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  • November 15th, 2019



                By Joel M. Vance


                Every morning at sunrise recently when I went to get the newspaper, I heard the distant boom of rifle fire from the Conservation Department shooting range 5 miles away. It is that time of year— when deer hunters sight in their rifles, groups of three shots, hoping to put each bullet in a silver dollar sized spot on targets 50 yards away so they can likewise put a bullet through the heart of the largest antlered buck of their fervid imaginations, come deer season.



The season opens tomorrow. I will not be in the woods at dawn because of a combination of age, lack of conditioning, and sheer laziness. But good luck to those who brave the cold, the discomfort of the hard edges that invariably define where the hunter sits, and enduring the bitter residual taste of powerful coffee, brewed in what, for those like me who choose to stay in bed, is the pit of the night.


Each of those zeroing shots has triggered a memories of long ago at a time when we all were edging toward the inevitable. They say that bitter memories fade in time, leaving only recollections of the good times. It is true. Once, I spent much of every deer hunting season with Spence Turner and Dave Mackey, two of the best guys ever to share field and forest with, now sadly both gone.


But the memories do remain and they are good.  I wrote the following chronicle of deer hunting misadventures and stuck it in a drawer and forgot it until now. I can’t bring Spence and Dave back except in memory but I cherish every moment we spent together, Even when it wasn’t so good, it was good.  As the announcer on the Lone Ranger radio show used to say “Come with me once again to those thrilling days of yesteryear.”  Here they are—okay, some maybe not so thrilling….


                A country thrush is singing “Cool Hearted Man” on Spence’s truck radio and his dashboard clock blinks “1:38,” which means we either are very, very early or his clock is out of commission.  It is misting and chilly and dark as only pre-dawn on an overcast deer opener can be.


                We are heading for the Taj Mahal of deer blinds, a shack with windows—far more elaborate than the rickety tree blinds I’m accustomed to.  Our buddy Dave Mackey, weary of crouching in a tree that is swaying in a bitter north wind, has provided the blind.  It has comfortable chairs and an empty milk jug into which we are ordered by Dave to relieve ourselves.  “Don’t you dare pee around my blind—you’ll run every deer out of the country.” 


                The jug hangs from a nail above our heads, a pale reminder in the dark.   A thinking hunter would not drink several cups of coffee before the hunt, nor take a Thermos to the blind because of the inevitable imperative.  But Spence and I each have a Thermos filled with coffee strong enough to float a boat anchor.


                I don’t know why I’m here, other than terminal stupidity and the Vance family unwillingness to give up in the face of overwhelming odds.  I am in the best deer county of the state, but there is a curse in effect.  When I was little I went to movies that featured monsters that appeared to have cornered the market on surgical gauze, and they were forever laying curses on guys who messed with their tanna leaves.  I never messed with anybody’s tanna leaves, but it has to be a curse because I never kill a deer at Dave’s.  I never see a deer at Dave’s.  I can hunt at Dave’s until I’m ready to drop and then go to the little cabin which serves as hunter headquarters, dragging my rifle, not to mention my butt, and there will be a knot of fellow hunters admiring each other’s freshly killed trophy bucks.        


                It has happened too many times to be coincidence.  Once I sat in a rickety blind for four hours on a sleety afternoon.  There was a semi-roof but most of me was exposed.  I did not see a deer all afternoon, but when I left the blind there was a line of tracks within 20 feet of the back of it.  I came down with a monster cold.


                Another time I sat in a tree, facing a gully that was an Interstate for deer, a travel lane so auspicious that deer were drawn to it from other states.  The temperature was about 15 degrees and the wind was directly in my face, but no matter because it would be only minutes until I could pick a trophy from among a herd of deer. 


                I sat there until I was unable to feel anything from the neck down and then I went back to the deer shack where Dave’s preacher, an elderly gentleman physically unable to hunt in any other way, had briefly left the warmth of the wood stove, quietly opened the door, and shot a nice doe that crossed in front of the cabin, about 50 yards away.  Dave was field dressing it as I heard the story.


                I came down with a case of laryngitis that kept me from cussing for a week. 


                Another time I was in a blind in the middle of a crop stubble field when a huge buck, the kind you brag about until people can’t stand you anymore, headed directly toward me.  As I later reconstructed his path, he would have come so close that I could have stuck the gun barrel in his ear. 


