© Warren Washburn
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UNDYING LOVE OF A BROTHER (Revised)
My wife, Marilyn, hollered at me to get up off my butt and do something.
“Rick, go hunting or clean the garage, don’t just sit there watching football.”
Keeping my eyes on the game, I asked her, “Why, you having a boyfriend in?”
She walked by me and threw a pillow at my head. So I tripped her with my knee. Most of the time we got along pretty well.
She was right, as usual. Level-headed, I spotted that about her on our first date. We've been married three years now. Occasionally, she'd have to remind me to do a better job of sorting dirty clothes, but then I'd find an error in her checkbook to even the score.
"What do you think, Mrs. Weatherperson, how soon will it snow?"
"Let me check the weather channel," she answered.
I had been on Christmas vacation for a week, doing absolutely nothing. The outdoor air would be good for me, and my bird dog, Sam, needed some exercise. It was a little after two, plenty of time to drive to a wildlife management area and hunt pheasants.
The temperature was about twenty degrees F. above zero. That was a bit chilly, but the ground would feel frozen hard, making it easier to walk through the field. Plus, this was prime time for the birds to be moving around, trying to feed before roosting for the night. Good old Sam would have plenty of chances to pick up a scent.
I jumped up and started my countdown routine. First, hunting license. I patted my jeans pocket; there it was, with my driver’s license. It’s a law in this state, Nebraska, that to hunt pheasants, you have to carry a license and identification. It’s also a law you can only shoot the male, the roosters. Hens are off limits since the bird population isn’t what it used to be. Next, the twelve gauge pump shotgun and a box of steel shot shells, then I was ready to roll.
Walked out to the garage and loaded the dog kennel with its camouflage cover to keep Sam warm. My trusty Ford Ranger pickup was ready to go. Sam had been listening and waiting, his tail fluttering. Sam was a registered Brittany, a pointer. Wouldn’t trade him for a million dollars.
When I got Sam, the first thing I liked was that he wasn’t the normal Brittany color, orange and white. He was dark brown, or as advertisements described his coloring—liver and white or even bourbon and white. Yeah, I grabbed him up as quickly as I could.
The last thing I considered was my hunting gear. High-top boots, insulated for warmth, waterproof. Thick woolen socks, black just like Army Rangers wear. I wore blue jeans, but had a pair of camo windproof and waterproof pants to wear over them if it were cold or wet. Decide at the site. Four layers on top, last layer a sweat hood for the head and ears. An orange vest for carrying game, I put that on over my sweat hood. Had a heavy Army jacket in the cab if needed. A box of granola bars behind my seat if I really get hungry.
I jumped in, backed the pickup out then realized I hadn't got the weather report. Too late, I was on the move. I saw Marilyn run out on the porch and hollered "chili soup for supper" at her. She yelled out something, sounded like winter. . . . . storm . . . . .watch, but I was already motoring. It wasn't snowing yet and there was no breeze in the dark grey sky, just some dark-bottomed clouds shifting their weight around. This look was nothing uncommon for eastern Nebraska in late December.
Only one thing was missing, my older brother Norman. We used to hunt a lot together. We were fourteen months apart so we grew up doing games and sports and chasing girls together. He was a great high school athlete. From early on, I followed his lead and was just happy to be close to him. I still miss him.
When I drove into the country, I kept the speed at fifty-five. I try to follow all rules. I had always believed that good things happen to you if you walk the straight line. I headed north, toward the village of Wann—to the habitat, Platte Wildlife Management Area, near the ice-chunked Platte River.
Thinking as I drove, only three more days of vacation, had better make the most of them. I’m a public school teacher/coach. I like the Army way of teaching. Desks in straight lines, facing the front. Students sitting straight up, their eyes forward. When the bell rings, they are “on task” and they stay “on task” until dismissal sounds. My goal is to bring a little order into their lives for at least fifty minutes per day.
Thinking back, what had Marilyn yelled? Was it a storm watch or a warning? We get both forecasts about twice a week in Nebraska during the winter months. A watch means maybe a storm, a warning means take cover now. Very rarely does a blizzard strike suddenly. I liked to think our snowstorms are like high school romances. The action begins slowly with eye contact, then a walk home holding hands, then a ride home with the beginning kissy face routine in the back seat of a car. From that point on—whooo-aaahhh! Anyway, it’s not hard to figure out. If it starts to snow and blow, I begin my Army jog to the pickup and don’t stop until I’m in it. Then race home and hunker down, snuggle up, and let the damn storm have it’s way.
