My First Deer
On my fourteenth birthday, my father told me that the weekend of Thanksgiving we would be going deer hunting. He had been telling me since I was a little boy about how wonderful it was to be out in the forest stalking wild game, and that it was a “Right of Passage” for every boy if he was to become a man. I never understood what he was talking about. He would go on for hours at a time, speaking of how he grew up on a farm and that his father hunted to put food on the table. He smiled as he spoke of his father, telling me how special the man had been. I could always hear the reverence my father had in his voice whenever he spoke of my grandfather.
I always imagined the old man standing under a tree in buckskin clothes with a raccoon skin hat. My image of this man came from the stories I read in school of men from the frontier. Rugged adventurers that roamed the forests and mountains of America in the times before civilization came to places like Kentucky or Ohio, or even as far west as the Rocky Mountains. I envisioned Mountain Men with weather-beaten leathery-skinned faces, trudging through the vast miles of snow-covered land, crossing wide and deep rivers in canoes, traversing vast chasms in the earth with nothing but grit and determination, trapping beaver, hunting grizzly bears, and all the other enterprises associated with legendary heroes of the hinterland.
I used my imagination whenever I thought of my grandfather because that was all that I had. He had died right after my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, and named me for the paterfamilias of my lineage. I spent many hours with my father and his tales of the “Old Man” as my dad would call his father. I never grew envious of other kids who had grandparents that were alive. I had wonderful and amazing tales of this giant of a man.
However, I did have a problem going into the woods to hunt innocent creatures. My mother was what my father called a “Tree Hugger.” She volunteered for animal rights organizations and was always bringing home stray dogs and cats, or any other critter that she may discover during her travels as a mail carrier. Several times, she received written reprimands at work for transporting animals in federal government vehicles. She made us eat vegetarian meals at home. We received fierce admonishments if we let ourselves be caught indulging in the occasional cheeseburger or box of fried chicken behind her back. I remembered her stories as well as those of my father. She would tell me of the wonders of nature, and the obligation we had to be good stewards of the earth. She showed me the wonders of creation in her soft, calming voice. She taught me the value of mercy, and the miracle of a life driven by love and compassion.
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Our house sat on the edge of a forest at the border of town. It had a backyard that seemed to stretch forever. We had a barn, and a massive garden. There were chickens, hogs, miniature horses, goats, ducks, turkeys, and whatever wild creature that might drift in from the forest to partake of the free fare offered by the fenceless backyard/farm yard of the last house on the block. All the animals had names. We would get too crowded from time to time, and my Dad and I would have to load up some of the herd and distribute them elsewhere. This usually meant the ducks. They were the only animals that were not named because they multiplied faster than rabbits. We never had rabbits because my father, having been bitten by one as a child, put his foot down. He said if we raised rabbits, with their proclivity for procreation and their nasty disposition, then he would have no choice but to go out and buy a cookbook specifically focusing on differing ways to prepare meals using the mortal remains of members of the family Leporidae.
Each of our animals held a place in the family, and when it did come time to cull the herd, we had to search for appropriate families to place our friends and family members. My father would always growl that the time it took to locate and transport our extras could be better spent in other pursuits. His idea of keeping animals would entail feeding no animals that could not be neutered. He kept this to himself, though. My mother would have nothing to do with artificial means of controlling the natural population of the world. She told us that if that Good Lord made a living entity with the ability to produce offspring, then it was not our place to interrupt the natural process.
This gave my father digestive disorders, according to him, but he graciously complied. As much as he grumbled, he always looked at my mother as if she were the only being in existence. He recognized my personage, and I know he loved me, but I always felt that it was because it was that she was my mother. His contribution to my individuality played, in his opinion, naught but a small role in all that was to become me. As with myself, my mother represented all that was merciful, loving, and compassionate. He did what she wished…all the time. He told everyone he met that if she ceased to exist, he would have no reason to exist either.
Living in that environment made me confused sometimes. At the age of fourteen I could not fathom that this kind man would want me to go out and actually hunt a deer. Nevertheless, on the day after Thanksgiving, he woke me at 3:00 AM to ensure we would be in the woods on the other side of the mountain by dawn. We wore the outrageously bizarre costume of the Great White Deer Hunter. Camouflage shirt, jacket, pants, and boots. We wore loud orange fluorescent Elmer Fudd hats, and blacked our face in shades similar to the clothes we wore. We left the truck parked at the roadside rest area, and hiked deep into the woods. We had backpacks with appropriate camping utensils and accoutrements. We hiked until finally, we came to a clearing. We rested for a full half an hour before beginning the process of setting up camp. There was firewood to be gathered. A tent to be constructed (also camouflage with a fluorescent flag mounted on a long stake cut from a tree branch). Fallen logs were trimmed smooth and hauled in to make benches we could sit on. Water was gathered in five-gallon containers from the creek about a half a mile away, and a fire was started. We ate beans out of a can, and he told me stories of my grandfather and the time he got his first deer. As the last light fell and everything grew dark, we crawled into our sleeping bags. I fell into a sleep resembling death.
