Updated: Sep 28, 2021
By Jon Osborn, (as it appeared in Backcountry Journal)
Christmas Eve found our extended family gathered around the dining-room table for a
traditional holiday supper. As a politically diverse group, we avoid discussing world affairs and upcoming elections, which opens the floor to other topics. While the scalloped potatoes were making a second orbit, someone posed the question:
“What was your favorite childhood Christmas gift?”
At first, silence filled the room, but eventually my younger brother kicked the ball into
motion, reliving his joy as he unwrapped a Millennium Falcon toy during the height of the
original Star Wars craze. Inspired by his exuberance, my kids rehashed a more recent
Christmas morning when Santa brought scooters, turning our main floor into an impromptu
Next came my turn. The question seemed simple enough. A Christmas Story had been
playing nonstop the last few days, so the boy-gets-BB-gun plotline was fresh in my mind. I
began flipping through a mental Rolodex of gifted rifles and shotguns. Like Ralphie, an iconic Daisy Red Ryder had come first, followed by a battery of others. But which qualified as the one?
Taking a contemplative sip of Pinot Noir, my mind drifted back to the 1980s. Reagan
was president, the space program was in full swing, and movies like Red Dawn, Back to the
Future, and Karate Kid were playing in theaters. In short, it was a fine time to grow up in
middle-class America… except for the fact that my liberal-minded parents and I didn’t see eye- to-eye about guns. Then again, who could blame them? By the time I was born, they’d only recently retired their bell-bottoms and Birkenstocks. With world views formed upon a college campus in the late sixties, firearms simply went against their flower-power ethos. Nixon-era politics, war in Southeast Asia, and domestic tragedies like Kent State had made them eternally gun shy.
My brother and I, on the other hand, were weaned on episodes of Grizzly Adams and
Gunsmoke, so revolvers and lever rifles seemed like standard issue. But Mom and Dad refused to budge. No child of theirs would own even a cap pistol, never mind what the neighbor kids were doing. A little imagination went a long way in those pre-social media days, however. We secretly fashioned Lugers out of fallen sticks and bolt rifles from old broom handles.
The lingering hippy spirit within my parents’ souls must have breathed a sigh of relief
when my brother turned his attention to the wholesome sport of baseball, but I refused to lay down my weapons. Like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, I’d sooner cast myself
into the abyss than turn to the dark side. I wanted a gun even more than my parents wanted me not to have one – which was saying an awful lot. After constant begging and pleading, they finally realized they’d lost the war – an ironic concept for these conscientious objectors.
That Christmas, a long, slender box lay beneath the tree. That first Daisy may have
offered a quick and easy answer to the “favorite Christmas gift” question, but it wasn’t
representative of the broader truth. Doubtless, that spring-action air rifle ferried me over the
mountains and into metaphorical Indian Country, but looking back, my experiences outdoors superseded any tangible present. Exploring the outdoors was a gift that would keep on giving long after the Red Ryder had rusted away….
My outdoor journey really began back in 1984, when my closest chum was Tim. We’d
been friends since toddlerhood, and aside from the vacant field behind his house, our favorite place on earth was his Uncle Tom and Aunt Mindy’s 200-acre farm. There we learned to the finer points of marksmanship, stalking, survival, and subsistence hunting.
Tim’s Aunt and Uncle lived close to the soil and looked a little American Gothic and part
Lynyrd Skynyrd; “salt-of-the-earth” people, as folks say in the Midwest. Mindy was sturdy and
independent, and equally comfortable splitting wood, playing guitar, or slinging hay bales.
