Memories, especially those clouded by passing years, eventually fade. What is left in their place is more of a feeling than the specifics of the event itself. However, a precious few will remain with you as if they happened yesterday. This is my memory of where my thirst for the outdoors began so many years ago:
The family had just returned from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where my dad had been stationed for the previous two years. Coming of age in a foreign country is a bit awkward, to say the least. In Germany, traditions and values are the rule, not the exception. For those with the itch for the wild, earning a hunting or fishing license is a reward that is not easily obtained.
Upon our return to the states, Dad had been placed with the Army Corps of Engineers, so getting into the outdoors was as easy as rolling out of bed. We found ourselves in Fort Campbell, Ky., the home of the 101st Airborne Division and the infamous Screaming Eagles. It was a great place for a kid from a family of nine to become independent and find his own path, a trait my father stressed to each of his children.
While Mom kept order in the house, Dad ruled from the confines of the front door. Having been on his own since age 11, my father had the ability to engage the curiosity of others by sharing only enough to pique your interest.
After two years stateside, Dad was reassigned to work with the Tennessee Valley Authority. As such, his post was located on base, while his work generated around Lake Taal. The lake was created by Fletchers Fork Dam in Montgomery County, Tenn., and owned by Fort Campbell. The lake and surrounding area held some of the best hunting and fishing available for an impressionable teen with the urge to get to it. I worked as a short rider during the summers, helping lay bridle path and teaching others horsemanship. During the cooler months, I also pulled skeet and trap for shooters at the rod and gun club.
It was during one season of unusual circumstances that I became skilled in survival and shot my first deer. I met Gene Simpson one Tuesday afternoon while moving horses to the lower pasture. Tuesdays and Thursdays were no-riding days in which we gave the horses a break and moved them to better grazing.
Gene was a full-fledged Indian, claiming his roots from the Kaskinampo. Gene was new and looking for Staff Sgt. Bledsoe, the man in charge. He had been assigned to Special Services and was looking to find a place to store his gear and check into his new duty station. We became good friends, and soon the job of laying bridle path became our forte. We would spend three days in the woods on horseback. We camped around the lake, laid trails, marked trees for removal and for the most part lived off the land. Hunting, fishing and trapping resulted in a true paradise for a teenager and another looking to find his place.
Having such opportunity at a young age provided me with a sense of self-worth, independence and inner strength -- not unlike the qualities born of many sports, only achieved on a different playing field.
On one particular outing, we set camp close to the lake. The area crossed a game trail and was surrounded by large trees, including one in which a makeshift stand was constructed. We secured the last few ties, and I watched Gene trail off into the woods. "How does he do that so effortlessly and quietly?," I wondered.
As I sat in wait, hoping for a good shot at a passing buck, my thoughts wandered.
I've never enjoyed hunting for the killing aspect alone. On the contrary, I am saddened every time I take a game animal. Three basic emotions are in play, and they have come to be a major part of my outdoor activities -- the adrenaline rush that comes from the hunt, the blessing of being awarded the opportunity, and the sadness from the loss of a beautiful and graceful creature of the wild.
For me, hunting is more about the friendships cultivated around campfires. It's about sharing sleeping quarters with wet dogs and snoring companions, of telling lies and sheltered thoughts among men, of challenging the elements. It's less about the kill and more about the sadness of the passing as well as a loss of time and place.
I leaned further into the branches as I heard a rustling behind me. Stepping into the clearing was a nice buck, not a trophy but a nice meal to share with others when we left camp that day. The morning's breakfast, or lack of it, began to percolate in my stomach, and the buck looked up.
They never do that!
He sprang into action, and I made my shot. My next glimpse of him was when he came running back past the tree I had been occupying. He stopped short of the next clearing and dropped.
The rains started and I was anxious to get my prize hung and dressed before Gene returned. But he had been with me the entire time, by way of a vantage point in a larger tree. He had witnessed the entire incident.
As Gene climbed down the tree, the unsuspecting deer must have thought he was being ambushed. The deer hastily made an about face back in my direction.
Apparently my shot was on the mark. We cleaned and dressed the deer, broke camp and headed home. The next day we celebrated with the entire camp, sharing a wonderful meal complete with stories of other shots and misses, of good friends now gone and of times with those still present.
My dad looked at me and smiled. I knew I had met the measure.
Gene remained a loyal friend for many years until his tragic passing due to a careless driver. I think of those days every now and then and ...
It's amazing how much we take for granted.
At the time, I knew I was fortunate to have a devoted father willing to loosen the bonds of parenthood for the growth of a son. I merely assumed every kid my age had similar opportunities.
It's surprising how much we take for granted.
In life we often get reminders of how things could have been different. Now, in and around the halfway point of life, we wonder where the time went. We question our state of being and what we can share with others. What will mark our presence, and how will ours influence others?
How you play the second half becomes an overwhelming question.