Fair Game

Fair Game

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Book of Christmas Virtues

Fair Game

The real intent of our holiday trips to my wife’s family in Oregon is for her to visit with her sisters and niece, along with shopping and cooking, of course. So I’m left twiddling my thumbs a lot, nobody to play with. Except my nephews Adam, Jimmy and Tyler.

A few years ago, I initiated an “Uncle and Nephews’ Day” when we go out in force and spend time together doing something, somewhere. Bowling, skiing on Mt. Hood, whatever. Unbridled fun and freedom from parents with rules that only uncles and nephews share. Secrets and promises kept, love secured.

This time, I suggest a drive to the Coast Range west of Portland to an elk refuge called Jewell Meadows where hundreds of magnificent Roosevelt elk congregate.

“It’s awesome,” I assure my nephews. “Warm steam shoots from their black nostrils as they sound an eerie paean,” I wax poetic. “We’ll hear big bulls bugle their mating calls and see them proudly standing at attention as they oversee their harems.”

The nephews say they’re game.

On a cold, damp December morning, nephews and uncle—puffed in parkas—pile into an old sedan and head west in anticipation. The guys are loose again!

Now, Uncle hasn’t been to Jewell Meadows in a couple of years maybe, but feels certain he knows the way.

Wrong.

Taking the well-remembered turnoff to the north and the I’m-sure-we-go-left-here crossroad, the beige Volvo wanders onto snowy mountain roads that become more and more unfamiliar.

The three nephews, ages twelve to fifteen, hurl taunts that are immediately challenged, which escalates into an exchange of witticisms and good-natured personal insults.

It’s a guy thing.

It’s how guys show love: taking potshots at each other, poking at each other’s weaknesses and sensitivities. It’s primitive preparation for the competitiveness they’ll face as men in this still occasionally Neanderthal world of aggressive mentalities. Whether blue- or white-collar combat, it’s all the same. This banter toughens them and keeps them tough, with an underlying, supportive subtext of love.

An uncle is a special being, both buddy and adult authority figure. More slack than dad, more unguarded camaraderie. An equal for a nephew—but an equal with acknowledged wisdom amid his playfulness.

An uncle is like a god, but pleasantly flawed and bemused by earthly existence. An uncle lets you in on the secret: Nobody really knows what life is all about, but don’t worry about it. Be a good person and enjoy life to its fullest.

Heck, everyone’s lost in the winter woods looking for elk and laughing their tails off over Uncle’s ramblings. Ain’t it great?

After two hours of wandering—with the required detours: roadside pit stops to pee, snowball fights in drifts with dog piles of nephews on top of Uncle, then pushing the car back onto the road from icy shoulders—Uncle stumbles onto the road to Jewell Meadows.

But today, the long-sought meadow—historically populated with 400 to 500 regal animals against verdant green grass and bucolic woods beyond—is abo-so-lutely . . . empty.

Not an elk in sight.

“So, Uncle, where’s the elk? We don’t see any elk.” Nephews are on Uncle’s case.

Uncle’s heart sinks; his male ego falters; his child leadership merit badge is at risk. Uncle’s macho dissolves into nacho.

“I don’t know,” Uncle stammers. “They’re always here, hundreds of them. This is weird. Maybe they’re off in the tree line browsing. They do that sometimes. Let’s get out of the car and walk up to the fence. Take the binoculars, too. They’ve got to be here somewhere.”

All four guys zip up parkas, snug down wool caps, grab the binocs and creep to the fence.

Eyeing the tree line some three hundred yards across the meadow, they stare and stare. They begin to hallucinate. First, individually, then en masse.

“I see one.”

“Look over there, just past that big, funny-looking bush.”

“THERE. See it? See, it’s moving.”

But no amount of conviction unearths an elk. It’s cold; snow is on the ground; they’ve crossed the continent for the Promised Land and there’s no gold. No milk. No honey.

Nothin’.

Uncle rallies. “Oh, I get it.”

Eyes hopeful, the three defeated nephews swivel their heads as one in his direction.

Uncle nods knowingly. “It’s Christmas time, that’s why.”

“Huh? What’s that got to do with it?” all three demand.

“Remember . . .” and, on the spot, Uncle begins a serenade. His voice floats over the entire meadow, a new twist on an old carol.

“No-o-elk, No-elk . . .”

The nephews are stunned. They actually lean away from Uncle, mouths agape, struck dumb, incredulous.

“No-o-elk, No-elk . . .”

They can’t believe what they’re hearing. Adam, the eldest, recovers first. “You brought us all the way out here to do THAT?”

In turn, the others arrive at the same conclusion: They’ve been had. Shagged. Deceived. Misled. Tricked.

“Aw, man.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Du-ude . . .”

They turn from the fence and toward Uncle. He’s about to be a dead man. He knows it—and he can’t wait.

The nephews attack full force, wrestle him down, pound on him, sit on him, jump on him and pelt him with snow. He resists not at all.

It’s great. He earned it; he loves it. He loves them.

And they love him.

James Daigh

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