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IT’S THE SEASON for giving—and for receiving, too. Which means many of us can expect to unwrap the usual wool socks, or camo gloves, or well-intentioned box of ammo for a caliber we don’t own. Who knows? You might get something you’ve always wanted.
Rarer still, though, is the gift you never knew you wanted, from someone you never expected to receive it from. Sometimes in the outdoors, it’s the out-of-the-blue offering, the slight twist of fate in your favor, or the random act of kindness that makes the best gifts of all. That’s what these six stories are all about.
The Mini Maglite
Before there were LED headlamps and $100 Surefire flashlights, there was the Mini Maglite, a modestly priced but tough aluminum flashlight that took two AA batteries and lit the way through predawn woods and marshes for countless hunters, including me.
Although I mostly use headlamps now, I still have a bunch of Maglites in various colors. They are useful lights, and you can slide one into the muzzle of a 12-gauge as a shotgun trainer. Of all my Maglites, the blue one is special.
Years ago, my wife and I drove from Iowa to New Jersey for one of her high school reunions. Somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, at about the point where you realize there are millions of people packed into the Eastern Seaboard and you’re not in Kansas anymore, it became eye-wateringly apparent that our younger son needed a diaper change. We pulled into a freeway service plaza, which was both packed with people and without power throughout half of the building, including the restrooms.
I felt my way to the dark men’s room, where I saw a cone of light bobbing over the changing table. There was a dad there, head tilted onto his shoulder to hold a flashlight hands-free while he finished changing a diaper.
As he left, he handed me the light. “I got it from the dad before me,” he said. “Give it to the next one.” Taking custody of the light made me proud to be a father. I thanked the other dad and got to work.
I was halfway through changing John when the power came back on. I looked for my benefactor to return the light, but he was long gone, and no one else needed a light now. There was nothing to do but keep the Mini Maglite and cherish it as a memento of the kindness of strangers. —P.B.
The Best Insult Ever
I used to hunt a friend’s farm before the family sold the place. They had good reasons for unloading it, but I’ve tried not to let that get in the way of holding a grudge against them. I’ve been lucky enough to hunt all over the place, but I’d trade it all to be able to hunt that 140 acres again in Rappahannock County, Virginia.
The family used to hire local guys to work the place, and one day my friend Charlie told me that one of these guys was an actual fan of my work and wanted to meet me. I said I’d be honored. “Well, there’s a few things you should know about Hank first,” Charlie said. “He’s an alcoholic, doesn’t have a real job, and lives in a trailer. He’s on his third divorce and has a bum leg he can’t get fixed up because he doesn’t have health insurance.” I told Charlie that most people of good character didn’t like work and that I was just happy to meet a fan.
One day, as we walked toward a corral that was being built, a man limped over, and Charlie introduced me to Hank.
“Bill!” he said, pumping my hand. “Great to meet you. I really like your stuff, really enjoy reading it.” I thanked him, and we just stood there awkwardly for a moment. I adore praise, but it makes me uncomfortable, and I’m not a great conversationalist anyway. I was thinking he going to tell me something deeply personal about how my writing had changed his life. Something embarrassingly gushy, no doubt.
Finally, he said, “Like I say, Bill, I really love your stuff. But I read it, you know, about the scrapes you get into and all, and, well, sometimes I just feel so sorry for you.”
Still basking in the glow of having a fan, it took me a second to realize that this was about the sort of compliment I would get. One that’s an insult. I mean, who was this guy to feel sorry for me? I tried to smile and told Hank that I appreciated his concern. Then he went back to work, and I went back toward the house, a little miffed.
But later, I realized there was more to it. The truth is that there are a lot of Hanks out there—guys who are doing their best but for one reason or another can never get ahead. The world doesn’t think well of Hanks and makes sure they know it, in ways large and small. Hank was telling me that I sometimes give folks reasons to feel better about themselves—and that it makes a difference. And, well, I’ll take that any day. So, to Hank, wherever you are: Thanks, buddy. —B.H.
