Chapter 1 ~ Introduction To The Renaissance Redneck Writer
I grew up in south central Kansas in a town named Kingman where I spent every minute of the summer on a golf course, every day of winter armed while scouring the wilderness, and every day of school trying to figure out how to accomplish everything during school hours so I could avoid homework at all costs. The house next to mine had been abandoned since the dawn of time according to my memories. Turns out it was only vacant a few years, but when the Walkers moved in next door when I was 6, I wouldn’t have known the difference between years and centuries. All I remember is looking out over the chain linked fence in my back yard and seeing grass taller than me falling in lines in the distance. The next day when I came back out to my back yard, the yard next door was mowed and in my yard sat a hundred golf balls, a dozen tennis balls, multiple Frisbees, a football, and miscellaneous other things. I had treated that fence like the edge of a deep woods where whatever went in never came back out. Much to my now neighbors’ dismay I’m sure. We were off to a good start.
Byron Walker proved to be one of three key figures in my life. His values rivaled those of any man I’ve met. I never once in the 25 years I knew him saw him disparage another person and his respect for wildlife and nature is unrivaled to this day. Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett would have asked Byron for advice on how to respect the land. He had just retired after serving 50 years as the wildlife and parks officer for Kingman County, where the wildlife refuge still bears his name today. He taught me to carve, woodwork, identify and count birds for the Audubon Society, and imparted as much patience as he could unto me.
I was in every sense the child Dennis the Menace was based upon. I was a straw blonde kid with more freckles than plain skin that found everything Byron did to be the most interesting thing in the world. He sat on his porch and carved every day turning blocks of wood into beautiful ducks of every species. He built incredible woodworking pieces within the shop he had erected himself from the ground up.
Pretty much the day after the Walkers moved in I started the daily onslaught at the edge of my fence shouting over at him asking whatever question floated through my mind until my parents noticed me bothering him and came to distract me with some other task or activity. Byron was taking a plain yard and turning it into a nature mecca. Which meant that if he was going to continue to do so, he’d be accessible to my annoyance from now until whenever he finished his back yard (which turned out to be 15 years later I’d guess).
He was incredibly patient. He’d get annoyed every now and then when I’d play 50 questions instead of 20 questions that day, but even though he might show it a little occasionally with a look or delayed answer, he never once mentioned it. I was a determined little shit. Pretty much from the first time I saw him carving I kept asking him if he’d teach me how and let me try. From day one until day 75 or 80 his answer remained firm. “It’s dangerous and you’ll have to get your parents’ permission as I don’t want to be responsible for you hurting yourself.” Finally I wore them both down, the parents said if he really didn’t mind me bugging him all the time that I could, and he finally believed me maybe the tenth time I told him they said it was ok.
He handed me a spare Case brand knife and had me watch carefully as he explained how to curl the blade as you pressed forward. He handed me a small shore bird blank (a block-ish body and head of a bird waiting to be shaped) that was a spotted sandpiper. It took me two minutes to cut myself and have to go home. A couple days of healing later, and one cut wiser…. I sat back down next to him to try again. I was paying close attention to where I put my fingers and keeping the blade away from them. It was a couple more days later I cut the leg I was using to brace the bird against so I could hold it steady… but my fingers got out Scott free… I was learning.
I perceived Byron’s wife, June, to have a different view of Tim Helm and what he represented to the Walker family. I think she saw me as a fairly incessant child who could be called a pleasant distraction at times, but primarily was a vortex of unproductivity that would cause her husband’s projects to drag out and her project deadlines to be elongated. In the first 6 months I was getting to know them, she was noticeably more distant and shorter in conversation than Byron. And if I came over and he wasn’t there it was a very short conversation explaining he wasn’t there and I’d have to come back some other time. Within a year though we had figured each other out.
When I’d come over and Byron would give me something to do I wasn’t distracting at all. Hell I could even help out with manual labor at times and provide company to Byron when June was up to other things inside or downtown. Apart from me being a bit relentless as most little kids are, I was always attempting to be respectful, and that I think won her over once Byron figured out how to keep me busy. I stopped opening the gate myself and started asking before I’d come over… Please and thank you and “how can I help” were always toward the front of my conversations. After their first year as my neighbors, June enjoyed having me around as much as Byron did.
Byron and June had a handful of grandchildren, and all of them lived a distance away from the Walker’s home. Byron treated me just like one of them, but I got the benefit of his undivided attention almost daily. I could wear my parents and grandparents out on activities and attention and still have someone else to give me undivided attention. I had it made.
Byron built bird feeders, bird baths, squirrel feeders, bird houses, and every attractant a nature enthusiast had ever heard of. June planted every type of flower that could/would survive in our region and their yard was something painters would envy. The Walkers were certified counters for the Audobon Bird Society, helping track what species showed up in what season, etc. As we carved each day Byron and June raised their heads as birds fluttered by and made note of all species they saw each day and all the while teaching me how to identify them etc.
