the background the old Pilot radio softly played Bing Crosby and Carol Richard’s “Silver Bells.” Among the collection of decorations were photos of mom and dad dressed for Uncle John’s wedding. Grandpa tipping his fedora with a clutch of pheasant happily raised in his left hand. The final box contained the wreath dad and I made from grandpa’s pheasant tails. Closing the door to the barn, wreath in hand, and for the first time since the dad’s passing, I placed the wreath on the front door.
Each Christmas Eve Dad and I would make the yearly pilgrimage to the fields in search of a Christmas tree. Dad would carry his axe while I held onto his shotgun. We would fill a thermos of coffee and wrap meatloaf sandwiches in wax paper. Pearl and Daisy would put their noses to work. The silence of bells made me smile. The yearly outing to find a tree always seemed a bit brighter when I filled the game bag with wild birds.
A snow storm moved in by mid-morning on Christmas Eve. I packed up the traditional lunch before heading afield. The thermos warmed my hands. With Pearl and Daisy eagerly waiting. I scratched their heads, gave them a quick wink and we headed for the truck. Stopping briefly to eat I found myself enjoying the sandwiches more than I ever could remember, sharing bites with the dogs, just as dad once had done. Watching Daisy and Pearl, I would see them move in a beautiful pattern as they worked in tandem, slowly moving when they scented birds and coming to staunch point. We kicked up two pheasants that Christmas Eve. I plucked the tail feathers and placed them in the wreath. Arriving home that evening, I turned on the radio hearing Paul Harvey’s voice while mom roasted a pheasant in the oven. His popular “The Man and the Birds” was being broadcast. Hearing him speak made me smile as I thought of my dad. The creamed broccoli and baked potato were a nice touch. Mom and I finished the meal with a piece of fruitcake. Snow continued to fall throughout the night.
Christmas arrived the next day. I felt the cross around my neck. Strapping on my boots, I kissed mom on the forehead. She smiled when I grabbed the axe. Pearl and Daisy jumped up and closely followed behind. The truck broke down at the edge of woods on the far western side of the farm. I dragged that Douglas fir for well over a mile back to the house. Daisy and Pearl tumbled around in the snow, nipping and pawing at each other along the way. The tinsel and bubble lights found a new home neatly nestled among the branches.
I looked outside the window, again seeing the barn. The nails were covered from last night’s snow, but the faded outline of the basketball hoop still remained. Pressing my nose against the glass, I watched closely as dad I and played basketball, Pearl and Daisy weaving in-between our legs barking with excitement, running to point out the occasional songbird. And I watched as dad scooped me into strong arms, both of us laughing.
Erin Woodward is a novice bird hunter. He was born and raised in Kansas where he currently resides with his wife and three children. Erin can be found during the fall and winter months venturing across the Great Plains in search of wild game. Spring and Summer are reserved for fly fishing for trout, and making the best homemade ice cream with his family. A member of Back Country Hunters and Anglers, he holds the value of public land access in great esteem for all hunters and adventure seekers alike. His hunting adventures are documented @pursuit_nature