On a crisp November morning I rolled out of bed, early enough to beat the sunrise but not the serenity of cool, Nebraska darkness, and layered on warm clothes. My dad and I then piled into his ‘92 blue Chevy truck and head to the Gas N’ Shop, the only spot open in our small town before dawn. After loading up with the necessary day’s supply of chocolate mini donuts and Diet Mountain Dew to go along with the bag of goodies packed by my mom the night before, we headed north out of town on the dark, lonely highway. This wasn’t just another early morning, this was the beginning of deer season.
Throughout the course of my early childhood, this was the exhilarating experience I enjoyed every second weekend in November, from the times my mom or Grandpa Willie would drive my plastic toy gun and I the fifteen miles to our farm, a drive that seemed to lengthen the more I experienced and longed for it, to the times I made such as this, with the great anticipation of the next monster buck being added to the family trophy room back home. Growing up like many young boys in rural Nebraska the school year was broken down into three segments; Husker football season, spring with summer looming around the corner, and most importantly the start of deer season. The reasons I lived for these moments weren’t just the thrill of the hunt or the expectations of another lofty harvest, but the sensation that I received from being around my family and friends on my great-grandfather’s farm.
Growing up all I ever knew was “the farm.” As I know it now, the farm was a two section area of land whose abundance of wheat and corn only paled in comparison to that of pheasants and deer. After traveling down the lonely fifteen miles of rolling blacktop, we turned on to a well-kept dirt road that led us to the outskirts of our farm. Partially down the road we would then enter the small hidden driveway between an old stand of elm and cedar trees. After passing through this natural gate of sorts we came to the hunting shack, nestled in the shadows of the aged, yellow farm house that my great-uncles’ had inhabited through the decades of living and working on the farm. To any unsuspecting passerby, the hunting shack would appear to be nothing more than an old, decrepit chicken coop, but upon entry they’d be awestruck by its enormity and coziness, plastered with remnants of previous hunts in the form of fading photos and yellowing newspaper clippings. In the corner next to the stove my great-grandpa Doc, better known to the rest of the family simply as Grandpa Doc, always sat perched in his seat next to the blazing red fire, glowing with the same intensity of the fire in Grandpa Doc’s eyes, even after eighty hard years of life. Next to him sat his brother, Funcle Bill, his nickname given after many instances of, “if uncle Bill did this, or if uncle Bill did that.” The two would sit there, the ambassadors of this great land they called the family farm, crowing about the weather or corn prices or rather the lack thereof, imparting knowledge on anyone within earshot in ways only an old farmer would be able to do with us youngsters.
One thousand two hundred and eighty acres, the total number of acres in the two square section of land my Grandpa Doc and Funcle Bill owned and farmed together. By the time of Grandpa Doc’s death, I had come to make memories on just about every one of those acres. The country singer Dierks Bentley had a hit entitled, “Every mile a memory,” but on our farm it was every acre a memory. From the hunting shack standing strong and upright despite its age, the image I always coupled with that of Grandpa Doc, to the bountiful fields full of crops and wildlife, memories seemed to be planted almost as frequently on the property as the seeds of the crops themselves.
Having a father that spent most of his time working and providing for his family, the farm allowed for a safe haven. The two of us could retreat to the farm and lose ourselves, in order to embark in the ever important rite-of-passage of father-son bonding in nature. Some parents push their children to succeed in school, while some families value success in sports as a means of bonding, but my dad took the route of showing me the necessities of understanding and respecting the outdoors. Many of my earliest memories are driving the back roads scouting for that elusive trophy whitetail that Grandpa Doc had seen roaming his corn fields or helping to replant and nurture the endless strips of trees that he and his brothers hand planted eons earlier. Through all of this, not only was I exposed to the richness of Mother Nature, but also the profound history those sacred grounds carried deep in their soils.
One of these memories created with my dad occurred during a raging blizzard on the last day of deer season in the fading winter light in which we encountered a buck for the ages. While making one last pass before ending the season, we noticed a herd of deer grazing on the edge of a dense stand of cedars. Somehow they spotted us through the snarling teeth of blowing snow and howling wind and the buck took off, head barely visible above the ground in a desperate attempt to hide the massive head-gear with which the deer gods had blessed him. After pulling alongside the tree row where we had last seen the buck enter, my dad and I crawled through the thicket as quickly and quietly as two people can do while rushing to avoid losing sight of the buck in the waning shooting light. After fighting through the branches of the trees clawing at us like massive soldiers sent to protect the inner workings of the tree row, we entered into a realm of calmness, the eye of a wintery hurricane it seemed. Standing oblivious to the chaos mere yards away was the buck, head tilted towards the trail road looking hopelessly at the last place where we had been seen but unknowingly in the grips of a near certain death. Wanting to see me make the kill of a lifetime that only a father could give up taking for himself, my dad knelt down to give my unsteady hand a solid rest across his shoulder. Looking through the scope I saw nothing but brown fur where I believed my shot should be. The buck darted out of the trees as soon as the trigger was touched, with the weird awkward motion only an injured deer can make. After hours of searching for blood or a sign of the body the search was postponed until the next morning. Another lofty search was executed but to no avail as we determined with the short distance the shot missed completely when no discernible body part could be seen through the scope, thus giving rise to the stories of another mythical buck, much like the fisherman with the fish that got away.
