Father, son start a new outdoor journey by saying goodbye to an old friend

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Farm Forum

There has been no shortage of moments during the past five years when I’d wished I had a “how to be a dad” handbook.

For example, a few weeks ago I found myself searching for words after my son, Miles, asked me a question.

“What are ashes?”

At the time, my wife and I had been discussing our plan to spread the ashes of our yellow Lab, Murphy, and little ears had been listening.

I did my best to explain what was going on, and then came another question that had me stumped.

“What does cremated mean?”

Uff-da. How do I explain this to a 5-year-old? I fumbled through an answer before he asked another question: “Can I go with you to spread ’em in the grass?”

That one had an easy answer.

So, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Miles joined me and a good family friend, Outdoor Forum editor Andrew Johnson, and his young yellow Lab, Gauge, for a road trip to a farm in rural Hutchinson County where Murphy and I had spent our best days together.

The grass and trees on this farm hold a special place for me because they belong to the family of my late friend, Steve Bierle. More than 15 years ago, he graciously invited me on the first of so many hunts on this ground not too far from the James River.

The hunt was a first for Miles, a creative kindergartner who loves music, drawing, theatrics and animals — kind of like his old man. He has shown an interest in going hunting with me this year, but our family schedule has kept me close to home. With a weather forecast promising sunshine and warm temperatures topped off by walking made relatively easy with trails and paths along the shelterbelts, this seemed like the perfect time to give him his first taste of a hunt.

Our first walk took us across a mowed field to a small, grassy shelterbelt, and Miles took his time, stumbling along with an empty pellet gun. I’m not always a patient guy, but it was pure joy to watch him shuffle through the grass stubble, pushing up the brim of his brand new Pheasants Forever hat to cast a glance at me from time to time. At one point, he asked me to stop.

“What do you need, bud?” I asked.

He didn’t reply, but stooped over to pick a piece of switchgrass, which he proudly placed between his teeth before ambling on toward the trees.

Pheasants started to erupt from the cedars and plums before we were in place, but enough hung around so that I could show Miles how to miss three roosters well within range.

“How many did you get, Dad?”

“None, buddy. I missed.”

“That happens sometimes.”

I have the feeling he won’t always be so kind. We circled back to the truck, walking along the edge of a small section of CRP while Andrew and his pup worked in the middle.

Roughly halfway back Andrew whistled, pointing to Gauge who was nosing through the cover. A hen pheasant flushed first, right under the young pup’s nose, then a rooster, a little wild but well within the range of Andrew’s 12 gauge.

The action all unfolded right in front of Miles and me.

This was my first pheasant hunt in close to 10 years that didn’t include Murphy, and I regret that Miles never saw him do what he loved. But before his eyes and mine was the beginning of a relationship between a hunter and his dog — one that promises to become something very special.

And, throughout the course of the day, I realized that I, too, was staring at a new relationship with my son. For the past decade, my identity as a hunter was linked to Murphy. The realization that this chapter in my life is over has been really difficult for me to understand and accept.

However, as Miles and I continued to walk together throughout the day, I saw a new identity starting to form, one that I’ve anticipated since the day he was born. Up to this point, the reality of what it means had yet to really sink in.

At the end of the hunt, we drove back to the trees where we’d begun the day to spread Murphy’s ashes. I don’t know how many pheasants Murphy and I flushed and shot from this patch of cover, but I do know it was his favorite place to hunt, a place where he always wore a smile.

Walking through the grass, my mind drifted back to a day not long after Murphy died, when memories of those hunts had me in tears on the floor of Miles’ room.

“What’s the matter, Dad?”

“Oh, I just miss Murphy, bud.”

“You’ll be OK, Dad. I’ll be here with you.”

And there he was, on our knees in the grass in the middle of Hutchinson County, helping me spread the ashes of our beloved dog.

The next day, Amber and I spent time decorating the house for Christmas. After putting up the tree in our living room, Amber whispered for me to come and look in Miles’ bedroom.

In the corner sat a small Christmas tree, decorated by 5-year-old hands. Sticking out from the top was a tail feather from one of the roosters that we brought home.

He might just become a bird hunter, I thought, and every bird hunter needs a bird dog.