Friends and Enemies
They always stop to look back.

Gray’s Sporting Journal
November/December 2016

Even during normal conversation he seldom blinked, looking through you in a way that could suggest either his undivided attention or the classic thousand-yard stare. Usually it was hard to tell the difference. Since we lost touch many years ago, and because I have not sought his permission to recount some of what follows, I’ll call him K.

My recollection is that he had earned a Purple Heart, although the details were never very clear to me. Suffice it to say that I believe the incident was responsible for his policy of always putting an insurance round in the enemy after battle. K carried a Leatherman as much for self-defense as for MacGyvering things, and he once casually slid a ballpoint pen out of his breast pocket and referred to it as a “weapon of opportunity,” clicking twice for emphasis.

He could be honest to the point of cruelty, especially with other men, yet also kind and patient, especially with women and children. But sometimes he just seemed hardened, first by orphanhood, later by war, and then by alcohol and isolation. Nonetheless, like me, he was usually up for any adventure, what folks in the South call a goer. Unlike me, he had already gone somewhere very dark, emerging on the other side of Vietnam deep in the Maine backwoods, bunkered down with his leg-hold traps and a bottle. The cabin he’d built was not your normal stacked-log affair. Its timbers were stood on end, side by side like a fortress, and by the time I met him decades later, the only thing he had left of his wilderness barricade was a yellowed photograph he showed me at my desk one day. His first wife had gotten the “cabin.” But he’d at least gotten out of the marriage and out of the woods. He also got sober, got a job newspapering, and eventually wound up as an editor churning out hook-and-bullet staples for the same outdoors publisher as I.

The work was easy enough that we were often bored, and he would come down to my office to talk. Mostly it was hunting banter mixed with standard-issue employee chatter. But what can you say when someone unexpectedly tells you what it’s like to see a bunker that he had just walked out of crushed by mortar fire, killing everyone inside? Or to watch a man with his head blown off still stumbling down the road. What can you do besides listen, and perhaps try to learn something?

Maybe he embellished for effect. Or maybe I saw these things in a horror movie and have since projected them onto him. I cannot swear to any of this. What I do know is that K one day found himself pinned down by enemy fire and, with rounds blazing overhead, vowed that if he ever got out alive, he’d never again miss another opening day of deer season. As far as I knew, he hadn’t. And while some in the office seemed content to talk about hunting, he and I went hunting. A lot.

When I looked over my shoulder I caught his silhouette in midair leaping combat style into the brush.

We chased squirrels through the North Georgia oak canopy, and hounded rabbits behind his odiferous beagle. We lay in wait for geese on frosted mornings in my uncle’s cornfield, now sadly a housing development. We bowhunted deer at a sprawling WMA on the reservoir north of town, puttering in by johnboat after work. And when temperatures dropped below 20 degrees for more than a day, we brushed in my canoe to jump-shoot ducks on a ribbon of Appalachian creek that wound through my kinfolk’s valley like a heartstring.

One morning the local ponds had frozen tight, driving every resident puddle duck onto moving water. I paddled astern, sculling the inside bend of each turn whilst K crouched in the bow behind a blind of privet and sweetgum whips. On about the third bend, four mallards got up, and K knocked down a drake. The longer we paddled, the wiser the ducks got, traveling farther downstream each time we busted them up.

At lunch we stopped on a small island, where I ever-so-expertly prepared a small fire lay. It was blustery, and much to K’s delight I hammered on match after match in the wind. Laughing hilariously, he took a picture of me huddled over my pile of spent matches “in case I ever need to use this against you.”

Then he said, “Let me see it.”

Embarrassed, I gave him the pack.  He held his index finger over a match head, struck sharply, cupped his hands around the flame, and knelt to light the tinder. Nearly 20 years later, I swear I can make fire with a pocketknife and a rock.

Aside from his keen woodsmanship, K was one of the best hunters I ever met, toting an L.L. Bean rucksack with a small stove for boiling tea, since he no longer drank. He taught me to carry salt and pepper in my pack on deer hunts—like a savory talisman—and wore no sling on his shotgun or rifle because “you can’t kill something if your weapon is on your shoulder.” He could sit stone-still against a tree for hours, then spring into an offhand shot when the less-patient squirrel revealed so much as an ear. If you were having beggar’s luck with a semiauto on the edge of a dove field, he’d sit cross-legged in the middle with his double and knock down every passing bird.

Once, we were walking strung apart down a mountain road when a whitetail leaped the two-track behind me and ahead of him. At the time he was about 50 years old, but when I looked over my shoulder I caught his silhouette in midair leaping combat style into the brush. Seconds later I heard a shot on the sidehill and scrambled down to find him standing over a doe, knife already in hand. “They always stop to look back,” he said.

The last time I saw K was more than ten years ago, when we traveled together to teach fly fishing at a summer camp for children who were fighting their own mortal battles. As we drove, he told me he’d recently had a bad episode in a retail store when he saw a woman put a cheaply made product in her basket that he noticed was Made in Vietnam.

He had lost his grip on the moment, began ranting at her about American blood and treasure, the horrors of nearly four decades past triggered by a simple SKU number. As I recall, he told me that someone had ushered him out the door.

We laughed about it, but it was the kind of nervous chuckle that comes from spooking yourself—or being spooked by someone. So we went down and taught the kids how to fly cast, each of us accepting our dose of humility in the presence of children with missing limbs and locks fallen like winter leaves. Yet they still found cause to smile. Rejoice, even. There were outdoor games, and singing, and kids dancing one-legged on crutches to a band in the mess hall. Afterwards, I drove him back to the city, dropped him off at his truck, and then lost track for good.

K was long since sober when I first met him, and without even saying much, the most important thing he showed me was that even when I, too, thought the bottle was my friend, it was just another enemy. One that could be defeated. Though he’d fought a different kind of battle for his country, he once told me that he did not vote, because in the grand scheme it didn’t matter. Coming from K, that somehow made sense.

And if he reads this, he will probably laugh and say, “What a load of bull!” But that’s okay. We’re both old enough now to know that nothing in life’s script ever reads quite the way it ought to. All that really matters is how we remember it. ✦