Thanks for All the Squirrels

Mom and Dador, Lessons from Lawrence County.

It’s an intricate business, writing an obituary. My father-in-law left for California last week, but not before he passed on some priceless wisdom. I’ve been honored to write the obituaries to be read at both Mom and Dad’s funeral, but there’s only so much that can be stuffed into an obituary. There’s so much about a person that just won’t fit. There are so many lessons and stories that can’t be easily compressed into a two minute reading, and those lessons and stories are much too valuable to be lost. Things like how Dad taught me to hunt squirrels out on the back forty (which was more like the back seventy-two plus the adjoining properties). And like squirrel hunting, there’s a bit of an art to it.

Y’see, you can’t just pick up a shotgun and walk out into the woods and expect to come home with a bag full of squirrels. You have to know what you’re looking for, where you’re going and how to get there. You have to know what to take along, what to leave behind – what’s safe to ignore, and what can kill you.

The first thing you do is scope the territory out ahead of time. You have to know where you’re going, and where you’re going is wherever the squirrels are.

MomDad met a young lady back in ’62. Beatrice was a looker, and a real sweetie. The problem was that she didn’t like him much – well, not until that one night. There’d been a strange car following her around, and it was late when she got off work. She was afraid to walk home alone and though she didn’t care for him, Dad just happened to be in the store that evening. He walked her home that night, and wound up marrying Bea later that year. For the record, he swore ’til the end he didn’t know who was in that car. Also for the record, not a soul on earth ever believed him.

It sure pays to know where you’re headed and to have a plan to get there.

The Pond on the Back FortyThe first time Dad took me squirrel hunting, we left before sunrise. I followed him through the dark woods, shotgun unloaded, just hoping not to lose sight of him. There isn’t much in the way of light in that hollow, no spillover from cities, nothing. He walked and walked, and I stumbled along behind, mostly worrying about whether he was going to send me off in a different direction. I kept thinking about how he offered to take one of his older daughter’s boyfriends hunting once. He told him he’d go ’round one side of the mountain, and the boy was supposed to go ’round the other. Apparently the boy was smarter than he looked, because as soon as Dad was out of sight, so was the boy – clean off the mountain, off the farm, up the driveway, and out of dodge. The way I heard it, that boy never did come back to the farm, and never did speak to my sister-in-law again. Can’t say I blame ‘im. I was hoping Dad liked me better than he liked that boy, and maybe that little circle of gold on my finger would get me back home without an ass full of buckshot.

Dad parked me in the darkness next to a tree, with a rock to sit on and a thermos of coffee to keep me warm. He said it was the second best spot on the mountain for hunting squirrel, and that as soon as the sun came up, they’d run right across the treetops over my head. He pointed off to the right downhill, told me not to pepper Aubrey’s house with shot, but the other direction was all clear. Then he slipped off into the blackness to the best spot on the mountain. It was years before he showed me where that spot was, and as far as I know, I’m the only one he ever told. I still think of that spot he left me that morning as “my spot”. I still think it’s the best spot on the mountain, not because of the squirrel hunting but because it’s the spot he gave me. I can’t climb the mountain anymore either, but that spot is more than a piece of dirt with a tree and a rock and a thermos. It’s a gift. It’s an idea. It’s where the best squirrels are for me.

The KidsDad left school when he was very young. Still in grade school, if I recall the story correctly. He worked different jobs over the years, a coal miner for a while, then on the city landfill. He and Mom had three kids, then adopted a set of twins that belonged to Bea’s sister. Raising five children taught Dad the importance of education I think, and he mentioned to me more than once that he sometimes wished he could read a little better. There are some things however that you just don’t learn from a book. He knew that, too. Dad valued things like honesty, integrity, and attention to the little things.

Dad didn’t go to church much, much to Mom’s consternation. Oh, he believed in God and all, he just didn’t care much for puttin’ on, and I asked him about it once. He told me the reason he didn’t go to church was he’d never met an honest preacher. Swore to me that the first time he met an honest one, he’d go. I asked how’d he know if a preacher was honest. He said, “Ask a preacher if he plays with himself. I ain’t never met one yet that said ‘yes’.” You just can’t argue with that.

