Back in the spring of 1980 I spent a week at 6th grade camp. It was a ritual in our school for all 6th graders…a sign of maturity so to speak or accomplishment. It was meant to teach outdoor skills, teamwork building, safety, and camaraderie…along with all the shenanigans from the high school counselors – scary stories, too early morning wake ups, toothpaste in the pillowcases, fake snakes in the sleeping bag. You can imagine the pranks that were pulled on everyone…except for me. See, I had broken my arm a couple weeks back on my 12th birthday and they were told not to prank me and to keep others from pranking me. While I did appreciate not having to deal with all of it I did suffer a few jeers from my bunkmates…it is not always easier to be singled out. Anyhow, it was a quite fun week! My favorite part was learning archery. It wasn’t easy holding the bow with my left arm in a cast, but they would not let me near the rifle. I rather enjoyed shooting the arrows into the target and found I was a decent shot and though I just might be a whole lot better once the cast was off – it became my go-to activity for the week. When I got home it was all I talked about and made sure mom and dad knew what I wanted for Christmas.
For the whole summer I was not able to shoot an arrow. No one in my family had a bow and arrow or access to a set. It wasn’t something any of my family as into…my dad and uncles and older brothers all had rifles which I was never good with and I desperately wanted to be good at something and I believed this could be my chance to be a man…shoot an arrow…hit a target…bring in the kill. I was the youngest of 9 kids and my 3 older brothers were out of the house by the time I came along. It was mom and dad, 3 older sisters and me at home now. A gangly sometimes whiny and lazy 12 year old who wanted to fit in but had no idea how. This could be it!
Summer past and autumn breezed through and winter came in like a lion that year. By the end of November we already had a couple feet of snow on the ground and the chill was unlike any I could remember. One day after school I was alone in the house so did what any 12 year old would do with Christmas nearing…I went looking for hidden gifts in my parent’s bedroom. I found a few games and puzzles, crayons and coloring books, and one long flat box lying on the bed, half covered by a blanket. It must have come just today since it was not there before, (this wasn’t my first search). I looked out the door to be sure no one was home yet…all clear…crept up to the blanket and pulled it back. The box had been opened so I could peek and no one would know. I lifted the corner of the box lid and there inside was a yellow bow along with a quiver and 3 matching arrows! I didn’t dare pick it up – mom would be home soon and now I knew what this Christmas would bring. I had never been more excited for Christmas morning…now I just needed to keep my cool and not let on what I knew.
For the next few days it was all I could do not to go and sneak a peek again. It was all I though about! It was what I was daydreaming about on December 16th that year instead of bringing in the wood for the stove from the woodshed. The fire was dying down and the woodbin still empty when dad came home from work…and he was not happy with me. He told me to get dressed and meet him in the woodshed. I went and started hauling in the wood he had put in a sled. Mom went out to talk to him and I caught a glimpse of her helping him into the passenger seat of the truck. She left for the hospital with dad and a few hours later came home without him. He had a massive coronary on the way and died in the truck.
Christmas came and went that year in a freezing fog. The bow and arrow set was not even wrapped….just laid on the floor near the tree in its shipping box. A day or two later I got all dressed in my winter gear to go out and shoot my bow. I knew I should wait till spring but I was 12 and wanted to shoot my arrows. No one would go with me, being so cold, so I went alone out into the field away from the house trudging through knee-deep snow drifts as tears froze on my face. I took my stance, knocked the first arrow, pulled back and let it fly. Way off target. I knocked the second arrow and it went way left of the first. I took my gloves off and with freezing fingers set the third arrow and drew back the bow and sent it flying who knows where. I left the arrows where they were sent, went back in the house and put the bow in the closet and never pulled it again.
That is the day I understood that I would have to figure out most things in life on my own. I’ve heard it said that a man is not really a man till he loses a father. By that logic I became a man when I was 12 years old…hardly well equipped for the challenge. This was not what I wanted for Christmas…