In front of my parents’ house, two cottonwood trees are shedding their seeds. My dad described it, when I called to wish him a happy Memorial Day, like frost on the front lawn. I had forgotten that this was the time of year when the white cottonwood seeds float down, caught in the sunlight. It was an oversight from my Memorial Day column. In 2001, my brother and I spent Memorial Day weekend hiking around the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa and Minnesota. From Perrot State Park in Wisconsin, we climbed with a view of Trempealeau Mountain to the south, which is a few sandbars from being an island in the Mississippi. Cottonwood seeds drifted all around us on the hike up the bluff, where there are ancient burial mounds. The peak of Trempealeau was below us there, and the bluffs on the east side of the Mississippi dim in ridges the farther south the river digs.
We planted those cottonwoods in 2002 because my grandfather thought they were Linden trees. My parents wanted shade for their house. They got more than they bargained for.
Early that fall, tent caterpillars attacked the young saplings, stripping them of leaves. One survived. The other died, but saplings rose in the tree’s place, and it is now just as tall as its sister. Across the road, the top of an oak tree got struck by lightning, and suckers grew up toward the amputation. My dad told me that trees doing that amazed him—how things cling to life. That is fascinating to my father.
On the first day of the state track meet this year, my dad drove to Des Moines for an appointment at the Veterans Hospital. They worked on the stint in his left arm, which protrudes like a large vein. He goes through much pain, which includes dialysis three days a week. I believe his grandkids keep him going back. They keep him living. He does what he must so he can watch them grow up.
It’s hard for me to get my dad to open up. Usually I have to go through other sources, and often it’s on complete accident. I heard the following story while my wife was in the emergency room while pregnant with my youngest son, Grant. It came from EMT Tony Funk. When I interviewed Tony for this week’s article about Corydon’s elk, I asked him to retell it for posterity.
“Your dad—we used to trap shoot down at Allerton on the south edge of town, then we shot down at Princeton a fair amount,” Tony said. “Shooting there was the place we seemed to get off into games. I enjoyed shooting with your dad, but any time I paid my five dollars, I assumed it was just a contribution. I never, ever could keep up with him.
“Follow-the-leader—if you’re familiar with the game—whoever starts out, calls what the shot is going to be—and I’d seen people shoot left-handed, with [their] off side. People who turn the gun sideways, which could be disconcerting if you’re shooting an auto-loader and you have a shell come flying past your face. About any kind of odd way.
“But your dad’s the only guy I’ve ever seen who literally backed up to the trap house, until the roof of the trap house touched the back of his legs. He said pull. And when the trap clunked, [he] flipped over, landed on his back and broke the bird. Shooting laying on his back and the bird going away from him and broke it. Basically over his head.
“I don’t think I ever saw him lose a game of follow-the-leader. He didn’t pull that stunt right away, he played with us for a while. [laughing] He had a good sense of humor about it. He was incredible.”
I mentioned to Tony about my dad carrying a shotgun while walking point in Vietnam, and his Grandpa, Doc Ingraham, teaching him how to shoot and hunt at an early age.
“That’s what he told me,” Tony said. “[That] compared to what he went through in ’Nam, hitting that little clay bird was nothing.
“Most Americans don’t have a clue what that man did for his country, for us, for our freedom. What he really went through. And he sure doesn’t blow his horn or talk about it. The guys that I know from over there, who were in the worst stuff—who were really in it, and who really paid prices—very seldom even mention that they were there.
“The ones who make a lot of noise about it, they were support back in the field somewhere—nothing was 100 percent safe, life isn’t 100 percent safe—but they were back where they weren’t getting shot at every day and every night.
“I’ve had the privilege of shooting with some of the top shots in the world—men who worked for Benelli and Federal and shoot for them. Friends of mine up in Minnesota—in fact, their farms are right up next to each other.”
Tony said one of his friends was a quality control engineer at Federal Premium Ammunition in Anoka, Minn.
“The man could shoot, but he couldn’t keep up with your dad. Your dad’s shooting is literally one in ten million—one in a million doesn’t do it justice, because there’s other guys that can shoot, but if he would have gone on the professional trap circuit, instead of being a country boy who did the stuff we did—makes you wonder how far he would have gone as a trap shooter.”
Tony also referred to my brother, Grant, as the prodigy, an excellent shot. Grant and I would, on occasion, take a red, handheld thrower out into the front lawn, under the cottonwoods and the loose-leaf hickory nut tree, and fling clay birds for the other to pop. Grant was a much more seasoned shot, but I hit my fair share.
When Tony first told me the story about my dad’s shooting ability, my wife said she could tell I was proud. And as Tony’s metaphor of the pheasant and the butterfly in this week’s main article goes—how our struggles shape us—I give my dad as an excellent example of how fighting for all you’ve got only makes you stronger.