Columnist's note: As I have for more than 30 years, during the first week of May I will be hunting turkeys with a unique group of individuals from West Virginia and Georgia. We will be there, but if I said it will be the same this year, well, that would just be a lie.
I said goodbye to an old friend the other day. I claim no special title in this. The passing of someone who is special in our lives is an experience we all must endure.
In recent years, after the passing of my father, I have told myself I will not let these things affect me as much anymore. It was a good lie — well thought out, and I repeated it to myself often to reinforce it. Trouble is, I never really believed it.
It's a strange thing and hard to explain, but friendships among hunters and fishermen seem to run deeper and are more meaningful than others. I suppose it has to do with shared experiences in the wild, long treks over the mountains, turkeys carried home and turkeys missed — or something like that.
I suppose every one of you have lost a special hunting or fishing bud and know about a void that will never be filled. Let me tell you about one of mine.
George Lee Dooley from Ellijay, Ga., was one of those people who somehow, just by existing, became larger than life. Many people knew him as Tom, but to those of us in his turkey hunting gang (the "Cod Squad") he was "Tomcat" (sometimes "Thomas the Cat" or "El Gato").
For 37 years, we game wardens from Georgia and West Virginia have traveled each spring to turkey hunt together. Tomcat was instrumental in starting this yearly rendezvous, and he attended it faithfully.
Around campfires and at hunting camps, Tomcat was the master of ceremonies — head story and joke teller and chief philosophizer all in one. Once he took center stage, all others would fall silent, because you just had to get out of his way. There was no competing with the Tomcat. Try to imagine W. C. Fields, Will Rogers and the funniest standup comedian you have ever heard all wrapped into a big, turkey-hunting, retired game warden from Georgia.
Tomcat was a good turkey hunter and maybe even a better marksman. He could shoot. More than once I remember when someone else would miss a turkey on the ground and it got airborne, he would swing his shotgun and bring it down.
Years ago, many of us would load a shotgun shell in the chamber with either No. 5 or No. 6 shot. This was your first shot, which was meant for a turkey on the ground when shooting at his head and neck. The next shell in the gun had No. 2 shot, much larger pellets than the first; this was in case you missed or only wounded the turkey and he got into the air. The theory is the larger pellets will bring him down quicker. Tomcat called No. 2 shot "deuces."
If you asked him about how he collected a turkey in flight, he would look at you, grin and say, "Deuces! And lots of them!" It was only one of a hundred different Tomcat sayings we all had memorized.
Like many of us, Tomcat loved fine shotguns and owned a bunch of them. Another one of his traits was the habit of naming his shotguns. A fine English shotgun, a Churchill, was promptly named "Sir Winston." Many of us mispronounce the Franchi brand of shotguns as "Frenchie," as in someone who is from France. Based on this, Tomcat named his Franchi shotgun "Pierre" and would often regale us with stories of hunting with him.
Getting out of the truck in the morning and pulling the shotgun out of the case, he would say "I'm going to get Pierre out of his sleeping bag." If Tomcat took another shotgun to the woods, before he left he would unzip the case slightly to check on Pierre. He often noted Pierre had his lower lip stuck out from the end of the barrel as if he was sad because he was not going hunting that day.
Sometimes when telling a story about calling up a turkey, when he got to the clincher, the moment of truth where he would take the shot, Tomcat said when he pulled the trigger Pierre didn't go "Boom!" as with other shotguns — Pierre said "Le Boom!"
I can see him now, walking up the trail ahead of me. He had an ambling gait that was somehow as animated as his stories. In the past few years, during his long battle with cancer, sometimes he could not make the longer hikes as he did in the past. But he always wanted to go — go somewhere he might have a chance to tangle with some old reprobate of a gobbler.
He loved being out there in the woods with his buddies listening for that first gobble, and he fought the good fight to the very end.
I have always been a little unclear on the whole concept of heaven. I mean, I believe in it, and most days I would say I only hope to make it there, whatever it is. I don't really know (and I don't think anyone does) if heaven is more similar to a place where everyone has his own cloud to lay on while playing a harp or more comparable to the dimension we are in, though it is our eternal home.
Some say whatever makes you happy here on Earth is what you will experience in heaven. I don't know if that is true, but if it is, I know where I am going see Tomcat.
At the top of the highest ridge, in the best listening place to hear a turkey, he and Pierre will be there. He will grin, point down the ridge and say, "Just heard one right there, Cod."
See you later Tomcat. Bring me some deuces.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.