They were strapped to the roof of our car. Two bucks. Both shot first thing that morning; the first dawn of gun season. One by Uncle Dan, the other by dad. I thought I would like it, hunting. I carried around a twelve-gauge shotgun, an antique passed from gramps to dad to me, for the entire month of August, that late summer of 2006.
But the day finally arrived. We drove out among the hills of Bristol, the early turned red oak leaves fluttering in the sun. We set up camp, dad cooked, which he rarely did at home unless we grilled outdoors. They played poker, offering to teach me. Instead I read A Separate Peace and tried to relax about the big day tomorrow, but the smoke from their tiparillos’ caught in my throat.
Then, a sleepless night in a trailer with five snoring, whiskey filled men. I watched the moon, paralyzed cold, in my too thin sleeping bag, wondering if I’d have the balls to do it. If I’d be man enough to actually squeeze the trigger. I’d never killed anything before, except ants once with a handheld mirror that I took from mom’s vanity, and forgot to return before she noticed it missing that evening. The same ants I put down Evan Cramer’s back that same summer for no apparent reason.
An alarm sounded, we dressed in pitch dark using kerosene lanterns. While the men swilled down instant coffee, Dad showed me how to load my gun for the hundredth time. How to keep the safety off while we walked. Uncle Ron told me how most morons accidentally shoot themselves while they’re walking. I wondered if that was what happened to vice president Cheney, but I forgot to ask.
As we put on our hunting vests, Dad said, “Now, like I told ya, look for the rack. Don’t get trigger happy. We’ll leave you on Whiskey Rock and split into two groups, circle wide, then drive them toward you. All you have to do is pick the largest rack! But be patient.”
I nodded, licked my lips with excitement, my toes tingled in dad’s hand-me-down hunting boots.
Uncle Dan said, “If he shoots anything like you, Hank, we’ll have the first buck weighed in on opening day.”
We left camp single file, at the first crack of light on the horizon. No talking, and walking careful, like Indians. Dad had me practice that around the house, and I nearly scared mom half to death a couple times. “Stop creeping up on me,” she’d say, when I’d finally mastered it. “That’s spooky.”
They dropped me off at Whiskey Rock. Dad nodded, pointed to the safety on his gun. Motioned me to settle down. I found a nook atop the mammoth rock, felt like I was nearly invisible. I could see how hidden I’d be, among the lowest branches of the closest trees. The moss on the rock smelled earthy, the dew felt wet enough to gradually come through the seat of my thick, camouflage trousers.
As the men faded from sight, Uncle Dan looked over his shoulder and gave me thumbs up. I began to feel strange. Alone in these alien woods I had only hiked once or twice, and always with my father. It was eerie, too quiet, I could hear my heartbeat. The tiniest sounds magnified. A squirrel running along a fallen beech. A hawk settled into a nearby douglas fir, its prey in its talons. I looked down at the gun across my lap and for a split second thought what am I doing here?
Then I saw the most magnificent creature, probably a hundred yards away. A buck, I was certain from its size. It slowly moved my direction. I looked for a doe, figured she might be even closer. Dad taught me bucks often follow the dainty females. There she was! The doe came closer, twenty yards, then ten. I hunkered down even more, moving minutely, eyes frozen on the animal. I wondered how I would actually get my gun up to my shoulder, aim, and fire at the buck. I couldn’t scare the doe, surely; if she caught wind of the danger, or saw me, she’d bolt, as would her suitor.
Instead I sat like a statue, heart leaping while the gorgeous doe passed by on the very same trail beneath me.
Then the buck came into view less than two minutes later. He had one focus: her! I knew as soon as he looked squarely at me that I could never shoot him. There was a peacefulness as I realized this, combined with the disappointment that I would let dad down. And Uncle Dan. Even grandpa, whose dementia might make the blow easier.
I would see three more does and five other bucks from my vantage atop Whiskey Rock that morning. The largest buck had a twelve pointer. All passed readily by, none the wiser about a geeky hunting teen who chose only to admire their grace.