Jan/Feb 2015 Nonfiction

The First of December

by Sam Mills

Image courtesty of the British Library's Photostream

Now the first of December was covered with snow.
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frostin'
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go...

         —James Taylor

I was reading War and Peace that fall of '64, and my father woke me from a dream that the Russians were invading Atlanta, Georgia. I was glad to see him.

"Four thirty, sleepy head." He was crouched by my bed, breath fragrant of coffee.

"Khrushchev says he won't come down."

"What's that?"

"He says the bomb is in Charlotte."

My father smiled. In the darkness his gold canine looked a gap: a pirate in pj's. "Shake a leg. Be light soon." He stood with a groan, and his knee popped. "Looks like snow afterwhile." His face was a moon now, caught in the hall light. "Weatherman says. Off to the west."


Opening-day breakfast was a token affair, done more to keep my mother in bed than for any nutritional purposes. More often than not it was leftovers from the night before. (I had long ago learned to avoid my father's lumpy grits and runny eggs.) That morning, as I gulped down cold macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, butter beans on rice, and cornbread with apple butter, he prepared the twin chrome thermoses of coffee with cream and chicken-noodle soup I would take into the woods with me.

While I ate, we went over our "game plan." I would hunt Mills River to its headwaters. I would stillhunt in along the old logging roads and narrow gauge railroad the timbermen had built. They followed the river back to the base of Fletcher Mountain where it made up in a deep, spring fed tarn. There was a saddle in the mountain there, and watching the saddle was good opening day strategy when the first shooting drove the bucks back through the hills to their beds atop the ivy bluffs. I would stillhunt in, then take a stand in the saddle and eat lunch. It was deep in the big woods heart of Pisgah National Forest, and I would need to start out no later than three.

"They always take the path of least resistance," my father said. He wrapped a second meatloaf sandwich in waxed paper and put it in the army surplus knapsack. "'Specially when they're pushed or wounded."

"Yes, sir."

"So get up against an old big hickory or spruce. Scuff you out a spot so's your feet'll be quiet. Then just stay put. Something'll be by directly. You remember your watch?"

"Yes, sir."

"Toilet paper?"

"Yes, sir."


I was on the interstate with my thumb out by six. It was when and where a farmer might pick up a hitchhiker, if it was November or thereabouts and the hitcher had a gun. They were headed for the pulp mills west in the high mountains and did little talking. I-40 was a magical tunnel then that took you west to real elevations; to mixed coniferous hardwoods without a blade of undergrowth and rifles with telescopic sights. Those frigid predawns still seem enchanted journeys through a cavern of headlight whitened firs and frost-flowers abloom on red-clay embankments. The National Forest was 30 minutes by Interstate, and if you were thumbing before daylight, it took you two rides, both of them first shift with coffee still on their breath. A woman sometimes, though never very young. The stories you heard weren't true.

On this particular morning my farmer was a hunter himself. He was older, maybe 60, and like those older who still hunted, cared nothing for high powered rifles or for killing the things they killed. He was a bird hunter, and the gun that was racked across the rear window of the pickup—I saw in the interior light as I climbed aboard—was a fine Ithaca double barrel. (There was a carpenter's level and an umbrella in the other racks and a GOLDWATER FOR PRESIDENT! decal on the glass.) The shotgun looked beat up even in the lights of occasional cars and was 12 or 16 gauge. He'd bought it off a boy in the Service, he told me, back when guns was plentiful. That would have been '43 or thereabouts. He'd give $25 and a Luger pistol for it. Recently, he'd priced the shotgun in The Shooter's Bible.

"Two hundred and a quarter," he said, lighting his pipe one handed with a big kitchen match, filling the dark interior with firelight. He pulled deeply on the pipe, flattening the flame, and it made him cough. "New. Now, I'll warrant you, she was a long ways from new then." He dimmed his lights for an oncoming car, then blew the horn as it passed. "Much less now."

"He's up early," I said, making conversation.

"Won't be up long. 'At's A.C. Martin, nightwatchman at the paper mill."

"He's off early."

"Nah, security's on a different shift." With the pipe clamped between his teeth, his words seemed grim. "They don't like their guards to change shift same time as the workers. They like some overlap."

He showed how this worked by shingling his hands on the rim of the steering wheel. We were going about 60, though it seemed much faster in the pickup.

"'Course, I see now where I may uh got took."

"'Scuse me?"

"I say, I see now where some Lugers go fer up'ards of a thousand dollars." He looked at my rifle. "I took it off a Nazi captain." He pronounced Nazi to rhyme with snazzy.

