Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Mearns Quail and Grandma
If it doesn't bite, sting, or prick it isn't here. A handful of miles north of the Mexican Border our crew of merry Mearns-men zig through Catsclaw and zag around loose stones. Dogs work ahead, some far some near. Their collars beeping intermittently as they scour hard earth for the scent of what keeps our climb up hill. This particular hunt was the worst and the best of timing.
My office phone rang. The screen flashed an east coast area code. It wasn't any one of a hundred people who could make my workday worse in ten words or less. With receiver against my ear I spoke, "Hello?"
"Hey buddy, wanted to connect with you before I made it down to AZ." the voice at the other end was Steve's.
"Well how's it going?" I replied, relieved it was non-work related. Steve was on his way down for a quail hunt, and not just any quail, but "Mearns".
For those of you who don't know Mearns quail are the most coveted of all upland game, and only accessible in the southern reaches of my state, Arizona. What else is little known about this bird is they live in extremely formidable places to hunt them. Climbing in and out of canyons, chase spanning across unforgiving and inhospitable terrain is par for the course. Steve was planning to come down to hunt with a few friends and he had asked me to tag along. The beauty about my friend Steve is he is the guy who knows how to say everything right. In any situation Steve can come out being best buds with pretty much anyone in the conversation. The best part about Steve is not only can he command an audience with his social acumen, what he says is truthful, "He means it".
Personally, the first half of that equation is where I have troubles, I don't seem to have the being able to, "say it right" part down very well. I try, but it pretty much always comes out poorly and I have to rely on folks who know me well enough to see through my abuse of the language to get the message and intent behind the lack of ability. So I have the utmost respect for folks like Steve who have mastered both worlds, something that no matter how hard I try alludes me.
We talked through the details of our trip and hung up. Five seconds later, the phone rang again, without checking I picked up figuring it was Steve calling back with a missed detail. Answering, "What did you forget?" I was greeted by a different voice.
"Your grandmother passed at 2pm." My father said as I looked at my watch. It was 2:43 PM.
I'm not sure why I volunteered to speak at the funeral, but I felt it was something I owed her. If anything, the spotlight is something I shy away from. The notion of many people with their attention focused on me is frightening at best. Checking flight times, It occurred to me that getting lost for a few days in the foothills of the Dragoon mountains of southern AZ, may be an opportunity for me to search for the right words. Not until I stood in front of a standing room only audience did I find what must be said. It is where this woman, I loved dearly, ended that our story begins.
The smell of Juniper and Scrub Oak is distinctly clean. My nostrils feel sharp and come with harsh-rapid breaths. The chase is life, and here we're living through hunting Mearns. A thorn from a barrel cactus stings my left thigh as I brush against it.
Nothing in this part of the world is forgiving, making success of this hunt taste so much sweeter than others. The beep of a dog's collar steady and shrill is followed by the call of , "ON POINT." Our chase uphill begins again. Scaling loose rock and gravel, sidestepping thorny plants, and skipping over deadfall my heart starts to pound hard from my chest and ends in my ears. Three distinct, "BANG, BANG, BANGs", and I puff my way onto the scene ten seconds too late. My friend a bird in hand and searching for the others is all smiles.
This scenario was repeated a half a dozen times before we found our way back to the trucks. The entire way down the mountain we had climbed searching out our quarry I had searched for something to say worth saying on behalf of my grandmother. Still at a loss, I hugged my friends goodbye and wished them true aim as I left for birds to come. A glance in the rearview as the Rover pulled away, the guys we're spreading mustard over turkey and ham.
A mile into the dirt road out, I came across a family of Mexican immigrants sneaking across the border. Uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, children and grandparents were in group carrying mostly empty gallon jugs of water and bags of food as they made their way to a new life in the United States. I slowed down as they scurried across the road. I'm sure terrified of being spotted. I saw a grandfather holding the hand of a child my son's age, no more than four years old. I passed by the moment like a car wreck on the freeway, slowing down to stare but forgetting five minutes later that it ever happened. It wasn't until I stood in front of the audience at my grandmother's funeral that the moment I had shared with those seeking refuge in our country connected with me. Here is what I said:
"Please forgive me, I'm not very eloquent and I sincerely try and slip through the cracks when it comes to the spotlight, so I apologize in advance for my lack of polish. Please listen to my words and don't judge the package. Yesterday I was hunting a few miles north of the Mexican border and came across an entire family smuggling into the US. I looked over the people and my eyes landed on a grandfather and grandson holding hands, and now I know what I'm supposed to share with all you here today. A grandson's experience.
When I was young I would sleep over at my grandmother's house, she would fuel me up on Captan Crunch and Oreo cookies. Sugar was not an issue for her. We would play UNO until the late hours of the night and I would cheat. After a while of me stacking the deck, grandma caught on and started doing it for me, assuming the burden of loading all the draw-fours into my hand.
When I got older, I worked a few miles from her assisted living facility and she would call me, "Can you bring over some of those wine-coolers for me and the gals?" So as a devoted grandson I would smuggle my 90 year old grandmother Bartles and James. She would pour herself and her friends (who would show up out of nowhere) a dixie cup full of peach flavored cooler and start a mean game of penny-poker.
My challenge to you today is to leave here and for the next few hours remember the times you shared with my grandmother that made you laugh and smile, because in times when all you want to do is cry, there is little else you can hold onto that will carry you through." I walked away from the pulpit cursing tears away under my breath.
My grandmother saw me for the message and not the package. I think we have few moments in life that you can take what is, "real" and apply to an audience where it matters. So in that vein, seek to understand me, others, and yourself for the message. Don't get lost in what is, "the package". Marie Otto had 98 years on this planet, and if you ask me, "it wasn't enough." I slipped a Draw-four into her casket, but did not share that with the people listening at the funeral. That is one for her and me.