The Old Man - Plans
The golden-red oak leaf fell in uncontrolled tumbles, resting fatefully upon other leaves that had not yet released, until the wind or the ground’s beckoning would send it tumbling again. Sometimes it circled as it fell, sometimes it glided or slipped sideways, until it rested delicately upon the quilt of a million other leaves that had already made the journey.
The Old Man stood at the screened window watching. The soft flannel shirt felt good against his neck, as the cool breeze penetrated the screened barrier and sent the first chill of the season down his back. The Old Man likened the feeling of autumn to coming home after a long absence. No other season produced that effect, prompting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that for years had been hard for him to understand. Finally, after a sufficient number of years, the sinking feeling had become so attached to the first chill of the fall that the feeling itself was welcomed, like the first crunching of frozen dew grass under his boot, or the October smell of wood smoke, or the first sighting of big ducks working the river. Even the Old Man’s senses became more acute in the fall. It was true. His eyes saw clearer; smells became easier to distinguish; his tobacco tasted better. It was as if the entire year was spent somewhere else, but in the fall, the Old Man came home.
Henry entered the room with a fresh pot of coffee. He refilled the Old Man’s cup, that had been left at the table. “Well?” Henry stated flatly.
“Well what?” the Old Man returned to the table.
“What do you think, well? How did you like the meal? It’s not enough that I had to shoot all those wood ducks; I cleaned’em, cooked’em and served’em and I don’t even get a ‘thanks’ or a ‘that sure was
good, Henry’. . You’re disgusting.”
The Old Man stirred the coffee and smiled. “You’re always a bickerin’ and complanin’ and pickin’. Of course I liked the meal. I ate it, didn’t I. You think I’d eat a meal I didn’t like? And as far as the shootin’ goes, I figure we maybe took twenty birds in that five day early duck season. If the truth was known, I reckon I can remember only one duck that you positively, absolutely killed and I ain’t sure he didn’t just die of hart failure or something. You sure didn’t hit him.”
Henry’s lip began quivering as he tried to mumble a response. He motioned with the coffee pot.
“Well, by golly, I’ll tell you something . .”
“Will you put that pot down?” The Old Man backed away from the table. “You’re dangerous with that thing.”
“You bet I’m dangerous and you best not forget it either?” He slammed the pot on the table shooting coffee out the spout. “See what you make be do!”
“Calm down, Henry, and let’s get back to plannin’ this hunt.”
Sitting, Henry began cleaning the spilled coffee from the table.
“That’s another thing. You plan hunts like we were twenty-five years old.”
The Old Man balked. “Just because you don’t want to hunt Catoosa . . .”
“And you know why, because we always end up in Daddy’s Creek Canyon hunting hogs. Eight-thousand acres to hunt, most of which I can handle, but you always say, c’mon, Henry, let’s go to this new place I found and the new place always ends up to be that torture hole called Daddy’s Creek.”
“It’s beautiful though, isn’t it, Henry?”
“Ain’t it breath takin’, once you get in it?”
Henry paused. He whispered. “Yes, it is.”
The Old Man prodded. “What’d you say, Henry?”
“I said ‘yes it is,’ but that won’t help me one bit if I’m down there with a broken leg or even worse.”
“I’d carry you out,” the Old Man smiled.
“Knowing you, you’d probably throw me in the creek and float me down to the bridge.”
The Old man laughed. “That’d probably work. I did a hog like that once. I swear, Henry, if I didn’t see the Devil’s Breakfast Table at least once every 2 or 3 years I believe I’d go blind. That country is somethin’ else.”
Henry doctored his coffee. “I like the Cherokee better. I mean if you have to include high places in our trip, I prefer the mountains.”
The Old Man picked at a cold piece of duck meat on his plate, and finally freed it from the bone and resumed eating.
“You’re just still yearning for a bear.”
“That I am,” Henry agreed, “and I’ll get one before I’m gone.”
“I hope you do. You deserve one as hard as you’ve tried. How many seasons now?”
“I started hunting bear in 1952. Thirty years now.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Not long . . .really . . when you think about it.” Henry stared at a silver spoon on the table.
The Old Man interrupted the silence.
“Follow me through this. I’ve got the whole thing planned out. We start at Nathan Bedford Forrest on the eighteenth with the muzzleloaders. It’ll be a good hunt. Put meat in the freezer, I bet ya. Then come home and hit the river for the weekend, collect a goose or two and rest a bit. Then, Thanksgiving week we’ll take the grand kids after quail and rabbit. You with me?”
Henry smiled. “So far you’re doing fine. It will be interesting to see whether your new dog can handle a goose.”
