By Marshall Nych
Long before I came along, my father sent countless shots accurately downrange at bullseyes and effectively in the field at bucks. Be it paper or prey, Dad would meticulously pick up the spent cartridge, wiping the grit from the warm brass. As the small fragrant plume of smoke faded, so too did time for hobbies dissolve. Before long, his middle son would test his grit.
My childhood was loosely framed within a charming campestral setting. Growing on a farm, I familiarized myself with all of my father’s fishing tackle and firearms. Admittedly, the boy I once was had a deeper fascination for firing or fishing. Cleaning the rifle or the catch were jobs reserved for more responsible others. Reloading was a concept so foreign it didn’t even register on my egocentric radar.
Sixteen, understandably and foolishly, I cared far more about the charismatic explosiveness than the process leading up to the shot. The fundamentals of shooting and art of reloading were all but lost on me. I had always picked up and saved spent shotgun shells and rifle cartridges as my father instructed. I assumed it was to avoid littering, a rule never broken in our family.
Imagine my adolescent disappointment when, preparing for my first firearms opener hunting independently, Dad bestowed a Ruger No. 1 single shot. Like livestock, the bull barrel had been branded with .25-06. In my hands rested the rifle Dad methodically selected for his son. In my eyes I cradled nothing more than a glorified varmint rifle.
Behind the scenes, unread chapters for a teenager not paying proper attention, my father had perfected the .25-06 load. Like an alchemist, Dad tinkered and toiled, tailoring the optimum grains of powder and bullet for his rifle. To arrive at such perfection, Dad had spent more time seated within the reloading den than he had at a shooting bench or his tree stand. Eventually, Dad discovered a117 grain bullet nestled before 54 grains of powder worked best.
Boys are far more enamored by bullseyes, not the sweat to get there. As I resentfully fired the Remington, I thought I was a good shot. Years later, I fully realize and confess it had more to do with Dad being a good reloader and a great father.
Following closely a winter storm, opening day had settled atop a few inches of snow. Without words, Dad and I had parted beneath the silent darkness of dawn. I sat alone with Dad’s effective reloads in my pocket, jingling like loose change. The instant I realized the metallic meddling could alert the deer, I began separating the reloads into different pockets like misbehaving children. Dad, father of five, could certainly relate. Yet, the same man brought only the middle son on this hunt. Perhaps he saw the significance or detected a need.
As light emerged from beneath the blankets of snow, I cautiously chambered a round. I couldn’t help but think of my father. Ashamed at how I had reacted to the “varmint” rifle, I tried to focus on the positives. There were many. I was blessed with a mentor who offered opportunity, encouragement, and experience. Dad trusted me with his rifle. He had enough faith and belief in his son to watch him disappear down the trail.
The tender epiphany of parental appreciation was snapped by the sound of breaking twigs and of hooves as they punctured the icy leaves. The whitetail deer came off the hill as sudden and unexpected as last night’s snowstorm. Both were welcomed ingredients to the rich traditions of Pennsylvania’s first day of deer season.
Within a couple of blinks, the 8-point buck bounded from the thick woods into the open field. My crosshairs leapt as wildly with each breath as the strides of the buck. Sensing my window of opportunity was quickly closing, I achieved one final gulp before squeezing the trigger.
One shot rang, shattering the silence of the December morning. The stark contrast between the report and the tranquility shocked the naïve hunter. The whitetail deer plowed into the pure white snow.
I opened the action to Dad’s Remington No. 1, careful not to lose the valuable keepsake as it ejected. As a slight wisp of smoke disappeared into the air, I thought of my father. How eager I was to share this moment with him. To thank him.
Decades later, my father walks to his reloading bench a bit slower. His steps are as measured as his powders. He cannot sit as long as he once did, nor hunt as hard. Now my boy, his grandson, has become our entire world. Noah is quickly coming to the age of deer hunting.
“What caliber should I start him with?” I asked my father, already knowing the answer.
At once, a proud grandfather’s eyes drifted towards his reloading den, within a lifetime of dies and tools. Father, as if aware he only possessed a single shot and needed it to hit the mark, fired thoughtfully, “One could do worse than a .25-06.”
Marshall Nych’s habitat is a family farm in New Wilmington, PA. When Marshall isn’t writing outdoor humor, he is an elementary teacher misguiding the youth of Mercer County. Although Nych has fished 15 states and 4 countries, his best catches remain his wife and daughter.
Memories of My Father
By John Negich
The bedroom was dark when I awoke, with just a faint glimmer of light that slid under the door to disturb the darkness. I snuggled deeper into the warm softness of the bed and pulled the covers snugly around my body to shut out any cold air that would try to creep in. I knew someone was awake because I could smell the mixed aroma of coffee and bacon coming from the kitchen. But knowing that it was Saturday and that it was still dark outside and there was no school, the bed felt just too comfortable to leave.