"Was he live or dead?"

He chuckled. "I'm 'fraid you didn't take 'em off live ones. Leastways, not till right at the end. '44, that'd be. '45. 'Course, I was outta it by then."

"How's that?"

"I was wounded."


"Oh, bad enough, I reckon." The matchbox was on the dashboard, red white and blue like the GOLDWATER decal. He shook it before handing it to me. "Go ahead," he smiled. "Strike her up."

The match flared blue, then burned with a steady yellow flame. With a final look at the road, the old man turned to face me. On the left side, where there should have been face, jawbone and cheekbone and ear, the whole side had been scooped away. The heavy scar tissue gave it the look of molten wax, like he was an unfinished figure in a wax museum, or one that had gotten too close to the fire.

Then, quick as you'd slap a fly, he popped out his left eye and handed it to me.

I jumped, yelling, and dropped the match. It landed between my thighs, and yelling, I beat it out and brushed it into the floorboards. The eye had landed on the seat between us, and now, looking down, I saw it staring up at me, clear blue, the eye of a young man.

I looked back at the road. My heart was pounding so hard I felt it in my temples. The smell of burning cloth filled the cab.

And he rocked with laughter! "Did I skeer ya? Huh? Did I skeer ya? Say! My two granddaughters, they love that one!" He laughed so hard the seat shook. "'Grampa, show us yer eye!' they say. 'Grampa, show us yer eye!'"

He laughed on and on in a spasm of coughing that fogged the windshield. We had slowed to 40 on the empty Interstate. I kept my eyes on the road. The eye trick had made me a little nauseous. Thick saliva filled my mouth, and I swallowed again and again to keep down a rising gorge of apple butter and cinnamon heartburn.

Finally, when his laughter had subsided to chuckles, he looked over at my rifle. "I wouldn't suppose that was loaded?"

"No, sir."

"You never know."

I opened the action and moved the barrel to my right shoulder. It was a 6.5 Italian Carcano I'd gotten from the army surplus bin at Goldstein's Sporting Goods. It had cost me $12 and a promise to call Karen Goldstein. The Carcano was the gun Oswald had used, and though I loved JFK, that fact made me absurdly proud. You would have to be a hunter to understand this.

"You look to have due respect for firearms," he said, nodding, puffing, smiling. He was looking at his shotgun in the rearview mirror. "Yes, siree, a Kraut captain."

He and his wife had spent one spring in Germany. '61, that'd be. He said Germany looked a lot like Kentucky.


I loved walking the old mossed over logging roads. It was why I could never kill one; I couldn't sit still. Every turn brought you something new. Here, a small stream—though large enough at its riffles to support trout—left the forest and flowed down the road like a centerline. After a hundred yards, it veered off the mountain in a single postcard leap into Mills River below. (Even this near the stream, I could hear the white water of the big river.)

Hunting along, I wondered again at the total mileage of all the old roads. It seemed near the total mileage of all the roads in the state. They were all ages. Some were so new you could still see the bulldozer tracks. These had clay roadbeds and were good for tracking. Others like this one were old and mossy and seemed little more than narrow terraces with footpaths worn through the middle. Sometimes on these you found old singletrees and the rusty hoops of broken wagon wheels.

They were all out of use now; out of use to the sawmillers, that is. You had to have them to hunt with. From October on, they were littered with shotgun shells in all the primary colors—Remington reds and greens; Winchester Western yellows and blues—and with the sudden brass of high powered rifles. I knew them all; I knew all the intersections where it was good to put your fox sets because foxes used the roads, too.

With the first snow, the logging roads became like another world. Another world, and newer. The square roadbeds were newly paved, freshly glazed, between drifted curbstones. And when it iced up, the bare winter hardwoods acquired a fairytale foliage overnight. Hunting along them then was like walking through a series of great jeweled rooms, skylit, shimmering in the noontide, the limbs clattering above you like cheap wind chimes. Sometimes in ice storms, the limbs broke and lay in the roads in shattered piles like broken chandeliers on the floors of crystal ballrooms.

The fate of the logging roads always seemed to me an encouraging setback for civilization, and each abandoned road I hunted helped establish this as a trend in my mind.

By nine, I was in the shadow of Fletcher Mountain. I walked the old railroad now, winded, my breath showing like something from the Age of Steam. The rails had been taken up when the sawmill was abandoned, and the mossy railbed was rutted where the crossties had rotted out. In places, the spikes were still standing. Old log skids fed down to the railbed on both sides like tributaries, deeply gullied now and cut to the dewclaws with fresh deer tracks.