                Except that Tim Schrage shot him about 100 yards before he rounded the bend.  I helped Tim load the buck in his pickup and it was all we could do to wrestle the huge animal over the tailgate.  Gee, that was fun!


                As George Santayana said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” and thus I am stumbling down a steep hill in the pit of night, following Spence who claims he knows how to find the Taj Mahal.  I had been with Spence in broad daylight when he got lost.  Once he took two of us trout fishing on a stream where he’d fished many times and we explored a half-dozen gravel roads before he stopped at a farmhouse and trotted to the door to phone a friend for directions.  The other fellow said, “You know, God must have been drunk when he made Spence.”


                We struggle up a steep hill and watch for a side trail; otherwise, Dave has told us, we will be in a tangle of brush from which no one ever has returned—kind of the Bermuda Triangle of deer habitat.  I spot the side trail, give thanks that I have gotten this far without being attacked by catamounts, and we climb yet another hill.  This is North Missouri, not Nepal, but you couldn’t tell by looking at 5 a.m.


                The blind is a darker blot on a dark landscape.  I stumble across rough ground, plowed by Dave’s grandson for a wildlife food plot.  The blind is in the middle of it.  Bryan has planted radishes and other garden produce for the deer which, we hope, will appreciate the salad course so we can appreciate the meat course. 


                “I didn’t get carpet down, so it’s noisy,” Dave had told us.  “You have to be careful.”  The night is as still as the jungle after a big cat kill, everything holding its breath.  Spence prepares his nest with the finesse of a water buffalo in rut.  He clatters the chair, clomps the floor with his boots, rummages in his kit bag like someone stirring ball bearings in a tin can.  “Looking for some stinkum,” he says.  Finally he finds deer scent and goes to scatter it on the wind.  I shake my head, imagining trophy bucks just crossing the county line, fleeing the cacophony.


                Finally Spence is back and settles in, and silence momentarily returns to the woods.  Then Dave appears, wearing rain gear that rustles with the sound of someone ripping 15 yards of Velcro.  I pour a cup of coffee in the dark of the blind, misjudging the flow so it slops over the top of the cup, scalding my hand and my legs where I have the cup clamped.  I try not to scream—bad form when deer hunting—and whisper Old English words.


                It now is light enough to distinguish a deer from a tree.  Dave has eyes like a barred owl and he whispers, “Two does!” to Spence, who somehow has gotten himself in the right position.  I possibly could knock him out of the way, stand on his neck while I take the shot, but the uncharitable thought is quickly gone—not because I’m charitable, but because he can whip me.


                Spence aims, fires and I see the flick of the tail of the deer that he killed.  This is my deer sighting for the day.  I spend the next three hours getting progressively colder, buttsprung and weary.  I fall asleep at least one thousand times for five seconds each time.  I see deer in the weeds at the top of the hill, but when I put the scope on them they are weeds.  A half-dozen turkeys eddy into the clearing below us and regard the blind with the same suspicion a spinster lady regards a bum clutching a paper sack from which the neck of a wine bottle protrudes.  They retreat into the woods, probably to alert the deer that would have been mine if there was any justice in this world.


                There are numerous shots in the distance  “That’s good,” says Spence, who has his deer so everything is good.  “That’ll run them toward us.”  A good theory, like the one that maintained that the Earth is flat.  Finally Spence, who no doubt is running over venison recipes in his mind, says, “Well, let’s go get some lunch.”    At the cabin an eight-pointer sprawls on the tailgate of Phil’s pickup.  Todd has a six pointer.  There are several does, freezer fodder.  Everyone has at least one deer.  Everyone else, that is.  They have their deer and they are drinking coffee and telling tales of success.  I have what I always have, grim resignation.  I wait for the inevitable question, “So, how’d you do?” 


                “Never saw a deer.”  I growl the words as if chewing carpet tacks.  Phil says, “Gee, I’ll bet I saw 30 deer this morning.”  Not realizing that his words are battery acid on my wounded pride.  I rub my gritty eyes, get a cup of coffee that tastes like gall and wormwood, the bitter Biblical drink that punishes man for idolatry.


                I don’t think it applies to the idolatry of deer, but maybe so.  Maybe it’s not the mummy’s curse; instead a great voice from the skies that thunders, “I don’t know Vance—there’s just something about you that really ticks Me off.”  Perhaps Spence will invite me over for venison chili.      


Memories of the thrilling days of yesteryear…..




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