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Monday, November 17, 2003

Just your garden-variety Disney villain.

The above descriptor would be for me, actually. I'm taking a break from posts about gay Episcopal bishops, bad liturgy, worse baseball, Mel Gibson's movie and assorted Catholic bashing to fill you in about my weekend.

As long-time readers of this blog are aware (the three of you not married to me know who you are), I go hunting--generally, very, very badly.

Therefore, it should be no shock to you Musketeers that I again participated in that great Michigan tradition, the opening of the firearm whitetail deer hunting season, which occurred at the very crack of dawn on Saturday, November 15, Anno Domini MMIII. Unfortunately, "crack of dawn" is a somewhat more subjective term than I would hope, given the occasional crack of rifle and shotgun fire I hear during the period of time I tend to call "dark." As in "Can't See Squat, Let Alone Nearly-Silent Mammals That Blend Very Well Into The Landscape" O'Clock.

Be that as it may, I, my father and my brother have been doing this every year since 1995 (with the occasional exception, due to recent marriage, scheduling conflicts and the usual friction of life). Since 1998, we've been hunting on about 10 hilly acres of my aunt Margy's property which abut several square miles of state land in north central lower Michigan. Two other guys, Terry and Ralph, hunt with us, making it a Gang of Five.

The property was clear cut in 1997, which means it is now sapling and scrub country--ideal for deer. One would think. And it has been, for my dad, Terry and Ralph. Dad & Co. average about a deer per season. Doug and I are visitors to the snake-eye pit. Zilch, zero, nada.

Still, that's not the primary reason we go, although getting a deer is an undeniable part of the experience. More on that later.

Or so Doug and I have been told. Instead, we end up going more for the cameraderie and to participate in a ritual with our dad and friends that is older than the state itself. Having grown up in rural Michigan (but not joining the sport until after we reached adulthood), it is something that is woven into the cultural fabric. There, the phrase "opening day" conjures excitement and empties middle and high school classrooms of a lot of boys. For us, it involves long drives from our places of work to camp out in my parents' north country cabin, getting too little sleep and woozily waking up at 4:30am (at the outside latest) to vats of coffee and the job of putting on the camo and bright orange hats. Contrary to ever-popular stereotypes about rural white guys and guns, we don't get liquored up the night before Opening Day and stagger into the woods to squeeze off random shots at Thumper, Flower and Co. Nor do any of the hunters I see out at the same time. It's an awful lot of work to rouse yourself to head into near-freezing temperatures with a buzz on or a hangover pounding. That such men exist is statistically certain. That such men are a vanishingly insignificant percentage of the three quarters of a million who go into the forests this time of year is equally certain.

The particular failing of our group is eating too much chili/snack food and staying up much too late playing cutthroat variations of five and seven card poker, as well as the financially more devastating possibilities of such variant card games as "Screw Your Neighbor" and, more menacingly, "In Between" (or, as I like to call it--"Wallet Killer").

BTW, I walked away about $15 up over the course of two nights.

Anyway, this year was different, though. Doug wasn't there. Last year, Doug provided the high point of what is usually a string of laugh out loud comedy by somehow missing a deer that walked within 15 feet of his blind, despite three shots each from his 12 gauge and his pistol. For about five minutes, he swore he hit the astonishingly agile creature, who apparently performed feats worthy of Neo in The Matrix, but the only evidence of the deer was some fresh spoor. That, and the clipped saplings.

"Well, at least you scared the crap out of it...." Needless to say, the tale is growing larger in the retelling, with Doug getting shrill as he pours an absolutely defoliating amount of gunfire at a deer growing slower and lamer before it manages to limp away from the terrified Doug, whose firepower has cleared a new runway but missed Gimpy.

But, no Doug to make fun of this year. The almost-unspoken gloom on the weekend. What can you do? Next year, God willing.