The lake was in sight, frozen in the middle, the shorewater glittering darkly through the winter trees, when I saw the first deer, a doe, pawing in a grove of beeches below the road. She wheeled with a snort and bounded away, waving. With the gun up, I watched her veer through the metallic-looking trees. Long after she was out of sight, I could still see her tail flickering through the sunny woods.


On top of the mountain, I took a stand against a big spruce overlooking the lake, just under the ridgeline to break my silhouette. The saddle was to my right. Though it was the mountain's southern exposure, there was still snow in patches under the biggest spruce. I poured out the red cups of soup and coffee, and they smoked in the icy air. I watched as the steam blew by me up the mountain. The wind was right. I settled in.

The red wool coat grew warm in the sun and smelled of woodsmoke. As I leaned against the tree, I realized I liked the woods better in winter with no snakes out. Faraway, off toward the checking station, the gunfire was constant as on a rifle range. The wind moved around, and the gunfire popped or roared depending on whether it was upwind or down. I could make out the boom of shotguns and the crack of high powered rifles.

Around noon, I heard a burst of five shots much nearer. Then it quieted, and the squirrels came back out and began to feed. A pileated woodpecker the size of a grouse lit in a dead chestnut nearby. I watched his red-crested head hammering away, his movement as mechanical as a shuttle. Little chips flew with industrial precision.

I heard the deer first, faraway, coming at a gallop. On the frozen ground, it sounded like a horse in a Western movie. I rolled forward onto one knee, the safety off, the gun up, and saw it flashing through the sun struck woods, running with its tail up. My father was right: the deer was coming straight for the saddle.

It was a big doe, and I watched her all the way through the saddle. She galloped by so close I could almost have tripped her with the gun barrel. She winded me after she was past and changed directions as abruptly as if she had hit a chain link fence, bounding away up the steep saddle wall in long effortless leaps, snorting, white flag waving.

When she had disappeared over the mountaintop, I stood up, still shaking, and stretched. I heard a twig snap behind me and looked around the spruce.

The buck was standing broadside out in the open like he was posing for the Winchester Arms calendar—and only an artist could have imagined those antlers.

Imperceptibly, I began to raise the rifle. There was a big hickory about 20 feet to the side of him, and in a single legless leap, he was behind it. I froze, holding my breath, the gun halfway to my shoulder, the safety off, shaking like a dog passing peach seeds.

I waited five minutes, a red plaid statue, motionless as the mannequin in Goldstein's front window. Then, a step at a time, slowly putting my feet down heel to toe, I walked up to the tree.

The deer was gone, vanished.

Running, I angled along the mountainside to circle the knob, the "pommel" of the saddle. There was his trail going around and up, scuff marks in the leaves so faint you could only see them from a distance, glistening where the sun struck frost was melting.

Knowing now that he was circling the knob to gain the mountaintop, I reversed direction and giant strode across the saddle, up the steep side wall, heart hammering, breath chuffing, and high atop the mountain glimpsed him again, 50 yards away across the windswept clearing, head back, neck swollen with the rut, eyes walled around my way white with fear, those great antlers, bleached skull white by the slatting winter sun, held back tight against his withers.

With the gun up, I watched his sun-dappled grey winter coat dissolve in a stand of silver beeches. My heart pounded; ague stricken, and winded from the climb, I gasped in the cold mountain air.

I sat down then and leaned back against a tree. My hands shook as I opened the candy bar. Twelve points; maybe fourteen. Overhead, a squirrel began to feed, and I sat, shaking, in a gentle rain of hickory nut shellings.


The white Mercedes left four black marks coming to a stop a hundred feet up the Interstate. The horn blew, and the backup lights came on, and I ran toward the car, the empty thermos jugs banging together in my knapsack.

The car was a four door model, and I put my pack and gun on the back seat and climbed aboard. Though I had come out early, the Mercedes had been the only car by for an hour. In the gathering dusk, in an inch of new snow, I was frozen to the marrow, and inside, the heater was going full-blast. At the time, I was still a virgin, and that heater was the best thing I'd ever felt.

"Where ya headed, man?"

At first, I thought he was a woman. I had never seen a man with long hair before. His blond locks fell below his shoulders, and the pageboy haircut was held back with a beaded headband. He had on a cutaway waistcoat of blue silk with lacy frills at the cuffs like English cavaliers wore in the olden days. It was over a yellow teeshirt that said, HIGHWAY 61. His glasses were small, rimless squares like Ben Franklin's, but these lenses were orange. And he was old, too, at least thirty.

