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Bird hunts are backdrop for a friendship caught in the whirl of cancer

November 29, 2018

The first time I hunted pheasants with Jorge Vicuna, we were alongside the James River, just south of Huron, S.D. My dog and I walked along the edge of a cornfield at the top of the riverbank. Jorge and his dog sloshed through the mud at the river’s edge. As we approached a dogleg in the river, a rooster pheasant flushed. I fired two shots from my over-under 12-gauge shotgun, and missed both times.

Then I watched as Jorge slipped and fell into the mud, rose to his knees, shouldered his gun and dropped the bird with one shot at more than 50 yards. I knew then that I was in the presence of an great hunter. Fortunately for me, Jorge has become an even better friend. But when I first set out to write about Jorge, I thought I’d be putting down a remembrance of yet another friend felled by cancer — when I visited him last summer at the Mayo Clinic I did not think that we would hunt together again.

You don’t meet many Chileans in south-central South Dakota. In fact, I’ve only met one: Jorge moved to Huron in 1983 when his wife, Connie, was appointed the state biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jorge grew up in the capital city of Santiago, the son and grandson of prominent attorneys and gentlemen farmers — his grandfather was also an outspoken critic of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Jorge met Connie, a Minnesotan, in 1975, when she worked for the Peace Corps in Chile. They married in 1978 and moved to Minnesota.

When they moved later to Huron, Jorge got a job working in a seed business, similar to work he’d done for Northrup-King Seed Co., in Minnesota. Mac Haskell, the owner of a land management business in Huron, asked Jorge to teach him Spanish. Before long, Haskell hired Jorge, first as a bookkeeper, then to manage cattle operations. In 1987, Haskell retired and sold the business to Jorge.

I met Jorge in 2013, when I was asked to preach at Grace Episcopal Church in Huron. Instead of an honorarium, I requested some pheasant hunting opportunities, and the Rev. Jean Mornard introduced us.

We became fast friends. The two of us and our dogs combed some of the thousands of acres that he manages, looking for the majestic pheasant rooster. A month later, I went back and we hunted again. And we’ve hunted together two or more times each of the years since.

“You need all your skill,” said Jorge, 68, on the alchemy of the hunt. “But you also need the cosmic forces to align to get your prey.”

What he’s taught me about hunting — and life — is impossible to quantify.

Odd bedfellows

Pheasant hunting often requires many miles driven from field to field, especially across the checkerboard section lines of the Dakotas. Sitting in Jorge’s truck, we’ve discussed the supposedly untouchable topics: faith, politics and taxes. He’s taught me about farming techniques, about South American politics and about Mexican soap operas. I once saw him start a backhoe by lighting a piece of paper on fire and holding it over the air intake while reaching into the cab to crank the engine — I’d never seen anything like it.

Hunting makes for odd bedfellows. Other than a shared passion for chasing birds around a field, it brings together individuals who might not have anything else in common. Jorge and I have each remarked on what a fortuitous, serendipitous set of circumstances placed us into each other’s lives. But last summer, I feared that might be coming to an end.

On our last hunt of last season, in December 2017, Jorge complained of a sore throat. He chalked it up to the typical South Dakota winter. But it persisted through the holidays, so he went to have it checked. His primary care physician sent him to Mitchell for a biopsy. Throat cancer.

After an operation to remove the tumor and his tonsils in March, Jorge and Connie moved to Rochester for the summer where he had chemotherapy and proton beam radiotherapy at Mayo Clinic. I visited him a couple times, and didn’t leave optimistic. He was gaunt and sickly. We ate a meal together, and he struggled to swallow. One day he fell and hit his head, and he nearly died. His oncologist stopped the chemotherapy a week early because Jorge’s body was ravaged and too weak to continue.

As he convalesced during the late summer and early fall, I called and texted him. He got a puppy and bought a motorcycle. I could tell he wasn’t giving up, even as he lay shivering under a blanket, taking nourishment through a feeding tube. He fought on, regained strength, and assured me that he — and his puppy — would be ready to hunt by October.

Several weeks ago, I loaded up my gun and my dog and drove west to Huron. Jorge and I joined a handful of other guys, put on our blaze orange, and hit the fields in search of pheasants. He hasn’t slowed by a step. He keeps a bottle of Gatorade at hand to keep his throat moist. He pushed through heavy cover, shot a few pheasants, and laughed at the ones he missed.

Jorge had to leave our hunt a couple of days early so that he and Connie could drive back to Mayo for a new scan of his throat. The rest of us hunted, but our hearts were heavy thinking of the news that might come. Later, starting the long drive back to the metro, I got a text from Jorge. No sign of cancer cells. His throat damage is permanent, and he’ll have another scan in six months, but for now it’s great news. And, he added, his puppy is itching to get back out and hunt.

I’m going back again to Huron yet this fall. Two more times, in fact. I’m going to spend every day I can in the field with Jorge.

Tony Jones is a writer and editor in Edina. Find him at ReverandHunter.com.

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