Saturday, October 22, 2016

A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour...

Outdoorsman Steve Rinella wrote, “When someone asked us what we liked to do, we said huntin’n’fishin’ as though it was one word.” There’s been more of that in recent years for the group of us who choose to call each other brother. 

We’ve hunted mallard and pintail and teal from blinds on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. We’ve walked fallow fields in South Dakota
and Kansas for ring-necked pheasant and reclined in laydown
blinds for Canadian goose. We’ve cast for snook and speckled trout and sheepshead in the grass flats off Cayo Costa Island in southwest Florida. It brings a sense of connection to the land, eating what we catch. 

But for Timmy and me, a susceptibility to seasickness may mean that any deep-sea tuna, grouper, or swordfish on our plates may have to come from the menu at McCormick and Schmick’s. 

Huntin’n’fishin’ is a recent thing for Timmy, Jeff, and me. Cap’n Cook has been hunting since he was a kid and has brought us along, we novices. The wider group of us, though, are into our 15th year of annual rendezvous. We’ve spent time together on houseboats in Kentucky and Tennessee, ice fishing in central Wisconsin, mountain cabins along the Appalachians in Virginia, beach houses in the Carolinas, and off-the-grid solar-powered stilt houses on remote Florida gulf-coast islands. Every year, exploring some new corner of the outdoors. Some of us are practicing our Jedi mind-tricks, hoping that wives don’t notice some of these trips starting to come more than once in a calendar year.

We have Christian names, but on these gatherings guys go by a nom de guerre. Or maybe better said as a nom de frère. Gerald, Tim, Bob, Tracy, Steven, Clay, Jeff, and Robert… they go by Cap’n, Lunger, BMF, Frail, Tender, Ziebart, Moonshine, and Femur. 

Each call sign comes with a story. Timmy: Missing one rendezvous on the excuse of a pneumothorax, gains the nickname “Lunger.” Jeff: Underestimating the potency of the clear liquid in a Mason jar, is known thereafter as “Moonshine.” Bob? Well, the guy is 6’6” so he’s just a "BMF."

We’re moving into middle years, some of us more middler than others. Some of us have sons who were boys who are becoming men. Those sons are starting to join us now. Gerald’s son Austin takes his turn driving the truck, can tell you what species of duck is resident in the coastal Carolinas, and has no fear of knocking on doors for permission to hunt turkey in a farmer’s woods.

At 6’8”, Ben dwarves his BMF father, who himself is of such stature to earn two nicknames, the second being “BFB” for “Big Friendly Bob.” Another son, Bobby, has given BMF a sturdy grandson who at the age of one year already has his own call sign: "Little BMF," or just "Little Beef." A third progeny, Luke, who’s joined on previous rendezvous, is off somewhere on his own, playing soccer or not wearing underpants. ("If I don't wear skivvies, you can't give me a wedgie.")

Now in early October, we're gathered at BMF’s and Marjo’s home in Wilmington on what happens to be our second rendezvous of 2016. We're not the droids you're looking for...

Their Italianate-style cottage, ringed by live oak and myrtle, was built in 1883 on a brick-paved street a half-mile from the Cape Fear River. A morning of deep-sea angling awaited us, fathers and sons. Rounding out our crew was my nephew Joe, an infantry Marine who drove down to join us from nearby Camp Lejeune. The plan was good. The crew was complete. We were going fishing.

We met Captain Jimmy and First Mate Charlie of Fortune Hunter Charters on the dock before sunrise: Bob and his boys, Timmy, and Joey and me. Austin had watched enough “Shark Week” and “Deadliest Catch” that the idea of riding a small craft into deep water seemed like a bad idea to him. He and Cap’n elected to sit this one out in favor of Alma’s Biscuits and Gravy at the Dixie Grill and a morning patrol of historic Wilmington. This choice may have worked in their favor.

Dawn pushed back the night as we shoved off in Captain Jimmy’s 35-foot Bertram fishing yacht. By late morning, we’d hooked a half-dozen false albacore, a sport fish prized for its fighting ability, but not for its edibility. It’s said that house cats will walk away from false albacore, and the best recipe for this fish is: “Dig a hole. Put the fish in the hole. Cover it up with dirt and plant tomatoes. Eat the tomatoes.” Back into the deep went the false albacore.

