Dad’s boot pressed down on a lower strand of barbed wire as he pulled up on the strand above it, creating a gap big enough for my six-year-old frame to slip through. The predawn grass sparkled with dew drops, soaking my hands and the knees of my camo pants. From his side of the fence, Dad would hand over to me the buckets we used as seats.
That was my job and I took it seriously. Dad handled the guns…his Remington 870 Wingmaster 12 gauge and the single shot break action 20 gauge I used. Just 40 yards beyond the fence towered a stand of tall oak trees in a cattle pasture on a property farmed by Gordy McClintock, one of Dad’s best friends. I started many fall mornings there as a boy, my back pressed uncomfortably against the bark of those oaks sitting next to Dad. Between scanning the tree limbs for movement, I’d steal glimpses of him and wonder how he he could sit so still. He probably wondered why I couldn’t.
As the grey of morning lifted, skittering claws against the bark of those oaks meant the squirrels were waking. To this day, no big-game hunt has stirred me the way the prospect of fox squirrels did to my boy heart. Dad usually took his limit and I was good for one or two. We’d put them all inside his camo bucket then take them home for Mom to fry up for dinner.
On a trip back to my hometown for my 20-year high school reunion, I called Gordy to see if it was okay if I came out to the farm to shoot some squirrels like old times. I hadn’t hunted those oaks in more than 20 years and not regularly since I was a kid. He said to come on out, so with my Remington Model Five, I did.
The sleepy country intersection with the blinking caution light where we turned to get to the farm had been replaced by a full-fledged ramp system to Interstate 80. The cattail-lined pond west of the country lane where Canada geese would feed had been filled in to accommodate the ramp. These signs of progress caused me to prepare my heart to see the tall oaks of my dreams, like most of the relics of any childhood, diminished.
With daybreak creeping on the eastern horizon, the dull headlights of my Jeep bounced along the tractor path paralleling the same barbed-wire fenceline Dad and I crossed to access the pasture. Ahead, harboring a darkness beneath their still-leafed-out limbs, the oaks in my dreams stood tall and silent, defiant to the passage of time.
They were exactly as I remembered them.
The low but constant din of traffic on I-80 a few miles away carried in the still air just as it did more than 30 years ago. Sounds were crisp in the clean cool of dawn. The brass of each round loading into the magazine resonated precisely, as did the magazine as I shoved it into place. Approaching the barbed-wire fence, I noted the gap in strands I used to crawl through, momentarily wondering if I’d still fit as novelty before swinging my leg up and over the top strand like Dad used to.
Having crossed the fence and heading into the patch of oaks, it struck me that this must be what it feels like being reunited with a long lost love. Familiar. Comfortable.
A flood of memories came back. Dad patiently introducing me to the wonders of nature and the reverence of death. The first time I got to shoot the shotgun by myself was at a hedgeapple hanging from a high branch along the creek that meandered through here. It exploded into a green mist against the blue sky. This was where I first hunted ‘alone’ as Dad walked further west down the pasture.
Though it had been six months since he passed, that morning I experienced a closeness with Dad unlike any time after his passing.
I killed a limit of five fox squirrels before nine o’clock. After the fifth, I took a moment to kneel on the sun-dappled ground among the oaks. With the pile of squirrels before me, I wondered if they had any idea that the boy Tim had chased their predecessors so many generations before. That their flickering tails and chastising barks had lit a fire in my little heart that has only grown as the years progressed. I wondered if the oaks recognized me now as an adult, taller, stronger, older but just as excited to hunt among them as I was more than 30 years ago. If they remembered me, did they also realize I was there without Dad?
Still on my knees with warm daytime breezes mingling through the cool shadows, I began sobbing harder than any time since Dad had passed. Grief. Joy. Memory. Loss. Hope. It was all one wave caving onto and washing me clean. The rifle lay solidly against my right shoulder, a mute accomplice to the catharsis. I could have stayed for hours but I knew I had to move on.
I stood and made my way back to the Jeep through shafts of sunlight. Over my shoulder, the stand of oaks towered against the blue sky. Among them, like a faded picture in a wallet, I envisioned my six-year-old-self and a thirty-something version of Dad, walking side by side into the woods, speaking in whispers and pointing at movement in the treetops. I drove out that morning thinking that heaven might be like being caught up in a good dream, and if so, then Dad and I shared a good morning.