never grow old
Stop me if I’ve told you this one,” he says,
though he knows he has, and knows I never will.
Each telling of the story from sixty years ago
reveals another background image in the faded
photographs filed in the album of my imagination,
exposes more details in the slightly out-of-focus
and fading-to-sepia pictures captured on grainy film,
shot with an old Imperial twin-lens reflex camera,
the burst of light from a blue-white flashbulb
widening eyes, washing out faces, bleaching colors.
One curling photo, crisp in my mind as in wizened hand,
now shows he was wearing a hat, a red wool Stormy Kromer
with the ear flaps tied under his chin and the bill pulled low,
his eyes glinting from the crescent shadow across his face.
The cracked glaze softens as I hear again the story of
his father’s first rifle hunt for deer, statewide season in ’61,
on family land where he’d hunted all his young life until
he went off to war: rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, grouse, quail.
There were no deer in the ’20s or ’30s, whitetails or mulies,
so this deer hunting business was altogether different.
Pictures? Never clicked the shutter in all the excitement.
But a dozen or more fill oft-opened pages of my album
(although they change with each recounting of the tale,
and I have to look at them with a new eye each season).
The hat is different, but the rifle is the same: a .30-06,
Winchester Model 70 Featherweight with iron sights,
a scope is a decade in the past’s future, when eyes dimmed.
He could shoot that rifle, don’t let nobody tell you different,
worked the bolt smooth and fast, four shots in five seconds.
He shot it twice this day, dead on, six-pointer at 200 yards.
In the photo it seems like 100 to me, but I’m looking from
a long ways off, a whole lifetime later, so what do I know?
Throwing the gun to his shoulder as the buck trotted out from
the south side of the shelter belt and paused, one foreleg lifted,
looking at him curiously, never having been hunted before,
and the hunter staring back, never having shot a deer before.
Shooting too fast, off-hand, and in the heat of a buck fever
that he never admitted to, his bullet hit high, broke the spine
above the buck’s shoulders and it went down over a log,
dead as a mackerel, a doornail, yesterday’s newspaper.
Crossing the fence and making the long walk into the field
where the whitetail lay waiting to be a hundred-year trophy
he was slinging the rifle over his shoulder when lo-and-behold
the deer jumped up from behind the log, unhurt and unfazed,
sunlight reflecting bright ivory-gold from all six antler tines,
neck arched in a “You’ll have to shoot better than that!” dare.
And so he did. Taking a finer bead and putting the big bullet
through the buck’s heart and flipping him over the log again.
And that was that, except for the immortal part of the story.
He stepped over the log and looked down and shouted “Damn!”
“Did’ya get him?” his hunting buddy hollered from the road.
“Yes! Both of them!” “What!?” “I shot a double.”
“Sweet Mary and Martha don’t let the game warden come by!”
Side-by-side. Twin six-pointers. Bodies steaming in the cold.
Open the album a hundred times; that picture stays the same.
I hunted with Grampa so very many times. There were no deer then. If anyone said they saw one, eyebrows were raised. I witnessed him reach into snowdrifts along the Rock Island Line, two blocks from the house, and pull out cottontails… our favorite. When he took a gun, it was his ancient Winchester .22. I still have it. I watched once as the rare pheasant burst out of the cover, we were only a block from town, and he dropped it as it quartered away.