I turned on a radio station out of Omaha and caught the end of a weather report. "Storm warning for eastern Nebraska until midnight." Looked out the window, heavy dark clouds but no moisture coming down yet. Have to keep it in mind, not get carried away by the hunt. Then I heard, “We skip the light fandango, turns cartwheels cross the floor.” Sounded like organ playing and some kind of hippy words. I had heard it before and liked it a lot of its verses. If I get a chance, I’ll buy it. It was a haunting tune, A Whiter Shade of Pale. I hear
I got a little tug of the heart as I drove past the hamlet of Wann. Grew up there, did everything with my older brother, Norman. Our family moved away years ago, but the memories are still alive in the living.
Wann had shrunk by now; it was a small village with a railroad, depot, and grain elevator. Also, a general store, a Christian Church, and one elementary school which taught grades one through eight. Wann was about three block long and three blocks wide. We had the run of it. It could be an army fort, a farm, an Indian village.
When Norman entered the ninth grade in the nearest town, I missed him. He had to practice sports after school, but I loved to watch him run with the football and run on the track team. I was always chasing after him. Chasing our pigs or chickens out of the neighbor’s yard. We spent hours each day running until the television set appeared.
I slowed down after driving past Wann, bittersweet memories came to mind, brought back the good times and the hard times. Being close brothers, growing up, seemed so long ago.
Parked in the north lot and let Sam out to start his run and bathroom calls. He left a dribble in places to mark his territory. Hadn’t paid much attention to any weather report. The dark rolling clouds in the north looked ominous, sending out streamers of black-filled patches across the now steel-blue sky. No moisture in the air, but there did seem to be stillness, a heavy anticipation, maybe going to snow tonight. Glancing at the frost on the weeds and feeling the crispness of the cold that invaded my fingers, I thought—no, the temp is not twenty above, felt more like zero.
Again the checklist--weapon, shells, and pickup locked with keys in my left pocket. I headed out of the lot southward next to an unused fence between the habitat and a picked cornfield. The perfect place for roosters, any serious hunter would say that. There was a good chance the birds fed in the cornfield and roosted in the weeds along the fence. Tall brome and switchblade grass hindered my walk, but this was the time to toughen up and plow through it, gun at the ready.
A half-mile hike through knee-high weeds brought me to the end of the field. Sam ran like crazy but never stood at alert. Suddenly he stopped. I heard a noise behind us, turned my head, and saw the rooster jump and fly. Wheeled to my left, gun up, my two wild shots ripped holes in the air. I watched the rooster soar down the fence line toward the truck, then veer off to the left. He glided back into the cornfield so I gave him up. At that instant, I noticed the change in the weather.
What shocked me was seeing that the sky was turning a deep dark blue. A storm must have built up behind me during the last half hour. Fog was settling in, and without warning, sleet and snowflakes began to whirl around. Better call off the hunt. Couldn’t see the pickup, but I had a good sense of direction so ducked my head down to protect my face and walked into the storm.
What worried me the most was it seemed as if the temperature had dropped way too fast. I thought the wind chill must have reached zero. Wished I had bundled up with the hunting jacket and the camo pants.
The frigid air penetrated my upper layers and touched the bare skin on my arms and chest with its frosty chill. I began to shiver as I hurried north. Anyone with determination can hike a half mile, I thought. Just hunker my head down and grit my teeth.
The tumultuous blue-black cloudbank churned overhead, acting crazy. Sam had given a half-hearted chase to the rooster, but by now had given up. Sam was ten yards ahead of me when another rooster, full of brilliant color, boiled up out of the weeds. He flapped his wings rapidly into the dark blue sky.
This time, gun up, one shot and the rooster spun downward. I could tell he was winged--he jumped up as he hit the ground and began the rooster run, hunched low to the ground. Sam gave chase so another shot was out of the question. However, I reacted by instinct—I ran hard--right into wet flakes of snow, the icy wind, and the hidden badger hole.
How could anyone see a rabbit, coyote, or badger hole when the brome grass was waist high? My right leg plunged downward and I felt a crack more than heard one. Impossible to break a leg I thought, but something was definitely wrong as I sat on the ground and pulled my leg out of the hole.
The pain was rough but I thought a leg had two bones and one was not weight bearing. Nevertheless, the pain seemed low, maybe an anklebone or right above it. Numbness began so for a while the hurting left my mind. The blizzard was a bigger fear. I was shocked when I looked for but couldn’t see the pickup. The tumble had turned me and then a feeling of panic crept into my mind.
