When I was a kid in Terre Haute, Indiana, fall meant raking leaves. It was the only yard work I enjoyed. We’d rake the leaves into giant piles, and then we’d spend the next couple of hours jumping in them, reforming the piles, and jumping in again. I can remember the damp earthy smell of those we raked from under the lilac and forsythia bushes—and the sweet odor that came when my father would set the piles to burn.
My father was a writer. For several years he had a regular column about hunting and fishing in the Terre Haute Star, “Outdoors in the Valley,” which he wrote in the persona of the “Kickapoo Clodhopper.” He had sporadic articles in a few national publications, including a profile of figure skater Janet Lynn in The Saturday Evening Post, and an exposé of fishing fraud committed by ABC’s “American Sportsman” show that was published in TV Guide. A novel about a harness-racing family, “A Chance to Win,” appeared in Hoof Beats, the magazine of the United States Trotting Association.
I’ve been gathering those articles, raking their scattered leaves into neat piles. Some were in a scrapbook kept by my grandmother. Some I’ve found in libraries. I purchased a musty-smelling copy of that Saturday Evening Post article on e-Bay.
I rarely read them when they were published. So it’s funny now to see how many of his newspaper articles included stories about me.
In the fall of 1970 he wrote about our second year of squirrel-hunting together. He said, “Bill is really becoming quite an outdoorsman,” as he told how, “walking up wooded hills on dew-soaked leaves,” I “proceeded to scamper up and down the hills of Parke County (Indiana) like a mountain goat,” while he slipped and fell and tried to avoid breaking an ankle. He told of a canoe trip with my four-year-old brother, Rob, on Otter Creek. We took his old canvas pup tent which we pitched on a sandbar, and dined on cans of Dinty Moore beef stew for supper, and potatoes, eggs, and bacon for breakfast.
On November 26, 1970—Thanksgiving Day—he told how he’d be taking me hunting with my grandfather.
“My eight-year old son is still too young to carry a gun, but he will be walking proud and tall today, braving the crisp November winds between his dad and grandfather. The three of us will be stalking pheasants in Parke County cornfields, carrying on the tradition of a family hunt on Thanksgiving.”
“We will be working up our appetites for the festive turkey dinner back at the homestead, but our purpose for being there will be to try to instill an appetite for the great out-of-doors in young Bill’s heart.”
It would prove to be our last hunting trip together. My grandfather had a heart attack a few weeks later, and didn’t live to see me open his Christmas present—a beagle puppy, which he thought would be a great addition to those hunting trips. Had I been more dedicated to reading my dad’s column, I would have learned of the present in his December 24 article rather than the next morning.
I have my own memories of each of these events. In these scattered pages of yellowed newsprint, I see them through the eyes of a young dad – 27 years old – trying to pass on a love for the things he enjoyed doing with his own dad, who died at the young age of 55.
I’m 56 now. My son is 28. Neither of us hunt, and we haven’t taken the canoe out for quite a while. There are no grandchildren on the way, though my daughter has a wedding date on this year’s calendar.
My father is alone in a nursing home, his memories taken by dementia.
But his voice speaks to me and to my kids in the words he wrote nearly 50 years ago—words that tell of his memories, his joys, his hopes and his dreams.
I did grow to love the outdoors. That’s probably why I chose the Army over the Navy or the Air Force. We still hike as a family, wherever we can find a trail.
And the crunch of dried leaves, whether I’m raking them in the yard or trampling them on a hill in the woods, will always remind me of those fall days in the woods of southern Indiana, and the stories he told to any who would listen.
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