"So, where to, man?"

"Asheville, I reckon." I couldn't take my eyes off of him.

"Am I going in the right direction?"

I forced myself to look at the road. "Yes, sir."

"'Yes, sir,'" he said and saluted.

There was a strange smell in the car, a sulfurous smell like burning rope. The radio was on, The Beatles singing "Please Please Me." Looking back, I saw a guitar case on the back seat and a chrome clothes bar across it, one of those spring loaded kind that ran between the coathanger hooks on either side. There were a couple of coats on the bar like the one he wore and a lot of empty hangers. On the seat, there was also a jar of peanut butter, a jar of grape jelly, and a loaf of bread.

"You some kind of a salesman or something?"

He threw back his head and laughed, and I smelled liquor on his breath. "Far out, man! Yeh, I guess you could say that. Some kind. I guess we're all like some kind of salesmen, dig?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'm a record promoter."

"You're puttin' me on."

"I will for a price," he said and laughed. "That's a joke."

"I know. I mean, I get it. I'm a songwriter. Or, I mean, I wanna be. I play the guitar."

"Outta sight, man! Like where would we be without the creative artist, dig?"

"Yes, sir."

"Probably blown the world up by now. I'm hip to where you're coming from. How old are you, man?"


"'Now she was just seventeen,'" he sang, "'you know what I mean,'" and laughed, and it made him cough. "Hey—what'sit?—"


"Hey, Sam, reach in back there and hand me my attaché case. It's in the floor."

"Sure." Kneeling, I hauled it over the seatback. It was heavy. "You play the guitar?"

"Nah, man, I can barely play the stereo. That's where I keep my stash."

"'Scuse me?"

He ran onto the shoulder twice, fishtailing back on the snowy road, as he rummaged through the briefcase. Between glances at the road, I watched him dig mostly through copies of Billboard and Cashbox magazines, though in one corner there was a brick of $20 bills. Finally, he found what he was looking for.

"Here," he said, handing me an 8x10—and for a moment, his hand rested on my thigh.

I took the picture and turned it over. In the black and white photo, the driver was standing with The Beatles. In the picture, he was in the middle with two Beatles on either side. The photo had been autographed by John, Paul, Ringo and George. George had signed his, "To Roy—You're The Greatest!" All five were in light colored suits so that the autographs showed up well. Somehow, all the signatures looked the same.

"'And I saw her standing there…'" he sang, drumming with the sides of his forefingers on the rim of the pigskin steering wheel.

"Are you Roy?"

"George is the nice one."



"Oh," I said. "Yeh, I bet. What's Lennon like?"

"John's the moody one."

"My mother says he looks dirty."

He snorted. "Yeh, filthy rich. Paul's the temperamental one."

"I bet."

The feeling was coming back into my hands and feet, and they tingled. I took off my gloves and rubbed my hands together over the heater vent. The news came on the radio then, full of freedom riding and the Warren Report and someplace called the Gulf of Tonkin. (And tomorrow, Ringo was getting his tonsils out.) After a moment, the driver reached over and turned it off, and for a second time, his hand rested on my thigh. When I squirmed closer to the door and leaned against it, he removed his hand.

"State of the art," he said suddenly, whipping the Mercedes into the left lane. Behind me, the empty coathangers chimed softly. "Eh?" he said, whipping back into the right lane to the accompaniment of a second jazz chord. "Could your country Ford do that and stay on its feet? Huh?"

"No, sir, I guess not."

"You guess not?" he said, swerving back into the left lane with enough force to make the coathangers ring.

I looked back. We were the only car on the Interstate. "There's been some ice on the roads here of late," I told him. "'Specially on these overpass bridges."

"Ice, eh?" He whipped back into the right lane. "You crackers don't know what ice is. Ice! When I left Chicago, it was banked up eight feet. Eight goddamn feet! You hear me?"

"Yes, sir."

"You ever been to Chicago, man?"

Had I ever been to Chicago? I had been to Knoxville once to the 4-H Club Officers Convention. But Chicago! Chicago was the Big World rumored to lie somewhere beyond these landlocked mountains. Chicago was 890 on the radio dial. It was Dick Bionde and Shelly Fabres and Neil Sedaka and Johnny Tillotson and Elvis and Dion—and this year, The Beatles. Nights, I lay awake, my sleeping bag zipped over my head, the radio against my ear—"Eight nine oh, Chi ca go!"—the dial light near my face, unfocused, the neon of nightlife, of city lights. I lay there in the dark until two and three and four in the morning and dreamed of a future that led out of Asheville like a yellow brick road. I was going to be a songwriter. Like Lennon & McCartney. As soon as daddy would let me grow my hair.