We hooked one keeper about 10 miles out – a king mackerel that Joey reeled in. First Mate Charlie cleaned and cubed the fish for us back at the marina.

“If you take this over to The Fish House Grill,” Charlie said, handing over our mackerel in a Ziploc and pointing across the dock, “they’ll fry it up for you. You can get a beer while you wait.” The kitchen breaded and fried, Cajun-blackened, and herb-grilled our mackerel. We added fries, slaw, side orders of shrimp and calamari, and it made for a lunch.

Just one little hitch for Timmy and me: the "us" and the "we" and the "our" in the story up to this point applied only to the eating of the fish, not to the catching of the fish. We never cast a line. Bob asked later if I’d even touched one of the big saltwater rods. I said I may have grabbed onto one at some point, but only to keep from tumbling overboard.

The morning started out great. The light came up and turned the sky from black to slate to shades of coral. We were cruising into deep water and all was well in the world. On a normal week, we might all be working. But here we were today, brothers and sons and nephews in the salt air and open water, the growl of twin 460-hp diesels powering us southeast into the Atlantic, no concerns other than would we find bluefish or mahi-mahi or sailfish.

Captain Jimmy motored toward deeper water, and the gentle bobbing we’d enjoyed on the intracoastals picked up in strength as we cruised farther offshore. The queasiness came on slowly at first, like the feeling you might get from one too many strong coffees. I noticed small beads of sweat on my forehead.

As we moved farther out to sea, the chop gave way to four- and six-foot swells. For Timmy and me, conditions went downhill from there. Later in the day, with the benefit of hindsight, solid ground, and WebMD, we found that the proper actions at this point would have been simple: 1) Stay above deck in the breeze and fresh air, and 2) Keep our eyes open and focused to a fixed point on the horizon. So naturally, I headed to the cabin and took refuge on a cushy faux leather couch, where I closed my eyes and hope the nausea would pass. Timmy joined me there a few minutes later.

I’ve been flu-sick. I’ve been bad-Chinese-buffet-sick. I’ve been whiskey-sick. But this was a whole other cricket match.

Timmy and I claimed the two ends of the couch in the Bertram’s cabin. Here we slumped and sweated and groaned as the yacht pitched and yawed. 

We seemed to be alone in our infirmity. The rolling seas didn’t seem to be affecting our compatriots outside on deck, who were laughing and yelping with delight as they hooked one fish after another.

We weren't missing out on all the fun, though, as we found out later. BMF snapped a few grinning selfies next to our damp and incapacitated forms. We're lucky he didn't have a Sharpie, or we might have come to consciousness with eyeballs drawn on our eyelids or other manner of graffiti and pudenda scrawled on our cheeks and foreheads.

As far as eyes went, I did all I could to keep from opening mine, afraid of what the image of a wildly oscillating nautical horizon would do to my already tortured giblets. I did force myself to unscrew one eyeball to map a vector 
to the nearest trashcan (ie, barf bucket), which happened to be on the other side of Timmy. If I needed to make an emergency dive, I’d need to climb over his sweating carcass. I hoped he would understand.

The couch wasn’t helping. Our nausea got progressively worse, and before long, sweat had soaked my shirt straight through. Timmy wasn't faring any better. C. Everett Koop could have materialized and implored us to “Get up! My clinical advice is to GET UP and stand at the stern of the boat! Open your eyes and focus on the horizon!” Dr. Koop could have offered us his bowtie as a souvenir incentive. It wouldn’t have mattered. We'd have been unable to comply. We were past a point of no return.

They say that when you’re climbing Chomolungma – the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest – if you fall out above a certain altitude, you’re unfortunately left behind. The air is so thin, the other mountaineers already so debilitated, that those still standing have the strength only to move themselves, with nothing in reserve to rescue the fallen.

