Mike Wilson: Closing day, January 1983
Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 15, 2023
By Mike Wilson
The sky glows with that golden hue peculiar to a late winter afternoon. The temperature is dropping rapidly now—in my toes I feel the first slight tingle that portends another frigid January night. Dry leaves rustle to one side; moving only my eyes, I discover it is just another squirrel staring at me nervously with tail twitching. I look down at the old gray Remington Model 11 lying across my lap. I usually bring a scoped rifle to the edge of this cornfield, but today is different…
His name was J.C. Omar, and he was born in Tennessee of Irish immigrant farmers at the turn of the other century. He was a railroad man and, most importantly, my grandfather, and he taught me how to fish and hunt from the time I could stand up on my own. I am told that one of my first words was “‘Andaddy.” He had bought the Remington not long after their debut as a practical aid to his second job, which was hunting and selling quail and ducks. (During the Depression, he actually made more money selling game to the few people who could still afford it than he did working at a friend’s filling station all night long for a dollar.)
One of my earliest memories is of Granddaddy in his tan hunting jacket taking that big 12 gauge from the corner of the cabin and heading off to hunt squirrels on the other side of the Tennessee River at a place the locals called Rattlesnake Hill. Aching to go with him, I accepted his assurances that my day would come soon. And finally, it did: on my eleventh Christmas, I received a bolt-action .410 and was soon busting hand-thrown targets—sometimes even empty .410 casings. I certainly appreciated my own new power, but I marveled at the sonorous boom and the rapid repeating capability of that Model 11. I never saw him clean it, not even once, but year in and year out he filled the freezer with squirrels (soon reduced to delicious Brunswick stew by my grandmother Ella) and ducks, “enough to fill the house up twice” by his reckoning.
I can still see him, his glasses speckled with rainwater and his red hands freckled and cracked with lifelong exposure to the elements, piloting our little Alumacraft home on a white-capping river as I sit in the bow stroking the wondrously iridescent neck feathers of a greenhead that will be my special Christmas dinner. And I can still hear his stories of a lifetime of waterfowling—chopping a hole in the ice of the Hatchie River and killing seventeen mallards with one shot, then building a fire on the bank and retrieving them in his skivvies when the ice got thin. (Years later, I tried it—at least, the part about chopping a small hole in the ice and leaving one decoy. It works.)
He was a very lonely man after his wife of 50 years passed away, and he continued to hunt and fish for as long as he could. Then, late that December, I got the call I had dreaded all my adult life: at 81, he had died peacefully in his recliner, watching a bowl game on TV. When we had written the thank-you notes and set the house in order, I went to his closet to retrieve that old shotgun without a speck of blue on the receiver or finish on the stock, the embodiment of his legacy to me.
So here I am, sitting under an oak on a folding camo stool late on the last day of the Virginia deer season, having missed most of the last two weeks with the funeral. I felt like being alone today, so I reached for my rifle, but the Model 11 caught my eye from its new place of honor on the wall rack. Grabbing a box of 000 buckshot, I quietly strode down the hill to my favorite spot, the edge of a cornfield bordered by a hickory and beech stand on one side and by a narrow river on the other.
There is a faint flicker of white across the field, and there he is: a huge old white-faced buck that my buddies and I would definitely call “The Hartford.” He stands in the shadows on the edge of the woods about 125 yards away. My watch tells me I have 10 minutes left, so all I can do is sit dead still, scarcely breathing. If I had the rifle, I would wait until he walked behind a tree to raise it smoothly and settle the crosshairs on his shoulder; the cold weight of the Remington scattergun reminds me otherwise. And surely enough, he doesn’t move closer. As if cued by an alarm, he looks toward me, turns at last light, ambles slowly up the hollow of the hickory grove, and disappears.
“Goodbye, old Granddaddy,” I think. “Maybe next year…”
Mike Wilson is chairman of Modern Foreign Languages at Catawba College.