After high school, I made a decision to join the U. S. Navy, and it was here in boot camp that I encountered my first education with a “piece”, the naval term for an M-1 Rifle. The one I carried “everywhere” was a “plugged” model that was intended for drills, parades and learning care and maintenance of any later issue we might be given. In boot camp I learned the basic operations of several weapons common in navy life, and scored the marksman level on the M-1 on the shooting range. Thus, on my discharge four years later in 1964, I returned home somewhat equipped and ready to make my mark on the land and its wild game.
That first year back home I bought my first deer hunting rifle, a lever-action Marlin 30-30. This was prompted by the fact that my new girl friend’s family were avid hunting enthusiasts. If there was a season on it, they tried to insure that the family was well-stocked with its meat for the table. Beginning with Virginia’s father, Silby, then her brother James, and finally his son Jimmy, all were regularly camo outfitted. The family had bird dogs, as well, so you can guess the drill. My appearance on the scene was met immediately by constant invitations to join the hunts, so the purchased rifle was duly “sighted-in” and ready for action.
Thinking back, however, though always a party to the glowing results of an expedition, I never ventured forth. Perhaps my need to work, and the fact that when I returned home from the navy, I had begun preaching and pasturing a local church, kept me from the timing needed to pick-up such a hobby with any degree of regularly. So, seasons passed and so did the 30-30, to my cousin, for a little less than the price I had in it.
Fast-forwarding about three years, I did take a college course in archery, and my better than average scores once again rekindled my imagination. This time it was to the growing popularity of bow hunting. I could just imagine myself as a modern-day Robin Hood, fulfilling the dreams of a youngster with a homemade cedar bow and hogweed arrows. This, too, however, joined the “gun-toting” idea and endangered no wildlife afield. Again, it was not for lack of opportunity, for my marriage to Virginia continued my “wealth” of stories that her family would bring constantly to the gatherings and visits.
One last bit of my “hunt-less” history I will share before I continue the story of my first real personal discovery of this most basic and early American pastime. My ministry of 46 years has put me into contact with hunters in every place I have served. It is this that has kept my interest, though lack of hands-on experience, alive. Equally so, our two daughters married men who were also entrenched in the hunting sport from their youths. Add four grandsons and one granddaughter to the mix, and my non-participation regimen was soon to be ended.
Fast forward to present. The date is November, 2010, and the plan was for the whole clan to come home for our traditional Thanksgiving. We first received a call from Kevin, our oldest daughter Michele’s husband. It was his desire to find a place locally where he might get a chance to deer hunt for a day. The second call was made to Kirk, our youngest daughter’s husband, to see if he concurred in preparing to equip for an anticipated hunt. Duh! A call was then made to Virginia’s brother to check on a possible location. Double Duh! It was a done deal before the phone lines were cold.
Then came the call and faithful invitation. Kirk had been hunting at his folks on their trip, and had two guns on board if I wanted to go with them. Add the encouragement of two daughters determined to see their Dad finally bitten by the hunt-bug, and joining the ranks of the “camo-ed” set, and I was “hooked…er, chambered, cocked and sighted-in” before I knew what had happened.
I have to admit, the “bug” bit good as Kirk arrived with his crew, and we struck out for Walmart’s display of all things camouflage. We found the necessities for a warm disguise against the elements and any would-be discerning game we might encounter. I bought overalls, a well-insulated hooded-coat and matching high-top canvas boots. He had already provided me with protective orange vest and hat he had. Additionally, he would provide me with the primary tool of all hunters – the rifle, a 30-06 semiautomatic. I was ready with the anticipation of a youngster with his first bb gun.
After partner Kevin arrived with the rest of our clan of eleven, we launched into the Thanksgiving festivities with gusto, then for dessert on Thursday afternoon, the hunting trio suited up and made our way to meet Virginia’s brother James, accompanied by his grandson Brad, an excited youngster with his own hunt-stories to share, which he did as we made our way to scout-out the best sites for the next morning’s hunt. In the group I felt younger than Brad, for I was still an untried novice in the game.