This thought came to mind as Timmy staggered to his feet, making bullfrog-like urrrping sounds, and stumbled toward the tiny below-deck bathroom – or “the head” in nautical terms. My eyes still welded shut (sorry, Dr. Koop), I heard a series of bangs and crashes and what might have been breaking glass as Timmy thrashed his way through the bucking cabin and down to the head. Wish I could come help you out, Timmy, but I’ve got my own problems right now. Just be glad we’re not climbing Everest.

I can’t say how long he was down there – to glance at my watch risked a fresh churn of vertigo and nausea. When he crawled back to the couch, I mumbled, “You unkay?” He urrrped in response.

It was then my turn to venture below decks and risk a “head call.” The Bertram was pitching and bouncing like a fun house gone haywire. I made it to the head, but found no refuge. A broom closet would have been bigger, and I was being bounced from wall to wall like a pinball. Out of a sense of propriety, I’ll not describe the scene further, other than to ask: Have you seen the movie “Fight Club”? The scene where Edward Norton beats the crap out of himself in his boss’s office? It was a little like that, except with my pants down.

I survived, and made it back to the couch to flop down beside Timmy, who seemed to still be breathing. Joey poked his head through the hatch every now and again.

“You doing okay, Uncle Joe?”

After a couple rounds of this inquiry, I heard Joey ask First Mate Charlie if they had any Dramamine on board. “God bless you, Marine,” I thought. I poked Timmy with an elbow and said, “Hey Timmy… Dramamine coming.”

Timmy just got back from six months in China. He mumbled something that sounded like “shit shit,” which I learned later was what “thank you” sounds like in Mandarin when a guy from Arkansas says it. Or he was possibly speaking English. It was hard to tell.

I unscrewed one eyeball long enough to track First Mate Charlie making his way across the cabin. Jeez, he wasn’t even holding onto anything. That man has some sea legs, I thought. I was hoping to see him break out a med kit, maybe something reassuringly red with a white cross on it. Instead, I watched him pull open a junk drawer, tossing aside rolls of duct tape and spools of fishing line and pairs of needle-nosed pliers before coming up with a yellow and white tube that might have been a fat ChapStick. 

Charlie handed me the vial with the suggestion, “Umm. You boys might feel better if you went out on deck.”

“Shut up, C. Everett Koop,” I thought. “Thanks, Charlie,” I said.

Through the nausea and vertigo, I was able to summon the pharmaceutical wherewithal to inspect the product packaging. The plastic vial was as grimy as if it had been lost under the back seat of mom’s minivan. Expiration date: Two years ago. Stability? Potency? Who cares, at this point?

I cracked open the lid and peered in to see nothing but a few broken Dramamine chips and some white Dramamine dust. It looked like the bottom of a Doritos bag at the end of a frat party. To risk a cliché: Beggars can’t be choosers, so I started picking through it like a Bob Marley fan sorting his stems and seeds, and then passed the other half over to Timmy. Drug stability became a moot point when 10 minutes later, we both hurled the morning’s Clif Bars, coffee, and expired Dramamine scraps into that trash bucket.

We'd booked the charter for the morning only, so we knew there would be an end to this suffering soon enough. Regardless, as the Bertram tossed and rolled, The Ballad of Gilligan's Island seemed to play: "The passengers set sail that day for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour…" Hurry up, noon. For the love of God, please hurry. 

The clock finally ran out and Captain Jimmy turned the Bertram around and returned us to terra firma. With calmer seas, Timmy and I rebounded and were soon enough able to partake of the mackerel we caught (again, "we" used loosely). 

Later that night, we shared a platter of bacon-wrapped cream cheese jalapeno poppers stuffed with pheasant we'd shot the
previous November in South Dakota. And the weekend held never-ending slices of sausage made from goose that Cap'n and Austin had taken in Kansas on that same hunting trip.

Years pass, and the friendships that started on the flat glacial till of central Indiana continue on, regardless of tribe members migrating to the humid subtropics of the Carolinas or the oceanic climes of Massachusetts or the arid plains of Texas. We return, we gather. Depth and layers come to the tribe as we add sons. (Or daughters: Midge earned her hunter's education card and Keebs is deep into her copy of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.)

