An excerpt from the 2015 Jan./Feb. issue of Sporting Classics, on newsstands Dec. 26.
I grew up in a town so small that my dad could drive us from one end to the other in less time than it took me to sound out a big word from a library book. I wasn’t a slow reader, either, but it’s also fair to mention that my father wasn’t in the habit of applying any more pressure to the foot feed than what was required to achieve forward motion. Anyway, most of the people living there were not overly fond of big words. It seemed all right to know what they meant, but using them out loud marked one as a show-off—a significant social ill at that time.
Being precocious, I didn’t see how using words, big or otherwise, could do any harm. Of course, the only words that gained my attention were the names of places where my heroes hunted, all related geographical or historical references, and anything related to ballistics. Those words were committed to memory with grand purpose.
It made me feel pretty special to be his advisor, best friend, and generally favorite person in the whole entire world.
Dad encouraged my frequent visits to the library. He was also in the habit of gently suggesting that I might, at some point, maybe just once consider borrowing a book about something other than guns or hunting. I quietly marveled at his sense of humor. After all, why would anyone want to read anything else?
We usually went to town together on Saturday mornings and parked the old fluid-drive Dodge pickup near the library. I would assault the steps two-for-one, slow before opening the door, then politely return the most recently devoured book without forgetting to thank the volunteer minding the desk. While dad was across the way at the post office and visiting with someone or other, I pawed through the outdoor section.
I worked fast, knowing if I did there was a good chance we could stop at Valley Hardware. That place was my Valhalla and Mr. Fairchild, the man who ran the gun department, was just as surely its Odin. He was also famous, for it was none other than Mr. Fairchild who gave the weekly hunting and fishing report on the town’s radio station. It made me feel pretty special to be his advisor, best friend, and generally favorite person in the whole entire world.
Once inside the store, I made sure that Mr. Fairchild noticed me. Then I waited for him to finish helping a customer who, somehow unaware of his stature, had asked about something as inconsequential as paint thinner. Ever the gentleman, a rare quality to find in a celebrity even back then, Mr. Fairchild never let on that they were keeping him from me. After graciously concluding the transaction, he never failed to thread his way down the narrow aisles, find me, and offer his hand. I then posed a carefully prepared yet casually delivered question affording the opportunity to try out one or possibly several big words new to me. The longer it had been since our last visit, the more he seemed to be impressed by my expanding base of knowledge.
One time, I recall pointing at the shoulder mount of a huge moose as an excuse to fire the first volley. “Did you say that one came from the Talkeetna Mountains or the Tanana Flats? He has the look of an interior bull.” I was careful to pronounce “tal-keet-na” and “tan-na-naw” just like an old sourdough. Then I hung on his answer as it generally grew into a story that took me along with him to the Great Land.
If Mr. Fairchild spotted me waiting in the gun department critically inspecting his Model 70s, sporterized Springfields, and the odd Weatherby, he seemed to make his way over rather quickly. I came to recognize this for a pattern after it happened a few times but didn’t want to embarrass him by admitting that I also preferred that part of the store to any other. When he approached, I’d be ready.
“What do you think of the trajectory [tra-jec-toe-ree] of the aught-six compared to that three hundred—the Weatherby, not the Winchester?” I knew he’d be impressed that I called it an “aught six” instead of “thirty aught-six.”
He then held forth on the related variables of bullet weight and barrel length, summing up by observing that either will do the job “if whoever pulls the trigger does theirs.”
Dad always showed up all too soon to remind me that work, lunch, or something else of similar insignificance was waiting for us at home. Then he thanked Mr. Fairchild, I guess just for letting us come into the store.
When I was 12, a shotgun showed up under the Christmas tree. It became even more special when I learned that Mr. Fairchild had helped dad pick it out. A year or two later I unwrapped a Model 70. Same story. Old enough to work that summer, I earned the money to buy my own scope. Mr. Fairchild mounted it, then offered to help Dad and me find zero. After dialing it in at a makeshift range, I asked him when he was going back to Alaska.
“I don’t think I’ll ever make that trip again,” he replied softly, his head turning away so his eyes could better focus on something of interest in the distance. “It’s hard on my back, and my legs don’t seem to have what it takes anymore.”
Dad called to tell me Mr. Fairchild was gone.
After studying whatever it was that he was studying for a longer than I thought comfortable, he looked back at me. “Anyway, it’s your turn now, or it will be soon. You go climb those mountains and wade those cold rivers. I’ll just stay here and remember what it’s like. Remembering is almost as good as being there. That’s a good thing, too. Comes a time when remembering is about all a man can do.”
I was too old to cry, so I’m sure that isn’t what happened as we slowly drove Mr. Fairchild back to town. Dad bought us Cokes at a little diner, then he and Mr. Fairchild talked fishing. That was just as well, as I couldn’t think of any words worth sharing, no matter their size.
Mr. Fairchild retired a year or two later. He spent much of his time fishing the nearby waters but still helped out at the store on occasion. I always enjoyed our infrequent visits, caught up as I was by the distractions of high school, then even more by those of college and the real world thereafter.
During the planning stages of my first Alaska hunt Dad called to tell me Mr. Fairchild was gone.
“It’s for the best,” Dad said. “I stopped by to see him not long ago. Wasn’t happy in the place they had him. He asked about you, but most of the time we talked about the hunting and fishing trips he’d enjoyed so much. That seemed to perk him up.” +++
To finish the tale, pick up the 2015 January/February issue of Sporting Classics, on newsstands December 26.
Note: Trade and Deluxe signed editions of the author’s first book, Born a Hunter, are available here.
Cover image by Rod Crossman.