Everybody called my grandfather Pap. He was a typical Maryland man of a certain age. He farmed, hunted, fished, crabbed, smoked, cussed…
Pap was what they called a ‘man’s man’ in those days. And like all men’s men, he was a hunter.
Me, I wasn’t much of a hunter. For various reasons, not the least of which being that a lot of hunting is done in the winter and I hate cold weather, the whole thing just didn’t take with me. By the time I was in my teens I had given up any pretense of even faking it.
The fact that I did not hunt in no way meant that I wanted to miss the annual day-after-Thanksgiving deer hunting trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Sleeping crammed in a tiny, ancient metal camper with Pap, my dad and his brothers gave me a chance to see these men away from wives, sisters, daughters and my Grandma. I saw a flash of the wild boys these rough hewn men used to be.
I was supposed to cook to earn my keep, until I nearly burned down the trailer trying to make hamburgers. After that, it was decided that maybe I should just “take care of Pap”.
The problem with that plan was that Pap didn’t want any goddamn part of being taken care of.
Deer hunting was probably the safest thing for Pap and I to do together when I was a teenager. No one talks much when while they’re hunting and Pap and I had reached a point where we didn’t have much to say to each other. As my hair got longer and my clothes got weirder, he basically viewed me as an alien creature not part of his world.
I didn’t hunt, I hated the farm, I only worked on cars when I absolutely had to, I played the guitar in a rock and roll band and generally seemed to be on the opposite side of whatever he stood for. He didn’t have much use for me and had no problem letting me know it.
Just a week before one hunting trip, I was walking home from school in the pouring November rain when I saw Pap coming up the road in his old Chevy truck and tried to wave him down.
He drove right by me.
When I finally got to the house, soaked to the skin and freezing, I asked,
“Hey Pap, didn’t you see me?”
“I saw you just fine.”
“Well, why did’t you stop? It’s pouring out there.”
“I told you last week to get a goddamn haircut. You ain’t got one yet. I can’t have somethin’ that looks like you in my truck. I gotta live in this neighbourhood.”
We didn’t have much to talk about, Pap and me.
As the years wore on, I started to have to give Pap a boost to get him up into his tree stand. The years, miles and Camels were riding him down. The year finally came when it was clear that he wasn’t going to be able to get up into his stand, or even walk too far into the woods at all.
I walked with him to the edge of a winter cornfield, where we sat in a shallow trench that had been turned up by tractor tires and plows. It was freezing and Pap was old. He wrapped himself up in some blankets and a sleeping bag. If a deer had actually wandered by, it would have had to wait patiently for its chance to become venison while Pap sat up, unwrapped himself, grabbed his old shotgun and finally fired off a shot.
I guess maybe he realised that there was little chance that he was going to bag his limit, because, wonder of wonders, Pap actually spoke to me.
“Heard you playing that banjer of yours with them boys up the hill t’other night.”
I didn’t play the banjo then or now. It was a Fender Mustang and I was playing a Grand Funk Railroad song with a very loud - and very lousy - rock trio.
“Sorry Pap. Was it too loud? Couldn’t you hear the ballgame?”
“Nah. That music you play ain’t to my taste for sure, but it sounded like you might know what you’re doin’.”
I have had a few successes in my life, but I don’t remember ever having a greater sense of accomplishment than I did at that moment on that frigid morning sitting with my grandfather in that nameless Eastern Shore cornfield.
That was November. Pap was dead by Christmas. I was his oldest grandson, so his ancient but perfectly kept old shotgun came to me.
A lot of deer seasons have come and gone since my grandma handed me that old 12 gauge, and I haven’t shot it once. I hate it when things that once had a purpose start to gather dust or wind up as decorations on the wall of some lousy Americana-themed chain restaurant. Everything and everyone should be allowed to work as long as they can and then retire with dignity and not become some sort of bullshit sideshow.
When my mother gently suggested that one of my cousins that hunts would love to have my grandfather’s shotgun, well, it just felt right. I knew he would clean it, oil it up, shoot it and give it back the purpose it was made for.
I think Pap would be pleased. He might even say, “Boy, you just might know what you’re doin’.”
Here is a nice, simple video of me doing Grandma's Place with just my Martin.
Here is a link to the version that is on my 'What You Wish For' lp