Making a Man

Patrick grew up in an earlier generation, as one can tell from this story that reads like an autobiography. If he had been in my life when I was growing up, what stories like this would I have to write?

Fair warning, this one is a long read, converted from a PDF file dated 25 Jan 2014.

I’m pretty sure my father wouldn’t have thought to take me fishing on his own. I reckon it was Mom who put Pop up to it. Or maybe he thought he ought to, because that’s what fathers did. They took their boys out into the woods to hunt, or down to the river to the fish camp.

Anyway, here I am sitting on a boulder jutting out into New River, the sun just going down behind the mountain and the river getting darker by the minute. It is wide at this point with a few small rapids out in the middle, but I know that a little further down the ravine narrows where the railroad trestle bridge goes across, and there is lots of white water.

I am curious if fish are swimming down there in the eddies in the dark. Do they sleep at night? Do they sink to the bottom and lie there till the sun comes up? This is the question I am trying to answer for myself, moving the flashlight back and forth, leaning out to make it shine under the rock. So far I haven’t seen much, so I click off the light to save the batteries.

Mr. Brooks has built a fire in the clearing they have made on the shore. I am fascinated that he can do so many things with most of the thumb and index finger of his right hand missing. He uses the stumps for certain tasks, but not often. I think how he would have a problem hitch-hiking. Probably would thumb with his left hand, which is awkward. But he has a good Ford and probably would never have to hitch.

My father is dipping a saucepan in the river to make what he calls camp coffee. Then pretty soon I can smell fish frying in a skillet. A while I saw Mr. Brooks drop several potatoes into the coals. They both light up cigarettes. The smoke joins that from the fire climbing up into the water oaks overhead. Dad takes out a flat bottle which I know is a fifth of whiskey.

Meanwhile I am holding the white plastic flashlight, almost as long as my forearm. I push the button to turn it on again and roll over on my belly to shine the light into the water. It is not easy to see. The light reflects from the surface and when I shine the light at an angle it is murky down there. I wonder how fish can see when the river is constantly dredging up sand and pebbles. Even here the water is never still. Ripples on the surface, bits of leaves slowly swirling at the foot of the boulder.

Something scuttles by, probably a crab or a crawdad, and I try to follow it with the beam of light. Somehow the flashlight slips from my fingers and I watch in cold horror as it sinks to the bottom, shining up at me through eight feet of water.

I glance over at the two men sipping whiskey from tin cups. I secretly believe that is why they come down to the river. They want to drink without their wives pitching a fit. Here it’s just the sound of the river running by, the owl up the hollow, and the crackle of wood in the fire. Everything smells good, too.

I believe they never heard the splash of the flashlight when it hit the water. But what can I do? No way I can let myself down into the water and duck down to grab it. There’s no choice but to own up. I hate to do it, because Pop is always looking at me like I can never do anything right. I know I’ve got two left feet and trip over both of them, but I’m only thirteen and my voice is already changing, so I think I’ll be all right pretty soon. Already my girlfriend thinks I am a man, but she’s only thinking about the one thing.

“Dad,” I say, not very loud. “Dad!”

They both turn in my direction.

“I dropped the flashlight. I can’t reach it.”

He pulls his feet together and with the help of has hands on the ground gets up. He staggers only slightly coming in my directions, maybe the effect of uneven ground, but probably, I am thinking, because of the whiskey.

“Can’t you do anything right?”

After half an hour trying to put a loop around the flashlight, he gives up. The beam of light is slowly dimming down. He has been muttering obscenities under his breath the whole time. I feel really bad, and he isn’t going to make me feel better.

“Come on Paul,” Mr. Brooks says. “Time to eat. I’ve got a carbide lamp if we need light. Let it go.”

Reluctant, my father pulls up the fishing line, undoes the loop, and winds it back onto the reel. I pick at my trout and can’t eat the potato. My stomach, always a little delicate, is so nervous I have no appetite. Mr. Brooks is telling a tale about some previous fishing trip, but I don’t follow it, and it seems to me the Pop just grunts once in a while like when he is not really paying attention, but wants you to think so.

