My father spent his birthday in a cowboy hat, which felt right because he has always fancied himself a cowboy, despite New Jersey roots and never having roped steers or broken a wild horse. But spirit makes a cowboy. This one squinted against the wind, scouring the barren ridge. It was pocked with sagebrush and unoccupied prairie dog mounds, and he insisted it crested 250 yards away.
"It's one-and-a-half football fields," I argued. "Hundred and fifty."
It mattered because in rifle shooting inches matter, and when shooting at small things in a windstorm, they matter all the more. Beyond that, I was doing it with him, and when you do anything with your father, you want to do it well. Or at least as well as he does.
He reached for the range-finder. He handed it to me and, as if this were a carnival game involving marbles and a jar, I won when my estimate was closer.
"I measure things in 100-yard increments based on how far it is at the shooting range," he grumbled. "I haven't been around enough football fields to use football fields."
I can't be sure my 72-year-old father has ever been to a football field, which illustrates the chasm between him, a career Forest Service man, and me, a sports writer. I certainly never saw him attend a football game. But then, his life as I know it began when mine did, except for the stories he tells me, most of which deal with hunting and shooting.
Hunting was always his sport, not mine. I played basketball and baseball and soccer. While he didn't often play, my father seemed to find joy when I did. One year I gave him a big left-handed glove. That mitt still lives above the washing machine, next to cleaning supplies. It never got broken in.
In middle school, I came home one day and he'd purchased a basketball hoop. We pieced it together in the garage. I stood it up in our driveway and he went inside to watch through the window as I lowered the hoop to dunking-height and carefully dribbled on the gravel.
But it was when we went hunting or shooting or fishing that we truly ever did sports together. We never took vacations in the traditional sense. We went on hunting trips. When I was five, he bought a cabin in on Alaska's Kenai River, and we fished there for 10 summers. Later, we took bird hunting trips to Argentina.
So it was that we were in Wyoming, where the blowing wind enhanced our challenge that day. Several times it sent my own wide-brimmed hat tumbling away. No prairie dog, either trained to stay down by past hunters or also not fond of the wind, had raised his head to look across the plain for nearly two hours. This was unlike previous shooting trips with my dad, and certainly unlike stories you might hear of varmint hunters shooting hundreds of rounds in a day. Instead of the volume shooting my father expected, we sat and fidgeted, ate sandwiches and hoped something would emerge.
"For the first time," I told him, "this actually feels like hunting."
I imagined that this trip meant something extra to my father, because it did for me. He was 47 years old when I was born and he has always been self-conscious about his age. I never knew him with hair and for 15 years he's worn a bushy gray goatee. If a stranger called me his grandson, he would encourage me to correct them. I never thought of my Old Man as an old man, but he is getting there and the signs are undeniable: He needs a hip replacement but refuses to use the cane he keeps in the front seat of his truck; the elk hunts he used to do slithering on his belly with a bow on his back now are done by driving logging roads.
By the time I grew to appreciate elk and deer hunting trips around our home on the Oregon Coast, my father's own passion and ability had dwindled.
As a result, I've never successfully hunted anything bigger than a pigeon. On several hunting trips to Montana, before I left for college, we did our most significant bonding. It was on those long road adventures, that my father first stopped apologizing when he swore and that I boldly practiced my own colorful language.
I played basketball and the trumpet and liked theater, but when it was just us and the hunting and the trips to get there, I felt like I was repaying him for all of the games, recitals and plays.
After one particularly torturous trumpet recital at a Methodist church, my father wandered to the lobby. I broke off from a group of teenaged musicians. I told him to drive home safe. A friend of his was in town and they were elk hunting together in the morning. Some years earlier we had stopped hugging in favor of shaking hands. He grabbed mine and said, "If I ever had another son, I'd want him to be just like you."
I am not a father, but I suspect that some of the sweetest moments for dads are when sons and daughters find that the things that make them happy are the things that make their fathers happy. Then you have shared something. And to have shared something good with your children is to have found success as a parent, which is the only thing you can really strive to do.