The Old Man laughed. “Are you makin’ fun of the way my dog retrieved those woodies?”
“Absolutely not,” said Henry, “there’s nothing wrong with ducks being retrieved by the head, or one foot.” Henry blew on his coffee before tasting.
“And then,” continued the Old Man, “we’ll hit the river for opening of duck season, pack back up and head to Catoosa for the fourth and fifth.”
“I suppose,” Henry interrupted, “that you have planned out all the food items we need to take.”
“What food items? Coffee, flour, salt, pepper. . .The basics. I don’t need to plan that.”
Henry laughed. “The reason you don’t need to plan on food is because you always depend on me to take care of it. I’d hate to live off of coffee, flour, salt and pepper for very long. I mean that’s not what you call a rounded diet.”
“I didn’t mean just . . “
“I know exactly what you meant,” said Henry. “You meant that planning for camp food is low on your priority, when compared to the more exciting parts of our trip. But that’s just it. See, I have to make those plans or we’ll starve, cause you’re too lazy . . .”
“Well, you take care of it then!” shouted the Old Man.
“See! That’s what I mean!”
“Shut up, Henry. Will you just shut up till I finish?”
“Well, excuse me,” Henry pouted.
“Now, I would like to ease on down to Chickamauga and collect some ducks on the sixth after Catoosa, and then we can . . .”
“You want bacon or sausage?”
The Old Man buried his head in his hands. “What?”
“For breakfast . . you want bacon or sausage?”
The Old Man got up and moved to the window. He sighed before turning back around. He smiled.
“And then, we can push on up to Cherokee and hunt bear for a couple of days.”
Henry smiled. “Let’s camp on the mountain where we did two years ago.”
“By the waterfall?”
“O.K., and then, on the way home we can go by A. E. D. C. and hunt the timber.”
“You can wade around out there if you want, but I’m not getting’ over ankle deep. I promise I’ll find every blow down in the swamp. You know, those holes that are about six inches deeper than your waders.”
The Old Man laughed. “I’ll never forget you out there with a wader full of icy water and no place to climb to pour it out.”
“Closest I’ve ever come to freezing,” Henry smiled. “But it is worth the trouble to see mallards in the trees. How do they do that? I mean flying that fast dodging the trees?”
The Old Man looked very seriously at Henry. He tapped the table with a band-aid covered index finger.
Laughter penetrated the screened window and could be heard by the night birds a hundred yards from the farm house.
The Old Man added some fresh coffee to his mug. “And then we’ll come home and rest for a bit, leisurely chasing quail for the rest of the season.”
“You’ve never leisurely chased quail in your life.”
The Old Man smiled. “Maybe not.”
The wind swirled the leaves outside the window and both men felt the chill.
Henry broke the silence. “Does it bother you that all these plans we’ve made may be for nothing. I mean, at our age, it’s not wise to plan too far in the future. I mean . .even if we’re both around. . .the chances of us doing all those things in one season is . . .things happen, Sam.”
The Old Man watched the steam in the coffee, and he blew on the surface of the black liquid while he thought.
“No one can predict the future, Henry. No matter how smart a fellow thinks he is; no matter how hard he works to make something happen, he cannot know about the days ahead. And, since I accept that fact, it just makes me that much more grateful when I plan something that actually happens. Really, some of the best plans I ever made never happened, but that doesn’t bother me too much ‘cause I know deep down that if they had’ve, they’d of been fine days. Knowin’ how good they would have been means a great deal to me.”
“You see, Henry, plannin’ isn’t necessarily for the future. That’s where people get all confused. Plannin’ is for now . . tonight. It’s a privilege of the present. Why, come winter, and we’re in the field, the excitement of the hunt will be more than enough to make us happy. But now, with that chill in the air, it makes us impatient to be there, and for tonight, plannin’ takes us there. And, the way I see it, we’ve earned the right-to indulge in the construction of a plan that will bring us pleasure, if we’re lucky enough to see it happen.”
Henry lifted his cup in the Old Man’s direction. “Here’s to all those plans that were never carried out. They may have very well been the most important ones.”
The Old Man touched Henry’s cup with his own. The sinking felling came quickly and lingered in the pit of his stomach.
“Maybe they all were successful, Henry. Maybe we just never realized.”
Twenty yards from the corner of the house and thirty feet high, a gray squirrel curled into a ball, buried beneath layers of autumn dried leaves that had been caught in the crotch of a hundred year old oak tree. The leaf rest provided warmth from the chill of the night. And, after a few seconds, the squirrel fell peacefully to sleep.