I roll up in an army blanket in a depression a little way from the fire, in case the wind comes up and blows the smoke my way. I hear the murmur of their voices for a while, and the hoot of an owl. I feel sorry about the flashlight.

Then it is daylight, and my blanket is wet with dew. The sun is shining on the river and into the trees on the other side, but here we are still in the shadow. Pop and Mr. Brooks are still sleeping. My father’s face is all that shows outside his blanket, his mouth open and snoring, his eyes funny without his rimless spectacles. I almost never see him without his glasses.

Mr. Brooks is the first to awake. He throws off the blanket and sits up. First thing he does is pull on his shoes. They are lace-up work boots with four hooks at the top. They have steel toes like miners wear. Then he goes off into the brush, probably to take a leak. When he returns he has some dry twigs and branches. He kicks the embers together and drops the twigs on top. After blowing for a while the twigs catch and he lays four branches crosswise. Pretty soon the flames are big enough to lay a couple of logs on top.

He catches me watching and comes over.

“You awake, boy?” He speaks in a soft voice so he won’t wake Pop. Come on down to the river. It ain’t too early to fish.”

“I got to pee first,” I said.

“Go right ahead. But don’t mess up the blackberries. Them’s our dessert at dinnertime.”

When I get down to the river’s edge, Mr. Brooks is tying a lure onto the transparent leader. He passed the rod over to me. Holding onto my hand around the butt of the rod, he shows me how to hold the line back with my thumb if I get a bite.

“Be sure to take the lock off before you cast,” he says. “That’s this button right here. Then you pull the rod behind you and off to the side and give it a good throw, like this!”

The line whizzes out over the sparkling river and the lure splashes down into the current.

“Don’t start winding in right away. Put the safety on and feel the rod. The river pulls steady. If they’s a bite, you’ll get a buzzing sound as the line goes out. Give her a sharp yank to set the hook. If you snag on a log or a rock, let the line go free and when it’s loose start winding again.”

He watches me make a couple of casts, not nearly so far out as what he did.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Keep practicing. I’ll wake up your daddy, make us some coffee.”

I couldn’t seem to get the lure farther than 20 or thirty feet out into the river. Mr. Brooks had said there wouldn’t be much biting that close to shore, but I waited a bit after each cast for some kind of tug at the line before reeling it in. Finally I was so frustrated that I drew my arm behind me and gave the rod a an overhand cast that ought to send the lure all the way across the river. I heard a loud snap and the lure was gone into the center of the rapids where it was caught by the eddy and held in a circle. The problem was it was no longer attached to the nylon leader. It had broken free.

“Mr. Brooks!”

He came hustling down the bank from his own spot.

“What is it, boy?”

I showed him the bare tip of my fishing rod and pointed with it toward the lure, bobbing around in a broad circle about thirty yards away.

“Well you finally got a little verve into the cast, boy. Give me that thing.”

He tied another lure with multiple hooks and started throwing it out toward his favorite. I didn’t see how he would ever grab onto it, but he didn’t give up. By lunchtime the sun was reflecting on the sliver spoon and he got closer and closer, till finally he had it hooked all right, but dragging it out of the eddy there was cross current that ripped it loose and sent it swiftly down the river. The last we saw of it something had come up and dragged it down from sight.

“Well, at least you got to see it works,” Mr. Brooks said. “I guess I’ll just have to make another one like it.” He patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, boy. Maybe fishing just ain’t your thing just yet.”

What I appreciated most about Mr. Brooks is that he didn’t say anything to Pop about my losing his favorite lure. Maybe he figured that dropping the flashlight to the bottom was about all the aggravation Pop could take. They fried up some potatoes, had a snort or two of whiskey in the meanwhile, and tossed a trout into the coals. If figured it had been caught by Mr. Brooks, since neither one of them claimed it.


I reckon that was right after school was out, so it might have been June when we went fishing. Then before you knew it school was going again, and football season was over, and the first snow had started to fall.

