Hunting with Grandpa
A visit to Grandpa’s house usually included a hike if the weather permitted. Grandpa would take his hickory walking stick and head up the path, out the hill past the outhouse and garage, up by the spring, and then into the woods. Along the way he would point out various things he remembered or wanted to share with us. Once we reached the ridge line at the top of the hill, we could look down and see the house and the whole farm at once. Sometimes it’s good to find a place like that which offers some perspective and a chance to think a bit. Making it to the top of the hill was a big challenge for little boys with short legs and small feet. I guess in his own way, Homer was helping to prepare us for life ahead. Doesn’t life seem like one hill after another sometimes? And we get up each one the same way, a step at a time putting one foot in front of the other. Of course I have to stop more often and catch my breath now!
I was always fascinated by the antenna wire stretched up the hill for hundreds of feet that connected to Grandpa’s TV way back down in the living room. His TV was a black and white set that captured a single channel if the weather was good. Mostly the images on that TV were ghostly and the sound was scratchy but we didn’t care. We were not there to watch TV. There were woods to explore and lessons to learn.
One visit Grandpa decided we were old enough for a new experience and he carried a gun into the woods along with his walking stick. We were on our first hunt. Grandpa had two or 3 guns I remember – a 20 gauge shotgun, a 22 pump rifle, and a second 22 rifle that was so old it had an octagon shaped barrel. I was not into guns like my Dad and brothers but being invited on a hunt with Homer Miller was an invitation I would never turn down. Hunting had rules and there were official licenses that needed to be acquired. Gun safety was something Dad and Grandpa taught us and there was no tolerance for clowning around with a gun in hand.
Ammunition was expensive and Homer had an expectation that for every shot fired on a hunting expedition there would be an animal, usually a squirrel, added to the game stick. In short, if you fired the gun you better hit your target. Gun control is not a new concept! I never understood how to get good at shooting without taking a few practice shots at tin cans or something but then I was not a natural hunter. I guess some are born with better aim than others.
Grandpa took the first shot that day and of course, a squirrel went down. My Dad took the second shot and somehow missed. He endured Grandpa’s teasing the rest of the hunt. Dad’s second shot was true and another squirrel bit the dirt. Then my brother Rick was on deck and his shot was right on target. I was not interested in shooting the shotgun as the loud noise hurt my ears so I passed my chance. I don’t think Grandpa ever understood that and years later, toward the end of his life, he asked me about it again. We had a long talk that day and we made peace about it but at the time, it was a rift between Grandpa and me.
What would have been my first shot that day passed to my brother Jeff and looking back I can see it was defining moment for him. It was meant to be. Jeff was maybe 6 or 7, tiny, and the shotgun was a couple of inches taller than him. Grandpa looked at that little boy for a moment or two and never said a word. Jeff was special. We all knew it. Jeff’s being with us that day was a miracle after a terrible car wreck a few years earlier almost took him. Was Jeff really strong enough to hold the shotgun and fire a shot? Grandpa followed his heart, decided Jeff was indeed ready, and passed the gun to him. Jeff could barely hold that shotgun up as Grandpa gave him instructions and before we knew it there was a “BOOM!” and a squirrel was plummeting to earth. Jeff was on the scoreboard! And Grandpa threw back his head and laughed that hearty laugh of his. That was the moment Homer Miller and Jeff Nichols bonded for life. There was an understanding and a respect that grew between those two mountain men who hit their target first time and every time.
Grandpa loved to tell the story of Jeff’s first hunt and in his version Jeff was propped up with Grandpa’s hickory walking stick so the kickback from the gun never dumped him on his rear. And every time Grandpa told the story down through the years, I heard him laugh all over again. Jeff caught the hunting fever hat day and for the remainder of his life, he was an accomplished hunter taking squirrel, deer, turkeys, bob cats, and even a black bear. Jeff hunted with rifles, shotguns, bow and arrow, and even black powder rifles. He used his skills to put food on many tables during hunting season. And Grandpa loved to sit on his porch and talk about each of Jeff’s hunts with him.
Most of us have been blessed with some good times. And there are things we keep around to remind us of those moments. The reminders become more valuable to us as the years pass because good memories of happy times can warm our hearts in any circumstance. Others may look at those reminders we value so much and ask, “Why on earth did you save that trinket?” A small boy received a letter from his Grandpa in the 1960’s. That letter was valued and protected for a lifetime through all the turmoil of growing up and growing out of one interest after another. It survived good times and bad, happy times and sad. The boy, of course, was Jeff and the Grandpa was Homer. Grandpa drew this picture and mailed it to Jeff the next Christmas to commemorate the hunt. Don’t miss that hickory prop stick holding Jeff up! Can you see the twinkle in Grandpa’s eye as he drew this? Can you hear him laughing?
We headed off the hill that day. Five shots had been fired but we only had 4 squirrels and that did not sit well with Homer Miller. We were nearing the spring and were almost home when the hunting dog flushed out a squirrel. Mr. Squirrel had a bad case of PSD – poor squirrel decision. He ran into a hollow stump instead of climbing a tree. Grandpa showed us how to catch a squirrel without using a gun that day as he cut green briars, twisted them into a bunch, turned them up into the stump, and caught that squirrel by the tail. Twisting out squirrels – something I had never even read about – and I saw it work. Five shots and 5 squirrels. One really good hunting story to share over and over.
It was a good day in the woods.