The Old Man
“Well, it makes good sense to me, son. If everyone in the world your age lived out here with no more comforts than you’ve known for the past two weeks, do you think you’d look any different than they?”
Jed smiled. “It’s all relative, I guess.”
“You bet’cha,” said the Old Man. “For example, what do you do for a living?”
Jed sipped his coffee. “I’m an electrical engineer.” And suddenly the young man was laughing. “Isn’t that funny.”
The Old Man chuckled and held the mirror in front of his new friend.
“Now tell me, son... does that look like an electrical engineer to you?”
“Nope,” Jed concluded.
“Wrong, Mr. Johnston. It looks to me like a perfectly normal 30-year-old electrical engineer who just spent fifteen days alone in the woods in the dead of winter. And, I’ll tell you this; no engineer, or doctor, or salesman or professor or any man or woman who ever lived can appreciate themselves or those things that are dear to them until they spend a proper amount of time alone in the woods.”
The Old Man smoothed his mustache before continuing. “And you know that I’m right but you just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Jed held the cup in both hands, feeling the heat clear to his elbows.
“What I haven’t figured out it how you can only know a man for ten minutes and suddenly feel like you’ve known him for years.”
The Old Man laughed out loud, causing the black dog to beat her tail against the canvas floor without ever opening her eyes.
“Heck, boy,” chuckled the Old Man. “That’s an easy one. It takes most people years to really know each other, because it takes them that long to ever get around to talking about something really important. At my age, if you wait ten minutes, it may be too long. Besides, if you think about it, it’s the way people see things that make you like them or not. So, if you and I have discovered something very meaningful about our solitude out here, that most people never took the time to think about, then that made us friends a long time ago, even before we met. And that, Mr. Jed Johnston, is extremely nice for an old man to ponder on.”
Jed smiled. “I wish I had it figured out like you. You seem so sure, and I’m still a bit confused. You see, Mr. Kenton, it’s people that make me want to come here, or I should say my irritation with people and that life back there. When I’m back there, I crave the simplicity of hunting. And then, after three days
out here....” He stopped and sipped the coffee.
The Old Man’s eyes widened. “Go on, boy! You’re almost there!”
“I miss it back there,” Jed whispered.
“And that bothers you?” asked the Old Man.
“No, not that I miss it... just that it’s so ironic.”
The Old Man smiled. “I’ll tell you what, grab some bacon out of that box over there and start peeling it off in that fryin’ pan on the stove. Serious talk goes better with some vittles. Fryin’ bacon clears the brain.”
Jed laughed out loud as he found the bacon and began preparing the pan. The Old Man searched his pockets for his pipe and tobacco, and after finally finding it under his coat in the corner, settled back into his chair.
“I had thought of these things we’re talking about many times when I was young, but it never made any sense to me until I spent three weeks in the middle of nowhere, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. It was in nineteen hundred and forty-nine. I always had wanted to go so far back in the mountains that I wouldn’t be bothered by other people. I was young and strong and the thought of true wilderness didn’t scare me none at all.
And so, after some serious planning, me and another Tennessee boy left out. It was September, I remember, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I was more excited. You’ve been there boy, so you’ll know what I’m telling you is true. No man who marvels at the Lord’s handiwork can escape being plum bowled over at his first trip to the Rockies. It’s so... what’s the word... so... cleansing. That’s right. Cleansing is exactly the word I’m looking for. It’s like your very soul is being bathed through your eyes.”
Jed laughed again, as he stood at the stove over the sizzling meat. “That’s amazing... that is exactly what it does!”
The Old Man slapped his knee with the pipe, sending a clump of blackened tobacco to the floor.
“I was like a kid. I couldn’t even hunt for two days. I just explored looking at trout streams and lakes and climbing high to see meadows on the other side. The air was as pure as the water, although at first I had problems getting enough air, but that’s another story. Anyway, it’s like you said; after three or four days, I realized that I had totally changed. I was not an outsider anymore. I was a part of the mountains. I became keenly aware of all the sounds, all the sights, the weather, the wind, the animals, and eventually, the unbelievable effect of removing myself from people.”