Weaving our way through the woods with trees naked of the greater part of their foliage, now a thick carpet of leaves crunching underfoot, I could imagine how difficult it would be to find our way before dawn, without making sounds that would alert the deer we hoped to claim the next day. Moving more slowly than the others, Kevin and I determined to let the others push farther to locate the best sites, which they did and then returned to us with a good idea of where to set up “shop” the next morning. My thoughts during this part of the hunt’s preparations were not nearly as dramatically vivid as the next morning’s would be, though my senses were beginning to “tune-up” to the sights and sounds of the place known as Stone Mountain.
That night, I restlessly slept, awaking almost hourly to check the clock, only to discover that the hands were moving ridiculously slow. The kid in me returned with a hyper-vengeance of anticipation as I neared what almost seemed a military operation’s zero-hour. When the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m., I reacted almost like a soldier in that intended mission. I commented to the guys as I donned my “camo” outfit, that that’s what I felt like, and the image was no less real when the rifles were loaded into the pickup’s covered bed for the 30 minute drive to our designated mountain ridge. On the way, I nervously queried my sons-in-law about what to expect that morning, trying to bolster my courage against what for me was an “unknown” enemy attempting to steal my desired thrll of accomplishment.
I questioned regarding the safety of having three persons in separate locations, perhaps in “line of fire” from the others. I was assured that the locations would be at safe distance and below line of sight. I pumped them about what to do when the game was hit but not immediately down, how long and when to track. Remembering stories of the unusual, I even covered such issues as what to do if a black bear shows up, or a angry deer charges you. I tried to be as calm sounding as I could, but my guess is that both were well aware of my tensions, though they graciously did not let on.
I suppose my real confrontation with a combination of “understanding” and “fear” came when we arrived at the place where we would begin our walk along and down the ridge. When Kirk took the 30-06 out of the case, showed me how to load the clip and slip the safety, handing me extra shells to pocket, then placing it into my hands, a whole new feeling overcame me. Trying to remember the hunter’s rules about carrying a rifle in a group, ever mindful of keeping the barrel pointed away from everyone, including myself, were constant nagging thoughts. Maintaining whispered tones and trying to walk quietly through the brush and leaves which were just bare shadows in the early pre-dawn hour also kept my mind-line on busy.
Fifteen minutes into the trek we dropped off Kevin at his selected sight, and fifty yards later we began to descend at the end of the ridge. In the pre-dawn dim, we picked our way around ledges and through a line of cedars which marked a definite change in the terrain of the slope, and after another two hundred yards or so, finally stopped to survey the field of sight. Ahead of us thirty yards lay a ridge and drop-off into the hollow below. Here Kirk pointed to a likely tree for my stand, indicated he was going to circle the ridge and find his own likely seat, and quietly faded into the underbrush.
My stand! A tree growing out of sloping hillside covered with a dusting of snow. A fallen branch lay diagonally in front of the tree. Pulling it out a foot or so, I tossed my vinyl cushion at the tree’s base and eased myself down upon it. I found that my left foot had an ideal prop against the branch, and with my right heel I dug into the earth to create another. Laying the rifle across my lap, I felt I was settling for a “long winter’s nap” or so to speak!
As I indicated it was cold that morning, but I was sufficiently layered from head to foot. A black ski-mask, topped by my borrowed orange kept my head, ears and face comfortably warm. Two long-sleeved t-shirts and a flannel one were hidden beneath my insulated “camo” jacket, with its required hunting decoration, the orange vest. Completing my ensemble were a pair of sweat pants, jeans, “camo” overalls and boots containing my two-sock-layered feet. I felt and just knew I looked somewhat like the little brother of The Christmas Story fame, who having fallen in his snowsuit, could not get up! When I needed to, his plight might be mine, as well!
