I am a hunter by virtue of the home in which I was raised. I have shot, cleaned, and eaten squirrel, rabbit, turtle dove, and pheasant. And probably some other stuff, too. But until December 13, 2014, I had never shot a deer. Being a hunter is not a constitutional issue for me. I do not think of myself as part of a “well-regulated militia.” It is a matter of sport and a matter of life and death. I have no illusions about where hamburgers and chicken fingers come from. I realize that other creatures (whether plant or animal) must die so that I may live for a little while longer. My dad is a lifetime white-tail deer hunter with several trophies to his name, but I never really got into it as a kid. My dad is an archer. And hunting white-tail with a bow and arrow is a long, pain-staking, and (dare I say it) boring process. Although I spent a few seasons trying, I could never be quiet and still for long enough to bag a deer. Meanwhile, my dad began hunting with a rifle as well as a bow and arrow. I saw this initially as a softening, a lowering of standards. But it was a welcome one. It opened the door to my consideration of deer hunting.
What finally brought me back was running and my buddy, T. With a good source of lean meat available, this is the second year we traveled south to Neodesha to spend a morning hunting. This year’s trip included a stop at Guy & Mae’s Tavern in Williamsburg, KS. I highly recommend it! Get the ribs, but don’t count on the sides being that good. And you have to pay with cash. They have an ATM, but they don’t take credit cards.
We arrived at my dad’s trailer pretty late in the evening on Friday. It’s a cluttered, merely functional hunting lodge. He keeps the heat up, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time dusting. It is where he spends most of his waking hours during deer season. (My mom has a sign at their home in Parsons that says, “When I die, bury me in the woods, so my husband will hunt for me.”) The next morning, the alarm went off at 5:30 AM, and I felt pretty well rested. After getting dressed, I headed down the hall and emerged into the living room. In the kitchen, I was surprised to see my mom. She smiled, and I gave her a hug and kiss. She already had the coffee going. She said, “Good morning, hun.” She was there that morning just to see me for a few minutes.
After scrambled eggs and ham for breakfast, my mom headed back to Parsons, and we headed out for the tree stands. T and two of his kids went up on the hill in my dad’s truck. They were in a large, covered stand that Tad got his deer in last year.
My dad and I were in stands just across the field from the trailer, no more than 200 yards. Walking in his footsteps before twilight, I became displaced and imagined I was avoiding land mines. When I was in sync with him, it was no problem to place my foot where his had just been. It was mesmerizing.
My stand was in the corner of a fallow field set a little back into the tree line. My dad gave me three places to watch. And I was thinking about A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson says, “I don’t care what you think as long as you take a gun and stand your post!” Standing a post is defense. Defend. Mark the line and hold it. Know your boundaries. I thought, “What if I were on guard for zombies? And these days, they are getting worse. And this morning, it is foggy and damp. It will be hard to hear or see them coming.” My dad said he would call me if he saw any deer coming up the tree line toward me. Although I had a good view of the field, my sight down the tree line was blocked.
It was 48°, and the wind was out of the south into my face. It was misting. In the stand there was a plastic chair with a hole drilled in the bottom to let the water out. I thought it would be nice if it would swivel. After sitting for a few moments, my nose was running. It would get cold. But it wouldn’t be nearly as miserable as last year when the starting temperature was in the single digits. This uncomfortableness is the reason I never liked hunting as a kid. It seemed pointless; it was much easier to go to the store and just buy food. But now I do all kinds of uncomfortable things for running, and this sitting no longer seemed so bad. I thought of it as a chance to just be in a place. And the discomfort is balanced by the satisfaction of hunting and having a personal relationship with your food. It is a weighty matter to take the life of an animal. It is worth spending a little time in their habitat. It gives you some respect for wildlife.
The mist had cut visibility to maybe 200 yards. Beyond the field, the rest of the world was curtained off in grey. The leaves were collecting the mist, and drops were falling all around and on me. The wind was sighing through the trees. There was an owl cooing, “Who. Who.” Why do they do that? In anticipation of the sunrise? To let their peers know where they are and that they are ready to defend their hunting grounds?
Finally, at 7:01 AM, twilight arrived and it was legal to shoot. I knew this because I checked my blackberry. But I realized that the owl had stopped hooting and some bird had begun to chirp. I could see much better.
Within ten minutes, a doe stepped away from the tree line and into the field. I was startled. It was a small one, but soon a couple more and a buck stepped out as well. I thought, “My dad didn’t warn me!” I shouldered the rifle, steadied it on the railing of the tree stand, and sighted the buck. He was in the cross hairs, my aim on his chest, just behind and above the front leg. Perfect. Then he moved.
I shifted my stance, moved the rifle, and he paused again. I brought the rifle in line and pulled the trigger.
What a rush! The blast of the .308, the orange flash outlined in white, and my heart pounding. The smell of gun powder was soon swept away by the wind. The buck turned, took a few running, stumbling steps, and then fell down after going less than 20 yards. As he took those few steps, I could see the blood from the exit wound, and I was worried that my shot was low and too far forward. I was worried that I had not pierced his lungs, that instead his leg was broken. I was worried that he was wounded and suffering. He raised his head, looking at his companions. Then he laid it down a final time.
The other dear were startled. They looked around, stiff and frightened. They seemed to wait. But when the buck did not rise; they moved on, calmly but swiftly, decently and in good order, like Presbyterians leaving a funeral. They seemed unsettled and eager to put some distance and time between themselves and this strange place.
I had a cocktail of three of the primary emotions: Sad-Happy-Worried. I was hopeful-worried that grace was with me, and the spirit of the deer had run away, leaving the body behind. I was sad that the deer was likely dead, but I was happy that I killed it. I remain happy that I had an experience that brought me one step closer to my predatory ancestry.
T texted, “Did you just shoot?”
I replied, “Yeah. A small buck is down. My day.”
I sent another text, “Not a clean kill. Waiting. Sitting.”
T texted, “way to go,” and I laughed out loud, quietly, but out loud.
I replied, “Exciting but I feel like I did nothing. Just right-place-time. Ready-aim-fire.”
I felt innocent. I was becoming more and more certain of the buck’s death. I felt connected to this animal. God brought us together; I was the one who happened to pull the trigger. I was the one lying in wait. I prayed, “Sleep, now. Rest.” And I hoped that death would come to me this way, a shot out of the fog on a warm fall day, with no idea of where it came from, taken legitimately and cleanly.
While waiting, I thought, what if a helicopter showed up to medevac that deer? What if its companions had carried him off? Unbelievable.
I struggled to reload my gun. I tried to eject the spent shell, but the bolt would not come back completely; it got stuck about half-way. I had to bang the lever, and I rammed the bolt into my left thumb, splitting it open between the first and second knuckle. Then I had to bang the bolt past the sticking point to get a new bullet in the chamber. Not easy. Not smooth. It’s three weeks later and my thumb is still healing. The spot still hurts whenever I put something in or out of my pockets. It is a reminder of that morning.
About 10 minutes later, my dad got out of the tree stand. He gave me a big thumbs up. Then I went down the ladder with the gun over my shoulder. We approached the deer and found the entrance and exit wounds. The blood was pooling on its coat. The shot was good, piercing the lungs, straight through.
I texted T, “Clean kill! I am happy.”