The Hunt That Lasts Forever
by Phil Turk, copyright 2001



E
veryone has only a mere handful of events that define their lives.
Infrequent visitors that they are, one can never fully be prepared
for them.  They come down on us with a ferocity, catalysts that make
us change, that make us literally who we are.  Fighting them is like
fighting the rising of the sun.  Accepting them, in the words of another
philosopher, is to embrace the ``wisdom of insecurity''.  To those who
are tenacious enough, we come out different, and often, stronger, the
better for it.  One of these events came for me in the summer of 2000 and,
of course, I will never be the same.


``You're supposed to call your wife''.  Those were the words that
greeted me as I arrived at the local archery range for an evening of
target shooting.  Automatically, my whole being felt overcome with
fatalistic apprehension as I dialed my phone number.  My father had
numerous health problems, the most notable and pervasive of which was
kidney failure.  He had been put on dialysis several years ago.  I just
knew in my heart this had something to do with him.


Sure enough, my wife informed me that she had received a call from my
brother-in-law, Randy, back in Ohio.  He had informed her that my dad
was tired; tired of fighting constant sickness and what seemed like an
endless series of setbacks.  As Randy put it, he had decided to
``check out'' - to stop his dialysis treatment.  It was time for me to
head back home to Ohio and I wouldn't have much time to do it.


Early the next morning found me on the plane heading out of Bozeman,
Montana.  Five years ago, dissatisfied with my life's progression, I had
arrived here in hopes of getting a doctorate in Statistics after corporate
burnout in Chicago.  Now, by a cruel twist of fate, my doctoral exams were
only about a month away.  Thus, I had brought along stacks of dry notes in
what I knew would be a futile attempt to continue studying for the exams.
This degree was of great importance to my dad and every time I called him,
he queried me as to my progress.  Although my dad was a very intelligent
and articulate individual, he had never quite finished his college degree
and I knew he wasn't about to let me operate under anything less than full
steam ahead mode.


When I arrived at Cleveland later that day, Randy immediately whisked me
away to the hospital.  My sister, Lauren, looking so tired and seeming
so frail, was there in the parking lot when we pulled up.  Lauren, by
virtue of living down the street from Dad, had had to bear the brunt of
caring for him and seeing her racked me with guilt at the toll it appeared
to have exacted.  ``Hurry up.  Dad's been counting the minutes all day.'',
she said.  I was trying to keep my composure for Dad's sake but even
before entering the hospital, found myself  unfortunately doing a rather
poor job of it.  ``Thank God I have my sunglasses'', I thought.  The
three of us made our way through sliding doors, a maze of turns and
hallways, up an elevator and finally to yet another hallway.  As I write
this, I can vividly recall feeling almost sick to my stomach as we
turned into the doorway of my dad's hospital room.  An antiseptic smell
filled my nostrils.  A television buzzed softly in the background with
some infomercial.  There he was, lying in the hospital bed - my father,
my hero, my heritage.


Lauren and Randy left us to ourselves.  My dad spoke first and very
logically, in his engineering mind, laid out the facts.  He had
been sick for too long.  He did not want to simply be kept alive for
dialysis, to be wheeled into the hospital every other day on a gurney in
some catatonic state.  Although the spirit was there, his body just
wasn't cooperating.  Dignity was important to him and I would just
have to accept it.  I sat there in silence, measuring carefully what he
had just said.  How could it all come down to this?  My Dad had such a
razor-sharp mind that it didn't seem possible.  We had these
conversations semi-frequently over the course of the past couple of
years.  Invariably, I would scold my dad, my diatribe taking on all the
characteristics of sort of a motivational speech.  ``You can beat this,
Dad.  Hang in there!''.  Frankly, I'll never know if he ever believed me.
Nonetheless, he would drop the issue for a couple of months until
another health complication came up.  My dad knew that the bill had come
due, that much of his health problems were due to years of self-neglect.
He was a 2 pack-a-day smoker, like most men who grew up during WWII and
the Korean War.  He had struggled with and finally overcame alcoholism
while Lauren and I were growing up.  My mother had died in 1993 from
cancer and although he never led on about it nor complained, I had
always suspected that to him it was a gut-wrenching blow.  It wasn't
supposed to happen that way.  In retrospect, my guess is that we all
thought that my mother, being ``the rock'' of the family, would outlive
us all.


