I have been working on this book, Return to Buck Mountain, as a sequel to my first book, Tales From Buck Mountain, for several years, and hope to put it to the publisher this year. For my last column in this series I thought I would leave a bit of it with you first. I want to thank Kelly and the Appalachian Memory Keepers crew for all of their help and the opportunity to share my work; to extend my good wishes to my fellow authors at AMK; and to thank you, the readers, for your love of our Appalachian home. The Hamptons are getting ready for another Buck Mountain fall; God Bless you all.
RETURN TO BUCK MOUNTAIN
© 2019 Walt Hampton
Since childhood I have always felt compelled to write, and even while I have written and sold hundreds of articles and columns I never defined myself as a ‘writer’, and it was never my goal to be one (I wanted, in no particular order, to be a cowboy, soldier, hunting guide, gunsmith, wildlife biologist, Olympic athlete and fighter pilot). I wrote for my own enjoyment and for a reminder for later years of places and events that might have gotten lost in the shuffle of old age.
For the most part I do not read contemporary outdoor writing; I do not want something I have read by another author popping into my head when I’m putting together a piece or assignment. I’ve been plagiarized so many times over the years it would horrify me to do the same thing inadvertently to someone else; but I do owe a tremendous debt to many writers that in past times have helped me to forge my own outlook on guns, hunting and how we put forth the notions and feelings associated with these things to the public. In this sense I owe my father a debt of gratitude for getting me interested in the writings of our great American outdoor and hunting writers.
There are in my definition two types of outdoor or gun writing; the grist, done to pay the bills; and literature, of which we don’t see nearly enough. Even when I was doing some mundane gun test some of the ‘real’ Walt would come through in the writing in spite of myself, and I took that part of the work very seriously—I knew that the possibility existed that somewhere out there, there might actually be someone that would read what I wrote and believe it, so I wrote the truth as I saw it to the best of my ability. Once my name was put on a piece and I had submitted it for publication I was forever married to that work; and I cannot overemphasize the importance, to me, of that. Writing in this way, as true and as honest as I could do it, is far more difficult to do than most readers understand; the editors of magazines and CEOs of gun companies take a fairly dim view of gun writing that actually tells the truth about flaws in the next new gee-whiz gun, and taking a stand on hunting ethics or fair chase is guaranteed to raise the ire of many non-scrupulous individuals. For some writers that is not a problem; if you write the check they’ll cash it, no matter how much BS they have to shovel onto the public to sell their drivel. I’m sorry, I just can’t do it.
I have always detested the ‘how-to’ kind of writing; the sad truth is today that is what sells and that is what the vast majority of magazine and book publishers want. While I recognize the fact that descriptive and instructive writing is valuable and necessary, I can’t stand to read it and I flatly refuse to write it, and it sickens me to this day that more than a few writers have set themselves up as ‘experts’ on a variety of subjects. This is not to say that true experts in the fields of guns, hunting and biology don’t exist, they do; but in my experience very few of them are writers. Of course I have done the grist work to pay the bills but I have never claimed to be an expert on any subject—far from it–and I will not let anyone fit me with that label. I recently heard of a writer that I know who wrote a book on the ‘survival guns for serious preppers’ (I actually can’t even write the sentence without laughing out loud), and he was also on the masthead of a magazine when I was doing two columns for the same publication; we were each asked by the editor to name our own segments and this fellow actually named his column “Ask the Expert”, and he commonly refers to himself as a “famous writer”. If you knew this fellow you would understand when I tell you that where I come from, the only reaction to that is “Bless his heart…”.
On the other hand there are people that write based on actual experience and do so in a way that has true meaning; defensive gun handling and training from one that has lived and done the thing in the military or law enforcement capacity is a good example of needed, how-to and true-expert writing. Unfortunately sifting through the garbage for the diamond is tough with hundreds of ‘wanna-be’ gun writers out there just wanting to sell their work for a paycheck. I do not write on subjects of which I have no experience; to do so, to me, is the height of conceit. Simply calling oneself a ‘gun writer’ does not qualify that person to write about every aspect of firearms. It does not. And to do so makes all of us writers look like idiots.
