Every now and then life leads me to write something of a personal nature here on my blog. This is going to be one of those posts. I write these mostly for me, it helps me to take some of the ramblings going on in my head, and put them on a computer screen (don’t actually write them down on paper anymore). If you wish to read it too, that is fine. . . .
It is natural when we are young to look up to those older than us. I know as a boy it was natural for me to look up to my Dad, granddads, uncles. Last Thursday, I attended a memorial service for the last of those heroes, my Uncle Ivan. My Dad passed three years ago this spring, Grandpa Bauer and Gramps Roth have been gone for some time now, all my uncles and great uncles too. Uncle Ivan was the last.
The memorial service at the Methodist Church in Valentine last Thursday was a great service. Yes, we hugged and cried, but we laughed a lot too. It truly was a celebration of my uncle’s life! During the service, folks were encouraged to get up and share some memories and thoughts about my Uncle Ivan; a couple of my cousins and others did. Then there was a pause, and as I sat in the pew I heard my name being whispered from the rows in front of me. I still have not figured out if it was my aunt or one of my cousins who “volunteered” me.
I had nothing prepared, but I got up and spoke anyway. I rambled, said a few things, told some stories, and then, as soon as I sat down, immediately thought of another half-dozen things I wanted to say. That is some of what I am going to do now.
I have always loved to hunt and fish. It is in my blood, it comes from both my Mom’s side and my Dad’s side. My Mom’s brother, Uncle Ivan, played a huge part in that. I already said that it is natural for us to look up to those older than us, especially older family members, and for certain my Dad and Uncle Ivan were two of my favorite hunting and fishing partners. Sure, I have more favorites now, folks that I love just as much, my kids of course, nieces and nephews, friends, but that dynamic is different between us–now I am the “old man” much of the time. Now I am the one passing it on.
I cannot tell you how much I loved those days spent in the field or on the water with my Dad and Uncle Ivan. Those were the best. Sure, on many of those trips, especially when I was young, my cousin Robin would be along and we would goof off together. But, as we got older, there were times when it was just me and Dad and Uncle Ivan, maybe my uncle’s fishing buddy, Paul and his dog Bonnie, maybe another family member or two, but if I was hunting or fishing with my Dad and Uncle Ivan that was all that mattered, it was going to be a great day!
Uncle Ivan was there the day Dad and I both shot our first turkeys. Uncle Ivan started hunting turkeys literally the first year there was a turkey season in Nebraska. I have listened to him tell stories of those early days and admit that at first he did not know much specifically about turkey hunting. However, he was an outstanding hunter, his name is sprinkled through Nebraska’s big game records, and he learned how to hunt turkeys.
At the memorial service I told that there were times when Uncle Ivan would go along and “guide” me or Dad as we were hunting our gobblers, but there were many times when he would let us do our own thing. I killed my first turkey, a Jake, with Uncle Ivan, mid-morning of my first ever turkey hunt. For the afternoon hunt, Uncle Ivan had me doing the calling on my rudimentary mouth call. I cannot imagine that I was very good calling turkeys then, but Uncle Ivan had me doing it, and unbelievably I called in the Tom that my Dad killed that afternoon.
Many times I would stay at my aunt and uncle’s house and hunt spring turkeys; oftentimes unsuccessful and frustrated. I would break for lunch or supper and tell my experiences and mistakes to Uncle Ivan. He would listen, comment, provide suggestions, and I would venture back out, encouraged and motivated. You know what? More often than not, what my Uncle Ivan told me, the advice and tips, was exactly right and the next time I headed back to town I would have a big ole Tom to show him! I have no doubt that my Uncle Ivan was the best turkey hunter in Nebraska (no offense, Dick Turpin).
Uncle Ivan was right by my side when I killed my first deer, a respectable whitetail buck. We somehow overcame a mis-firing .30-30 to get that deer; I have often wondered what my Uncle was thinking at that moment? Somehow we both managed to stay calm, and after pulling the hammer back a second time the round went off and somehow I still hit what I was aiming at. Of course that buck died at the very bottom of the canyon. Uncle Ivan instructed me on field-dressing, and then we dragged that buck all the way to the top. To this day, that is the only deer I have ever killed.
I have always looked forward to every opportunity to travel to Valentine to visit my family there–my aunt and uncle, and now cousins and their families. A huge part of being excited to go there has of course been family, we love spending time with them. Much of that time has included hunting and fishing. I have always thought of the Valentine area as a hunter and fisher’s paradise. There are so many opportunities there for a variety of fish and game. Uncle Ivan felt the same way. As a new family my aunt and uncle moved from Ponca to Valentine. All these years later, Uncle Ivan has recounted how excited he was when he got that opportunity to live and work in Valentine–he believed he was moving to a hunting and fishing paradise too.
My uncle worked hard, the hardest working guy I know. He was a meat-cutter and owned a grocery store in Valentine for a few years. We always knew when we went to Valentine we would be put to work helping my aunt and uncle and cousins. It was always “get the work done first”, and then we could go hunting or fishing. To this day, we all expect that we will have to do some vacuuming when we go to Aunt Jeanene’s house! (But, her bread & butter pickles and potato salad are worth it!)
