Ye Olde Trapper Bob 1961. We were 17 years old.
A Lost Friend-(written in 1993, 20 years ago now.) This illustrates a form of friendship I feel with all I share this outdoor world. It is a friendship that feels distinctly different from other friendships. It must be that, without the sharing of nature’s beauty and creatures, the sharing that enters other friendships must be, by definition, more shallow. Hate to say that but it is true.
I will start with the bad news for this year. Bob Loeser died in early July. His heart quit as best as can be determined. It happened in his sleep. Appearances indicate he never awoke. I know people mean well. They say things like, “If you have to go, that’s the way. . .” At 51, there is no way to go that’s a good way or the right way. There is too much that should be left. We expect to have so much more than those seemingly few years. Chick McDonnell died at about the same age just last year. It’s never long enough but these brief, lives snuffed out by bad luck and bad health, seem pitifully short.
Bob and I were among the very lucky. We burned away our young years in an endless string of days awash in the natural comings and goings of wild creatures and the march of the seasons. We were the keepers of each other’s memories, shared by nor known to no others. We started our lifelong dance through land and sky, plants and animals, about 40 years ago. The exact date I can’t remember. Bob would know. It was just after he moved to Old State Road about a mile from my house. That would be in 1954. I don’t remember how we met but I think it was on the school bus. My best friend, Tommy Fraser, lived in the house before Bob moved in. Bob had an interest in fishing as I remember. That is how we got started: being fishing buddies.
At an early age, about 13 years old, I began writing all the daily happenings in a diary. I don’t know what prompted me. It just seemed important stuff that you might want to look back on in detail later, when Bob and I were old. I guess I sensed it would be fondly remembered. Strange for a kid so young and living such an apparently hillbilly life to already be living so far ahead and looking back to the present. I knew that present was different from that of other kids I met in school. I think I knew it was doomed to be short-lived. And I knew it was precious and would be of great value. Sometimes, when I called Bob in recent years, I would look up that day’s date over the record of several diaries. When he answered the phone I’d ask, “Do you want to know what you did 27 years ago today?” Then I’d tell him of an exploit we had been engaged in way back there in time. We’d get a good laugh and often that memory would prompt a series of reminders of times recent or distant that would bring a laugh or a fond recollection. But that is what a longtime friend is, a port of memories and experiences where you can stop and reflect or build new ones atop the old. Layer on layer.
My friends Mal on left and Bob on right. 1959. They appear to be attempting to eat part of Dad’s deer raw. There is no explanation for this. Being 16 is likely the reason.
I recently checked the first entry showing Bob’s name: May 28, 1956. We went fishing at Scott’s meadow and each caught a trout. Bob’s was 13 inches and mine was 8 inches. Our times together started a couple of years earlier but those events, but with no written record, they are lost in the dim fog of memory. The record shows a non-stop almost daily whirl of fishing, swimming at the swimming hole, trapping rats (the nasty Norway variety ) in our barn, shooting English Sparrows and barn pigeons with our BB guns, training dogs, picking wild raspberries and wild blackberries, and working for a collection of neighbors three to four times a week. And this was just during the summer doldrums. Things really got busy in the fall hunting season and in the spring trout season.
We also followed professional baseball closely, especially the lowly Phillies. We got to one game every summer or two. You should know my notes say there were four homers hit in the All-Star Game on July 9, 1956 by guys named Musial, Williams, Mays, and Mantle. I was in Bob’s house when the ’54 World Series was on their television. I saw Vic Wertz hit the sure-to-be double into center field and a guy named Mays came from nowhere and caught it over his shoulder on the dead run. I saw Ralph Kiner hit a line drive over the 410 sign hitting the façade three decks above the field. The ball seemed to be still rising. That was back when guys played the game because it allowed them to remain boys and play a boy’s game after they had become men. It was a lot more fun than working in a factory.
Bob and I collected and traded baseball cards with each other and a few neighbor kids. We played baseball with a collection of neighbors in various yards. We played football too. But these were the only activities we shared with the other kids. They didn’t seem to have any interest in fishing or hunting. Chasing a ball or wearing a uniform was a big deal to them. Bob and I knew these were mere games, contrived to entertain. Natural world drama held our interest. We never invested much of our time in such diversions as sports. We honed our hunter/gatherer instincts, passed down through the eons from ancient ancestors, through our fathers, to us. We went afield always observant. We were the watching predator, always hunting for the fish or mammal or beauty that we might possess in eye or hand. It depended on whether we were out to observe or kill. We sharpened the natural instincts of a natural predator for the stalk, the ambush, the capture. Those food gathering instincts became our natural state of consciousness.
