Hunting for Dad: How Men Bond and Why Family Comes First

 

 Three generations of hunters say good-bye to the patriarch and take aim at Big Snotty

This originally appeared as three-part series on the GMP. It’s reposted in its entirety.

The winds are supposed to get up to 50 mph. The hunt may be cut short because the high winds confuse the deer, throw their senses for a loop, so they bed down to keep safe. In this case, the deer are smarter than the hunters.

We’re twenty-five feet in the air, suspended between two oaks on a sheet of plywood reinforced by joists braced on either side of both trees. We face each other, our backs against our respective trees, the rifle hung from the hook above Tom’s head. He built this stand, along with his dad, who we are here to bury. It’s been hours since we spoke, and the only thing we’ve heard since daybreak was the mad warbling of turkeys, like a gang of women in the kitchen as holiday guests start to arrive. And the wind.

It roars like a waterfall over the ridges and down the valleys, unimpeded by the thick November woods. The gusts cyclone leaves on the ground back up into the air and when it dies down, you shouldn’t relax. The tree stand rocks like a small boat in a big lake and, earlier in the morning, sleeping off last night’s arrival, I napped in a ball at my friend’s feet, awakened by the sense that I was going to pitch over the side. He’s sitting up against the tree now, nodding off like you’re supposed to, always at the ready. That’s how you do it, even in the extended daydream that can be a slow day of hunting.

It’s day one of the hunting season, a day that’s taken a year to arrive for these guys, in a week fraught with more meaning than in any of the decades preceding the family ritual. I’ve never hunted, don’t have a rifle or a permit, so for now I’m content to observe, eager for getting down to the ground and to the cooler for lunch. We’ll meet up on top of the ridge, with Dave, the son-in-law real estate lawyer whose built like a defensive lineman. We moved his tree stand earlier, and if he wasn’t a relative newcomer I’d think he could hoist the metal store-bought stand by himself. We’ll also meet up with Mike and his teenage daughter. When we picked her up the day before, she emerged from her high school with a boy who quickly peeled away. She wore a mid-thigh skirt, and an unzipped fleece jacket flapping in the wind. Now she’ll be covered in Carhartt camouflage, an orange jacket, and with one of her dad’s rifles, the metamorphosis complete. Mike, the eldest son-in-law, is a picture of zen. He recently sold his flooring business—the knees only last so long—and joined his wife in her home office as a mortgage broker. Like the Dude, he abides, and his easy going manner belies a profound, spiritual intellect that makes him the go-to guy for answers.

I want to get the hell down out of the wind and stretch my legs, meet up with the guys to understand what it is about the northern part of Missouri that attracts them, and what it is about hunting that connects these men in some profound way spiritually, geographically, ecologically, and as a tribe.

♦◊♦

The rolling, densely wooded hills known as the Ozarks is a large plateau covering four states, from the southern half of Missouri to the north of Arkansas and a bit of Kansas and Oklahoma. It’s considered to be the western edge of Appalachia, known for endless dells and steep limestone cliffs. On the Northern lip of the Ozarks, an hour south of Jefferson City, Missouri, lies the Lake of the Ozarks. When it was completed in 1931, the damned Osage River became the largest man made lake in the USA and the leader at the time in renewable energy for a significant portion of the state. It’s known as the Magic Dragon because of its aerial shape: the long, serpentining body of water is veined with inlets that branch off like root systems. It has 1,150 miles of habitable shoreline, longer than the California coast. Because it is not a flood-control lake, the water line remains relatively stable, great for water recreation and over 70,000 shoreline homes, many of which are perched on the limestone and dolomite bluffs, accessible to the water by dizzying and breath-sapping stairways.

What it is about hunting that connects these men in some profound way spiritually, geographically, ecologically, and as a tribe?

The sheer supply makes property relatively cheap, and many coves are dwarfed by multi-unit housing with shared docks. Such is the property the patriarch, Bob, bought in the mid-90s to complement his 500 acres of hunting land. Though he and his wife bought the three-bedroom duplex condo and a boat for his family in summertime, the main attraction was for a place for the hunting party to crash, store gear, and not have to worry about planning lodging.

