It all started in the summer of 1964, on a warm sunny day, in northern Michigan. My father was walking down the hill that led to the lake with both of our fishing poles in his hand. I was 10 years old then, and was ready for anything. “Come on, you know those fish won\’t wait all day,” he ordered. “We have to get to those spots soon or they’ll leave.” “I’m coming!” I said, running down the hill, and pulling up my pants before they hit my knees. Dad climbed into our twelve-foot aluminum boat, and turned to help me in. I sat in the second seat as he got the motor started to get us going to his secret fishing hole in record time. We went as fast as the 9.5 Evinrude could go, which I thought was like a jet.
Scooting across the mirrored lake, we talked. “Having a good time?” he asked me what I thought was a ridiculous question. How could anyone in his or her right mind have a bad time up here at the cabin? It is located in the northern center of the lower part of Michigan, where the sun is hot and the water cool, fresh air, and blue skies. Who could ask for anything more? We always stayed up here with my mother in the summer months when school was out. Dad would come up on the weekends and he and I would fish or walk in the woods.
“Great,” I answered. “How’s Opa?”
“He’s okay, just a little tired. Opa was my grandfather, and he wasn’t feeling all that good. He and Oma would always come up north with us each year. But not this year, they had stayed home.
“Do you think we’ll catch something today?” I asked.
“Don’t we always?” he teased. We had a 90% success rate because the lake was well stocked with bass, perch, pike and a whole mess of bluegill. As we settled down for some serious fishing, a deer appeared to our left. Boy was she beautiful, standing there on the shore with her sandy colored fur and those deep brown eyes.
“Look there,” my dad whispered, “don\’t make a sound!” We both sat there in utter silence watching as the deer slowly came down to the waters edge to get a drink. Her ears seemed to twitch and we knew she was trying to hear any odd sounds. As quickly as she came, she was gone, no trace of her to be seen. If you weren\’t a witness, you would never have known she was there.
It was as if dad could read my mind because he said,
“You know, in a few years you and I will be hunting together. What do you think of that?”
“I can’t wait!” I exclaimed excitedly. “I think I’m ready.”
“Well you can’t be rushing into it,” he explained, “there is quite a difference between hunting and fishing. In fishing if you don’t like the fish, you can always release it, but in hunting, when you shoot that gun, you want the quickest kill possible, for the animal and yourself. If your aim is off, you’re talking hours of tracking a wounded animal, often in the dark. That’s one thing Bill, you don’t want to get lost up here, it might be days before you find your way out or someone finds you.”
Suddenly I was worried. Could I get lost up here? Impossible! All at once the picture was gone. Dad got a strike and was setting the hook! It’s a big ole bass and he’s got a fight on his hands now. He cautiously brought it closer to the boat. Slipping his large hands around the fish’s back, he ever so slowly slid his hand up toward the basser’s head. With his fingers now in the fish’s gills he lifted the huge bass into the boat. “Wow! Look at that,” I yelled. “What a big one!” That fish was 18″ long and weighed four and a half pounds–normal size for this lake.
We moved on to another spot on the lake, and our conversation started again. “Getting back to hunting, I think we should start you off slow, you know, first you will come up here and just stay with me. You won’t be carrying a gun; you will be sittingwith me all the time, learning how to carry the gun properly. Learning how to read the tracks, hopefully learning how to hunt.” “Anything you say dad,” I replied. His smile told me that he understood how anxious I really was. I just hoped that I would be a good student, because I knew he was the best teacher I could ever have.
The next three years I spent following my father through the woods, studying the way he hunted. Like sitting with the wind in your face. Having a good vantage point and finding out how to flush other deer after you were successful. Then one year it was finally my turn to carry a gun and to show my father what I had learned. As we sat together in the hollowed-out stump which had been burned hollow about one hundred years before, I could tell he was watching me carefully. Like a mare watching her colt taking its first steps, he watched. If I made too much noise, he quietly went “Ssshhh” Somehow he could tell if I became restless because before I could say it, he’d say, “Let’s move to another place, it’s better than this one.” We\d walk softly through the towering pines, always on the lookout for any sudden movement.