The “civilized” veneer worn by normal people was unnatural to us. These people pretended that, since they never got blood on their hands, they didn’t kill or were never responsible for the death of anything. Who were these people who didn’t hunt or fish? We couldn’t understand them. How could they not have thoughts of growing, gathering, or hunting their own food at least some of the time? Were they always going to depend on someone else bringing them their food? Our consciousness was forged of different stuff. We spent so much time in the mindset of predator that we couldn’t equate our vision of “normal” with that of so many that surrounded us in our community.
And the benefit of all of this? Late in life, as an old man, I get the very same thrill, surge of adrenalin from catching a fish as I did when I was 8 years old. Hearing and seeing the game of Mt. Borah in the Pahsimeroi Valley, with it’s elk and antelope herds, is filled with the same joy as seeing deer or pheasants in the thickets of my childhood home. Rowing my drift boat on the Snake River, I feel just like a kid again. There is no diminishment, no callous layer of adult cool that minimizes it. What a gift.
Our swimming hole was in Valley Creek. We got there once or twice a week. We rode our bikes everywhere we could. This swimming hole was three miles away, down Contention Lane, across Route 202, and down Wilson Road. Route 202 was then a two lane road with what we thought then was fairly heavy traffic. Translate that to mean you almost always saw at least one car when you crossed it. Now? It is now an elevated 4-lane interstate with the incessant 24-7 whining, roaring traffic. That so-valuable commodity, peace and quiet, long gone and totally unknown to the current generation. Silence so rich one could here all of the birds singing and even insects buzzing. Grasshoppers could be heard when they moved in the grass. If a leaf fell on to the ground, it could be heard.
So much of what is important today is so trivial and harmful it seems to me. Reams written and spewed into the airways about Brad and Agelina. Wouldn’t it be better for kids to contemplate a cricket calling out it’s song, rubbing it’s legs together?
I remember our road, Contention Lane, had about three to five cars a day and you knew who was in every one of them. Wilson Road was unpaved and rolled straight north past Wilson’s farm on the west and Yon’s farm on the east. We almost never encountered a car on it. The Wilson farm was all crop land. The Yon family had a Guernsey dairy and grazed cattle along Wilson Road. They had a series of nasty bulls the sight of which would scare the bejesus out of us. Once Bob and I stopped when one of the bulls was near the fence. That bull charged to the fence bawling and pawing dirt and blowing snot into the air. We fled on our bikes as fast as we could go with the bull following along the other side of that flimsy three strand barbed wire fence until he reached the corner of the field. I don’t recall we ever attracted the attention of any of Yon’s cattle again! It was obvious, if you entered that meadow, you would be killed by that bull. We developed a healthy respect for such creatures.
I can remember the whole Bullock tribe (my younger two brothers and sister) all trouping down to the swimming hole on our bikes with Bob and other friends. This was three miles from home on back roads followed by a quarter mile walk back into a wooded meadow. We never thought of any danger from anything more than a bee sting or a cracked head if you dove into the shallow water. Child molesters or other such predators were unheard of and of no concern.
Bob and I would camp in his yard several times in the summer. Sometimes we would wander far and wide all night and be dead tired in the morning. I remember when street lights were first put up in our area. The silliest thing we had ever heard of, lights on all night along a country road for no reason. So, we shot them out with our BB guns as fast as they put in new bulbs. Night was meant to be black dark not lighted up by some light no one was using. I guess we didn’t realize those street lights were the precursor of many changes we were to see in our young lives. Changes that would destroy our beloved countryside and its creatures forever.
We hunted pheasants, squirrels, and rabbits together. We hunted crows and groundhogs. We hunted for the hiding places of the big brown trout in the little streams known as Trout Run and in Valley Creek. We caught giant four foot eels that migrated up our little streams from the Sargasso Sea. When you hooked one it pulled with such frightening power you weren’t real sure you wanted it to come out of that hole it was churning to a froth. And when you got them up into the lush pasture grass, they took off across country like thick bodied pythons. When you fried them the chunks of meat flopped around on the skillet. We encountered large water snakes and skunks. We stumbled onto and were sometimes stung by yellow jackets and hornets.
In the dead of winter, we trapped the muskrats and sometimes coons from the meadows belonging to Teegarden, McCollum, and Earle. We could mentally walk the two miles of the trapline in that stream using our mind’s eye, seeing every turn, cut bank, and trap location. In fact, I can still see most of it today. It is gone of course, ditched or eroded into oblivion, wth the cut grass of lawns coming right down to the water. But I still have it tucked away in my mind’s eye just as it was back then. And the only other person who would have the same vision tucked away in his mind: Bob.
