F&S Classic: Tommy’s Fiddle

fiddle playing
The best teachers aren't always found in a classroom.Jim Campbell

Editor’s Note: This story first ran in the July 1985 issue of Field & Stream. This is the first time it has appeared online.

He called it a Straduvarius. It wasn’t, of course, but it was a fine, old fiddle that I suspect was crafted by a settler newly arrived in the American West who longed to bridge the gap between the rough frontier and the Old Country. Tom didn’t know where it came from, only that it had been in his family when they emigrated south from Canada. I preferred to believe it was traded for some other object of hand manufacture—traces, or a saddle, or a plow struck from the belly of a glowing forge.

The fiddle was Tom’s most prized possession. He stored it under his bed, and whenever he went hunting, fishing, or visiting he placed the cased instrument in a secret compartment in the trunk of his old Studebaker. Though it accompanied him everywhere, he didn’t play it all that often. Being a shy man, and self-conscious of his lack of education, his spirit usually needed to be liberated from a bottle before he would touch bow to string and make music.

That was how I met Tom. I had rented a college apartment above his, and one day, while attempting to make sense out of some dreary abstract of literary theory, the lilting melody of a lively fiddle invaded my thoughts and refused to be evicted. After 15 minutes of dubious effort, I closed the book, reached for my banjo, and began to play along.

Within a dozen bars there came a dull tapping at my feet, a signal that for many years to come would be an invitation to hunt and fish and be taught the secret places and rites of a West that even then was fast slipping away. Tom rapped on his ceiling with a broom handle and yelled, “Hey kid, you’re pretty good. C’mon down.”

What songs we played that afternoon! “Soldier’s Joy,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Wreck of the Old 97”…and as would be expected, between the runs and riffs and the sweet, clear notes, we got to know each other a bit. I was a student of literature with an untutored passion for the outdoors. Tom seemed to have been everything one could be within the limiting confines of small Western towns: cowpoke, carpenter, plasterer, and farmer; yet all of them were nothing more than semi-profitable pastimes that financed his hunting and fishing trips and his love of whiskey and music.

Tom was not exactly an alcoholic. He was not a social drinker or even a regular drinker. It was my habit to have a drink before dinner, and when Tom was around, I’d offer him a glass. Most of the time he’d turn it down with a contemptuous wave of his hand. Tom, like other native sons of the West that I have known, did not view drinking as a social event. He viewed it as an opportunity to get rip-roaring drunk and raise hell, and once every three or four weeks, determined by some mechanism of time or taste that was beyond my reckoning, he would open a bottle and throw the cork away, and all that were present were welcome to join him.

It was on that kind of night that I first met Tom. I cannot say with certainty what quality of music we were making when I finally excused myself and crawled up the stairs. Certainly it was loud, and it sure sounded good to us. What did not sound good to me was the thump of Tom’s broomstick under my bed at 5 the next morning.

“C’mon down, kid. Did you forget we’re going elk hunting?”

I was terribly hung over, but Tom’s eyes were as bright and clear as that chilly snow-tinged dawn. He had breakfast of venison, fried eggs, hotcakes, sausage, and toast that I couldn’t bear to look at. Although he weighted all of 140 pounds soaking wet, he said something about the need for nourishment in the mountains and ate it all. I didn’t know then that I was looking at the tip of an iceberg.

Tom was nearly 50. I had just passed my twenty-first birthday. By all rules of logic and conditioning it was he that should have had trouble keeping up with me, but that was not the case. He set a deceptive pace over hill and dale. He didn’t seem to be moving fast; in fact, at first I found myself stepping on his heels. But like a good walking horse, he never broke stride or rhythm no matter how rough the terrain, and within an hour he began to pause every 15 minutes to wait for me to catch up. And there I’d find him sitting on a rock, puffing away on one of the Camels that he usually chain-smoked.

I don’t know how much country we covered that day, but it was surely the longest walk I’d ever endured. Tom’s strategy was to climb high, then hunt down in a zigzag course that led us along the edges of parks and open meadows, then upon reaching a creek bottom, to climb high again. I was so exhausted by the afternoon that I never would have seen the elk if I had been alone. Suddenly Tom froze, slipped his rifle off his shoulder, and hissed, “There they are!”

Two bull elk grazed at the edge of a meadow. We were headed downhill, I had caught my breath, and I managed to shoot straight. The two bulls fell within 50 yards of each other.

As a seasoned veterans of exactly two deer kills I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have any idea how to go about dressing out an animal the size of a cow, but with no more than an occasional “hold that leg” and “grab the hide here,” Tom had both animals cleaned in a half hour. “Now just wait here. I’ll be right back,” he said, and walked off with that mile-eating gait.

And he was—riding a horse he’d borrowed from the rancher at the head of the canyon. We skidded both animals out to Tom’s car by sundown.