The Old Man paused.
“And once I realized that I missed certain people, the winds became a constant reminder of loneliness, the cold was more bitter, and the silence... do you remember how silent it can become up there? People would not believe that a man can sit on the side of one of those mountains and see for maybe fifty miles and there be no sound. No wind, no birds... no sound.”
Jed stared into the frying pan as he remembered. “And that’s when,” he interrupted, “it hurts to remember those people you care about, because the more you remember, the more it hurts. So you put those memories aside, and then you feel guilty for pushing aside thoughts of the most important people in your life. But you have to not think of them, because the pain becomes too great and it hurts so bad because at that precise moment, the only thing that matters is to be with them.” He turned to the Old Man and motioned with the fork. “But you are so far removed from anyone or anything that it is impossible.”
The Old Man nodded. “I remember coming out of the mountains with a tremendous affection for my wife and children. It was as if the mountains had given be an unconfused list of those things in my life that were important to me. It was an uncluttered list of those things that I missed the most. What’s wonderful is the efficiency of the wilderness in providing a man with those memories he cherishes the most. You simply do not miss what is important.”
Taking his seat by the stove, Jed asked, “You know what I remember the most? Three things kept coming back to me over and over. At times when I thought of my children when I was on a stand waiting for an elk to come by, I could feel the weight of my son on my knee. I know that’s crazy... I could actually feel him on my knee, and I could feel the little hands of my daughter on the back of my neck, as if she were hugging me tight. And, at night when I woke in my sleeping bag or first thing in the morning, I could feel my wife’s hair against my face.”
The Old Man picked a single beggar’s lice from his shirt sleeve and flicked it toward the stove. “I was married for forty-two years to a wonderful woman. Her name is Sarah. She’s now been gone for seven years.”
The Old Man paused. “Every night for forty-two years we slept with the top of my right foot pressed gently against the arch of her left foot.”
Sam Kenton smiled at his new friend. “That’s a lot of foot rubbin’, and I’ll tell ya’, it’s one of those simple pleasures that a man can take for granted, unless....” The Old Man leaned forward I his camp chair and motioned with his pipe. “Unless early on he was taught that such a simple thing could be important. My solitude out here taught me about such things, and every night since her death I’ve felt her foot next to mine.”
“You see,” he continued, “when you reach your later years it is inevitable that you will lose many things you might have taken for granted. And most hunters who have sat all day waiting for a deer, or fishermen who have waded a stream or sat in a rocking boat watching a cork would understand our conversation, if they were here. And that means we have many friends out there we’ve never met.”
The burning hickory log cracked in the stove, sending a brief puff of smoke from the door. Jed stood by the stove and forked the bacon into a plate.
“Mr Kenton, I sure am glad I heard your shots this morning.”
“Me too,” said the Old Man. “I’ll tell you what, you empty that grease outside and I’ll find the eggs.”
“Deal,” said Jed as he made his way to the door with the hot pan. Opening the flap, he stepped outside into the cold. A red-tailed hawk screamed above him, and Jed Johnston squinted his eyes against the sun. The hawk crossed the sky above the tent and was lost from sight behind the ridge to the west. Mr. Kenton was right, Jed though. Everything’s relative. He knew how it would be. In two days, he would be clean shaven and wearing a neck tie. Sometime during the day, amidst ringing telephones and rapid-fire typewriters, or maybe while in line with a thousand honking commuters, he would stop and remember.
The hawk would scream as it passed over a wall tent nestled in the trees. The memory would clear and he would be able to actually hear the hawk’s voice. Without any effort he would be able to recall the sight of an old man and his dog walking slowly through a frost thickened field, and every time he held a cup of coffee, he would feel the heat clear to his elbows. It was true... for back there you simply do not miss what is unimportant.