When I was five, he was 79, but that didn’t stop my grandfather. On the clear, crisp, fall, coastal North Carolina mornings, he would pick me up in his old blue pickup to go deer hunting.

I was too young to know the exact circumstances. Maybe mom needed a babysitter those days, or maybe grandpa wanted to expose me to the family legacy pass time. Regardless, to me, it was being bundled in my little tan hunting clothes, climbing up onto that massive Ford bench seat, and heading off into the woods.

The Suffolk Scarp is a distinct line of sand extending along the NC coast. North of Morehead City, this geological feature spreads out to form multiple low hills. One of these mounds, between the Core Creek Canal and the Adams Creek Road, is known locally as “Oakey Ridge.” It gets its name from the small scrub oaks that eek out their existence on the dry spodic sands of that ancient shoreline. Oakey Ridge was one of our favorite hunting destinations.

The way the family hunted deer back then was with dogs. Grandpa would ride slowly along the country dirt roads looking for deer tracks. When the right tracks were found, the dogs would be released into the woods.

With the dogs out, most days, grandpa would drive to Oakey Ridge and park the truck slightly off the pocked dirt road. Grabbing his old Winchester 12-gauge pump shotgun, he would grunt and groan climbing out of the truck in his bib overalls. He would tell me gruffly to get out and come on, and we would walk 50 to 100 feet into the woods. There he would find a felled tree to sit on and listen for the dogs to start baying off in the distance.

Much to my grandpa’s consternation, while he wanted me to sit still and pay attention to the faint crying of the dogs, I wanted to play and move around.  After several episodes involving his frustrated “get still” commands, I came up with the five-year-old idea that we weren’t just
hunting, we were camping! And every camp needs a campfire!

So then, as we moved around from place to place, sitting next to him, I would collect the dry dead twigs laying around on the dry sandy ground. I would take the twigs and arrange them in a radial pattern, like bicycle spokes. Then, to top it off, I would find two twigs with a “V”,
stick them in the ground on either side, and place a rotisserie stick over the radial spokes of the pretend “fire.” A campfire. And whenever we moved, I would build another.

My father was born into this deer hunting family with a passion far exceeding my grandpa’s. The image of him in his dark green rubber boots, two-tone brush pants, short jacket, and Robin Hood-style hat is etched in my memory. He shouldered a 30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle, holstered a Browning .22 semi-automatic pistol on his right belt, and carried a 6-inch folding Buck knife in a leather pouch on his left.

With years of careful study and experience, dad wasn’t content to just wait for the dogs to run the deer to him, like grandpa and I had done. His strategy was to cut deer off as they raced through the dense woods, desperately trying to evade the chasing hounds.

One cloudy and rainy early winter late afternoon, as dad was alone trekking through the forest, it occurred to him suddenly that he was in an area that wasn’t at all familiar. Losing directional orientation can happen to the best, particularly when the sun is obscured. But up to that moment in his life, being “lost” was a foreign concept. But there he was. Lost as could be.

Later that night, around the dinner table, as he recounted the story to the family, my five-year-old heart beamed when I heard, at a crucial moment, he looked down and saw one of my campfires. That discovery assured him he wasn’t lost, and the way out was nearby. Though those little gray twigs never saw the flame of a real fire, they brightly lit his path home.

“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NASB)