On one particular morning, dad had spotted a doe silently running past us about fifty-five yards away. I raised my gun, but before I could sight her in, there was a hand on the barrel gently pushing it down.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, as if I had done something wrong.
“We don’t shoot doe,” he replied. “Every year, Stan, Leo, Kurt, Uncle Herb and myself apply for a doe license, but we don’t want to shoot them so our deer supply just might grow next year.”
“But what if we don’t see a buck? What if I see four doe? I can’t shoot one?”
“No, you can shoot one if you choose. I’m just trying to tell you our policy here at the cabin. I hope you understand that, and I think you will in time. Trust me.”
Well, I trusted him, and you know, the feeling I got from watching doe go past me is a feeling I hope every hunter can experience at least once in their hunting career. In the month of November, on the 15th day, in 1970, my father passed away. The traditional hunting party was at the cabin. Leo, Kurt and Stan, my father’s best friend, Uncle Herb, dad\’s brother-in-law, Herb’s brother Gary, dad and myself. The night before opening day, the group went to our friends’ cabin for a few drinks over some old hunting stories. They got back pretty late, knowing they had to get up early for opening day. That morning at 4 a.m., we were all getting dressed and dad said that he didn’t feel too well. We all thought that maybe he drank too much the night before and we sort of dismissed it from our minds.
As we were walking in the woods to our spots, I asked dad if he felt any better. He said, “Oh I feel better now that I got some fresh air. I’ll be alright.” So we got to our pre-selected spots and waited for the morning light. I was sitting on a ridge that was shaped like a hand. If you put your hand flat on a table, notice how the fingers point in different directions and then come together. If you can see yourself sitting on one of the fingers, you can see how you can look on either side and see both valleys. It always seems to be the best spot to hunt from.
I must have been out there for two hours when I heard a shot. Keeping my eyes and ears open, I waited for another shot or maybe a shout of joy signaling that someone got a buck. Neither came. Nothing. What should I do? Wait, or move on? I decided to slowly walk to the area where the shot came from. Walking on top of the ridge I didn’t see anything unusual, so after about one hundred yards or so I decided to stop and sit where I was. Fifteen minutes later I saw dad walking toward me. I got up to meet him and I could tell something wasn’t right.
“Did you get one?” I asked.
“No, I think your dad had a heart attack!”
Heart Attack! Those dreaded words. Heart Attack! What do you do? Who should I get? Someone help me! We knew he was overweight, but he never complained, did he? Why was he talking in the third person? “Your Dad.” Don’t you know that you’re my dad? Too many drinks last night. That’s it, just too many. All these thoughts went through my head in about two seconds. “Okay,” he said as he sat down on a fallen tree.
I looked all around frantically for some sort of help. Nothing. Nobody. Now what do I do? But wait, over there to my right. A splash of orange! Uncle Gary’s hat! “Uncle Gary!” I yelled. “Over here, come quick!” The next few minutes were a little crazy, but before I knew it all of the guys were there. Asking questions and helping him to his feet. We slowly walked him back to the truck. I drove. Stan sat next to me and dad was in the back seat.
“Take him to the cabin,” Stan said, “Leo’s there. He’ll know what to do.” Leo was one of the guys, but he had suffered a heart attack the year before. He came up to be with the boys and he also did all the cooking for us.
We pulled into the cabin yard — the rest of the guys had been following right behind me all the way. I got out and ran into the cabin, waking a napping Leo.
“Dad says he thinks he had a heart attack!”
“Where is he?” Leo asked.
By this time dad was standing next to me. Everyone else came in too. “How do you feel?” Leo asked.
“I’m a little dizzy and I have some numbness on my left side,” dad answered.
“Well,” Leo pondered, “take him to the hospital just to make sure. But you shouldn\’t worry, you had a late night last night and are probably feeling the side effects.”