The Pond on the Back FortyIn case you were wondering, a double barreled shotgun has two barrels. Now, that might sound a bit obvious, and really it is, but knowing that little fact and knowing that little fact are slightly different things.

Whenever Dad and I went squirrel hunting, he always took his favorite shotgun. It’s a twelve-gauge double barreled that’ll knock a grown man right on his ass if he doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’ll also blow a man’s foot clean off. Dad loved that shotgun like no other he owned. Oh, he cared for the .410s and the twenty gauge that I usually took, but that one shotgun, that was his baby.

Dad had been hunting less and less, and one day offered me the beloved double barreled to take hunting, when he didn’t feel like he could climb the mountain when he got up that day. I was a little overwhelmed. As I said, that was his prized shotgun, and he didn’t loan it out to just anyone.

Up on the mountain, I found my favorite spot along the fence line of Aubrey’s field, that same spot he’d put me the very first time he’d taken me. I sat in the gathering dawn, thinking about life and aging, squirrels and girls, family and friends and a billion other things. My head really wasn’t into hunting that day. I guess mostly I was dwelling on the idea that the days Dad didn’t feel up to coming along were getting more frequent.

Dad Holding Kay Christmas ‘93I was startled by a noise in the ground cover, maybe twenty yards up. I hadn’t realized the sun was up and the squirrels had been running for half an hour or more. I put the shotgun into my shoulder and sent the little gray hairball to go see Jesus. I stood there for a minute, shotgun pointed at the ground, watching the beastie tumble back down towards me, vaguely wondering if he’d make it all the way down to me, but I was still thinking about Dad. The squirrel stopped rolling about five yards away, and I started up to fetch my prize.

A double barreled shotgun has two barrels. One of them was still loaded. I felt the blast through my leather combat boot, and damned near pissed myself when I looked down at the hole in the ground next to my foot.

I’ll never again forget that a double barreled shotgun has two barrels. It also has two triggers, and if you ain’t about to shoot something, your finger doesn’t belong anywhere near either one of them.

Mom and dad were married over forty years when she went to California back in ’04. They’d had their ups and downs like anyone else, I suppose. Like most young men, including me, he drank a little too much when he was young and that caused the occasional bump in the road. Dad was smart enough to realize his family was more important than his bottle before it was too late, and learned about moderation. There’s a lot about moderation you won’t read in a book or in an obituary. It helps to have someone like Dad to tutor you along, as you master the complex skills involved. I am fortunate to have had such a tutor.

The Pond on the Back FortyIt’s important to hide your moonshine, but not too well. He bent a few rules in his day, and I have to say I may have assisted him in that endeavor once um twice eh a few times er from time to time. It’s important that your wife have something to do so she can feel productive while you’re out of town visiting kinfolk for a few days once or twice a year. It’s also important that she have a feeling of accomplishment, so it’s best to arrange it so she finds the moonshine the day before you return home. That gives her plenty of time to bust up the still and dump all the bottles into the pond, get back to the house to wash the alcohol smell off, and thaw out some squirrel for dinner when you get home the next day.

And that’s why fresh fish from the pond are always best the day after coming home from visiting the kinfolk for a few days once or twice a year.

Jane and I had been married a few years before I knew that Dad hadn’t been born with only one eye. It just wasn’t really something I’d thought much about, I guess. Dad was six or seven when he and his brothers were out playing with home made bows and arrows in a field. They’d gather in the middle of the field, then one of them would shoot an arrow (a stick really) into the sky and they’d scatter. You weren’t supposed to look up when the arrow was coming down. Dad did. When he’d yell at the kids and tell them to put the sticks down before someone lost an eye, he was speaking from personal experience.

Dad and Lee in the new trailer, Christmas ‘94He went on a kick where he wanted a patch for his eye once. Jane and I had one specially made for him by a fella we knew who worked leather. He wore it for a while, and it looked good on him. He said it made him feel like a pirate, and he liked it mostly. He just didn’t like that it tied in the back, rather than having an elastic band. We were looking into having that done when he decided it scared the little ones too much, so he quit wearing it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I’m going and why I’m going there. My wife asked me the other day why it is that I blog. At the time, I couldn’t articulate exactly why, but I think I can now.

