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I witnessed the true essence of happiness the other day, in the form of three children – two young boys approximately six years of age and eight years of age; a girl of approximately 10 years.  The wind blew steady as white-capped waves strode through Mobile Bay like lumbering giants.  I enjoyed hearing the wind there as I watched my birth city with more curiosity than usual as it lay humbly across the bay. 
The persistent wind carried on with the morning; never ceasing.  With nothing better to do, I continued watching the children, the water and Mobile.  Finally, the children took my full attention when two kites were launched into the windy sky.  There they stood on the dock full of laughter and joy as the plastic, string-attached apparatus took flight and was left to there command.  Until that moment my mind had been perusing the full library of my brain.  Until that moment, it had been quite some time since I’d last witnessed true happiness.
I am happy, but with age have also become a thinker, perhaps a worrier.  Not too long ago it took actual willpower to conjure up a worry, pull together some stress.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  I’ve turned a new corner.  Grown up a bit more.
The kites swung left and banked right as the children’s laughter came home to my eardrums at mach speed.  That laughter toted no worries, was burdened by no stress.
I tried to revert back and could do so quite easily, much to my surprise.  Because it was not so long ago when I laughed like that.  The big people up in the house were there to protect me, feed me, clean my wounds when I fell.  For now, for then, for that very spot in time which I took for granted and will never be able to recover, I became a child again.
On the dock at a lake where my family had a small cabin, my wiry body penetrated the foggy, early morning water.  The water looked like glass and was cold until I broke through and relaxed.  The boat easily pulled me and my skis upright and we were off, cutting the smooth water, breathing the early morning lake air, living a life long forgotten and irretrievable.  Before skiing, I slumbered carelessly.  When I pulled hard, straining left to the water that had not known a ripple since the day before, I was the world.  Everything ceased to exist for those spectacular seconds when the nerves were pure joy and the drive to swing wide, too close to the bank, was just the unawareness of a child.  Those were some of the best days of my life.
When one kite lost altitude and dove into the salty bay, the third child, the girl, went in for the rescue.  The failing pilot reluctantly gave up the helm and took her spot as search and rescue as her brief trot down the dock sent the kite into undulating rapport with its life-blood.  Airborne once again.  Happy once again.  Worry free once again.  As the wind continued to blow, I continued to watch and remember the meaning of true happiness.  Not an altered happiness or substance-induced, but something so pure that I longed to pull hard left for what lay beyond the wake.

INTRODUCTION

The hardwoods of Southern and Eastern Tennessee reach the foothills of the Appalachians, far beyond the Cumberland Plateau.  Here, the hollows run deep and the water cold.  Folks know each other and a man’s handshake is still as good as his word.  Healthy cattle sojourn the plush fields until they go to auction to make or break the year to come.  Goats hobble around the low fields next to the roads.  Their main objective is to keep the fencerows clean.  No thistle!
The rolling hills provide unadulterated beauty to a man, sheer treachery to another, defeat to his brother.  I can count on two hands the men we’ve lost in farming accidents; the thought repulses me.  The farm breaks down; the widow and children leave for the city where the price of making a living is more attainable.  Yet, we still speak slowly and we walk slowly and we are proud when asked where we are from.  From the courthouse square to the surrounding countryside, dawn breaks to say that He has given us another chance, another day.  We are blessed even when we are cursed.
I questioned God once.  Looking skyward, I didn’t understand what I was saying.  Why had He let the young pup fall victim to such a tragedy?  I was young, naïve.  I worked through the blisters digging that dog’s grave and the blood from my hands dried the tears in my eyes.  God took no vengeance on me; my faith remains. 
Nevertheless, the landscape is unethical, yet refined; it is flawless though very spotty - almost brindle colored at times of great thirst and great casts of autumn-color swirl like the most intricate shades of paint in fall.  Healthy ponds hold legions of fish, and the river, the Elk River, the life-blood that always brings me back around in times of the deepest, darkest personal atrocities, is a clutch to a lost soul.  The river is gentle but absolute, your destination always within reach.
Barbequed pork and smoked chicken host a Sunday evening where coleslaw, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, fresh squash, zucchini picked that morning, pole beans and green beans, and of course corn bread and sweet tea accompany paper plates and a warm smoker.  A sip or two of Tennessee’s finest protects us from the heat with a little ice, and from the snakes when drank directly.  Mr. Jack still walks in our dreams.
He started it with a lone still.  He ran it hard, covered in the truck, through the hills and the valleys, the mud and muck.  His persistence paid and we thank him for that.  In the country, we use whiskey to drive the cold out of our bones, the ailments from our bodies.  Yes, we consume too much at times, but watching the sunrise in the church that He has built just for us, we repent.  The Dogwood’s bloom reassures us that He is listening.  
When I turn to see the smoky silhouettes fading on the horizon, hearing the wind whispering softly, I am home.  The cycle of life is more apparent here, and we take for granted the pace allotted for us to see.  Just as I move to the far edge, home brings me back.  And here, I am sure that Jesus drinks Jack. 

