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Father's Day

Merkel 147E

by Bill Wise

It was the middle of June, warm, but comfortable. A stocky man sat in a wheelchair near his mailbox, awaiting delivery. He thought about the day 18 years before when his spinal cord was crushed and he almost lost his grip on life. Stricken in the surf, he very nearly drowned. Then, as now, he saw his own bare body spread motionless on the sand. The view was much like that from a surgical amphitheater. Though he never spoke of it, he knew his out-of-body experience had been a move in the direction where physical life ceased. By some miracle he returned, severely paralyzed, but alive...

The sun and light wind felt good on his face. When the mailman handed him a fistful of envelopes, he tucked them in the chair seat at his hip, then laboriously pushed himself around back. A number 10 envelope, addressed in pencil, caught his eye. It was from his oldest son, now 24, who trained hunting dogs for a living on a farm near the great Chesapeake Bay.

After a fumbling effort to open the letter, he cursed softly to himself. He relaxed and thought about the dogs, the birds, and the kids who had brought so much pleasure to his life, both before the accident and since. There were those who had thought him a fool for putting guns in the hands of his children at such an early age. His detractors did not understand that exposure to firearms and hunting dogs inherently demanded a responsibility uncommon to children raised in the current milieu.

The thought amused him and allowed him to drift easily to a long-ago September afternoon. The boy had hesitantly walked away in the still heat, down the dusty rows of corn stubble, in search of a singular imprint that would mark him a shooting man for the rest of his days. He held his shotgun in the ungainly manner of an eight-year-old uncertain of his venture. Mushroom clouds exploded from the dehydrated earth, swirling about his pant legs with each soft step. A giant Labrador retriever, older than the child, trotted heavily ahead, leading the way to a stand beneath a decaying walnut tree in the center of a field. The gun dog had learned from the boy's father who now watched from the nearby roadside. The wise animal, in the fashion of an English gamekeeper, would guide the youngster in matters of the field. The relationship was good.

Under bony walnut limbs, the lad squatted on his haunches with youthful flexibility, awaiting the promised dove. Automatically, and with some agility, the dog positioned himself to the off-hand side of the boy's gun. He sat majestically, eyes alert, ready to mark incoming birds. Leaves fluttered listlessly in the uppermost branches of a nearby wild cherry. The tree languished in close ranks with its fellows, part of an unkempt, brushy fence row. Crows barked staccato warnings at some unseen danger. Three sharply-ragged bell tones echoed across the fields. Flashing wings etched hyphenated tracks against the deep green shadow of a distant woods. It was a bewitching moment; a flowing transmigration of energy. Veering towards the walnut, the birds closed on rapid wings, arrow-true to the heart of innocence.

Squinting against glare from the lowering sun at roadside, the observer lost sight of the flow at the critical instant. Imperceptibly frozen, the father ceased breathing, straining to capture the essence of the moment. A light shotgun cracked the silence - and the suspense - with a single sharp report. Rocketing into the field, the Lab whirled and returned to the boy. Then both, together, raced to the watcher at field's edge. A wide grin on the boy's freckled face beamed out to his dad. The kid's undersized hand smoothed rumpled feathers on his first gamebird.

He extended the soft, dusky form for inspection. It was a time of wonder. The boy marveled at the muted iridescence of the bird he had brought to earth; his father awestruck at the unfathomable continuity of the moment. Life and death as forcefully resolute partners. The dog yawned, placing things in perspective, receiving comradely strokes from the boy for his disinterested enthusiasm.

For a long while on the journey home the boy was strangely silent. Snuffling in dreamy sleep on the back seat, the old Lab reposed in contentment. Finally the boy spoke softly. "Dad, do you remember when I shot, and the bird fell right out of the sky?" "Yep, I remember." "Well", came the reluctant reply, "I think I peed a little in my pants." "That's alright, son. Don't worry about that. Most gunners get excited when they down their first bird." "You won't tell anyone, will you, Dad?" The boy's gentle voice asked hopefully. The evening star, high above the dying sunlight on the now dark sky, was never more lovely when a solemn promise was given. "No, Son. Not for a long, long time."

The man in the wheelchair remembered each vivid detail, although 16 years had since flown like bright yellow leaves in a stout autumn wind. Ripping the envelope with his teeth, the message from his son - now a man himself - was revealed.

June 16th, 1983
"Dear Pop:

Happy Father's Day. Of course, Mom had a lot to do with it, too. I love you both so very much. All the great times we have spent together, I have enjoyed more than you will ever know. My life just could not be much better. Our old Lab, Buck, and you sure did get me started in the most wonderful way. I'll never forget the time you put me under that walnut tree on my first dove hunt. By some miracle, I dropped a dove with my only shot. You may recall my excitement and the results that followed. It could have been embarrassing, but it wasn't. A gentle dog and a gentle father made the experience memorable. Thanks for having the guts and determination to stick with us through all the tough times.
I love you, Dad.

The salute was unexpectedly sweet and rich. Although the man's legs could not move, his entire body and being became a repository of the energy for the joy he felt The tears welled up, and he nearly burst with emotion. Despite the trials of his life, he realized the value of struggle to achieve shared happiness. Although unable to shoot for himself or walk with his dogs these past 18 years, the boy's wingshooting had thrilled him more than his own ever could have. Feather or clay, hit or miss. Dogs and birds, fair winds or foul - more bright days and jubilance than he ever imagined possible. His body had never seemed a burden when his sons hauled him to the woods, the marshes, the open waters. Fever to be afield had raged within him all these years. This passion had proved to be a fuel for the movement of their life forces. It was a shared triumph of spirit over tragedy. Soul stirring dog work, sky notes from passing geese, blaze yellow October hickories, and, yes, the secret time when a boy downed his first dove....all things to be savored with quiet affection.

The seated man rolled his chair up to his desk. The first words out of the typewriter were: "The finest days of my life have been with you, the dogs, and the birds." A single tear hit the paper. Then, he wrote this story.

Author's note: The preceding story was published 15 years ago by Dave Meisner in the June 1984 edition of Gun Dog Magazine. Our oldest son, Ben, has worked as a gun dog trainer, shooting instructor and guide for 19 years at du Pont's Chesapeake Farms (formerly Remington Farms). Nearly 400 "Father's Day" readers responded to me, many with poignant messages more powerful than what you have read here. One middle aged man, after reading "Father's Day," rushed to a hospital where his father lay terminally ill. For the first time in his life he said, "I love you, Dad." Shortly thereafter his father died. His letter of thanks to me was then, and is now, profound testimony to the power of expression. It is I who am grateful. We must all tell our stories.

Bill Wise........May 13, 1999 home | Welcome | Sponsors | The Gun Rack | The Book Rack | SxS Video Gallery
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