Not Hunting with Dad

I haven’t been hunting in years even though the practice holds great import in my family. It’s depressing in a way because my Dad is a hunter and he’s always wanted me to be one. He wanted me to be a hunter in the same way he wanted me to be a football gourmet, a man, as defined in hunting America. Instead, I became a socialist and a vegan – not a lifestyle that resonates in much of hunting America. Dad humbly, willingly, sadly let me go to these things, all of which he hates as a function of his somewhat backwards political views.

I once asked him the difference between the major political parties and he said, “The Republicans like small government and the Democrats want government to be more involved in your life.” This came with no small implication, though my teeter-tottering over time wouldn’t favor his side of things.

But the political stuff was only part-time; mostly, he wanted me to hunt. There was a practical element to this. Between lectures on his truck radio from Rush Limbaugh, there was work to be done. We had to feed the family. But it was also wistful and romantic. It was a man thing. He gave me his Dad’s favorite deer rifle after grandpa died. Nostalgically, he asks me every summer if I’m coming hunting in the fall. I never am. “I can’t hunt, Dad; I’m vegan, now.” It even goes against my convictions to help him dress out the meat.

Dad once had me and several other hunters wade across a creek, about knee-deep, in a snowstorm. We had to get to the herd up the other bank, who knew the miles – who cared? I was about 15. He led the charge and coaxed us across from the opposite bank. We didn’t have waders, only permeable hiking boots, bought at an army surplus. A cousin paced back and forth across the original bank to muster the courage for the plunge. We made it and killed elk.

Throughout my life, our hunting grounds included a ridge top a three-hour hike from the oversight of land managers and one year Dad and I ran across a flock of grouse milling stupidly in the underbrush. We had no bird tags but one is dinner and on this desolate ridge top what land manager would know? Under Dad’s deft instruction, I took aim through the scope on my 30.06 and delivered a slug through a bird’s neck, whose head flew into the underbrush. (Any hunter knows small game should be targeted with buckshot but here we were with no shotgun.) The survivors panicked into frosted ferns while their late colleague flapped violently on the ground for four or five minutes. In keeping with tradition, I thanked the Lord for the life of His creation and Dad later expressed such pride in my invocation that I still feel guilty and cynical that I since abandoned my faith.

Dad is not a tall man but he was big in a different way. Hunting, he wore an orange vest and a trucker cap, a .7 mm magnum rifle slung at his shoulder, gutting knife in a sheath at his waist. He looked bigger than mountains. One day, I watched him descend the ridge top to our campsite in his burly gait that would have seemed rushed or panicked were it not so deliberate. He had found the elk in the dark and, having been up hours before the sun, he was going to show us to the herd. He rallied the troops and we lit out. He was stoic about pain, apparently impervious to cold, heat, bumps, scrapes and the occasional mauling of his own flesh. He’d sometimes come home from work bleeding from a gash but confused where it came from. He once broke up a fight between a pit bull and a golden retriever and when the pit bull grabbed his fingers it didn’t let go until the digits were mangled. Hospital averse, he drank a little and had my kid sister mend his fingers with a sewing needle and green thread. He made his living finishing concrete, which ruins knees and backs and skin. For more than a year, he took chemotherapy and peripheral drugs for prostate cancer. The treatments left him covered in oozing boils and addled his psyche – he had trouble remembering which pills he had taken and how many. Asked how he was during this time, he’d consistently say, “Pretty good,” even if he was on the verge of tears, which he often was, driven nearly mad by the incessant itching of his skin condition.

I stopped hunting with Dad before I stopped marveling at his ability and motivation to keep things together. Growing up, I was becoming aware of mammon’s monument in American society and Dad moved a lot of it – he once estimated $1 million a year – through his concrete finishing enterprise. But he didn’t see much of it considering the substantial overhead of the construction trade. On top of this, he was not much of an accountant, often unaware of a payment’s origin or destination. Yet he seemed to always have enough money to make it work and then some. Several times, he let me use his credit card to order something expensive over the nascent world wide web and he would say, I’ll just pay it off this month. I’d have procrastinated.

I wasn’t at the time aware that my Dad was slowly establishing a foundation for bankruptcy, having taken out loans to pay for this or that. He bailed his employees out of jail so they could work the following morning or made foolish real-estate investments. He ran up credit card debt. He once bought a 25-foot recreational motor boat and spent months sinking money into refurbishing it. It always broke down on boating trips to Western lakes and he eventually sold it to a colleague. His finances were vague to me, as well as to my mom even though she would, as a wife does, come to hold great stake in those finances. Later, I helped him accomplish bankruptcy, asking him to cosign a private $10,000 college loan that likely contributed to downgrades in his credit score. I was 23 and suffering an alcohol problem. He couldn’t say no to me, even though he seemed to know what I would end up doing with the cash. I drank it all away.

Today, he has undergone the cancer treatments and knee and back surgeries and his burly, deliberate clip has become a weak, lumbering struggle for purpose that nonetheless seems without urgency or a goal. He has declared Chapter 7 and bemoaned the government taking some of his guns as repayment. He is trying, without success, to refinance his mortgage.

These developments were inscrutable in the fog of the future and perhaps that’s why I remember him as remiss in fatherly lectures on future responsibility. Fate wouldn’t be obvious for more than a decade. Having so far paid faithful homage to creditors, my Dad had for the time good credit and a business and a family. He ran the business. My mom home-schooled my kid sister and me for a dozen years. Both parents spent exhaustive afternoons paying bills and negotiating on the phone with people who controlled their purse strings, while my kid sister and I played with friends. We occasionally ate out but mostly, mom cooked. I dreaded the day when I would have to organize my life for myself in that way. It seemed so complicated, such a monumental task that I thought I would never be its equal.

We focused on immediate things.

On the hunting trip when I killed the grouse were my cousins Ryan and James, both professed agnostics from Dad’s side of the family; Ben, a budding evangelist; and Jesse, who professed biblical mores and occasionally sexually assaulted family members. Ben and Jesse were my mom’s blood nephews. Dad and I carried the bird back to camp and Ryan, who now runs a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, helped me field dress it. It was peppered with sickly blue tumors and we discarded it.

Anyway, Dad’s not fully able to hunt anymore because of a recent back surgery and replaced knees, but don’t tell him that; he goes anyway, bagged his cow elk last year. He is a formerly intrepid man who’s now afraid of dying sedentary. So he makes sure to hunt every year against doctors’ better judgment.

I’m headed home next month, getting out of the Navy to live with my parents for a short time. Dad’ll ask me to hunt. I’ll say I can’t. And he’ll go alone.

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