My daddy taught me that it isn’t so much what you do in life that matters; it’s the people you’re with while doing it who are important. Of course, if you knew my daddy, you know those words never came out of his mouth. Let’s just say he wasn’t much of a talker, but the lack of words didn’t seem to limit his ability to influence the people he was with.
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One Saturday morning – when Daddy didn’t have to go in for the sixth straight day of the week to Cooper Tire – I woke up to find that it was my lucky day. Daddy was taking me hunting, and my two sisters were staying home. My memory doesn’t recall how in the world we were able to go without Leigh Anne and Laurie in tow, but for whatever reason, it was just Daddy, me, and our legendary Brittany Spaniel, Bobbie. She was quite the hunting dog, famous all over four counties for her hunting prowess, undying loyalty, and determined virginity. Every hunter in the Ark-La-Tex wanted to breed their dog with Bobbie, but after a few male suitors left without a throat, people stopped asking. I think in a way Daddy was proud of her for that.
If we had breakfast that morning, I don’t remember it; I just remember climbing into Daddy’s old truck and heading down Highway 71. Bobbie was in back, while Daddy and I sat in the narrow cab. Looking at the dashboard in my mind’s eye, I wonder how in the world the old truck drove at all. The dash was nothing like the cockpits of our vehicles today. Simple round dials, a couple of knobs, and a long gearshift sticking out of the steering shaft. It was a simple truck that did what it needed to do to take care of what we needed. It was my daddy’s truck.
Now, there was one luxury in the truck I should mention. Hanging from the bottom of the dashboard was an eight-track player, and as usual, it was pumping out the unmistakable voice of Elvis. Daddy just called him “The King,” and while I can’t tell you exactly how long it took us to get to where we were going that morning, I know it was less than eight tracks because Elvis didn’t finish the concert.
Replaying the day in my mind, I think we were somewhere around Doddridge, Arkansas, when Daddy pulled into the outskirts of the woods, lifted the gearshift in place, and clicked the key to off. Without a word, he turned and slipped his Browning 12-gauge from the rack as he opened the door and stepped out. I immediately jerked the latch on my door and rammed against the steel panel with my shoulder. The hinges creaked and popped until I could prop my foot against the door, keeping it from falling back on me. With both hands, I steadied the door and slid from the seat and walked around to Daddy’s side where Bobbie awaited her master’s command to exit the truck. (Yes, she was far better behaved than me or my sisters.) As Daddy and I turned to walk into the woods, he did this clicking sound with his mouth, and Bobbie leapt to the ground, landing in step with us in a matter of a second or two.
A hundred feet or so into the woods, Daddy began showing me tracks and markings left by different kinds of animals. Deer, coyotes, squirrels. Before long, I had convinced myself that I was full-fledged wilderness material and could track with the best of them. Instead of Daddy pointing tracks out to me, I was doing the pointing, and he was letting me do the leading into the woods. Looking back, I’m quite sure I wasn’t tracking anything; he was just letting me explore and learn, being with him in a place where he loved to be.
An hour or so into our “hunting” trip, we walked up on Bobbie, and I saw one of the most mesmerizing things I’ve ever witnessed. She was a perfect statue standing in a circular clearing, knee high grass waving in the wind while she stood perfectly fixed, head lowered, left, front leg lifted and pointing straight ahead. Deathly still.
Daddy reached out his arm toward me and said, “Whoa.” I thought he would put his gun up to his shoulder and prepare to shoot whatever was waiting in the grass, but he didn’t. He looked at me and motioned me to follow him very quietly and slowly.
We tip-toed into the clearing until the summer-blue sky hung above us and the hint of a breeze touched our faces. And then, Daddy did something I’m sure he never did when he went hunting. He put his shotgun to his shoulder and pointed the gun up into the air and fired. A covey of quail flew up from the grass, and Bobbie’s statue came to life, charging the birds and jumping into the air, mixing her amber and white coat against the sage-green field. The birds peppered the blue sky with brown, white and gray. And Daddy… well… he was looking at me, watching my wonderment with that soft smile of his that showed more in his eyes than on his mouth.
Yes, he could have taken me home right then, and I would have been totally content, but he didn’t. After that, he topped off the day with something even more amazing.
We set off again, this time walking a little faster without bothering to track anything. Even Bobbie seemed to be off duty and was acting like a normal dog that plays with you as you walk along.
After about twenty minutes, we came to an area where Daddy must have been dozens of times before, he as well as many other hunters. He walked over to what looked like a tin stovetop kettle with a flat lid and metal rod sticking out of it. It couldn’t have been more than six inches off the ground, and I couldn’t imagine what it could be. Daddy knelt down beside it, and I stood at his shoulder. He lifted the lid from the kettle, and there in the middle of the bottomless kettle was a pool of gurgling water. The metal rod was a makeshift ladle that some hunter had fashioned long ago and left behind for others use. How long ago, who knows.
Daddy drew the ladle from the well and handed it to me. I turned it to my lips, letting the cool water run down my chin as I drank. Again, he was watching me.
Even though I did not realize it at the time, at that moment – just like in all the moments with Daddy – I was part of something much bigger than a single hunting trip; I was part of my Daddy and part of the life he loved living.
My Daddy was right. It’s not what you do that matters so much; It’s who you do it with that’s important. Thank you, Daddy, for letting me be with you.