 

ANOTHER WAY TO START THE DAY

The coyote circled the bird dog to attack her flank as I held my breath and waited for what would surely happen.  One jump, two, and then he’d made a full circle as he maneuvered for position.  Then, I began to count and settled the crosshairs where the second jump should land him and then I squeezed the trigger so this would not happen again.  I heard the thud of the bullet hitting home and watched as he doubled-up, gut shot.  Suddenly, the old bitch, knowing the fight had left the coyote, jumped its back as it staggered awkwardly and fell over.  The bitch growled in the face of the half-dead coyote and then turned proudly and walked away with her head up and tail wagging like a prizefighter after he’d defeated the favorite.  It was pure luck and I knew it and for the first time noticed the sweat rolling down my side from my armpits as the breeze touched the light shirt and I felt cold inside and out even though it was summer.  It was a hell of a way to start the day, I thought.  But all the same, it was a day, and things happen.
My hand trembled as I picked up the spent 30.06 cartridge that the old Winchester Bushmaster ejected into the grass.  It had been my father’s gun and I had never seen him sight it in except once and the shell was wet from the dew in the grass and it made me feel even colder.  That time, it had been me who sighted it in and I worried through all those years of it sitting in the gun cabinet as I’d lined up the coyote.  I knew he was not dead yet. 
He pulled up his head as I walked towards him.  The bird dog stayed behind, she’d had enough of this nasty thing who’d stolen half her litter.  I’d heard that coyotes will try to force a domestic dog to join the pack but would kill it if it did not oblige.  I wondered about puppies.  They were young and without habits of any kind, like children, and they grow with the environment they are raised in, I assumed.  Those dull eyes kept looking at me as I walked.
My hands sweated and I gripped the wood stock tightly when I un-slung it from my shoulder.  There were two left in the clip and one in the chamber and I hadn’t thought to reload or bring any extras.  I thought the coyote would be alone or the others had run with the shot.  I slowed my pace and scanned the tree line for movement.  I don’t know how long it’d been watching me, but I fired without looking through the scope and it was gone.  Two bullets left, one for the coup de grace. 
The head lay back and the stomach was heaving as he tried to breath.  He was dying and would soon be dead and I wondered if he was worth the bullet to stop his suffering after the young pups and all.  It was early in the morning and this was all very overwhelming and yes, I would give it to him.  I felt colder thinking that I would not. 
The head was still up and his teeth showed and he panted heavily to stay alive.  How many you bastard?  What about the rest?  I hope you’re the worst of them all and that command breaks when I break you in a few seconds.  I suddenly felt hot as the anger flooded my body and I hated the coyote and was ready to kill him.  Twenty yards out, he struggled to get up, but I could see the intestines were hanging out to his side where the slug had exited.  He fell back to the grass.  I laughed, but I was not happy.
At ten yards, I made a wide circle and came up behind the bastard so I could shoot him in the top of the head.  He went stiff when the bullet kicked up dirt as it came out his chin, breaking the jaw.  Light, watery blood and bile covered the grass where he’d struggled and now that it was over, I didn’t want anything to do with him anymore.  If only my father were here, things would be alright.  But, no, I’m a man and I can handle it.  I’ll just throw him away in the river and let the current wash it off my hands.  It was a hell of a way to start the day.      

 

WEEKEND WIND DOWN

Cheese cake and chukars,
They light in the grass,
One I mistake a straight shooter for a creeper,
One takes off too damn fast.

A whirl through time,
And here we are at finale,
One to stay close,
The other for the adventure.

Mind you,
I won’t be coming home tonight,
Or the next,
YoU mind uS, oUr problem, is fixed.

It flies the ridge in blood-red ceremony,
Never balking for flora or fauna,
Hoping to covey up in the next canyon,
We don’t want anyone finding us, for now.

Maybe, If I had you here,
I could sit, sip, and smoke all the night through,
But I’ll never know,
What it would be like to look at you the night through.

