The little boy stood 4 feet 8 inches tall, 95 pounds if you count the brand new heavy hunting camouflage clothes. Beside him stood a man 6 feet 4 inches tall, 275 pounds. The man wore a gun and carried another. The boy wore a smile wide as his face.
They stood in deep woods, about 20 miles south of Chester nowhere near anywhere Monday afternoon. The kid was 600 miles from home after his first-ever plane ride and standing with a guy who looks different and was a stranger until a few hours before.
“Big A,” said the kid named Alex Collins, pointing a finger at the big man. “I’m Little A. We’re going hunting.”
Big A, real name Alex Underwood, title Sheriff of Chester County, S.C. - not Pennsylvania, but on this day it did not matter - put his big arm around Little A.
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“You got it - Little A,” said Big A.
Alex and his mom, a single parent, dropped off hand-written letters to the Chester County, Pa. sheriff three weeks ago after seeing a Facebook post talking about the sheriff hosting kids for hunting and fishing. Even a teacher wrote in saying how great a kid Alex is.
“I wrote in there I didn’t have anybody to teach me, or take me, “ Little A said Monday.
He begged that he be picked to go. He beat the deadline by five minutes on a Friday afternoon.
But the hunt site was for South Carolina’s Chester County Sheriff, in a rural county Alex Collins had never heard of before, not the sheriff in his home suburban county west of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Alex was devastated, but Sheriff Carolyn Welsh and her deputies in Chester County, Pa., who received the letters, who saw little Alex’s face that fell and heard his tiny heart break, contacted Underwood and organized getting Alex to South Carolina. Welsh and Underwood are friends.
After the story about the coming hunt ran in The Herald Dec. 13, dubbing Alex “Little A,”donations came in from all over the country to help pay for the trip, the clothes, the gear, and the two-day stay for Little A with Sheriff Underwood and his family.
“People read the story and it just took off,” Underwood said. “Everybody wanted to make sure Little A was taken care of, and I want the whole country to know that we are going to show Little A the best hunting and fishing trip anybody ever had.”
Monday morning Sheriff Welsh in Pennsylvania drove Alex to the airport, handed him off to airline employees, and Alex flew to Charlotte. Underwood and a half-dozen deputies met the flight and drove with sirens and blue lights to the Academy Sports in Rock Hill to outfit Little A. Little A said he wanted a deer “big as this parking lot”
Big A promised to try for a deer, but could not guarantee one that big.
The employees helped pick out boots and pants and gloves and jacket and fishing box and pole and more. Ladies asked to take pictures with Little A and a TV news woman smiled at him as she pointed a camera. He blushed and forced a smile - as at age 9 he’s got no use for girls yet.
A cashier asked him: “Are you that Little A I have been reading about?”
Little A admitted that yes, he was the Little A, but still a reluctant celebrity. But the whole trip had a description: “Awesome!” he said.
Finally, Little A and Big A emerged from the store and got into Big A’s big truck for the ride further south to the wild open spaces of Chester County, South Carolina.
Little A got ready to close the truck door and said the interviews, the shopping, were over. He pulled on his hat, tugged at his new hunting clothes.
“Let’s roll!” said Little A.
The new friends stopped to eat at an IHOP. Little A ate 15 pieces of bacon.
“He sure did,” said an incredulous but beaming Big A.
“I ordered 17 pieces,” Little A said. “I got full.”
Underwood, an avid outdoorsman elected sheriff in 2012, has several secret spots in Chester County where he hopes to find deer and fish. That’s where the two ended up later Monday, in a 500-acre spot off S.C. 215 straddling the Chester and Fairfield county lines. A spot so secret that Little A had to swear not to tell the whole world.
Little A promised Big A. The two argued about who is better - the Philadelphia Eagles football team favored by Little A, or the Dallas Cowboys favored by Big A.
“The Eagles creamed the Cowboys,” Little A said.
“We got you back on the rematch,” said Big A.
A man and a boy, talking football, readying to go into the wild.
Big A handed Little A the hunting rifle, with the safety on that makes sure the gun can’t be fired, after a lesson in safety. Little A held the camouflage gun like he was holding the Holy Grail.
Which for a 9-year-old boy who has no father or man in his life to take him outdoors, to hunt, he was. Little A was standing with the biggest, nicest man seemingly in the whole world, a guy who let him eat 15 pieces of bacon and promised mint brownie ice cream after.
And also gave him something far sweeter - all the time he wanted.
Little A paused, toed his brand new boot into the mud because that’s what boys who want to go hunting do. They get muddy and dirty. Then Little A said to Big A: “Let’s go hunt the big one.”
So they did.
Two guys named Alex, the Big A and the Little A, bonded by a little’s boy’s dream to go hunting and a mistake that turned into what big people do when little boys make an honest error - make it right.
They rode into the woods on a four-wheeler, then walked into the trees and disappeared.
A man and a boy.
A dreamer, and the guy who made the dream come true.