By Lawrence Hawkes
My father was born when my grandfather was 71 years old. By the time I was born in 1968, my grandpa was well into to his 90s and very hard of hearing. Because he could not hear he did not talk much. But I do recall him telling me once about his father, who had served the Union in the Civil War and lost his left arm at the battle of Gettysburg.
As a boy we lived where my father and his father grew up – on the old family farm in remote northwestern Wyoming. In later years I would learn what an old and remote place it really was.
But as a young boy I thought nothing of the fact that our home was heated by wood-burning fire and that many of our meals still came from the farm they ran and the hunting they did in the mountains and valleys of Wyoming.
When I was seven we suffered a bit of a setback. My mother was away in Tennessee, tending to her sick mother when my father suffered a fall and broke his back.
I didn’t understand it but later learned that this came at a time when my parents were strapped for money. We were, in fact, living with my grandfather not because he was old and needed my parents’ help but because he let us live there for free.
Money was so spare that my mother stayed in Tennessee, unable to afford the bus fare back home. The late summer months turned to fall. Halloween passed and then Thanksgiving did too. We ate rabbit that Thanksgiving, a lucky shot, Grandpa said, for a man who was going blind.
I did not believe it. Though I did not understand until I was much more mature just how old Grandpa was at the time he did not seem anything but an old grizzled cowboy to me.
He chopped and hauled firewood. He worked the farm just as my father did most days and though he came in earlier he also got up earlier than anyone else did either. All he knew was hard work all the days of his life and it never occurred to him to not do it.
He had a horse named Buster that was as mean as a horse could be, he seemed to me. I was afraid to get near him if only because he was so big and I was so small. But really, the fact that my father was afraid of him told me to be afraid of him too.
He was the only horse on the farm, my grandfather having sold the others long before I was born. The generational separation between my Dad and Grandpa seemed to be that Dad preferred a truck and Grandpa still rode a horse.
As the months wore on with my Dad still laid up with back trouble it became clear that as a family we were in deep trouble. When Mama called and it was decided there was no way for her to come home for Christmas I started to cry.
Grandpa got very stern with me and told me that big boys don’t cry.
Looking back on it now it seems quite the desperate situation. Me and my little sister, who is two years younger than me, were really left to the care of a man well into his 90s who was doing his best to keep us fed, warm and safe. I suppose my father and my mother were beside themselves.
Maybe that is why Daddy felt compelled to pull me and Amy into his room one night before going to bed. In a whisper – which I didn’t understand because Grandpa couldn’t have heard him if he had yelled – he told us that Christmas would not be celebrated that year. When Amy, who was just five started to cry and asked how Santa could not come Daddy told her that it wasn’t her fault, that he had been naughty and because of that Santa would fly right passed our house that year.
The days to Christmas passed slowly. Grandpa took me and Amy to the bus stop each day in the old truck and school seemed to be the only place we experienced Christmas at all. We sang songs in a school program that Daddy could not attend. We each got a candy cane at the end of the program and that, I figured, was the extent of my Christmas.
Two days before Christmas Grandpa got me up before dawn. It was not a school day so I could not understand what he wanted with me. As I slipped on my boots he explained that it was time tp do a man’s job.
After I was fully dressed Grandpa said, “Go put on your Daddy’s coat.”
Thinking that was the strangest thing I had ever heard I put it on and waited for Grandpa by the door while he talked to Daddy in his bedroom.
I heard their entire conversation. Daddy had to talk very loud so Grandpa could hear him. Daddy said he didn’t appreciate me going out with him and that I might get sick and he couldn’t afford any more doctor bills. Grandpa kept saying “Huh? What?” but I think he heard what Daddy was saying. He came out of the bedroom, grabbed his shotgun and looked over at me enough to say “C’mon, let’s go boy.”
I was stunned when we walked past the truck and into the barn where Grandpa saddled up Buster. He slapped at the saddle, motioning me to get up on Buster but I resisted. I wanted nothing to do with that horse, thinking he would run away with me and dump me off the end of the earth. But Grandpa would not be denied and he grabbed me under the arms and swung me up onto Buster.
Buster’s head bucked a little but Grandpa gave him a little slap on the nose and told him to be good. He led Buster out of the barn with one arm and cradled his shot gun with the other.
I asked Grandpa where we were going and he said it was a family tradition for the men in the family to go on the most important hunt of the year just before Christmas. “No wonder,” I thought, “that Daddy didn’t want me to go. If Mama found out I was anywhere near a gun she would have a heart attack.”
Grandpa had a full white beard and he wore a cowboy hat. He trudged out into the fields and as we started to climb up into a canyon near a creek where we sometimes fished in the early summer I started to hear him breathe hard. Looking down on him from up on top of Buster gave be a view of Grandpa I had never had before. I saw for the first time a little bit of how old he was and I grew a little concerned for him.
But nothing seemed to bother him. Clouds were gathering and the temperatures were dropping as a storm approached. And though the climb got tougher Grandpa never complained. When Buster seemed to fall back a little bit during a steeper part of the climb Grandpa looked back with a bit of anger in his eye and impatience in his voice and said “C’mon, you lazy sack of bones.” He wasn’t talking to me, he was talking to Buster.
