OPINION — The dark winter sky seemed to press down on us, threatening snow, stiffening our fingers and invading our lungs with every breath. We’d been walking for a couple of hours, and night wasn’t far off. We were headed back toward the pickup, with little chance of making it before we ran out of the dingy daylight. Even so, every time I whispered and pointed to a log, Dad stopped and we sat and rested for a few minutes.
I was probably seven or eight, excited to be on my first real hunt with my father, instead of just riding around in the pickup with the heater running, looking for deer out the window. I remember thinking how cool it was to be able to get Dad to stop whenever I wanted. We’d whisper for a while, Dad still hoping for a shot, and then he’d ask if I was ready, and we’d get up and walk some more.
Like most Texas kids, I learned about hunting and fishing from my father, begging to go every time he left the house. Having a brother almost four years older, who got to hunt before I did, made things seem unfair. But Dad took me whenever he could, and I can’t remember a time when he went hunting or fishing without one or both of us tagging along.
Above: Laret, Courtland, and Paden Hemphill on a blue quail hunt in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area west of Big Bend in Texas. (Contributed/Kendal Hemphill)
The three of us went on our first river camping trip when I was about six. We loaded up and went fishing in the Llano River, and slept in the back of the pickup. We didn’t catch much, but Dad had brought meat for hamburgers, which he flavored with river onions and cooked over an open fire. I remember worrying how he knew it was OK to eat those things he pulled out of the ground, but I also remember how good those hamburgers tasted. I decided Dad knew what he was doing.
Lying in the back of the pickup, looking up at the stars, I listened to my dad and brother talking. Dad pointed out the dippers and the north star, which was about the extent of his astronomical expertise. That was plenty for me. Being able to identify the moon is good enough for a six-year-old, and I was happy just to be included on an adventure with the big boys. Life doesn’t get any better.
The first time I got to go hunting alone I was ten, and Dad gave me some light .243 loads he’d found for his Remington 700. He showed me where to sit the day before the season opened, and pointed out where I would see a deer. He said, “Just after daylight, a doe will walk across that clearing about 100 yards away.” I huddled under my bush the next morning, shivering with cold, barely able to stay awake after having been too excited to sleep the night before. When I could finally see, I looked where Dad had pointed and, sure enough, in a few minutes a doe stepped out. If my dad had told me the sun was going to come up in the west I would’ve bet the farm on it.
Above: Jamie Hemphill, my dad.
He met me halfway to the house, almost as excited as I was, and helped me field dress my deer. When I asked him why he wasn’t hunting, he pointed to the rifle I was holding and said, “That’s the only gun I’ve got.” I felt three inches tall. Dad had passed up hunting on opening day to let me go alone.
But then, Dad sacrificed for his family all his life. Teachers don’t make a lot of money now, but in the 60s and 70s the pay scale was embarrassing. We never had a lot, and if someone did without it was usually Dad. I can remember dove hunts when he spotted for us empty-handed, because there weren’t enough shotguns to go around.
Dad grew up fast, having lost his older brother at age 12, and his father five years later. He attended Abilene Christian College, at the same time trying to help his mother and two little sisters on the family farm at Lohn, Texas. I guess he got used to doing without, having known no other way.
My father taught me the most important job he had was being a dad to my brother and me. Anyone can be a father, but it takes a special guy to be a dad. There is no substitute for a father who teaches the traditions, values, and ethics of sportsmanship to his children. We owe it to the next generation to pass on our hunting and fishing heritage, so they’ll be able to enjoy the outdoors as we have. The best way to do that is parent to child.
That hunt with my dad? The sky was dark long before we got out of the woods that evening, and snowflakes were falling by the time we got back to the pickup. I wasn’t worried. I knew we’d make it, and I was snug and warm, anyway. Dad had taken off his coat and put me on his back, and put his coat back on over me.
He couldn’t button it in front, but at least one of us was warm and dry. Seems like that kind of thing happened a lot, over the years.
That’s what dads do . . .
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