At this glorious time of year—hunting season for some of us—the memory of a good friend crops up like frost on the windshield. Byron passed away a few years ago, neither young nor ready to go.
Those of us who knew him considered Byron “bigger than life” until his large presence proved fallible. Damn.
Closing in on 300 pounds, Byron was gigantic with a heart to match. He spoke with a twang from his southern Illinois boyhood. It may be a cliché, but the truth is, he wouldn’t think twice about giving you the triple-X shirt off his back.
We were the unlikeliest of compadres. He, a staunch Republican and devoutly religious man, favored small towns and big steaks. I was neither religious or conservative, and loved big cities and veggie burgers.
Any other self-respecting, conservative would’ve taken me to task for voting for Obama. Not Byron. He took me under his wing for one reason: history.
Before our careers teaching college, we’d spent decades covering good, bad and ugly news in different states. We were newspaper reporters who never crossed paths until he hired me to teach journalism at Colorado Mesa University.
Despite lifestyles that stood a good 180 degrees apart, it was the past – our common experiences as journalists—which cemented our unlikely connection.
If you cover the news long enough, it’s hard not to become pretty cynical about humanity. Somehow, we had managed to escape our newsrooms without believing that all politicians belong in jail, and that all professional athletes were rich jerks.
We always agreed, however, that people who failed to read a newspaper in lieu of TV or social media blather about current events were fools. They don’t know democracy from dominoes, one of us said.
Byron’s enormous image illuminates an internal screen in my mind. There, a virtual slide projector can – with a single click – resurrect him from the dead. Click. There he stands, smiling in blaze orange cap and vest, rifle shouldered in meaty fist, backgrounded by a phalanx of rusty aspen trees. Click again. Darkness returns us to reality.
Autumn, our favorite time to reminisce, comes down upon many of us like beautiful but dead leaves dropped from branches. Significant events that have happened and friends who left us this year or maybe long ago—these stir the memory bank like no other.
In his spare time, Byron became a successful big-game hunter. He once put an arrow through a mountain lion before it could pounce on him from high in a tree.
As a young journalist, he had covered car racing in Oklahoma. He loved the roar of powerful engines and as a result, went deaf.
In fact, the last time we hunted together, a wire snapped on his hearing aid, costing him dearly. Instead of scouting elk that morning, Byron spent an hour trying to fix the wire in vain. No matter how loud I yelled there in the cab of his truck, he never heard a word.
There was an old reporter’s notebook in his glove box, which I grabbed along with a Bic pen.
“Let’s scout up on Bronco Knob,” I scrawled.
He drove to the bottom of a high plateau where we had no more luck finding elk than Byron did with his hearing aid. It was a magnificent October afternoon – not unlike the sunny day that finds me typing these words – and we humped through aspen forest, pointing out stuff instead of talking, glad to share the effort it took to ascend Bronco Knob on an unseasonably warm day.
We crossed a dry creek bed, watched an owl watch us from high up, and noticed a bleached deer skull. We reached the top of a grassy plateau, where the only sign of elk was matted grass where a herd bedded hours before.
We hiked down through a forest of fluttering leaves. It was a magical sound like ocean waves crashing on shore, only softer. Of course, Byron could only remember what those fluttering leaves sounded like.
We never hunted again, I’m sorry to report.
Byron, in his late 60s, died two years later. The guy seemed as rock solid as the Lincoln Memorial until congestive heart failure took him away.
Years later, I still mourn him and the loss of our friendship. Whenever a bull elk stumbles through the woods nearby, it never fails to remind me of the good old days.
But I, a rookie hunter back then at the good old age of 60-something, never found another experienced hunting buddy, to share the season with. That’s something I miss, too, hunting with a good friend.
I almost forgot something.
When we got back to his truck that morning, we unloaded our rifles and made an important decision. Corresponding via pen and paper, we agreed to grab a hamburger and ended up at a dinky joint, (his favorite). It’d been a long half day in search of an elusive beast. I ordered a beer. Byron, who didn’t drink, had a Pepsi.
Reaching for his notebook, I wrote, “We got skunked.”
“That’s why they call it hunting, Eric!”
We laughed together.