Like dirt

Shep Helton

Shep Helton

I just came up from the basement. I was doing an inventory for my annual hunting trip. This year will be 20 years in a row with my brother and my best friend from law school. He’s from Pennsylvania … but at least its southern Pennsylvania.

I picked up my old jacket, wadded up two handfuls of it, held it close to my face, and smelled it. A thousand memories instantly overwhelmed me. All hunting clothes smell the same. At least mine do. Spray them down with scent killer, wash them, whatever … but they still smell like the woods …. like old hay and dried leaves, like the wind that brings rain, like tree bark and dirt. When I smelled it, I was instantly taken back to that little closet in my parents bathroom where Dad kept his raggedy assortment of hunting gear – where as a little boy I’d go in and start trying to find something to wear a full two weeks before our annual hunting trip.

It’s not that Dad only wanted to take us once a year. But he spent an awful lot of time working and that’s just how it worked out. If he had it to do over again, I wonder if he’d change anything. I wonder if I should change anything.

I grew up on a little farm in Rocky Face. I cannot begin to express how deeply grateful I am for my upbringing. My childhood seems charmed as I reflect on it … but I knew it even then … even as a child I knew it was right. It was wholesome and clean. It was tough and it made me tough. Most of it was spent outside. If I were really going to explain it to you, I’d take you to the Coley’s hayfield and let you cut hay with me on an old Massey Ferguson 135 on a late August evening and when we got to the corner where a little wild mint grew in with the fescue I’d turn off the tractor and say, “There, that smell .. that was what it was like to grow up here.”

I’d take you to our back pasture on an Easter morning and let you stand with us as my Mama read the Easter story with the sun climbing up over the back of Dug Gap Mountain, turning the sky a thousand shades of pink. I’d let you listen to the birds waking up the whole world … and watch as four kids stood quietly in their hand-me-down clothes, stamping their feet occasionally to keep the blood flowing, and wondering why this made tears fall from their Daddy’s eyes. And I’d say, “Right there. That’s it. That’s what it was like to grow up here.”

I’d let you jump off bus #52 with my brother on a September afternoon, run up the 1/4 mile dirt drive, change quickly into a pair of short pants, run up by the barn and dig a butter tub full of worms, grab a fishing pole and a pocketful of spotted green cider apples and head up to the back pond where we’d eat apples, laugh, and catch more bream than we could eat at one sitting. And I’d say, “You see that right there. That is what growing up here was like.”

I wonder sometimes, how I came to be where I am – how it came to be that I put on a coat and tie every day and make a living practicing law. I don’t know exactly how that happened. But I am blessed beyond measure. I have a beautiful wife that loves me madly. I have three beautiful children God has entrusted to me. And on Saturday, I get to see my old friend again. We will build a fire and bare our hearts. We will hunt. We will eat what we kill. We will get to watch the sun come up over some of the most beautiful woods in the state of Georgia. And somewhere in this God will wrap His arms around me and pull me in close, smothering me in His love with something that smells to me a lot like like the woods … like old hay, and dried leaves, like the wind that brings rain, like tree bark and dirt.


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