Thursday, July 14, 2016
We packed the cafeteria; all my buddies and their dads circled around long tables with pens and pencils and the coveted Tennessee Hunter’s Education Book. The TWRA officer walked around and instructed us as he clicked slide after slide. Every night I flipped through my book and read it over and over again. I memorized the actions in shotguns and rifles and all the common calibers. I took copious notes and rested on the instructor’s every word. It had all started when Dad had this idea to see if our school would host a hunter’s education course. They agreed and tons of kids from my school (mostly boys) and parents gathered for a few nights to learn the tenants of gun safety and hunter etiquette. The final test would come on a cold October Saturday where we all met at the local gun range for our shooting test. The bookwork was easy; the shooting exam tested our mettle. That morning, we scarfed down donuts and waited our turn in misery. We were scared to death, frightened of a simple mistake, of not checking to see if the gun was loaded (a failing offense), or even worse, getting eye-punched by the scope of the big 30-06. The instructor had set up each corral with a gun, starting with a pellet gun and moving up to the biggest caliber shotguns and rifles. As kids, a bragging point was shooting a big gun that kicked hard. We’d all brag and talk about our harrowing experiences, but this day was the great equalizer, we’d all shoot the same guns and end with the big boys. Those that had fibbed all year had nowhere to hide. This moment was a modern day rite of passage, and up to the moment of taking the test, we talked, bragged, chided, and giggled. At the end of the day we all graduated with flying colors, and stepped a little higher, leaving with a common bond. I hunted with three other men the day I killed my first animal. It was a wood duck, a beautiful drake with the slicked back green and black head feathers bordered by the white stripes; it looked like the mohawk hair of a punk rocker, yet on the duck, it was breathtaking. I must have been 8 or 9 and it was my first duck hunt. I still remember everyone present: UA Moore (my virtual godfather), Mr. Floyd Crane, and my dad. The duck flew in among the decoys and the men gave me first shot. I propped up my new single shot .410 and put the bead on the bird. When I pulled the trigger, the men cheered. The smoke cleared and I saw that beautiful duck lying over in the water. We went down to retrieve it and I stared the rest of the morning at that bird, dealing with those mixed feelings of guilt and pride that comes with every hunter that is conscientious with his game. One of the things I’ve mourned for kids today is we lack rites of passage, or challenges toward maturity. Tribal cultures have a long history of placing their kids in a conflict, a test that the young prepare for and once succeeding, they are welcomed into the community officially as a man or a woman. It may have been surviving out in the jungles for a number of days, or it may have been the slaying of a certain animal. Whatever it was, the young performed within a community of adults that instructed them on things that were important to a functioning member in the tribe or community. But much of parenting today has become a spectator sport. We take them to practices, hire “experts” to throw ball with Johnny, and watch Suzie play games. We cheer, we pay for their improvement, but actually doing the instruction is quickly becoming a thing for the amateur past. There’s nothing wrong with having your kids involved in activities, I’m fine with that to an extent. Yet, there is something missing as we prepare them for the world beyond our home. Now, I played sports all my life, but it was in the outdoors that I felt like I was face to face with life-long adult lessons. Things like learning the huge power and responsibility of handling a firearm, or learning to provide food for myself by using a hook or gun, and dealing with the reality that for me to live, something must die. In the woods with dad I learned how to orient myself depending on the sun or reading a map and compass. In a community of men and fellow boys I learned how to build a fire and make a stove from a coffee can. All these things gave me confidence that I could handle myself in the worst situations in life, and dad was there to coach me all the way. So maybe, this year, consider taking a birthday trip to the woods or water and craft up a challenge for both you and your kid to join together, maybe something like a survival night or rustic camp out. Invite some other kids and their parents, even. It’ll be fun, it could be educational, but whatever happens, it’ll be a memory—hopefully one that will help them translate from childhood to adult.
