Monday, November 28, 2011

When wolves almost got the deerslayer...

By Jim Heffernan
Firearms deer hunting season is over in Minnesota, but the Wisconsin nimrods are still going at it.  I do not hunt, but my father did – deer only. Never partridge or ducks in the years our lives overlapped.

The old dad, George, died 40 years ago this month, and with deer season and that anniversary plying my mind, I recalled the time he and his three hunting buddies (they were known to their wives as the Four Horsemen) went beyond their normal range well into the 
wilds of extreme northern Minnesota to Mizpah, up there by Northome, in Koochiching County. We all know that terrain, right?

They stayed in a hunting camp with a bunch of other deerslayers, and, unlike today when most hunters climb aloft into camo-draped stands and wait for deer to wander by, my father’s generation of hunters did the wandering around in the woods and frozen swamps hoping to encounter unlucky deer.

I must have been about 10 years old, putting this hunting expedition in about 1950. Could have been ’49 or ’48. In any event, when George returned, he had quite a tale to tell, one I believe to this day because he was not a fibber or enhancer. He truly believed he had stared down a pack of wolves in a clearing somewhere near Mizpah as he hunted alone.

Here’s how he described it. He had set his rifle – his trusty pump-action Remington 30 – against a sapling in the middle of the clearing to light a smoke when all of a sudden an unseen wolf howled from the nearby denser ticket. Then another howled a short distance from the first. Then another, and another.

George believed he might be their next meal. So he forgot about the smoke and slowly reached down, picked up his rifle and stood his ground. He believed if he showed fear or tried to run he would have been attacked. 

So he just stood there, rifle at the ready, and eventually – I suppose it was just a few minutes – the sounds disappeared. He said he never saw a wolf, only heard them.

Back at camp that evening, he was told by locals that wolves had attacked a hunter once and all they found were his boots, with his feet inside.

Can this story be true? George was not given to hyperbole that I know of. Certainly not with the family. But I have come to learn that cases of wolves attacking humans are virtually nonexistent. And if there were wolves surrounding him, they didn’t attack. He believed it was because he didn’t panic.

I only remember him bringing home one deer in the years he hunted. The gutted doe was hauled into the basement of our house to await the grisly ministrations of the Four Horsemen, which involved skinning the animal a short time later in a shop of one of his companions as we children watched. I found the process fascinating at the time, but nothing I would care to partake of as an adult.

George continued to hunt well into his elderly years, seeking other companions after the other three “Horsemen” died. Then he joined them 40 years ago, leaving two sons who never took up hunting, maybe because he never took us with him when we were young.

Come each deer season, I never feel the urge to join the thousands who take to the woods in search of venison. I just can’t bring myself to kill a brown-eyed mammal.

Moral: If you’re going to hunt around Mizpah, be sure your toenails are neatly trimmed. Just in case.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reflections on 11/11/11: The ignominious final salute to an ancient uniform...

By Jim Heffernan
WWI campaign hat
 Veterans Day 2011, or, as everyone has noticed, 11/11/11. The first Veterans Day – marking the armistice among the World War I belligerents – was signed on 11/11/18, but has often been referred to as 11/11/11, with the final eleven connoting 11 o’clock in the morning, the official time when everybody was supposed to stop shooting.

The observance used to be called Armistice Day until that name became obsolete with subsequent wars.

My father was in the U.S. Army during World War I, a training sergeant stationed at a base in California. Finally, when his unit was going be sent overseas, the men boarded a cross-country train in San Francisco. While they encamped at Camp Kilmer, N.J., before boarding ships to the front in France, along came 11/11/18 and the unit was kept stateside.

All of this took place long before I was born. But after mustering out the service and returning to Duluth, he kept his uniform, first when he joined his mother and father in their home, and later in their own home when he and my mother married. By the time I came along, the uniform hung on a wooden hanger in the basement of my childhood home in what we called the oil room. That was the room containing the big tank for oil to fuel our furnace.

Why he hung it in the dark and greasy oil room, I don’t know. It just hung on the wall there, year after year, deteriorating – the tunic, jodhpur style pants that laced at the bottom, and what we have come to regard as a “Smoky Bear” hat.

After the folks died many years ago and the old homestead was sold, I took the World War I uniform with me to my own home and hung it in my garage for about 20 years, where it became more and more moth-eaten, and then brought it with me to our next home and into that home’s garage – for another 15 years.

Finally, in our most recent move to a condominium, I decided I’d better get rid of what had become a valueless antique, unless you value artifacts of history. I brought it to the Veterans’ Hall at the Duluth Depot but they didn’t want it. Nor did they want my own Class A (dress) uniform from my Army/National Guard/Reserve days, nor an “Eisenhower” style wool uniform my brother had worn when he served in the early ‘50s. Too many uniforms in their collection, we were told.

The World War I outfit was in bad shape; little wonder they didn’t want that. The Duluth Playhouse gladly added my uniform and my brother’s to its collection, but I took the moth-eaten old uniform back home again.

WWI sergeant stripes
Finally, knowing there was nothing I could do with it, I tore off the sergeant’s strips on the sleeves, saved the ancient buttons, and stuffed the rest of the uniform my father had so proudly worn some 90 years earlier in the garbage can, an ignominious end to a piece of cloth representing so much American history.

On garbage day, I made a point to watch as the truck hoisted the plastic can into the air, making me think of a snappy salute, and dumped the uniform into its refuse-laden box. I watched as the truck pulled away, thinking of the old dad who so proudly wore that uniform.

I often think of him and his uniform on Veterans Day, my most reflective moment devoted to the holiday.

Oh, and I kept the Smoky Bear hat. Maybe one of these Veterans Days I’ll  dig it out of its box in the garage and wear it. But not this year.