This is why I blog. I blog so that the lessons and stories are not lost. I blog so that future generations know how hard to hide the ‘shine when visiting the kinfolk for a few days once or twice a year, and that a double barreled shotgun has two barrels. I blog so that no one puts an eye out.

Marriage Affidavit of Oliver Ball and Minnie WellsJesse Ball, of Charley in Lawrence County, Kentucky, passed away on Friday, March 7, 2008 at Kings Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, Kentucky at the age of 71.

He was born May 11, 1936 in Logan County, West Virginia, son of the late Oliver Perry Ball and Minnie Wells, both of Lawrence County. He was the seventh of eight children.

On October 5, 1962, he was united in marriage to Beatrice Lee Daniels of Logan County, West Virginia, daughter of Ralph Bert Daniels of Johnson County, Kentucky and Shirley Conley of Floyd County, Kentucky. Beatrice passed away on September 21, 2004.

In addition to his wife and parents, Jesse was preceded in death by all four brothers and three sisters, and one great grandson.

He is survived by his daughter Annetta Lynn Thompson of Lawrence County, son Jesse Lee Ball of Lawrence County, daughter Shirley Jane Shackleton of Jacksonville, NC, twin children Johnny Lee Ball of Jacksonville, NC and Bonnie Jo Osbourne of Lawrence County, ten grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.

30 Responses to “Thanks for All the Squirrels”

  1. folkface Says:

    Lou FCD you are one hell of a feller. Proud to call you my ATBC buddy.

  2. Robyn Says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your father-in-law. You have written a thoughtful and person tribute—it’s a shame someone has to go to California to have these things written for them, but if you had written it earlier, he might have been concerned.

    I have never been squirrel hunting, but it’s how my father fed his family in lean years. My grandfather skinned one in front of me once, and I was traumatized.

  3. Diana Says:

    I will never forget when we met one of his guns. I swear I was going to be widowed and motherless before I even had the chance to be a wife and a mom.

    Gun, that was probably bought 30+ years ago = $50
    Bullets = $10
    Gas to pick up your best friend and family off a farm = $175

    The look on our faces when we thought we had 5 seconds to live = priceless

    Some things money can’t buy. He will be greatly missed along with mom.

  4. Lou FCD Says:

    Thank you both.

    You’re right, Robyn. He was always a pretty modest fella, and would not have approved this message while he was still alive. I think he’d be OK with my having written it now, though.

    Skinnin’ a squirrel isn’t anything like skinnin’ a deer, and I have to say I was a little unnerved the first time he showed me how to do it. I’ll skip the details for the faint of heart.

  5. Lou FCD Says:

    There’s a bit of weirdness going on with comments, bear with me if this gets posted twice:

    Diana,

    That moment was truly priceless. I almost mentioned to Pop on the way in for the funeral that we’d have to be sure to announce ourselves as we came in the back door to avoid a repeat of that.

    I caught myself just as I opened my mouth when I realized that there won’t ever be a repeat of that particular incident.

  6. Diana Says:

    But we will always have our memories.

  7. We’re Home « UDreamOfJanie Says:

    […] Boy wrote a little about his father-in-law and his passing.  I’d consider it a personal favor if y’all went and read it. This […]

  8. max Says:

    That is a wonderful remembrance. Thank you for sharing him.

  9. Lou FCD Says:

    Yes we will, Diana, and some of them are just priceless.

    Thanks Max. I’m glad I could, and I hope I’ve done him some justice.

  10. Lou FCD Says:

    For the record, I originally wrote that the spot was along Truman’s field, but it’s actually Aubrey’s field.

    I always got those two fellas mixed up.

    Thanks to my wife for catching that.

  11. Kym Says:

    I’ve heard a few remembrance speeches but this is one of the best! I felt like your father-in-law was someone I knew and liked.

    And I don’t think I’ll ever forget how to tell an honest preacher. In fact, I hope I don’t meet any holy types for a while because that question will be darting around in my mouth waiting for chance to jump out.

  12. Lou FCD Says:

    Thank you, Kym. Be sure to take a video camera everywhere you go on the off chance…

  13. Kym Says:

    If somebody tells me their a preacher, I’m not even saying Hi. I’m running. I know me and my big mouth.

