A CLEAN CUT CHOICE

by

L. Adam Madal

 

My first memories are the “whrrrrrisch” of hardened steel rhythmically drawn across a fine whetstone.  Dad would sit quietly at the family table, honing this knife on the evening before deer season’s opening day.  It was always his last act of preparation.  Sheer consistency kept the practice from ever seeming strange.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never thought to sharpen this blade anywhere but here in the dining room of my own home.  I remember climbing into my chair and waiting until my father began to speak.

 

Early-on, I learned the story of the knife.  It had become an icon long before being handed-down to me, so I’ve never really looked ‘at’ as much as ‘into’ it.  Now that my wife and I have a new family of our own, the blade reflects more than generations of hunting heritage.  I’m beginning to see, in its’ scarred satin finish, a hope that my children will cherish the outdoors as their ancestors have.

 

My paternal grandfather was the last of our line to pursue quarry from necessity.  Family lore relates his early years as having been a difficult time on the farm.  Wild game was a dietary staple.  As a young boy grandpa showed remarkable talent as a hunter, of whitetail deer especially.  His father recognized the blessing, and when a hard winter made difficult circumstances dire, the family’s savings were invested in a new Parker side-by-side 12 gauge.  This asset was put under the management of my grandfather.  He liked to joke about becoming a professional hunter before the age of 10.  Still, you could hear his satisfaction in literally ‘bringing home the bacon’-

“The farm never went broke.  We didn’t ever go hungry.”

 

There was nothing he couldn’t bring down.  The barn turned-into a makeshift butcher shop.  Craft of leather, fur and feather grew into a profitable cottage industry.  Though only a youngster, I like to believe my grandfather’s reputation contributed to the common nickname for that model shotgun:  “Old Reliable.”  When his father praised such rare ability, my grandfather was supposed to have simply shrugged and said-

“I made a choice.  If I miss a shot it just tempers my will for the next time I take aim.”

 

It was with great pride that my great grandfather secretly fabricated a heavy skinning blade out of a section of main leaf spring salvaged from the suspension in a neighbor’s expired tractor.  The metal was hammer-forged, flat ground and fitted with a base section of whitetail deer antler for a handle.  The drop point edge was given a frightening sharpness, and my great grandfather presented the finished product with characteristically plain words-

“I thank you for the choice that’s kept us from poverty and starvation.”

Grandpa was speechless, and this response was warmly embraced.

 

When my grandfather was found on the front porch, whetting his knife on a fine Arkansas stone, his father commented-

“I’ll wager a good working ‘cross that slab affords an edge any man could shave with.”

My grandfather recognized the gratification in his father’s eyes, replying-

“A special knife deserves the right stone.  I wouldn’t know about the shaving,” he said, returning his father’s well-pleased grin.

“Come on inside,” his father offered, and honing the knife was sanctified as one of few activities beyond dining for which the family table was used.

 

By the time my grandfather grew into a young man the farm had recovered.  But, an unsettling feeling that country life wasn’t for him had taken root in his mind.  He volunteered to fight in WW II, and grandpa once confided in me that he left home feeling sadness and relief.

 

My father’s upbringing was far removed from agriculture and livestock, but grandpa brought his wife and child back to the old homestead from time to time so they could visit kin and feel the soil of family history.  Dad and his grandfather often went on ‘expeditions’ in the surrounding woods during those visits.  On one such excursion dad heard how his father returned from combat a troubled man:

 

“Your father always had a keen sense of the world around him, but he came home with a far-away look that said he wasn’t all in one place, anymore.  He wouldn’t do much of anything, even deer hunt.  That sorely troubled me.  So, I fetched his knife and spiffed it up.  Then, I took a chunk of fieldstone, sat down at our family table and started taking the edge off the blade.  When your father walked in and saw this it stopped him, cold.  He slowly took his chair, and I told him:

 

“A man’s will is like a knife.  If he can shape his powers of decision on something right in his soul, something he values in this world, it’s easier to make clean cut choices and leave a good mark.

 

My great grandfather slid the implements across the table and waited.

“Your father stared right through his knife a good while.  When he took it up, he shook like a man caught in biting wind.  He honed that blade to a razor, packed up his gear and headed into the thick woods.  A few days later he came out with the most beautiful buck anybody in these parts ever saw, and he told me he didn’t figure to be a farmer.  The words stung a bit, but I could see he’d shaken loose the evil that had hold of him.  Alright, I said.  Take your knife and my blessing wherever you go.”

Grandpa became city-folk, but a rejuvenated love of the outdoors never left him, and the knife became his symbol of how hunting could heal a man’s spirit.

 

Dad once told me about the knife being passed-down to him on the night before his first deer season, wrapped in the same advice his grandfather had given my grandfather.  Dad accepted, tearfully-

“I hope we always hunt together, Pop!”

“I hope so, too,” my grandfather concurred.  “And, I hope that decision is always this easy.”

