Any time youthrow together a bunch of guys who don’t know one another in hunting camp, ittakes a bit of scratching and sniffing before the top dog emerges. I have beenin this situation often enough to know three things about the process:
1. I am not inthe running.
2. The initialfront-runner rarely holds the lead for long.
3. Watch out forthe fat guy.
I was recentlyhunting caribou above the Arctic Circle in Alaska (a phrase, incidentally, thatI now work into every conversation I have, including with whomever is on theother end of the intercom at the big red drive-up menu at Wendy’s), when Ifound myself sharing a tent with Steve Freese, 56, a newly retired DouglasCounty, Nebraska, cop, who clocks in at 5-foot-8 and about 245. He has thewidest-set eyes I’ve ever seen on a human and a head like a bowling ball.
The younger menfigured that putting the two hunters most at risk for rapid-onset Alzheimer’sin the same tent was a no-brainer, which suited us fine. Young guys invariablyassume their lives are unique and fascinating, but older guys know that,superficial differences aside, we’re really all as alike as eggs.
The superficialdifference between Steve and me was that I spent 10 minutes each morningrooting around in my duffel for any socks and underwear that might have beenmiraculously freshened by 24 hours in a tightly packed bag, while Steve wouldsimply fillet a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch and remove clean socks and longjohns. He had made these packets up using a Cabela’s food vacuum sealer.”Handiest damn thing you ever saw,” he said. “Food is just thebeginning.”
As we all sataround the fire the first night, Steve sipped a Beam-and-Sam’s-Club-cola. Oneof his last duties as a police captain, he said, had been as a trainer,whipping new recruits into shape before they could hurt themselves or, moreimportant, older cops. “First thing, I’d ask them, ‘How many of you guyshave heard that there’s no such thing as a stupid question?’ And they’d be soeager, you know, just clawing over each other to get their hands up first.’Well, that’s a bunch of bull crap, ‘I’d tell them. ‘Your best move for thenext two years is to shut up and listen.'”
Later, we allweighed in with our hunting plans and ambitions. Steve opined that he was aslikely to take a caribou close to camp as not; other factors being equal, hepreferred less hauling to more. Sure enough, at about 2 P.M. the next day, hedropped a heavily racked bull just 350 yards from camp. Hearing the shot, Ihustled over to help, arriving in about 20 minutes. By that time, Steve wascleaning his fingernails with his knife. At his feet lay four neatly butcheredquarters, hide still on to protect the meat, and a small mountain of expertlycut tenderloins, backstraps, neck roasts, and rib meat. Nearby were the clean,white bones of his bull, innards intact. It was astounding knife work. “Youdidn’t gut him,” I said, making my daily entry in the Stating the ObviousSweepstakes.
“Just morework,” he replied.
I made him a dealon the spot that I’d carry his meat if he’d help butcher mine. When they sawthe carcass, most of the other guys followed suit. The fat man’s stock hadbegun to rise. Steve also turned out to be the best cook in camp, pushing ithigher still. It was as if he had known all along he would be the lead dog andcouldn’t be bothered to compete. Pretty soon, he had only to casually note thatwe were running low on water or that a pan needed cleaning before one of us, meincluded, would quietly hop to. One of the younger guys, handing him aBeam-and-Sam’s-Club after Steve had made the venison fall off the guy’s bulllike it was overcooked stew meat, asked if the drink was mixed to his liking.Steve nodded deeply, then threw me a little wink as if to say, Rookies. Yougotta love them.
Everybody endedup taking a bull, some as far as 2 miles away over the tundra. None was as bigas Steve’s. Last I heard, at least two of the guys had bought vacuum sealers,along with a large supply of gallon bags. Steve says those are the perfect sizefor a change of socks and long johns.
I called Steverecently and got him in a duck blind along the Missouri River, where he washunting, evidently in the company of a cop he had once ridden with. “Hangon a sec, Bill,” he said. Gusts of wind buffeted the mouthpiece, then Iheard that familiar voice calling: “Same rules as in the squad car, Kevin.If the weather turns bad and we’ve only got one raincoat, it’s mine.” Itsounded as if the fat man was doing just fine.