THE LINEUP BUCK

He was bruised, beaten and scarred from head to toe.  The toll of the season showed on his body as the old fighter ambled along the tree line, heading towards the green field and a slow recovery.  My mind was saying, “Get ready, get ready to do it,” but my heart just wasn’t willing to follow suit.  Why should it be up to me whether he lives or dies?
Two large does walked steadily in front of the old buck, but he never paid them any mind.  The rut was over.  He had (hopefully) done what he was meant to do and that was that.  His coat was soggy and dull-looking from the night’s rain, his head hanging low looking for any kind of sustenance, his life in my hands. 
It was post-rut in southern Tennessee, a time when the deer hunters are as tired and weary as the deer.  The bucks had just spent the last three weeks thinking of nothing but the does, they have eaten little if any, slept not and fought often.  This old boy wore a crown upon his head like a king who leads his troops into battle.  The G2 on his left side was broken off; otherwise he would have made a solid 10-point.
  I recognized this buck from the trail camera pictures taken during the summer.  He had spent ample time being photographed by the stealthy little camera hanging on a tree overlooking a pile of corn.  We had photos of him standing head on, left profile, right profile, and from the back, looking straight out through his rack.  We had nicknamed him “The Lineup” for his perfect rack and the array of photos we had of him.  Death by hunter was deemed his fate, but today the safety was still on, my hands sweating in my steamy pockets.
Throughout the season, the deer on our farm keep a constant pattern.  That pattern is woods in the morning, green fields in the afternoon.  When my buddy, Kyle, had woken me at 5:00 that morning, I was not motivated by the sound of rain ticking on the tin roof above me.  The flannel sheets on the soft bed beckoned me to stay just a little bit longer and I obliged. 
“You’re worthless,” he said and walked out.  He left my bedroom door open and the lights on in the hallway.  If I got up to turn them off then that would be it, I’d be out of bed and wide awake.  Kyle and I have been friends since the seventh grade and have hunted together for that long and each had a few tricks to get what we wanted out of the other.  We went to high school together, were college roommates, and are now fortunate enough to spend a couple weeks each year hunting together.  We set aside time in the winter to deer hunt and the spring to chase Tennessee toms. 
I heard the screen door smack shut as he walked out into the darkness and fog.  I lay there for another minute, contemplating battling the elements when sleep crept back over me.  The next time I awoke, a bleary, gray light floated in through the blinds and coupled with the hall lights to pierce my eyelids and pry them open.  It was 7:00. 
The rain had stopped, but the fog was still covering the rolling hills like a thick head of hair.  I decided I’d get dressed and go sit in a shooting house in a green field; not the norm, but at least there I could expect dryness.  I poured what remained from the pot of coffee Kyle had brewed into a thermos, grabbed my rifle and headed out the door.  At 7:20, I was comfortable and dry in what we call “Tommy’s Shooting House,” named after a family friend who, during his long life, had helped and hurt us all one way or another.  That is another story in itself.
At 7:30 I was watching “The Lineup.”  Typically, I would have hunted a stand on the hillside in front of me and would have never seen the buck.  But it was mornings like that which make me a strong believer in fate.  The rain and fog, Kyle leaving the lights on and the warm, flannel sheets my mother so diligently covered all the beds with during the winter months factored together to give me the opportunity on such a marvelous deer.  Marvelous deer.  Yes, he was great and I was a hunter, still am a hunter and what I was doing just then was deer hunting.  My season had been long as had his, but today the cards were dealt for me to play the winning hand.
I slowly removed my hands from their warm hiding place; the cold steel of my rifle reminded me that I was alive.  I eased the gun into position, sliding it out the front window and clicked off the safety.  I found him in my crosshairs, exhaled and squeezed the trigger.  
When I held his rack, I thanked him for his life.  We had come together as we were meant, hunter and hunted, and this time, which was the first and last of our encounters, hunter prevailed.  I will always stick to the proverb, “It’s better to be lucky than good,” and that morning played pretty well into those words.  However, I did know about “The Lineup” through modern ways of scouting and thought the chance of him hanging in the area were pretty good due to the substantial amount of does. 
I walked towards the house with the proverbial monkey off my back; the pressure was off until next season.  As the fog began to dissipate, my path cleared.  Heavy mud caked on my boots, but I didn’t mind walking a bit slower, relishing the moment that I knew would soon go away.  My hands were wet and cold, but that too, was unimportant.  I felt light and proud that “The Lineup” was such a dandy deer.  We had already begun to see his genes in other young bucks around the farm.  From there on out, I would be able to sleep as late as I wanted, cooling any attackers with, “I’ve already got mine, y’all go ahead.” 

             

CONCLUSION

The wind swooped down from high above, touching the highest limbs
Then lower, and finally sweeping the soft earth and it lightly touched my face.
“Keep moving, always keep moving, never stop.”
Whether the words were spoken by me or another,
They will stay with me beyond the time I am no longer able to utter a syllable.
As I move, I also stop to listen,
Because when you hear the wind, you hear our Maker breathe,
Sometimes He speaks, you only have to know his language…..watch and listen.
On Rocky Top, in Tennessee, I stopped to hear what the wind had to say
At last, I was able to reunite with a friend I feared forgotten.
Looking out from my colossal post, above the deep hollows and draws
From a place where I often sit to watch Her bring the day anew
The place where, when we meet again, it will be you
Who shines so that I can see the faint light at the end of the tunnel.