I love the fact that some of my writing has seen the light of day and I am humbled by the reaction I have received to it. The world of the outdoors in which I was raised has now forever changed; I certainly don’t know what the next 100 years will bring for guns and hunting in this country but I feel it my obligation to point out a few things I have learned along the way, things that may seem ‘old-fashioned’ or obsolete in today’s world. I have an abiding faith that these old values will be returned to, eventually, because I have faith that my sons and people like them will never turn loose of the concepts of right versus wrong and good versus evil. I also whole-heartedly believe that if we hunters stop passing down our love for the sport to our children the human race will suffer for it. The most important thing in my life has always been being a father; I have not done as good a job as I would have liked to do, but I did the best I knew how. Both Wade and Jesse now have families of their own and are making their own way; and Alex, our “adopted” son, is doing the same. I hope they will look back kindly on our time together; I know that those good memories sustain me.
Along with these words I would offer this admonition to my children: Make your sons men and your daughters women, by exposing them to the traditional things those genders imply. Someday in their lives our country will need real men and real women; men that aren’t afraid to be men, to be compassionate and loving and when the time comes, to be hard and uncompromising; and women that live the example of womanhood, tenderness and inner personal strength that so exemplifies the fairer sex and makes the human race what it is. We are different; we should celebrate that fact and live our lives in that celebration.
So now I will tell you a story, with guns and dogs and fine young men and women, loosely woven together, of the unchanging human condition—and how I hope that we all will eventually come home and come back to the good in our species—and of my own return to Buck Mountain.
RETURN TO BUCK MOUNTAIN
ALEX: THE LONG WAY BACK
“Merciful Father, I have squandered my days with plans of many things: this was not among them. But at this moment, I wish only to live the next few minutes well.”
The Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
So there you are, you have arrived; America’s finest, king of the world, in the best physical shape of your life, trained and prepared and the tip of the sword and today’s mission is almost done and suddenly everything you love about yourself, everything you have believed to be important in your life, everything you know and trust and have worked so hard to achieve is ripped from you, deep to the bare bone so that there is nothing left but that burning ember of will down deep in your center, and you focus on that through the horrible blinding pain and the taste of your own blood, and it is your brain that you hear screaming over the ringing in your ears “LIVE, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” and you know you are in trouble because Death with his dogshit breath is dragging you over the edge and your buddies are fighting with all of their hearts to pull you out of the abyss—and NO!, Goddamn it, for these men I will bear it, I will not give up and I will not knuckle-under and if I go, it will be kicking and screaming on the inside, and for my teammates I will be professional and calm and if this is it, then the last thing they will remember of me will be that I was here for them. My God, what a magnificent, heroic man that was a boy and a son of Buck Mountain and the Guinea Marsh and By God I can hear him swearing on all that is Holy “I will see my Mother and those that love me again!”
And now it is every ounce of faith and hope and love you can pull from your heart, and every shred of dignity and innocence you can scrape off of the walls of your soul, and with these things you summon forth all of the dreams you have ever dreamed to armor yourself, and you can feel your strength holding and the “whumpwhumpwhump” of the helicopter is getting closer and I know if I can just hold it together they will save me. I taste the dust of the rotor wash and the boys are kissing me goodbye and for your love I will not quit; work fast and sure you beautiful angel PJ bastards just get me to the docs alive and I’ll deal with the rest later.
And left standing shattered on the ground in a thinning cloud of shithole Afghanistan dust are men tied to each other and you with bonds that mortality cannot break, your blood on their hands still warm with life, their tears the purest thing ever to touch this barren, forsaken land of Satan’s outhouse, those tears from the hearts of Vikings that anointed your face and carried with them the only prayers that God will hear today. Those men left behind that will now choke down their anguish and use it to feed their anger and boundless hatred for those that have wrought this abomination and there will be a debt collected, a price to be paid in heathen blood, and these good men will lock away these horrors until later, when they can meet you back home and share their hearts with only you and those others of their own kind. There are none more courageous than those that suffer and must endure that suffering before it can be let out and together their courage is like the stone that turns back the tide; immoveable, unyielding, and it is because you now belong to these men and they to you that here, for now, you will tie your lifeline, and when the time comes, upon this stone of courage you will begin to rebuild your life.
The doctors have you now before them like a meal from Hell’s kitchen and the sweet darkness of the drugs finally carries away the pain and the relief washes over you, because now you can leave it all in God’s hands, for today you have done your duty and earned your rest.
It was just another beautiful summer Sunday afternoon. I had trouble getting to sleep the night before, and felt all night and that morning that uneasy feeling you get when someone is standing behind you, or watching you from hiding. I talked Wade and Cecelia into heading for Buck Mountain to look for some arrowheads, to get out of the house and to try to kick-start feeling “normal” again. We had a sandwich at the Locust Spring and spent a couple of hours prospecting around the pond and I told Wade “I’m going to look around down in the creek, where Alex found that point last summer.”