Monday, June 27, 2016
Three days, three early mornings lugging deep-sea rods and tackle down the half-mile pier. Three days of constant casting in the Florida sun. Three days of water logged cigar minnows removed and replaced with fresh ones. In three days of fishing I had only hooked one, a bonito, which promptly stripped my line straight out to the end of the pier, past the other fishermen who had no desire to reel their lines in as a 9-year-old boy weaved under and over their lines to reach the far end of the pier. I never made it. The line tangles put too much pressure on my fishing line and it snapped, after so many days of getting skunked I was nearly done, just ready to spend the day at the beach. For several years growing up a family friend let us use his Pensacola, Florida, beach house for vacation. We’d sometimes team up with another family or I’d get to drag a friend along and we’d cruise down I-55 through Mississippi, cross through a bit of Alabama, and hit Florida. Different than most folks we knew, the beach would not be the sole activity each day. The guys went fishing, everyday, from morning till early afternoon. We’d always go to the same pier in nearby Navarre, to cast cigar minnows and hope for a big haul. Dad had once caught a monster King Mackerel on that pier, so I’d always dream of following in his footsteps. When I was little, I’d drop the line from my little Zebco 202 with chunks of meat on the hook and catch Triggerfish galore, even caught a Lionfish and a puffed up Blowfish that I thought would tear the gears in my reel before I managed to get it up on the pier. But this time was different, I was fishing with the big boys now. No longer would I be catching “bait”, I was going for the big fish. Dad taught my best friend and me how to throw the huge, double-handed deep-sea rods and how to bait them with the frozen cigar minnows. We casted for two days while watching the fishing demigods at the end of the pier lift doubled rods high as fish after fish bit their line. The end of the pier became a place of arrival, a bastion of the great fishermen, and I wished with all my might that I might go there. We both had our chance when I hooked my Bonito and my buddy hooked his, but they both ended in tangled, broke lines and frustrated people. After that, nothing, not a bite, nibble, tug, nothing happened. It was an angler’s desert, and the sun baked us. I baited halfheartedly, my dad having tied a trailer hook because of periodic chomps of the back half. I didn’t believe it would work and I began to think that all I wanted at that moment was the beach. I casted my line, sat down the rod, and grabbed a cold soda. As I drank, I spotted my rod over the rim of my can, the tip bounced, then bent, then the rod seesawed on the rail. I grabbed it and set the hook and the reel sang. It whined, the line rolling off the spool and the fish turned, instinctively heading out to the deep, which meant I had a long run to the end of the pier. Folks were a lot more accommodating this time, some reeled in and stepped out of the way while other guided me over their rods or under them to guard against tangles. I rushed to the end, scared I would only lose this one as well. Finally, the singing stopped and I started the heavy work of pulling and cranking. Dad stood behind me and coached, encouraged, and the fish would answer my cranking with extended stints of heading back out. It was tug-o-war, cat-and mouse, but I felt like I was the mouse. The fish seemed tireless and my arms burned after nearly 15 minutes of fighting. Some of the greats at the end of the pier sat down their rods and watched me fight. Many offered advice, others cheered me on, and finally one spotted the beast, “Shark! It’s a shark!” The blood drained from my face. Less than 100 yards away was the creature of my nightmares. I had seen Jaws and wouldn’t venture in the surf deeper than my knee and now one was on the end of my line. I had been fighting this thing for nearly 20 minutes and the news was too much. I asked Dad if he’d take over. “No, son,” he replied, “You hooked this fish, you gotta land him.” Later, I heard him tell folks that after all I’d fought for, he couldn’t live with himself if he’d lost it for me. I had to reach down deep and muster the strength. As I pulled and cranked, I spotted it; leopardy spots dotted its light blue-grey skin. The shark was hardly swimming, worn down from the fight. Finally, I held it steady directly under the 30- foot high pier as another fisherman lowered his extra large gaff to lift it up on the decking. Once he hooked it, I cleared out of the way and watched as it snapped and swayed its way over the rail. It was a full-grown leopard shark, measuring 4 ½ feet long and weighing 33 ½ pounds. It was as long as I was tall at the time. The folks at the end of the pier clapped, cheered, shook my