The Bullet That Makes Them Bleed
I was fresh out of college when I knocked on the door of Snitty’s house in Olympia, Washington. Ralph Sizemore was an old family friend, though he had not seen me since I was a child. He listened to my spiel—how I planned to work my way across the country before going to graduate school—while he rubbed a meaty hand against his jaw.
“About this working across the country,” he said, “well, you’re going to work for me on the drill rigs, so that’s settled.” Snitty was the drill inspector for the Department of Highways. “And until the state cuts you a few checks, you’re going to be living right here with Twila and me. But first we’re going to take the horses up into White Pass country, and we’re going to get you an elk.”
So it was that I mounted my first horse and went on my first elk hunt and, two days into the mountains, saw my first elk. Snitty was some distance behind—we were on foot that day—and he came hustling up at the shot. I shook my head. No elk. He had me point to where the big cow had been standing, then looked up. There, about 15 feet above the ground, was a fresh scar where the bullet had struck a tree.
“Must have been one of them flying elk,” Snitty said, “’cause them flying elk are hard to hit.” He bent over laughing, and I knew then that this would end up as one of his many stories. The next day I had a chance to redeem myself when I jumped a mule deer buck. Again I missed.
“Now, I know what your problem is,” Snitty said. “You don’t have a bullet that makes them bleed.” He took a cartridge from the magazine of his 30/06 and handed it to me. “This is a bullet that will make them bleed.”
The next morning, I killed a spike bull with that bullet. We’d been hunting some distance apart, and I was dressing the elk when Snitty came up on his horse. He cupped his mouth with his hands and shouted at the top of his lungs: “Liver and onions!”
We are long into the echo of that shout today, and Snitty, the best hunter and fisherman I would ever know, is telling stories to a captive audience in the sky. I drilled a hole in the cartridge case and wore it on a thong around my neck. It too is gone now, lost to time like so many things. But the bullet that makes them bleed remains the most unexpected and memorable gift I have ever been given, one hunter to another, and Snitty’s friendship and generosity will never be forgotten. —K.M.
The Dog That Gobbled
My college buddy Paulie and I were too new to turkey hunting to know that roosted ain’t roasted. So when the bird we’d put to bed the night before hammered at dawn, we were out of our minds with excitement at the thought of tagging our first gobbler. An hour later, the tom pitched from his limb, sailed across the far valley, and never gobbled again.
Walking the public-land woods at midmorning, trying to strike a bird, it seemed like our hunt was already over. When we heard what sounded like someone wringing out a cat and then spotted a couple of dudes sitting on stumps working their slate calls, we knew it was totally kaput.
They waved us over for a chat and we traded reports. They’d had it even worse than we had, apparently. “Deader than a hammer,” one of them told us. “Haven’t heard a damn turkey all day.” Just then, a gobbler sounded off on the ridge behind them, like someone ringing a bell.
“Well, did you hear that one?” Paulie asked.
The dudes looked at each other, sat silent for a second, and then started belly laughing. “You mean that dog back there?” one of them said. “He’s been barking all morning. Driving us crazy.”
Now it was our turn to exchange glances. Paulie’s eyes grew two sizes, and I turned to the fellas and said, “Say, um, would it be okay with you guys if we hunted over there?
They looked incredulous. “You mean over by the dog?” one of them howled. “Oh, sure. Hell, we’ll get out of your way.” And with that, the dudes stood up and ambled down the trail toward the parking lot, snickering.
Paulie and I were also too new to turkey hunting to know that the birds flop so much after you shoot them. So, when the tom came strutting in, and I dropped him at 20 yards, Paulie gave him another blast for good measure. Turns out, some of the best gifts in the outdoors aren’t just unexpected, but aren’t even meant to be given. Yet there we were, jumping up and down, out of our minds with excitement, our first gobbler ever lying at our feet—and two dudes in a parking lot, probably worried about a dog. —D.H.
Pastor Ted’s Blessing
As far as trout fishing went, my best friend, Mark Wizeman, and I had only ever fished for stocked rainbows, which we’d seen rise to cigarette butts and gum wrappers on our home waters in New Jersey. This was a real hatch with real bugs, and the trout snouts dimpling the surface belonged to real, wild fish. At 17 years old, on our first overnight road trip to Pennsylvania’s famed Penns Creek, we were greener than the green drakes we imagined were riding the current in front of us.
