The old archer wasn't keeping up well. We were walking the mostly abandoned "Upper Course" on the hill behind his archery club and roving the decaying straw butts that were returning to nature. I noticed a grayness about his complexion and it scared the hell out of me, so we sat down and rested a bit. He was working his way back from a bad time with angina, balloon angioplasty and shunts and insisted he was ready to "get back to shootin."
"I remember when we set this course" he said after catching his breath. "We had shots over the gully and down into it. Good field shots. Now it's just like the flat course around the club. A damn golf course. The last time they let me help set the 3-D I had deer half behind trees and at angles, shots through brush and off the lanes. Didn't set out any pegs for yardages, just the target number stakes. You never heard such wailing. Bunch of babies."
I met the old archer some fifteen years before that; when he was about my age as I write this. He would have nailed my ears to the floor if he ever heard me call him an "old" anything. In addition to NFAA and state-level archery medals and trophies he had dozens of wrestling and Karate awards. My first introduction was at a boat ramp on one of New York's Finger Lakes. We each had trailerable sailboats, mine a fiberglass model that looked old fashioned and his a wooden boat he had built himself. In talking he mentioned he sold plans for a small bateau that could be sailed or rowed, and that he used it when bowhunting.
"Bowhunting?" says I. "I bowhunt."
Well I got myself an invite to his house to check out this boat, and of course I brought along my longbow. No gnomes in this guy's yard. After climbing a driveway that could be featured in Jeep commercial I found the house nestled in amongst the trees. He had a mini 3-D course set so you could circle the yard and have 20 to 40 yard shots at foam deer, boar, turkey, and the infamous rabbit on top of a stack of haybales with a half acre of raspberry bushes behind. "Added reason not to miss." The house was patrolled by an Airedale named "Dudley" who turned out to be the happiest 80lb lap dog I ever met. "A disgrace to his family" according to his master, but the two were inseparable.
I came to think of him as the old archer after that first visit, not because of his age, but because he was a holdout from the age before compounds. He owned one, but it never took hold with him. The walls of his den were covered with old selfbows, early Martins (he had been a dealer for them at one time), Brownings, Wings, Ben Pearsons. More traditional bows in one room that I had seen in my life up until then. He also had some laminated recurves of his own manufacture, several showing damage from destructive testing as he worked on design improvements.
By the time I left that day he had given me plans for one of his "Balsam Swamp Bateaus" and an invite to join him at an archery club he belonged to for a trip around the outdoor course. I ended up joining and shooting in an indoor winter league, which improved my shooting immensely. I could never hold a candle to him. If the feathers of his fletching weren't touching it wasn't good shooting. My family had always enjoyed archery at my grandpa's "farm" of five acres in the country, but no one was a hunter. My grandpa had been before WWI, but after he got back he never hunted for sport. No doubt about it, I was a target archer. The old archer set about to change that. Roving with him went out to 45 or 50 yards, sometimes farther. Always in cover, usually between close trees or over odd terrain, and he seldom missed. On the 3-D course we always shot from the farthest stake, him making effortless super kills and me trying my darnedest to keep them in the vitals so as not to disgrace us in front of the compound shooters.
By the next spring I had completed my bateau and we took it to the lake it was named for that fall: Balsam Swamp. The lake is remote enough in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and the back side is further isolated by a swamp on either end of the lake, cutting access from the single dirt road that approaches the lake. We filled the boat with gear and I rowed us across the lake and into the past. Pleasure boating happens at 80º in the summer when the water temperature is 70º or so. Looking into the slate gray water, the same color as the sky, just four inches below the gunnels in October when the air is 45º and the water close to that is a different sensation. I've boated long enough to know that in heavy clothes and boots we'd be gone in 15 minutes in that lake, which is seldom visited between the bass fishermen of summer and the pike fishermen of winter. It made the adventure greater and I loved every moment of it.
Neither of us got a deer that trip, but it hardly mattered. He hadn't been to this spot in years and I was excited at being there for the first time. We would use the boat to move from camp to our hunting spots and then rendezvous at mid-day for lunch and some roving. This we had promised the wives we would do. He had retired early on a partial disability ticket for heart ailments and I was under strict orders to keep a close eye on him. I was in the groove that day and my arrows were steering themselves. I made an 80 yard field-archery style kill on a fire-hydrant sized stump and we were both impressed - which of course he hid well and discounted to sheer luck; but he did honor the bet and the supper dishes were his. "Come on, Stumpkiller, lets go find something live to shoot at."
That summer I got a call from his wife that he had had a heart attack while working on his sailboat. This time the doctors went in and did multiple-bypass surgery. The old archer had been dreading this because, having been a male nurse, he knew the costs of slicing through the muscles on his chest. Although he felt better overall, his 55# bow was now a wall ornament and would be for some time. Undeterred, he pulled out an old 35# target bow long before he was supposed to and started on the road back. But it proved to be a pretty long one. Never inactive, he did have a fondness for beer and rich food. He dropped about 80 pounds and continued to regain strength and stamina. It was during this time he started fiddling around with an old Honda motorcycle from the 60's that a mutual friend sold him before moving south. He got that one reconditioned and sold it, picking up a much larger Moto Guzzi of about the same vintage. In his younger days he had raced Fiats at Watkins Glen and found the old need for speed still smoldering on some internal back burner. He also spent a lot of time working on his 30 foot wooden schooner. He loved to relate how he had been working in a compartment off to the side of the cockpit where there was some engine access while tied in the slip. It was a hot summer day and he was wearing a red bandanna to keep the sweat out of his eyes and the sun off of his head (what hair he did have on his head had settled on being a beard and the top was pretty open). He heard a little girl's voice nearby saying: "Look! A pirate!" Another girl with her said "No, It's just an old man who loves his boat." He popped his head out of the hatch and growled "I am too a pirate, Arrrrr."
All was going well. He had worked back to 50# bows and was under 200 pounds for the first time in 20 years and maintained that he had never felt better. On a warm sunny day in early May the old archer left us with his boots on. Not with a bow in hand, but astride the vintage Moto Guzzi motorcycle. A heart attack that resulted in loss of control at speed, either of which would have been enough. At his viewing his favorite recurve bow, of his own make and design, was laid on the table along with the chest containing his ashes, a custom hunting knife which he cherished, an archery gold medal and a picture of him and his Airedale sitting on the deck of his 30 ft wooden schooner. That's how I always hope to remember him. A big, jolly pirate who enjoyed people that didn't take themselves seriously.
I've only known a few who enjoyed life near as much. He had three lifetimes worth of stories compared to most of us, and loved to share them around a fire or over a beer. There weren't ever many like him. Certainly not enough at any time, and the world is a lesser place at his loss. Next time I share a campfire with him I hope it is where the beer is better, the venison tastier and the shafts grow straighter.
Posts: 24772 | From: GA | Registered: Mar 2003
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