Thursday, May 30, 2024 May 30, 2024
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Hunting for Answers In East Texas

Reflecting on the things I've learned while stalking birds with my father.
Quail Hunting gun safety
Jessie Lin

Last year, when the shotgun went off, I immediately thought of my sister, that she would need to be notified. At 73, our father’s death wouldn’t be the most shocking news, but as his wide eyes looked back at mine, I realized that an accidental death by shooting would shock just about everyone, and there would be an added layer of embarrassment.

I wouldn’t get to stand at his funeral and shake hands, shrugging my shoulders as I looked longingly toward the casket, saying, “Well, when you stalk red deer through the Highlands,” or, “We knew the score when we saw that Cape buffalo.” No, if my father accidentally shot himself, as I thought he had, it would be a shameful event, people shaking their heads at the sadness of it all—that our father, a good East Texas Boomer, had died on a canned quail hunt, shooting at a hand-fed bird.

For a long time we had a code word for this—for the unfortunate event of our father’s demise—and while it seemed like a good idea years ago, the thought of calling my sister to say, “Purple,” before hanging up felt hollow and offensive. She would know what it meant, begin preparing her trip to Dallas with the same efficiency of a hurricane evacuation, but it left much to be desired: like the who, what, when, and where of it all. She might wonder if he had fallen in the shower like in those Life Alert commercials or had gotten in a car crash on his daily trip to Luby’s.

I’d like to imagine him reaching for the peak of Everest in his final moments or laughing wildly into the wind as he sails around the tip of Cape Horn, never to be seen again. But most of us won’t get that type of sendoff. In that East Texas hunting field, as my father fired the gun and fell down, the force of the blast knocking him off balance, I realized that our hunting trips might be numbered. I looked on as he rolled to his side and rose to a knee, worried about his hips and elbows, that something may have broken, but I didn’t anticipate what was coming next, the way he used the barrel of the gun as a staff to pull himself back up, his chin almost butting up against the bore. And as I opened my mouth to warn him, a crack echoed through the trees.

We all stood there in silence. My father, clearly embarrassed, shaking his head nervously, wiping his pant leg down for good measure. He was alive and whole, the blast just missing his face, but my mind was already at the coroner’s in Longview. Mentally, I was tailing the hearse back to Dallas. 

These euphemisms—code word “purple” and the others—were born out of our inability to communicate. With an eight-year age gap between my sister and me, as well as our parents’ divorce during our formative years, the growth of family communication died somewhere alongside family trips and eating at the dinner table. Much of it is fit for a therapist’s couch, I’m sure, but the resulting blowback saw all of us splintering off in our own directions, seeking out our own bunkers of silence for emotional protection. Somehow, this all mutated into a need for code words or exaggerated body language, measures that seemed safer than the blunt truth.

In addition to all this, my family, along with the generations of hillbilly storytellers that line it, got very good at telling lies. Today, we refer to these as “loafers”—another code word, a cryptic phrase designed for the wild untruths we’ve told to entertain ourselves or make ourselves feel better, and one that derives from my childhood belief that our father had played college baseball and been on the cusp of a major league baseball career. If a loafer is simply a lie, then a giant loafer is a monumental lie, or a lie that might alter the course of someone’s thinking and behavior, possibly forever.

Somewhere around my parents’ divorce, my mother told me that my father had played baseball at the University of Texas and had been invited, later on, to a tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The story of his tryout with the Longhorns was elaborate, and it entailed my father accidentally leaving his cleats in his dorm room and going through the entire tryout in loafers. It was also, in retrospect, eerily close to the story of my grandfather who had left his cheerleading shoes at home one Friday night and, as a result, cheered an entire Sunset High School football game in a handstand.

But the loafers added to the grandeur somehow, that my father was capable of making a perennial College World Series team in dress shoes. If that wasn’t enough, he then showed his aplomb by politely turning down the tryout with the Dodgers. As it was explained to me, he saw no future in baseball. The careers couldn’t be counted on, and, of all things, the money wasn’t very good. And while I could easily understand this logic as a child, I still wondered what life would have been like if we’d lived in L.A., if I’d gone to Dodgers Stadium with my father during the summers, sat in the dugout during batting practices, and got to play catch with Orel Hershiser. The what-could-have-beens were intoxicating. 

A few years ago, on a drive back from a dove hunt near Hondo, I asked him about playing at UT and whether he regretted skipping the Dodger’s tryout. With his hands at 10 and 2, he leaned back and shot his head sideways in one swift motion. “Where’d you ever get that idea?” When I told him, he shook his head. “I didn’t play ball at UT. I didn’t even try out. I messed around and went in there a few days later, and when I asked if I could try out, Old Man Falk told me to get the fuck out.” He paused a moment, eyes on the road. “I can still see him sitting there shirtless, twirling his chest hair. He never once stopped twirling that chest hair the entire time I was in his office.”

There had been no collegiate baseball career. No tryout with the Dodgers—not even one that was on the table. And yet baseball was the most important thing in my life for nearly a decade. It was the watershed that I measured myself against, an identity that I took on and defined myself by when my father moved out. But none of it was based in reality. It was just a story, a loafer. Something to make a child feel better.

Fiction may be more entertaining, but without question the truth is always more satisfying. One year while hunting the South Zone, I was sitting on a Chevy tailgate that belonged to my dad’s best friend from high school. It was late, and we’d had too much to drink, and my dad wandered into the motel, more than likely searching for a Hostess CupCake. My dad’s best friend put his arm around me and said, “You know, your dad loves these hunts because it gives y’all something to do together.”

That was all he said. There was no end to that story, no beginning that explained why we hadn’t had things to do together before, simply a nice statement of fact. My dad enjoyed hunting with me, and he had told his oldest friend that. Those words meant more to me than any baseball feat or heroic endeavor my father might have undertaken. We could hunt together, and we could work on being ourselves.  

I’m sure that my sister and I will turn our father’s close call into a code word of its own. “Don’t pull a Longview,” we’ll say, or, “Don’t Longview yourself.” But even as hard as a parent’s passing can be, maybe we can put to rest the code words and tall tales that actually push us further apart, keep us from fully understanding each other.

God knows we didn’t need any code words when our grandmother died, though there weren’t enough euphemisms in the world for how “Difficult” she was. And my sister and I both know how our mother will die, so that won’t be a surprise to anyone. She will be buried under an avalanche of her own antiques, just as we assume she’s always wanted. 

As for our father, he will expire when the Good Lord thinks he’s good and ready, and that’s probably what he hopes for as well. And one day, many years from now, we will tell our children the truth, how he was one of the finest people that we ever knew. We will tell them how he did right by us as a father. And we will tell them how, that one time, while wearing loafers, he wrestled the world’s largest grizzly to the ground.     

This story originally appeared in the December issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Hunting for Answers.” Write to [email protected].