The next morning we greeted the sunrise and began our search. My father told me that we would hunt the proper way. We would stalk our prey instead of sitting on our butts waiting for it to come to us. Real hunters acted in this manner. It was the way the Good Lord meant for us to pursue the creatures of the wild. His father always searched game this way. It leveled the playing field and brought honor to a man and the prey to act in such a manner. Lofty ideals for a fourteen-year-old boy to grasp, but to this day I remember that day and the amazing lessons I learned.
We set out into the untamed forest and I began to have visions of all sorts of things. I daydreamed of great adventurers seeking the passage through the Rockies. I thought of names like Lewis and Clark, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson. I could almost see the jungle that Stanley struggled through as he searched for Dr Livingstone. I felt the icy wind hit my face, and the smallest hint of pine in my nostrils enlivened my spirit. We walked for a while and crouched beneath a tree to wait. This was to allow the forest to become acclimated to our presence. Give the animals and birds time to incorporate us in their catalogue of scents. Familiarize with the environment so that we became a part of it my father told me was what we were doing.
I sat and listened. At first, there was nothing but silence, but an almost deathlike lack of movement around us. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, a squirrel dashed down a tree within our sight and snatched a fallen acorn off the floor of the forest. A bird landed next to us in a bush. There came the sound of a beehive coming alive, and the teeming minions venturing forth in search of flora to pollinate. I noticed a stream of ants working its way in and out of a massive dirt hill. In the distance came the scream of some sort of cat. The forest came alive, and all I wanted to do was sit, listen, and watch. My reverie came to an abrupt end when my father shook my shoulder and motioned for me to follow.
We moved in slow steps. We mimicked the stealth of the denizens of the woods. We allowed our senses to become one with our surroundings. We became members of the citizenry of the wild. We tread the paths of the sacred woods in confidence as accepted citizens of this magnificent culture and society. I remember feeling safe and…complete.
Several hours into the morning, I spotted our prey. I felt a surge of pride when my father silently smiled and signaled his pride at me. I had discovered the quarry first using nothing but stealth, and grim determination. I thought I would never stop smiling. He motioned for me to set myself for the shot. He had told me the night before that whichever of us made the first discovery earned the right of first shot.
I crawled to a point of vantage and released the strap from my gun. I brought it to my shoulder and carefully sighted the prey in. I worked the adjustment on my sight. I could see several possibilities and had difficulty, at first, deciding. Then, a large buck with an enormous rack separated itself from the rest. He stood taller than all the rest. I tried to count the points and lost count several times. I felt my ears begin to get warm. I had to conscientiously stop my hand from shaking. He stopped and turned to give me a complete look at him. What magnificence! He seemed to be unconcerned with all around him. He dipped his head to graze for a minute and then stood up sharply with his ears forward. An animal of some sort had entered the clearing and I knew that if I did not act quickly my opportunity would be lost. I carefully aimed. I could feel my heartbeat and the blood course through my veins. I had a pounding in my ears, and sweat began to creep down my forehead into my eyes. I was terrified to wipe it away, and tried to use my other eye to sight. All that did was make the scene in the scope seem to shift to the left, and I lost my confidence for a moment. I slowly reach up and wiped the perspiration from the eye I need to properly sight in on my trophy. I began to squeeze. Suddenly…all became quiet. My head stopped pounding. My brow cooled, my heart resumed a normal rate. I remembered my father’s voice telling me to take a breath, hold it for a second, then let half of it out and once more hold the breath. I should do this in order to steady myself. I should squeeze the trigger firmly and slowly. I could, clear as day, hear him telling me that I should not really know when it would go off, but I should also not be surprised when it did. I should squeeze it as if I were squeezing my mother’s hand. Firmly, but not enough to hurt. I thought all these things and I felt a calm come over me. I felt that in a minute I could join the ranks of great men like my father and grandfather.
I felt it when the trigger reached its destination. I kept my eye on the deer and steeled myself for what would happen. KA-KA-SH-SH-SH-ZOO-OOK-ZZZ-SHA-SHZEE-ZE-ZE-ZE-CLICK!!! The digital camera mounted on the stock of the rifle went off. I impatiently watched the screen waiting for captured the image to appear. When it came into focus, my father, peering over my shoulder, laughed aloud in glee and pride. I had captured the perfect picture on my first shot. In a nice frame of wood from this forest, it would make the perfect Christmas gift to delight and honor my mother.