She had a gentle heart and a quick smile, but never hesitated to gun down a barn rat with the rusty revolver she kept tucked her belt. Uncle Tom could have been kin to hairy Esau, of Old Testament fame. A reddish thatch of beard covered his ruddy cheeks and he dressed in threadbare flannel shirts, frayed overalls, and worn leather work boots. Unlike Tim and me, Uncle Tom was strangely immune to biting flies, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. What’s more, he earned his living as a professional trapper, patrolling Allegan County’s lowlands in an era when quality pelts commanded a princely sum. Legend had it that he could center a deerfly between the eyes with a wad of Red Man chewing
Tom and Mindy’s whitewashed farmhouse bordered several rusty-red pig barns. Wind
and sunlight had weathered their wooden exteriors so severely, they looked like molting iguana skin, and stench of all those jostling swine blanketed the countryside for miles around, lending a signature aroma to the area. Even today, a hint of pig manure on the wind never fails to conjure memories of that place. Beyond the farmyard, corn and soybean fields stretched to the horizon, terminating at a distant tree line where Potawatomi Indians had camped centuries before. Their flint arrowheads, spear-points, and drill bits rose to the surface after spring rains softened the soil.
A distant tree line, barely visible from the farmhouse, formed a transition between
agriculture and a wilderness where wood ducks nested among sycamores and the coffee-
colored Rabbit River gurgled amid swamp maples. Down there, the night air reverberated with the music of coyotes and great-horned owls. None of that sprawling countryside or the adjoining fields was public land, but it might as well have been. Property lines meant nothing, and we trespassed with impunity. A couple of wandering kids warranted no cause for concern, and besides, what harm could they do anyway?
As a self-professed, “pistol-packing Presbyterian,” Mindy frequently quoted verses from
the Good Book. Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We took everything Aunt
Mindy said literally, lying motionless for hours along the riverbank, developing the monk-like
patience required for successful hunting – and fostering quiet hearts as well.
In autumn and winter, that hinterland was a hunter’s paradise, but whenever the mercury
topped sixty-degrees, mosquitoes and deerflies descended in Biblical plagues. But discomfort was the price of doing business, and our parents allowed us to discover it on our own from an early age. Thanks to their liberal views on supervision, we earned an advanced degree in outdoor education through trial and error – lessons carried into adulthood.
We rolled canoes in the nearly frozen river, fell out of tree stands, crashed through skim
ice, and contracted cases of poison ivy so severe, we wished they were fatal. Our first
campfire-cooked wild game was an utter fiasco – charred on the outside and raw on the inside. Never mind intestinal worms, we were living off the land by our wits, and no disaster ever tasted so satisfying. Before learning how to build a proper shelter and fire reflector, we spent countless nights shivering beneath winter skies, alternately freezing and smoking ourselves like human beef jerky.
What neglectful parents would have allowed this? Didn’t someone with a conscience
call Child Protective Services? Fortunately not. That freedom to explore, to succeed – and yes, even to fail – was the ultimate present; the gift that kept on giving.
It’s no secret that society takes food for granted and a vast majority of the population has
no idea what an empty stomach feels like. Tim and I didn’t either, until we challenged ourselves to a week in the woods with no food. Our plan was to eat only what we foraged or shot. After days of meager rations, hunger began consuming our thoughts. One morning, in the midst of a ketosis haze, I set out alone, armed only with an 870 Express and a pocketful of sixes. A few hours later, I strode back into camp, game bag bulging with a grouse (my first), rabbit, and two squirrels. Meat filled our bellies, but pride swelled our chests to button-popping proportions.
On inky-black nights when haunting sounds resonated through the timber, we faced-
down the demons that lurked beyond the firelight. At first, the unknown commotion rattled our nerves and shook our resolve, but eventually we learned a simple truth that remained with us through adulthood: Fear is a mental contrivance that must be overcome.
Outdoor writer Gene Hill once wrote, “Our greatest trophies are not things, but times.”
Somehow, my non-hunting parents knew that too, realizing experiences and hard-won
independence would supersede any box beneath the Christmas tree. The best present they
bestowed was the freedom to spend a childhood outdoors. Guns provided a catalyst, but where they took us was priceless. Then again, the greatest gifts always are.