I just learned this morning of the death last April of an old friend, a fellow named Tim Williams, from Ohio. I say “friend” even though I only knew him a little. His dad, Tommy Williams, also from Ohio, and my dad, “Doc” Fuglie from Hettinger, N.D., were friends and occasional hunting buddies.
Tommy loved to hunt pheasants and ducks in southwest North Dakota and made his annual pilgrimage there every fall. On one of those trips many years ago, he met my dad after a day of hunting over a beer in the Pastime Bar in Hettinger, and they became friends. Most years after that, they’d hunt together for a few days.
I also went there most years to hunt with my dad and would almost always cross paths with Tommy’s son, Tim, who was about five years younger than me and had been coming with his dad to hunt in Hettinger for a long time.
Tommy liked the area so much he bought Marie Ramlo’s little brown house for couple of thousand dollars after she died and occupied it for a week or 10 days each fall.
I just found out about Tim’s death through a little notice in The Dickinson (N.D.) Press this week that there’s going to be a “gathering of family and friends” in Hettinger tomorrow to celebrate his life. I googled up his obituary in an Ohio newspaper and learned he had died from some kind of lingering illness last spring. I can’t go to Hettinger tomorrow, but I thought I would share with you a column my friend, Tony Bender, wrote some years ago when Tommy died because it featured my dad. Friends who knew my dad will know that every word Tony wrote is true.
RIP Tim Williams. If you want to know more about him, here’s a link to his obituary. He was a pretty remarkable fellow.
I’ll let Tony take it from here. It’s a fun read, in Tony’s inimitable style.
By TONY BENDER | For The Record
The Last Hunt
In the old days, “Mac” McIntyre would issue the warning over KNDC airwaves: “Things are going to liven up in Hettinger this week. The boys from Ohio are coming!” It was the official start of hunting season in Hettinger. To hell with official edicts from game and fish departments about the official opening — hunting season wasn’t really official until Tommy Williams arrived from Toledo with his 12 gauge.
Mac was long gone like so many of the friendships Tommy had formed in annual pilgrimages in those seasons of brittle leaves. So much had changed. So many faces gone. Sons had taken their place and Tim, Tommy’s son, was here, too. Hard to believe Tim was 42. They’d been hunting here together since he was 11.
“It was so hard. All his great friends were gone,” Tim says. Jake Wolf … Bill Clement … Mac … and “Doc” Fuglie.
Doc, oh man, what a story. … Doc still lives in the old black-and-white movies Tommy’s friend, Marty Belcik, shot of all the hunts. They shot birds. He shot movies. The Ohio Boys had gone back to town that day and dragged Doc out of his office for some duck hunting. No time to change clothes ‘cuz “They’re flying good, Doc.”
“Doc Fuglie’s got his suit and tie on and he’s shooting ducks,” Tim laughs at the sublime absurdity of it all. “He’s still got the tie on!” He roars as his eyes see again, in his mind, the silent flickering film where shotguns jolt shoulders but make no report.
Of course, now Marty’s gone. Only the images he captured remain. Doc’s gone, too. But the hunt — that was the constant. This year, on opening day, Tommy was back, and Hettinger rose from the slumber that surely must overtake her when he wasn’t here. For all he knew, the town didn’t live until he came back each fall to breathe life into the characters that performed just for him. For you see, a dream can’t live without the dreamer.
“You couldn’t live here,” Tim explains. “That would ruin it.” Indeed, the shine would wear off. But each year, Tommy would rediscover his second home.
“He was outgoing. He was a conversationalist. He absolutely had that sincere interest in people,” Tim explains.
“He could be anywhere and strike up a conversation.” And when he returned to his job as maintenance supervisor at Sun Oil Refinery in Ohio, his heart — the one that suffered through three attacks in 1985 — stayed behind.
So it wasn’t like they didn’t expect something to happen. Orma, Tommy’s wife, had his obituary ready for years. But each autumn, she let him go to his secret place. Each fall, she knew the phone might ring. … “My mother was so unselfish to let him come out here,” Tim says.
She loved him that much. “This was his dream. … If he was gonna go, he wanted to go here,” Tim says. “We talked about it. We laughed about it — as much as you can laugh about death.”
“The week before he died … The conversations we had … Now I understand. Because it was special.” He looks away, drinking in the vision, and he tells of driving with his father. Time had etched its mark on the athlete’s body. “He looked kind of small,” Tim says. Together they drove across the bleak, unforgiving Dakota tundra where biting winds had become a formidable challenge for the aged hunter.
“You know, Tim, I’m not sure about our forefathers. …”Tommy said as he envisioned the covered wagons, sod houses and Indians that had once claimed the harshness his tired eyes now scanned. “I’m not sure if they were tough … or just stupid.” The father and son laughed.
The final hunt was a good one. Tommy had dropped his limit of ducks the day before — two with one shot. On this opening day of ringneck season, he got his limit again. Again he had dropped two with one shot from the 20 gauge Browning he had gone to in concession to the years. “He just couldn’t miss with that gun,” Tim says. He hadn’t missed in getting his limit. His dog, Cutty, a 13-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, performed like a pup. She retrieved the last bird of the day. “He must have said it three or four times, ‘This is the best I’ve felt in years,’” Tim recounts. “He’d had a great day; he really had.”
And when Leo Miller’s dog flushed the last pheasant of the day, Tommy admired the dog’s work and walked up to shake Leo’s hand. “That’s a fine dog,” he said. Then he collapsed. A stroke.
At the hospital, Dr. Mattson told Tim, “He might be able to hear you.”
“I love you, Dad,” Tim said to his father as he squeezed his hand. And in his darkness, Tommy heard. “He squeezed back … with his trigger finger,” Tim says, choking back the tears.
It was his last signal to the world, but his heart beat on. “C’mon Dad, give it up,î Tim implored as the days dragged on. “Goddam Dad, give it up!” After Orma and Linda, Tim’s sister, had arrived to say their goodbyes, the oxygen was turned off. And then, and only then, did that great heart stop beating.
Tim will be back for pheasant season in Hettinger next year. “Oh yeah. But I don’t think I could do opening day. …Too tough.” He shakes his head slowly. “Too many memories. …”