Sep 9, 2017

A Difference of One 

When I was two or three, I got my first haircut. My father, who was away in Vietnam, sent a letter to my mother, in response to a picture she’d sent of me. Among other things, he wrote, “I thought I had a boy not a girl.” Looking at the 20 or 30 remaining hairs on my head now at age 51, it’s hard to imagine that once there was an abundance of long, curly locks flowing to my shoulders. There really was. But, it was time to honor my father’s request to clean up my act. 

My mother took me to a local barber. At that age I wasn’t impressed with all the mounted fish, deer heads, or shooting trophies displayed in his shop. From what I’ve been told, I cared very little for the experience. I, in fact, made this very clear by providing an opportunity to test out the quality of the leather on his brand new chair. I thought he might like to know how well it faired against certain chemicals such as hippuric acid, glucuronic acid, and phosphorus. Yup… I peed in his chair. Or maybe that was my first trip to the dentist. At any rate, I had no way of knowing how much of a positive influence that barber would wind up having on my life. 

My father, hands down, deserves most of the credit for planting the seeds that grew into a rich and full outdoor lifestyle. Some of the earliest childhood memories that have stuck around to this day are of fishing and hunting with my Dad. Catching panfish from shore, my first deer hunting trip, small game hunting. I once climbed a tree to retrieve a squirrel my Dad had shot with a recurve bow and a cedar arrow.  

Perhaps my earliest childhood memory of all is one of catching a fish.  I remember thinking I might be dragged into the water by an alligator gar at a place called Cow House Creek in central Texas near where my father was stationed for a time. I remember asking him to take the pole. He suggested that I could handle it, and eventually the fish, which was longer than I was tall, wound up flopping on the bank. Walking back to our car I asked if you could eat that kind of fish. My Dad said you can smoke them. Like most grown-ups in those days, my mother was a smoker. I’d seen how that was done, but I couldn’t picture for the life of me how she would be able to hold that thing in her mouth while trying to get it lit. Or which end of it went in your mouth and which end you were supposed to put the lighter to.  

My barber friend, however, did more for my development as an outdoorsman than I ever deserved, or any kid could ever ask. I would say he was involved in the youth trapshooting program at our local gun club, but it would be far more accurate to say he was the youth program. "Shorty", as everyone called him, took it upon himself to pay the sponsor fees for any group of kids who wanted to shoot in trap league, or find a team to shoot on if you didn’t have one. He went way beyond that though. He was coach and mentor for any kid who showed desire and willingness to learn. He volunteered countless hours teaching kids all the fine details needed to master trapshooting. We even learned how to reload shells in the back of his barbershop. 

One lesson I’ll never forget had to do with a rock in your shoe. Having a teenage boy of his own, Shorty understood that the biggest obstacle we faced at that age did not involve form or stance or follow through. It was the random collection of words and images, incorrectly referred to as thoughts, flitting about in the part of our anatomy that would hopefully someday be occupied by a functioning human brain. Shorty told us to put a small rock in the shoe of our front foot. That way, when we shifted our weight forward to get ready to call for a target on the trap range, we could forget about girls (or boys, for there were girls shooting at our club back then as now) for the few seconds it takes to break a moving clay pigeon. We’d feel the discomfort on our foot, and concentrate on just that, and the target. It worked! It was easier to manage two “thoughts” at a time than twenty. 

Shorty also took it upon himself to give us opportunities to compete away from the club in some bigger events. He took care of the ammunition, gas, food, and whatever else was necessary to get us to the state high school and five man team state championships. We won too. With his expert guidance and sheer will to win, we won both class A and B in Mayville, Wisconsin at the state high school championships, and the state five man team junior division championships in Waukesha, Wisconsin. In fact, we broke the old record high scores by a considerable margin. I still recall how great it felt thinking, “I’m a state champion.” All thanks to Shorty. 

Getting there was an adventure in itself. If you were fortunate enough to have the opportunity, also referred to as burdened with the task of, driving a bunch of children somewhere, you simply piled them into whatever you had. Back in those days, before there were things called mini vans, it was pretty common to transport a bunch of kids in the back of a pickup truck with a topper on it. I don’t mean in the back seat. Trucks didn’t have back seats yet. We’re talking in the box. In fact, I suspect the phrase “pile in” when referring to boarding a vehicle may have had its origins on such trips. You see….when you’re perched on folding chairs you’re not fastened to, which are themselves not fastened to anything at all, and a deer or raccoon or something suddenly dashes out in front of the truck, a pile is the most accurate description of your new temporary seating arrangement. Hauling our team to the gun club in my Dad’s pickup, I would occasionally simulate avoiding a critter in the road just to be sure everybody had the pile making procedure down pat in the event pile seating became necessary. Making a really good pile required several kids. The more the better. But, if the driver incorporated a swerve and braking hard at the same time, one kid could pull off a decent pile all by himself. Shorty always managed to get us where we needed to be without piles, simulated or otherwise. 

Don’t think for a minute that it was all about the recognition and collecting trophies for him. I don’t doubt that he was proud to show off all the trophies displayed in his shop, but he did other stuff that no one else knew much about. My Dad taught me how to shoot a recurve with finger tabs, but knew nothing about compound bows with sights and using a release. Shorty helped me pick out my first compound and taught me all about that too. He also got a group of us signed up for a National Guard youth rifle program, took us grouse hunting, late season bowhunting, and passed on countless bits of hunting, shooting, and fishing knowledge.  

I have no way of knowing which different paths my life would have taken without the good fortune of having been guided down some of them by Shorty Mueller. One man, who cared enough to do what he could to help a kid out. Whose selfless sacrifices, helped to develop and nurture a lifelong passion for the outdoor lifestyle that I am now lucky enough to pass on to another generation.  

Don’t hoard or hide your outdoor skills and knowledge, or limit it to just your own kids. Leave a legacy. Pass along what you can when the chance comes along, or, better yet, seek them out. Many clubs, groups, and organizations that provide outdoor opportunities for youth can always use money, volunteers, and equipment. I read somewhere that what you give away comes back to you many times over. I hope that has been the case for this very important mentor in my life. Thanks Shorty.