Deer Dad

The grandfather I’ve never met is standing at the surf’s edge in my mind, on an empty beach I’ve painted from a memory passed down to me as a child.

His khaki pants are rolled above his ankles, but waves crash into his calves and little baitfish dart between his bare feet. He steadies a long, wooden fishing rod against his thigh and wipes the spray from his glasses with a handkerchief, then jams it back into the breastpocket of his undershirt and regains his grip.

There’s a little boy beside him, unsteady in the tide and he’s staring up earnestly, in awe. They are alone on this late-summer afternoon that I’ve imagined half a century ago, a father and son whose time together is running out.

The boy’s blue eyes study each grain of sand that sticks to my grandfather’s sweaty, wrinkled brow, every gray hair the easterly wind shakes like a reed, and they trace every shadow that ripples between the sinewy muscles on his forearms.

My grandfather keeps a finger on the fishing line, waiting, and suddenly arches back hard to set the hook. He leans over toward the surf, cranking fast, tight circles on the reel, then pulls back slowly as the rod’s tip curves toward the dark ocean with a few violent jerks.

The boy smiles up at him and remembers this forever.

A year or two later, my grandfather, Dr. John A. Nark, will feel a sharp pain biting into his side and he’ll quickly waste away to nothing inside the family’s home near the corner of Kensington and Allegheny avenues.

On July 27, 1957, my grandmother tells my father and his two, younger sisters to pray as hard as they can. I see that boy, his eyes closed, fingers clasped tightly, asking God to save his daddy.

In another room, my grandfather takes his last breath. It is a Saturday and my father is 8 years old.

It’s about 3 a.m. when I pull up to my parents’ house on a foggy Monday earlier this month. For the first time in all my 35 years, I’m carrying a hunting license. There are two shotguns in the bed of my father’s pickup and one is for me.

Bob Nark, my father, is at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, drawing a map of a Burlington County farm I’ve been to probably 100 times in my life and he’s peppering his instructions with a few far-fetched scenarios I’ve come to expect from him. He gives me a knife, he says, in case we run into pitbulls out there. He has a knife, too, along with a can of pepper spray for bears.

“Pitbulls, seriously? ” I ask, skeptically.

My father is 63 now and he has been hunting whitetail deer in South Jersey for decades. He has spent thousands of hours, alone in the woods, listening to the squirrels scamper through underbrush, or the geese going slow and low toward something mild, all while waiting patiently for those few rare moments when a trophy buck emerges, like a mist from deep in the swamps where he goes looking for them. He’s particular about what he’ll shoot.

Hunting is his main hobby, a passion perhaps, and he was introduced to it by my mother’s rowdy relatives long after his father died. My grandfather was raised in the hills of Pennsylvania coal country, where deer hunting runs as deep as the anthracite, yet it was never his hobby as far as anyone can remember.

It never has been my hobby, either, and I’m still not sure whether I’ll pull the trigger if a buck comes within range. I know I don’t have the stomach to get elbow-deep in its warm intestines, though, and even at 35, I’ll have no problem asking my father to dress my first kill. I think he’ll be more than happy to do it, overjoyed in fact, at what I would have accomplished.

“You bagger,” he’d say over and over, beaming with pride as he scooped out my buck’s internal organs.

My father, my cousin Tommy and I arrive at the farm about 5:30 a.m. after having breakfast at a nearby diner. Tommy has been my dad’s hunting partner on opening day for about 15 years, and I’ve always been grateful that he went, because I never felt up to it.

It’s still chilly even with our camouflage overalls and orange safety vests and hats, although my dad says it’s going to warm up. That’s not good for hunting. There’s also a full moon illuminating the open fields and my father says that’s a bad sign, too.

None of us has done any scouting here prior to opening day, and my father’s simply going on a hunch about where the deer are now and how they’ll move when the sun comes up. We walk down a moonlit, sandy road with our shotguns unloaded, heading off into the forest to find a place to sit.

When I was 10, fishing with my father from a jetty in Cape May, I grew bored at getting skunked and cast out a whole fish as bait. It lured in a monster, an eel longer and thicker than my leg, and my father was shocked.

When I caught that eel, a crowd gathered around me to gawk at the beast as it writhed on the slippery rocks. My father stood beyond them, cigarette dangling off the side of his mouth, his smile burned into my mind. I felt as if I could summon any fish from the sea because he believed it. At least, I thought he believed it and that’s really all that mattered.

Nature’s already stacked against us this morning, but I still have a hunch my father believes I’ll get a deer, that my old fishing luck works on land as well. He’s always bestowed talents upon me that I simply don’t possess.

It’s hard to look at back at my mediocre high-school wrestling career because my father had a hard time holding the video camera still from all the joy he got out of it. Wrestling purists would have turned their heads in shame watching me forgo the fundamentals for something a little funkier. When I won, it was usually ugly and out of nowhere, a last-second gamble that would prompt my father to film the ceiling as if he were in the midst of an earthquake.

My writing doesn’t make him lose his voice like wrestling did, but he’s still my biggest fan.

“Again, I am impressed with your work. Love: Dad,” he wrote to me in 2008 after my first story was published in the Daily News.

My father left Kensington with his mother and two sisters and moved to New Jersey, just beneath the Walt Whitman Bridge in Gloucester City. My grandmother, a nurse twice widowed, didn’t remarry and rarely saw my father play peewee football or baseball there between her handful of jobs.

There was no one around to hit him grounders, to take a scrawny nose guard and inflate his confidence or even to crack a belt against the banister when he got a little mouthy. My father gave me all that attention in droves, maybe because he lost his idol so early himself.

My grandfather was a doctor, a well-respected man in the small universe my father explored at K & A. He would have been easy for a son to idolize, but most fathers are, through the eyes of their children.