And that is the guts of the issue. We had all those shared images and experiences stored away. Those experiences shaped us, made us much of who we were, and doomed us a little to watch it all be flushed down the drain. It made us move west, away from the population centers. We knew too much, loved too much, needed too much country, too many wild creatures, and wild places to ever be able to stay.
Lake Ontario – Bob with a nice stringer of smallmouth bass
When you have a friend you share so much joy and discovery with, you seldom talk about it. It’s just a given, not needing words. It colors every discussion, every discovery of some new place or some new fly pattern. And it colors your discussions of sons and daughters and any similar interests they may be displaying in developing a love for things and places wild. You share the need to open to them the joys of that wild world you knew then and know now. I know what the last generation of free ranging Sioux must have felt when their children turned from the ways of their grandfathers. How the old ones must be heartbroken now, seeing so many seeking the booze, TV, and ATV’s instead of the bow, the knife, and the horse.
Bob and I had a cadre of men: fathers, uncles, and adopted uncles who showed us the way. Bob had Ted Trueblood and I had Robert Ruark as our favorite writers who also showed us in their writings, places and animals we weren’t likely to ever see. We read all we could find. Even some Hemingway and Faulkner. Many of the outdoor writers in the magazines back then were skilled and challenging reading, good fodder for 12 year olds. They expanded young minds in many ways. TV was an interesting novelty, nothing more. We had grown to the age of 10 or 12 years without it. We had known daily life where conversation, tales told by elders, relatives, and parents’ friends, were entertainment enough. Daily life where reading or your own imagination conjured up stories of fascination. We saw TV for what it is: an invader, usurper, impostor of reality. An impostor of life. A gaudy, cheap substitute for real people and real stories of life and living. And that was back when TV was benign and innocent compared to today’s malignant force.
We belong to the last generation of kids who were allowed to remain children into their early teens, free of the stimulation and invasion of the real and imagined sorrows of adult life. The kids born just 3 to 5 years later missed the window that was closing forever behind them. A window of life that stretched back through the eons, the window of life without TV or the ceaseless invasion of any electronic stimulation except a radio playing benign love songs or a ball game. And, the only drug was booze, an affliction in a small minority of the population, not an integral part of almost everyday’s news and so many lives that drugs are currently.
We often talked about how we lived a life in tune with the natural rhythms, not man’s. We knew it then as boys. We commented on it later as men. Our calendar was of nature’s seasons and the hunting and fishing regulations. We had the freedom and the beautiful countryside that allowed us that privilege, that rare opportunity in this century, the 20th century that is.. We really did live by the natural seasons.
In January we had the late rabbit season, following beagle hounds with their high pitched serenade as they brought fat cottontails around to our guns. Cottontails that would grace our families’ dinner tables as welcome, appreciated, and enjoyed food prepared by a mother who knew what it meant to tell her son what good rabbit this was.
We also were finishing up the muskrat trapping season. Trapping required you to get up every morning, no exceptions, and check your mile long trap line. The weather was often very cold and windy, but you got up an extra hour and a half early before school. It didn’t matter if it was pouring rain, snowing, or blowing (or maybe all three). You never allowed an animal to remain in your trap past sunup. Sometimes we would go out at night before going to bed and check the traps and again the following morning. And on the school bus, Bob and I would exchange our accounts of the morning’s catch. After school I’d carry the “rats”, as we called them, home to skin that night after homework. I’d stretch their hides and hang them to dry on stretcher frames. We learned a little about capital investment because we had to buy the stretchers and traps out of our trapping income. We learned a lot about the debt of responsibility to the animals we were trapping when we were greeted by 5 *F mornings with a 20 mph wind and no parent gave any hint that maybe, just this once, we wouldn’t have to go out into the storm.
Spring was not a calendar event. It was not marked by the return of the first robin. R obins were idiots, sometimes showing up in January! No, spring was heralded by the return of the grackles, those iridescent black, swaggering birds with the yellow eyes. They invested hundreds of miles of geography in their decision to come north. They were never wrong. We could hunt them as food for our captive great horned owl. The owl we carried into the spring woods as a lure for crows. “The grackles are back!” was the announcement we would make to each other on the day they were first seen. Even in that 1993 last phone conversation, Bob and I had commented on our remembrances of these harbingers of spring. The grackles usually returned in late February or early March, to mark the end of the only blank spot on our annual chain of exploration and discovery.
