Clouds stretching across the Montana horizon glowed a deep crimson on a late-October morning.
I was taking a truck ride east of Great Falls with my two oldest sons, Joe and Andy, my father-in-law, Bob Guditis, and his son-in-law, Jerry Gray. We were headed to a large cattle ranch in search of pronghorn antelope.
It was the first day of our hunt and I considered the spectacular sunrise to be our official welcome to Big Sky country.
The excitement had been building for several months as Bob guided us through the process of applying for antelope tags on the Internet and preparing for the hunt.
It’s about relationships
We needed the education. We knew next to nothing about pronghorns other than they are small, fast and have exceptional eyesight. They also are very skittish and usually run at the first sign of trouble. Sometimes, they don’t stop until they have sprinted a mile or more.
On the surface, this hunt was about strategizing the most effective ways to fill our antelope tags. But, there was a deeper meaning to this experience that was as vast as the sprawling grasslands of the Judith Basin, where our hunt took place.
It had to do with relationships and the bonds between grandparents and grandchildren, and between in-laws and adopted grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
In May of 1995, my first wife, Jennifer, died of colon cancer, leaving me a single father of two children, Joe and Andy. Two years later, I remarried. My new wife, Julie, and I had two more children, William and Claire.
All six of us made the 15-hour drive to Great Falls to spend MEA weekend with Jennifer’s parents, Bob and his wife, Sharon, who had lived in Kalispell, Mont., when Jennifer and I married in 1990. They stayed there until two years ago, when they moved to Great Falls.
Trying to figure out how to label all of the relationships in this group is complicated. But, that’s the only part that has been difficult over the last 10 years of my marriage with Julie. By God’s grace – and Bob and Sharon’s great love and generosity – the transition from Jennifer to Julie has been as seamless as the rolling, grassy terrain of the Great Falls region.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he says that there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free person; we are all one in Christ. That’s the way it has been in the Guditis family.
They show no preference for their biological grandchildren. They consider all four of our kids their grandchildren. And, they consider Julie their new daughter-in-law. In fact, Sharon views her more like a daughter than a daughter-in-law.
Truly, these four days were a chance to bask in the richness of God’s amazing grace as he brought all of us together for a special time of fellowship. It was simple, it was fun, it was holy.
And, not long after that beautiful sunrise, it also became very hard work.
More than a hunt
The pretty hills that looked so scenic from a distance loomed very large as we looked up from the truck at the base of them and spotted a dozen or so antelope that seemed like tiny specks as they grazed at the top of the highest point of land on the ranch.
Our task was to get within shooting range of those antelope. To that end, Grandpa Bob had provided some of the best tools available.
The day before the hunt, he handed each of us a high-powered rifle that he had sighted at a local gun range. He did it so that we could aim right on the front shoulder of the antelope for up to 300 yards without having to compensate for bullet drop. In other words, he made the aiming part dummy proof.
It all sounded good on paper, but it became an extremely difficult task in the high winds that plague the region at this time of year.
In the end, the boys got a good amount of shooting, but no antelope. I managed to bag a small male, plus a bonus mule deer that fell at a distance of 280 yards.
The boys felt some momentary disappointment over their failure to harvest an antelope, but it quickly turned to a deep satisfaction over a hunt that was about much more than bagging game.
It was about deepening the bonds with their Grandpa Bob and Grandma Sharon, with their Uncle Jerry and Aunt Jessica, who took turns hunting with us.
It also was about building character. For four days, we spent hour after hour driving and walking the hills of the ranch trying to find our quarry. Then, we would make stalks of a mile or more to get close.
Sometimes, the antelope would spook before we could get a shot. Other times, we would get one or more long shots that failed to find the mark, and then the pronghorns would bolt out of sight.
At times, it was very frustrating, both for the young shooters and their father, who really wanted to take a photo of their success. Thank goodness they had a grandpa who could always put things in the proper spiritual perspective.
Sharing a little wisdom
On the last day of the hunt, his encouragement was sorely needed. We had found a group of five antelope that were bedded down in a grain field on a farm next to the ranch. We got permission to hunt, then made a skillful stalk on the animals, getting within 200 yards, which would give the boys a makeable shot.
Joe and Andy shouldered their rifles as the antelope continued to lounge in the field. But, high winds in their faces made it impossible to steady their guns. They motioned for Jessica to bring shooting sticks.
Just as she got to them with the sticks, the antelope stood up and began to run. They took some shots in desperation, but the antelope disappeared over the next hill unscathed. The stalk was a thrill, but the result was disappointing.
That was our last close encounter with antelope. It also was an opportunity for Grandpa Bob to share his spiritual wisdom with the boys. I’m glad to say he is bold in taking advantage of situations like these.
“Perseverance is a Christian virtue,” he said. “You’ve got to keep trying. Quitting is the biggest reason for failing in life.”
He then proceeded to tell the boys that he flunked out of engineering school twice at the University of Notre Dame before successfully graduating in 1966. His G.P.A. fell below the minimum of 2.5, and he had to go to summer school to push it back up.
Life is full of challenges like these, he said, and the key is to keep trying.
This lesson was a backward way of inviting us to come back again. I don’t think there’s any doubt we will. Hiking the hills, stalking antelope and spending time with Grandpa Bob and Grandma Sharon is a great way for boys to become Christian men.