November 27th, 2022
By all accounts Will Hatch should have been the one to call and, tell me that my oldest friend Will Hatch had died unexpectedly.
He did not. Instead that task befell to his brother, who the last time we spoke was in 2004.
Further accounting would have led even a less than astute observer to note that based on a rather extensive case history and odds placed, death would have found me first. The near miss of a head on collision with a drunk driver, as a five year old on the front seat arm rest of my parent’s 1977 Buick LeSabre (some of us having come through childhood without a seat belt let alone a child seat). Struck by an yellow AMC Gremlin as I crossed the road to catch the bus in middle school, that sent me over a petrified woman’s windshield and rolling down the street, with nothing more than a bruise on my left leg. A pretty severe car accident between my Junior and Senior years of High School that wiped out part of my childhood memories for a long time, followed by a near drowning a year later.
By my twenties the wheels had come off “the near death express”. A career path that began doing Executive Protection there would be a couple of gunfights, a shooting, almost gutted in a night club. Then to save whatever was left of myself from corporate America I evolved into something closer to being either a Fixer or a Swiss Army Knife. I’ve never really found the right word for it, but the whatever needed done title came with a lot of perks, and at times more near misses. There was getting myself stranded on a cliff face in Colorado. Hunted by killers in Central America during the critical extraction of a Client (this included rolling yet again another vehicle). The list never seemed to stall out.
Yet the last time Will Hatch and I had lunch he remarked in his dry sarcastic tone as we walked through the door of the bar and grill “You know every time I see you I’m surprised you’re not dead.” Will sold insurance at his Dad’s insurance agency and, had a wife and three boys.
I did not sell insurance.
We all expect, or rather hope I think, that our deaths will have purpose. Meaning. A restful goodbye as loved ones keep vigil at the bedside of your advanced years. A nearly successful gunfight. Asleep while under the stars, next to the low burning coals of a campfire you quietly transition from this life to the next. We don’t desire the unexpected car crash from driver who couldn’t put the phone away, or the drink down. Or to die alone in the dark.
In all of the years we fished off the beaches of the Gulf I didn’t think of Will’s death. I certainly thought of my own, and I know he thought of it as well. After the near fatal car accident I had suffered, he would just look at me sometimes, as we walked off the beach at night. Both of us glad not to have been attacked by a shark as we stood knee deep of pitch black warm Gulf of Mexico water, daring the other to go one step further. “I’m glad you’re not dead. I’d have to carry all of these fish myself.”
It wasn’t the mountain, nor the surf that came for Will Hatch. No rockslide or undertow, not even a Hammerhead, which I would have liked better. Instead he suffered, what his brother described when he called me that last Saturday of October as “a massive heart attack”. His wife having found him around 3 in the morning, dead on his knees, slumped against the couch. A video game controller in his hand.
Whether this image haunts me or reminds me, I am not sure which. Perhaps both, and maybe that is what God intends for Will’s death to mean to me. I think of him as I hop off the tailgate of the truck, feeling my knees wanting to betray me despite maintaining a solid level of physical fitness for over two decades.
Will Hatch did not. He died in a way no man ever should. Out of shape, having spent the last three plus decades enslaved to the unnatural illumination and electrical artifice of what happened on screen, so that he could escape his wife. His sons having never been given the memories of waking up to the morning chill of the Sawtooths, or the Bighorns in June. No failed fly fishing trips. No yell of “shark on!” from the back of the boat. No cresting the near summit of a mountain to look into the blue of an alpine lake. Will Hatch, died poorly and this haunts me, but perhaps it is having to come to terms with how he lived haunts me more.
“Don’t put too many layers on. We want to walk in cold.” I say to Utilivu while pulling my .30-06 from the rifle case. “If you want to stay warm, walk in cold” she repeats back to me. “Watch your muzzle okay.” pointing to her 10/22 , “I will. I won’t forget last year.”. She refers to when I had to yell at her for sweeping me with the muzzle of her rifle. Nothing I wanted to do, the rifle wasn’t even loaded, but you know as a father some lessons have to be taught harder than others. Even if they hurt feelings. Closing the tailgate I think of Will Hatch and wonder what he would have given, as he felt the last moments of his life leave him, to have one more chilly Sunday morning, to be outside…not alone in the dark of his living room.
Deciding to hunt somewhere else than the previous day, we see a small stand of pines in the middle of the field and make for it. “Hey” I whisper-call to the kid “What do you think this is” using the toe of my boot to point towards a track left in the middle of the mud. Her eyes widen “Is…is that a bear track!?”, “It most certainly is. First one I have ever seen outside of the Rockies. How about that! You know what that is? That is a success story about how conservation works.” Her enthusiasm being a little different at twelve years old, “When do I get my own pistol? Preferably one that can stop a bear?”
We slip into the stand of pines, finding a dirt floor scattered with dead branches. Setting our packs and rifles aside we hunker down. I watch the wheels turning inside her head as she scans the dirt, as if to make an safety assessment . Pulling my knife from the sheath and, sinking it into the soft earth I dig out a small depression. Her face brightens against the cold November and she starts collecting sticks to build a fire and says “Oh man I was hoping we could.”
Settling back against the knurled pine, feeling the small hints of warmth coming off the fire touch your legs, while mixing with the scent of the pines, your chances of filling the deer tag are now lower today than they would have been. You look at this pre-teen girl who loyally follows you on all of these campaigns into the wild places, knowing that filling the tag is important, but somethings are more important.