 

By all accounts my father’s adolescent years were happy ones, but when dad shipped-off for college the distance between he and his father stretched farther than the miles.  Arguments were common, and the persistent disagreement rubbed them both raw.  When my father declined to go deer hunting –“Sorry, Pop; gotta study,” a sacred bond was severed.

 

My father moved out the summer before his junior year, leaving all hunting gear behind.  He rented a place with his girlfriend.  They were married as the first leaves turned.  My grandfather insisted on a large chest style freezer as a wedding present, even though he knew the couple lacked means to fill the appliance.  After my father and his new bride departed from a Sunday dinner with dad’s parents later that fall, grandma confided the feminine intuition that their new daughter in law was most definitely pregnant.  Grandpa recalled-

 

“The icebox was intended to be something of a ‘Trojan Horse,’ and your mother’s condition triggered my plan of infiltration.  I invited your father to come deer hunting, but he protested that obligations to wife, school and work left no time for recreation.  I conceded to this reasoning and acknowledged his priorities were well ordered.  My previous solicitations of his company had been too blunt.  He was wary.”  Grandpa leered- “For my scheme to succeed, his guard would have to be lowered.”

 

My grandfather was confident of filling his tag, but he made arrangements to purchase additional venison.  Grandpa brought down a fat doe on opening day and personally delivered 256 total lbs. of boneless whitetail cuts.

When dad realized how much meat grandpa hauled-in, he sensed something was up-

“Must’ve been some deer, Pop,” dad said, giving my grandfather a suspicious grin.

Grandpa anticipated being apprehended, and the diversion succeeded-

“You should’ve seen her,” he said, grinning right back.

My father relaxed a little bit and let the cat out of the bag-

“I wish I could’ve, but we’re getting ready for a baby.”

Grandpa feigned astonishment while moving into position-

“Congratulations!  We have our differences, but I know you’ll make a great father.”

 

The affirmation effectively stunned my father.  Dad later told-

“Your grandfather said something about getting back home.  When I stuck out my hand for a shake, he pulled that old knife from inside his jacket and pressed the handle into my palm so fast I wasn’t sure what happened.  Before I could get words out he said-”

“Oh!  I found this in a cupboard out in the garage.  You may want to pass it on, someday.”

 

Dad shook his head, smiling in reflection on his father’s well-camouflaged plot-

“Then, he headed out, waving over his shoulder with one hand and closing the door behind him with the other.”

 

Dad looked at the knife for a moment, then chased his father down-

“Hey, Pop- hold on!  That meat sure trims a nice slice off our grocery bill.  Could we try and fit another deer in the freezer?  I mean, would you hunt with me?  I’m pretty rusty.”

Dad’s eyes never failed to well in remembering his father’s reply-

“I’ll help any way I can.”

 

Dad got a young buck with his father’s gentle guidance, and they hunted together each fall, thereafter.  Some discord persisted, but a truce was declared for deer season.  Wood and field became common ground where they’d reminisce over the past, deliver news of their lives, and share hopes for the future.  For my father, the knife glowed with the warmth of family ties re-forged in hunting.

 

I became most of what my father and grandfather held in common, and their mutual affection found its’ fullest expression in my education as a hunter.  Dad explained-

“Your grandpa may be the expert, but I’m your father.  He always asked permission to instruct you.  I admire and respect him- as a sportsman and a man.  So, I let him.”

 

Despite the years since, it’s probably fair to say I still don’t realize the profound influence of my first deer season.  Up to that threshold, taking life was something I contemplated with uneasy detachment.  Deer had become the essence of wild beauty for me.  I couldn’t imagine how killing a whitetail would offer satisfaction.  The forest, too, always seemed a little strange.  I learned a great about feral places, but I never felt part of them.  Of course, I viewed this as a personal failure.  I never told anyone.

 

My grandfather and I scouted on the afternoon before opening day, and we decided I’d hang a treestand in an old oak guarding a marshy clearing.  When grandpa asked if I shared his excitement in anticipation of my “-big day,” I knew he’d see through any denial-

“I’m scared to kill a deer,” I admitted.

Grandpa furrowed his brow, “Let’s whittle a bit.”

 

We broke limbs from a blow-down and sat on its’ bare trunk.  My grandfather drew the fixed-blade at his hip.  I pulled a folder dad had given me from my pocket and we silently commenced to piling long, elegantly curled shavings.

 

At length, grandpa complimented, “You handle a knife well.  That’s good to see.”

“I learned from the best,” I replied, smiling broadly and elbowing him in the ribs.

“Whether you hunt is up to you,” he said, “but a choice made out of fear or ignorance is poor judgment.”  Rolling a bead of sunlight up and down his knifes’ edge he mused, “A free will is only as good as the heart and mind wielding it.”  Grandpa stood, tucked his knife deftly and headed back to camp.

 

Later that evening I sat staring into the fire.  A folding chair on the other side of the flames groaned as dad eased into its’ canvas lap.  The sound of steel on stone summoned my attention.  It was time to confront my father.  I told dad about that afternoons’ conversation with grandpa.  Dad nodded thoughtfully, and never took his eyes off the task at hand as he said-

 

“I won’t argue why you should hunt, just let me let me say this:  Between birth and death, there’s a balance of competition and cooperation that I believe is the essence of life.  For me, hunting is a way of appreciating this harmony and renewing bonds with people in my life who I care about.