A father could be 15 or, in my grandfather’s case, almost 50, when his child’s born and it’s still the same. They can paint masterpieces or bathroom stalls, play professional baseball or sell Cracker Jack at a game and each is held high on his own unique pedestal by their children.

Fathers don’t have to work for it at first and for a little while, they don’t even have to give it back.

This summer I saw a boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, skipping along Market Street with a soda in his hand, trying to stay in line with his father’s shadow. The man, tall and bony with scabby, sunburned skin, scratched his neck as he hurried along in his sagging jeans. The boy could barely keep up.

“Daddy, wait,” the boy said and the man just cursed at him to keep up, without ever turning around to see him.

So many men screw this up daily, although this guy still has a chance. His boy doesn’t see the man I see, at least not yet.

By 6 a.m., I’m sitting alone against a tree and details of the forest fade in and out as clouds roll past the moon. The occasional crack of a branch spooks me, but otherwise, I’m surrounded by silence. I imagine all my father thought about out here: my mother, money, work, his health problems, his kids, maybe even his father.

Or maybe my father doesn’t think of anything but the hunt, letting that silence seal off his worries for a few hours every day before he heads back home. We all deserve a break from our thoughts, whether it’s in 26.2 miles, the 18 holes, or 20 feet up in a tree, aiming down on a whitetail deer. I’ve searched for something like that all my life.

My father’s not far away, maybe 80 yards off to my right. I hear him coughing every now and then and feel guilty I’ve dragged him out here. He’s not fully recovered from a flu that kept him bed-ridden for a week and our first hunt together won’t last long.

Ever since I could walk, he’s brought me here to look for signs of deer on Sunday mornings. I’ve helped him post “No Hunting” signs for the property owner and paddled around in a pond that now seems like a puddle. I often came home covered in chigger bites and bleeding from the briars, still eager to return.

None of those visits ever made me want to kill a deer, though, and my father never pressured me to do it or ridiculed me for not wanting to. It was nature I was after, the solitude that’s hard to come by in New Jersey, and I thank my father for opening that world up to me.

After my grandfather died, my father found his own way, collecting an assortment of interests, talents and other minor hobbies along the way to adulthood. He studies the game of chess and still plays guitar, crafting songs about everything from middle-class struggles to Jerry Sandusky. He can paint portraits and swimming pools, catch and filet a flounder, and wash the kitchen floor on his hands and knees with no shame.

He is far from perfect, prone to exaggerate his movie reviews and misconstrue the intentions of well-meaning people. If you ask him about something that angered him 20 years ago, like one of my sister’s boyfriends, he gets just as mad today.

When the sun rises, I hear a few shotgun blasts off in the distance, too far to be my father’s or cousin’s shot. I never see a deer – buck or doe – the entire time, just the random squirrels distracting me. I doze off as the sun warms me up and about 8 a.m., my cousin sends me a text message. He wants to go.

As we’re walking back to the truck, my father mentions going out again later in the week but my schedule is crammed with my three kids and I’m fairly certain I won’t go hunting again, even if I could free up some time. I’m somewhat relieved, too, that I didn’t see a buck and have to make a choice about its life. Maybe it skipped a generation, because one of my sons wants to hunt with him, and he can also play guitar.

In college, my father was pre-med and could have been Dr. Nark, like his father, but he wound up becoming Mr. Nark, a chemistry teacher at his alma mater, Gloucester Catholic. He has been there now for more than 40 years, teaching me, my sister, an uncle, some cousins and countless friends. I got a B in his class and he kept my sister off the honor roll.

His trucks, ever since I can remember, have been filled with chemistry textbooks and camouflage, even now as he we head out along the dirt road past the farm owner’s home. This farm and the halls, classrooms, and hidden rooms of Gloucester Catholic, were defining landscapes of my childhood.

This could be my last time at this farm, since the owner sold most of the land my father’s hunted on for 30 years. Even Gloucester Catholic, sitting snug among the duplexes and rowhouses of my father’s hometown along the Delaware River for almost 100 years, may move some day.

When I had half-days from school as a child, my mother would often take me to Gloucester Catholic to see him. I’d bound through the hallways, up three flights of stairs and past the Blessed Mother to the classroom with red-glass panel in the door.

That first sight of him as I opened the door, the surprise he’d show despite knowing that I was coming, has never left me. He’d place me on his desk while he took the stage, making the periodic table palatable while bathed in the spotlight of his overhead projector. He was an easy idol to have.

My views about hunting may have mellowed but I still don’t feel the same urge that’s filled my father’s autumn days for so long. That’s not why I came out here, though. This short hunting trip, the hours we spent together practicing with the shotgun, even the argument-filled drive to Fort Dix for my firearms test, was less about hunting and more about time. I’ll never know how much we have left.

When I get the chance, maybe once or twice a year, I’ll take my kids to Gloucester Catholic to see their grandfather. The hallways seem so much smaller to me, the students so young and awkward. My children don’t even know the way to his classroom.

My father is heavier today, his hair thinner and graying, with a scar tracing up his neck and down his chest thanks to all those cigarettes. I’ve seen him vulnerable, his skin gray and cold after several surgeries, but he still casts a giant shadow when I follow behind him in the woods, he remains unchanged to me, in his chemistry lab, after all these years.

I’m still a boy when I see him, just like my father was on that beach so long ago.

I see my grandfather through my father’s eyes, invincible and ageless, battling the unknown out beyond the breakers. In this memory I’ve made my own, he is there forever for my father.

My grandfather looks down at my father, at us, and smiles. He pulls back hard on the fishing rod and the setting sun radiates across his tanned face.

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