The Old Man
The Old Man – An Introduction
Editor’s Note: Some readers will remember The Old Man series of fictional short stories that appeared in Tennessee Wildlife Magazine back in the 1980s written by Jackson, Tennessee’s Gary Cook. Now retired from the TWRA, Cook is one of the most gifted writers to come from the Volunteer State, and we’re happy to bring The Old Man back for Tribune readers’ enjoyment. Look for it each Friday in the Outdoors section.
Many of today’s sportsmen learned by tradition to respect and appreciate the intricate ceremonies of nature. “The Old Man” is a tribute to those outdoorsmen who are wise enough to learn what nature teaches and care enough to pass it along to others.
The old man said real quick-like that he wasn’t an old man. “Old men,” he mumbled as he prepared to spit, “are dead, but haven’t realized the rewards. There are real rewards in dyin’, but don’t go askin’ me about them ‘cause you ain’t wise enough to understand. You’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘old enough,’ ‘cause some people got a right smart number of years behind them, but ain’t learned a thing. I ain’t old.” He shifted his tobacco. “I reckon I’m fully matured.” The smile was so quick I almost missed it underneath the tobacco-stained corner of his grey-red mustache.
The firelight flickered back and forth from the rock chimney to the swaying chair. Maybe he was right. Maybe there were many more things to learn and understand, but there was one theory that the boy had developed that he felt quite comfortable with. The old man looked old. His boot laces were brushing the wooden floor of the cabin in perfect rhythm with his chair and their frayed ends contained a mixed variety of beggar lice and cuckleburs.. His boots were a mosaic of a million cuts with old stains of blood, mud and tobacco. “Some times,” he explained, “my feet catch up to my aiming point.”
The leather on the front of his pants was almost gone from years of wading through briar thickets, and the colors in his faded flannel shirt were more gray than their original reds and blues. His felt hat was blessed with a new drooping brim, and sweat stains seeped from beneath the scaleless rattlesnake hat band.
The lines in his face accented his eyes which remained clear and alert. Those eyes that widened with emphasis seemed as out of place in that face as a primrose in a fence row.
“You see,” he continued, “there are things that are important to learn and there are things that mean nothing. Those ‘nothing things’ seem real important when you’re movin’ so fact that you ain’t got time to see. I mean really see. I bet that if you asked those people who move real fast to tell you where they’re headed they’ll not really know. The catch is that you have to have once traveled fast to know what you gain by slowin’ down. Slow don’t mean nothin’, till you’ve been fast. So, don’t go judgin’ people who go fast and can’t see what you see. Just pray they’ll get smart and slow down. And then when a feller slows down he can get down to some serious studying. Take critters for example.”
The old man sipped on the steaming mug of coffee and placed it gently on the hearth of the fireplace. “There ain’t nothing a man can’t learn about livin’ if he takes the time to study critters. The second greatest thing that the Good Lord gave us was all them wondrous woods out there to learn from. It just so happens that the best way to learn about animals is while you’re tryin’ to bring enough of ‘em home to fry up. But that’s alright too, ‘cause the way I see it, if a man don’t get plum hoggish, the Good Lord figured it all out so as to always replace the ones you took . . . I ain’t borin’ ya, am I boy?”
The boy didn’t have time to reply.
“Good. You see, if I got it straight and I’m bettin’ I do, He figures that if men, which is us, learn about livin’ along the way, then that’s what the whole shootin’ match is about. The whole ball of wax.
“Take ‘possums if’n you want to learn something. Now I bet you’re thinkin’ that there ain’t nothin’ that a possum could teach a man, but you’re wrong. The ‘possum was put there to teach us about what it takes to make a man happy. O’course the ‘possum don’t know why he was put here, but that’s the beauty of it-he don’t care why he was put here. I mean that ugly, old slow-movin’, stupid ball of fur just don’t care.
Being happy, you see, depends on what it takes to make you happy. I think they call that ‘relative’ or some such word.
