Buckeye’s pink lips, blood-red cheeks and crimson ears bore the expression of an unhappy man. Call it frozen exasperation.
My late grandfather, whom I called Buckeye, was in his upper 70s, and the South Dakota prairie that November afternoon was miserably cold and windy. Buckeye and I were blocking a large field our hosts called The Sanctuary — an area specifically managed for Buckeye’s favorite game bird, the gaudy ring-necked pheasant.
The prairie wind was so earsplitting you couldn’t hear the birds break the thick, snowy cover and catch air. Unless a rooster exploded at your feet, your peripheral vision only caught streaks of copper waving goodbye — ringnecks as prairie rockets.
Buckeye didn’t stand a chance. When the birds started to fly in our direction, spent shell casings began to amass near his feet. His body language turned angry as he fired and missed repeatedly. His old bones and flagging reflexes wouldn’t allow him to catch up to those wind-propelled ringnecks — of which, mind you, he had killed hundreds over the years — but he nearly corkscrewed himself into the frozen ground trying.
Minutes later, he walked to the truck, unloaded his shotgun and said he was done. He never hunted pheasants again.
As we draw deeper into the 2013 pheasant hunting season, Buckeye’s swan song in the late 1990s still saddens me. That was the day I lost my favorite hunting companion, the deliciously mischievous old man and character I would later eulogize as Johnny Cash cool and John Wayne tough.
It’s been said we do not remember days; we remember moments. True enough. My most vivid moments — and memories — of Buckeye revolve around our many pheasant-hunting trips together. The hunts themselves were noteworthy (we put a lot of wild protein in the freezer) but they pale in comparison to the library of evocative stories he told along the way.
Buckeye could spin a yarn like few others, making the seemingly mundane magical. Throughout the years, he became my Hemingway, my Faulkner, my Joyce, my inspiration.
When I was a young boy, the pheasant opener was always a great occasion for Buckeye, and I fondly remember tagging along and idling on his every syllable. His voice was lilt-perfect — an endearing, soothing composite of Irish brogue (mild) and the Upper Midwest (see “Fargo”). His meaty hands were always frenetic with gesture and his words effortlessly poured off his tongue like a waterfall.
Buckeye’s stories spanned the globe — one minute he was in France during World War II, the next in the Minnesota River Valley near Belle Plaine, hunting pheasants during the 1950s along the railroad tracks near the city milk plant, where he retired as a boiler operator. Still other times he was conning the local butcher into selling him “fresh” beef liver — liver that hadn’t been cooled, as required by law — or “sticking” a pig with his father for an Irish staple: blood sausage.
Stories or no stories, I quickly learned that hunting pheasants in proximity to Buckeye was terribly unwise. A graceful and lethal wing-shooter, he was also quick on the draw. When a rooster flushed, he’d shoulder and slap the trigger of his snub-nosed single-shot .410 (he rarely used another shotgun his entire life) before my brain could process what was happening.
“That’s how you do it, Doc,” he’d say, bird in hand, just to rub my nose in it. “Quick and the dead.”
Unfazed, I could stick the needle just as well, and just as deeply, especially when we were hunting pheasants. Buckeye, you see, was far from a paragon of healthy living. He was wedded to his vices — from chewing leaf tobacco to smoking cheap, no-filter cigarettes to swilling brown liquor, sometimes simultaneously — which made him the perfect target for some good-natured ridicule.
“I see you have all the bases covered, Buckeye,” I’d chide him. “Lips, lungs and liver. Nice work. Getting ready for your next 10K, I see.”
When I left Minnesota for South Dakota to begin my career in journalism, I called my grandfather every Tuesday morning and dubbed our conversations Tuesdays with Buckeye. They were beautiful theater.
My grandfather was intensely curious, and he often quizzed me on my work. One column in particular, a piece on Aldo Leopold and land stewardship, touched a chord.
“We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see the land as a commodity to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”