March held a special anticipation. Trout season was nearly here. Sometimes we would fish for suckers just to blunt the fishing urge. “Mr. Walker” would take us in his old truck to Valley Creek, usually on a rainy, cold March day. We’d sit on either side of him as he stuffed his pipe with that wonderful smelling Prince Albert tobacco and relate stories from the previous century. He had a huge repertoire of tales about unusual characters he had met, of his early days as an amateur golden gloves boxer, of wild and dangerous mishaps with livestock, of humorous incidents in business and every day life, and a healthy smattering of Quaker truisms. Here was a big powerful man who was a true romantic of the old school. We didn’t know that at ten years old, but we did know there was something very special about him.
He was butcher to the moneyed wealthy of much of Philadelphia. During the Depression he had money when most others didn’t. His well-known philanthropy was something we knew about but he never mentioned it. He would tell of people and scenes from the rolling green country side and we were mesmerized. He always saw his role as someone who had a responsibility to talk to young men about readying themselves for life, building responsibility. He talked to us as adults. He made us boys think of ourselves as young men looking ahead. Another subject he never mentioned, though we would have most interested in it, was his life-long and well-known love affair he was having with a neighbor. Again, kids were sheltered from such things back then.
Trout season was soon upon us in mid-April. We would pour over our gear, talk of what we needed, tie up our leaders, oil the reels, and read all we could find. On opening day we would be out for the 5 AM start on some crowded stream: Valley, Pickering, or French Creek, drowning worms with the rest of them. We knew Ray Eyler, owner of an Orvis shop, who fished with the mysterious flies we had read about. Sometimes he would talk about some monster he had caught, but we caught enough stocked fish with our “garden hackle” that we didn’t pursue fly fishing. Not then. My Dad always told us Ray had worms hidden on him somewhere just in case.
Bob Smith was a fisherman friend of my Dad’s. He had all the fingers missing on one hand, a very intriguing condition to young boys. He told us the devil had cut them off for some untold transgression. He would go off into the night fishing with my Dad where we weren’t allowed to follow. They would come home very late, sometimes with 4 or 5 pound fish but they would never disclose the location.
Later, after the opening day excitement, Bob and I would begin to fish Trout Run, “our” little stream. It did not have any of the white-meated, pale, flaccid, stocked fish. These were all stream-bred browns, wary and tough fighters, who didn’t allow the noisy or careless fisherman to catch them or seldom even see them. We stalked these worthy opponents, only occasionally catching one, but learning in the process, the value of the wild, natural, and more difficult quarry.
May started our crow hunts using the owl to lure in birds that would become his food. June started the bass season. My dad would take us to private estates that had bass-filled ponds only he could fish. We also fished the Schulykill River for smallmouth bass. Many a hot evening was spent hiking the mile or so down the railroad along the river to a riffle of large rocks and weed beds where the big smallmouths would hunt after dark. You could see them chasing minnows in the shallows, a sinister bulge in the water following a school of panicked minnows as they leaped frantically like miniature porpoises just ahead of the speeding bass.
By August we were thinking of dove hunting and archery hunts for deer. We would have our bird dogs out getting some badly needed work on the young pheasants. Not shooting the birds mind you, just exercising all of us, boys, dogs, and birds. September was a combination of dove hunting, dog work, and bow hunting. October brought grouse and squirrels and at the end it led to pheasants and rabbits through November. Deer used up the first half of December. When we were 10 or 12, very few deer were seen around home. One was shot once or twice a year and you saw one once in a while in the car headlights but they weren’t common. By the time we were in our early twenties, they were very common. We began to organize our hunting efforts in 1963, when I killed my first deer. Bob got his first in 1966.
In mid December, we were back into trapping season and my Dad was running his hounds after raccoons at night. Bob and I would often follow the men and hounds half the night, sometimes even on school nights. Hunting and fishing were sometimes seen as acceptable excuses for missing school. Not often, but once or twice a year.
So, that is how our time between our tenth and eighteenth years went. Girl friends and later college altered the timing a little but never completely. I remember in about 1963, when Bob was going to be married for the first time, we decided to go trout fishing on the morning of the wedding. One has to keep all things in perspective. I have a photo of Bob holding a nice trout he caught just before he had to speed off to avoid jilting the bride at the altar. As it turned out, we should have stayed on the stream!
