Papaw Pony’s Red Plaid Jacket

The story of how a red plaid jacket would spark a life-long hunting passion and even be the central theme to a Dalton outdoor youth program.

Preston Keck | January 2, 2014

The smell of cedar shavings and sawdust, the cool black diamond stitched lining, and the soft warmth of the old worn cotton plaid jacket…

What we oftentimes do, as sportsmen, is forget to appreciate the simplest aspects of the outdoors that we once fell in love with in our youth. We also don’t stop to think how can we pass on our outdoor experiences or recreate them for subsequent generations. We get caught up in the large marketing world that’s out there for deer hunters while our hunting stars are starting to look more and more like World Wrestling Entertainment superstars rather than the traditional outdoorsman. Hunting has begun to feel more like the movie Blood Sport than a tradition of family and friends. That being said, I am in no way cynical in my thinking. In fact, I am attracted to flashy hunting brands and gear and big marketing campaigns that eat up my Google clicks and paycheck each month.

But, as I write, I am taking myself back, back to early morning Waffle House trips with my granddad. Hunting trips. The memories are vivid. The kind of memories that you write about 20 years later. Even though he passed in 2001, the days he spent with me are ones that I really do cherish.

Just before dawn, my granddad, Papaw Pony, with his unmatched wit and humor, would explode through the bedroom door always dressed in his iconic Liberty overalls and donning his red plaid jacket. With his loud booming voice, he would awaken my cousin, Zach, and me from a sound sleep in the back bedroom, probably in distinctive G.I Joe undies. Papaw would awaken us from being nestled under our warm, heavy quilts that had been passed down long before I was born.

He would declare, “Get up boys!” My cousin and I would be out of bed like rockets, putting on our clothes and ball caps. In minutes, we were out the door and rumbling down the road, sitting three across in his single cab F-150 listening to the gospel radio station on the AM channels. All the while, one of us was nestled against that red plaid jacket. At the time, I hated that radio station full of static and unfamiliar music, but since then gospel has become an endeared soundtrack of memories.

When we arrived at the Waffle House, where my granddad knew everyone, I would always wonder why are all those people were there so early in the morning. We would have a big breakfast, and after the sheer embarrassment of being introduced to a bunch of old timers, with whom I probably had little in common, we were off to my granddad’s property in Whitfield County.

Upon arriving at the familiar woods near his home, he would take out his 30-30 Marlin rifle, which we had shot at feedbags many times before. We would carry the rifle, always barrel to the sky, hike up and over the mountain behind his house and sit on the ridge usually a little after daybreak. He always had a box of Little Debbie Fudge Rounds to eat hidden amongst the plaid cotton fibers. We would sit on the ridge and watch, eat, listen, talk and laugh. My cousin and I would throw acorns and probably fight at some point. We never really saw much or killed anything but squirrels (not with 30-30) during these sorts of trips, but we always had a great time.

Around 10 a.m. or so, at the height of our rambunctiousness, Papaw, my cousin and I would head back to the house, grab the axe and were off to cut firewood where we were clearing land for a cabin. Zach and I were always busy when we were with Papaw. And the jacket was equally busy, whether lying on a stump while granddad cut logs, used as a napping pillow for one of us while he worked or a layer to be shed while walking through the woods in the afternoon after a crisp morning.

Recently, I was preparing for a day of trout fishing with my students from Morris Innovative High School in Dalton. I was at my parent’s house looking for my waders, and as I was rummaging around, I uncovered my grandpa’s red jacket. The memories flooded my soul like the rising backwater creeks in November. I grabbed the jacket. On my way out, my mom asked, “Why are you taking that old red jacket?”

I replied, “This isn’t just an old jacket. This jacket has been outdoors with Papaw Pony, and these are the kinds of memories I am trying to create for my students. How much of a tribute would it be to Papaw if I wore this on our trip to the Toccoa?”

As she wiped tears away, I laughed. I hugged her and packed the jacket with my stuff.

The next day we headed up to Horseshoe Bend Park on the Toccoa River to fish. We fished and fished and didn’t catch a thing. Finally, one of my students caught a little fingerling. To my surprise, it was the first fish he had ever caught. I am pretty sure I was more excited than he was. As I showed him how to hold a fish and take the hook out of the tiny trout, I wiped some fish gunk on the sleeve of “my” red plaid jacket. Immediately, the memories came rushing back to me of days spent running around in the woods with my cousin Zach, cutting firewood, eating Little Debbie’s and shooting feed bags with rifles.

As I mature, I begin to realize those trips were never really about hunting. My granddad had elk, mule deer, largemouth bass and antelope covering the walls in the now-finished cabin. He knew how to hunt and fish. What he taught me was more than hunting. I learned about patience, family and an appreciation of wild places.

The gap in conservation and its ability to keep up with our consumptive habit’s continues to widen. I feel that our only hope as sportsmen and conservationists will come from empowered hunters and fisherman. However, we need more people, young and old, choosing and voting for conservation and the outdoors. I think this can only happen through memories created by the types of mentors who wear old red plaid jackets and eat Little Debbie’s, while teaching lessons on life and nature. So, if you get a chance to be the mentor that someone can write about in 20 years or be part of cultivating the next generation of emboldened sportsmen, be that person, jacket or not.

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