Now hunting together, and fishing, and sharing the food we've taken, is part of that deepening. Grocery stores have been around a short 100 years, but humans and our ancestors have hunted for 2 million, then gathering around a fire to share in the fruits of the hunt. Taken this way, laying a slab of Canadian goose sausage on a Triscuit becomes a tribal gesture, a tribute to our ancestors, and an act of communion with the land and the animals and the brothers who hunt with you.

In his essay, “Sporting Food” (in Just Before Dark, Mariner Books, 1999), Jim Harrison wrote: “The idea is to eat well and not die from it.” If we can find our sea legs, we might continue to eat well from the ocean as well as the land, without dying of seasickness in the bargain.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Grouseland Rifle: A Longrifle by John Small

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of the National Rifle Association magazine American Rifleman:

"In its own odyssey, an historic American long-rifle from the bench of Revolutionary War gunsmith John Small (1759-1821), long separated from the town where it was built, would be delivered to its home by modern-day versions of those
Greek mariners. As Odysseus was returned home to Ithaca, so was John Small, in a way, carried home to Vincennes, Ind. 

"This long gun, built by Indiana’s first sheriff John Small around 1803, would become known in 2004 as the “Grouseland Rifle” when it returned to Vincennes to reside in the museum at Gov. William Henry Harrison’s Grouseland home. In 2012 when the Grouseland Rifle was adopted as the official rifle of the State of Indiana, it would come to symbolize an entire state’s regard for its frontier heritage."

Story continues on  

John Small's Grouseland Rifle: An Official State Rifle and its Reproduction

In Muzzleloader magazine (September/October 2016):

"INDIANA GUN MAKER MARVIN KEMPER laid John Small’s 200-year-old long rifle on the dining room table in William Henry Harrison’s Grouseland home in Vincennes. It was summer of 2015, and Kemper looked out the windows to sunlight mottling the leaves in a stand of walnut trees.

"Governor Harrison had met Shawnee chief Tecumseh among those trees in 1810, and listened to Tecumseh’s protests over acquisition of tribal lands by the Americans. Colonel John Small had been adjutant general to Harrison’s territorial militia from 1801 to 1812, and would have dined at the table in this room, eating roasted prairie chicken and discussing military operations with the governor.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through here, Kemper reflected, and were guests at Harrison’s table.

"History transpired in this place. Small, Harrison, Tecumseh, and Lewis and Clark might have all been looking over Marvin Kemper’s shoulder as he began his process of bringing new life to John Small’s 'Grouseland Rifle' at this table."

Story continues in Muzzleloader magazine, available for order at Muzzleloader Magazine web site.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Grouseland Rifle: Tied to the Land

From the pages of Muzzle Blasts, the magazine of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, a story I was privileged to tell:

"An historic American long rifle from the bench of an 18th-century gunsmith is seeing a rebirth in the heart of the Old Northwest Territory. The “Grouseland Rifle” was crafted in the early 1800s by Revolutionary War veteran and gunsmith John Small (1759-1821), and was designated the Official Rifle of the State of Indiana in 2012. 

"As part of Indiana’s 2016 bicentennial, the Grouseland Foundation commissioned a reproduction tied as deeply to the land and the history of the Old Northwest as is the original Grouseland Rifle and its maker, John Small of Vincennes. This faithful reproduction will be available at auction in August/September 2016."

The story continues in Muzzle Blasts:   Link to story on

Mitakuye Oyasin

When I was 21 and serving as a Marine Embassy Guard in Yaounde, Cameroon, I found a third cousin in that city. Marie and I met. Our great-great-grandfathers were brothers.

The Llangeryw Yew in North Wales,
estimated to be 4000 years old.
Last year while doing Sons of the American Revolution research, I discovered that a new friend, Kevin, and I had 8x great-grandfathers who were neighbors and served in the same militia unit -- 400 years ago in Hartford, Connecticut.

While doing book research on an 18th-century Knox County sheriff and gunsmith, I learned that a branch of my mother's family had lived on the farm next to his.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bank Heist: An Inside Job

I don't picture myself ever landing in federal prison for bank robbery, but I have an old friend who did. 

