Seeing Things, 2011 Second Place Adult Division
By Daniel Claar
My father stood six and a half feet tall, weighed close to three hundred pounds, and could vanish in a crowded room. He had the inherent ability to retreat inside his massive red beard and faded flannels, becoming something of a giant house plant or carefully concealed statue. It may have been his well known reluctance to waste words, or just the fact his towering figure made others uncomfortable, but rarely did anyone initiate a conversation with my dad. I also remember the pain in his eyes whenever he found himself in the proximity of people chatting about weather, sports, or mundane occurrences in their everyday lives. He simply had no patience for small talk.
As a result, my dad also had few acquaintances, but I remember those who visited his woodshop as they always respected his desire for silence. When my father did speak, usually with his shaggy hair full of sweet smelling sawdust, people listened intently to his impossibly deep, measured voice. Typically though, few words were exchanged as customers picked up their moose, deer, mountain goats, and other lifelike animals all hand carved from the golden Ponderosa surrounding our mountain town.
It was a mid-October morning, a week after my fifteenth birthday, when my father awoke me from a deep sleep. Although I had no idea at that moment, it was also the day I truly began to understand my dad. I recall peeking out at his giant, shadowed form from beneath a thick quilt mother had sewn. It was still pitch black outside. Through blurry eyes, I noticed the clock on my nightstand.
“It’s four in the morning… what’s wrong? Is mom ok?”
“She’s fine. We’re going huntin’. Get dressed. Leavin’ in ten minutes.”
Hunting? Ten minutes? What the? My father never brought me along. In fact, he always hunted alone. When I asked him about it, even when I begged, his terse response had always been the same, “When you’re ready, we’ll go.” I could already dot the “i” on a Pepsi can with every rifle we owned, but when I reminded him of that fact, he would just shake his head and walk away with an amused twinkle in his eye.
As an even younger boy, I clearly remember the bald owner of our mountain town’s hunting store saying to me as I purchased a tin of pellets for my air rifle, “From what I hear, I ain’t never sold your dad a game tag he didn’t fill. Lotta guys ‘round here would like to know his secrets.”
I simply nodded at the time, but as I walked out of the store, I felt the clerk’s eyes on my back. He expected something more than the three quarters I had tossed on the counter. I realized later he wanted me to share some undisclosed piece of family knowledge, an overlooked tidbit of wisdom, or secret location, but there was nothing to say; I didn’t know anything about my father as a hunter. All I knew is that we ate every animal he brought home and either utilized or sold the hides. The remaining bones wound up in soups, fed to our blue heeler, or were incorporated into his wooden sculptures. One time, he even carved a snarling jackrabbit the size of an antelope and attached a set of elk antlers to its head. Mother was absolutely tickled when he sold the intimidating jackalope to a grinning tourist for $50.
Still half asleep, I stumbled out of bed and rummaged through my dresser for long underwear and warm outer layers. I finished my hunting ensemble with a worn down coat, leather boots, and a thick sheepskin hat that looked like a hornless Viking helmet. Father reappeared at my bedroom door dressed head to toe in a pair of hooded camouflage coveralls.
I nodded and followed him to our silver 1972 Chevy Blazer. A duffle bag, two day packs, and a canteen sat on the back seat. Concentrating on the effort it took to keep my eyes open, I failed to notice the empty gun racks installed over the side windows. In fact, I barely remember passing the gas station less than a mile from our house before I was slumped against the door and drifting off.
I remember a dream as vividly as anything else from that trip. Standing on a tall cliff overlooking a lake, I could see my friends swimming below and beckoning me to join them. My heart wanted to make the insane plunge, but my brain kept posing logical, intimidating questions. Even in my sleep, I felt an ardent sense of self-doubt and disappointment. I knew I couldn’t jump; I was too scared. However, just as I was about to turn away from the cliff, my friends, and a chance to overcome the fear, some strong invisible force shoved me square in the back and over the edge I went.
