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.
Dad 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 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.
Dad 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.
In 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.
I 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.
It’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.
He 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.
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.