I turned up the radio to get the latest weather for the opener as the lights of Marinette, Michigan faded in my rear window. It was going to be fifteen degrees and cloudy with a chance of snow both days. If that had been another year I would have welcomed the forecast, but not this year. I was meeting my Dad in Peshtigo and together we were going to head to the camp that was just a stone’s throw outside of Ruby’s Corner. At first he didn’t know if he could make it. He had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his hands shook.
“Awful,” he said. I shot right back, “That’s not a problem, as a matter of fact, I’ve got the perfect job for you in camp.” “What’s that?” he said inquisitively. "You can be in charge of the salt and pepper shakers when we cook!” All I got was a groan and then a little laugh. He knew I’d never let his excuses get in the way when it came to hunting.
Dad first visited that part of Wisconsin after WWII. He liked it so much he actually thought he’d try to move up there from lower Michigan. The fact of the matter was, he couldn’t make a living there, so he did the second best thing; he spent every minute of vacation time he could in the backcountry of Wisconsin. Spring, summer and fall were the seasons you would find him and Mom in Peshtigo. Mom had finally come around to the idea after about 25 years that this was a nice place. I could see the lights of Peshtigo in the distance. I guess I was driving faster than I probably should have been. There didn’t seem to be much traffic that night and with the impending storm the deer weren’t moving very much either.
The lights shined in the windows of his truck as I turned the corner into "Cargo Quick Food Mart". Apparently, he had been sitting in his pickup for a while because the windows were steamed up. I opened the door and found him fumbling for the keys. “Can’t find the damn things, they must have fallen down through the floor to the ground” he said gruffly. I just smiled, reached down and pulled them from the ash tray where they had fallen. “How did you find them so quickly?” he snapped. “Just lucky I guess,” I said laughingly not wanting to embarrass him because of something simple like keys.
“Are you ready to get out and get your buck this year?” I asked. "No, I haven’t seen any ducks how about you?” he said. I just looked at him, and then I noticed he didn’t have both of his hearing aids. “Where’s your right hearing aid?” I asked. “I like orange or citrus flavored. They tell me it’s good for colds this time of year.” he replied. “Yeah that’s what I heard, too” I said. I now had a good idea of how the season would progress.
After that I did a John Wayne. I’d motion and then I’d speak, it would get his attention and he’d be ready for whatever I had to say. It really helped, except when it was after dark, like now.
I loaded all his gear into my truck and helped him get in. He mumbled something about the damn truck being too tall and something about his artificial hip. Sometimes he could go on for hours about the various maladies he had over the years, and when he’d meet with Pete, Floyd, Howard and Eldon there was no stopping them.
About two years ago they got the big idea to get cell phones to have while they hunted, that way they could keep in touch with one another. And in the event they got one down they all could come a running like a herd of turtles. Last year Floyd had called Dad just as he lined up on a fork horn. When the phone rang it nearly scared Dad to death and, of course, it spooked all the deer for a half a mile around. That afternoon in camp there was no peace to be found. Dad kept after Floyd to find out what he wanted and Floyd wouldn’t tell him. It was somewhere near the time when everybody was going out for an evening hunt Floyd fessed up, "Fred, I didn’t want anything, the truth of the matter is I got lonely and just a little scared.”
Nothing else was said, I looked around the camp and wondered who wouldn’t be there next year. Those guys that fought in WWII were a different breed. They were all pretty rugged and yet there was a tender side, like when Dad comforted Floyd and even admitted he felt the same way, not only during the season but most of the time since Mom died. My folks were inseparable for 62 years. Dad would often say, ”Many moons in the same canoe.” They’d fish for trout in the spring and I must admit, Mom was better with a fly rod. In the summer they’d pick berries and look for deer. It was a ritual for them, much like this deer camp.
“Do you remember how to get to the camp?” Dad asked. "Because I don’t!” I looked at him in disbelief, and then he chuckled. “Aw, I was just pulling your chain.” His voice trailed off talking about what he did last week.
It was then I got a glimpse into the future. I saw him taking on more of the role as a son and me making that move into fatherhood. Oh, I’ve raised a family of my own as he did, but now there was something different about this.
Later on, I would see vignettes of this from time to time in camp as one of the fearless foursome needed help getting their boots off. I began taking their snacks to them when they left them on the table, only to get cussed out because they said I purposely did it so they wouldn’t get their buck. I knew deep down they welcomed the company. Snowy woods can be a beautiful sight or a horrible sense of being all alone. When a friendly face shows up out of the blue, it can bring comfort.
The porch light was left on for the stragglers, as Howard would say. As we knocked on the door someone yelled, ”Come on in.” There was a big game of pinochle underway. Off in the corner Bill and Ed, two of Floyds’s friends were playing cribbage. I never understood that 15-2, 15-4 business, and what the heck is a pegging hand anyway?
I looked at the motley crew assembled. I was the youngest one there, but somehow before the end of the season I knew I’d be the oldest.
My Dad took care of his Dad before he passed, and I’ll do the same. We’re born and someone takes care of us. We live to take care of others only in the end we’re taken care of again. It’s a cycle that hasn’t been broken and I’m not sure I want it to be. From now on I’m going to be the best Dad my father ever had.
This was Dad’s last hunt. He lived 94 years and took 94 bucks. Quite an accomplishment on both.