So there I sat.  What words of ``wisdom'' would I conjure up?  My dad and
I had worked hard to develop a relationship ever since my mother had died.
It was like we were making up for lost time or, should I say, time lost to
the bottle.  Dad, in recent years, had undergone a charming metamorphosis.
So much so, that I eagerly anticipated calling him once or twice a week.
He had become a great conversationalist, talking freely about his
emotions and thoughts.  In two years he had gone from not knowing how to
turn a computer on to learning HTML programming for designing web pages.
During dialysis, rather than mope, he'd lie there on his back and paint
pictures with his opposite hand.  He enjoyed it so much, he actually
turned the upstairs of his apartment into a art room, if you will.
So it occurred to me that, actually, he had become more than my father,
he was now my friend.  Would it be right to give him another pep talk
when he felt so miserable?  Lauren's words came back to me, something to
the effect of ``Should we tell Dad to hang on, so we can push him
around in a wheelchair with Nina (his granddaughter) and feel good about
ourselves?''.  No, I wasn't going to be that selfish.  I had no words of
wisdom this time.  Who was I to lecture a man who had fought so
long and hard under such constant sickness?  Feeling awkward, yet
obligated, to say something, I told him that he was the toughest
son-of-a-bitch I ever met.  I told him what a great job he did as a
father.  He just sat there taking it all in with that smirk.  He always
got that smirk when he was happy, almost as if he had pulled one over on
you.  Then there was only silence.  He had nothing left to give and I had
nothing left to say.


I pulled a chair up directly next to his bedside.  Lauren and Randy had
returned.  It was apparent we were all going to be in for a long, somber
vigil.  After some time had passed, I began to reminisce.  ``Dad, do you
remember the time you, my friend, Steve, and I went grouse hunting over at
Beans?  We walked a mile down to that woodlot and Steve's dog, Stubby, ran
the whole way back to the barn and got into those cattle pens.  That
farmer was sure ticked, wasn't he!?''.  My dad snickered and muttered some
words, which included something about ``that damm dog''.  Hunting was the
one great gift my father had given me.  In his day, it was rumored that
Dad treated hunting like a religious zealot.  His Uncle Fred would enthrall
me with stories about the two of them as they hunted every hollow in central
Pennsylvania.  Every tale would have virtually the same theme - Dad simply
lived to be in the hardwoods.  The ending of these tales all had a commonness
as well.  With his Iver Johnson 12 gauge side-by-side and his Brittany Spaniel,
Rex, no ruffed grouse was safe.  I reveled in the hyperbole.  In such fashion,
hunting was the common bond or thread Dad and I had from my childhood.
When I was about 16, he matter-of-factly announced that he was done
hunting.  Apparently, the bottle had out competed me once again and, for all
practical purposes, I was on my own as far as the outdoors went.  Of
course, I was disappointed but my dad had taught me well and soon after, I
obtained my driver's license and lived to be out in the woods as well.


As the years of my youth seemed to unnoticeably go by, I had managed to
fish and hunt many areas across the country.  Whenever Dad and I would
converse, I would give him a detailed narrative on any of my recent
fishing or hunting exploits.  He would seem to relish these conversations
- it was almost as if he was hunting vicariously through me.  Eventually,
I began to realize how important those childhood memories of being out in
the woods with my dad were.  My suspicion is that they were equally as
important to him.


``Hey Dad.  Do you remember when you came out to Montana a couple of
years ago and we went fishing?''  Again, Dad laughed, as I began to
give my recount of the story to Randy and Lauren.  Dad and his friends
had come out to visit me in Montana.  Such a trip was a great endeavor
for dad.  His dialysis schedule had to be carefully coordinated with the
hospital here in Bozeman.  I had taken great pains to find a ranch nearby
where Dad would stand a chance of seducing a cagey trout with a bubble and
fly.  The ranch had several ponds close to a road which was a relief for
Dad was only good for about a 100 yard walk.  The weather could not have
been any more perfect as we drove down the Paradise Valley, the Absaroka
and the Gallatin Mountains guarding both sides of the Yellowstone River.
Dad was impressed as I had hoped that he would be.  We arrived at the
ranch and drove down a dirt road to the pond.  In minutes, I had Dad's
spinning outfit rigged and ready to go.  After a brief tutorial regarding
the mechanics of fishing with a bubble and fly, Dad let loose with his first
cast and reached down to light a cigarette.  Almost instantaneously, from
the algae-green depths of the pond rose a large Yellowstone cutthroat, which
inhaled my dad's PT nymph.  Dad was still lighting his cigarette when I
yelled ``Fish on!''.  He reached down, grabbed the rod, and set the hook
with no subtlety whatsoever.  What was the result of my dad's first
cast ever for Montana trout?  I can still see him sitting there with his
broken line, swearing up a storm in between puffs of his smoke, while in
the pond the bubble floated lifelessly to the surface.  Later that
morning, I literally carried him in my arms through a creek to another
pond.  It was there that he caught his fish - a small rainbow.