hand, and took pictures. Dad determined to get that thing hung on the wall no matter how much the cost. We dragged the shark down the pier with it sticking halfway out of a cooler and threw it into the back of our van driving for an hour looking for a taxidermist. Once we dropped the shark off and then headed home a few days later, Dad wrote a little play by play on the catch and sent it to both city newspapers. Months later, after the shark arrived in a wooden crate that resembled a small wild-west coffin, Dad had the clipped articles and put them on a plaque with a shark jaw I’d bought at a souvenir shop and hung it alongside the catch. Of all the animals that hung on my parents’ wall, that shark is the only thing that made it with me down to my home here in Texas where it rests on my sons’ wall. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that patience and perseverance succeeds. In fact, all of life is about making the choice of instant gratification or waiting for the best time; about fighting to the end or quitting. Patience and perseverance have become as rare as a herd of buffalo. Society demands instant and easy, we want it now, nobody wants to pay their dues. For instance, the town we live in is pretty well-off, which is what my mom would say if it was going overboard to say folks were rich. If you drive through the high school parking lot, you’ll see brand new, top-of-the-line sport cars, and jacked up, decked out pickups. Many parents here have bought these vehicles, which are way better than mine, and their kid doesn’t even work to put gas in it. They have the best, they have it now, and they didn’t have to struggle for it. The result is an attitude of entitlement. I see it all the time, kids have come to the belief that they should get what they want, when they want it, and they shouldn’t have to work for it. They are entitled to it because that’s what parents do for kids. Yet, I know that one day momma and daddy won’t pay for little Jimmy’s Diesel and he’ll be left to the real world; a world that takes advantage of impatience (by ripping you off) and is cruel and tough and demands perseverance. In the outdoors, especially, if you are fishing and hunting, impatience is probably the number one reason folks don’t catch fish or kill a deer. You have to wait for the animal to show itself or the fish to bite; you have to hang in there and not give in to the voices that tell you, “There ain’t no fish in this pond.” I learned that lesson that day with my shark. By day three of catching next to nothing, I was ready to give up and hit the beach. I lacked the courage to tell that to my dad and I’m now thankful for that fear. That time that I sulked, Dad thought, and his idea for the trailer hook is what actually caught that shark. Also, I’m thankful that Dad refused to help. He told me later on that he wasn’t trying to be mean, he just was scared to death that he’d lose it for me. After I watched the men heave that trophy over the rail, I was so glad Dad had refused because I eventually landed that fish and the self-confidence from that event has impacted so many facets of my life ever since. Some Practical Dad Tips… When you start taking your kid into the outdoors, know that they will get bored. I love being out, but even I get sick of nothing happening; and it will happen. You will have days where nothing touches the line or not even a squirrel scampers in the trees. But don’t let that keep you from taking your kid. Just have a plan in mind before you go. If your child is young, plan short trips of an hour or two. Don’t cut out earlier than that, just know that if you get on the water at 8, you plan to be done by 10. If you guys start really catching, be flexible enough to stay as long as your kid wants. In Florida, Dad had planned for us to fish till near lunch, then we’d head home, but we were well past lunch after I hooked up with the shark. Just know that the more in in the woods and water, the more chance you’ll have for success. Go often and grow your time out there. When your kid struggles, resist the temptation to intervene. My dad was a master here. Everything we did, he’d eventually say, “ok, bud, take over” and I was left to do the deed myself. If I struggled, he encouraged. If I failed, he encouraged, but rarely ever did he ever intervene. The helicopter parents today that call college deans to try to legislate for better grades would have burned my old man in effigy. I know it’s hard, especially if your kid has a monster on the end of his line. You see the end, the photos and the bragging sessions, and yet, I learned how to grow up, learned how to fail, and I eventually I learned how to hang in there and never, ever quit. Eventually, your kid will develop a tolerance for a long sit in a duck blind or in a bed of lily pads and eventually, they’ll get the thrill of their life, but more than that, they’ll develop a patience and endurance that will serve them not only in the wild, but in the modern world where their willingness to endure and wait will put them ahead of nearly everyone around them.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
