Good fathers leave deep tracks to follow

Sunday is Father’s Day, and many of us can thank our dear old dads, or some other man who stepped into that role, for introducing us to the outdoors and instilling in us a love of nature.

As a little boy I remember our family loading up the camping trailer, one of those ones that sort of looked like an egg when viewed from the side, and heading up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains for some big adventure.

The next morning the air was crisp and cool as we made our way down to the stream, and dad threaded a couple of salmon eggs onto a hook for me. I plopped my bait into the water where it was almost immediately engulfed by a small trout. The trout was caught, but I was the one that was hooked.

There are a few family photos, taken on an old Polaroid Land Camera, of that trip, and one of them shows the fishing hole in the background including the back of a little tow-headed boy (me!) complete with little fishing pole in hand. Catch and release? No way! After we caught a passel of trout we headed back up the camp where we cleaned them and grilled them right on the spot. It was the best breakfast ever.

When the time came to break camp, dad would always have us youngsters go around and pick up litter. He promised to give the kid that picked up the most a dime or a quarter, and then he would give us all a reward along with the admonition that we always leave a spot cleaner that we found it.

Some years later dad introduced me to hunting. At first we went after squirrels, dad carrying the shotgun and me in tow. I don’t really recall dad ever actually shooting anything, probably because I had a hard time keeping still and quiet, but he wanted me to learn about the animals’ habits and habitat, and to master marksmanship before I was ever allowed to even carry the gun (Which is a far cry from today where youngsters are encouraged to kill their first deer before they are 10, sitting in a blind overlooking a corn pile).

I think I learned a lot more about the whole experience by having to wait. I learned about the trees and terrain, how to use the wind to my advantage and how to identify an animal by its tracks. The day I actually got to carry the shotgun marked a major rite of passage. I didn’t get to actually shoot at anything, but it was one of the biggest events of my life to that point.

Looking back on it all, dad merely introduced me to fishing, hunting and shooting. I was an avid learner and it wasn’t long before I was doing it for myself. It wasn’t unusual for people to see my friends and I on our bicycles headed to a local fishing hole where we quickly mastered fishing for the plentiful bluegill, catfish and largemouth bass.

Ironically my love of fishing resulted in a week-long hospital stay when I was nine years old. I dropped a fishing pole from my bike and when I turned my head to look backwards I drove off the road and over a bridge abutment into the rocky creek below. I walked the half mile or so back to the house where I probably gave my mother the shock of her life when I came walking into the house, covered in blood with a broken wrist and bloody t-shirt covering the huge gash in my forehead.

Today I am sure there would be a big investigation about why I was left unattended, but this was the early 1970s when kids were still allowed to be kids and have some space and independence.

Dads never really hid the guns at the house or tried to lock them away. He knew enough about boys, having been one himself, that it would make me even more curious; rather he would take the time to show me his guns and explain how they worked, and impart his own wisdom on safety. For instance he taught me that there was no such thing as a “toy gun,” because there was nothing about a gun that was for play, and that it was always the “unloaded gun” that shot somebody. Of course we know that a truly unloaded gun cannot actually shoot somebody, but rather it is the gun someone only assumed was unloaded. Therefore I was to treat every gun as a loaded gun.

Toy guns were forbidden in my house, but real guns? Those were OK, and always to be respected and well-maintained, and kept clean and functional at all times.

My father grew up in a time when there weren’t as many deer around. I recall him telling me about a newspaper report where someone saw a deer, and how people came from miles around to look at the deer tracks. It was that big of a deal. You can tell a lot about an animal from the tracks it leaves; where it has been, where it is going.

Dad was quite the marksman and I honed my shooting skills with an air rifle dad bought me, and before long my fishing, hunting and shooting experiences exceeded his in practically every measurable degree. When we did hunt and fish together, I watched him grow older (and more careful) but still he enjoyed being outdoors and I enjoyed spending the time with him.

Time passed and I had a family of my own, and even though his free hunting licenses and tags continued to arrive in the mail the day eventually came when he told me he wasn’t going to go out hunting that fall, and then the following year he asked me from a hospital bed if I would take his guns over to my house to make sure they got cleaned and oiled.

I fought back the tears and told him I would do just that. To a bystander it may have seemed like a simple question from a father to his son, one unassuming request requiring, but I think all I could do was nod my head. I held his hand for a bit, saying nothing, and wishing now that I had said more, and then cried a little bit when I left the room. I seems cliché but I didn’t tell him I loved him. About two weeks later I held his hand again as he breathed his last and I felt his pulse weaken and finally stop.

That was more than 17 years ago, and today hardly a day passes that I don’t find myself wondering “What would dad think?” or “What would dad do?” I realize now that my father was merely a man, with the same frailties and weakness of any man, but while I was growing up he always seemed larger than life. Furthermore, as the youngest of four boys coming of age, I think I reaped the benefits as dad began to rediscover the hobbies and pastimes he had set aside while raising a family. Being the baby does have its advantages.

When I look back on my life I see I have done many things; I have been a student and teacher, a scholar, scribe and a soldier, a husband and a father. I have seen much of this world and try to leave it a little better everywhere I go, just like dad taught me, and just like I hope I am teaching my own children.

Also as I grow older I see my dad in more and more things I do. I sense Clarence’s handiwork.

Good dads leave deep, lasting tracks in our lives, so we can see where we have been, and where we are going, and all men should strive to do the same for their children.

Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. His column, In the Open, generally appears every other Sunday. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at [email protected]