After a couple of days, my dad's blood chemistry had degraded to the
point where he eventually lapsed into a great sleep.  Randy, Lauren and
I would be sitting in the room until one of us couldn't take it anymore
and had to go for a walk outside or down to the cafeteria (we joked
later on that none of us would ever again eat a tuna salad croissant).
When I was alone with Dad I would sit there and stare at him.  I would see
his gray hair combed back, his chest rising and falling, the lines in his
face.  I'd rest my head on the guardrail while holding and studying his
hand.  Each and every line and blemish would get scrutinized.  All of a
sudden, there we were.  Dad and I are walking through the faded yellow
corn on an autumn day in northeastern Ohio.  We're zigzagging west; I can
hear the swish of the hard stalks as they rattle off our canvas pants.
There I am with a .22 bolt action single shot loaded with birdshot which
he has convinced me, a young scrawny kid, is the most powerful pheasant gun
in the world.  ``Slow down, Philip.  You'll walk right by 'em.''.  My pace
reluctantly slows and my dad stops to catch his breath.  The stalks erupt,
feathers fly, a chortling cackle is heard.  I am vaguely aware of a large
ringneck cock pheasant gaining altitude as it flies back between and behind
us.  Dad is yelling at me, but I don't hear him.  I see only tail
feathers, colors of white, orange and green.  My mouth is open and my
gun is pointed towards terra firma.  Dad's gun goes off and the cock
plummets into the corn.  He looks at me, smiles, and asks why I didn't
shoot but I'm speechless, still smitten with ``buck'' fever.  He
understands.


A nurse came and gave my dad a breathing treatment.  Social workers
came and wanted to know how I felt, followed by an old doctor with a
neon-tan and a young female med student in tow.  He held my dad's hand for
a few seconds, feigned sympathy, and told us that he must be on his way to
get through his rounds.  Any remaining belief I had that compassion
still existed in modern medicine was evaporating quickly.  Next, at
Lauren's request, a priest entered the room.  He knelt at the bedside and
we said a prayer.  Funny, I thought.  Dad was never a fond supporter of
organized religion.


The day progressed very slowly.  I found my way to the chair by his
bedside once more.  Another segue in the mental cascade occurs and the
years roll back.  We are next to a lake at the old Solon Sportsmen Club
back in Ohio.  Dad has bought me my first shotgun ever,  a Winchester 1300
20 gauge.  He fires it first a couple of times and then hands the gun over
to me.  However, I'm terrified of the recoil and refuse to fire it.
Despite his insistence that I give it a try, I cannot be coaxed and ask
that we go home.  I'm fighting tears, but much to his credit, he does not
force me to do something I'm simply not ready for.  The scene segues into
another one.  Now, we're over on my uncle's farm near Falls Creek,
Pennsylvania.  My dad is taking me out on my first groundhog hunt.  It's a
warm humid summer evening with a thick soil smell in the air.  We're
sitting on a small knoll overlooking a patch of grass leading up to a
cornfield.  Through the binoculars I see bluebirds fluttering from
fencepost to fencepost.  Pheasants mill about off in distant cut
cornfields.  Another change in this mental cascade.  Dad, his Uncle Fred,
and I are working the soft muddy bottoms of Sugar Creek for woodcock.
Fred's two English Setters are diligently quartering to and fro about 20
yards ahead of us.  The air is filled with the soft tinkling of
the bells on their collars.  We're fighting our way through the alders
when the bells stop.  One of the setters is frozen like a liver and
white statue.  Slowly, I start to swing out in front of the dog, my
heart fluttering.  ``Keep the gun up, Philip.  Be safe.  Think about what
you're doing.  Let the bird get out there a little bit.''


