Dad

The cold winter sky seemed to press down on us, threatening rain, stiffening our fingers and invading our lungs with every breath. We had been walking for a couple of hours, and night was not far off. We were headed back toward the pickup, with little chance of making it before we ran out of 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 neat it was to be able to get Dad to stop whenever I wanted him to. We’d whisper for a while, since Dad was 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 go a lot sooner than I did, made things seem completely unfair. Still, 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. 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 hamburgers, which he flavored with river onions and cooked over an open fire. I can remember worrying how he knew it was OK to eat those things he pulled out of the ground, but I can also remember how good those hamburgers tasted. I decided Dad knew what he was doing. I remember listening to them talking, lying in the back of the pickup, looking up at the stars, and 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 a camping trip with the big boys. Life doesn’t get much better. The first time I got to go hunting alone I was probably ten, and Dad gave me some loaded down shells he’d found for his .243. He showed me where to sit the day before the season opened, and pointed to where I’d see a deer. I huddled under my bush that 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 and gave me an easy, broadside shot. If my dad had told me the sun was going to come up in the west I would have bet the farm on it. He met me halfway to the house, almost as excited as I was, and helped me field dress my deer and take it to the house. 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 a good three inches high. I couldn’t believe Dad had passed up hunting on the first day of the season just so I could go alone. But then, Dad sacrificed for his family all his life. Teachers don’t make a lot of money now, but in the sixties and seventies the pay scale was even worse. We never had a lot, but 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, W. L., when he was twelve, 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 farm at Lohn. I guess he got used to doing without, since he’d never known any other way. Clarence Lohn, one of my father’s boyhood friends, came up to me after Dad’s funeral on August 27, 2000, and gave me a tiny peek at Jamie Hemphill, the country boy. He said that, when he and my Dad and W.L. were kids they ran around together all the time. They would go up on the mountain near the Hemphill home at Lohn on Sunday afternoon and pick a tree with a bole about five or six inches in diameter, and all three of them would climb it, bending it over to the ground. Two of them would turn loose and let the tree go, and the other one would try to hang on to the tree while it snapped back and forth. Then they’d all climb it again, and let another boy have a ride. I wonder why Dad never told my brother and me that story when we were kids. Now that Dad’s gone, I find myself wondering who’s going to pick me up when I stumble, dust off the seat of my pants and get me going again. I realize how much I depended on him, and how much I took him for granted. Dad was a lot of things to a lot of people. He taught math to a generation of Mason students, became the guidance counselor for another generation, was the announcer at all the varsity home football games for almost forty years, served as an elder in the Church of Christ, was active in many community projects, ran businesses himself and helped others to start their own, and was lately a city councilman and mayor for the town he called home for the last forty-five years. But his most important job, as far as I’m concerned, was being my dad. Anyone can be a father, but it takes a special kind of guy to be a dad. And I had the best. That hunt with Dad’ It got dark on us before we got out of the woods that day, and snowflakes were falling by the time we got back to the pickup. I wasn’t worried. I knew we’d get back, and I was snug and warm, anyway. Dad had taken off his coat and put me on his back, and then 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. My father was known by many different names to many different people. He was liked and respected wherever he went. He gave me an honorable example to follow all my life. I’ve been called by a lot of names, too, but the one I miss most is “son.” Write to Kendal Hemphill at PO Box 564, Mason, Tx 76856 or email hemphill@towa.org

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