"Huh? Say."

"No, sir, I guess not."

"'No, sir, I guess not.' You either have or you haven't, man. Which is it?"

"No, sir."

"Great little town," he said, lighting a cigarette he took from inside the blue coat.

"I bet."

"Walking along the lake, checking out the chicks. Catching the Sox at Comisky. Oh man! That's living! Here," he said, handing me the cigarette.

"Nah, no thanks. I don't smoke."

"I don't either. Go ahead, man. Try it. It's not tobacco."

"What is it?" I said, taking it. Clearly, the cigarette was the source of the sulphurous smell.



"Pot," he said and laughed. "You know, marijuana." He giggled. "Grass, rope, hemp, weed, ganja, Mary Jane."

"Oh," I said, "that."

I took a puff, and it made me cough.

"You gotta like, hold it in, man."

"Okay," I said.

I took a puff and like, held it in.

"You ever had a shotgun?" he asked, taking the joint.

I looked at my rifle. "'Scuse me?"

But he had already reversed the joint and was leaning toward me like a lover.


My father was waiting at the Asheville Exit, pulled off at the top of the ramp pointed toward home, when we pulled onto the shoulder. As I retrieved my knapsack and gun, I looked through the rear window of the black and white car to where the black and white Interstate curved away into the wintry countryside. Faraway, towering over everything, Mount Pisgah's snowy bald spot was hypertense with sunset, the only color in a monochrome landscape. It looked incredibly beautiful, and somehow, like I was seeing it for the first time.

"I really appreciate the ride, mister," I told him at the open door. The Beatles's "I Feel Fine" was on the radio now.

"No problem, man. Like good luck with your music."

"Thanks a lot."

"If you ever make it out to L.A., look me up. Paulsen, Roy. E.M.I. Studios. Wilshire at Sepulveda. I'd like, show you the music business from the inside." He handed me a business card from inside the blue coat. "I'm good for a drink," he said. "And a warm place to sleep." He laughed, and the liquor smell was strong even with the door open.

"Wow! Thanks, mister! Thanks a whole lot! I'll do that!"

"Here," he said. From inside the coat, he handed me the triangular corner cut from a paisley envelope. It had been sealed with clear tape. "For later, man."

"What is it?"

"A hit of acid. Owsley Windowpane."

"'Scuse me?"

"LSD, man."


"Lysergic acid diethylamide."

"Oh," I said, "that."

"Well, enjoy. Catch ya later, dude. Like, don't slam the door."

"Yes, sir."

I closed the door, and he stomped it, squealing out, leaving rubber in all four gears. Face averted, hand up, I watched him go in a rain of gravel loud as hailstones on my gunstock.

Up on the ramp, the green '47 Ford pickup wore a roostertail of steam where the exhaust plumed in the icy air. The truck was surplus, and the white U.S. Forest Service shield on the door had lost its tree. All the windows were fogged up, the windshield, too, except for twin fans of transparency above the defroster ducts. I threw my knapsack in the back with the muddy posthole diggers and bale of hay and climbed aboard.

"Where is he?" my father asked when I had closed the door. He was all dressed up in coat and tie. He had been waiting awhile. The cab was full of cigarette smoke, and the ashtray was full of butts.

"I released him," I said. It was our standard joke.

I braced the gun butt against the floorboard and straddled the rifle. I opened the bolt and aimed the muzzle toward the window. As we started off, I cranked the window down a couple of turns to release some of the smoke.

"Where you headed, man?" I asked him.


"Oh, yeh." It was the first all right. "I forgot."

"I almost did," he said, gearing up. "It's hard to believe it's the first of December." My father sighed. "Another year gone. It'll be Christmas before we know it."

"I know."

"See anything?"

"I saw him, daddy! A big one! He was like 12 points at least!"

"I don't see any blood."

"He got behind a tree and like, slipped off the backside of the mountain."

My father laughed, and it made him cough. "Oh, yeh. An old big buck'll do that. Every time."

"Next time I'll circle around and like, cut him off."

"That's right," my father said, looking at me. "You hungry?"

"Starved to death!"

"Your mama's having waffles."

"Far out, man! I can dig it!"

I didn't know it, but the '60s had begun for me.


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