The third night, my sister and I traded sleeping positions.  She took
the foldout chair and I took the adjacent hospital bed.  Finding sleep
impossible, I sat down by Dad and watched him.  Clearly, his breathing
was becoming more labored.  His lips were pursed.  His eyes were rolling
about underneath his eyelids, as if he was in some type of REM sleep.
Out of the blue, after hours of unconsciousness he said in a very
audible voice ``Get me off of here.  Get me off of here.''  ``Get you
off of where, Dad?'', I asked.  There was no reply.  After some time, I
had decided that I would lie down in the bed, if even for just a few
minutes.  No sooner had I done this, when Dad thrust his arms up into the
air, with his eyes wide open and his back arched.  I leaped out of the bed
and ran to his side.  Ever so slowly, his arms came down until his left
arm was resting on my shoulder.  Simultaneously, his head listed to the
side where eventually our eyes locked.  I had often heard the cliché
that the eyes are the windows to the soul but never fully understood it.
I certainly do now.  It was simultaneously terrifying, as if I was
being forced to confront his, and, for that matter, my own, mortality,
and ironically, inspiring, for I felt like I was with God at that very
moment.  Quickly, for time was running short, I awoke my sister who ran to
the other side of the bed.  All I could see were those beautiful steel
blue-gray eyes of my Dad as, almost as if involuntarily, he drew his last
breath.


In the months that followed, several things happened that Dad would have
had a good laugh over.  I got my first bull elk, got the biggest whitetail
buck of my life....and, yes, I passed my doctoral exams.  At Christmas
time, I managed to get back home and I visited his grave.   With the heavy
snow falling down and the big sugar maples, the cemetery looked like
something in a Currier and Ives painting.  As I stood there at the grave
reflecting, I realized that life is so truly full of opposites.  Death
strikes and for awhile we are so overcome by grief we can see no end to
it.  However, some time goes by and then we come to realize that the
balance has started to swing the other way.  From death, such a seemingly
terrible and inevitable thing, came gifts that I would never have had
otherwise - like a stronger relationship with my sister and her family.
There is the gift of change.  People can and do change.  I've made a
conscientious decision to honestly try to live my life by a doctrine of
love - a love of life, a love for myself and a love for others.  Yes, my
one pass through life is going to matter!  Then there is the gift of
appreciation, that time waits for no one and is something you can never
get back.  Lauren recounted Dad telling her that he could remember being
18, blinking, and discovering he was 70!  Not a day goes by where I don't
heed both the ominous ness and the seriousness of those words.  Those words
are the driving impetus behind the way I choose to live my life.  They
drive me to give a friend in need a hug, to give a student a break on a
grade, to compliment a co-worker on what a great job they do.  Within a
year of Dad's death, those words put me high in the Baboquivari Mountains
near the Mexican-Arizona border during bow season glassing down in the
mesquite flats and washes for javelina.  Those words put me on a twin
engine Otter over the Churchill River in Saskatchewan, speeding north over
the taiga landscape to distant waters where loons and lake trout live.
Assuredly they will put me in many other places as well to satisfy the
renewed wanderlust in my wild heart.


I had originally thought about entitling this story ``The Last Hunt''.
However, it dawned on me that when you have memories, of which I am so
totally and lovingly indebted to my Dad for giving me, there is no last
hunt.  I imagine the next time Dad and I go hunting again, it will occur
under circumstances like those that follow.  It will be a chilly fall
morning in the Gravelly Mountains.  The faint hint of the sun will be
apparent over Monument Ridge.  As I make my way towards the woodline, the
hard frost will crunch underneath my feet.  Distant siren cries of bugling
elk will lure me further and further into the darkest recesses of the
drainage I am hunting.  Perhaps I'll see a flicker of orange trotting
through the black timber.  Maybe if I'm lucky, I'll even see the tips of
the tines of a big bull as it disappears over the next ridge.  In any
event, by midday, I'll be tired and I will search out a nice grassy
meadow.  With bow and arrow plopped down by my side, I'll munch on an
apple and knead my fanny pack into the shape of a pillow.  Lying there,
the snow-capped Snowcrest Mountains will be in front of me, the Greenhorns
to my right.  A gentle breeze will sweep across the meadow and I'll hear
it stir the quaking aspen.  Yellow leaves will be cascading down all
around me.  Off in the sky, strands of cirrus clouds will be floating by
like giant tufts of cotton.  Eventually, I'll drift off to sleep.  Then,
you'll come to me in my dreams, Dad, and we'll be together hunting once
more.