Pop had started oiling his guns weekends. A couple of years back he had made himself a gun cupboard with a lock on it. The key he always had on the ring with his house and car keys. I liked to sit with him as he oiled the stock of his .22 bolt action, the pump 10 gauge shotgun, and best of all the 30.30 Winchester rifle. I had an air rifle modeled after that gun, a Red Ryder special that I bought myself with paper route money.

But when he let me hold the Winchester, first making sure that there were no shells in the magazine nor in the chamber, the difference in weight was quite a surprise. It felt deadly serious somehow and I didn’t want to hold onto it. I gave it right back to him. The .22 was more my size, and sometimes we would go out in the woods and shoot at bottles. He did want me to grow up knowing something about firearms, I suppose, since it was definitely a man thing in those days, that part of the country.

Around the time of that first snowfall, one Saturday morning he opened the gun cabinet and I sat down on the bed nearby. I saw there was a box of ammunition on the shelf that hadn’t been there the last time I looked. The shotgun shells were still up there in a green box, and the little box of .22 shells, but these were in a taller and slimmer box.

“Deer season is coming up,” Pop said. “You want to come along?” He threaded a piece of white cloth through the cleaning rod and shoved it into the barrel, working it back and forth.

I figured this invitation was more or less like the fishing trip, more a chance to get off in the woods with a buddy and drink for a couple of days than a hankering to kill something. I was a good cover so Mom knew he was behaving himself, no monkey business with girls. I already had a feeling that was becoming a problem in the house, especially now that I was in full adolescence and knew what the urge felt like.

“Will Mr. Brooks be there?” I liked Mr. Brooks, but mainly I was curious which finger he would use on the trigger, missing as he was the index of his right hand.

“Not this time. Ellsworth and maybe his brother. They’ve rented a hunting lodge for a couple of weeks up near Babcock.”

I could tell from the sound of his voice he was speaking more to Mom who was sitting in the next room peeling potatoes than to me. I knew Ellsworth. He was always telling nasty jokes. I sometimes got to work after school cleaning up work sites and the like, and never much liked the way some of the men talked. Ellsworth also chewed tobacco and was always spitting so you had to be careful where you walked.

“Can I take the .22 along, maybe shoot at some squirrels?” I had the feeling I could bargain a little, since he obviously wanted me to come along.

“We’ll have to have a think about that. Might be better to do that together around here somewhere close. Wouldn’t want to scare off any deer if that’s what we’re hunting, now would we?”

We did go out to what we called the Big Woods the next day, even though it was Sunday and there were blue laws against shooting on the Lord’s day. It’s pretty hard to get a bead on a squirrel. They can somehow look at you with one eye around a tree trunk and not show so much as an ear to shoot at. You’ve got to be real quiet, the rifle up in the air, finger on the guard, shell in the chamber and wait. Eventually one might scamper onto a branch into plain sight, but by the time you have slowly lifted the stock to your shoulder, taken a breath, and aimed, the sucker has disappeared with a flick of his tail. Finally you go ahead and knock some bark off the tree where he was in simple frustration and go home.

“Better luck next time,” Pop says, and takes the gun from me. “Don’t want to fall down with a gun in your hand. And give me those other bullets.”

He remembers that once I threw a handful of shells into the trash fire out by the back field and put myself behind a tree trunk until they all went off, if I counted right. I saw it in a Johnny Mack Brown movie once, and it looked pretty neat. But Mom didn’t think it was a joke, and neither did Lee Rhodes, who lost one of his laying hens in the barrage.

It was a frosty day around Thanksgiving, with maybe two inches of snow on the ground when we took off to meet up with Ellsworth on the highway and follow him to the cabin. We could only stay three days, since I had school and Pop had work. Ellsworth and his brother Jay would stay longer, taking off from work to try for some venison for the deep freeze. We arrived a little before lunch, and Jay was roasting a chicken over the open fireplace. There was a great iron pot of whipped potatoes sitting on the range.

“Hey Paul, how you doing? Can you boys bring in some more wood before you take off your coats? After we eat we go looking for spoor. Might be dark about the time we get back.”