Still, part of me will always worry that he really wanted me to be more like him. He has a sizable gun collection that, one day, with which one day I won't have any idea what to do. On some, I have no choice. Like with the custom-built Kimber .223 we have used to shoot prairie dogs, my father, who shoots lefty like me, says, "That's one to hold onto and maybe give to your son."
These are the things that worry him, although most things worry him. He worries that the government will eventually take away his prized gun collection; he worries about Ben Bernanke, QE3 and the worsening of the dollar. Even when I drive along desolate stretches of Wyoming highway, he tenses up. Therefore, I fear that he worries I'm not the best custodian for what will be a bulk of his collection or -- worse -- have found no reward in the very things that have made him happy through 72 years.
There's a rhythm to the way we travel. We stop only for gas and burgers, a going-to-get-there approach that I've adopted on all trips. We share driving duties, despite the inevitable tensing. And we argue over the radio. I want to listen to music, always. My father wants to listen to newsradio or, even better, nothing. On our most recent trip, I found the Outlaw Country station on satellite radio, and thought it was a compromise: My music -- Southern rock with smoke-and-whiskey lyrics -- and something he could tolerate.
One night, he complained about what he termed "hard metal." We had been listening to George Jones.
Finally, a Johnny Cash song came on the radio. My father has long told me stories about deer hunting in northern California when he was close to my age, riding in the back of a pickup truck with a car seat bolted to the side, his bow at the ready, while he and his friends drank beer. And listened to Johnny Cash.
As we drove across Wyoming, Cash finally took his turn on the radio station.
"Now," my father said, "this guy I like to hear sing. If he had a concert I'd go to it, but where he has concerts now I'm not ready to go."
He has always acknowledged his age and the inevitability of death to frustrating levels. Before our trips, he usually says some variant of, "We'll go ... If I'm still above ground." On this trip, something was different about the way he traveled.
He wanted to stop. First at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where Gen. George A. Custer and 262 members of the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry were killed in 1876. We pulled in, and my father told me about the guns the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians used.
"The picture they showed," my dad said, "they had Sharps. But I thought they had trap-door Springfields."
So on the way home, we stopped at the Shiloh Sharps factory in Big Timber, Montana, and he asked the people who make them. Turned out, his theory that the Indians had better guns than Custer's men was correct. In fact, Custer had turned down more advanced firearm technology, including the Gatling gun. If you have seen "The Outlaw Josey Wales' -- which my father and I have many times -- you understand the kind of difference that could have made.
In these moments, I came to realize that my father spent my entire life trying to share his love with me and I'd been resistant. Now, with who knows much time I have left to try to reclaim that connection. I only have regret, thin existing knowledge and the hope that there's time to make up for it.
I didn't even understand what caliber meant. I didn't know that it referred to the diameter of the bullet. I certainly didn't know that a .38 is actually .357 of an inch, or that a .357 Magnum is just a hair longer than a .38 Special, which is intended to protect anyone who is obtuse enough to load a too-long round into the wrong gun.
Each time I asked my father one of these questions, I did so sheepishly, but he said, "Don't be sorry ..." and proceeded to answer.
There was plenty of time for questions. It was the second day of our hunt that the wind nearly blew us off the prairie. I grew fidgety and began wondering if we might just return to the ranch where we could pour a drink and lament a lousy day.
"I suppose we have two options," Dad said finally, looking back at me. "We can go back to the ranch, or we can continue to sit outside and look at Wyoming."
And that's what we did. And we casually watched the ridge until, finally, I spotted a prairie dog grazing near its hole. I scrambled into the bed of the truck and pressed my cheek to the rifle's stock. I found the prairie dog through the scope and, without moving my head asked, "How far do you suppose that is?"
-- Bill Oram is a sports reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune. Follow him on Twitter: @oramb.