When I heard those words on the telephone – “Dave’s gone”- I did not feel the emptiness of death but only the loneliness of departure, as if I had been told, “Dave’s left on his elk hunting trip to the mountains.”
Gone on ahead
When the telephone rang early Friday morning I looked at the numbers displayed on the caller-ID screen and knew what the message would be. I picked up the receiver and a voice at the other end said, “Dave’s gone.”
Dave Wade, my friend and hunting companion for almost forty years had died.
His passing was not unexpected. His body had been battered and devastated by cancer over the previous four years, and the fight against the disease had called for powerful drugs, hormones, chemicals and radiation treatments that had also damaged and debilitated him physically.
Mentally and spiritually, he never wavered. Over the final year, when he knew that treatments could not cure the cancer but only slow its inevitable progress, he accepted his fate with courage, grace, and dignity. He was, in fact, the touchstone of strength and resolve when friends and family faltered. He had no fear of death, although he was frustrated and exasperated that it was robbing him of fifteen or twenty years of time and adventures he wanted to share with his grandchildren.
Up until the final days of his life he was hosting visitors at his home, sitting on his south deck in the warm morning sunshine, looking out over the thirty acres of his land in southeast Nebraska that he had shaped and groomed as wildlife habitat. He talked with us about the state of his food plots, the burst of aquatic life the rainy summer had given his pond, the increase in the number of species of song birds on the place during the past few years. He also talked effusively about the upcoming Texas hog hunt he had arranged in August for his two sons, son-in-law, and grandson-in-law.
Dave Wade was a hunter nonpareil. Hunting was not just his avocation, it was his religion, his spiritual foundation. His hours afield with a muzzle-loader rifle or a recurve bow in his hands were not hunts so much as they were sacred ventures into that natural world of wonders and delights that he knew better than most of us know our backyards.
Along with a passion for bow hunting, he taught me the most valuable lesson about the sport: the joy is not in the taking of game but in the act of hunting itself, from the first minutes of scouting new country for sign until the last fading light of evening when you returned, exhausted but rejuvenated and contented, to camp or home. If I had learned nothing more than that our friendship would have been invaluable to me, but he taught me much more about the skills and nuances of hunting, and why it is important to know and abide by the ethic and standards of fair chase and sportsmanship.
He also taught me that a much deeper satisfaction in hunting, especially as we have grown older, is making the hunt exciting and enjoyable and successful for the next generations of hunters. It is much more gratifying and rewarding to have your son-in-law shoot a nice buck the two of you have scouted and tracked than it is to shoot that buck yourself. There is a lesson not just for hunting but for life: Our purpose in this world is to help other people and make their lives better.
Dave was a member of the American Long Rifle Association, a group that is passionate (some would say fanatic) about researching, recreating, and re-enacting life in colonial America’s “long hunter” era from about 1750 until 1815. The association values historic accuracy, and its members are truly reliving history at their encampments, equipped with authentic clothing, gear, rifles and tools of that period.
Dave’s stories about his ALRA adventures – or misadventures – in the wild regions of the Appalachian Mountains made listeners aware that he may have been born two hundred years too late to find his perfect calling in life. I know he was tough as a pine knot and determined as a badger after a gopher when he was faced with hardships of the hunt, camp and trail. Also, he was deadly accurate with his flintlock rifles, and handy with a tomahawk and knife. He would have become an eighteenth century legend. His den featured prints and artwork that depicted the era of the long hunter, and I think he secretly wished he could have lived during that time.
A self-made man in the tradition of American rugged individualism, Dave rose from a poor and sometimes rough childhood to become a good college football player and graduate to a career as a high school teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent. He was a mentor and motivator of dozens of students from backgrounds similar to his, encouraging, pushing and cajoling them to believe in themselves and succeed. Late in his life, many of them came calling to express their appreciation and their admiration for what he had done to shape their lives.
Dave was a friend with whom I could share all dreams, frustrations, ambitions, disappointments, triumphs, hopes and fears. We made a connection early on, the first time we met in fact, and although we might get together only once or twice a year, each time it was as though we had been together just the day before and we were picking up right where we left off.
His passing has left a hole in my life, and perhaps in my spirit and soul, that can never be filled.
Yet, a strange but somehow comforting thought formed in my mind when I heard those words on the telephone: “Dave’s gone.” I did not feel the emptiness of death but only the loneliness of departure, as if I had been told, “Dave’s left on his elk hunting trip to the mountains.”
My heart simply does not believe he has passed away, and insists that we are going to meet up again, although I do not know where or when, and we will pick up right where we left off. Until then I have a backlog of memories and stories to sort through, reminders of the blessings of having a heart-to-heart friend and hunting companion.
Keep the fire burning and the stew pot bubbling, Dave, while I walk these last long miles back to camp.