Weeks before the hunt, a pipe burst in the unit above and flooded both floors. It has to be gutted and redecorated, if the matriarch decides she wants to do it. An eight-hour drive from Chicago, and with over 100 steep stairs from the condo to the water, it is not easily accessible from home or from the condo. Putting it on the market, in 2011 and in the midst of a special assessment to repair the stairs and railings, is as dicey as pouring in money to rehab it. Everyone knows this could be the last year.

The rental is spacious but better crafted for a single family than as a barracks with distinct quarters for men to drink, fart, snore, and bitch. We’re finishing up dinner prepared by Ray, a Latvian immigrant and Bob’s best friend. He attracted Bob to the area originally, and though he lives across the lake, he beds down with the party, buys all the food, and prepares the dinners, like his “Mamie’s kraut”, a sweet spicy saurkraut dish made with caraway, jalapeno, carrot and brown sugar. It accompanies pork tenderloins—“tendies”—and roasted halved potatoes. After a day in the woods, and eating only what you can stuff in your pockets or pack, its delicious.

We’re cleaning, clearing a space for poker, the coolers moved inside, the platters of food replaced by handles of booze, and half-a-dozen bottles of blackberry brandy. Don’t ask, its ritual, and this is the shot you toast to. Our faces are windburned, raw, and with the forecast calling for more of the same, our optimism for tomorrow’s hunt is being replaced by the only emotion a group of dispirited men could still enjoy: sarcasm.

“We’re not going to be throwing my dad up in the air,” Tom says. He’s the youngest, and only blood son present. He’s in charge of the burial planned for tomorrow, the defacto representative to report back to his mom on the condition of things.

“That’s Bob saying, ‘Here’s your hunting boys, enjoy the breeze!’” Mike says.

“And fuck you, you’re not staying in my house without me,” another son-in-law, Paul adds.

The eight of us do a shot of blackberry brandy. We take our seats. Ray silently leads all the actions, when its time to eat, when its to gamble, when its time to blackberry brandy. He smokes long cigarettes, with long fingers and a broad mouth, and he gives shit like shit-giver emeritus. If you ask a stupid question he’ll respond, “Do chickens have lips?”

Seated at the extended table beside Tom and Ray are Bob’s three son-in-laws, then there’s Painter, a burly house painter who is currently doing side jobs and being fucked around by his union, and who, after another dozen beers will begin to speak Painter; at the counter, not playing cards and trying not to drink too much is Chairs, who just lost 30lbs back down to his “honeymoon weight” after triple bypass, two neck surgeries, one back surgery and a million dollar real estate business that bellied up, nearly sending him into bankruptcy. He’s doing odd jobs now, but he brought all his gadgets and maps, and is sharpening his Bowie knife with a blinding military-issue headlamp on his head. Downstairs are the two kids, Mike’s teenage daughter and Paul’s tween son. Their presence is accepted, like mine, but it’s they that will have to adjust to the group, not the other way around.

As the night lengthens and the antes increase, details for tomorrows’ service are addressed. “Shit!” Tom says. “Did I bring his ashes in?”

The disbelief is momentary. It is this reason that Tom, who is deferred to regarding issues of land and property, is also ridiculed in loving mockery that only older brothers can do. The ashes were left in the carrier on the roof. “You put Bob on the roof?!” Mike says.

“Where else was I gonna put him?” Tom says.

He will get shit until the ceremony.

♦◊♦

Inherent in every hunter is the quiet philosopher. The choice of solitude and listening to the woods, from dawn to dusk, lends itself to introspection. A slow day of hunting is an extended daydream grounded in the hopes and problems you brought into the woods. It offers a chance to understand your place in the much wider and wilder woods we navigate. It is the hunter, then, who can see the forest for the trees.

“It got to the point where it was no longer your dad taking you hunting but you taking your dad hunting,” Tom says. It’s a proud moment, and he references the cycle of life. The first time Tom shot a gun, at age 7, was with his dad. And now we’re about to bury his ashes at the base of his tree stand, which has fallen into disrepair.

Several years ago, the sons built a ground blind so Bob wouldn’t have to climb. Then they intended to build a gazebo in the heart of the property where the main access road gets swallowed by the woods. They cleared the spot, laid out the slab, but Bob would no longer be able to make the drive, no matter what comforts they erected for him on the land. Diabetes crippled him, so the end of the last few years, when he was no longer living, were met with relief.