We hauled in a few arm loads, shucked our mackinaws. By the time we washed our hands in the bucket outside the door dinner was on the table. The men all had long neck bottles of Red Cap Ale. Nobody thought to bring cow’s milk for me, so I had spring water.

“Ain’t you a little old to be still drinking milk,” Ellsworth said. “Your age I was already dipping my wick and drinking moonshine.”

“I think he is maybe dipping, but not yet drinking,” Pop retorted for me. He had already asked me what Patsy and I were up to nights.

I blushed as usual when these guys talked about sex. I tore a leg from the chicken before they left me only with a wing, and tucked into the mashed potatoes on my plate.

“There’s a creek down in the bottom. It makes a bend right down that way.” He pointed down through the thick woods. Ellsworth’s brother acted like he knew the lay of the land. “Ellsworth and me will look along the ridge and down toward the pond. You boys go that way and watch for signs of where they watered this morning.”

“No need to take the guns?” Pop asked.

“Chances are they run off when we drove up into the holler, but I reckon they might come back this evening for another drink. We might even get a shot, but I doubt it.”

“In that case I suggest we lock the cabin. I for one don’t want a redneck stealing my Winchester.”

“You got a point. Ellsworth, lock the car, too.”

Pop had on his hunting boots, which are supposed to be waterproof. I had my galoshes buckled up all the way over my pant legs. A good think too, because there were some drifts under the trees and lots of ragged brush to get through. I kept an eye out for tracks in the snow, and droppings, but it wasn’t until we got a down to a clearing by a wide spot in the creek that we saw anything promising. Something had definitely been making a habit of coming here.

“That looks more like raccoons than deer, Pop.” I had been studying animal tracks in the scout book.

“Could be. But some folks eat ‘coons, too.” He looked up in the trees. “Likely as not they will be watching us.”

That night I slept under blankets near the fireplace. Pop and the brothers were still telling stories and drinking when I went to sleep. I was awakened by Ellsworth raking the coals together to start the fire up. Coffee was burbling in the percolator, and Pop came stumping in from the outside.

“Brr. That gives a new meaning to having a tinkle,” he said.

“I know what you’re saying. First time I ever saw a frozen yellow rainbow was right outside this door.”

“You mean we got to pee outside?” I asked.

“Well if you want to, use the outhouse, but be careful you don’t freeze to the seat if you got to set down.”

The coffee tasted real good when I came back in. It was barely dawn, just a kind of weak gray light out there.

“I guess we’d better get to it. I just hope we don’t shoot each other out there You stick right close to your daddy, hear?”

From what I knew about Pop I wasn’t sure that was the safest place, but I wasn’t about to say that.

Jay was the experienced hunter, it seemed. “Listen. If you two stick together on that slope and we’re on the other slope, we couldn’t hit each other if we tried. Course there could be other hunters out there, but I haven’t seen no sign of that. Just keep your eyes and ears open.”

Three rifles were loaded up, the safeties on. They didn’t want me taking the .22 out there yet, much to my disappointment.

We walked around for a while and finally Pop said we should stop where we had a pretty good spread of vision and put our backs to the trees. My breath made clouds in front of my face, and my fingers were like ice in my gloves, so I shoved them into my pockets. I should have worn my longjohns, but it was considered a sissy thing to do up at school.

Pop made a motion to be still. I looked in the direction he was looking and saw something move, the color of the brush all around us. It was a deer all right, covered in white spots, almost invisible. I could see two points, and the head was turning slowly in our direction, having caught our scent or the movement as Pop lifted the Winchester to his shoulder. With a bound the animal was gone and at the same moment Pop fired.

I thought and hoped that it was a clean miss. But when we reached the scuffled tracks there was a spray of cranberry color on the snow.

“It should be easy to track at least,” Jay said. “Nothing will come close to us for the rest of the day, so we might as well go after this one. You sure it wasn’t a doe, Paul?”

“It wasn’t a doe, at least one royal,” I said.

“Now will you listen to that.” Ellsworth spit some juice next to the bloodstain. “The things they teach in the boy scouts.”

“Come on. Let’s see if we can catch up to this one.” Jay headed up the ridge. “Probably wants to go deeper in the woods.”

