Thorn in My Side
“Oh hell!” shouted Tough Guy. To hear Tough Guy holler such an obscenity falls anywhere on the reaction scale ranging from as serious as a bear trying to kick in the backdoor to as trivial as Tough Guy guzzling the last beer. I had a strangely conditioned childhood.
Tough Guy commanded, “Someone with good eyes get over here – now!”
Having experience with these situations, I visualized that 20/20 vision would be labor intensive. Apparently Grizz and Lou had picked up these classic tricks, for the three of us began squinting.
Tough Guy huffed into the room, clearly seeing three squinters. Since I was the closest relative (sadly one cannot get any closer than son status), I needed to take my blind disobedience one step farther – acting. I leapt from my seat and started walking into walls. Lou, grasping the genius of my ploy more quickly than Grizz, followed suit. Lou added some respectable improvisations of his own, using the wall to feel his way to the dinner tray, which he then casually unfolded to double as a walker.
Tough Guy appeared to be clenching a shiny, metallic something at his side. Since I couldn’t positively identify it through my squint, I assumed the worst. What was my father planning to do with a bowie knife?
“One of you get over here and pull out this here splinter. I can’t reach it!”
Unless Dad was using the blade to lift the thorn or to rally splinter support, the bowie knife may have been a pair of tweezers.
Grizz was still stuck in a frozen squint on the couch, like a possum playing dead. Tough Guy didn’t fall for it. Something about a kid wearing glasses while squinting didn’t add up.
Looking for a distraction from this extraction, I started cooking some hot dogs. Lou watched. It was during this wiener roast we overheard the dilemma. Tough Guy, during a hunt from either last year (or the season before), must have picked up a nasty splinter. Lou and I cheerfully reveled in the fact we were liberated from performing such a surgery. Upon learning the splinter’s location, we added jubilant dance and joyous laughter to our celebration.
I could identify with the splinter, for Tough Guy had labeled me a “thorn in his side” during many projects, hunting trips, fishing excursions, and the like consistently throughout my many years as his son. One difference, this thorn wasn’t in his side…it was closer to his rump. Dad had called me one of those on special occasions when he was especially angry with my listening skills, subpar performance, or me. Grizz and Tough Guy looked like bonding primates as they hunched over the front porch, nephew carefully examining and grooming uncle’s backside.
It was then Lou and I were subjected to the dreaded northern exposure. I’m not talking about an old television sitcom. To woodsmen, northern exposure is the tense moment when a fellow hunter disrobes…taking off his shirt before, during, or after the hunt. Arguably, post-hunt exposure is the most gruesome and offensive. Although side effects from northern exposure include blindness, slurred speech, and psychological scarring, it is much preferred to than exposure of the southern hemisphere.
Thoroughly damaged by this spectacle, I reflected upon how Tough Guy has softened over the years. When I was a kid, my dad was the scariest man I knew. He would have never let anybody touch or help him. Along with band-aids and mirrors, tweezers were considered feminine products. The former Tough Guy would have just stared the splinter out, or even better, pushed it in deeper to have his toughness and meanness fueled by the pain.
One time in particular, I recall being the proverbial thorn in my dad’s side. To this day, I am trying to repress this sliver of memory. It was my first big hunt. Granted, I had been on hundreds of small hunts, running all over Grandpa’s farm with my BB gun shooting sparrows, rodents, livestock, windows, and anything else that would let me get close. However, this would be my first time hunting the big woods from which Pennsylvania got her sweet name. Had William Penn been inspired from the very farm where I have perspired, we may be living in Penncoop or Pennpigpen or Penndilapidatedbarn. None have the same flare as Pennsylvania.
Normally, young boys experience their first big hunt in big woods when they are twelve, licensed, and legal. Not me. Mom, desperately in need of a day off from her problem child, assigned Dad to babysit his just-turned-nine son one fall Saturday. Big problem…Dad hunts the real woods up in the mountains on autumn weekends. Rather than reschedule or cancel the trip my father had planned with my older brother Nathan, it was decided to drag the 9-year-old boy (me) alongside the Nych hunters. Dad had high hopes. Tough Guy wanted 2 men and a boy to return home as 3 men. I was quite satisfied with simply returning home.
Since my short legs couldn’t keep up with the rough ruffed grouse hunters, Dad had to pick from three options: slow down, carry me, or abandon me. Like so many game show contestants before him, Tough Guy chose door #3. Unnerved and unlicensed, I sat under an oak tree.