I jerked awake to find myself sitting in my dad’s Blazer with him nudging my shoulder. I mumbled an apology and straightened myself in the seat. The dark world I fell asleep in had been replaced by total whiteout. For a split second, the last instant of my dream flooded over me and I experienced a sense of vertigo, like we were falling through clouds. Instinctually, I grabbed the door handle for balance. My father raised a finger to his lips.
We were parked. Where, I had no idea, but the outside world had been swallowed in thick fog. Through the side window, I could see snow covered ground and could almost detect the outline of pine trees some thirty feet from the Chevy’s bumper. The fog and snow were an identical shade of white and trying to discern where one met the other was impossible. Almost lost in the ivory backdrop were large flakes of snow drifting slowly through the calm air, like thousands of feathered pillows had been turned inside out in the sky above.
“Where are w…,” I started to whisper, but my father cut me off with a wave of his hand and pointed straight out the windshield. My eyes followed his index finger. For a moment I saw nothing but the slow swirl of dense fog and snow. Then, suddenly, I could make out shapes moving in the mist, hazy silhouettes of dark creatures gradually taking form. I felt an overpowering urge to throw open the door and escape before the foreboding apparitions could fully manifest and overtake our position. Instead, I sat frozen, afraid to move or make a sound. More shadowy figures appeared, figures growing impossibly large, and then through the white veil, the silent wraiths began to materialize.
Paralyzed by the sudden transition from apprehension to fascination, I simply stared, mouth agape, as the elk herd marched into view, each animal bellowing great plumes of vapor. For a split second, I remember thinking the outside fog wasn’t really a fog at all, but instead, the breath of a hundred giant mammals held close to the earth by frozen mountain air. The elk, it seemed, could create their own mist in which to hide and move about cloaked in secrecy.
The majestic animals, already draped in their impressive tan and chocolate winter coats, never hesitated at the sight of our vehicle. We may as well have been a boulder in the path of a river. The herd, consisting of adult cows and their protected calves, split in half and began to amble past our Blazer on both sides. Giant, dark eyes, rolling lazily in their sockets peered into the vehicle’s windows. One particularly large cow swung her massive head too far to one side as she sauntered past and lightly tapped the passenger side window with her muzzle. She snorted in surprise at the invisible barrier leaving a wet nose print on the glass just inches from my face.
It was at that moment I finally risked a glance towards my father. The situation was so surreal, part of me wondered if we were both witnessing the same scene; I needed confirmation that I wasn’t still dreaming. What I saw in his face and what became crystal clear to me in that instant would stick with me the rest of my life. There was a tear breaking free from the corner of the big man’s eye. I watched it roll over his cheek bone and disappear into his beard. He made no effort to hide it. In fact, he stared straight into my eyes and I instantly understood something very profound about my father.
He loved these forest animals more than anyone could imagine. The elk, the chipmunks, mountain lions and wolves, my father cherished them all. I realized his hunting secrets were wrapped in his respect and appreciation for living things. Through countless hours of hiking, and quiet observation, he understood the patterns and behaviors of wildlife like nobody I would ever meet, something I would gradually learn as his student over the course of the next ten years.
Seeing my dad shed an unabashed tear over an animal he could also kill, butcher, and eat, freed me from so many expectations about what it meant to be a man. His wasn’t an adversarial role with nature. He wasn’t out to prove something to himself, or conquer anything. My father hunted because our family needed food, but he never lost perspective on what it meant to take a life. Like any natural predator, my father killed because he had to, not because he took pleasure in the act.
Later in life, I also realized his wood carving business wasn’t just a means to help support a family with financial issues, but rather, each carving a labor of love intended to enshrine the life force of a beautiful animal. Something about immortalizing his prey in tedious detail allowed him to be at peace with the lives he took.
“Are you sure you’re ready to hunt with me?”
My father’s question didn’t catch me off guard that October morning. In fact, I expected it.
“Yes,” I replied and beyond all shadow of doubt, he knew I understood.
“Good,” he said. “Next time we bring the rifles.”