It was a hot summer day, you know the kind where you feel like you’re melting. Mid-July through late August kind of hot. Hank was only 19 that summer and feeling as Bob Seger would put it “like a rock.” On his way home from work, Hank stopped by to see Mr. Harris, an old man that lived just outside of town. Mr. Harris never ran out of stories or cold drinks, so Hank stopped by to cool his heels two or three times a week.
Hank’s old Chevy had a squeaky fan belt, and every time he made the turn off of the highway onto Harris’s driveway, the squeal would sort of announce his arrival. Mr. Harris would sit up in his porch rocker and adjust his glasses in anticipation. He too looked forward to the visits. Mrs. Harris had passed away the winter before, and it was lonely by himself.
After parking his old truck out front, Hank trotted up the walk and onto the porch in his typical youthful and vibrant manner. For a moment, Mr. Harris reminisced of days gone by when he could run up the front steps like that. After greeting, they retired inside out of the miserable heat to the study. Mr. Harris’s den was a tapestry of pictures, awards and accomplishments. He had served in Vietnam as one of Uncle Sam’s Motherless Children, earning a bronze star. He came home afterwards, married and went to work in the local lumber mill. Everyone in the county in those days had a job in the timber industry. They were good jobs, with steady work paying money enough to raise a family on. That’s just exactly what Mr. and Mrs. Harris had done. They were lucky enough to have raised their children before the town mill closed down.
Besides pictures of his family and of his buddies, there were dozens of pictures of Mr. Harris with various big game animals. He never could afford to go to Africa, but he had pretty well covered the continental U.S. and Canada. Hank stared, fascinated as he tried to take it all in. Although he had seen it many times before, Hank never lost the awe he felt seeing it yet again.
“The reason I asked you to stop by today, Hank,” the old man drawled, “is because I know you’ll be headed back to the city to live with your Ma once summer is through. I’ve seen you learn a lot while you’ve been here, and I’ve respected the way you’ve worked hard and took responsibility. I wanted to give you something to remind you that good things come to folks that work for them.”
Mr. Harris opened the large gun cabinet, reached inside and, grabbing a fine custom hunting rifle, pulled it out. He handed it to the young lad who stood there speechless. It was a work of art, but had signs of having been well traveled.
“Mr. Harris, I don’t know what to,” the boy stammered, “I mean, nobody has ever given me something like this before. I’m not sure I can take it. I mean Mom probably won’t even allow me bring it in the house.”
“You go on and take it,” Mr. Harris said. “For all the times your uncle dragged you over here to mow my lawn and trim the trees. And for fixing my gate after those hooligans blew it up last Halloween. No, a man needs a rifle, Hank, because there is no more important role that a man can play than to protect and provide for his family. I’ve taught you how to clean it, shoot it and handle it safely. It ain’t easy not having a Pa, but I’ve done what I could for you, and I don’t know how many more of these hot summers I got left in me.”
Hank reluctantly and yet excitedly accepted the gift. One he cherishes to this day. It’s a symbol after all of not only freedom but of a different time and place. Back when the whole village pitched in to take care of its own. People saw each other through every season back then, and it was a good thing too, because all they had was each other and the good Lord to lean on when times got tough.
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