Jack and I were much alike in our early 20s. We were both US

Marine guards at the American Embassy in Nassau. We both liked
bourbon and coke with a squeeze of lime. We chased the same kind of girls on Cable Beach. We shot pool together at Settler’s Pub on Bay Street. We paced each other on five-mile runs. But ten years later, I was wearing a cap and gown at a college graduation and Jack was wearing khakis at a federal prison in New Jersey.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

First Annual Reelfoot Duck-Blind Rodeo

More than a few skydivers have experienced a main canopy malfunction. There’s a minimum altitude required to safely cut away one’s main and deploy the reserve chute. The higher you are, the better: you have some time to assess your situation. But the longer you wait to make a decision, the closer you are to the ground and your options start to dwindle. 

The principles are similar when you’re in the middle of a 20-square-mile lake with a belly full of biscuits and gravy and you feel that first rumble that says, “Nature calling.”

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cloud Atlas

It's the year 1637 and Kevin's ancestor Thomas Spencer and ours, Thomas Root, are living a mile from each other in Hartford, Connecticut. They're as close as Kevin and I are living now, next neighborhood over.

In 1654, my Thomas Root moves away from Hartford, 30 miles north into Massachusetts. Now here in this century, Kevin and his family have moved about 30 miles away, to Brownsburg.

It feels like the shadow of a pattern that repeats itself. 

The "what-if" in this story: what if in the year 2393, his descendants and mine, living in adjacent settlements on some distant planetary outpost, discover that their ancestors Kevin and Joe knew each other back on the home planet, in the state they called Indiana.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Little fräulein

Anna reflected that Michelle would have been age 46 yesterday, if not that Michelle will always be 21.

Summer 1990

She was a 20-year-old Indiana University nursing student in 1990, recently diagnosed with leukemia, and a patient on 5 East Oncology at St. Vincent. After scoring a remission, Michelle had relapsed, and wasn’t too happy about it. The one thing that seemed to cheer her up was the idea of another remission and getting strong enough to make her first skydive.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Harry Potter is a wizard and I am not

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid kicks down the door, introduces himself to Harry by giving him a birthday cake, and tells Harry his dad was a wizard.

Our “Hagrid” was my cousin, Daniel Root, who kicked down our door in the spring of 2013 when he shared some family history with the rest of us. He pointed us to a book published in the late 19th century:

Root Genealogical Records 1600 – 1870: Comprising the General History of the Root and Roots Families in America, by James Pierce Root.

Daniel had sketched out a guide to help us trace our family’s specific bloodline, drawing a line through the 500+ pages and thousands of names listed in this 145-year-old book. Our line started with Thomas Root, who came to the colonies in 1637 aboard the ship Increase, through to near-modern day with David Anson Root, born 1849. One of Daniel’s comments caught my eye:

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Dave sat at the stoplight, corner of State and Southeastern. He watched three guys loitering on the stoop of a squat building with the words “Puff n Chew” painted in crooked letters on its cinder block wall. Dave guessed it was a tobacco shop and checked his door locks.

He looked in his rearview at the old woman he’d passed a

block back. The sidewalks were piled deep with snow so she walked in the street. “Walked” might be an overstatement. Her legs seemed not to know each other: one step with the left leg, then a pause and her right leg took a turn. Left. Right. Left. She stopped, took a little rest, and took a few more steps. She wasn’t gaining much ground.

Princeton: Buffalo Hides and Buffalo Trace

Mike brought out the old flintlock rifle and Louie decided he just had to have it. Louie wasn’t the only one. That muzzleloader was getting a lot of attention from guys in the “gun room” – their name for the meeting hall in the scruffy and threadbare Days Inn just off the interstate in north central Illinois.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Coyote Hunt

We set up in a tree line along the Salamonie River and it was obvious my eyeglasses weren’t going to cut it. It was just after dawn and my every breath rose with its heat, mixing with the 20-degree air and fogging my lenses. So off came the glasses. I’d just have to deal with less-than-perfect vision as we sat and watched for coyote to emerge from the surrounding woods into the fields in front of us.
USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Creative Commons

I sat with my back against a bare maple, the tree masking my outline. Mike was thirty yards to my right, and began calling to the coyotes. Rifle across my lap, I let him do all the work.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


In 1778, militia colonel Benjamin Logan was alone when he
encountered a small party of Shawnee warriors outside his settlement near present-day Stanford, Kentucky. Outnumbered, Logan fought them off, but not without cost. With multiple wounds and his arm broken, he escaped to the safety of Logan’s Station, and eventually recovered.

