The glare of red and blue flashing lights on the icy windshield were garish inside the truck, like a movie scene of a submarine dodging depth charges. As traffic crawled along the interstate, heads swiveled toward the reason for the delay. Below the overpass was an overturned car surrounded by police and rescue workers; a victim of black ice.
My hands involuntarily tightened their grip on the steering wheel. I was only a couple of hours into the cruel reality of a twenty-two hour drive at the helm of an aging Suburban. The night was frigid and black as sin; I wondered if dawn’s light would find us further north on our journey, or inverted like the hapless family below.
Weeks of planning came down to a collision between my will to be at the home place for Christmas, and a winter storm system that was barreling into Texas. My young family was sleeping soundly in the back of the truck, and grandpa snored softly in the front seat next to me. He was there to make sure I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.
The spitting rain driven by shrieking north winds froze thicker on highway overpasses as the night wore on. Was I on a fool’s errand? There was no money for a hotel room should the storm release its full fury and block the highway. A night spent in the truck along the road would be miserable at best; potentially deadly at worst.
I kept my nose pointed north and prayed in my Detroit – built foxhole.
My memory of the following hours is hazy. Providence prevailed and we arrived at our intended destination, fueled by No Doz and Mountain Dew. It was bitterly cold as only the Midwest can be, but thankfully the roads north of Oklahoma were devoid of snow and ice.
Mom’s small kitchen was warm, with smells of the season emanating from the stove. We fell into the ritual of catching up. These were the days before email and Facebook, and frequent long distance phone calls were relegated to higher pay grades than mine.
After the table was cleared and dishes put away, I began to scheme about how to do some pheasant hunting while I was home. It had been a several years since I had been able to chase pheasants with my father. Military service, babies and the loss of some of our family farms derailed earlier plans.
Memories of earlier times afield with dad are frozen in time in my memory; a slide show that only I can play. Pictures never captured through the lens of a camera are burned onto the film of my mind.
There was the first trip afield when I was allowed to carry a shotgun and hunt pheasants at my mother’s home farm. We were there for my grandfather’s funeral. A blizzard the night before we were to return home shut everything down, stranding us at the farm. This was a dream come true for me as the unplanned hunt unfolded in a winter wonderland. I vividly recall the first pheasant I ever shot. I can still see it silhouetted against the excruciatingly blue Iowa sky as I stood amid the silent sentinels of uncut cornstalks. The mix of guilt and exhilaration at taking its life is a paradox I still experience with each successful hunt.
There was another time on my uncle’s farm when I missed a shot on a flushing bird. My gun jammed as I tried to pump a fresh round into the chamber. Paper shells tended to swell, you see. Dad gave me the first shot, but that allowed the bird to fly beneath a tree that had fallen into the branches of another, creating a lean-to thirty yards away. Dad dropped to one knee to get a better angle, and folded the bird under the tree an instant before it made good its escape. My frozen breath hung in the air, and I stood astonished as I took in what just happened. The scene is as fresh thirty years later as if it were yesterday.
That hunt had been ten years prior to this season. I had matured, growing stronger and more confident. I wanted to go afield again with dad to make more of those memories. We decided to hunt Christmas day.
As fate would have it, Christmas eve brought ten inches of snow. Our hunting plans had to be changed due to the weather, so we decided to hunt public land nearby rather than making the four hour drive to the family farm.
We layered on clothes and loaded the trunk with shotguns and shells. The cold was intense. Each breath tingled as our lungs tried to warm the air. The snow in the drive squeaked with each step; the neighborhood was still and silent. No one stirred at this early hour.
We drove to the land dad knew about. No other tire tracks violated the purity of the blanket of white as we pulled into the parking area.
We began to hunt, and we began to freeze. We pushed through snow banks and briars alert with the tension that always accompanies the first part of any hunt. I noticed that dad moved a little slower than I remembered; or was it that I moved a little faster?
We heard no sounds, and saw no game. No triggers were pulled; no feathers were gathered.
Neither of us knew at the time that this would be our last pheasant hunt together. A job change moved my folks to Tennessee, making pheasant hunts nearly impossible.
I can still see my father that day; his face and nose red from the cold. He hunting on my left as he always did; his knit cap pulled low over his ears and his Wingmaster in the crook of his arm. Eyes alert, scanning for hidden or running birds. Yet another image of a man I love and admire – frozen in time.