I found a couple of flakes and one broken quartz point, then a friend drove in to where we were parked, he checking on the cattle. We spoke for a few minutes and for some reason I again brought up Alex, telling this fellow that Alex was in Afghanistan with his Special Forces team. For some reason I couldn’t get Alex out of my mind.
We returned home to a ringing telephone. Wade and I took the dogs out while Cecelia answered the phone. She stepped out the back door and said “Jesse needs to talk to you.”
At that time Jesse, my youngest son, was finishing his masters at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and even though Colorado is much safer than Norfolk, Virginia, where he did his undergraduate work, I still worried about him. Every parent I know that has kids away from home hates the telephone; since the telephone has brought every bit of bad news I’ve had to deal with in my life, every time it rings I go down the list of nightmare things that could happen. Since Jesse was on the phone I mentally scratched that one off the list, but his voice was broken and I could tell that something was terribly wrong. I told him “Just take a deep breath and tell me.” To his credit, and to my horror, he swallowed his tears and he did exactly that:
“Oh, Dad, Alex is alive but he is badly wounded. He was on a mission with his team and hit an IED. He’s lost an arm and a leg. He’s in the hospital in Kandahar and they’re working on him, I don’t know if he’s going to make it; that’s all I know right now.”
I held it tight until I looked into Wade’s eyes and saw his silent tears tracking down his cheeks, then I had to let it go, and he held me up and we poured out our sorrow to each other, sorrow for dreams shattered and the death of innocence and our guilt for not being the ones there to spare our boys this horror; guilt for not being able to hold Jesse in his anguish and Alex in his pain and the nightmare became reality. Cecelia cried for Alex’s mother and for all of the mothers that loved their sons and the three of us gathered together the pieces of our broken hearts and held them up for God to see.
It was Wade that saved me; it was he that took me by my shoulders and looked into my soul and brought me back to what a man should expect from himself:
“We are here for Alex now,” he told me. “We will bring him back!”,
and it was his selfless words I gave to Jesse with all the love I could send. We’ve got work to do, boys; it is for this moment that we are here.
That phone call was at 4:45 pm, on June 10, 2012.
Three days after we received word of Alex being wounded I was in bad shape. I needed help. So at daylight that third day I went to Buck Mountain and sat on the High Rock and had a conversation with God–and I asked Him, “How am I supposed to deal with this?”.
When I got home I sat down and wrote Alex a letter, and I called Jesse in Colorado and I told him I was sending this letter to him, and I would tell him when to send it to Alex, when I thought the time was right, and I was sending it to Jesse because at my age, one never knows when the roll will be called.
Alex’s hospital recovery and initial therapy will be covered later in this book, but three months after his wounding he was standing in my door. Over the next two months we had repeated visits from him, and we started working him back into bow hunting during those months of October and early November. I think what actually made him turn the corner was the fact that the fantastic progress he made on the flat, easy concrete of Walter Reed was a far cry from the terrain of Buck Mountain, and I watched him fall and get back up, again and again and again, during that time. As he was getting ready to leave with Emmy to head back to Bethesda after the last bow hunting trip in early November, standing at my kitchen door, he turned to me and with tears streaming down his cheeks said “Walt, I think I need more time on Buck Mountain.” At that point we all broke down, and holding him and crying together, I told him, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” After he left that evening, I called Jesse in Colorado and told him “You can send that letter I wrote to Alex now.”
This is what I wrote him:
On the north side of the spine of Buck Mountain, in the big timber just below the Buzzard Rock, there is a shelf of granite, a large stone overhang big enough to shelter a parked car, if one could get a car in there. I suspect that for thousands of years the ancient people that traveled the ridge-line knew of this overhang; while not perfect it makes a good camp, a place to get out of the rain and wind and cook a piece of meat, a place to rest on a hunt, to spend the night in security, and it would make a good base for looking the country over. You know that overhang well; you and your brothers Jesse and Wade have been there and you have even spent a night or two under it. It occurred to me that given what has happened to you it might be a good time to remind you of that high, quiet, beautiful place.