We got up at 4:30am Saturday and went to breakfast. Happy with the fact I fit into my favorite hunting gear again, I stuck to oatmeal and a couple of sausage patties, as well as an IV tube of coffee. We got out to my Aunt's house, and loaded up our rifles. This year, dad had a surprise for me, announced weeks before: a gift of a new (to me) weapon--a Winchester .30-.30 (Doug's getting a Remington, but don't ask me the caliber). One of my dad's friends claimed that the firearm was a nicely-restored older rifle, as his .30-.30 with the same model number looked much different. The only catch was that they hadn't had a chance to sight the mounted scope, which meant my shot might not be accurate.

Lord knows I need every assist to accuracy I can get, but I was willing to chance it because the shooting lanes from my blind are fairly short, no longer than 75 yards or so. I was more dubious about the ammunition I was given. I wasn't sure whether to load the bullets into the tube magazine or take the entire box to the next stop of The Antiques Roadshow. Apparently Ralph bought a new box of .30-.30 bullets, but no one had a clue where it was.

I chambered a round of the antiques, and loaded more into the tube. I got to my blind before 6am, and settled in. There was less of the pre-dawn "panic fire," and less of it nearby, too. Still, not much happened. After dawn, I could see a bevy of fat--I mean fat--squirrels swarming the bait pile. These specimens were gold medal contenders for the title of Fattest Squirrel in Creation. Even the usually undersized black squirrels were bloated, and so glossy from the feast that they were better described as "shiny." Even a skunk wandered up briefly to see what was going on.

Still, no deer.

Then, at 9:55am, I heard a nearby rifle crack--so close it had to be from one of the G5's blinds. I called out--quietly--on the walkie-talkie (yeah, sue us--it's not like we call in air support with the things). It turned out not to be one of us--but a deer was spotted heading my way. Wounded, from what Ralph and Terry could tell.

Four hours of sleep or no, I was awake. I waited, and looked out the left window of my blind.

Understand, I haven't seen a single deer in the past three seasons. Then it appeared, coming straight ahead. Not a great shot, especially for a not great shot. Nor did this one look wounded. It stopped, then turned to the left, heading toward my Dad's blind (much further away, but moving in that direction). It was vanishing into the saplings forty yards off. I touched the trigger.

The rifle cracked and kicked, a flash of flame briefly appearing.

I looked. Nothing there. If I missed, it's gone. For some reason not born of experience, I didn't think I'd missed. I radioed out to the other guys, and stepped out to go looking. I hoped it had been a solid hit, an instant kill (what other word is there?).

I walked out and started combing the area.

I hadn't missed. Nor was it a "wounding" shot--the doe dropped where she stood, quite dead when I got there. No other wounds, either. Either Ralph and Terry saw a different deer (unlikely), or misinterpreted this one's behavior.

I learned how to gut and hang a deer that day. No, it's not pleasant, really, and I didn't do the heavy, gory work, for the most part. But it's much more pleasant than that meat going to waste. Speaking of which, that deer is being processed down, and will save us considerably on this winter's meat shopping (money's been a little tighter than expected). George Lee, if you're reading this, your venison recipes will be put to good use. Also, you'll be happy to note I did almost no reading in the blind this year. Almost none.

I've also had a lot to think about since, namely the ordering of God's creation and our place in it, along with the nature of mortality.

I'm not pulling your chain--hunting is remarkably conducive to contemplation. Good, bad and indifferent.

Now, before you storm into my comment boxes, breathing fire, take stock. If the above recounting leaves you with a sense of revulsion for hunting and/or me; if it's changed your opinion of me or leaves you thinking I'm a murderous jerk who gets his jollies on killing defenseless animals in bloodlust; or if you find the entire enterprise a barbaric holdover that deserves to die in our "civilized" era, I have a few suggestions:

--Step away from the computer, put on your favorite Nikes and leather/sheepskin coat, and go for a walk.

--As above, but get in your car with the leather bucket seats and go to your favorite burger, chicken or pizza joint for a snack.

--As number one above, but grab a football or baseball and toss it around with a friend.

If you do one or more of the three above suggestions, but none of them work, mix yourself a Kathy Shaidle cocktail and enjoy. The ban button is always active.

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