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The man who got away (thank goodness)

By Amy Dickinson, O, The Oprah Magazine
Her wandering and much-married father brought both sweetness and pain to the author's life.
Her wandering and much-married father brought both sweetness and pain to the author's life.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The author's father loved shortcuts and windfalls and wayward moneymaking projects
  • Amy Dickinson was 12 when her father left and thinking about him made her sad
  • She feared her father's bad luck would follow her and avoided men that reminded her of him
  • He called to say he'd shot a bear and had to go to court
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Editor's note: This is an excerpt of an article by Amy Dickinson

(Oprah.com) -- My father called me one day last summer. "Um, it's your father," he said. "I shot a bear and now it looks like I've got to go to court."

I replayed his message a few times. His voice is nasal and gravelly and full of flatness and diphthongs. I hadn't heard it in a long time. He asked me to call him back and left his number.

His wife, Pat, answered. I realized I had forgotten her name, so I just introduced myself and asked for my father. "He's out back with his bees, but I'll call him," she said.

I heard her Marjorie Main voice sail out the back door. "Charles!" I had never heard him called Charles before -- it was a bit of a surprise. Back when I knew him, everyone called him Buck, the nickname his mother gave him as a child.

He couldn't sit still, just like a buck, the story went. I think of bucks as being majestic, many-antlered royalty of the woods, so his nickname never quite made sense to me, until I realized that the reference was most likely not to a buck but to a bucking bronco. Regardless, his nickname suited him. It is the name of someone who doesn't want to be a Charles.

I have a persistent vision of my father making his way across the field in back of our barn. Going somewhere! His step was springy and enterprising. He drew his bucket from a bottomless well of energy and cultivated a tough restlessness that got him into trouble. He loved shortcuts and windfalls and wayward moneymaking projects, sometimes involving other men like him, who, when things went sour, tended to punch each other in the nose.

He was handsome like a B movie star, in the manner of Glenn Ford, but with the ego of a Caribbean despot. I loved to watch him but not, I think, in the way daughters commonly love to look at their fathers. He was like an animal. Unpredictable.

He would crouch beside the belligerent Holsteins in our barn during the evening milking, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging between his lips, urging milk out of their udders and calling them goddamn filthy bitches when they shifted their weight and threatened to crush him. He would hop around on his haunches. He had springs in his work boots.

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My father left when I was 12. It was a sudden thing, and as far as I know, beyond his travels to increasingly far-off construction jobs, he had given no warning that he would leave home permanently. Our 50 cows were in the field, needing to be milked.

Like the man himself, my feelings about my father seemed to wander. There were the years when I avoided thinking about him because remembering him made me too sad. There were the times when I actively fled from the memory of him because I was worried that his hard luck would rub off on me. There were the men I avoided because they reminded me of him, and the men I wanted because they reminded me of him.

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Buck did what he did best. He kept moving. The marriages increased in frequency, if not duration. After my mother, Jane, he married Joan, then Jeanne. After Jeanne died, he married Jean. That one didn't last long -- her children intervened. Then came Pat.

My father had become the many-married protagonist of a George Jones song. Remember the old joke about country songs -- that if you play them backward all the hard luck reverses itself and the dog comes back? Sometimes I fantasize about playing my father's song backward. The wives fall away, one by one. The barn rights itself, our possessions return to their rightful owners, the cows back themselves off of the cattle trucks and into their assigned stanchions, and I look out the window and see my father striding across a field, going places.

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I realized that I was relieved he'd left us. All I had to do was look at my mother, the college professor, sitting on the porch in the house she owned. More than once she'd said that if Buck had stayed, she'd be living in a trailer, and I knew this was true. My father's life tended toward chaos, and he didn't like to be alone.

I hadn't heard from my father in over a year when he called and left his message saying that he'd shot a bear.

I decided to make the drive out to Port Allegheny on the day after Thanksgiving. The cartoon topography of low hills and valleys was awash in tints of brown and gray; it was Andrew Wyeth season, a sadly beautiful but depressing time of year brightened, for some, only by the prospect of venicide. Gunfire rang out all morning in the field surrounding my house, and Toad's Diner was filled with camouflaged deer killers swapping hangover lies over their morning coffee.

Over tuna sandwiches at the kitchen table, Buck started to tell the bear story. He produced some papers, which he said illustrated his claim of self-defense. The bear wasn't his fault, he said. The bear was the bear's fault. But I had a feeling that both of them were simply being true to their natures.

Buck told me he first saw the bear when it ambled down off the ridge by the house and helped itself to a garbage can full of cat food on the back porch.

After the bear had its fill of Friskies, my father told me, it scrambled back up the ridge and disappeared. It was a male. Young. Big. My father said he was a beauty. The bear had a tag pinned to his ear -- this was not his first taste of kibble; he'd been caught and tagged before by the game warden.

Buck had a feeling that this bear had been released into their back woods the previous week. The game warden had a habit of taking captured bears on tours of Boy Scout troops and schools before releasing them -- Buck felt that this bear was particularly bold and was probably used to being around people.

He called the game warden, who came out, and together they baited a barrel trap with rotted meat and honey. The warden told my father to fortify his beehives.

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After working on the fencing all morning, he and Pat went into town. On their way back to the house, a neighbor who kept goats flagged them down and said that the bear was back and had been lying in the road. The neighbor had to get out of his car and kick him out of the way. "That bear wasn't afraid of anything. He was crazy," my father said.

Buck raced back to the hives to finish the fence. He said the bear was watching him from the edge of the tree line.

That's when my father's instincts, running as they do toward the hair-brained, violent, and adventuresome, made him decide to take matters into his own hands, so he went and grabbed his 20-gauge shotgun.

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The next time the bear came down the ridge, my father was waiting for him. He says he waited until the bear got close enough -- about 25 feet -- and then he shot him in the chest. The wounded bear fell down but then managed to scramble back into the woods.

That's when the game warden showed up. He asked my father what happened to the bear.

Buck said, "I just shot him."

They went into the woods and found the bear, crumpled in a heap -- dead.

Buck decided not to pay his $800 fine, $2 per pound of bear. He called one attorney who said she wouldn't take the case because she sided with the bear. In the end, he retained the services of an old, retired lawyer in town. I pictured the two of them shambling up the steps of a courthouse, each wearing his only suit, my father managing to look somehow handsome with his necktie knotted thickly against his throat.

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The argument was self-defense: The young bear, a menace, not only damaged his hives but charged down the hill at him. My father was being scrappy, his favorite attitude.

The judge said they could take payment in the form of a money order.

I asked my father if he'd learned anything from killing the bear. I asked him if he saw the bear as a metaphor for something else and if he could explain that to me. The questions I really wanted answers for went unasked. I wanted to know who he was, what he longed for, and why he left all those years ago, cleaving my childhood in two.

My father doesn't see things as metaphors for other things, but I do. As I drove away, I tried not to think about the jobs, the wives, and the children that he left, but about the bees and the honey they make. The honey stands for the sweetness of life, while the bee brings the sting. My father, the self-aggrandizing bear killer, was both the bee and the honey to me.

A few days ago I got an envelope in the mail. Inside was a tear sheet from a notice put out by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau about a new state regulation that expands the means by which farmers can legally kill game, including bears, ... causing or about to cause damage to farm crops, fruit trees, vegetables, livestock, or beehives." That part was underlined.

My father attached a note:

I made enough noise that the state changed some of its rules. Now we have a right to protect ourselves and our stuff.

Love, Buck
your dad.

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