It would have been a tranquil, idyllic scene save for our bickering, which carried across the water. I’d never seen so many rising trout, and, fancying myself an expert fly angler, I couldn’t understand why none of my flies could catch them. Mark insisted the problem was that I was flailing in a rage and that I needed to relax and focus. I was about to snap back when I caught a whiff of vanilla pipe tobacco.
I’d noticed the man fishing alone well upstream earlier. He was thin, short, and graying, likely in his 60s, and he sported a classic metal flip-out fly box on his chest. He moved so silently through the tall grass and brush on the bank that we didn’t notice he was so close until he said, “How we doing, boys? Sure is a heck of hatch going on.”
We told him it was our first time to Penns Creek and casting to wild browns. He said nothing at first, absorbing our woes through a cloud of sweet smoke. Finally, he said, “Let me see what you’ve got on there.”
He chuckled because we were here for the legendary green drake hatch and were fishing matching patterns with such conviction. “Green drakes are late this year,” he told us. “These are sulfurs hatching now.” And with that, he opened his box and gave us each a parachute sulfur he’d tied himself. “Put those on and let’s take a walk.”
He led us to a fresh pool. The sun was low behind the trees by now, and the man sat down on a boulder and settled in. “Take only a few steps into the water,” he instructed. “Pick one fish and present to it. Don’t try to cast to five at once.”
Mark and I laid our flies out gently and came tight almost at the same moment. “Well done, boys,” the man said, as if he knew this would be the outcome. Mark and I each caught another big, wild brown before it was too dark to see. The man never picked up his own fly rod again.
We all walked out together, and somewhere along the way, it dawned on us that we’d not been properly introduced. “I’m Ted,” the man said. “Or Pastor Ted. That’s how most people around here know me.” He gave us a few more flies and wished us well on the rest of our visit.
We followed his rickety old pickup on the drive back to town, and he suddenly pulled over in the pitch dark and jumped out of the truck, signaling me to roll down my window. Being cynical Jersey boys, we thought this would be when the hammer dropped and we’d get mugged or abducted. But Pastor Ted just wanted to point out a sneaky access road to one of his favorite—and least pressured—stretches of Penns Creek. We fished it the next day and positively crushed it.
Twenty-three years later, and with more wild browns under our belts than we could count, Mark and I still make it a point when we fish together to dedicate at least one trout to the honorable and benevolent Pastor Ted. —J.C.
A Second Home
Sitting in a tree stand or blind, waiting for something worthy of a bullet to show up, I’ll sometimes while away the time reliving certain kindnesses that have bestowed on me. Here’s one of my favorites.
In October 2008, I drove from my home north of New York City to hunt deer with gun builder Kenny Jarrett at his plantation in Jackson, South Carolina. Jackson is on the western edge of the Palmetto State, near Augusta, and is a hard two-day drive from where I lived. The most direct route would have taken me through Washington, D.C., so to avoid the horrors of the nation’s capital, I swung well to the west, and, as dusk approached, found myself in the Virginia countryside, looking for a motel.
I found one owned and run by four sisters, and they had a room for me. They also had a restaurant that one of the sisters ran. She saw that I was the only one seated alone and asked if I could use some company. Sure, I said. I told her who I was, and where I was going, and why.
Her reaction what not what I expected. She was scandalized.
“An old man like you, so far from home, making that long drive all alone with no one to keep you company?” She paused and thought a minute.
“I want you to listen to me,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll see you tomorrow morning when you check out, so you remember this: If you get lost, or scared, or just lonely, or you have any kind of trouble, this is your home, right here. You call us.”
She had to go back to the kitchen, so I thanked her, and the next morning I didn’t see her, but the drive went fine, and I made it to Kenny’s and eventually home. But I never forgot her offer, or the big heart from which it came.
And I doubt I ever will. —D.E.P.