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Giving thanks

12/16/2008

I drove to the old deer camp last week. It looks nothing like it did then. The field where we pitched tents is overgrown now. Most of the woodlands we hunted are bean fields. When I arrived, though, a big buck bounded away, and memories came flooding back.

I was twelve when my best friend's older brother Jimmy took me there for my first deer hunt. That was forty years ago, but I can recall every detail.

A dozen men were there — relatives, neighbors and friends. We set up camp and then ran nets in the river. The catfish we caught were our supper.

I remember how warm the cook tent felt on that cold November night and the coolness of my hand-me-down sleeping bag when I climbed inside after dark. We woke before dawn on Thanksgiving, and an hour later I was sitting on my stand — a 5-gallon bucket beneath a big oak.

I fidgeted, sighting down the barrel of a borrowed 12-gauge, booming away at imaginary bucks with hat-rack antlers. Then, suddenly, a hullabaloo rang through the bottoms. The dogs had struck; a race was on!

I hoped they were chasing a big buck. One of the men had killed an eight-pointer from my stand just the week before.

"After I shot that buck, his grandpappy ran hell-for-leather out of that thicket over there," Wilson told me when we arrived at the stand that morning. "A ten-pointer at least. Sit still this morning, and when the dogs strike, be ready."

The bawling pack was in full chorus now. Then a gunshot rang out and a yell. The beagles veered away from me. In the distance, I saw a deer's white flag and the dogs in hot pursuit.

The chase had passed me by. I slumped on the bucket and breathed easy again.

Near lunch time, I decided to head back to camp. As I stood, a movement caught my eye. I slowly turned and saw a magnificent buck walking out of the thicket Wilson had pointed out earlier. The deer stopped, looked back and then continued its unhurried advance. I picked an opening and braced myself to shoot.

The buck was more spectacular than even a young boy could have imagined. I was overcome by a sickening feeling. Try as I might, I couldn't squeeze the trigger. The old whitetail walked away and disappeared.

My first deer hunt was over.

I hunted with the same men at that same camp many times. But as all good things do, it came to an end.

As I stood at the campsite this Thanksgiving, however, I was filled with the spirit of the holiday. You see, I was raised by my mother and grandmother. I had no father or grandfathers to hunt with. But thanks to the many good men in our community — relatives, friends, teachers, clergymen — the hunting tradition was passed on to me.

It started on that first deer hunt, and as I stood at the old camp last week, I gave thanks for the generosity and compassion of those men. Because of them, I am a hunter. And for that, I'm eternally grateful.