Thursday, September 17, 2015

Frank W. James - Memories of a Hunt

I got word yesterday that Frank James has passed away at home on Tuesday, surrounded by his family.  Frank was an accomplished and gifted writer, farmer and an extraordinary man, I will not remember him in his bed, after his stroke, but as the vision I have of him the last time I was on his farm, as he rode past me on a four wheeler, at top speed waving his hat in the air like a teenager, chasing after a combine.  He lived life to the fullest and was a friend and a mentor to so many of us.
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.
As a youngster, I'd gone bird hunting a few times, and whitetail hunting a time or two, but with adulthood came responsibilities and hindrances that made it unlikely.  As a young bride with a husband that didn't approve of hunting OR firearms for women, it wasn't to be. He'd go, but not I.  Taking care of a farm (I was really learning to dislike cows) while continuing to fly all over hither and yon, the only vacation I ever got was if I was sick. So the call of a loon was nothing more than a deep keen that would be released from my soul in sleep, the sound sometimes awakening me.

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.
Then, there was a move to Indiana from a big city out East. With that move, came a re-connection with a couple of shooters I knew before I began blogging, Tam and Caleb, and through them, new friends, including Frank James. He was one of the original  Indy blog group, a flame around which we'd draw to hear his stories, and listen to advice even as he shared in our own tales of daring and woe.

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.
No, for us it was running through waves of heat to fling a few burgers on the roaring conflagration that was our "gently glowing embers" from at least 10 feet, then retreating, hoping that rum cocktail that someone"whipped up" didn't spontaneous combust. The dinner was sometimes burned, it was sometimes raw in the middle, but if you could cut it without the chainsaw or poke it and not have it fight back, you figured it was good to eat. Frank would show up and share in our meal, or just sit and talk after he'd put in a full day on the harvest. It was the best part of the hunt - we had friendship and we had stories. and we told the stories that the naive and the young don't know, but hunters tell, myself simply listening, as I thumbed through the old photos of previous generations there on the James farm.

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.
The men in the photos were all dead and gone. But at least they weren't dead and gone while still drawing breath, trapped in thickets of suburbia, all the instincts of their fore bearers watered down to tasteless existence. Food from the store, health from a tanning bed, and dreams trickling down a drain in a house that saps all your money and energy.

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.
Sleep was a sleeping bag laid out carefully. Everyone else could roll their up until it was the size of a loaf of bread.  No matter what I did mine was the size of a round bale of hay. But with the trappings of our meal put away, and my friends spread out like spokes around me in their own sleeping bags, I slept, dreaming of hunters long ago, a toast to their days, peace to their ashes.

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.
It was here I waited, alone, the others moving much further away to their own hunting spots. This was different than sitting solitary in a home. There I just felt lonely. Here, it was something else, the not quite believing, not quite awakened sense of isolation that was fully alive. The breathing spell of ancient verbiage of desire and newly found need. Hearing the celestial hush of a world hurtling through space, the small tiny rustle of a tiny creature worrying only if he is prey before daylight.

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.
My first ground blind up at the James farm.  Not subtle but it worked.

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.
I simply sat and waited, looking upward into the deep veined richness of space. Any lingering doubt I had as to my ability to be in this spot, at this time, stops, as my heart jumps at the shadow of a mature whitetail stepping out into the open.

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.

With that life, providing not sport, but meat on the table for my family for the upcoming cold winter, I stand in respectful silence for a moment over that still form.. It is a prayer of thanks but one that comes on the edge of a sharp knife, of which I'm very aware.

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.
This morning there is just respectful silence as the land outside gives up no living sound, the darkness simply an echo of the past,  of snorts and snuffings, the chatter of squirrels, the smell of warm breath, cooling flesh, scarred hide and strong bones within which there still lay secrets that even the darkness is reluctant to reveal.

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.

Godspeed Frank.



  1. Godspeed, indeed!
    I'm sorry for your loss, Brig.


  2. Thank you for sharing this. As always, beautifully written.

  3. Never got the chance to make the hunt, but Frank was a friend and one of the people that started me writing. Rest In Peace Frank, you will not be forgotten.

  4. I never knew of him until I saw he had passed on someone else's blog. I passed my sorrow for the loss to them as I do to you also.

    I am glad that you found a friend who could let you learn the joys of hunting and the solemn experience that comes from sharing this planet and all it is with every living being that is a part of it. I know you learned, as all true hunters do, that the lure of the hunt is not the kill, that is a tiny part of something much greater.

    From what I have seen in a short time, if life's success is measured by the number of people who we touch in a positive way, Frank was a very rich man indeed, as were all who met him. I wish I could have met him, and I am happy for you to be able to call him a friend.

  5. I was about to ask you how Farmer Frank was doing. I loved his writing. He could tell you how well a pistol caliber did killing things from experience not from what was popular. Great, down to earth guy.

  6. So sorry to hear Frank is gone. I started reading him from your sidebar list. I really enjoyed his writing and was dismayed when he gave up the blog. RIP Mr James.


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