Sam ran away with his nose to the ground. He trailed the fast moving bird but the hunt had ended for me. I shivered in the cold, dark air, the heavier snow, and the radiating pain that had increased. Many thoughts struck me—where the heck was the pickup and how could I reach it were the two main ones. Also considered a hot chili supper, needed some fuel.
Maybe I should have tried to find the fence line first. Then followed it to the parking area. However, in the swirling flakes and darkening air, I couldn’t even see it. I remembered a story about a Nebraska blizzard where a schoolteacher had led her students to safety by following a fence line. Shaking off all stupid thoughts, I decided to will myself in the right direction.
Thinking if I could just reach the truck, I would be able to unlock it, pull myself in, start it up, run the heater and the defrost. I hadn’t seen any other hunters, but just in case, I pointed the gun in the air and fired two shots. I yelled, “help!” Both sounds seemed muffled and short lived in the obvious snowstorm. Sam ran up to me, but my problem wasn’t his concern as he hit another spoor and off he ran.
My situation was beginning to grow in my mind but failure didn’t seem possible. However, a picture of the Wann Christian Church and the elementary school suddenly appeared along with the thought of running those gravel streets of Wann with my brother. When grown, I was taller than he was, but he was a lot tougher. When he was proud of me, he would give me a big grin, he didn’t have to say anything.
I never told him, but he was my hero. He would want me to succeed; I can guarantee you that fact. For a second, I lost control of my mind and started to worry too much. Don’t panic, I had to remind myself, just don’t panic. Stay calm, you have an objective, reach it.
I ejected the remaining shells so that no more accidents would happen. Then I placed the gunstock firmly in the ground and grabbed the barrel. Pulled myself to an upright position, I looked for the pickup so I could set a course directly for it. Didn’t want to waste any steps. Since I couldn’t see the truck, I took a guess and tried to use the gun as a crutch, took a step with my left leg, dragged the damaged right.
After ten steps across wet grass and weeds, my balance broke down due to the uneven ground, the slushy material sticking to the gunstock and the strong wind and stinging snow that felt like a slap on my face. I stumbled over a frozen dirt pile, lost my balance, and fell. I heard a thud as my head collided with the pile.
I reached up to my cheekbone and saw blood on my glove. That was just a minor pain, the relentlessness of the storm and cold bothered me more. Then another bothering thought. Seriously, if I could not make a tremendous effort to reach the truck, would I freeze to death out here?
Rested for a while and tried to calm my mind. However, thoughts of death, of what’s on the other side, how does it happen, wouldn’t leave me. It seems as if it is an event that we don’t like to think about.
Then I remembered sitting in the Wann General Store on cold days, listening to the old timers talk about hunting, blizzards, and death. Some squatted down on their heels, chewing and spitting tobacco.
One of them said, “We are born with our beds already in our graves.”
Then he said, “I was caught out in a blizzard once. Then I thought if I could make it over the ridge and down a ways, I could warm up in the widow Henry’s house. Yes sir.”
Someone else said something about the widow Henry that made everyone laugh, but I was too young to understand.
Suddenly I realized where I was and that somehow the night had snuck up behind the storm and that maybe I was losing a feeling of existence. How strange it seemed I would think that the storm and nightfall had crept up on me, when my purpose of being here was to sneak up on roosters. Therefore, there I was, face to face with a real enemy.
The storm had been hiding behind the trees lining the Platte River the entire time. Then the dark clouds dropped the night like paratroopers all around me. Crazy thoughts took my mind away from my danger. It seemed as if I woke up and wanted to strike out against the darkness. Felt as if I had wasted thirty minutes. The tune came to me, “We skipped the light fandango”. That thought made me shake my head to get clear of all feelings other than reaching safety.
I started to slide along the wet ground using my right hand and arm to pull. I tried to fight off the attack of the white flakes and black night and gusting wind. Piss-poor gloves, my finger were starting to turn numb. The thin gloves allowed control of my trigger finger, but were worthless for real warmth. Now I was paying the price.
Then, fright took over; I began to crawl faster and harder. Felt myself sweating and wondered—why not take off my sweatshirt and leave it? Felt as if I was heating up too much inside, while my skin seemed to lose its feeling. Then I fought down panic once again and questioned my judgment of taking off my clothes. Maybe Sam could help me. Where was he?
“Come here Sam, that’s a good boy, you’ve always been a good dog. I’m chilly Sam, go get me a blanket, help me. I’m freezing to death.”
I felt Sam in my face, and then watched him trot away. He stopped to shake the wet snow off his coat and he stared at me, strange like. He barked, then turned and disappeared into the mist. That’s just like him I thought. Once he is in the field, he has a single purpose in mind.
