It was almost Christmas 1953, and I still didn't have a gift for my dad. My father, who was my idol, could at best look forward to the usual flannel shirt. At worst, Christmas would bring him nothing at all.
You see, we were crackerjack-poor back in those days following World War II, and there was little work to be found in our area of rural Washington state. There were even fewer opportunities for a man with just one good leg. German shrapnel had taken my father's left leg, but not his pride. He accepted the only job he could find as a night watchman at the local mill. My dad felt certain that he would advance on to one of the lucrative paying company jobs, though he never did. The fact never broke his spirit. His wooden leg slowed him, but he always worked hard without complaint.
To help make ends meet, I ran a small trap line for muskrats and raccoons. My line snaked through a tremendous swamp at the outskirts of town. Because I was the oldest of seven children, I was allowed to tend my line each day before school with the knowledge that every penny I made would go to my parents. I didn't mind doing my part for the family. Many kids my age did the same things with no complaints. It was while I was running my trap line one cold morning that I made a discovery that would change everything.
A Gift From Above
The morning started no different than any other. I got up at 4 a.m., added wood to the stove, pulled on my rubber boots and started out. I met my dad as usual on the road in town, stopping to say hi as he walked home from his job. He opened his lunchbox and gave the leftovers to me-that would be my breakfast. Although Christmas was almost upon us, we didn't talk about it. We might have had no money and few presents, but the gift of family love outweighed all else. I left dad and started checking my sets. As I pushed through a tangle of alders, I found something completely unexpected. A large set of tracks that I'd never seen before meandered off a steep bank into the swamp. Besides being huge, they were crescent-shaped and as big as my fist. I'd run into an occasional deer in the swamp, and I knew their sign, but these weren't from a deer. The only thing I could figure was that someone's mule had escaped. Because I was having no luck and thought that maybe I'd get some reward money for returning the mule, I followed the tracks.
After a quarter-mile of tracking, I jumped a huge animal out of his bed. He outdistanced me and disappeared further into the swamp. As he ran, I could see his huge antlers bobbing back and forth, a mesmerizing sight to say the least. I had a suspicion about what kind of animal he was, but I needed to do some research at my school library to be sure. During lunch, I checked out an Audubon Society book and it confirmed my suspicions-a bull elk. As far as I knew, no one had seen an elk in this area for many years. As I finished in the library, I came up with a wild plan. I decided that the perfect Christmas present for my father would be for him to shoot that elk. If he did, he'd become famous in our small community for killing the biggest elk found in many years. I ran my trap line every day for the next week and although I constantly worried about the bull disappearing, fresh tracks appeared every day. To my great relief, he was indeed making the swamp his new home.
I had never been this anxious about Christmas before. I was terrified that the bull would leave the swamp, and I can't count the number of times I'd wake up drenched in sweat after dreaming that someone else had discovered my secret. My biggest scare came when I bought my father's elk tag. I'd secretly skimmed the $4 needed for the tag out of my fur money. When I purchased the tag from our community store, I was worried that someone might figure out what I was up to. The local men hanging about badgered me relentlessly. They tried to discourage me from spending my hard-earned dollars for something they insisted my father couldn't use. In the end, the storeowner sold me the tag, but he snickered to the other men as I left.
A Special Gift
Christmas day arrived with the muted excitement my family always experienced. The only present under the tree for my father was from me. His large, weathered hands carefully slid the envelope out of a box. His eyes were full of puzzlement as he held the elk tag in his hands. "An elk tag? But I don't hunt elk, he exclaimed." My family looked on perplexed as he was, and I replied, "Well, dad, you're going elk hunting today!"
And so together we went, father and son on a Christmas morning elk hunt. My father carried along his beloved .30-06, and I carried my head high with pride. I explained the whole story of how I had found the elk and that it was to be my gift to him. My father didn't say much. His eyes shimmered with amazement and pride, and his usually noticeable limp was barely there.
We entered the swamp, encountered by a light snowfall. My father agreed with my plan to spread out and look for the bull's tracks in the fresh snow. The snow made it easy to pick up his track, and after a few minutes we were on his trail. The hunt was almost over and my father's best Christmas gift would be assured. I was on cloud nine. I was positive that this would be one gift my father would never forget.
As we got closer to the bull, the tracks began to meander. The bull had been feeding during the night was looking for a place to bed down for the day. The moment of truth was nearly upon us. Suddenly, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. I stared in disbelief at my father, who was flailing his arms wildly in a vain attempt to keep his balance. Perhaps because of his excitement, he had neglected to watch his footing. His bad leg stepped into a hole and he couldn't recover his balance, and he landed into a pile of brush with a loud crash.
The resulting noise echoed throughout the otherwise silent swamp. Seconds later, I heard another equally loud sound. Unfortunately, it was the bull. He'd been spooked badly, and began plowing through the brush like a tornado. For the next several minutes we could hear his thrashing as he escaped, and we knew he'd never be back. My eyes filled with tears, and I began to sob uncontrollably. I silently cursed the bull and the war that had cost my father his leg. I vowed to never again get my hopes up for Christmas.
While I wallowed in my own self-pity, my father approached and stood by my side. Surprisingly, he had a huge smile on his face. "Son," he said. "I haven't felt this good in ages!" I looked at him in amazement. He went on to explain that even though the bull had escaped, it was still the best present he'd ever received. "Any boy who could keep such a great secret for so long, just to try and make his father happy, is the best son a man could ask for." I grinned sheepishly and said, "Dad, maybe that elk got the best Christmas gift of all."
Through the years I've often reflected back on that special Christmas. I've come to realize that even though the Christmas bull escaped, the love of my father never would. Merry Christmas, Dad.