Monday, October 7, 2013

"Old Songs"

Like many young men I started hunting by pursuing squirrel and rabbits in my back yard. I lived in Pennsylvania where the Opening Day of Deer Season was on the first Monday after Thanksgiving. The schools were closed. Most businesses were closed. Everything except essential organizations was closed to celebrate Opening Day.

I was 13 years old when my father, who rarely had time to do so, took me to his hometown of Grampian to meet his childhood cronies. These characters had names like “Crappy Hepburn” and “Uncle Pick” that seemed to define a simpler time in our history. One where young boys would gain status by how well they fought. My father was a scrapper, the 10th child in a dirt poor coal mining family. He swore that he would not allow his children to grow up poor, so he spent virtually every waking moment pursuing business deals and focusing on making money. There was little time for leisure.

So when he asked if I wanted to go deer hunting, even though I wasn’t sure about actually killing one of these beautiful creatures, I enthusiastically replied “Yes!” It was going to be time with my father, the most cherished of moments. Since this didn’t come very often, it carried tremendous emotional weight for me. My senses were awakened in his presence. For the first time in my childhood I was connected to something. I had always been a miserable ball player. My baseball coach put me in right field for 2 innings because it was a regulation to play all the team. Although my hometown was football-obsessed, I was too small and too sensitive to take the teasing and hazing that went along with it. I was kind of a loner. But when my father took me out into the hills of Central Pennsylvania, I came alive.

I wondered at the mountain laurel that grew on the hillsides. I would stare for hours into the trees, examining the bark and watching leaves flutter to the ground to land in a swirling stream of color. The chattering of squirrels and the screaming of blue jays made me feel like I was welcome here. I was safe from towel-snapping linebackers and bullies. I was in a place where I belonged.

Just as the pines swaying in the cold northern breeze, just as the first snowflakes touching the musky earth, just as the snap of a twig in the distance. Just as a dark brown object climbed over a hummock down the steep hillside from me. I belonged, as did the doe now pawing the ground just 40 yards away.

She batted her eyes and looked at me. Our eyes connected and I felt my first wave of compassion and adrenalin course through my adolescent frame. She was in no danger from me. It was rifle season and bucks only. I smiled and said “hello” quietly. She twitched her ears as if to try to understand what I had just said, then she stomped her right foot and began walking away. I felt blessed.

When we got back to camp I said nothing of my encounter.I listened to all the guys tell their stories of what big bucks they had chased that day. They sat smoking cigars and drinking whiskey around a stone fireplace adorned with drying woolens draped over every overhanging obstacle. The smell of wood smoke and fresh liver and onions on the stove mixed with the laughter and camaraderie of these rough cut pillars of manhood.  On the ride to town that night, my father and I listened to a radio station that still played Hank Williams, Gene Autry and Earl Scruggs.

Later, when we moved to Stowe, Vermont my father would introduce me to a new country singer, John Denver. I would watch my grown father with a curious eye as he would actually cry when he sang along with “Take Me Home Country Roads”. It was in Stowe that my father and I got our first buck in 1977, the year I graduated high school. Since those first few episodes in Pennsylvania, I had become addicted to the serenity and connection that I found from being in the woods. It had been five years since we started hunting deer when it happened.

We had built a giant tree stand 30 feet up in a triangle of big-trunked pines. It was a huge space, about five feet in each direction. I had fallen asleep when my father woke me to say “Get ready! Here he comes!” He had heard a distant shot and then brush crashing around us. The buck appeared in the slash to our right. He whispered “Get him!” and I aimed my Winchester 30.30, leveling the front bead on his mighty chest. I do not remember hearing the shot, only seeing the deer drop to his knees. We had done it! My father and I had accomplished something – together!

Over the next 35 years my passion for hunting grew into a full time lifestyle. I fell in love with waterfowling and followed that path into guiding, but every year, out of respect for the memories that molded my spirit, I returned to the woods in search of my connection to the earth and the magnificent whitetail.

It was this same deep abiding love that drove me to the woods this past Saturday. My team of hunters had finished a wildly successful goose calling and hunting strategy seminar at Dead Creek Refuge in Addison for Dead Creek Day. The geese had cooperated as if they were trained. We started calling and about 300 birds lifted off of a farm to the East and flew directly over a crowd of about 30 absolutely stunned seminar attendees. But now it was time to spend some “alone time” in the woods behind my house.
As I sat in my treestand, 20 feet above the earth, I listened to the blue jays screaming to one another. A squirrel climbed the tree beside me and peeked around the trunk to stare at me just four feet away. I smiled at him and I could swear I heard his thoughts “Oh. Who are you? Is this your tree? OK…I’ll just go find another one.” He climbed down calmly and skittered across the crunchy forest floor.

I was lost in revelry once again. The gentle north wind scattered gold and red maple leaves to the ground. The sun had set and the light started to surrender to the canopy shadows. In the distance I could hear a train whistle. The smell of someone’s distant woodstove wafted through the evening air. As I was breathing in the fragrant autumn scents, I noticed something moving to my left down the hill. It was large and brown. I stood up very slowly and prepared my arrow.

It was a doe. My thoughts flew back to my first deer that I had seen as a teenager in Pennsylvania and I wondered if this time the scene might play out differently. I decided to wait and see what she would do. She continued to walk toward my stand, then crossed to the right and stood broadside to me just 28 yards away. As she put her head down behind a tree, I drew my bow. Something told me that if she presented herself to me as a gift, that this time I should take her.

Crossing from behind the oak tree, she stood still, her flanks in perfect position for a shot. At that moment, the voice inside said “It’s OK” and I released the arrow.

It was pitch dark by the time I shimmied down the tree and found the arrow. It had passed through her and there was no blood trail. I would have to wait until morning and enlist my friends to help find her.

I did not sleep all night and when the alarm clock went off at 5:00am I had finally fallen asleep. There was a knock on my door and I rolled over to see that it was now 7:00 and my friend John Lesher was waiting for me on the front porch. My other pal, Chris Thayer, arrived next and with some very valuable coaching from Chris Peacock of Burlington, Vermont we were able to locate the doe in about 15 minutes.

After an awkward picture where I felt both pride and remorse, we dressed her out and took her to Dattilios Guns & Tackle to check her in.  Upon returning we hoisted her into the tree and skinned and quartered her. It began to drizzle as we were boxing up the venison and I needed a break.

I asked my wife if she wanted to go for a foliage drive. We took the truck up into the mountains, through Lincoln and down through Bristol Notch. The trees seemed to be particularly beautiful this year. We sipped coffee and enjoyed one another’s company like we were on a honeymoon, grateful for all we had in our lives.

On the way home my wife popped in a CD and as the first song began to play, I started to cry. Then I burst out singing with the chorus “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

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