“This spot looks good as any,” my father said after hiking me miles from the nearest road, even further from the nearest hospital. Dad strategically set me under an oak tree with explicit directions, “If ya’ see a squirrel, pop ‘em! Limit’s six, but whose countin’?”
It was not the squirrels I was concerned about during the following hours of fits, trembles, and shakes. Lack of heat cannot take credit for my shivering, for it was a pleasant day not a degree below sixty. As occasional acorns plopped among nature’s blanket of leaves beside me, I began to feel I wasn’t the only nut in the woods. Do bears like to eat acorns?
Contemplating the answer, I grew even more worrisome. I was unpolished on bear biology. I mentally rifled through the many books I had read about animals up to this early, too-young-to-die point in my life. What do bears eat? Sadly, none of the ABC or pop-up books extensively covered Ursus americanus’ diet with helpful details. The only bruin delicacy I was familiar with was 9-year-old boys.
Some Christians are able to recall the exact moment they discovered their faith. Often, the enlightenment is during one of life’s highs or lows. One may find their faith upon reaching the summit of a life-long journey or while walking down a road of sin. Others may have experienced faith during times of deep sorrow, such as a loved one passing. Not me! Sitting under that oak, I made a deal with God. So long as He didn’t show me one of the big, hungry bears He had created, I promised to clean up my act and walk a straight line the best a nine-year-old kid could.
The .22 caliber rifle, a petty pea-shooter to any bear, whimpered upon my lap. My thoughts drifted to the possibility of having to take down a charging beast with this limited artillery. Big bear in big woods charging a little boy with a little gun. My shaking knees had jarred the rifle so badly, I’d bet the sights were off anyway. I considered climbing the tree, but feared I’d just look like an overgrown, irresistible acorn to a browsing bruin.
During my first big hunt, which was not a good first impression, I’d hear occasional shots in the distance. Although they were likely Nathan missing grouse or Dad dropping some species of animal, I tried to stay positive (that’s what the survival guides said to do). I told myself perhaps a pack of rogue poachers had stumbled into an entire cave of famished, killer bears. Just as the den of evil creatures emerged to come eat me, the outlaws wiped out every last one of them.
Such delusional activity and mind-numbing stress continued. Days, perhaps weeks later when Tough Guy had returned, only the hollow shell casing of the happy boy he abandoned remained. I no longer derived amusement and joy from playing with G.I. Joes, Lego’s, or other boyhood distractions. I avoided men for many years, naturally being drawn to the non-hunting, non-abandoning qualities of women, such as my mother, grandma, or Barbie.
I endured physical changes as well. Besides the unexplainable new twitch, many of the brown hairs on my head had faded, while other hairs sprouted in strange, unexpected places. Fear is the only catalyst I can fault for this loss of pigment and gain of unsightly patches. A graying fourth grader with back hair is the most bizarre sight. However, salt-and-peppered kids probably do better on their history tests. Although, at the time, I speculated these were side effects from the severe shock and being too afraid to move. It was not until later, I accepted the fact I had morphed into man.
Realizing the possibility of irreparable damage, Tough Guy wouldn’t admit to his 9-year-old, snot-nosed kid he had in fact misplaced him. These confessions could only be told to a fellow man. In the days following the big hunt, Dad saw the masculine changes right before his eyes. My father decided to let me in on the little secret.
Sitting on the side porch, Dad and I were enjoying the unmistakable sounds and smells summoned by autumn twilight winds. Tough Guy cracked open a beer. Had I been twelve years older, I’m sure he would have offered me one. After swallowing his frothy sip, Tough Guy said, “To be honest,” pausing then looking away, he confessed, “I thought I had lost you myself.”
Although I hadn’t spoken in a week, I mustered up the strength to ask, “W-h-hat?”
Dad continued, “Couldn’t remember what beech tree I set you under.”
Tough Guy went on, “I says to myself, maybe a bear got ‘em! I had been seein’ fresh tracks all day.”
Dad was always a man of few words. Hence, this conversation and its several lines of dialogue had become too strenuous…he had to give the story an ending. Father, feeling he had lost his middle child forever to the deep woods, finished his story. “Then, ‘membering I put you under a big oak not a beech, I turned the truck back around to come and getcha’!”
“Y-y-you had left in the truck?” I asked.
Never much for happy endings, Tough Guy concluded, “Oh hell!”