Photo & Sory By Matthew Knoblauch

If I could have just one Christmas wish, it would be for a little bit more time with Grandpa. Some time to have right now as I’m older with a more sound head on my shoulders to listen with and eyes to appreciate the hidden nuances I’d otherwise miss if I were younger. I want him to walk out of his room from the end of our old house on Christmas Day, holding a couple of vests for the two of us in his larger-than-life hands and a bag slung over his shoulder full of shells and other odds and ends. He’ll hand them to me before turning for the guns in the hallway, and I’d wait patiently before following him out to the car.

I never spent much time hunting or fishing with Grandpa when I was young, and I wasn’t quite at the age where Grandpa felt comfortable taking me in the woods alone. Even as a young boy, Grandpa was old himself. So I only feel it to be right that I have some more time with him now, hunting as he loved so much.

The transfixing of thick fog, bright light, and a kaleidoscope of colors make their way into my eyes for several seconds. They were as blinding as looking into the sun, and my mind grew thoughtless and confused relatively quickly. As my eyes clear from the intense noise of light and color, I notice a weight barreling down on my shoulder and a tall, dark silhouette in front of me. It was the heft from a bag of shells and Grandpa walking to the car.

We make a quick stop for coffee and a pastry at the gas station before beginning to make our way toward some seasonal road unknown to me. As Grandpa drives, I keep my eye on him. His hands gripped tight to the wheel at the perfect ten and two, almost resting his tall nose on the steering wheel in front of him. I haven’t seen anyone drive like that since . . . . well . . . . since I watched Grandpa do it twenty years ago. He’ll point out all the fields where he hunted Whitetails and name off all the owners of long gone farms that we drive past, where the land beyond the barn was perfect Partridge cover once but is now long gone. Sometime between then and now, a new house sprung up, and a new family came in and did away with it all.

“That was the Milner farm over there.” He stretched his long finger over the dashboard in front of me.

“We used to put up ten birds a day in that little cover. Ol’ Sadie used to point every partridge she’d come across in there. I think she liked that place just as much as I did.”

A Tom T. Hall song hums in the background as we drive.

We park the car beside a wooden culvert on the side of a dirt road. As we start walking into one of Grandpa’s secret covers, snow begins to fall softly among us, adding serenity to my wish.
Grandpa walks through the cover as if it was only a season ago he was in here last. Cradling his old Westernfield twenty-gauge in his arm, he starts talking to me about the good old days — days full of old friends, old dogs, and even older covers.

“These grounds used to be crawling with Woodcock. They were so thick in here during the flights you’d almost step on them! Boy, the shootin’ was good back then.”

Grandpa stepped carefully through the cover.

“I remember when Scoot was just a puppy, and your Grandmother and I brought him up here where he locked into his first real point. On a Woodchuck!”

I listen as if it were the last thing I would ever hear as he talks about all the old haunts he frequented in the fall or the best ponds he would fish hidden behind springs’ budding trees. He tells me, “Them bass were as big as pigs,” as I’ve heard those words a hundred times in my youth. He musters out the names of his fishing partners under his breath as he thinks aloud, discreetly letting me know how important those people were in his life and how important it is to have people like that in my own.

The morning faded into the afternoon. A lunch of sliced liverwurst on a log next to a hundred-year-old cattle fence was just what the doctor ordered. Our conversations have been wholesome and clearly missed over the many years since Grandpa left us. We sat on that log for longer than anyone else would have. Deer passed by us in blatant disregard to the two of us, and a cottontail peaked from one end of the log and scurried away while the songbirds danced on the crabapples that hung red still on a December day. We thought of the winter days, like the one before us, how awfully short they are and decided it was time to keep walking.

A Rooster cackled beyond where the woods opened up to Mr. Johnson’s field. At least, that’s whose field Grandpa says it is. The trail from parading deer in the dawn and dusk of the day has made it easy for us to walk through.

Outside the thick cover is a hedgerow of Alfalfa, dismal and void of the velvety blue flowers of summer, lifeless against the winter snow. As we got near, the bright, glistening sheen of a cock Pheasant shot out of the brush like a bullet. I watched as Grandpa raised his gun, as I am sure he has done a thousand times before, perhaps along this same hedgerow sometime ago in the realm of life. At the loud snap of his gun, the Rooster folded in flight and hit the ground in a thud.

“Alright, that was a good shot, Bill!” An old voice yelled from the opposite end of the Alfalfa.

I looked over fast and somewhat nervous, wondering who else was out here with us.

“Ah, Mr. Albert Johnson,” Grandpa said, turning towards the old man walking towards us.

“It’s been far too long, Bill. At least twenty-five years. This is my grandson, Jim.”

Standing next to Mr. Johnson was Jim, a young man similar in age to myself. He nodded without saying anything, and I nodded back. A long Rooster tail protruded from the old man’s vest.

Grandpa then walked over, picked up the Rooster from the snow-covered field, and handed it to me. I looked over its dreamy colors before stuffing it in his vest for him.

“I think that’s plenty of birds for today. What do you say, Al?

“I’d say so. I ought to think we best get going.”

Snow began to fall heavier, but strangely, the sun started climbing from behind the clouds. Both Grandpa and Mr. Johnson stood there looking out across the brightly lit field before turning towards the two of us. Grandpa held his hand out for mine, and Mr. Johnson reached for Jim’s.

“We’ll, boys. I hope we can come this way again sometime. It sure is nice to visit every once in a while.”

The handshake loosened.

“Merry Christmas, Grandpa. I’ll see you again next year.” The words rolled off Jim’s tongue as he wiped his eyes before the tears could reach his smile.

Then they both turned, stepped through the row of dead Alfalfa, and walked away into the now blinding sun.