Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Charlie Hartman Jr.

       In October of 1958, I turned eleven years old. Dad had promised that when I turned eleven I could go with him on a duck hunt down the Piney River. And there I was, the first Saturday in November, sitting on the front seat in his wooden johnboat, looking through the blind he had attached to the bow, shaking with excitement.. I was to watch and listen and learn so that when he thought the time was right I could sit there actually hunting with my own gun.

       We put in that morning at the Dogs Bluff bridge. Downstream an hour later, in the Paw-Paw bottoms, I saw a mallard hen swimming amongst falling leaves in the midst of the eddy, and Dad paddled slowly forward, finally turning the boat sideways so he wouldn’t have to shoot over my head.  The mallard flushed and Dad’s old 97 Winchester roared and I was elated. We’d have wild duck for dinner that week.

       Downstream about an hour later, a young fox squirrel climbed high into the branches of a riverside maple, and Dad shot it. No river duck hunt took place back then without 2 or 3 fox squirrels being part of trip. This fox squirrel though, fell dead into the crotch of tree limbs and stuck there, about 20 feet above the river’s edge. That was an historic site for me as I grew older, because it was just below where the old Lone Star Mill house had once stood, the place where my grandfather had spent many years raising a family. Dad had grown up there. In the book “Little Home on the Piney” which I wrote about my dad’s boyhood, there are many pages about, and many pictures of, that old mill from the 1930’s when he was a kid. 

       Dad thought he was a better climber than he was, and he wasn’t about to let a squirrel he killed go to waste. So he climbed the tree in hip-wader rubber boots and as he reached for the squirrel he slipped. I still remember that awful sight. The bank was steep and large roots grew out above the water. Dad’s body crashed against those roots and he fell into the water, unconscious for a few seconds. Back then I was so small, only about five-foot tall and less than 100 pounds. Dad was six-foot-three and more than 200 pounds.  His face was bleeding badly and he was in tremendous pain from several broken bones. But the water was only about two feet deep and as he reached out and grabbed those roots, I got into the water and tried my best to help him. 

       Somehow he crawled up to a level spot above the water and just lay there on his back, blood all over his face, moaning and gasping. You cannot imagine my fear. I just knew I was watching my dad die, but he was able to tell me how to get to the highway a mile away. I was very fast back then, and a good fence climber. I couldn’t find the little lane that came down to the old mill, but I didn’t need to. I remember dashing through a hundred yards of woodland to a green field, where I easily cleared a fence, seeing a big bull with horns there that just increased my fear.
       He headed toward me but no bull that ever lived could have caught me that day. Thank God the first car stopped, a green 1950 Ford driven by someone my dad had considered his enemy. That in itself is one of the most amazing stories which came from that day. I’ll tell it later! The man knew of the old lane to the mill, and in a matter of minutes we were getting my father in the car and heading to the doctors office in Houston. The way he was grimacing in pain stretched across the back seat, and all the blood on his face made me sure he was about to die, and no eleven-year-old kid ever prayed like I did that day.
       While I waited outside the doctor’s office, Mom assured me Dad was not going to die, an assurance that didn’t help much, with all the tears running down her face.
As I waited and prayed, a tall man with a big smile came in and knelt down beside me and asked if I would go with him to retrieve our boat and dad’s shotgun. His name was Charles Hartman Jr. I had seen him before, he was my dad’s friend and they fished together and he and his wife and young son had been at our house many times. But I didn’t know him, really. Charlie knew perfectly well how to get to that boat, but he wanted me to show him where it was, I think he knew I needed to get my mind off of dad’s plight. He and I, he told me, had to float it all the way down to Mineral Springs ford where his wife Evelyn would be waiting with dad’s pick-up. It was a trip that took a few hours, but one I will remember forever.
       That day Mr. Hartman took the tears off my face by talking about everything I needed to hear… how tough my dad was and how he’d be back on the river with me, likely the next week-end. With strong sure strokes he paddled us over swift shoals and through quiet eddies and talked about the beautiful day and how wonderful it was to have a day on the Piney in the Fall. He was not at all quiet or sad. I don’t know that he even knew how bad my father was, but he quickly convinced me that if my Mom would have let him, Dad would have been with us right then, floating down the river. Everything was going to be alright.

       By the time we arrived at Mineral Springs, the tears were gone, and I knew a man who was to become one of our family’s greatest supports, my father’s closest friend and brother, and the only man I would ever put on the same level as my Dad. The only one!

       So fast forward to the first Saturday of November, sixty-one years later. I was in Houston to attend the funeral of Charles Hartman Jr. Don’t you know my mind kept wandering back to that Saturday exactly sixty-one years ago. There isn’t enough room in the allotted space for this column to continue with what I want to say about that special man… so I will conclude this column next week. I hope you can make it a point to read it.

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