To depict this event, frontier artist Andrew Knez, Jr., borrowed a friend’s hammer tomahawk to use as prop for his painting, “Encounter.”

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Once or twice a year, 30 or 40 men who’ve known each other for 20 or 30 years rendezvous at a Days Inn just off I-80, surrounded by central Illinois farmland. If you look it up on Google Maps, the place appears with the caption: “Simple hotel with free breakfast and a bar.”

Don’t bother vetting this Days Inn on TripAdvisor – I’ll tell you right up front that the wallpaper can be found peeling, the pool is empty of water in the middle of August, and the décor is heavy on 1970s-era wood paneling.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Comrades, Come Over

Kameraden! Treffen sie uns!

“What are those cabbage-eating bastards saying now?” said Sergeant Trevor MacAllister, 1st Coldstream Guards.

The prisoner, his hands bound and his English passable, said, “His words are ‘Comrades. Come meet us.’”

The German voice carried across a no-man’s land that might have once been called a landscape. Trees were blasted and splintered, upended, trunks buried in the slurried muck, roots torn free of the soil and clawing at a grey morning sky. Chevaux de frise were scattered across the battlefield like tumbled crucifixes strung with barbed wire.

The men of the Coldstream clutched at their Enfields and peered over the sandbagged edge of the trench.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What You Can See from the Blind

Camouflaged men clustered in the predawn darkness, huddling amongst rows of heavy trucks that rumbled at idle. The smell of diesel and coffee hung in the night air. Their vehicles were loaded with equipment: guns, ammunition, maps, binoculars, food and water, medical supplies.

Some were veterans and had been in this theater of operations
Creative Commons License, SpaceManor
before. They were at ease, checking weapons and gear, plotting routes and where they’d sit in ambush. The vets reassured the novices among them, their recently issued camo new and unwrinkled and yet to fade. It wouldn’t be long before the shooting started.

It might have been the Kuwait/Iraq border in 2003. Or it might have been last weekend along Highway 22 in Samburg, Tennessee, with guys getting ready to hunt duck.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


"Patient or visitor?” the valet asked each driver arriving at the treatment center. Sander had been shaving his head since the Navy. His smooth pate had nothing to do with chemo, but the parking guys didn’t know that. In this case, Sander didn’t mind being profiled. If they didn't bother to ask him "patient or visitor," he was fine with that. He felt like he was undercover, with cheap parking.

He registered, let the clerk tag him with a barcoded wristband, and settled into a seat with a dog-eared copy of Sports Illustrated. Lindsey showed up, kissed him on the forehead, and planted next to him.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

High-Speed Malfunction

The stadium was a mile below as Wheels and I stepped into the night air and dropped away from the Cessna 182. We both had smoke canisters and streamers, and I had a football strapped to my rig.  Slyde and Kivett were already 1,000 feet below us, their parachutes deployed and towing American and Indiana flags.

The plan was for Kivett and Slyde to glide their banners toward the high school football field as the National Anthem played across the crowd.  Wheels and I would deploy 500 feet above the flags, pulling the pins on our smoke canisters and dropping them below us on a length of paracord.  Then we’d each unfurl a 50-foot Mylar streamer and commence an artful spiral around the flags as the four of us all came in to land just as (if we timed it right) the crowd sang along with “… O'er the la-and of the freeee, and the home… of the… braave.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Nawzad Rendezvous

Thirty minutes until boarding and Trevor Kilkenny had his eyes on the guy seated on the other side of the waiting area. The guy's hair was cropped close, high-and-tight. A polo shirt was snug across a hard chest and flat belly. A duffel in MARPAT camouflage was to his side. Trevor’s final point of observation: the guy was in a wheelchair and had no legs.

Jenny looked up from her magazine, saw Trevor’s gaze locked on, and followed his line of sight. “What is it, hon? Something the matter?” she said. Trevor glanced to his wife, and tipped his head in the direction.