I don’t know what you remember about the 9th of June, 2012, but I am sure that your teammates will eventually give you their recollections of that terrible day. Part of me wishes with all my heart that you remember nothing about it but I know your heart and I know you will have to examine every aspect of what transpired. None of us know what lies beyond that next bend in the river and you have met with an unthinkable surprise; at this moment what is important is that you survive this horror: pure and simple, that you live. Hopefully you will not remember any of these first days and weeks of getting you out of the war zone and stabilized back in the states; teams of doctors are working with all their combined knowledge and skills to see that you do just that. If your consciousness does allow you glimpses of the activities around you I pray that you can concentrate on letting these people get you back among the living. This will be, unfortunately, the easiest part of your recovery.
Alex I am not a doctor or psychiatrist but it seems to me that once the haze of the drugs and pain medication subsides you will have to examine your situation and how it came to pass and you will have to see the horror of that moment; you will have to mourn the loss of your arm and leg and whatever other physical attributes you have lost and when it is appropriate put that mourning behind you. You will look back on photographs of your youth and your memories of tremendous physical prowess and weep for things gone and never to return. Only when you have done this, once and for all, can you start moving forward again. This new chapter of your life will be just as frustrating, just as heart-breaking, just as challenging and just as wonderfully rewarding as the one that came before. I know you Alex. I know what lies down there in the middle, in that secret place where you never let anyone else see; it is a burning coal of life and you have clung to it through your father’s death and all the insults of childhood and every other misery and pain you have endured. Through it all you have remained the pure, strong, honest and compassionate man I have known for so many years. I know as sure as the sunrise that this will never change and I also know with every fiber of my soul that you will astonish us all with what you eventually will accomplish.
I also know you to be stubborn and unyielding, willing to fistfight an anvil, when confronted with someone telling you that you can’t do something. This to me may be your most endearing quality; I have seen you do things that no one thought you could do. Watching you graduate and receive the Green Beret filled me with such pride; no one gave you anything but an opportunity and the rest was all you. That is the man that is on the inside and he was there before you ever dreamed of the Army and this has not changed, not one damn bit. Along with whatever you perceive to be your shortcomings I demand that you also fully recognize and acknowledge that you are an exceptional man; this will be hard, for someone as humble and unassuming as you, but I require it. You are allowed to be human and you are allowed to be proud and when the time comes you will acknowledge these things to me personally, face to face.
Now you are confronted with a situation that would crush most men. I will not make little of it, you’ve got a full plate of shit in front of you and somewhere along the line you will feel all the emotions that come with such devastating injuries. All of your challenges of youth have been mere hills compared to the mountains you have to climb now and on your back will be the weight of all the thoughts and fears of family and the pain and suffering and self-doubt. I have never known you to shrink from a challenge, never known you to do anything half-way, and I expect that you will face these new hurtles with that same determination and strength that have always been deep within you. This is why I now remind you of that shelf of granite under the Buzzard Rock.
Over the weeks and months to come, if you find that the frustration and pain take you to the breaking point, when your load seems too much to bear and you want to scream, I want you to step off of the trail for a night. I want you to gather some wood and lay down some pine boughs for a good bed and sit back against the stone and watch the fire, safe and warm and dry, and listen to the night Mountain sounds and the sounds that your sleeping companions make around you. I give you my permission to loosen your boot laces and lay down with your head on your pack and look up at the summer stars through the gaps in the leafy canopy; I want you to close your eyes and take a deep breath and feel Buck Mountain breathing under you. Here you can take the time to ease aching muscles and slake your thirst with cold spring water and give yourself a long, sweet night of restful sleep. If things are really bad on the trail I want you to take the time in this camp to repair your gear and explore a bit, maybe cook a piece of meat and share a laugh with Jesse and Wade; all you have to do is think of them and they will be right there. I will be there too; I will meet you there when you need me and I will watch over you while you sleep and when you have had your rest and the sun comes up you can get back on the trail and back to work, sure in the knowledge that this safe place is right there, near the center of your heart, always waiting for you.
You have given me the full measure of your love, this is everything I have to give back: you are not alone.
With respect and love
By coincidence National Geographic Television was filming their series Inside Combat Rescue in Afghanistan when Alex was wounded, and his actual rescue from the battlefield can be seen in Episode 1 of that series. The film can be seen on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prUCTIXNnAQ. The segment with Alex starts at approximately the 29:43 minute mark.
Alex, his wife Mary Elizabeth, his son Wyatt and daughter Eva now live in a wonderful smart home built for them by the Gary Sinise Foundation R.I.S.E program. Alex owns and operates Hooligan Charters (WWW.HOOLIGANCHARTERS.COM), an in-shore fishing operation in Destin, Florida. In October of 2018 I was honored to be his first guest on the maiden voyage of his new Crevalle boat.