Saturday!!!!! I was suddenly wide awake as I realized that today was the first day of small game season, and to a young boy of ten going on eleven, this day held as much joy and excitement as any day could ever hold, even if I was not old enough to hunt myself. I cautiously, but quickly slipped out of bed trying not to wake my little brother who was sharing the bed with me. A brief chill ran through me as my feet hit the cold linoleum floor. Today I did not give it a second thought as I dressed quickly and made my way to the kitchen as fast as possible.
“Good Morning Dad.”
“Hi son,” He said without looking up from his breakfast.
“Where are you going to hunt today?” I asked with all the enthusiasm I could muster.
He slowly leaned back in his chair, thought for a moment as he picked bacon from between his teeth.
“I think I’ll go out to the Karp farm and hunt the apple orchard behind the house where it meets the cornfield. Maybe I can catch that old rooster we saw crossing the road there the other day feeding in the corn.”
I knew the place well as we had spent a lot of time in the area picking wild black raspberries in July and collecting walnuts in the fall.
“Can I go with you please Dad, please, please, please?” I pleaded.
I had asked many times before and had always been met with the same response.
“Maybe when you get a little older, I will let you walk along with me,” he would say.
However, this time he hesitated just a bit and my spirit began to soar.
He walked over to the white porcelain stove, poured another cup of coffee and said, “Dress warm, put on your rubber boots, and wear my old orange vest.”
My mother of course was hesitant but he assured her we would only be gone for a couple hours and he was growing tired of me pestering him about going.
“It’s time the boy gets a taste of it to see if he really wants to be a hunter.”
She reluctantly agreed, so we piled into the old Chevy and I was off on my first real hunt.
I walked behind him tracing his footsteps and watched as he moved along the thick hedgerow that separated the apple orchard and the harvested cornfield. I could hear the dry autumn leaves crackle under Dad’s boots as he walked slowly and alertly through the brush searching out and kicking every possible piece of cover that the big bird might be hiding in. Suddenly there it was, a brilliant thundering mass of color and blurred wings climbing through the now barren limbs of the apple trees. With a quick, rock-steady movement Dad raised the JC Higgins 12-gauge pump, took quick and careful aim, and sent the ring necked bird plummeting to the ground. After he retrieved the bird, he turned, and with a sly grin, winked at me. The experience was all and more than I could ever have imagined and I knew that on that overcast morning in October of 1957, a new hunter was born.
It was a hot and bright August afternoon in 1958 without a cloud in the sky as Dad and I sat along the fencerow in the shade of a red oak watching over the newly mowed hayfield, waiting for a groundhog to show. My father was always adamant about not hunting groundhogs until July or August when the hay had been cut and the litter of pups had grown to be self-sufficient. I always admired that attitude and think it instilled in me a greater respect for the animals that I would hunt in the years ahead. Dad was dressed in well-worn khaki pants with an old black leather belt, a white snug fitting t-shirt, and a black CAT hat. The t-shirt fit high and tight around his arms exposing large biceps that I was sure this skinny kid would never possess. At that point in his young life he was a strong, healthy, and handsome man. His gaze was intense as his head slowly scanned the field back and forth over and over again in an almost rhythmic motion. As I watched him, I wondered if I would someday have the absolute patience he exhibited to stay focused on the task at hand while remaining almost motionless. I somehow doubted that I ever would. Occasionally his patience would lapse and he would look at me and whisper sternly “If you can’t stay still and quiet, we will never see anything” as I struggled to find a position that I was comfortable with.
From a distance that I guess was about fifty yards, a groundhog finally stuck only its head out of the burrow and did not move for the longest time as it surveyed the field and surrounding area. Dad tapped me on the shoulder, slowly pointed to the groundhog and put his finger to his lips to make sure I stayed quiet and motionless. My muscles were cramping as it seemed an eternity before the groundhog slowly lumbered from the burrow out into the field and Dad raised the rifle to his shoulder and anchored it to the fencepost with his left hand. I don’t recall the make of the gun but I know it was an old bolt action 22 with open sights and was deadly in my father’s hand. My heart was beating faster and faster and my eyes were fixated on our quarry as I waited for the moment when he would fire.
In what seemed like an instant, Dad whistled, the groundhog stood upright, the gun fired once and the groundhog fell. At that particular moment in time I was certain that there was no one alive that could possibly be a better shot than my father. Over the many years that followed and after many hunts together, he continued to reinforce that belief. I also knew that day, that the hunting experience was something I loved and could not wait until I was old enough and skilled enough for him to trust me to take that shot.
As I move into the autumn of my years I know that I am very fortunate to have built a treasure trove of memories hunting in our great state. I will always cherish the people I shared those experiences with as well as the animals I have been fortunate enough to hunt. Above all, I will always be indebted to my Father for planting the seeds that made me a hunter and enabled me to experience and store so many special recollections.
John Negich has published a novel called Retribution, a book of portry called My Life In Rhymes, as well as other short stories and poetry. He has been writing for pleasure most of his life in an attempt to capture inportant moments, people and places. He is proud to live in Export, Pennsylvania– the town he was raised in, with his wife Polly.