The Outdoors… a Classroom, My Dad…the Teacher, and Independence… the Goal: The Lesson Learned on the Log
The boat puddered along the lily pads and I kept watch, steering left, then right, taking extra care not to hit a stump. I didn’t want our fishing excursion interrupted by damage to the boat and especially to the motor. Not to mention, it was my first real opportunity to guide, my first instance of taking folks out on Reelfoot Lake and putting them on good fishing—and I was 15. I had driven boats since I was seven and fishing even before that. I had “guided” my own father for a couple of years while he sat back, relaxed, and let me troll us around and put him on the fish. I had even taken some buddies out, some to fish for the first time, so I was forced to bait their hooks and pull off the bream. I knew the 20 square-mile lake, trolled up and down it for years. I had studied maps constantly and had ventured in and out of its islands, channels, and coves. So, my parents had no problem letting me take the boat out, even by myself. Frankly, I was way more confident on the water than I ever had been on land. Now I was guiding my high school buddy and his dad and they were anxious to get on the fish. I knew of a great spot that I hadn’t fished for a while, but you had to be real careful of the underwater logs and wooden stubs. And I heard the scraping, it started at the bow and worked its way under the center of the hull, I slammed the motor in neutral, and throttled down to guard snapping the propeller. The rubbing stopped but I could tell the front of the boat sat slightly higher in the water. We were on a stub, the top of an underwater tree and the point poked right in the center of the boat, like balancing on a pin. It was frustrating, I had watched so close, been so careful and now we were stuck. I put the motor in reverse and increased the throttle. The motor rolled and water pushed back around us, but the boat didn’t move. I grabbed a long paddle and tried to push off the bottom, but the muck gave way and the paddle sunk, making it impossible to get leverage. There were no cell phones for me to call Dad and have him come help, no satellite signal emergency device I could punch to alert some authority. It was just my 15 year-old-self and my “clients” and I had to figure out something because the boat wasn’t moving. All my life my dad had taught me, through the classroom of the outdoors, how to be independent, how to be calm and handle situations—how to be a man. We spent countless hours in boats, on piers, on deer stands, in the woods, and in duck blinds, and each instance brought with it a lesson or a particular skill that would help me in the future. Those lessons and that time in the outdoors gave me confidence and an ability to just figure things out. He took chances, let me venture on my own quite a bit, and those incidents formed in me an ability to problem-solve, persevere, and lead. The boat wasn’t moving, but I had an idea, I just needed a little leverage and we would slide off. I started the motor again and put it in reverse, then I gave it some throttle. Then, I ran from the back of the boat to the front, causing it to rock. I know I looked foolish, like a pacing tiger, but in a few seconds I could hear the rubbing again and we slid off the wooden trap. I stopped the boat and peered into the water, sure enough, just below the surface, the stub lay. We finally reached our destination and caught a ton. I brought our friend back to the dock and dad had the fryer all ready, the potatoes cut, and the hushpuppies formed and resting. I grabbed a bucket and a couple of knives and cleaned the fish. “Full Service!” Mr. Menietto exclaimed. We fried them up and had an incredible fresh dinner on the deck. Exceptions for the cooking, I handled the entire day and I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. I led a fishing trip, got stranded, and was resourceful and calm enough to handle the situation. We returned safely and I served up the fish we caught to my friends, about as fresh as you can get it. Through years of being in the outdoors and being placed in situations where I would need to act, my dad had taught me independence, resourcefulness, endurance, and courage. Simply, he taught me to be a man, an adult, and when I married and moved out a few years later, although I was scared to death, I had confidence to handle what life threw at me. And ultimately, that is the “final product” we have to produce as parents—fully functioning adults, people that contribute to society and represent our name with