This farm meant more than just a place to hunt and get away from the solidarity of small-town life, it served as a teaching ground for many life lessons as well. Left alone with a friend on a neighboring plot of land when I was younger, the two of us proceeded to shoot our .22 rifles at tree stumps and pop cans until he decided to try and shoot a window out of an old dilapidated building on the property. Knowing better, but not wanting to seem unwilling to support a friend, I watched as the window shattered and fell to the earth below. After he vandalized the property with a few more rounds we packed away our guns and ammo as our dads’ trucks arose over the horizon, meandering down the twisting confines of the county road toward us. A few days later when the owner of the property discovered the damage and contacted my parents, I learned a very valuable lesson.
Being a friend of my father, the owner had left it up to our parents to decide and administer an appropriate punishment. Therefore, as a punishment I was assigned the task of repainting the building the shimmering white it once had been, replace the shattered window, and remove the tree row on the property of fallen tree limbs. After toiling away in the hot summer sun for what seemed like an eternity, scraping and painting and dragging tree branches that seemingly resembled in girth the very trees that they had fallen from, the work became more of an awakening than a punishment. I had known all along the difference between right and wrong, but had still decided to go against everything I had ever been taught. This wasn’t where I began to understand the severity of what I had done wrong, though. The tears that had been shed by the owner when I made a formal apology in person rolled down his weathered cheeks the same way that sweat had once streaked them while he had built the structures on his land. As I had seen over the years with my Grandpa Doc, the land no longer was just a plot of land to farm and hunt upon, it had embodied the very heart and soul of the farmer. Instead of shooting an inanimate object in the building, it was as though I stood by and watched as he had shot the owner himself.
On another occurrence after being lightly sprayed with stray pellets from a haphazard shotgun blast at a pheasant, I called my mom to tell her the exciting news, but being an over-exuberant 7 year old, all I could muster over the phone was, “Mom, I got shot in the eye!” This was promptly received by having the phone yanked out of my hand by my dad. He then had to explain that there was no damage done to her baby boy and yes he would be taking me hunting again in the future contrary to her beliefs. During the course of most lives a person figures out that some things are better left undiscussed and this happened to be my christening to that fact.
The lessons that I learned on the farm ran deeper than just one experience or particular memory placed here and there. Every time I stepped foot onto the land it seemed to draw me in a little deeper, to show me something new about myself. I was taught that the work that goes into sustaining a life on a farm can create a livelihood for both the human and animal inhabitants. Whenever we were hunting on someone else’s land the questions seemed to always arise as to where all the pheasants and deer were hiding, which then were followed by the jokes that my grandpa must have stolen them all for his land because everywhere you looked on his farm there were countless signs of wildlife. The fresh rubs on the cedar trees released the smell of fresh-cut wood that seemed to drift on the country breeze and lead to the cackle of pheasants being flushed from hiding spots under what seemed like every cluster of tumbleweeds nestled up next to the weathered fence posts. The seeds to my future profession in wildlife biology were unknowingly planted from the earliest of ages by Grandpa Doc, Grandpa Willie, and my dad, along with everyone else I came into contact with over the years on that forsaken property.
On the first of July, 1995, Grandpa Doc passed away in a nursing home, surrounded by family, but far from where his heart truly was, his farm. At the time of his death, I was only eight. Death doesn’t enter into an eight year olds’ mind as a state of permanency but rather a concept unbeknownst, rivaling the mysteries of Santa. I knew that he was gone, but not truly for how long. Growing up I had enjoyed the time spent with Grandpa Doc on the farm, but had been quite bored as most young children would be when my mother and I would take him dinner, then sit and talk for what seemed like hours. Now more than anything I wish I could have those brief moments in time back, just to learn from the wisdom of his youth growing up in such different times than I have, in the guidance he could have lent me on grandfatherly issues like learning math by batting averages and history by, “when I was your age” stories. Now, nearly two decades since his passing the memories and lessons learned are still ever present, as though in a dream-like reality, Grandpa Doc is sitting at the end of another dark and lonesome row of cedars waiting for the next pheasant to fly over while imparting life’s lessons into the bright, wild eyes of an eight year old not-yet-schooled in the cruelties of the real world, but rather submerged into this real life fairytale. Through the memories made on the land intertwined into my every thought like tumbleweeds in a barbed wire fence, Grandpa Doc is still as alive to me as ever and the lessons keep coming, like the pheasants in my dreams, from that tiny patch of hallowed ground known simply as the farm.
About the author: Chris Dietrich grew up in western Nebraska hunting and fishing on his family farm. With a degree in Fisheries & Wildlife, he serves as Powderhook’s data and sales coordinator. To contact Chris, email firstname.lastname@example.org.