Now, almost a year later, amidst the second home he opened to his friends and family, they celebrate his life. A half-dozen Missouri friends with a half-dozen pick up trucks crowd the rutted path of the bald clearing under Bob’s tree stand. Some are neighbors, some help manage the land, all were friends.

It’s sunny and the wind is still being a dick. The crowd gathers with Old Styles and bottles of Blackberry Brandy as Tom reads his eulogy.

“His legacy was wanting to bring his family and friends together here because it made him happy to see the happiness on everyone else,” Tom says. The turnout is a testament to this. Cheeks glisten. There are pats on the back. They bury an ice cold Old Style on top of the ashes at the base of his tree, a Marlboro Light 100 sticking up like a candle, but it won’t light.

There is an extended silence as the brandy makes its way around. The son-in-laws express appreciation not only for turning them on to the sport, but for Bob welcoming them into his family as one of his own. Estranged—or just strained—from their own family dynamic, the hunt made them family. The remaining ashes are doled out to those who want to take a bit of his memory: the son-in-laws and friends will take them to their tree stands and plant him all over the land that meant so much to them.

Looking around, at the glassy smiling eyes of his friends, I understand what this land means to them.

They would plant him all over the land that meant so much to him.

Being here. If there’s anything this group has shared more than this place it is the personal dislocations of life, especially in 2011, with hospital stays and open heart surgeries, unemployment claims and foreclosure notices, college-bound kids whose prospects for a job are the same as yours, lawsuits and failed deals, despondent kids and fed-up wives, so many men facing the prospect of starting over with a whole lot less time. Sometimes it’s the kind of reality you’d rather hide from. But you can’t bed down, wait for the winds to stop whipping the shit out of you. You face it. You deal. You come out here and you listen to the woods and you find what matters. And you take a shot of Blackberry Brandy to make it all go down a little sweeter.

♦◊♦

We’ve abandoned the tree stand and are tromping through the woods, tracking best we can, finding good spots to stop. We hear a different form of rustling, and spot three deer, bounding up a steep ridge beyond the rise and fall of the nearest hill: a doe being chased by two bucks. We become tree trunks but the chase leads them elsewhere.

After a long still while, the persistent wind makes us doubtful and careless. We crack a beer, and given the emotional release of the burial, I’m allowed Tom questions I might not normally ask. I’d known Tom and his dad for 25 years, through our turbulent teens when the Parent, as a symbol of oppressive authority, was railed against. There’s understanding now, of course, in our mid thirties, of the many ways love is expressed.

“I couldn’t wait to tell my dad that I got my first deer,” Tom says. It wasn’t until he was a freshman in high school. In the days before cell phones and out of range for most walkie-talkies, he had been instructed to shoot three times, a ritual that still stands today to signify a kill. It was a doe, just before dusk. Then Bob came over to help gut it and dress it. “He was more excited than I was because now I knew what he loved. It was nonverbal. He gave me The Nod. Then he handed me the bottle of Blackberry Brandy. I was 14. I was part of the group. My dad was saying now you can tell the story of your first deer, you were successful as a hunter. But this was never said. It was that nod.”

Bob wouldn’t mind being called a tough son of a bitch, if you were going to open your trap about such things anyway. A veteran of the Navy, volunteer fireman, and self-made businessman who built his tile flooring business literally from his knees on up, he wasn’t the type to express himself with words. You could say he was of that generation, or of that constitution, but words had a way of muddling things. Yet you knew when you were wanted. Better yet, especially as teenagers who took over Bob’s basement as the default hang-out place, you knew when you weren’t wanted. If you were accepted at bonfires and pig roasts, tolerated at basement sleepovers, you were part of his family. No ceremony need announce it, only your presence. His loyalty and generosity were unmistakable: whatever he had was yours, and whatever your past, or your

“Then from across the ridge to the left of our stand, here comes a second buck, charging full on towards the first buck.”

current troubles, meant nothing compared to how you acted now. It was a code that extended most strikingly to hunting, a code that did not belong to Bob the patriarch, nor was it some prehistoric code of man, nor nothing as lofty as a code of honor. It was simple: treat people how you want to be treated, with love, respect, and a bit of shit. Be good.