Now my friend is suddenly, unbelievably gone. I still will somehow forget and think after a fishing trip that I must call him and tell him all about it. Then, almost as painfully, as with the first time I heard it, I’ll remember. Bob is dead. There are ways of recounting a fishing trip that were only appropriate for my friend Bob. Not being able to share them with him leaves them a little empty at the end now. It’s as if sharing the details of a trip was part of each trip. Now they will forever seem incomplete. We were going to take some floats in my drift boat on the South Fork of the Snake. We were planning to go ice fishing on Clark Canyon. We were going to share Yellowstone, of course, every summer for how many more years? Thirty? Forty?
Bob and I standing fishing together in the Yellowstone. As kids the likelihood of us ever being in this place together would have seemed an impossible dream. Yet here we were and expecting many more years of chances like this one. We didn’t have but a couple of more years together and then Bob was gone.
In addition to the diaries, I filmed a lot of our hunting and fishing including a very complete film of Bob’s first archery kill, a doe whitetail. I copied all the footage I had of those days and sent it to him. I remember he said that, when he watched it, it seemed like I had filmed his whole life.
On our vacation this summer, our family stopped in Polson to visit his family; Aggie, Sherrie, and Matt. We visited the bridge over the Flathead River where Bob’s ashes were scattered. It seems most fitting that those remains are now entering the food chain, moving into the stonefly and caddis larvae. Moving up to the trout and then circulating back around again in perpetual motion. I have a spot on the Yellowstone where I intend to be deposited in a similar manner.
Bob’s passing was difficult for my kids as well as for Millie and me. My kids only saw Bob a few times in their lives but they recognized he was “a nice man” as they would say when they were young. Bob always asked them about their activities and interests as if these were important. He never implied they were trivial, just because they were little kids. And he was always kind and friendly. Our visit to Polson was sad for both of them personally. They had lost a friend too.
During our visit I saw, for the first time, where Bob lived. Matt took me through the rooms and bits and pieces of my life showed up. An old BB gun, a .22 pistol, a book. These things of Bob’s had all been present when we had gone on some adventure. I had held them all, used them all, when I was in varying stages of my youth. And Bob had a pup out of Lady, my Chesapeake Bay retriever. I hadn’t seen that pup since it was very young five years ago. At first sight, I knew I wanted her. Matt brought her down to Blackfoot the following weekend.
While in Polson, Matt and I fished Rock Creek where Matt had fished so often with his father. We stopped in a little fly shop back in the woods off the beaten track. The owner had helped Matt and Bob learn some fly tying and rod building. Matt introduced me as Bob’s longtime friend. The man looked at me almost with tears in his eyes and told how he didn’t really know Bob well. But he said Bob’s passing had affected him more than any he could remember in a long time. It might have been the pure dedication and love Bob had for the stream, the fish, and the pursuit. It might have been the young son left without a father to continue the lessons. But the shop owner said he and Matt had made a pact that they would spend a lot of time this winter in the shop tying flies. It seemed he was going to finish what Bob had started.
I too would like to find the opportunities where Matt and I could fish together. His father and I had begun to spend more time together. There were the many years when distance limited our time together. With Bob’s move to Montana, we began to make at least one trip together each year. With my new drift boat we were planning more trips. Ice fishing also was a new activity that was likely to bring us together in fishing trips. Bob and I can’t be together. But Matt and I can do some of these things and I will try to get in some of these trips whenever possible. Matt also exhibited some interest in learning about hunting. Bob had focused more on fishing in recent years. But I am more than willing to share what I can about it. Jim Kelly indicated he would also help Matt get started.
This past couple of years Bob really got into fly tying and Matt joined him in a flurry of fly fishing throughout the year, even in the dead of their Montana winters. Bob wanted to accomplish that dream we had as kids of being good fly fishermen. He made some real progress and how he reveled in the fact that Matt was sharing it with him. We often had long fly tying talks. We had one of those talks late on a July night this summer. He was excited about some new patterns he had learned. He was excited about a great day he had with Matt that week. We were planning the annual Yellowstone trip where Matt would join us for five days of uninterrupted fishing. We talked about seeing some of the friends that were coming as they did every year. As we said good-bye at the end of that conversation, we didn’t know we were saying good-bye forever. No hint of trouble, pain, or concern was noticed or mentioned. Before morning Bob was dead. It is likely I was the last person he spoke with in this life. With him he took his half of all our memories of a glorious youth. He took pieces with him that I have lost and could only rediscover after stumbling into them in a conversation with him. I can’t consult with him now except in memory. I’ll do so when in my drift boat and in my float tube. I’m sure he will be there every time I hunt with Lady’s pup. I’ll do so by surprise when I hadn’t intended to. And I understand something now I didn’t understand before. Bob was a bigger part of me than I ever knew. I just wish you had taken better care of yourself old friend. I believe I shall miss you forever.