Figured he wanted to reach the pickup, so I crawled hard once again toward his path. I really felt like taking short nap. What was wrong with sleeping, I thought, just for a little while? Maybe I would stop sweating. Then I shook off my grogginess and tried to focus, tried to get my bearings but sharp pain made me think, ‘slow down, there is no need to hurry.’
Damn snow, damn leg, damn dark, where the hell was the pickup? Relaxed and rested now, I pictured again my reaching the truck and arriving home. Then I snapped out of my dreaming and thought how one more big push could get me to safety. The bad thought of dying pestered my thinking process. I thought this just can’t be my time, but then also, maybe I had better not count it out.
Crawled, that’s what I did, using my elbows in a military type of movement. My hands seemed to be weights hanging from my arms. I wasn’t sure if I was headed in the right direction. Then, to heck with it, I decided I needed some rest. I laid my head down with my face away from the storm. Thought there should be no harm in a short sleep. Then the shakes hit me. I forgot about everything to listen to my teeth rattle. Strange it was, I could stop them for a few seconds but if I wasn't concentrating on that, they would start rattling again. Then my whole body starting shaking which seemed to warm me up. Music by the Beatles took my mind from the suffering. "Someone whispered words of wisdom, let it be, let it be."
A bundle of weeds made a nice pillow. Rest should take away the pain. Snuggled up, I felt calm, the freezing hurt disappeared, the sweat turned into a soft warmness, there was peace and joy, all that and it seemed something more, a radiance enveloped me. It seemed weird, but that haunting song struck me again, “our faces burst just ghostly, turns a whiter shade of pale.”
In less than a second it seemed, a picture of Marilyn appeared and I had a feeling of regret, wanted to say to her, “I’m sorry, I am so sorry.” Another second passed and a picture of my brother came to mind, along with a desire to see him once again. To see that grin on his face. Finally, I felt a tremendous sorrow for Marilyn. Then my existence became blurred, black-clouded.
Time seemed to pass, and yet all time seemed to be now. Suddenly a feeling of gladness welled up inside of me since I saw Norman walking toward me, the storm fading away behind him. Just like old times, he always looked after me.
“What the heck you doing, brother, laying down there? I think you should come with me, I want you to see something.”
“Yeah, sure. Hey, thanks for rescuing me.”
He grinned at me and I felt a little silly. I had been worrying about such trivial matters like a leg pain, and snow and wind and dark clouds.
“Come on,” he said, “get up; you’re going to be really happy where we’re going.”
I calmed down and wasn’t surprised at all when standing up, there was hardly any pain. I glanced a long way in the distance and saw Sam enjoying the snow and running and running, just like he always used to. I knew he would be okay.
“Look,” Norman indicated with a hand pointed toward a valley. I stared in that direction and thought that I had never seen a sight like it before, but I loved it. Trees pale green in color with patches of golden leaves scattered and dark red branches seemed to be almost painted to perfection. The valley appeared colored with an incredible deep blue sky and large crimson clouds that seemed to go on forever. I experienced a strange thought, but it seemed as if the valley was glowing with love and peace.
Then Norman turned in another direction and said, “Ready, I think you will enjoy this.”
A memory of him jogging down the gravel streets of Wann came to my mind once again, just like old times I thought, and wasn’t surprised when he didn’t lead me to my pickup. I don’t know how, but I realized at last where he was leading me.
Looking around, I knew we were standing on the outskirts of Wann. I glanced at Norman and at the village, then an outpouring of love came from inside of me. He started to jog down the road, past the general store and then the elementary school. We spent our first eight years of school in that building. Then we ran past Grandpa’s small acreage with his strawberry patch in full bloom. The grain elevator was next, standing tall next to the railroad tracks and the small stockyards.
Then I wondered why everything I saw seemed not old and worn out, but rather preserved, almost the same as when we grew up there. And the buildings didn’t seem rooted to the ground, but rested a little ways above. There seemed to be a slight shimmer around everything.
Norman had seen me stop so he jogged back and put his arm around my shoulder. “I saved the best for last, brother, come and look at this.”
He pointed to where our house used to be. We had lived there fifteen years. It was gone. There in its place was the most beautiful mansion I had ever seen. A mansion with many rooms. In front of the mansion sat Norman's old motorcycle. Suddenly I thought about that cycle, something was not quite right. I looked at Norman and remembered that he died three years ago in a motorcycle accident. Everything was starting to make sense now.