I was 9 years old when my father passed away. It was a Saturday during the spring of my fourth year in grade school, April 20, 1974, at precisely 10:20 a.m. when he was pronounced dead. I'd slept over at a friend's house. When a family friend came over and said something about "the hospital" and "Scott needs to go home," I misunderstood. An uncle recently had surgery ... I thought there were complications. At home I was greeted by grim looks and a few sobs from friends and relatives. My mother wasn't there. I wandered upstairs, if only to get away from the confusion. Then I heard my mother enter the house, say something and erupt in tears. When I walked downstairs everyone was crying. I never did.
I don't know why. I certainly loved my father, and from what I've been told everyone did. Today many memories of him fade by the day; others are easy to recall. He always did a lot of things with my brother, Marc, and me. He coached baseball. He was involved with the Boy Scouts. He helped me build my first pinewood derby car when I was a Cub Scout. (We had a family secret, thanks to a grandfather who was a machinist with lots of tools, which ensured competitive entries.) The year after Dad died, I took first place in the pack and fourth place in regionals, all the while rubbing his pocketknife for good luck.
He liked to travel, too. I remember going to the World's Fair in Montreal and to the Smoky Mountains (where I acquired a coonskin cap I have to this day). One summer, Dad rented a Winnebago and the family motored up the Eastern Seaboard, visiting L.L. Bean headquarters and deep-sea fishing in Maine and touring every Revolutionary War site we could find.
Dad also took us hunting.
Granddad Olmsted didn't hunt, but Granddad Zinn did, and so did my mom's brother, Alan-I suppose that's how Dad became a hunter. I remember sitting on the cold ground in the middle of the woods while he listened intently and admonished me for fidgeting. I remember when he built the first treestand in the family. I remember my parents returning from a vacation in the Bahamas and explaining that Dad hit it big at blackjack and won $200, and how my mom used half the winnings to buy him a Marlin 336C in .35 Remington for Christmas. Dad took a deer with that rifle the next year, and I took its hoof to school for show-and-tell.
Just before he died, Dad took Marc and me trout fishing during spring break.
I stayed home from school the following week. When I returned, I realized all my friends knew what had happened. It took some time before any of them felt comfortable around me. Who could blame them? What 9-year-old knows how to cope with death, or help a friend do it? The first one to say anything to me was Andy Titus; of all my friends, he was the only one who, like me, enjoyed hunting and fishing. I guess Andy knew I'd need a way to keep the outdoors in my life, and in my absence he must've spoken with his father, Charlie, about it.
"My dad says you can come up to our cabin in Pennsylvania anytime you want. We can go hiking, hunting and camping. He says you're always welcome."
I grew up in Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., in the 1970s-a place and time that seemed more Southern than mid-Atlantic, as the area is referred to nowadays. Lots of boys talked hunting and fishing, though I can't recall anyone actually killing big game. Southern rock dominated the airwaves. Clothes fit the part-hiking boots, flannel shirts, jeans and jean jackets. Down vests were popular, too, as was a Buck knife tucked into a back pocket.
Andy and I were part of this cadre. But unlike other boys who merely bragged about taking off opening day for deer season, we did it, though such an absence from school was unexcused. At first we were too young to hunt deer alone so we aimed for simpler goals.
Andy had a Benjamin Sheridan pump-action pellet gun that was lethal on suburban small game. One night I called him and exclaimed, "There's a possum on the fence in the yard-get over here!" He strapped the gun to the handlebars of his 10-speed and pedaled to my house. We wore out that possum.
We baited lots of hooks in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but my best fishing story will always be the summer Charlie chartered a boat in Ocean City, Md., and took Andy and me billfishing. We hit the jackpot. We caught a white marlin, a yellowfin and a wahoo. We motored into port with three flags flying, which produced quite a crowd.
In Pennsylvania we had the run of 200 acres. We camped; we sped across snow-covered fields on a pair of Arctic Cats; we sledded down frozen gravel roads and enjoyed uphill tows behind Charlie's Suburban; we skied; we felt like Baja racers in Andy's VW, its body removed, a steel cage welded to its chasis. We hunted whatever was available.