Field and Stream
The Reunion Hunt
There are kids—more than a few—who never hunt or fish with Dad. Some fathers lack the patience or the interest. Some are snatched away by fate. No matter the reason, it’s the youngsters who are left with a hole where their hearts should be. Eddie Nickens could’ve been one of these kids, but he was not. Eddie was sublimely lucky. He ran into Keith Gleason, a former Marine with more than a normal share of compassion. —D.E.P.
A MONTH AFTER MY FATHER’S death, Keith Gleason, a 25-year-old man in our church, asked my mother if he could take me squirrel hunting the next Saturday. Keith had helped my dad with the boy’s group at church, and though he knew my father, there was no strong connection between them. He was fresh out of the Marine Corps, newly married, with time on his hands and enough intuition to know that a young grieving boy might need a distraction. My mother, grateful for the gesture, said yes.
We hunted squirrels that Saturday, and again the Saturday after that, and again the Saturday after that. And that’s how it began: From junior high to college, I hunted with Keith from one end of North Carolina to the other. We chased squirrels, deer, bear, and groundhogs. We camped in plastic lean-tos in the Great Smoky Mountains and sweltered in canvas tents pitched beside cornfields in the coastal plain. He taught me to shoot a rimfire, a deer rifle, and a bow.
I lost my father. I found my way. A man I didn’t know took me hunting.
But once I left home for college in 1979, Keith and I never hunted together again. We reconnected for a time a few years after college, when I wrote a story for Reader’s Digest on my first squirrel hunt with him. He invited me to hunt Eastern gobblers on his mountain place. We talked briefly about another try at groundhogs in the Blue Ridge. But by then my career was taking off. Plus, I had kids and a mortgage. I had excuses.
It seems inconceivable to me now that I let Keith slip out of my life with such completeness. So it was sheepishly, then, that I dialed Keith up with the idea for a reunion hunt. I should not have been surprised when he responded with unquestioned enthusiasm, as if we’d been hanging around each other for years.
* * *
I have scant recollection of the years immediately following my father’s death. From the age of 13 to about 16, I can summon very few memories. Except for those hunting trips with Keith. They’ve been preserved in a kind of spiritual amber, and I can summon up hunting memory after hunting memory in astonishing detail: a doe hanging from a gambrel in Keith’s garage, its neck oddly canted with rigor mortis; the metallic tinge of C-rations eaten under a military tarp; the drum of rain on the plastic walls of a homemade bear-camp tent; the musky smell of an arrow smeared with blood and guts; following Keith as we tracked a fox in the snow, stretching my gait to place my boots in his footprints.
Later that night, in the hotel room, Keith and I quiz each other on what we remember from our years of hunting together. When the stories lull and the silence grows, I let a question hang in the air, unspoken. Why did you do it? Weekend after weekend, year after year, why did you give yourself to this boy?
“I knew you were going to need something,” he says. “My dad had a real heart for helping the down and out. He was always trying to help people get back on their feet. I guess I have a little of that in me. One of my favorite Bible verses is Proverbs 27:17, where it talks about how iron sharpens iron, and how one man should sharpen another. That is so true. Just like me and you hanging out. We made each other strong.”