I stayed at the cabin while Kurt and Stan drove my father to the hospital. As we waited for them to come back, we had lunch and assured each other that it was nothing but a hangover from the night before. Sure, he’ll be fine.
When Stan and Kurt came back though, dad wasn’t with them. They said that the doctors wanted to keep him there for observation. Why would they want to do that? Is something wrong? I worried about him. We all decided to go hunting that afternoon and then Uncle Herb and I would go to the hospital to see him. After we hunted, we got ready around 7 p.m. and went to see him. We didn’t have much time, because visiting hours ended at eight p.m. He was sitting up in bed and was squirming in discomfort.
“Hi, you okay?” I asked.
“Fine, just fine. Hand me my water will ya?”
As he and Uncle Herb talked, I tried to comprehend everything that was happening. Here was my mentor, my idol. He had taught me so much in such a short time. What was he doing in this situation? Most of their conversation was blanked out. I don’t remember too much of the rest of the visit. Except for one thing that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. He was lying there and looked over to me and winked as if to say, “Everything’s going to be all right.” I winked back.
We were back at the cabin sleeping. Around 10 p.m. Uncle Herb gently woke me.
“Bill, wake up, wake up!”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Your dad died. The state police were just here.”
What? There had to be a mistake! They had to be wrong! Not my dad! Please, oh please God, tell me that they’re wrong, please! But when I heard Stan and the others crying throughout the cabin, I knew. I knew I wouldn’t see my father again.
The next day Uncle Herb and I went to a phone booth to call my mother. He had to tell her. All I could do was stand outside with my hands in my pockets, shaking. I don’t know if I was shaking from the cold or from the fear of my future without my dad. Uncle Herb handed me the phone. “Are you alright?” mom asked.
“See you when you get home. I love you,” she added.
The funeral was hell. Everyone was in a state of shock because of the fact that he was so young. He was only 43 years old! When it was over it was hard to leave the casket. I didn\’t want to leave my dad there. Why? Why him? Why us? Why me? We got through that year the way most people do, with the help of family and friends. There were tough days but they certainly got tougher the closer it came to the anniversary of his death–opening day of deer season.
I went hunting the next season, along with the rest of the group including my cousin Rich. The first morning we ate our breakfast and there was a little edge in the cabin. We headed for our hunting spots and I found a hollowed out stump, which I promptly sat inside of. With the wind in my face, being the ultimate hunter, I fell asleep and woke up to find it was daylight already. I slowly looked around, and much to my surprise and delight, there was a four-point buck walking right to me. It was grazing the forest floor, occasionally looking and smelling for anything out of the ordinary. I carefully raised my dad’s old 32 Winchester Special and brought it to my shoulder. Can I do it? Will I get buck fever and get the ribbing from the guys’ back at the cabin? I put the sight on the buck’s shoulders and slowly squeezed the trigger, just like he taught me. The gun fired and the buck went down. I couldn’t wait and moved cautiously toward the deer. It was a good shot and it had done the job. I got one! I harvested my first deer! “THIS ONE\’S FOR YOU DAD!” I yelled.
I gave up hunting for 24 years after that. Justifying that I’d rather shoot them with a camera than a gun. But something deep inside me missed the joys of hunting. Sure, it’s exciting bagging a deer, I won’t deny it. Then there is the camaraderie of being with the guys. The fantastic outdoors. For those of you that do hunt, close your eyes for a second and think of the smell of bacon in the morning. Hear the crisp autumn leaves as squirrels make such a racket that you think you heard a monster buck. Visualize the clear icy blue skies with the unforgettable flying wedge of Canadian Geese overhead. Remember the friendly chick-a-dees only a few feet away.
I’ve now included archery into my hunting program and it means I get more time in the woods. For those of you who don’t hunt, I wish you would get into the woods and try to understand the beauty that we, the hunters, enjoy year round. I’ll never forget my father and the things he taught me, the things you can only learn from your Dad.
Thanks Dad, I love you!