Finally we stopped. Grandpa dropped Buster’s reins and stared straight ahead. He started to load his shotgun. I strained to see what was in front of us. The hillside was the only thing I saw, nothing but trees and scrub oak everywhere. If there was something out there to shoot, I didn’t see it. My heart started to race.
“Grandpa,” I said. He merely threw up a hand and said “Hush, boy”.
Taking aim, Grandpa pointed his shotgun into the stand of trees. Within a moment he fired and stood still, staring straight ahead.
“Awwwww…..” he said. I knew he was not happy. He missed whatever it was that he was shooting.
I didn’t dare ask what he was shooting at but for the life of me I saw nothing and wondered in my mind if he had seen a deer or a turkey or a rabbit somewhere in those trees.
He lifted the shotgun again and fired, the gun booming an echo off the hills of the small ravine where we were standing. This time I saw movement as the top part of a pine tree bent over, fractured by a shell that had pierced the trunk and weakened it.
“Got him,” Grandpa said as he stowed the shotgun behind me. “Don’t touch that, I’ll be right back.”
From inside the saddle bag Grandpa fished out a rope and walked over to the tree. He made a loop with the rope and threw it over a hanging branch. Then he brought the slack end of the rope and tied it to the saddle horn. “Hang on to Buster,” he said. Then he slapped Buster on the rump and said “Git up, boy”.
Buster lurched forward, digging his hooves into the mud, completely unaware, it seemed, that I was still on top of him. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing.
I looked backwards as the slack in the rope disappeared and in one swift move Buster tore the top off that tall pine.
Not understanding, I asked Grandpa if he had shot an owl or something up in the tree.
He laughed. His hearing seemed better to me out in the cold. “No,” he said. “Today we hunt for a Christmas tree. I got him and you and Buster are going to drag him home.”
He called Buster over, who seemed now to me to be tame and understanding in a way I couldn’t explain, and Grandpa took up the slack on the rope, leaving the top of the shot-off tree to drag behind Buster as we headed down the hill.
This time, Grandpa made no attempt to guide Buster. “Home,” he said. And Buster headed off, with me aboard, content in the orders he received.
“You go on,” he yelled out to me. “I’ll be there in a minute. Make sure you keep that tree out of the mud.”
It occurred to me much later that Grandpa, even in his golden years, was a man of tremendous resource. A lifetime spent living on the land and making-do with what he had taught him things that my modern upbringing lacked. As a grown man I realized that I was not even half the man my grandfather and father were. I live in a different world, with things they in their time couldn’t even imagine. But I could never walk in their boots.
Buster headed down the hill and I sat scared to death on top of him – alone, looking back now and then to see the Christmas tree scrape along on the ground.
I worried, thinking “What do I do if I have to get down from Buster and go chase that tree?”
Every five seconds I looked back on that tree and my Grandpa in the distance, whose hands were now shoved down deep in his pockets and his head was down and hidden by his hat, shielding him from the wind and the sleet that was stinging me in the face.
Buster and I got back to the barn and I dismounted him. He stood absolutely still as I practically fell to the ground. It was all I could do to prove to Grandpa that I was brave.
Within a minute Grandpa was there. “What are ya doing?” he asked me. “A Christmas tree doesn’t go in a barn – it goes in the house.”
So I grabbed Buster’s reins and said “C’mon, you lazy sack of bones!” and sensing the delight and approval of my grandfather, Buster complied.
That day we put up our Christmas tree and even Daddy was able to help string up some lights on it.
We talked about Christmas and I told Grandpa what Daddy had said about Santa Claus not coming to our house that year. Grandpa didn’t seem to hear me.
But on Christmas Eve, long after we had said good night and were to be in bed I looked out the window and saw Grandpa outside, on Buster, heading somewhere head-first into a driving snow. Snow doesn’t fall in Wyoming – it just blows in and that Christmas Eve was one of those nights.
Worried, I awoke my father and told him that Grandpa was out in the snow. Daddy started to laugh and said “Some things never change.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by that. All I know is that the next morning our stockings were full and there were presents under the tree.
Amy could not have been more excited. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” she yelled. “I thought you said Santa couldn’t come this year!”
Grandpa stood there with a twinkle in his eye.
“Santa loves the snow,” he said. “He’s come to my house ever since I was a little boy and if it snows on Christmas like it did last night it brings him here in a hurry. Santa never passes my house by!”
We missed Mama terribly that Christmas. It was the only Christmas I knew without her until I moved away from home years later. In a way, it was the saddest Christmas I can recall from my childhood. But it was likewise the most memorable and the one I cherish now.
Grandpa died a few years later, when I was about 12 and he was well over 100. Someone once said he was the type that would die with his boots on and indeed, he did.
When you think of the number of years that separated us it was a miracle I had memories of him at all. I thank God now that I do.
I have never seen another Christmas tree shot before.
But, I swear, before I die, I’m going to show someone that it can be done.