The alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was Fall, the end of daylight savings time…time for the clocks to “fall back!” While the rest of the world was getting back their “lost hour” of sleep, I was going downstairs to eat breakfast.
Our hunting gear was piled by the front door; amassed there the night earlier. Our bows and arrows lay side-by-side. My dad was in the kitchen making coffee. “Good morning sleepy head!” I was a few minutes late. “Here’s a few candy bars and hand warmers…don’t put them in the same pocket.”
It took 5 minutes to pack the car, 10 minutes to scrape the frost off of the car windows and 2 minutes to run back inside to grab a few more hand warmers and candy bars. By 4:45 a.m., we were on the road to Morgan Hill.
We arrived at Morgan Hill early! Too dark yet to hike into the woods, but not enough time to nod off. I’d have to wait till I was safely up in my tree stand! We had “staked” out the area weeks earlier….looking for signs of deer, clearing lines-of-sight, and setting up the tree stands my father had constructed. More importantly, we had identified a good local diner back in town.
We parked the car down one of the fire roads. Another car was parked in front of us…our hunting buddy. He was a friend of my father; a man he had known for years…and a fellow printer. Now, he was my friend too.
With a flash of our headlights, both cars were turned off and we disembarked. The unloading of the gear was mainly accomplished in silence lest we spook the deer (wake them I thought). A few whispers here and there focused on the day’s strategy. We hunted in three phases…the morning and afternoon “hunts,” separated by lunch. We agreed that we would meet at the cars for lunch at noon.
We dressed like trees, camouflaged from head-to-foot. Just before dawn, three new trees entered the woods along a worn path to blend in with the other trees. We followed the sound of a gurgling brook, which through the years had cut down through the exposed shale bedrock. We were together at first, but at the slightest of signals, one-by-one, we veered off in a direction perpendicular to the path…and so it went until each of the three new trees were moving separately toward their pre-determined place in the woods. With the sun rising and each of us safely sitting in our stands, we began the “hunt.”
Let’s set things straight. The “hunt” was never about hunting. Two facts: 1) Sitting in the woods on a late Fall morning was like sitting in a freezer (99% of the people we knew were still asleep in a warm bed), and 2) The deer were smarter than us (100% of them and they were also still asleep)! It was unspoken amongst us, but the “hunt” was about the bonds between men…about spending good times together, enjoying each others company. Although sitting there alone and freezing twenty-feet above the ground was contrary to that objective, it did give us time to make up stories about seeing deer and missing shots. We knew the best times were when we were together. And while we feigned hubris regarding who would break down in the cold first to head back to the cars, more often than not, we met at the cars simultaneously ready for our noon lunch together. Usually around 10 a.m.!
Lunch was typically hamburgers cooked on a hibachi. Like hotdogs at a baseball game, hamburgers always tasted best when they were cooked by my dad while we were hunting. We gathered around the hibachi for warmth and conversation. On special occasions, our hunting buddy would bring venison stew. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s venison.” “What’s venison?” “It’s deer.” “They sell it in the stores now, but they call it venison.” “That’s interesting.” I said as I yawned. “Boy, I could use a few more hours of sleep…huh…you say you can purchase deer in a grocery store?”
The afternoon (after lunch) hunt was typically shorter. It was daylight now; the “venison” were moving about, which allowed them to show us how much smarter they were. On one occasion, the three of us were walking down the fire road away from the cars. We started to enter the woods about 100 yards down. With our first step into the woods, we saw a big buck take one step out of the woods…right in front of our cars! In response, we backed out of the woods and, on queue, the deer walked back into the woods…we stepped back into the woods and the deer walked back out…and so it went! I suggested that maybe next time we should leave the car doors open! “We could rush the woods and the deer would jump right into one of the cars!” A good idea my father responded, “…but no…deer carjackings are difficult for insurance companies to understand!”
Over the years, we hunted with several other buddies. On a few occasions, my brother also joined the “hunt.” Being the newbie, I would explain to him the basics. Things like “We’ll give you a 15-minute head start!” and “If you get into trouble, shoot 3 arrows straight into the air and, by no means, should you move from your location…after you shoot the arrows…stay put!” “Trust us, we’ve been trained on these things!” “Don’t listen to your brother…you only get a 10-minute head start!”
Weather permitting, there were days when, by consensus, we would forgo the “afternoon hunt” and drive directly to the diner. Pre-selected for its interior design of deer-illustrated wallpaper, we used the illustrations as a reminder of our quarry, as we seldom saw such examples in the woods. We also used the time to talk and catch up…and the food wasn’t bad either.
Years passed and my father grew ill. Cancer had made him too weak to hunt. I used the little time left to just be with him. Like sitting in a tree stand in silence, it was more about enjoying each others presence than trying to communicate what we already knew. We never did bag a deer together…in the woods or at the grocery store! But it went without saying that we had many successful “hunts.” Our time together formed a unique bond between us…hunting was “our thing.”
Toward the end of my father’s life, our hunting buddy stopped by to spend time with my dad. “Let’s go check out Morgan Hill…get ready for the next hunt!” He helped my dad into his car and they drove one last time to our “hunting grounds.”
I don’t know what they talked about; they had been friends for years going back to the days they worked together as typesetters…I’m sure there was much to talk about. But maybe they spent their time together in silence…one last “hunt.” They returned to the house later that day. Our friend helped his friend, by dad, back into the house. He then unburdened his car of the rocks he had collected down at Morgan Hill on that day; flat rocks of shale for my parent’s backyard garden. Momentoes of their last “hunt.”
My father passed away in March of 2003. Our hunting buddy passed away this week and, with his passing, a chapter in my life has now closed. I will always reflect back upon those times together with appreciation, respect and happiness. Appreciation for the time we had together, respect for the bond between two good men, and happiness both for the stories they have left me with and the ability to tell others. Those “hunts” were some of the best times of my life. Three men giving up their “lost hour of sleep” to spend time together in the woods; communal with nature and each other. I can see the two of them together again, sitting in a diner decorated with deer print wallpaper, catching up on old times. “Did you see that large buck pass on through at 7 this morning.” I did, but I didn’t have a shot.” “I didn’t either…but he was a beauty!” “We’ll get him next time.”
And when you see me, ask me about the cow in the woods…I’d love to tell you that story…