That was another thing about Tom. He seemed to know everybody, or at the very least, he always knew somebody who knew somebody. As a result, we had entree to every farm and ranch in the valley; to prime stretches of trout streams so far from public roads that they were never fished; to brushy coulees next to 50-bushel-an-acre wheatfields that crawled with pheasants; and to canyons and mountains loaded with deer and elk, but blocked to public access by private lands. Tom shared them all with me.

I didn’t know why Tom took such an immediate liking to me—I couldn’t possibly reciprocate with anything other than my music. Perhaps, at first, it was curiosity over my seemingly contradictory combination of a bookish nature and an unquenchable thirst for the sporting life. I can recall Tom being awed by the fact that I was writing a book. Whether it was good, bad, published, or unpublished did not matter; he was taken by the idea that I could conceive of such an act. Eventually though, we were bound by the mutual recognition, respect, and pleasure derived from the relationship between a promising student and his mentor.

The things I learned from Tom during the 12 years I knew him should rightly fill a book. On a grand scale, he taught me to be a competent and caring sportsman and even how to build a log cabin—my present home. On a smaller scale, each day with him brought new delights of practical and sometimes arcane knowledge that I still use today: the way to fill a woodbox fast is to gather wrist-thick wood that can be chopped with two swings of an ax; a loose axehead will firm up solid if left overnight in a waterbucket; and no matter how dog-tired, cold, and hungry you are, you always unsaddle, brush down, feed, and water your horse before retiring to the warmth of the cook tent in hunting camp.

There were also fun times with Tom, times when I either laughed at his corny jokes (his favorite response to just about anything I might say was, “That’s what she said, and now she can’t button her overcoat…”) or his original perceptions of a world beyond his grasp.

One day he stormed into my apartment with a newspaper. “Ahah Mr. Perfesser,” a name he had given me shortly after I accepted a teaching position at the university, “Look at this. I told you all that messing around in space was screwing up our weather and our hunting to boot! It says so here, plain, it’s them jet streams that are doing it.”

After glancing at the article, and hearing Tom’s reasoning, I realized he’d confused a term for upper air patterns with jet contrails.

And on an April day when we were planning to fish the next morning, the time of arising a bit muddled by the arrival of Daylight Savings Time, he pulled me aside and whispered—even though there was no one else in the room—“Tell me something about this damned Daylight Savings Time. They take an hour away from you in the spring, then give it back in the fall, right?”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s roughly the idea.”

“But where does the hour go in the meantime?” he asked with the urgency of a man on the edge of a great discovery.

Tom had his darker side, too, as we all do; moments of sadness and bitter reflection. Marveling over books in my library whose very titles he could not understand, he allowed as how he didn’t get much schooling because he had to help with the family farm that was later lost in the Great Depression.

There were also references to two wives who ran off—one with a gambler, the other with a drummer—and a severely retarded child (“I could never understand it,” he confided to me once. “There was never any bad blood in the family…”).

Tom was also capable of anger, but he was hardly short-tempered. In my haste to follow him to a fishing hole, I once failed to thoroughly latch a gate. When we returned, the gate still stood, but I was lectured the half hour ride home on all the possible consequences of my error: stock on the loose, bulls breeding at the wrong time of year, the posting of NO TRESPASSING signs, and probably worst of all in Tom’s mind, us being considered city-bred people. Another time, exasperated at the long shots I was taking at ducks, he “accidentally” dropped a full box of shells into soupy mud. “That just leaves us ten, kid, so we gotta make ’em count.” I waited for the ducks to come closer, and learned one of my most important lessons about wing shooting—at 35 yards, you hit what you aimed at, and left no cripples.

Only once was Tommy genuinely angry with me. It was when I became angry at a sixteen-year-old on his first hunting trip who gutshot an animal. After consoling the youth and telling him he did just fine for his first deer, Tom strode over to me and hissed between white lips, “You’re gonna ruin hunting fer that kid’s life if you keep up like that. You gotta teach kids, not bully ’em. Don’t never forget that you were a young punk once, too.” Since that day, I never have.

The end came swiftly for Tom, and for that I’m grateful. One year he was climbing mountains and making music and the next year he could not even take the moderate cold of well-made duck blind or the warming bite of a shot of carbon. There was something in my mind that said Tom was eternal, so I didn’t worry; I just told him he would be better next year, and that he would hunt and fish and play again. “If I could just get back up into those mountains one more time,” I overheard him tell a friend that fall.

I received the letter in New York the following January, sent to me by a distant relative who had found my temporary address among Tom’s belongings. Emphysema, colitis, and finally pneumonia had felled him in a veteran’s hospital. He was buried in a cemetery that overlooked his family’s old homestead. From his grave you can see the Madison Valley, and the Spanish Peaks beyond.

I didn’t know what became of his fiddle. I wish he would have willed it to me, and I think he would have if he had known the value I placed on it. But never mind. On cold winter nights when the snow curls like smoke around the eaves of my cabin, if I listen very carefully I can still hear Tom’s fiddle, ringing out as clearly as the stars shine in the coal-black sky.