In Jeff Bridges’ last scene in the new True Grit, he drops to his knees with the snake-bitten Maddie Ross in his arms and fires a signal shot into the night to awaken the good doctor. As he catches his breath and wheezes, trying to again fill his lungs after the many-mile marathon through the wilderness, he gasps and says, “I have grown old.”
I found myself repeating this line one evening in December having waded nipple-deep through a mucky flag pond to retrieve fallen whistling ducks. Since they inconveniently die without tall blaze orange flags to help mark them, this was quite the chore with the lilies reaching over my head. I may need a duck dog. On the overall exertions scale, I can’t claim the exhaustion Rooster did. Feet burning and lungs cramped, I rested against a willow tree in the twilight, stripping myself of the waders and swallowing as much oxygen as possible, though it didn't seem I was getting any. I could croak here. Beautiful land. Sunset. They’d probably name the pond after me. I realized I had hit a turning point – I have grown old.
This wasn’t my only moment of weakness this season. I’d slightly shifted in the seat of the Summit Viper to relieve the cramping in my ever-aching back. The pine was just on the border of being safe enough to scale, but in the dark, on an unfamiliar piece of property, it’d have to do. I couldn’t go too high anyhow or the sweeping oak branches would obscure my view of the hammock. That little movement was just enough to cause the stand to lose its grip on the spindly shortleaf, and suddenly my butt was jammed on my boot heels. Thankfully my denim camo pants protected my rectal integrity – any lesser fabric and we’d had a very real threat of surgical extraction.
Luckily, I survived, though my knees were so bent back and tendon-tight, a pair of broken legs would have been a sweet kiss from a beautiful woman, in comparison. And thank goodness the foot platform held or I’d ratcheted 15 feet down the tree like an amateur, ugly stripper. Nothing shy of a bat flying in your face would start a day in such a pulse-pounding manner. I’ve had treestand mishaps before – mostly by doing something stupid, like whacking at far-out branches with machetes or climbing up ladders that were 1 part wood, 2 parts termite - but this time it got my attention.
And for some reason this last year, I was unable to strap on a pair of waders and ride in a duck boat without a looming, back-brained fear of an errant wake or stump or driver error splashing me into the gloom and sinking like a stone. It’s doubtful I’d been able to board an airboat without peeing my pants. I’ve been tossed from boats before but was able to roll up my Big Boy Britches and press forward. Why it alarmed me so this year is tough to pinpoint.
There are many other more perilous aspects of my hunting trips – namely tobacco products, moonshine, or mentioning the “H-Word” to my wife anytime after mid-January – that impact my health but don’t even register on the danger scale. Though they probably should. A lot of this anxiety can be traced back to September.
As you may or may not recall, I had twins in mid-September. I’ve read people develop a heightened sense of mortality after children, but I didn’t totally buy into that. Consider me sold, now. Mainly, I don’t want Carolyn to raise our children with another guy because I was too big of a boob to buy a safety harness and a rescue party eventually finds me like a dead fly on a window sill under a pine. And then my children would probably never discover the joys of hunting because there’s no way she’d ever marry another hunter. Best legacy I could hope for them would be a butterfly netting trip at the local park.
Pushing aside all responsible aspects of raising children, being a provider, and the need to be ever stalwart with your health and finances, the wear and tear on your body, emotions, and psyche is very real, especially with twins. On my best days I feel like I tumbled down a flight of stairs. Years of self-inflicted abuse have left me rickety and whiny. Add an abject lack of sleep and pronounced increase in stress only exacerbates this.
But I can’t blame the babies. They got here by the same choice process that leads me up trees without safety equipment. Namely, the “Ah, Why-the-Hell-Not Method of Important Decision-Making.” I could found a lecture tour on this. I'm consistently reminded I should take better care of myself and think of the children. So, this could be the year I hang up my guns and bows and call it a day...
Some normal-person physical exertion is probably in order. I hate – as in, hate, hate, hate – pointless walking, but Lakeland has plenty of pedestrian-friendly, beautiful lakes where I could educate the kids about various waterfowl while getting exercise at the same time, at the very least. It’d make Carolyn happy and various friends who I’ve chided over the years for partaking these family-friendly jaunts. I’m looking forward to Spring and Summer and swimming, putting floaties on the kids and introducing them to the water. Swimming is a fine workout – so long as you’re wearing a bathing suit and not waders. There are always means of bettering your health, and after the last 16 years of pretty severe abuse and neglect, it’s probably about time to patch holes in the hull. Whether this is actually accomplished is the tough thing. Kids don’t leave a guy much free time.
I can tell you one thing. I’m not slowing down on the hunting when that free time is available. I’ll take the precautions. Buy a harness for the stands. May wear one of those blocky orange life jackets in duck boats and take the ridicule if it eases my mind. Life is too short and the outdoors too great to let fears stand in the way. And I have these kids that need to learn about the natural world.
In a few years, I hope they will adopt my love for hunting. I hope they will seek out their own adventures. And I hope they will learn from my mistakes.
Mostly, I hope they retrieve all my downed ducks – well, they won’t really have much choice. For better or worse, I’m the parent.
And I'm far too old.