Saturday, December 1, 2018

Deer Father


Copyright 2018 by Erik Helm

14 years old for a boy is a shadow of in-betweens: no longer a boy, not a man, a time of identities and impressions, of questions and dreaming: a time of forming.

In 1979, I lay on the couch watching the winter’s fog through the windows meld and blend with my father’s pipe smoke as he kept me rapt with attention. The subject was hunting, and dad was half dreaming and half lecturing, surrounded by gun digests and outdoor magazines.

For Christmas that year I had received a .22 rifle, and had then passed a hunter safety class and joined the local Junior Rifle Club. The shooting and hunting drew my father and I together in mutual interest at a time when everything else was pulling us apart.

I was a good listener, and Dad was a fine talker and storyteller. He kept me glued to his words as I imagined the north woods of Wisconsin and hunting, I conjured images of red-checkered jackets, the smell of pines and the soft crunch of footsteps on new-fallen snow. Dad and I held classic sporting rifles, and he pointed ahead to show me the way.

My father and his father in law William Theisen examine a Herter's catalog 1971

Those daydreams on the couch listening to dad would be the closest we ever came to hunting deer together. Life got in the way, as it always seems to, and the unexpected roadblocks hidden around the corner prevented the father and the son from turning the dreams into reality. We did hunt squirrels once together later that year while on vacation, but never saw any. I got up early the next morning, and without dad, shot two by myself. I cleaned them, and dad cooked them. Larger game would have to wait until the tendrils of time collided randomly in the future… or not.

Dreaming takes on a different substance or concreteness to a fourteen year old. I spend countless hours on the floor with old copies of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, full of rich prose and informative articles. For a city boy, it was like an overdose of adventure novels, Hemmingway meets H. Rider Haggard. Clarity and exuberance… Dreams…

For Dad, dreaming about hunting was probably as good as actually hunting, and far safer and resulted in less anxiety. Dad was an armchair outdoorsman, but nobody knew more, or had read more on the subject, or any subject he was interested in, I thought, than my father. He was a methodical reader and planner. Sometime that winter, he created a list of hunting necessities. It would never be completed. I found it tucked into an old notebook recently. When he made it, he was the same age as I am when I am writing this. The notations in the Herter’s catalog now yellowing with time, and wrinkled much like the corner of my eyes now.

Dad's hunting list

He had one thing covered: rifles. Dad had purchased over the years a collection of fine used bolt-action rifles: Mausers, Winchesters, Remingtons, Sakos, Brownings, and his treasured possession, a Steyr Mannlicher model M carbine chambered in 7X57 Mauser. He cared for them meticulously, but I only remember him shooting one of them when I was around eight. Once again, it took someone else to take him to a range. Alone, he was not enabled or empowered. The Mannlicher was his deer rifle, even if it had no scope mount. When in his old age, he gave me all the rifles to place into storage, he kept one in his little apartment: the Mannlicher. It came to symbolize a dream deferred yet kept alive behind a bookshelf. Maybe some day…

All life is mere memories and dust, and then he was too.

In 2017, I prepared to move to the Driftless area of Southwest Wisconsin, a place of trout streams, hills and valleys, and nature and scenery like those dreams of boyhood. A city boy moves to a town of less than 600 people. I had placed several of Dad’s rifles behind the refrigerator under a sheet to hide them in my apartment in Milwaukee. The Mannlicher sat there after his passing until unshrouded before the move. I had never hunted either. The light of the sun shined full on the rich bluing and deep wood; the rifle was as beautiful as it was patient… waiting…

As I packed the apartment and planned the endless life-changes before me, I enquired into the availability of scope mounts. It turned out that they were harder to locate than I thought. No dice, until after the move I found them online and ordered a set. Dad also left me a Leupold scope that probably had been intended to top the rifle in the first place. The 1970s were finally being assembled some 38 years later. I had some notion of actually shooting the thing, but had not shot a gun in around 30 years myself. I vowed after my move that I would explore new things, and this would be on the agenda.

I had the major tools. They smelled faintly of pipe smoke and storage boxes, of oil and wax and dream preservatives. He left me a Herter’s knife for skinning, leather slings, an LL Bean jacket, and hunting boots. I just had to fill in the rest and make it happen.

I was and am lucky to have supportive friends who invited me to share in their deer camp last year, and to hunt with them. I debated it until the last moment, and then purchased a license and sighted the rifle in at a local range. The skills I left at 19 years old, that of a competition rifle shooter, came back slowly. Age played a part too, but skills practiced through hundreds of hours have a way of seeping in forever. They announced their awakening with the first ‘BOOM” of the Mannlicher. Silent for so long, it was mute no longer.

I learned a lot last year, but only spent about 10 hours hunting, and never had a shot. Our deer camp ended deer-less.

This year I decided to hunt squirrels alone in preparation for deer season. I would use Dad’s classic browning .22. It turned out that I enjoyed it immensely. It brought together the splendor of nature and discovery and learning with marksmanship and exercise and solitude. Several squirrels were dispatched with offhand shots and clean kills. They would be prepared in a stew the morning before the opening of deer camp and shared with all. The stew turned out superb. Serendipity… Or foreshadowing…?

I had one goal for the nine-day season: to shoot a deer. To do it my way, stalking or still-hunting without the aid of tree-stands, blinds, or anything else: traditional hunting the way dad would have done it. Fortunately, all of us at camp based in my friend’s wood heated cabin had the same philosophy. Do it right, with sportsmanship and restraint.

