By: Randy Tucker
Two outings I took into the wilderness a long time ago were separated by 15 years and an incredible difference in circumstances.
My Grandpa Tucker was the ultimate backwoodsman. With his ax and 20-gauge Harrington and Richards single shot shotgun, he was adept at just about any challenge when it came to the native southern woods. He still tilled his watermelon patch and surrounding garden with a mule and plow.
With me in tow, we hopped into my grandpa’s narrow-box Ford pickup and headed south of his place to an area of dense woods. I’d just turned 8 years old and had been on my first quail hunt with my dad, my grandpa, my great uncle Fred, and some of my dad’s cousins earlier that fall. I knew how amazingly accurate they all were with shotguns and barely noticed that my grandpa had loaded his razor-sharp, double-bladed ax along with his shotgun as we departed.
Earlier that afternoon he had snapped off a support post on the barn behind the hog pen, east of the house with his International H tractor. We were on a double-mission, maybe spot a few ducks, but mostly in search of a tree to cut down and patch that broken post.
His ability to reload that old single shot was legendary. He could get off three shots nearly as fast as someone with a pump shotgun, but this time speed wasn’t necessary, because we didn’t jump any birds.
Grandpa found a catalpa tree about the right size. With a few well placed strokes of his double-bladed ax, he felled the tree. He then trimmed it to length, then we loaded it into his truck and headed home.
We dug – really, he dug, a hole with a shovel and clamshell digger next to the snapped post; we put the catalpa trunk into the hole, set it, and drove a few nails to tie it back into the barn’s overhang.
It was a memorable day in the gray woods of southern winter.
In an amazing feat of survival, that catalpa tree came to life, grew in the hole we planted it in, and then arched its way around the overhang over the ensuing years. It was still there, growing away when my wife and I visited the old homestead back in 1982.
Fast-forward in time 15 years from that winter day in 1964, and I was again in the woods. This time I was 23, a college senior, and on my own. Perhaps it was my rural roots, but my roommate Frank and I ate a lot of wild game to survive that final year in Laramie. We often had rabbit, deer, sage grouse, and duck that we hunted on public land near the “Windy City.”
One afternoon, with nothing better to do, we loaded into Frank’s Ford truck. It was only a few years newer than my grandpa’s had been, and it was the same color, only with a wide box. We headed west of Laramie toward Wood’s Landing in search of, well, in search of anything that would get us out of Laramie.
A couple of girls from the Tri Delta sorority had asked us earlier if we would cut them a Christmas tree for their sorority house. What red-blooded American boy could say no to that?
They picked up three permits from the Forest Service and gave them to us.
After a fruitless search for ducks and a chance encounter with a couple of coyotes nearly half a mile in the distance, we decided to find the Christmas trees for the girls.
Frank’s truck had a full camper shell, and we stored the few tools we owned in it. It was sort of a communal toolbox for our friends as well.
We found a stand of good-looking Colorado blue spruce in about three feet of snow. When we looked in the back of the truck we found a shovel but no saw. One of our friends had borrowed both the bow saw and the crosscut.
Hmmm… a dilemma. My mind raced back to that day with my grandpa in the Arkansas woods. What would he have done without a saw or ax? I thought.
I reached behind the seat for my Iver Johnson 12 gauge. The gun was a single shot just like my grandpa’s, only a few inches longer and with a larger gauge. My dad’s cousin Dick gave it to me when I was 12.
The first two trees were about six feet tall. We cleared the snow from the base with the shovel, then I fired at the trunk from about a foot away.
Timber! The blast neatly cut the tree with just a hint of a downward curve on the trunk. The second tree fell just as easily.
We picked a 12-foot tree for the main room at the Tri Delta house and repeated the procedure, but the larger tree didn’t fall with a single shot. The first blast took off about two inches, but that much still remained on the other side. The tree shook a bit but didn’t fall. A second shot, and we met our quota.
We shoved the trees inside the camper shell and headed back to Laramie.
Memories come in unplanned and unexplained ways. After nearly half a century, that dismal day in the Arkansas woods remains a bright spot.