I walked in darkness through a 20-year-old pine plantation. On the other side was a 3-acre pond and beyond it, my destination. The large steel building looming in the predawn light was where my friend Gary Ganas and his wife, Sandy, called home. No lights were visible.
Approaching the building, I noticed the door on the west end was open. Inside, a single light was visible through a window in the door. Gary was sitting at the kitchen table with a large cup of steaming coffee in his hand. In the chair next to him was his Browning10-guage pump shotgun and a cloth carry bag. The gun was wrapped with camo tape worn by years of use.
“Want a cup of coffee?” Gary asked. “Looks like a good morning. Turkeys should gobble.”
A COMMON THREAD
On a cool spring morning with turkeys gobbling, Gary “got what I came for.” He was free, engaged in the sport he loved and back in a comfortable place where anticipation ruled the moment.
I remember the day we met Gary like it was yesterday. It was a Sunday in January 2011. My wife, Tes, and I entered our small country church in rural Alabama, and on the back pew sat Gary and his wife.
Sandy was dressed in a long, white, lace dress and sported a wide-brimmed hat. Gary wore cowboy-style starched Wrangler jeans and shirt, and square-toed alligator-hide boots. My first impression: Wow! Who are these folks?
Sandy was quiet, unassuming and almost shy. Gary was just the opposite. His deep baritone voice echoed through the sanctuary of Bradford’s Chapel.
At first it seemed we had very little in common. The Ganas’ were retired from Florida and owned a small farm less than 3 miles from ours. We learned they were 18th century re-enactors and collectors of memorabilia from that period.
As time passed, our casual meetings at church led to conversations about children, politics, careers and life in general. One Sunday morning in April we discovered a common, unifying thread: wild turkeys.
Gary mentioned observing several gobblers strutting daily in one of their pastures. Tes makes her living photographing wild turkeys and their behaviors. Gary and Sandy encouraged her to take a look at the flock frequenting their farm. They described the dominant tom in this flock as old and battle scarred.
“He rules the roost around our place,” Gary said. “They come to our pasture every day. That gobbler is a gnarly old bastard, kinda like me!”
The next day, Tes arrived at the Ganas’ Hard Struggle Farm to scout and choose a location for a pop-up blind. Their home was a veritable museum of 18th century antiques and artifacts interspersed with original wild turkey artwork and collectible calls. Soon, “Old Gnarly” was captured on camera and eventually memorialized in a pen and ink print for Gary and Sandy’s collection.
After that first spring, there was little we did not share with Gary and Sandy. We worked, played and worshipped together. We learned they were NWTF members. Gary loved to cook, eat and occasionally imbibe in an adult beverage, but there was always the issue of Gary’s health.
From the time we met, it was apparent Gary had put in some hard miles. Years of riding rodeo bulls and broncos had left his shoulders, knees and back a battered mess. Knee replacement was the first in a series of medical procedures that left him in serious pain. Then came open heart surgery. Again he was confined to inside care and a long recuperation period. In late 2013, Gary was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Through it all, Sandy’s love and devotion for Gary and their faith in God was unwavering. I will always remember his answer to questions about how he was doing: “Livin’ life, friend; just livin’ life!”
I drove Gary to a pop-up blind I’d set up in a hardwood drain the day before.
Inside were two decoys I’d stashed. I staked the hen and jake 25 yards away on a winding road. Gary sat in silence with his chin on his chest as I crawled into the blind and took my seat. I could tell the pain was bad, but he never complained.
A spectacular pink-hued horizon gave way to daylight, and the woods slowly came to life. Cardinals and jays greeted the day, then an owl hooted nearby. Another owl answered the first one. Then it came: a gobble! Not close, but a gobble for sure. I looked at my friend, and he smiled. “This never gets old,” he said. “Thank you for doing this for me.”
We were in the game. Gary picked up his old Browning, slipped a shell into the chamber and leaned it back against the wall of the blind.
When I was certain the turkeys were on the ground, I yelped with a mouth call. Progress was slow, but eventually the gobbles got louder. Finally, the birds were closing the distance.
With the gobblers still 150 yards away, Gary tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Jolly, do you mind if I call?”
“Heck no, any and all help is appreciated,” I whispered back. “This is your hunt, your land. You don’t have to ask me!”
He reached under his chair and pulled out the carry bag; slowly sliding a hand inside, he pulled out a box, then gently placed the bag back under his chair.
Gary peered out the window and cautiously opened the box held in his hands. My jaw dropped when he showed me the call. It was a box call inscribed with a description of the call and a personal message, signed and dated by legendary call maker, Neil Cost.
Gary carefully leaned into the window of the blind and sent a series of yelps into the spring morning. A chorus of gobbles echoed back into the blind. He carefully placed the call back into the box and returned it to the bag.
In an instant everything changed. Gary now moved with purpose as he adjusted his position for a better view. The pain and uncertainty that had been on his face seconds before was now replaced with a turkey hunter’s stare. For the first time in weeks he was free, engaged and back in a familiar place where anticipation ruled the moment. Everything centered around what was happening in that pop-up blind.
Seconds later, he reached back into the bag and brought out another box. Inside that box was a Neil Cost boat paddle call signed with identical markings as the first. He leaned to the window and called again. The answering gobbles were much closer.
Gary returned the call to the bag. He adjusted his position in the chair and shouldered his gun. Movement caught my eye as the first strutter appeared 60 yards away. Close behind, another strutter followed, then another and another. In all, there were seven jakes headed to the decoys.
When the turkeys reached 40 yards distance, they literally charged the jake decoy. I could hear the excitement in Gary’s short, ragged breaths. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as Gary settled on the gun. I inched a finger into my left ear in anticipation of the shot. Time ticked by. The shot never came.
Five minutes after arriving at the decoys the young toms began to lose interest, fading away. I turned to Gary and said, “You sure you don’t want to shoot one?”
“I got what I came for,” Gary said.
For the next 10 minutes we talked about what had just occurred. We talked about life, friends and what was important in both. We said a prayer giving thanks for all we had. When I returned to get Gary, he handed me his gun and carry bag and stepped out of the blind.
“Jolly, I want you to have these,” he said. “I won’t be needing them again.”
I was dumbfounded. I struggled for words before telling my friend, “No Gary, I can’t take them. You’ll need them on our next hunt.”
Gary pulled me into a hug that lasted until the tears stopped. That was my first and last turkey hunt with Gary Ganas. To this day it is a hunt that lives in my memory as the epitome of what turkey hunting is all about.
On August 5, 2014, Gary Ganas was called home. Things are not the same since he left. There are, however, indelible memories. Memories of laughter and good times. Memories of pain and tears. Memories of treasures pulled from a cloth, hand-stitched carry bag worn from use. Memories of young gobblers strutting in all their splendor. Memories of life-and-death decisions made when a man faces both. Memories of love, hope and faith.
On the night we said goodbye, I leaned close to Gary’s ear and told him I loved him. He opened his eyes and took my hand. The strength in those once-strong hands was gone and the booming baritone voice was reduced to a whisper, but there was a twinkle in his eye when he said, “I’m going home. I’ll get us a place close to the roost and save you a spot. It’s all good.”