Old friends huddled around the crackling campfire, laughing at re-spun yarns and catching up on another year that somehow flashed by when we weren’t looking.
There was a vacant seat or two, and at times a pensive silence settled over the group, like a chorus of katydids suddenly falling quiet all at once.
More than once the flicking firelight caught someone wiping their eyes. Must have been the shifting wood-smoke.
The occasion was the annual autumn deer camp get-together hosted by boyhood buddy Bill Selecman and brothers Steve and Mark at their cabin near the wilds of Catoosa.
In all the years I’ve attended the deer camp, I don’t recall anyone actually killing a deer, but that’s OK. The deer is just an excuse.
One of this year’s missing members was Ben Selecman, son of Mark and Brenda. This time last year Ben was sitting around the campfire with us, grinning and absorbing good-natured kidding about his upcoming wedding to Mattie Jackson, daughter of country music superstar Alan Jackson. Ben wore a big white cowboy hat in emulation of his soon-to-be father-in-law.
In September the young couple were on a boat in Florida when Ben fell and suffered a fatal head injury.
Ben, 28, was one of the best and brightest young men I’ve ever met, with unlimited promise as an assistant district attorney in Nashville.
Re-wind back 51 years and I was the nervous newlywed, having somehow won the hand of a pretty brown-eyed angel named Mary Frances. She died last spring after a struggle with dementia. I miss her more every day.
The night wasn’t all maudlin, of course. Someone produced a Mason jar containing a mysterious clear liquid, and as it made its way around the fire for about the third time, the frosty air began to lose its nip and my arthritic knees didn’t ache so much. Also, across the flames, someone suddenly had a yearning to yodel.
I re-told the story about a summer when we were kids and Bill disobeyed his parents and slipped off from home to go fishing with Tom Thurman and me. Bill didn’t make it; he was cut off at the pass by his not-too-happy dad. He survived the trauma – as he did a severe copperhead bite years later – and went on to become Crossville’s most popular dentist.
Thurman, a retired deputy DA who successfully prosecuted several of the most notorious criminals in Nashville’s history, was on hand to corroborate my runaway-Bill story.
My cousin Jerry Hedgecoth, a retired TWRA officer as was his dad, recalled a practical joke my Uncle Leonard played on a Catoosa co-worker. He washed out an empty turpentine bottle and re-filled it with clear Karo Syrup. Next day at lunch he took out the bottle, unscrewed the cap, and poured “turpentine” on his biscuit. As Uncle Leonard munched away, his co-worked blanched and gagged.
Uncle Leonard also once made some fake bear tracks in the mud along a Catoosa stream. At the time bears were rare, and a wildlife biologist was notified. After carefully examining the tracks, he proclaimed they were made by a three-year-old female bruin that weighed approximately 250 pounds. Uncle Leonard later said the expert was right about everything except the age, sex, weight and species.
After the laughter subsided, quiet settled in. Off in the distance a lonesome owl hooted. A breeze rattled dry leaves in an overhead oak and fanned the dying fire, and glowing embers slowly dimmed on another deer camp.