Peter has a good write up of his life. But for today, for Frank, just a memory of good times, only a few short years ago.
It's six am in the morning in the Midwest. Just a few miles west lie the remains of a cornfield, small predators scurrying within the maze, seeking prey. To the east, the sun pulls itself up to the horizon, as the stars above melt into the liquid night. Off in the Northwest land of Indiana, a small rise of hill behind an old farm, pine trees bunched up a tilted slope, hidden and expectant.
Early mornings are nothing new to my family. Dad loved to go fishing and would get up at 3 in the morning to get ready and make the drive to where the deer and the steelhead played. Mom would get up with him, make him a hot breakfast and then go back to sleep until the kids awoke.
But not every one is a "morning person". Some, even with chances to go to bed early, finding they need a pot of coffee and perhaps a taser to get them moving in the morning. But there was a day when I happily got out of bed when morning was hours away, to walk the hundreds of acres that belonged to a friend, in pursuit of what was more than simply food on the table.
For me it was only a dream. Of a of a day alone in the woods, outlook and perception all contained within a small stand of trees, emotion and thought amplified within the narrow bench of a small tree blind. Dreaming dreams of a whitetail buck tip-toeing across fresh snow, the moon now peering out from beneath the clouds, that deer and myself in perfect isolation, flirting with each other, a dance of life and death, even as the air of our inhibition signals to the rest of the world what they can not possess.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blued.
Even as I dreamed of a brisk fall hunt, yet another season would shift and with it would come the knowing. Lethal winter storms so white on white, as we count the days and worry of a land soon heavy with thirst. Early summer and the death gray-green skies, new life and heavy blood, the silence before the wind. That wind beyond wind, wrapping its fury around us. Full summer harvest, wheat then corn and milo and sunflower. Growth and rendering, loss and life, trickling through the hands like grain.
The years passed, my life changed and the dreams of the hunted faded in the responsibilities of school and work and elderly parents.
Frank knew of my dream to go hunting again, and one day, there was a phone call. "Do you want to come up and hunt on my land?" he asked. The invitation was made to a couple of the Indy bloggers who lived up by Frank, all good friends, and with that call it started.
We arrived at the James farm that first time, as eager as kids getting ready for summer vacation, learning the layout of the land, and planning the coming days. The night before, we'd have a meal and perhaps a cocktail. Most imagine the meal before the hunt as being gentlemen sipping whiskey outdoors in front of a "bed of glowing embers" on which a pan of trout gently sizzles; like something out of a Hemingway novel. I have to tell you from experience, 'bed of glowing embers" is as elusive to the average hunter as that 14 point buck.
In those photos of the men from generations past, faded and dog-eared from time, the pride is clear on their face. Like Frank, they looked leaner and more of the land than photos I've seen in some fancy hunting catalogs now. Men who counted on their hunt to feed their families. They look into the camera with eyes a hundred years old, there in the glare of the camera bulb, the courage, the restless heart, too strong for the indoors. There it is, captured in that brief flash of light, then disappearing into the darkness, home with their kill.
As we listened to Frank talk about his home, and the land, I understood why he loved this place., which others would say "it's just flat and bare but for the corn!" It's not just the land of his family, the land in which he buried his beautiful teenage daughter after an auto accident, a loss his family still deeply grieved. There is something about being able to see so near and so far. Some people feel exposed out in the open land, I don't. I walk the fields, gun in hand, nothing more than a moving lightning rod for those things that might wish to strike me, but they don't. I feel a lot out here in the open heartland , a black lab by my side, and it is not fear, it's comfort. It follows me as I walk, the sound of my breath, the whisper of God there in the corn, the vista of open miles of ground in which I perceive the absolute truth about the past, the truths about the hurts that come from one own actions, revelations beyond the buildings and billboards of illusion.
We sat and shared our stories until fire died down, an ember jumping free of the flame and lighting on one of the old photos I quickly jumped to brush it off, realizing too well that a 1/4 inch cinder is longer than time, and the flame it can start is larger than remembrance or grief. I've found out the hard way that burning wreckage is, unfortunately, stronger than both courage and will.
The alarm went off so very early and we were on our way out well before it got light. I was a "probie" when it came to hunting really, it had been so many years. But I could handle a firearm well, I was strong, and I was not afraid of much of anything except spiders, vending machine sandwiches and blind dates. I was ready. Or was I ? How would I do out alone in the cold and the dark, the elements around me reminding me again, how alone I really was.