The alarm rang at 5 a.m. and we awoke to a landscape of silent darkness and new-fallen snow. We brewed coffee in an enamel percolator, downed oatmeal and doughnuts, and bundled up. The rustic cabin and classic gear and rifles surrounded us like a black and white photo newly colored. It could have been the 1970s. Opening day…

It was cold. I startled a grouse as I made my way down the path from the cabin. I had decided on my own to explore some deer trails we had discovered early this spring while planting trees on the land. What I actually found was the most awful tangle of thorns, weeds, brush, and branches possible. A deer could have been twenty feet away, and I could have passed it unseen. I found deer beds, but no tracks in the snow. Nothing was moving that morning except me, and I was progressing as slow as the tangles necessitated. I saw no deer, but made the acquaintance of squirrels, birds, and a turkey.

After several hours of this futility, I returned to the cabin with cold feet. Dad’s hunting boots were the one thing he got wrong. They were fine for upland game and such, but standing and squatting in the woods when it was 16 degrees found them inadequate. After a snack of sausage and cheese, two of us drove to town where I solved the problem with boots two sizes too big and rated for 40 below. No more cold feet.

In the afternoon and evening we capped off opening day by hunting some public land we wanted to explore. I crawled through barbed wire and brush to discover a maze of deer trails and tracks. A cold wind blew up the valley, and nothing moved. I found a trail cam tied to a tree aimed at a buck rub by accident while taking a pee. It was pointed squarely at me. I hoped that the owner appreciated the diversity of wildlife it captured by accident…

The second morning broke colder than the first: eleven degrees by the thermometer. We decided that I would proceed to the top of the hill where a saddle and dirt track provided a clearing and a field of view. The other hunter that morning would hunt in the hinge-cuts he had formed through countless hours of labor to provide ample cover for deer, and allow them to pause, bed down, and browse for vittles. I started out in darkness ahead of him and carefully climbed the hill scrambling over trees and under limbs, pausing from time to time to listen, moving as silently as possible up the edge of a gully.

Arriving at the top, I crept into a thicket of weeds next to a large boulder adjacent to the gravel track on the ridge top. It was just getting light; the sun edging awake to illuminate the frost that covered every surface like jewels. A thousand points of light danced and flickered. I sat down in the weeds and hid myself, concentrating on silence and slow breathing. My breath came in clouds that fogged my glasses. I relaxed and sat listening to the morning sounds: a staccato of tentative percussion freezing and thawing, clicking and rubbing gently on their native instruments.

An hour passed. The quiet was deafening. I could hear my heart beat.

The slumbering stillness was broken by the sounds of deer moving through and up the gully to my left. All of a sudden my tranquility was broken as adrenaline flowed and I began to get nervous. I clicked off the safety on the Mannlicher and took several deep breaths, closing my eyes and listening. There it was again. Whatever it was, it had run up the slope and then paused near the top in the brush, moving every 20 seconds or so.

As quietly as falling snow, a deer crept tentatively out of the brush. I was in perfect position as it moved forward onto the gravel track. I raised the rifle and took sight. Where the deer should have been was just a huge blur. I looked over the top of the scope. Weeds. The weeds I was hiding in were obscuring my sight-picture. The deer took several steps forward completely unaware of me. I sighted again. Now the deer progressed into the brush on the other side of the ridge and paused. It all but disappeared. All I saw was its outline. I placed the crosshairs where the shoulders should have been and squeezed the trigger. The thunderclap broke the silence with a sudden brutality.

Had I hit it? I heard the deer run, breaking brush, and then silence. I waited as more deer sounds came from the gully. I chambered another round, working the bolt smoothly. Silence returned to the ridge top. The deer moved off to the left in the heavy brush. I waited five minutes more and carefully stood up. I walked to the deer trail where I had shot at my quarry, and followed the path downhill for several yards. A single drop of blood. Then more blood appeared hidden in the brush. I moved onward several more yards until it looked like something sprinkled blood on the brush and branches. I looked down the trail and there it was. I had shot it through the heart, the cleanest of kills. For a moment I paused and wondered if that shot, obscured by brush as it was, was guided from above. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I could smell a faint whiff of pipe smoke.

I thought it was a doe, but it turned out to be a button buck. After returning to the cabin to inform my partners, I dressed it out and we dragged it up the hill to the awaiting jeep. Hung from a tree in front of the cabin, a bottle of bourbon and cups were produced, a toast declared, and I took my fingers and dipped them in the old tin folding cut and sprinkled the liquor on the deer thanking him for his life and sustenance. Then I downed the fiery liquid myself.

My friend turned to me and said, “Well, your father finally went hunting…”

It meant something. Something deeply personal.

I sit here writing this in winter as I watch the snow fall, and think back to that winter of 1979, and all the unfinished things in our lives. The fabric of time had collided once again all these years later, and what Dad had started as a dream shared with a boy, fueled by books before the fire in our living room on the East Side of Milwaukee had seeded and germinated in the hills of the Driftless. Dad finally went hunting. I know he was there.
The conclusion

There will be wild meat this winter. It will feed the mind and the soul, and maybe somewhere a smile will appear deep in the woods at night, and in the cold darkness of forever, a wisp of pipe smoke may arise from that smile.

Thank you dad.

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