I have so many stories about fishing with Uncle Ivan that I do not know where to begin. I can tell you that it always seemed like Uncle Ivan caught the most and biggest fish, no matter where we went, no matter what we were trying to catch. I know that I wanted to grow up to be just like him!
In my college years my best Spring Break ever was the one when I traveled back to Valentine and spent two full days, just Uncle Ivan and me, fishing the Snake River. That was back in a day when even the “unwashed” could fish the Snake below Merritt Reservoir. Uncle Ivan knew the landowners who would grant us permission to fish. It was typical March weather, cold and gray, but we hiked to the bottom of that canyon and back out, caught lots of beautiful brown trout for two days in a row. Daytona Beach? Pish Posh.
I spent a couple of years going to graduate school in South Dakota. I had some great fishing up there, especially in the fall, and traveled back up just to fish for a few years after graduating. My Dad and Uncle Ivan accompanied me on a couple of those trips. The first of those I planned to meet up with Uncle Ivan and one of his grandson’s, one of my cousin’s kids, who got pulled out of school just to make the trip. I so wanted that trip to be a good one, because Uncle Ivan had put me on so many good fish over the years, and I really, REALLY wanted to share some of the great SoDakota, fall, fishing with him. If you fish, you know that “weather trumps everything” and of course when we rendezvoused at our fishing destination, a strong COLD front blew through. I had a great night by myself the first night I was up there, but feared that our trip was going to be ruined after the weather change. We fished anyway, couldn’t dance, and it was slow, in fact the bite was non-existent. But, we were there to fish, so fish we did. No one else was out, it was too darned cold and windy. As the day went on, we started catching fish. First, just a big white bass now and then, maybe one an hour, but then a little better, and even better towards evening. By dark it turned out to be one of the best days of fishing we ever had, lots of 2-pound+ white bass, walleyes up to 6 pounds and more, and a handful of trophy pike.
I have rambled on too long, still so much going through my head. In the past few months Uncle Ivan aged and failed. Unfortunately, I have watched two of my best fishing buddies go that way as a result of cancer. The hardest part has not been losing them, the hardest part has been watching them decline. The last few times I saw Uncle Ivan he was not able to say a whole lot and what he could say was barely a whisper.
On our last ice-fishing trip for this winter, we had supper at my aunt and uncle’s house. My cousin’s wife made the best chicken and homemade noodle soup (Thanks, Theresa!). Uncle Ivan had a good evening that evening; he ate some soup, a couple pieces of pie, and cookies! We celebrated the announcement of another great grandchild for him. He could not say a lot, but the last couple of times I was with him, he would listen as we told stories of our recent adventures and the fish we had caught. I could see he loved listening to us. This last time we told stories from that day on the ice, and stories of ice-fishing right up until there was no more good ice. We told late ice stories Uncle Ivan had told us, and remembered times when we were there with him.
It would be called a “man cave” now, but we have always called it Uncle Ivan’s “den”. It is a small room to the right when you hit the bottom of the basement stairs. There is a small sofa in there, usually covered with fishing gear, but that little sofa makes out into a bed. When I was little, I used to sleep on that sofa in Uncle Ivan’s den. A rug of one of the bobcats my uncle killed hangs on one wall of that den. It has the full head and of course, snarling teeth. That used to scare me and I would have a hard time sleeping in the den; my cousin would help me through the night. Coming down the basement stairs you look up at a mount of a bull elk and big buck that my uncle hunted. Inside the den are more deer mounts, furs, and a couple of fish mounts–one an 8-pound+ walleye, and the other a 2-pound+ bluegill my uncle caught from Pelican Lake. After getting over my fear of the bobcat, I have always loved hanging out in Uncle Ivan’s den, looking at the mounts, and the photos and newspaper clippings that cover the other wall–my uncle’s “wall of fame”. I even had a picture or two on that wall. I have spent a lot of time in that den, in the atmosphere of it, just imagining all of those fish and game that my uncle had caught or shot, listening to Uncle Ivan’s stories and advice.
After supper a couple of weeks ago, after some stories around the supper table, we went down to the den. My uncle was right behind us. My cousin, his wife, my son, and I lingered down there in the den that evening. Uncle Ivan was with us. He could not say much, but there did not need to be much said. We just wanted to be together, to soak up his presence as long as we could. I will cherish that evening for the rest of my life.
Less than two weeks later, my Uncle Ivan was gone.
The title of this blog post is a question, “Where Have All My Heroes Gone?” That is a rhetorical question. I know the answer, and someday I will see them again.
My Uncle Ivan was cremated. We were not able to stay for long after the memorial service; I was not present when his ashes were scattered a couple of days later. I know the spot where they were spread, it is a special spot to a lot of us. I will not tell you where, because us fishing buddies have to keep a few secrets to ourselves.