By twelve o’clock or so, we had to give up. We hadn’t seen any blood for a while.

“I reckon the wound froze over. Must not have been nothing serious.” said Jay.

“Anyway, we worked up an appetite. Let’s go back and cook some lunch.” Ellsworth pulled at a hip flask and passed it around.

Pop said “Go ahead, Pat. It’ll warm you up a bit. Just don’t swallow the whole damn thing.”

They all laughed and we set off tramping back the way we came. My throat was burning, but it already was anyway, thinking of the deer shot in the rump.

That afternoon me and Pop went looking for rabbits. I had seen tracks here and there, but rabbits like squirrels are right hard to get at. They see and hear you before you see them. And rabbits seem to have more hiding places than squirrels. And they have a whacky way of moving so if you do catch one in the open it’s going to be hard to hit. I had a couple of near misses, but no rabbit for supper.

Heading back just before it was too dark to see much in the woods, Pop stopped and reached out for my .22. He was looking up into an oak tree with mistletoe hanging in the higher branches. I couldn’t see anything, but then he fired the rifle and something big and feathery dropped into the snow. He had shot an owl, sleeping till dusk and his hunting time.

Pop had me carry the owl, but half way back to the cabin I tossed it into the creek. My arm was crawling with lice. I shook my mackinaw off and tried to get rid of them by rubbing my skin with snow and shaking my sleeves inside out.

The next day none of us saw hide nor hair of any kind of animal. By suppertime the men were all pretty well lit up, so I took a walk alone in the nearby woods, keeping the smoke from the chimney in sight so I wouldn’t get lost. There was a bit of a moon rising over the top of the pine forest up above us. It was pretty quiet, though if you stood still you could hear life all around. A flutter of a raven’s wings. Something scuttling in the leaves frozen underneath the oaks. The creek sang over the rocks and splashed up at the bend. It seemed a shame that people came out here to mess things up.

While I stood there with my head all but blank like an untrod field of snow, I caught a shy movement in the corner of my eye. It was a red deer, not the same one, younger because the antlers hadn’t branched out so much. I could swear he was watching me as he dipped down and sucked in some water. Then he nibbled at what looked to me like watercress, some kind of green weed which surprised me in this kind of weather. But then lots of green was still around if you looked for it.

Another drink of water and then he lifted his head and stared me straight in the eye. Maybe he saw something inside me too much like every other man, and with a flick of white tail sailed over the creek and blended in with the woods like nothing had ever been there, just the rhododendron shaking from his passing.

I knew better than to mention the deer when I returned to the cabin. Pop and I were leaving for home in the morning, empty handed, but Ellsowrth and Jay would be stalking the woods and setting up a blind where they could drink and watch and kill. While we sat at supper I watched their hands. Jay and Ellsworth had thick hairy fingers and broad wrists. I had noticed before that Ellsworth always looked like he needed a shave, even first thing in the morning when you could still see a dab of shaving cream under the lobe of his ear. Both their eyes were dark brown, the way I imagined a wolf’s eyes to be.

By comparison, my father’s fingers were rather fine, delicate in a way, and behind his rimless spectacles were those blue eyes. You could see a longing there, he wanted to be one of these men, the kind that worked for him and let him do the thinking. He read the blueprints and laid the chalklines for the stud walls. Men like Ellsworth did what he said, and Pop tried to walk on the job with the lumbering strut of his crew, but it was no use. There was something in him trying to evolve, if Darwin in my science class was anything to go by. But he looked like he felt he had lost something. All his brothers were the same, making me wonder if that’s what happened when your daddy was a preacher like theirs.

I had been called a sissy before, and suspect that’s what Pop was trying to fix by taking me out with his buddies. But same as him, I would never make it.

That didn’t keep him from going on trying.

It was spring when Pop next took me out with the .22 again.