“Old ‘possum is ugly as sin, but he don’t worry cause ‘ugly’ don’t stop him from doin’ one thing he wants to, which is eatin’ and sleepin’ and breedin’. Yes sir, I got a lot of respect for ‘possums and I wouldn’t kill one for nothin’, unless I accidentally squish one with the truck. And that ain’t on purpose.”
“Are you sayin’ I’m ugly?” the boy’s voice rose defensively.
“Do you feel ugly?” The old man smiled.
“Well, no. I mean, this whole thing about possums and being happy, is it supposed to have something to do with me? Ugly might not keep possums from being happy, but it sure doesn’t keep people happy, ‘cause we worry about things like that. And another thing, how long are you gonna keep callin’ me boy?
I’m 21 and have three years of college under my belt.”
The old man got up and moved to the cabin door. He opened it slowly and whistled. Shortly, a black Labrador retriever hurried into the warmth of the room and assumed a sleeping position by the empty chair. The old man walked to the stove where he inspected the slow-cooking quail and placed a pan of thick biscuits in the oven.
“And on the other hand” he continued, “you have the cats, sleek and plum pretty to watch cause they’re just overfilled with confidence. Confidence is a wonderful thing. It allows creatures to do all sorts of things that less confident ones wouldn’t even try. But then, cats have a right to be confident. They’re quick and they’re smart and they’re independent. They clean themselves when they’re dirty which don’t necessarily mean they’re vain, like people, but if you study cats you’ll probably think of somebody you knew somewhere that reminds you of a cat. And chances are it will be a lady.”
Pensively the boy poked the fire with another log before throwing it on the burning coals. “How come you never answer my questions?”
The old man continued. “So what it all boils down to is whether the bobcat is happier than the ‘possum or whether the ‘possum wishes he was a cat.”
The steady rhythm of the old man’s rocking continued, undisturbed by the sudden motion of the boy’s hands. “No, that’s not what it boils down to. There’s never been a ‘possum that ever pondered on what it would be like to be a bobcat and there’s never been a bobcat that reflected on whether or not he was happy. People ponder and reflect, not animals, We’re the ones sittin’ here talking about them. They’re just out there worryin’ about where their next meal is comin’ from.”
The old man reached over and stoked the black dog’s head, immediately stopping the animal from running in its sleep.
“No, Mr. College Boy, you’re wrong, They’re not worrying about their next meal ‘cause you’re right, they don’t ponder and reflect. All they’re trying to do, every creature that ever walked, swimmed, flew, or crawled, is to just make it through the day. The difference is that we have been given the advantage of being able to learn from nature about ourselves so that we can get happy after being sad. We can do things right, even after we’ve done it wrong. We can understand if we’ll just try. I remember my father tellin’ me about learnin’. It was right after he had taken me out behind the barn and reintroduced me to his belt. He said, “Boy, I can beat you ‘till I’m tired and I can lecture you ‘till your ears hurt, but it won’t do a bit of good ‘till you start seein’ for yourself the way things work out for the best. If a man does things the wrong way, he’s gonna fail and if he’s smart enough to figure things out, then he’ll get by alright.’ “I always wondered why if lecturin’ and whippin’ didn’t do any good, why he made such a practice of it.”
The boy laughed and the dog raised his head briefly and sleepily lowered it to the rug. The old man carefully packed his pipe with dark black tobacco.
“I remember when you were about as long as the stock of my shotgun, and I was there when you took your first step. I remember your eyes one Christmas mornin’ when you saw your first shotgun, and I remember the first time I ever caught you lookin’ funny at that cute little girl that lived down the road. You’ll be a boy to me when you’re fifty and I’m ninety-five. It don’t mean that you ain’t become a man. It just means that no matter how many years you make it, I’ll be more mature than you. It means that when I ramble on about the fact that there’s a whole bunch of animals out there with a lot more social class than a ‘possum, you ought to have the respect to listen. It means hat havin’ the class of a quail or the beauty of a goose is only important to teach us about life and when all those animals are gone then we’ll have nothing to keep our values straight.”
The old man was asleep almost before he had finished and as the boy sat there thinking about the day and enjoying the aroma of the cooking quail that was filling the cabin, he wished that he had listened a little closer.