A Tribute to a Dear Friend

David and I were the new kids in class. Fifth grade. We were both 10 years old. My family was in the process of building a house near that school, so I rode my bike a mile each way until the house was done. After we moved it was a 10-minute walk. 

David Paul Tarver (we always called him David, but his family called him Paul) had moved to my home town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, from the North Louisiana town of Bastrop. Pretty much everyone else in the fifth-grade class had gone to school together for the previous four years, so the new kids found each other. I knew one family in Bastrop, the Blanchards. Turned out that Jeb Blanchard, my friend, was David's best friend there. Incredible coincidence. More than enough start a friendship.

David hunted and fished. So did I. In Bastrop, a teacher had admonished him for telling tall tales about shooting an owl (might not have been legal then, but it was common and accepted). The teacher didn't put up with lying. The next day David's father came to school to set the record straight. Young David had, in fact, shot an owl. At the time, everyone thought that was good for wildlife. 

David and I had adventures. After I moved, we lived on the same street. A 10-minute walk or a three-minute bike ride apart. My back yard was a lake that looked like a river -- 100 yards wide and 35 miles long. It lured us daily.

I favored the Ambassadeur 5000 baitcasting reel for fishing. David used the Mitchell 300 spin-casting reel. There were always a couple of flat-bottom John boats pulled up on the bank behind my house so fishing was just a matter of walking down the hill and shoving off. Bass. There were bluegills in Cane River, but we mostly ignored them. We did, on occasion, run a trotline and catch catfish. 

We also learned to use slingshots on snakes, slipping up on them in the boat as they sunned on tree limbs.

It may not have been Mayberry, but ... Well, maybe it was Mayberry after all.

For both of us, I think, the formation of who we would become as men was a combination of family (my memories tomof David's home was a father who taught him to hunt and fish and be good, a mother who was a great cook and always welcomed us kids, and siblings who would squabble but always rallied to support each other), scouting, and the outdoors. We went to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts meetings weekly, went on camping trips, to summer camp at Camp Yatasee, and we worked on merit badges. Well, I kinda did, but David hammered them out, working his way to Eagle Scout.

At that formative age, reciting the Scout Pledge weekly stuck with me, and I'm sure it did with David. 

On my honor, I will do my best 
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; 
To help other people at all times; 
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight. 

The Scout Law:

A Scout is:

and Reverent.

It may sound corny today, but it was part of who we became.

From David's house, we could go out the back door and walk a half-mile with our shotguns on our shoulders, and begin hunting. Sometimes we rode our bikes. I used my mother's Winchester model 12 20-gauge pump, while David loved his Browning autoloader in 16 gauge. Known as the Sweet 16, that hump-backed automatic was lightning in his hands. Just two young boys, with guns, too young to drive, walking around without any adults. Nothing unusual about it at all. No one even took any notice.

We water skied throughout the summers. My father let us use the boat, but we had to buy gas. So, we would mow lawns in the morning to get money, then burn it up in the afternoons on the water. We also picked up pecans, filling paper grocery sacks and selling them at the L.H. Johnson Wholesale company. 

Spring was frogging time. In many southern states, frogging means gigging. A sharp metal trident on the end of a pole. Slip up on a frog and stick it. For some reason, Louisiana didn't allow gigging -- you couldn't break the skin. So, we had a spring-loaded frog grabber on a pole. Interesting, but unreliable. We preferred hands.

You get frogs at night. Two boys still not old enough to drive, in a metal John boat, with a 7.5 horsepower Johnson outboard, on the lake at night. What could go wrong, right? One of us would sit on the front seat of the boat holding a flashlight while the other operated the outboard on the other end. In the flashlight's beam, you can see the reflection of a frog's eyes as it sits on the bank, and we would ease the bow up to where the "grabber" could, in fact, reach out and grab the frog. It then went into a burlap bag -- a "croaker sack. A full sack of big bullfrogs made for a great meal.

Of course, at night, until you got really close, it was hard to tell the difference between the eyes of a bullfrog and those of a cottonmouth. I do recall a time or two when it took a nanosecond for David to join me on the rear seat of the boat.  

The boat we most often used was old. And it leaked. Not a lot, but it was a steady leak. Not a big deal, really. When the water got above the tops of your feet, the boat got a bit sluggish, and it didn't turn as well.  If you are running down "the river," you would just pull out the drain plug while moving and the water would run out. At night, though, we crept along the shoreline, so we couldn't let the water out the drain hole. Back then, there were no retaining walls along the shore. We would just run the boat onto shore (often someone's back yard), get out, pull the boat completely onto land, and tip it over to pour out the water. Shove it back in and keep frogging until the water got so deep we had to repeat the process. It made for a fun evening, to be sure.