It didn’t need to be spoken. It’s why every hunter in his party harvested their deer, simultaneously helping thin down a deer population from 1.6 million deer to about 1.4, and helping infuse millions of dollars to the local economy, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. And especially to the Menonites, the expert butchers that package and ship the party’s kill. To have venison in your freezer for a year keeps the hunt fresh in your mind, running through your heart, connected wordlessly to the other guys’ freezers, crock pots, and tables. Connected year round to your tribe.

♦◊♦

It’s a couple beers later when we hear the distant cracks of the rifle. We perk up. Tom tries identifying who it is: so far away, it’s gotta be Paul and his son, or Painter. Three consecutive shots ring out. Tom’s smile is ear to ear. Finally, someone got something.

At dusk, we all meet up at the slab, take out the coolers, put out the chairs, bitch about not making a fire because of the wind. No one sits: we gather around Paul. He stands in a ring of guys on the slab, the last light gasping on the treeline, the forest a dark mass encircling us. He’s got a weeklong beard, white-collar cropped hair, and a big old chew that his wife can’t give him shit about. The kids are back at the house with Ray. This is the story we’ve been waiting for, the story he might’ve already told a half-dozen times, but not before his whole audience.

That morning, with the wind rocking the stand, and his 12-year old son nodding off left and right, Paul tied a rope around his waist to the stand. Then he hears it.

“Here she comes, off the ridge, right down to us. Then comes Big Snotty, charging right after her, ready to fuck. Josh’s sleeping, so I hit him,” he elbows the imaginary kid next to him, points in a full range of the circle so everyone has to step back. Josh is waking up with his rifle in his arms, not knowing where to point.

“She must’ve heard us, cause she goes bounding up the ridge, Big Snotty right after her. Then he stops, perks up, turns right at us. Joshie’s up now, his arms are shaking,” the imaginary gun is pointed shakily, making its sight line, no exaggeration now because that’s what it felt like then. We’re waiting for the open shot. Paul holds us on the edge of that tree stand. But then.

“Then from across the ridge to the left of our stand, here comes a second buck, charging full on towards the first buck.”

We’re incredulous, awe struck, silent, gaping.

“Big Snotty takes off charging at the fucker, and boom, the three of them take off into the woods.” He spits, and gives us a chance to exhale and exclaim. “But we hear ‘em coming back, and Joshie’s ready this time, he’s not sleeping anymore.” Paul becomes his son in the tree stand, sighting the rifle at the sound rushing up behind us. The night crystallizes his breathe; he huffs and puffs. “Big Snotty chasing the other one, he lines it up, Bang! Got the first one, missed the second.”

Parts of it are retold. Tom wonders—no, he knows—it was the same threesome we had seen. I want to hear the story again and again. I want a chance to record it exactly as it was told, and to reprint it verbatim. But that is impossible. That story could only be told that way once. End of a shitty day for everyone, and the story of a son getting his first deer during a mating ritual, all under the context of burying the silent leader of the tribe: three generations of hunters, and the youngest man got one, and Ray, the oldest, who always gets at least a doe.

It so totally unbelievable, not in the unreal sense, but in all the harmony of its components. The only thing missing was the Blackberry Brandy, but at 12 years old it’s understood. And sure, amidst the awe is envy, but there is—more than anything else—hope. No matter how shitty the hunt was for you today, this could be yours tomorrow. It is the story that makes me understand hunting, that what is good for one is good for the tribe, that out in the woods together we are always more successful—always better—than when we are alone.

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About Robert Duffer

Robert Duffer (www.robertduffer.com) is the editor of the Dads & Families section of The Good Men Project. Winner of the Chicago Public Library's writing contest, his work appears in the Chicago Tribune, MAKE Magazine, Chicago Reader, Curbside Splendor, Time Out Chicago, Chicago Public Radio, Annalemma, New City, and other coffee-table favorites like Canadian Builders Quarterly. He teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and lives in the suburbs with his wife, two kids, and their minivan. Follow @DufferRobert, Google+, facebook.

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