I didn’t look up from the flames or respond.  Dad wiped the edge clean, sheathed the knife and concluded-

 “Remember your great grandfather’s words, and sleep on what your grandfather and I said today.  I’ll hold onto the knife for you.”

 

I lay still in my sleeping bag that night, wrestling indecision and anxiety before a yearning I couldn’t define drove me from the tent, dressed and ready-

“Let’s see what it’s like to hunt.”

Grandpa’s eyes twinkled in the lamplight.  In hearty growl, my father exclaimed-

“Atta Boy!”

A rising wind prodded the darkness westward as we made our way through the woods.  I climbed up and settled into my treestand.  After a few parting words, they disappeared.  I was left groping for the meaning in their reassurances-

“Stay in the moment,” grandpa said softly, “Let things be what they are.”

“Dad whispered, “No matter what you decide after this morning, I’m proud of you for choosing to find your own answers.”

 

In a lull between gusts I heard a rustle, then the snort.  Gleaming tips of antlers stabbed through shadows at the field’s edge.  A brilliant vapor led him, drifting slowly.  He was young, strong… and upwind.  The buck casually rubbed an antler on a quivering sapling.  I reluctantly took an unsteady aim.

 

The rattle of tangling antlers echoed in the timber behind me.  I smiled to realize my elders were close by.  The buck lifted his head abruptly, moved assertively in my direction and began thrashing the underbrush.  His torso was perfectly exposed, but every part of me wavered.  My crosshairs swayed widely over his off-shoulder until I recognized only a well placed shot offered any insight.  The buck took one final step forward, and a firm resolve tightened my trigger finger- “Crack!”  The buck slumped, steadied and bolted.  Descending as carefully as a growing tremor allowed, I wondered whether anything in my light breakfast was the cause of wanting to throw-up.

 

I crossed the field slowly and stopped where shiny red globes bent the tall grass and lead into dense cover.  I glanced back at the oak silhouetted in receding darkness.  Then, standing in a new day’s light, I turned and began to follow a blood trail.

The crimson clues meandered to a wide game path beside a sparkling stream.  Shortly after the sun broke free of the horizon I rounded a scrub thicket to find the buck facing me.  We stared at each other.  In his eyes, I saw what I had been craving:  experience of this world beyond my safe and sterile ‘civilized’ existence.

 

The buck wouldn’t last long, but that didn’t take any fight out of him.  Blood flowing from nose and mouth, he braced himself and threw everything he had into full frontal assault.  I’ve never felt the desire to live so strongly as in that instant.  My rifle floated to eye level, and I fired.

 

Dad and grandpa arrived breathless-

“What’s all the racket?” dad gasped.

“He charged,” I murmured.

Grandpa sat down slowly on a weathered bolder, surveyed the area and erupted-

“What a fighter, ‘Raging against the dying of the light!’”

“…I’ll be damned.” my father quietly agreed.

 

My gaze held on the magnificence at my feet.  Dad asked-

“You alright, son?”

I looked up, grinning, “Yeah, but I’ll need one heck of a knife to dress this buck.”

“Welcome to our hunting legacy,” my father chuckled, handing me the knife.

“Thanks, dad.  Thank you, too, grandpa,” I replied, standing up as straight as I could.

“It’s a great gift to a man when he brings joy to his children, his grandchildren,” grandpa interjected.  “I thank you, both.”

“O.k.,” dad chided through his smile, “Enough congratulation, we have work to do.”

 

How many times in a person’s life can they honestly say they felt fulfilled where they were and whole in what they were doing?  When is anyone aware of nothing or in need of nothing beyond those precious moments?  To this point in my life, I haven’t had a handful of such experiences- defining and irreducible; likely unexplainable to anyone who hasn’t shared something of the same.

 

Since that first hunt, this knife has become my symbol of a visceral need to cut through the crap of modern society and reconnect with elemental nature, world without manmade rituals and artificial rhythm.  I discovered this desire in pursuit of a whitetail buck, and every fall I whet a knife to carve that impression a little deeper into myself and renew a hunting tradition in this world.

 

Now, the knife and I are ready to hunt, again.

 

It’s too bad my grandfather didn’t live to meet his great grandson, but dad will be here soon.  He’ll get a kick out of being called “Grandpa.”  We leave for deer camp in the morning, and I bet one night when we’re sitting around the campfire dad will ask what I intend to teach my boy about the outdoors.  I’ve thought about my answer-

 

“I’ll start by telling him the same stories I was told.  Eventually, I’d like to hand-down the knife, knowing he respects the responsibility and appreciates the value of hunting.”

 

“What will you say about his great grandfather?” dad will want to know.

“I’ll say the same thing I hope future generations say about you and me:  He knew what it meant to make a choice and hold to a commitment.  He was a good man and a damn fine hunter.”                                                                                                THE END