Uncle Lee

Lee Patterson was a bachelor dairy farmer. He lived with his brother, a divorced father of one, on a 140-acre place about 35 miles from the outskirts of Buffalo, NY. The farm was typical for the late 1940’s. It had no indoor plumbing or electricity. The place was heated by a huge iron stove in the kitchen and a wood-burning furnace. All the farm work required work horses that were both large and evil tempered.
I started spending a lot of time there when I was about eight years old. My Mother had returned with a new husband after a five-year absence, retrieving me from my Grandma and Grandpa. We had moved around a lot in those five years as Grandpa had retired from the railroad with injuries that kept him from working. My new step-father was trying to get his watch repair and jewelry business going in Buffalo, so in the interim, we were living in his brother’s hotel. It was a rough place frequented by employees of the nearby steel mill, alcoholics, and itinerants. From my small room on the second floor, I frequently heard fights and drunken arguments in the hall outside my room. It was clearly not a place for a small child. So, it was determined that I should be carted off to the farm on weekends, holidays, and summers. At that time, Grandma and Grandpa moved to the farm, so it was an OK thing with me.
I had never really had a father figure in my life, my Father being absent and Grandpa seldom moving out of his easy chair. Uncle Lee took on that role. Whether he knew that or not, I can’t say, but he did it admirably.
Lee, a short, barrel-chested man, had little education, but knew a lot of things…. especially how to work hard. In those days, a dairy farm required a lot of work. Not just the care and milking of the cows, but also cutting wood for cooking and heat, tending the garden, and working in the fields. Uncle Lee taught me that hard work is a man’s first obligation and play only begins when the work is finished. Up before daylight, the cows had to be milked and fed before we would eat breakfast. Then it was back to the barn to shovel the manure before getting on to other tasks like cutting hay, plowing, or fixing fences.
A lot of our recreational time was spent hunting and fishing, for the game we killed formed an essential part of our diet. We practically lived on the deer meat that my Grandma cooked and canned. I tagged along after Lee like a faithful puppy. He showed me how to recognize the difference between a squirrel and a rabbit track in the snow, as well as identify a mink, fox, or a skunk track.
We fished for chubs in the creek and then used the chubs to catch pickerel in the lake. From him, I learned how to cast a bass plug and how to shoot a rifle and shotgun. He taught me how to set traps for muskrat and mink and how to sit quietly in the hardwoods and wait for squirrels to come out.
Finally, it was time for me to go hunting for the first time. Although Lee had several beagles he normally used for rabbit hunting, he decided that for our first expedition he would leave the dogs behind and be the dog himself. I guess he was worried I might accidentally shoot one! I carried a 20-gauge pump on that day and with fresh snow on the ground, we set out to hunt rabbits. Soon we jumped a rabbit out of a brush pile and my Uncle took off following the track, howling like a beagle so I could follow his progress. I stood waiting for a rabbit when chased will run in a big circle. Sure enough, the rabbit soon came hopping into view. I shot at the rabbit until the gun was empty and never touched a hare. (Sorry.) Undeterred, my Uncle Lee continued without complaint and chased the rabbit around again. Same result. Lee took off again hooting as before and this time I managed to hit the rabbit. Unfortunately, the rabbit ran up inside a hollow tree.
I thought that was the end of it. But Uncle Lee and I walked all the way to the barn and came back with the cross cut saw. Together we sawed the tree down to retrieve the rabbit.  It took 15 shots and some sweat to chop down the tree, but we had a rabbit for Grandma.

Years later I was hunting with my son who was about 10 at the time. We were walking along a riverbank when a mallard happened to fly by. I shot the duck and it fell on the opposite side of the deep, slow-moving river.  Although it was October, and much to my son’s surprise, I stripped down, swam across the river, and retrieved the duck. Twenty years later, my son reminded me of that incident. “Make every effort to retrieve the game you shoot” means exactly that. I guess that lesson taught to me by Uncle Lee and then passed on to my son showed by example what that actually means.

As the years passed, and I moved on to high school with sports and friends, I visited the farm infrequently. Then it was college and the Navy, marriage and moving to the West Coast. I never saw him again. I think of him often and regret that I never got to thank him for his influence in my young life. It was a difficult time for me and he was a solid presence, patient and blessed with a great sense of humor. I never thanked him properly, but I did honor him by giving his name to our daughter. He was gone by then, but maybe he knows anyway.

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