As I grew so did my abilities and ridiculous thoughts. By highschool I had decided I would catch a squirrel in Byron’s back yard bare handed. I tried many theories, failed many times, and finally came up with a somewhat brilliant plan. Where we sat carving, there was a clear view of the feeder that Byron always placed two whole ears of corn and the squirrels came to each day. This feeder was on the side of a three foot wide walnut tree. And the shed Byron built was maybe 10 feet away from that tree. I figured out if I would just sit there and carve until the squirrel turned away from us for a second, I could jet out to where the shed covered my line of sight, and then get on the opposite side of the tree and sneak my way up to where I stood directly on the other side of a three-foot-wide tree undetected (sometimes).
The first few times I blew my cover well before I got to a tree, but finally once I got my fingers on the tail of one. Byron always watched as I got closer and closer curious if the crazy kid would ever get one. When he realized I was getting closer, he handed me a thick leather glove. He said if I was going to ever catch one I’d need it because of their impressively sharp teeth. It wasn’t but a few days until I found out exactly what he meant.
It started like many a sneak attempt had before it. Up from my carving chair quietly and quickly to get to the shed. A speedy rounding of the shed and a deft approach of the tree. Back first slide up the tree to a full stance, plant the back foot, and launch yourself in a jump while wrapping your arm around the tree and grabbing as firmly as you could. This was an adult male squirrel, likely the biggest one of the 20 that frequented the back yard. Holy shit, I got him! I had grabbed him square in the middle of his body and had a grip on him that most grown men would have been impressed with. He was kicking feverishly, but that was no worry… I’d hunted lots of animals and new a steady and firm grip and he couldn’t do anything to really damage me. I held him up proudly and took my eyes off of him to scream back to Mr. Walker… “Look, I got one, I really got one!”.
I hadn’t completed my exuberant sentence before I felt like my index finger was getting more attention from the squirrel than my other fingers. I hadn’t been holding the demon spawn for more than five seconds when I looked back at him to realize that although his feet couldn’t do anything to me the way I had him held, the little bastard had already chewed the tip of my glove’s index finger off and had no intentions of stopping there… I don’t know if he ever dreamt of being a flying squirrel, but he became one instantaneously. He landed no worse for his wear and took off up a tree at a pace I’m guessing no squirrel has matched to this day. I never once planned past “grab the squirrel and hold on for dear life”. Hind sight being 20/20, having a container or adjusting one’s grip or something could have been added into the plan for future bare handed squirrel hunting enthusiasts.
My father was a teacher and an inventor. From a young age I idolized him like most sons do their fathers and I followed him around wanting to do anything he was doing. It was a match made in heaven as I was a bit of a golf prodigy as a child and that was one of his favorite sports. I loved hunting and that is how he spent his winters. I loved building anything/everything and he taught welding and metalworks as part of Ag Science Tech at our high school. He was a hard worker, great problem solver, and a man who liked to help and teach others.
By age 6 I had placed 3rd in a golf tournament for 11-and-under kids, and won one of them at age 7 for the first time while competing against 10 and 11 year olds. I was helping build and paint tree stands by age 10 and hunting by my father’s side 24/7 by the time I was 6. His interests were mine and he made sure he spent the time with me to teach me anything I inquired about. At every turn he put me in a place to gain knowledge, skills, confidence, and abilities.
My grandfather was the patriarch of our family farm and of the entire community in Penalosa, Kansas. Where he had raised my father, 2 other boys, and a daughter that everyone including him called Sis. He was a child through the great depression, and a farmer the entirety of his existence. Until age 19, when I spent my first full summer working on the farm, he was a friendly but stern man that would take time out for me when he had a chance etc. At age 19, I got to see the hardened man that was first-hand taught the lessons nature elected to deal, the hardship of living off the land, and gathered a lifetimes worth of rules he lived by.
As a grandchild, I had associated him to birthday parties and Christmas time. After all, the majority of the time I saw him would be family events as he spent every other waking moment on the farm and I lived in the small town 15 minutes away. Within a week of starting to actually work on the farm it became clear that this was his universe. At the time you mistake it for a man wanting domain over his world, but you realize later that he simply wanted to keep you from the dangers his world provided. He had lost a finger to a cleanout drain in an auger, stared down at a leg that was lying 90 degrees in a direction legs don’t go, watched the aftermath of a son falling into a silage grinder, many siblings pass before their time, and how 3 weeks without rain can crush your financial status for multiple years. He was hard, he was unreasonable, his words were sharp, and all because of what he knew and I didn’t.
A man would be lucky to have any of these people in his life to learn from, I had all three. And the most applicable and profound of their life’s learnings are in this book as well as handfuls of the experiences I shared with them. They were all very different, but shared a few things. They wanted only things they had earned, they were willing to work as hard as they could at anything they did, and they all had a confidence that was enviable. None of them wanted to tell you how much better they were than the next person, or about their most impressive accomplishments… but if you placed a challenge in front of them they all wore the same wry smile that with no words told whomever saw it that they were about to crush whatever it was they had their mind set on.