I tried to lean closer to my Dad and the juniper as the Texas Hill Country began to take on that purple haze that Western authors love to use as a backdrop. I felt very small as I alternately attempted to peer over and then around my Dad’s broad shoulders. As he felt me squirm he made a soft hissing sound that meant “Sit Still!!”. There were two reasons that my squirming was inevitable, 1) I was five years old and on my first Whitetail hunt and 2) I was freezing in the near dawn of central Texas. It wasn’t that I lacked clothing – long underwear with the button flap, flannel shirt, heavy coat, corduroy pants, wool socks, gloves, hunting boots and a Barney Fife cap complete with ear flaps. It’s just that the clothes didn’t seem to insulate my skinny body. As I sat and inhaled the fragrance of the tree, I wanted to crawl inside my pockets where the discount store handwarmer gave off its feeble heat generated from a load of lighter fluid and a wick. I wonder if the inventor of those handwarmers ever made a profit? I really hope not. Actually, I hope they used their invention and were time-and-time again disappointed while they waited for their fingers to thaw. Obeying my Dad’s quiet command, I settled my left shoulder into the tree and the side of my face into his back.
While we were driving from our home in Elmdale, Texas to the hunting club near San Saba, my Dad had explained to my older brother and me the plan for my first ever morning of deer hunting. We would get up at 5:00, eat a quick breakfast, pile into his Chevy pickup, drop my brother off in one group of ‘cedar’ trees, drive about a half mile more, and then he and I would walk a final quarter mile to a second stand of trees. My Dad’s plan also included me using his shoulder as a gun rest. That’s why I was located behind him in our ground blind.
As I rested my face on the rough fabric of my Dad’s coat, I thought back to my first night in the hunting club’s bunkhouse, Nirvana for a five-year-old. There was a hardwood floor covered with a fine coating of dust and deer mice droppings, the rustic kitchen/dining room area complete with picnic table and benches for seats, the numerous bunk beds that assured my finally getting a bottom bunk – and the Outhouse. This made my year. It might seem odd that primitive toilet accommodations would be a highlight of my first Whitetail expedition, but at five years of age I was an unreconstructed Cowboy, and Cowboys used Outhouses. Of course, I didn’t really appreciate the potential for an up close and personal encounter with the ever-lurking Black Widows. Nowadays I am a typical soft adult, preferring the indoor, non-splintering version, but then I sat in resplendent glory as I contemplated the capture of my first Whitetail trophy.
In the middle of my daydreaming, I felt my Dad tense and then gently elbow me. This was our signal. I started to jerk, but caught myself and instead slowly swiveled my head to peer around my Dad’s shoulder. There they were. I had seen deer from varying distances. The previous evening we had watched deer not more than 20 yards from our truck as they disappeared into the brush. What is it about Whitetails that fascinate and excite hunters and non-hunters alike? Whatever it was, it had me in its grip as I watched the two does pick their way down the trail that ran not more than 10 yards in front of our blind. My Dad lifted the .243 Winchester bolt action from his lap and laid it across his right shoulder. I slowly drew my knees under my body and raised myself until I was peering through the scope.
To fire my rifle I had to clamp the stock under my arm. By the time I got the crosshairs on the lead doe, she was already directly in front of us. Unfortunately, the short distance and the minimal light conspired to make the doe into an indistinct blob. Try as I might, I could not tell her shoulder from her tail. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, I aimed at what I thought was the forward portion of the doe and jerked the trigger. It was immediately apparent that I had not squeezed the trigger because a divot of grass flew up directly from under the doe’s belly. My heart sank as I looked up just in time to see the white flags disappear into the brush near the trail’s edge.
My Dad slowly drew the gun across his shoulder, pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and asked me what I thought had gone wrong. I explained that I couldn’t tell head from tail of the doe in my scope. He nodded and said he understood that, but had there been anything else. I hesitated and then said “I guess I yanked the trigger because I was excited to take my first shot at a deer”. I was surprised by his response. I sort of expected him to be angry with me over the blown opportunity. Instead, he told me about the several times he had gotten buck fever, even when shooting at does. He said that I would have this happen again if I kept hunting, and learning to enjoy and control the excitement was one of the pleasures of pursuing big game. I said I would try and remember for next time. Though at that moment, I wondered if there would be a next time. We sat in our blind until lunchtime, but saw no more deer. My brother was disappointed when we met up. My brother has generally been understanding and kind toward me, but this time his disappointment was not all on my behalf. You see my Dad’s rule for this hunt was, until I got a deer, neither he nor my brother Randy would shoot when we were hunting together. Randy could see that this might take awhile. Unfortunately, he was correct.
Next Week: Chapter 2 of A Hunter’s Rite