Indelible Memories from My Childhood
We had just spent the day at the beach. I was as happy as a ten year old boy can be. After two years in Alaska, my dad, who always saw the grass as greener across the fence, had packed us up, hooked up a used 15 foot house trailer and hauled all of us off, mom, my older brother and younger sister, down the dusty and sometimes muddy Alcan Highway back to the land of our origins, Southern California. I, for one, even at my young and adventurous age, was delighted to leave Alaska for I loved sunny California and its beaches. To run and jump into the cool ocean and then to lie in the sun, listen to the surf and enjoy the soothing warm ocean breeze caressing my body was heaven.
Dad still had his 1941 four door Chevy, the one we’d driven from Alaska. He was driving. Mom was in the middle and next to the door was Audrey, wife of Chili West, one of Dad’s best friends from childhood. I have no recollection why Audrey was on this family outing to the beach, but she and Chili and their kids were long time family friends, so her being along wasn’t strange or unusual.
I was sitting in the middle of the back seat between my brother and sister. It would have been just another drive home from a nice day at the beach, with nothing particularly memorable about it, until I did something that I cannot forget.
An arm lay across the top of the front seat. Tiny, tiny bits of salt sparkled among the colorless, nearly invisible fuzz on that lightly tanned arm. I must have assumed it was mom’s arm because, for some reason, and I have no recollection why, perhaps just being a kid loving his mom for taking him to the beach, but anyway, I leaned forward and I kissed that arm.
Audrey turned her head, smiled at me and said, “Kerry, how sweet.”
To my horror, I had kissed Audrey’s arm! I sank back into the seat. If only I could have disappeared into it. My face burned with embarrassment. I could not escape. I sat there, trapped between my smirking siblings, suffering Audrey’s repeated exclamation, “Oh, Kerry, how sweet, how sweet!”
We returned to Alaska two years or so later, back up the Alcan Highway, this time in Dad’s 16 foot Federal truck loaded with all our belongings and equipped with a small sleeping and cooking space at the rear of the flat bed. Dad loved to hunt, and to hunt was a major motivation to abandon his friends and relatives in Southern California and return to Alaska, the last frontier, where we would last a year or two before he would tire of the cold dark winters and pack us up to head back to good friends and the warmth of Southern California.
One year during caribou season dad took me along on the hunt. We left Anchorage and drove a hundred miles or so north on the Glen Highway, pulled off and parked on a wide spot in the road. Flat treeless tundra stretched for miles to the north. We got out. Dad’s hunting buddies pulled up next to us. We all stood there, three grown men and me, hunters, providing for our families. This was the first time dad had taken me on hunting trip, and I was so proud, feeling so grown up, standing there, all of us pissing on the gravel, marking our presence. It was such a man thing. I felt so grown up, so pleased to be there with my dad and his friends, one of the gang.
Dad raised his binoculars to his eyes and scanned the treeless tundra, searching for the caribou that always migrated through the area this time of year. He spotted several caribou about 500 yards distant. He had a 30.06 rifle with a scope. The caribou were well within range of the 30.06 but dad wanted to get closer, to let me to have the shot. “We’ve got to get closer,” he said, “and we’ve got to stay down low, behind the brush.” Dad loaded the rifle. We started moving stealthily across the tundra, feet sinking several inches into the tundra, water rising in our footprints and wetting our boots as we crept from scraggly brush to scraggly brush. We approached within 250 to 300 yards. Dad and I lay flat, dad resting his elbows in the tundra as he spied on a group of three caribou. He handed me the binoculars. “Look at the one on the left.” The binoculars were heavy and awkward in my hands, and the image jumped around and everything was out of focus. I had to sit with elbows on my knees in order to hold the binoculars steady. Turning the focusing screw, eventually I was able to find the large bull. “Look at his spread,” dad whispered. “It’s darn near trophy size.” The bull caribou was huge, noble and majestic.
Dad handed me the rifle. He sat on the tundra. “Lay the rifle on my shoulder,” he said, “that’s the only way you’ll be able to hold it steady and find him in the scope.” I sat behind and slightly to his left, and laid the stock of the rifle on his shoulder. I took it off safety. “Aim about halfway up his body, just behind his shoulder.” I did as dad said. I found the huge beautiful animal in the scope, placed the scope’s cross hairs half way up his body and behind his shoulder and slowly pulled the trigger.
The caribou dropped to the tundra.
We ran towards the kill, as much as you can run through wet tundra. Dad carried the rifle, ready to stop and shoot if the caribou got to its feet and started to run away. It did not. No coup de gras was necessary. I had shot it through the heart. It had died instantly. Even in death, the caribou was majestic, and I had killed it.
There are no photographs of me standing proudly with rifle in one hand, the other holding one of the points of the caribou’s huge rack. I was not the brave young hunter. There are no photographs because I walked away and cried. I felt like I had killed one of Santa’s reindeer.
The caribou’s rack was in fact near record size in points and spread. For years it hung over the garage door in my folks’ place in Anaheim where they retired when the unforgiving cold of Alaska once again moved them to the hazy warmth of southern California, never to return to the frigid north.
I have no idea where that rack is now. Mom, dad and Audrey are long dead. What I do know is that the memories of the kiss and of the kill reside indelibly on the surface of my mind. It takes only a random sight or sound to usher them full blown to my consciousness, filling me with ancient embarrassment and lingering regret.
Kerry Gough ©2018