  14. Elizabeth Says:

    I’ve known for some time that you write beautifully, but there is something especially honest and human and present about the way that you’ve written about your father in law. I recall a similar feeling about Aunt Helen.

    Thinking of you all,
    Elizabeth

  15. Lou FCD Says:

    Thank you Elizabeth.

    I’m always honored and humbled when my words can touch somebody in some way.

    Thank you also for your kind thoughts for our family. They are greatly appreciated.

  16. IAMB Says:

    Hell of a piece of writing, Lou. Shoot me an email if you need anything.

  17. Lou FCD Says:

    Thanks Matt. I appreciate it.

  18. anothersadsong Says:

    I may not the greatest grandmother left, but I swear the other three grandparents make up for that.

    remind me to tell pops how much i love and adore him next time he comes around…

  19. Lou FCD Says:

    Hey Sweetie,

    Don’t be too hard on Grandmom Kathy. She has to follow her own path. It’s sad that her path doesn’t touch ours much, but you can’t force her to be who she isn’t.

    Maybe someday she’ll come around and come visit.

    I love you.

    Dad

  20. remembrances « celluloid blonde Says:

    […] 21, 2008   This is from Thanks for All the Squirrels by Lou […]

  21. BWE Says:

    Wow, I haven’t run across too many people like you Lou. For me that man was my Grandpa. You made me remember details I haven’t thought about in years.

    Thanks.

    Life is funny that way. I hope you all do alright dealing with the loss.

  22. Lou FCD Says:

    You mean undiagnosed combination MPD ADD BiPolar Recovering Fundy Middle Aged Cripples aren’t commonplace???? 🙂

    I’m just happy I could stir a fond memory or two, BWE.

    Funnily enough, I had thought about reworking this post to make it flow better. I initially disliked the disjointedness of it. Upon further reflection, I decided to leave it alone and just publish it as is. I’m glad I did.

  23. BWE Says:

    Well, I was thinking more along the lines of rural upbringing and poetic language as a combination. It’s a perspective I rarely run across.

    I grew up at the top of one of the foothills in the North Cascades and my grandpa was an honest to god homesteader. Walked from Idaho to Seattle at 16 and started a fraternity at UW. Ended with an engineering degree and after losing his job during the depression, he started a cabinet shop Montana and did well. He was the only employee. I still have his 30’s vintage tablesaw. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. He could hit a duck on the wing with a .22 and take down a squirrel with a rock at 50 feet. He eventually moved to Yakima, built a beautiful house out of scrap lumber, married a Literature and Drama Professor at Central Wa. University, took a job as high school shop teacher, coached his football team to 20 out of 23 state championships, showed me a wrestling move that won him the Idaho (territorial?) trophy when he was 86 and I was 16 and in great shape that left me wondering what happened, and finally died on his roof at 90 replacing some loose shingles. It was over 100′. Yakima is desert.

    He explained women to me, was great friends with the Chief of the Yakima Indians, taught me how to tie flies and use them, let’s just say the list goes on.

    And, after all that, my perspective on things is a bit skewed. I’m constantly amazed at what people think of the world. But that post, I understood it.

    Thanks.

  24. Lou FCD Says:

    Thanks for sharing that BWE. Your grandpa sounds like a fella I’d have like to have known.

    I must confess however, that though I spent most of my adult life in the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky, and my wife and kids were born and raised there, I was born and raised in and around Philly, in a mish-mash of urban, suburban, and rural settings. In retrospect, I think each of those things have influenced me and my writing profoundly and in different ways, and I find all of those sundry experiences invaluable.

    I too am fascinated with the ways people see the world, and the ways their experiences color their perspectives.

  25. Bourgeois_Rage Says:

    Great read, Lou. It is amazing how this brings memories out that do not even have anything to do with what you wrote.

  26. Lou FCD Says:

    Thank you, BR.

    I hope it brought something pleasant to mind.

  27. Lou FCD Says:

    Thanks to cousin Drema for catching an error.

    Mom and Dad were married in ’62, not ’61.

  28. Happy Coffee Pots and Sad Connections « Crowded Head, Cozy Bed Says:

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