Having thus wallowed and settled myself as comfortably as possible against the tree, I first checked the 30-06 safety and sighted through the scope as best I could in the early light. Satisfied I could perform the functions required, I then began to survey my new domain. Kirk had chosen well, for I had clear line of sight for at least 30 yards in front and on both sides. The air was still, and there was not a leaf stirring, nor any sounds I could detect. I was alone, on a strange hillside, about to do something I had no background of experience to draw from. It is amazing what the imagination can begin to create in such situations and mine was no slouch in the task.
My first thought was finding a tree I could climb in the event that an unexpected bear came upon my position. Oh, no! There was none that afforded access to my aging and somewhat “stout” frame. I’d just have to shoot him and hope I didn’t make him mad instead of dead. Either way, running would be my option. And my imagination did not seem helped by the assurance I’d been given that bears in this region were very unlikely. My thought was, “do the bears know that?”
As dawn began to break and lightened the sky, I noted that a breeze began its own trek into the woods, and with it, the rustlings of leaves, many of which finally gave up their hold and fell to join their comrades on the ground. Birds also began to lift their cries. My ears strained to decipher the sounds that might reflect something more than these, movement that might reveal four legs and a set of horns.
It was during this period of watchfulness that another, more serious contemplation began its battle for my mind and heart. As a pastor with soldiers in the congregation, in an era of heightened awareness of conflicts in the middle east and the accompanying stories of soldiers in harm’s way, I could almost identify with their mental gymnastics in the field. After all, I was in camouflage with a weapon in my hands, waiting for whatever would come into my line of vision, friend or foe. As I dwelt on the subject, I imagined their feelings and thoughts, perhaps facing a similar ridge, and not knowing what might come into sight that required a life or death decision.
That 30-06 became very heavy in my hands, and its power even heavier in my mind and heart. I literally possessed the power of life and death in those moments, and the accompanying fear was greater than any imaginary bear or other threat I could conjure-up. Indeed, I had no qualms about shooting a deer to harvest its meat, or a bear to protect myself, but the fact of a life in my hands I could not shake.
As I sat there, my preparations for Sunday’s sermon came to mind. A study from John’s Revelation of the little scroll he was given and told to eat, and warned it would be both sweet and bitter when he did. The sweet was the realization that it was indeed the Word of God, but the bitter was the fact that the message was one of judgment, literally a matter of life and death, both dependent on the decisions the recipients would make about the message they heard. My situation at that moment was the perfect picture illustration for Sunday’s sermon, and my present personal experience the passion to convey it.
Slowly time passed as I continued to weigh these and other thoughts. The sun’s rise beginning to turn the opposite hillside into a glowing array of browns and yellows caught my attention and I began to consider the God Who put all of it together. It was a time of worship as I saw an unfolding canvas of creation and the hand of God painting the ever changing scene. My fears and imaginary dangers dissolved as I allowed Him to take my mind where He would. Still strangely alert to the anticipated sounds of movement, I was at peace, comfortable in His presence.
Time moved forward. It had been an over two hour vigil. A glance at my watch revealed it was about 8:45. I decided to get up and stand for a time behind a nearby tree that was large enough to afford some protection from the cold breeze and detection by any deer that might finally come my way. Surprisingly, my padding did not prevent getting to my feet, which were only slightly chilled. I mentally thanked my partners for their clothing counsels.
After another fifteen minutes of “stand-standing” and the realization I had heard no rifle reports nearby, I determined to begin my climb up the ridge. It was a slow-go picking my way through the now lighted woods, but pacing myself I made the climb with no problem. I did not encounter either of my partners until I reached the pickup, where I found Kevin in the cab. He’d said that he’d seen Kirk a few minutes earlier, and was told he was going to check on my status. Neither had seen or detected any game during our hunt. After blowing the horn to signal Kirk of my return, I shared my morning’s experience and had some photos taken for proof of our hunt. With Kirk’s return, we made our way back to town, and there at Shoney’s ate a well-deserved brunch.
When asked if my hunt was successful, I’ve replied, “amazingly so, for though I saw and heard no game to bag, I felt I had a trophy that would long remain on the mantle of my mind and heart. And hopefully, my sharing of the experience with you, my readers, will challenge and encourage your own hunts, both physical and spiritual.