Not Even a Squirrel
Losing faith in what I believed brought about scary thoughts. Ten yards ahead of me, he moved faster than I wanted to move. I began to notice things I had grown used to: his wobbly gait, head tilts to help his line of sight, sporadic rasps of breath, and the necessity to speak louder when we talked. He pressed on. I hoped for a break. Although the sun was done peeking above the horizon, it didn’t promise to make it warmer. I knew we had a good six hours ahead of us, and I must ration my one thermos of hot chocolate. But rest and something warm always weakened scary thoughts. Twenty minutes ago he thought we were close. I trusted he was certain we could do this.
“Dad, wait! Let’s stop and get our bearings. Maybe we’re going too fast and you missed a marker.”
“No,” he grunted and coughed. “It’s up here on the right.”
A respect for him, tinged with fear, had always been a part of our relationship. My father-in-law joined the Civilian Conservation Corps to help his family eat, jumped out of planes on foreign soil, and mined coal before I was born. I came into his life a few years before he retired from his supervisor’s role in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Almost forty years later, I still reap the benefits of his hard work and generous spirit. So, I could respond only with an encouraging word.
“Okay, Dad. You can find it,” I hollered. “But boy, wait until I get a hold of your son,” I said softly.
My husband, Rick, was the other reason I ascended this mountain before day break with his eighty-three year old father. I never tire of his hunting stories about climbing to their coveted hunting spot, the “rock.” It was especially entertaining to watch dad listen, grin, and silently relive the tales. The wealth of precious memories dad gave his son as a young boy, and into adulthood, equipped him to face the horror of a life change. The climbs to hunt ended when the drunk driver’s car transformed Rick into a paraplegic. But from the day he learned he’d never walk again, he resolved to continue hunting on the back of a four-wheeler.
“Linda, the climb is too steep for my bike. You’re an experienced hiker. It will be his last time, and dad knows his way to the rock. You can do it!”
The opening day of deer season in Pennsylvania is sacred. For the first time in my life, I played a role in the hallowed event. I would take part in their legend. We covered every detail weeks before the big day. I was ready to combat the dark, cold, wet, wind, hunger, and thirst. I couldn’t sleep the night before. After years of hearing about the rock, experiencing the secret hunting spot (unknown and envied by others who watched, year after year, the carcasses dragged passed them shortly after daybreak) was just hours away. Most importantly, God gave me the privilege to be the one to go with dad. For years he talked about going back to the rock, but knew he couldn’t do it himself. So, though I wouldn’t carry a rifle, my presence made it possible to give a seasoned devoted hunter another chance to put his cross hairs on a nice buck. I asked God to lead us through the adventure, and finally fell asleep.
I trusted Rick. After all, who better knew our abilities and limitations? Surely he wouldn’t send us off in predawn darkness if he didn’t think we could do it. But the trust I placed in both of them waned. According to their plan, we were supposed to be at the rock by dawn. It didn’t happen.
Dad slowed and stopped. I caught up to him.
Fearing the answer, I asked, “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s changed. I thought it was right after that rock slide.”
I could always count on dad to have the right answer. He never said much, but what he said typically provided clarity and resolution through conflict and trials. But not on the day we stood on top of Tussey Mountain.
I fought to not admit this was a stupid thing to do, and we should go back. I had to be the strong one. I stood helpless, and prayed, God, I believed you’ve got us this far. Help me be strong. Please show dad where to go. Give him and me Your wisdom, and help me not be afraid.
“What do you think we should do, dad?”
“Let’s go straight for a bit. It’s gotta be close.”
I forgot I wanted a break. I didn’t respond. I just followed, and prayed. In less than five minutes, he stopped again, stared down on the ground to his right, grinning.
“Here it is!”
What I expected was not what I saw. Stories of the rock conjured images of a boulder half buried and half reaching to the sky. Without thinking I questioned his declaration.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure,” he said in a tone used when irritated by my mother-in-law.
Level with the ground, it was the size of the rug in front of my kitchen sink. I realized I should conceal my shock, refrain from laughing, and enjoy the moment with him. I watched as he ceremoniously placed his lunch by a nearby tree, positioned his rifle, and stood ready.
Respectfully, I waited for direction. He said nothing. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t in his way or the deer’s route.
“Where should I go?”
He motioned to another tree.
I obeyed, and said nothing else for the next three hours. He paid no attention to me until I opened my thermos and sandwich bag. He shot me a look of scorn. Within the next hour he sat down by the tree, and ate his sandwich.
“I can’t believe we haven’t seen anything,” he said in a loud whisper.
“Me either,” I said like a hunter would say.
“We haven’t even seen one squirrel.”
In the fifth hour of the watch, he fell asleep leaning against the tree, and snored. I left him sleep. My eyes watched for his deer. Another hour passed. It was time to wake him, and leave the rock.
For the next ten years before he died, he told the story of how we didn’t even see a squirrel.