I had just finished reading Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, when my son and I took off to hunt pheasant in North Dakota. But even reading and dreaming of Roosevelt’s experiences on his beloved North Dakota did not prepare me for its beauty or for the thrill I would have of sharing this magnificent land and endless sky with my son.
My son, John Michael, and our friend, the renowned and now retired Chaplain (Colonel) David Peterson, and his every-faithful “Gunner,” his wise, old red Lab, in freezing temperatures, but with a kind and generous November sun overhead, moved out for that first day on our pheasant hunt in North Dakota. The grand expanse of fields of fresh-cut sunflower and corn, sitting next to the waist-high wheat-grass, were lush with the beautiful but elusive pheasants. We hunted this field and then the next. It would go like this: Chaplain Peterson would post me on one end of a field, John Michael on another, and then our famous guide and Gunner would move in from yet another. The idea was to make the birds move out of the tall grasses and take off in flight. I would suspect that, without hyperbole, we walked for ten miles or more each day; and not just walking, but walking through that thick wheat grass, up this hill, over this creek, and down this slope, and over these rail road tracks. Glorious! Well, my son bagged his first rooster in the afternoon of our first day (he would take two more before it was over!). Ah, but that first moment was a classic moment and I watched it with the deepest fatherly pride. My lad was moving carefully through the grasses when all at once a magnificent specimen of this great bird took flight out of his cover in the grasses, wings flapping in the frigid North Dakota wind, and causing us all, Gunner included, to look around and look up! John Michael had only enough time to determine whether it was a hen (off-limits) or not, and then to aim and shoot. The idea that, perhaps with other bird hunts, you stir up a covey and shoot into the bunch and hope to hit something, is not pheasant hunting. Nor was this a pheasant preserve. This was the wild, wide fields of an expansive landscape. Well, John Michael had to carefully make his shot all in a startling instant and to lead with his (Actually, Chaplain Peterson’s) Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun at just the right angle. He shot the rooster as the creature was in an upward trajectory flight. His shot required the skill of calculating the bird’s path and leading with the Mossberg to hit his brilliantly colored target at just the right moment. Down he went as old Gunner bounded through the chest high prairie wheat grass to retrieve him. The good old dog lived up to his breed and retrieved the pheasant and brought him right to my son. My son yelled, “I got a pheasant!” And we all celebrated the remarkable incident with laughter and back-slaps. But the celebration quieted and we moved on to the next field, the next hunt, the next thrill of suddenly seeing a multi colored rooster pheasant, red, purple, brown, white, tan, and more, all painted in a single surprising moment against the brown-field background or the perfectly blue sky panorama. While there was great fun in this hunting trip, there were some other things that I brought away from our several days up here in North Dakota:
First, I cannot imagine a greater time of father and son togetherness. The pheasant hunt, for me, was less about time with a pheasant and more about time with my boy. No school work. No pressures of homework. No distractions. There was only the rolling ocean of the prairie, a dominant and magnificent sky with Constable-like clouds that were bigger than any I have ever seen, and underneath that sky there was small talk and there was serious talk. There was laughter, and there were dreams spoken of. There were stories I had waned to tell him. And there were questions he wanted to ask. There were late nights and early mornings. There were times of quietness. “Did you hear that Dad?” He once whispered as we were in a field. He meant, of course, that you could hear absolutely nothing. But in those moments we heard each other clearer than ever.
Second, there was a time for my son to experience manly teamwork. John Michael was told at one time by Chaplain Peterson to “go get that truck, John Michael, and just drive it down there, and then get out and walk the mile or so and meet us in the middle of the field and we’ll try to make them move!” Well, John Michael is not yet licensed to drive. But there he was being given the responsibility to hop in that old truck and drive it as ordered! And drive he did, and so very well. And more than that, he was a part of a team that was aiming to accomplish a mission. One time he took charge and called out to me, “Dad, take that corner of the field over there, and we will push those birds in to the middle.” I smiled and hollered back at him, “You bet, Son. Will do.” And I did.
Third, there was the opportunity for John Michael and me to experience God’s beautiful creation in the breath-taking vista of the rugged northern plains. One time we were looking out over the rolling plains, jagged mesas in the blue distance, and witnessed something together that I had never ever seen. For we held our breath as we watched a mule deer running at full gallop across an open field. Once we watched a sunset over the hills of this wild and wonderful North Dakota and broke out in praise to God together. It was a time of pure worship of the Lord of the Prairie, Jesus Christ.
And so we pack up now and leave. But I will never forget our first pheasant hunt, or North Dakota in November, or the unforgettable moments of father and son, dogs and guns, trucks and old roads, and the presence of a Father, our Father, who was there with us in every hunt, in every talk, in every way.