On the way home from school I saw old man Lee was out cold, dead to the world, drunk as a skunk under the bare pine tree. Right where we had bludgeoned a fat black snake not more than a week ago. Probably he was lying right on top the skin which the last time I saw it it was crawling with ants. He lay flat on his back, arms out to his sides, and he snored like a chain saw on idle. All around him were rotten branches which had fallen from the old pine over the last couple of years, but I didn’t see any right over him that threatened his health any.

I stepped over his legs stretched out into the dirt path, figuring to tell his wife Cora where he was, in case she wanted to bring him home, which I doubted. Still and all, I ought to tell her. Trappy and his gang might come along and do something, you never know. Once they held me against a tree right near here and pissed into my shoes. I wouldn’t put it past Trappy to pee in old man Lee’s mouth. But I never got to their gate. Tippie came up to our fence which bordered that of the Lee house. She was whining and limping. I ran up to the gate into our front yard and she came along inside the pickets, kind of dragging her hind legs.

We called her Tippie because her paws were all tipped in white, here tail, too, and she just a touch of white on her pointed ears. Otherwise she was a sort of a butterscotch color. Right now something white stuck out of her anus. It looked like a thick bone sticking out about two inches. It looked to me like the work of Dick or Doug, the Jones boys who lived in the bottom below the Lee place, by Sailor’s creek. If I had to guess off the top of my head who was responsible, I would have to say Dick. He was a lot meaner than Doug, maybe because being older his daddy had beat him more often. Also other kids sometimes made fun of him. Since Doug’s real name was Douglas, up at school Dick sometimes got called Dickless. When that happened he came swinging, rocks in both hands if any could be had.

I was too scared to do anything about Tippie till Pop came home. I tried to pick her up and carry her out back so my little sister and brother wouldn’t see her when they came home, but she bit me hard enough on the arm that I put her right back down on the ground in the shade of the little elm tree. I put a dish of water close by but she wasn’t thirsty.

Skeets Corker dropped Pop off right in front of our gate. He set his lunch box and thermos on the front porch by the swing and came over to where I was crouched with Tippie. He didn’t take but a minute before he gave me a look, light reflecting from his rimless spectacles.

“Nothing for it but to put her out of her misery,” he said. “I try to pull that bone out and her guts will spill all over the yard.” He went into the house. I could hear him saying something to Mom. She came out on the porch wearing her apron. “Well, I swan,” was all she said. She didn’t come down from the porch, just waited there with her hands wrapped in the apron till Pop came out carrying an army blanket and the bolt action .22.

“Let’s take her off into the woods,” he told me. “Bring that trench tool Bill brought you from the army?” He wrapped Tippie up in the blanket so she couldn’t scratch and held her tight enough she couldn’t bite.

It wasn’t more than half a mile to the woods on the other side of Reiner’s farm. The woods were pretty thick there with sumac and underbrush beneath what we called the Big Woods. The brambles were pretty thick. Later in the summer we would be over here with lard buckets picking blackberries. The path was wide enough you didn’t catch your clothes, but as soon as we had a little rain, it would close in, We went deeper in amongst the trunks till Pop found what he wanted, a hummock right near the creek. It’s where sometimes he brought us to practice shooting at tin cans. If you missed, the bullets sank harmlessly into the high bank of earth alongside the creek.

He took Tippie over there and unwrapped the blanket, laying her on the moss. When he walked away, she tried to follow, but just propped herself up on her front legs and whined. He lifted the bolt to load a shell into the firing chamber and handed me the .22.

If I had been looking over the sights at Dick Jones, right then I had the feeling I could pull the trigger without hesitation. But to shoot Tippie, looking right at me, her ears quizzical like, that I just couldn’t do. I felt more like crying, a bitter taste in my throat.

“Give me that, ” Pop said. He lifted the rifle, barely took time to aim and fired. Tippie yelped and jumped to one side. Pop aimed more carefully. This time she dropped to the ground and didn’t move. I felt like my own guts were dropping with her, and turned to run home to Mom.

“You get right on back here and bury that dog,” Pop yelled. “You don’t want the rats eating her belly out, do you?” He shucked the spent shell into the leaves and emptied the others into his palm, putting them in his overall pockets.

You can’t ever tell what kids might do with a loaded gun, even in your own house.