But Adrenalin and pride pushed me out the door, eager to rush into something I'd wanted to do again for years, leaping into something I'd known would happen, that feeling that somehow lovers and suicides both grasp in that instant when it's too late. But I had an advantage here as I had friends to help me through as I quietly whispered into the wind, a beggar's prayer to the wild.
As we approached a stand of trees through the cornfields, there came a deep seated grunt, a primordial huff from inky nothing, letting us know, that not only that he was there, that he knew WE were there. Deer don't get to be enormous by not being wily. We split into 4 lone hunters, walking a couple miles, widely spaced on the 500 acres we were on. We walked through trails barely visible in moonbeam, avoiding the deer trails so not to leave scent or sound, taking back brush filled routes into out spots.
As the light spelling from the horizon, the land came alive. If you hunt or camp or farm, know what I'm talking about. When sound by sound you become aware of life around you, the chirping of birds and a chipmunk mocking the deep episcopal purple of the night. I sat, flexing my feet in their boots to keep them warm, clutching my weapon to me like a newborn babe in arms, ears picking up every little sound, eyes scanning my world for what I sought. The sounds themselves flexed, continuously rising, then falling to silence, life, then death, a sharp cry in the underbrush a small joy, or a sudden end. The woods were alive, as am I, a small figure in a big corn field, a wet seed on the hot, seeing ground, waiting for something.
The day went so fast, yet time passed in slow motion, the woods trembling with shimmering forms that flash before my eyes, glimpsed for only a moment as they blend into green as the dawn slowly melts into view. Leaves caressed my check, as a small rain shower moved in. From where I sat , I could see if for an hour, not encroaching closely enough I needed to seek a safer spot, but flirting with a small spot of land, distant artillery flashes against a the sky slowly bleeding into brightness.
That was a day alone hunting, not boredom or despair but listening to the sound of the world as I dreamt of gods and mere men, blackpowder and black labs, men in kilts, prime rib and everything in between. I saw no deer but I was occasionally heckled by squirrels including one that was so short and fat he may have actually been a disgruntled hamster. I tried to ignore them, pulling my gun up, finger off the trigger and occasionally saying "bang" at them to see if they'd leave. They did, if only to go harass Og or Frank in the fields to my North.
It was mid-day when the deer came forth from sentient rows of corn. Seventy-five yards away, one movement on my part as the deer looked my way, and that deer would be long gone before I could pull up and aim. The moment was there in between a heartbeat, a sound, a sixth sense and it began to move away. I could taste the taste of earth in my mouth, as my hand drew up.
I have only this one hesitation, this moment, this one shot. As the deer moved away, quickly sensing perhaps a darkness that is final, I squeezed the trigger, a sound of profound meaning and fatal touch. The whitetail bounds up and forward, bolting with a clamor, faint and fading as the barrier of life is broken, moving on with a boom heard across heaven. With a single shot through the heart he is already dead, but not willing yet to quit the earth though in this moment his flesh has already been returned to it.
This morning, I lift my cup in a toast to Frank, to that life, to a life shared with generous spirit as I remember that day, the sound of the woods and the warm Autumn wind on my face.
I recall the sun on the barrel of that rifle like it was this very day, the way the light glanced off the small defects of age and life in its form as I raised it up, tucked it into my body and sighted that deer in. I can hear the echo of that powerful bullet off the walls of my sleep. I can still feel that heat within.
On nights when dark and isolation only seek to hone those feelings within, I seek that whitetail in the paths of my sleep. That hunt was more than food, and that labored breath as I drew up, more than a breath, but a memory of life's abiding friendships, not long forgotten. I just touch that gun and the memory is there, behind stick and stone, within heart and bone, in every sharp intake of air.
Such days are like that brief burst of sound as the trigger is squeezed. Not long drawn out memory of days in the woods, but snippets of sound and feeling, cold and heat. A series of fleeting glances in which instantaneous and without planning or approach, there stands in our sight the portent and fear of what is in all of us. There in the form of a single loan whitetail, all that we are and can bear, heat, blood, loss; there in that instant between pull and sound. Frank understood that in ways he expressed, both with his writing and with his own life.
I listen in the distance as if I will hear the sound of that four wheeler, see the hand raised jubilantly, the man upon it waving his hat in the air as he looks at me with eyes hundreds of years old, an esoteric glance, not of this wonderful world, but of one newly found.