distinction. Nevertheless, as I teach teenagers and observe college kids, I’m not so confident they’re ready. In fact, I’m shaken at their lifestyles. In our city, a place that’s been recognized by national magazines as one of the 10 best places to live in the United States, record numbers of teens and young adults use some form of recreational drug regularly (sometimes together). Kids I’ve talked to say they smoke pot because it helps them deal with the problems and pressures of life. They describe their futures as hopeless and scary and getting high relieves them of the stress. For others, pot is not enough and as I type this, I know of students I’ve taught and coached, who are now hooked on heroine or hallucinating on LSD. It seems much of their life is a fight to escape reality; social media drama and video gaming dominates their existence. They are savants in manipulating images, communicating quickly and in mass numbers, and problem solving on a video screen, and yet, most can’t even change a flat. They want life to be virtual, a controlled version of reality for reality is the monster hiding under their bed, and they keep that monster at bay by either recreating a new world on a screen or being so high they don’t even notice. This set of articles is a cry out to parents, particularly dads. Fathers have a unique power and ability to empower and teach their kids and the outdoors are an incredible classroom for all ages. You just need to get them out there, have an adventure, and see what happens. In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some ways you can get kids in the outdoors and the powerful lessons they teach. They won’t be “how-to’s” per se, but encouragement and some basics on getting there. I hope you’ll read, enjoy, and feel free to ask questions. I’ll do what I can to answer them, but If I’m not sure what to do, I’ll do what I can to figure it out—because that is how I was raised.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
A young man sits in my class trading off dozing with disturbing those around him. He often starts each day, before the official first bell, dragging in just before the ringing and slouching in his desk, finishing his breakfast and poking fun at the surrounding students. The intercom interjects, “Please stand for the pledges!” He continues eating or pestering and I remind him what we are doing. He slowly rises with a smirk, half-heartedly slips his hand somewhere just below his actual heart, and says nothing while the majority of the classroom honors “Old Glory.” Later, as I walk the students through a lesson on reading fiction, the young man shrieks, jumps out of his seat, and runs to the back of the room. I whirl around to regain the class’s attention and I spot the reason for his disturbance: a cricket hopped under his desk. I couldn’t help but shake my head, I had baited thousands of hoppers like it on hooks since I was six. Bluegill fishing in Tennessee demanded boys and girls catch crickets or dig worms, and here I faced a young man (who has no qualms with chiding others on their shortcomings) that fled it like a grizzly. Then, like something you’d read in a children’s book, a sweet and quiet girl asked if she could catch it and take it outside. I nodded my approval. She pushed up her glasses, walked around the desk, and reached down to capture the “monster.” She cupped her hands and headed out my door to release it. The young man sighed his relief, he was saved, and if it were up to me, I would’ve revoked his “pre-man card” immediately. It is for those two scenes that I’ve started this blogsite. Kids can take all manner of selfies and manipulate virtual images, but they can’t bait a hook, set up a tent, or cook a fish over a campfire. College students skip classes for “Grand Theft Auto,” but can’t change a real tire. Time honored traditions and faith seem to be bane of existence and the butt of jokes. And an understanding of what it means to be men, women, boys, and girls has become maddeningly convoluted. So this blog is basically my musings and wisdom I’ve learned from time in the outdoors and from my great teachers. I’m by nature a teacher, storyteller, and “bard of traditional living” so I can’t help but look at life and try to extract some wisdom for navigating it. Much of this blog will be stories and articles about life in the woods and on the water and memories of those who have gone before us, who lived when life wasn’t so “automatic.” It may offend, sound backwards, or even border on Neanderthal, but it’s not malicious. If anything, it’s because I’ve seen great men and women and what passes as that today is far from the adjective. So read, enjoy, think, and share—then get off the computer, get outside, or spend some time at grandma’s talking. Who knows, you just might not only learn something, you might like it. -Scott (Papa Gill)