CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ When Gary Dockery suddenly awoke from 7 1/2 years of unconsciousness, some of his first words focused on his passion: annual winter camping trips he helped organize with his buddies.

``Yep, missed it this year,'' Dockery said from his hospital bed to his son Shane. ``But I'm going next year.''

The former policeman was the nucleus of an eclectic mix of friends _ woodworkers, nuclear regulators, a geologist and other policemen _ who gathered twice a winter for all-male escapes into the Cherokee National Forest just northeast of Chattanooga.

The winter trips epitomized Dockery, said Dick Edgerton, a woodworker who lives in Flintstone, Ga. They began for a young generation of friends and evolved into a rite of passage shared with their sons.

``He was one of the moving influences to make sure we got there,'' Edgerton said. ``It was a big deal to all of us but it seemed like more so to him.''

This is the 12th year of the winter outings, but Dockery hasn't participated since he was shot in the head by a drunken man in 1988. Shane has gone in his father's place for the past six years.

Dockery lingered in a coma-like state until a week ago.

On Feb. 11, he was taken from a nursing home to a Chattanooga hospital with life-threatening pneumonia. His family had to choose between letting the illness kill him or risk surgery.

Dockery awoke the next day and talked for some 18 hours. His family, hoping to give him a fighting chance, opted for surgery that drained infectious fluid from his lungs.

Dockery, 42, was alert but not speaking Sunday. Since the surgery on Thursday, he had responded only by moving his eyes and squeezing hands. He was moving his arms and legs on command and breathing on his own.

Meanwhile, his friends reflect on a man who once relished an active life.

His former partner, Ken Cox, said he anguished for years over whether he did the right thing by resuscitating Dockery the night of the shooting.

``I knew he wouldn't want to live on machines,'' Cox said. ``It was a terrible thing I had to live with, but now, maybe I did the right thing.''

Dockery was often the catalyst for bringing people together.

``If he met somebody he liked, he introduced them to all his other friends,'' said Marilyn McDaniel, who has known Dockery since they were 14 years old. ``Ninety percent of our friends are because of Gary.''

``He held all of us together,'' said another friend, Regina Burks.

One of the two winter trips would involve about 20 men with four-wheel-drive vehicles; the other would be a smaller group on horseback.

``It might sound kind of hokey, but we'd build a big fire, Gary would play the guitar, some others would play too. We'd sing familiar songs, tell big lies, guy kind of stuff,'' Edgerton said.

``I remember one trip Gary wanted everybody to bring a couple of Army blankets. He wanted everything to be uniform. Well, everybody did but me. I brought a sleeping bag, and everybody froze but me,'' Edgerton laughed.

His friends said they visited a lot in the first two years. He communicated occasionally with blinks and nods then, but he grew unresponsive. Bothered by that, his friends limited their visits to his birthday or holidays.

``It was really difficult to see him,'' McDaniel said. ``At first, you're still hopeful and then when nothing happens, you wonder if he knows you're there.''