by Alan Caldwell
I was fifteen years old when I first met Wade. I had heard stories about him for many years before I met him. They told tall tales about Wade around November campfires, the way earlier men told tales about Daniel Boone or Mike Fink. I have always loved stories about such men. I collect those stories the way others collect stamps or coins.
In 1968, Wade had stood fast in that humid, drenched, provincial capital as the Viet Cong crossed the Perfume River and tried to flank the Republican Army’s position. Sometimes, if the wind were right, they said Wade could still detect the burnt nylon and brimstone smell of war. They said he later escaped from a POW camp, killing a guard and a guard dog along the way. They said he never stopped watching and listening for his enemies.
Wade had stood alongside, and even carried, dozens of coffins, some flag-draped, others not: parents, aunts, uncles, a still-born son, and his wife of five years, the only amelioration he brought home from Southeast Asia. When she died, after the Agent Orange malignancy took its time consuming her lungs, Wade sold most of what he owned, retaining only the most necessary impedimenta of living. He bought 180 acres of rolling hills in rural Georgia, adjacent to another 5,000 acres of virtually inaccessible Georgia Pacific timber company property. He then purchased, and restored, a 24-foot Country Squire camper and set up housekeeping in a small clearing near a small spring that flowed endlessly, even in the driest of Septembers. Wade made the long journey to town about once a month to buy a few items, mostly canned goods, to augment his diet of venison, wild pork, rabbits, squirrels and fire-baked bread.
He visited our South Georgia club that cold, damp, November Friday afternoon in 1983 to hunt with us for a few days. He drove a World War Two II-era Willys Jeep, a top but no sides and a really cool PTO winch. When he stepped out of that sardine can with wheels, I knew the stories I had heard were true. He wasn’t a tall man. He was built in blocks and chunks, his deltoids like cannon balls, his forearms like hirsute hams. They said he could support a TH350 Chevrolet transmission in one hand and start the bolts with the other. I tried it once. Don’t bother.
He shook my hand and introduced himself, chatted with the others for a few minutes, then went to his Jeep to get ready to go hunting. He pulled on a large olive-drab military coat and then a framed backpack. He unzipped his rifle case and produced a beautiful M1 Garand. He slung the rifle over his right shoulder and started down an old logging road headed for the backwoods, a distant and grey dissolution of an almost impenetrable tangle of slash pine, turkey oak, saw-briar, and perpetually wet soil. Not long before dark, I heard a distant shot in the general direction Wade went.
When I got back to the camp, the men were gathered around the fire, some in chairs and some squatting.
I asked, “I think that was Wade that shot. Are we gonna go help him?”
They all laughed, but no one answered.
We didn’t go help Wade. We ate our grilled burgers and then went to our respective campers and tents and went to sleep. I awoke a few hours later to the sound of a steady rain. Surely Wade had returned before the rain began.
He hadn’t returned. In fact, he didn’t return the next morning, even after the rain had turned to light snow. We were packing up getting ready to head back north on Sunday afternoon, when we saw Wade coming right back up the trail he went down forty-eight hours before, a back burdened with wrapped venison, and a pair of severed antlers dangling by his side.
I lost track of Wade for many years. I later heard that the cancer took him sometime around the turn of the century. I guess some enemies you can’t hear coming. I still tell stories about Wade around November campfires.