Written by Charles Few
Herman F. Krathge, my maternal grandfather, was a lifelong resident of Oil City, Pennsylvania, and a significant figure in my life. My memories of “Gramps” inspired this piece about an autumn grouse hunt many years ago, as my son, David, began to grow from boyhood to manhood.
The sun is bright today. An afternoon October sky bathes the forest in warm, clear light as tree colors fade from red and gold to brown. Withered leaves fall as endlessly as time itself. They flutter down and carpet the ground while crunching noisily under my footsteps. Somewhere behind me, the door to the rest of the world quietly closes.
There is timelessness to this wooded hollow secluded in these old Pennsylvania hills. How many other feet have trod this place on such a day? How many eons of time are buried in leaf after leaf pressed one upon the other into the eternity of the past?
This is a place where my grandfather used to hunt. He was a youth at the turn of the last century. I remember his stories about bygone days of oil boom towns and deer and rabbit hunts in a world long forgotten. Many were the nights when his tales of beagle dogs with wonderful names like Dell and Ding and Hot-Nose-Nellie would lull my brother and me off to sleep when we came to visit. He was still walking these hills at his death in 1968.
Today the spirit of the old man seems to walk with me. It is a connection to my past and it floats in and through my thoughts.
Below, at the bottom of the hollow, a stream runs silver and cold. Tall hemlock pines spread a canopy and rays of dappled light sneak through to reflect on mossy, wet rocks and the sparkling water. I feel like I am walking in a picture calendar.
But, no, I remind myself, coming partially out of my reverie. A calendar is a photograph. This is real. I try to store the scene and feeling of the day in my mind. It will be a memory to recall when the winter days ahead turn bleak and grey and cold.
My steps angle upwards to crest the hill. The top was clear-cut a few years ago and new growth thrives. Multitudes of whips and saplings compete for space as they reach skyward towards the life-giving sun.
Ferns, elegant and sophisticated, grow in vast profusion at the edges where the forest trees meet the clearing. They are nature’s Chantilly. Hundreds of insects float in and out of sunbeams above the green lace. They look like tiny, translucent apparitions or maybe, miniature winged ghosts. Can these be mayflies? In October? Who knows? If I ever meet an entomologist, I’ll ask.
Suddenly, off to my left – whoosh! A grouse explodes into flight. Its fury shatters my daydream and it is gone in the blink of an eye. My shotgun never even came off my shoulder. Thirty yards away, David, my son, was caught off-guard, too. He and I hunt together today. As my grandfather’s spirit connects me to the past, David’s presence connects me to the future.
David is twelve years old and carries a new, hunter safety course card in his wallet. His first hunting license is pinned to the back of an old, brown, canvas coat. The coat is too big and bags on him as do the old, bush trousers. A battered, orange field cap and orange vest complete his outfit. If Tom Sawyer hunted, I think he would look like my son does today.
Cradled carefully in David’s arms is an old shotgun. It is his great-grandfather’s and it is older than the two of us put together. We walk on, the mood returning as the commotion ceases. Once more we are each alone with our thoughts and the gift of this special day.
As I start to turn away, another sound makes me look back. This time it is not the flurry of wings, but a dull thud. There, sticking out of the ferns, I see David’s arms, legs, and body on the ground and at strange angles to the world. Tripped up by a deadfall hidden in the low growth, gravity and balance are temporarily at odds with each other.
The shotgun, however, points safely skyward. There is no finger on the trigger and the safety remains on. Good boy. It is an awesome responsibility especially in the face of a sudden and painful surprise. Life is full of unexpected deadfalls, David. May you always stay focused on what is important when they happen.
Time passes and I wish to slow the clock and savor all this, but still the sun moves steadily across the sky. It is late afternoon and shadows are lengthening. Days grow shorter at this time of year and the sun, so central to our lives, is beginning to lose its warmth. It is time to head towards the car.
In this latitude, each season of the sun is different. Winter’s cold hits you like a fist; hard and brittle. In springtime, the sun is young and filled with new wonder. It touches you shyly, tentatively. A summer sun, full and direct, looks you squarely in the eye with hot intensity. An autumn sun is my favorite, though, especially one like today’s. It is like a gentle hand reaching out to touch a warm cheek.
A shaft of sunlight filters through the trees beside me as David and I turn to leave. Once more, I have a sense of my grandfather’s presence. He is smiling and watching, peacefully across time. While our day slowly comes to an end, the feeling lingers and etches itself into my heart. For the moment, all is well with my world. Thank you, Gramps.