We discovered archery and started bow fishing. Using a solid fiberglass arrow attached to strong fishing line, we would shoot carp and other fish. Great fun. For some reason, we decided to take the bow fishing rig out at night to look for nutria. A prime example of an invasive species, this 25-pound rat is just flat out ugly. We found one, and it was my turn to shoot. David held the light on the swimming vermin while I shot. I connected, but barely. The arrow went through the hide on his back, and now I'm connected to a monster rodent with big teeth and an understandably bad attitude. I'm pulling it toward our little aluminum boat knowing I don't want it inside the boat. It's thrashing around, and David is yelling encouragement and warnings. Not to worry. We had planned ahead. Sort of. We also had a small souvenir baseball bat -- about 18 inches long. I pulled the nutria to the side of the boat, and David commenced to whomping on it with that little bat. I can only imagine what that flurry of water spraying, yelling, and flailing would have looked like to someone else, but fortunately, we were on an isolated part of the river, and the darkness cloaked another epic adventure.

Once we could drive (at age 15 at that time) the universe for our explorations knew no limits. We bought a gross (144) of cedar arrow shafts, cut them to length, painted them by dipping into an electric conduit (pipe) filled with paint, glued on the nocks and feathers, and trimmed the fletching. Arrow points were expensive, though, but we discovered that the empty brass case from a .38 Special revolver round was perfect as a "blunt." We had a lot of brass since we shot guns a lot. A side note: Part of our charmed lives was that Dad (Grits Gresham) was an outdoor writer who wrote for the major sporting magazines like Sports Afield, Field & Stream, and Outdoor Life. We always had fishing gear and guns available.).

It was 1964 or '65. We had never seen a posted or "No Trespassing" sign. You could go onto any piece of land to hunt. And we did. Feeling pretty cocky, we took our bows and our cedar shaft, .38 Special tipped arrows, got in my parent's car, and took off in search of ... crows. The Johnny Stewart company had sent my Dad an electronic crow caller. Well, calling it "electronic" is a stretch. It was a battery-powered record player with a big, metal speaker attached by a long cable. We had 45RPM records of crow calls. Sure, we also had mouth-blown calls, but no other boys had the electric call, so we had to use that.

Having tested out this system with our shotguns, and having taken a fair number of crows, we embarked on the great archery crow hunt. Understand that this involves calling in crows and shooting (at) them as they fly past. Challenging with a shotgun. With bow and arrow? What did we care? For a brief time, we used "flu flu" arrows. Basically, leaving the fletching (feathers) untrimmed so that the arrows would slow quickly in flight, fall to the ground, and we could retrieve them. That didn't last long. The crows stayed high, and the flu flu arrows slowed down too quickly. Hence making our own arrows. We even stopped painting them, knowing they were good for only one shot. In the woods, when you shoot an arrow at a flying crow, you aren't going to find it. We didn't even look. Heck, we had a GROSS of arrows.  

We drove the back roads all over North Louisiana, getting lost (pre-GPS), stopping every few miles to walk into the woods to call. We called. They came. We shot. We moved. I don't remember either one of us ever hitting a crow. But it was grand! Two 15-year olds gone for the day, without phones, just exploring. 

David and I played football through junior high and high school. When I discovered I could make real money playing in a band on Friday nights, I dropped out of football. Just as well, because I was so nearsighted that the only position I could play was center, and I was not good at that.

I dated a beautiful girl who lived "in the country" south of town. We liked each other, but nothing more than that. After we stopped dating, David asked Debra out, and the connection was immediate. They eventually married, had children and grandchildren. 

I went to college out of state, got married, moved all over the country, and lost contact with David Paul. Every few years we would connect.

This week he lost his battle with brain cancer.

I wish I had kept in closer contact with David. He moved to Florida, was wildly successful, mentored many coworkers, raised a family of good people, and he leaves the world a better place.

For me, I'll always remember the adventures on the water, riding bicycles with our shotguns on our shoulders, camping, fishing, hunting, roughhousing, and laughing.

Hug your kids. Tell them the stories. Call your old friends.

Hey, David. Save me a seat in the boat. I'll bring the croaker sack. ~ Tom

Tom Gresham
Author, outdoorsman, gun rights activist, and firearms enthusiast for more than five decades, Tom Gresham hosts Tom Gresham's Gun Talk, the first nationally-syndicated radio show about guns and the shooting sports, and is also the producer and co-host of the Guns & Gear, GunVenture and First Person Defender television series.