Article contributed by Editor in Chief J. Townsend.
This is not your normal hunting story. There is no grand adventure in the backcountry or freezer full of fresh meat. The thoughts of this story, even as I write, resound so deeply inside me and every time I recollect that day I am a little embarrassed, thankful, and sad all in the same moments. As I have grown older, I can successfully reflect on this situation and know that I took something very meaningful away from that cold day deer hunting in Southeastern Oklahoma in the late 1990s, when I was just a kid.
Like many other people who are passionate about the outdoors, my grandfather (who also acted much as my father) fueled my love for hunting and fishing. He established a good foundation for a love that continues to grow every day. When I was in my teenage years I lost my grandfather to cancer. I lost my best friend, mentor, fishing buddy, hunting partner when he passed. From that day forward, I had to chisel my own path in the outdoors and began to learn from others around me, as well as A LOT of trial and error on my own. In saying all of this, I guess that this story stands out in my head so very vivid because it was one of the last times I hunted with my grandfather, my worst hunting experience, and also one of the most compassionate experiences I have felt to date.
Let me set the scene. Growing up hunting in Oklahoma we did not spot and stalk game. You either sat in a tree stand, box blind, or found some natural ground covering. You sat there and waited for a deer to walk by on a game trail while it was traveling to or from food/water. When I first began hunting, I hunted primarily the rifle season which was during the week of Thanksgiving. My family did not own a large amount of land so my grandfather would secure us a place to hunt several months in advance. We would go out and scout the area a few times prior to the season. Sometimes we had the opportunity to hunt with some guys who maintain a good amount of land leased for hunting which contained box blinds and tree stands.
This leased land is where this particular story took place. When we hunted this area we would get the pick of stands where none of the other hunters were hunting and where the guys thought I could shoot a deer. This particular day we had been suggested a small tree stand. Unfortunately there was only enough room for me so my grandfather would wait in the car while I hunted.
We arrived early in the morning. Just like most November mornings in Oklahoma, it was cold with a steady breeze. Back then I did not own fancy camouflage that you see many hunters using now. I was decked out in military surplus woodland camo jacket, camo pants, uninsulated boots, an orange vest, and a military web type belt. I think that at this point I had been only hunting a couple of years on my own and had taken all of the appropriate hunter education classes and was raised on gun safety. Needless to say, I was educated but still a novice hunter.
We walked into the woods trying to be as quiet as possible with the rustling of oak leaves. After about a quarter of a mile we arrived at the stand. My grandfather shined the flashlight up the tree and I followed the peg like footsteps up the tree and imagined how awkwardly they had been drilled into the tree. They literally twisted around the tree like a spiral staircase as they maneuvered around branches. As I recall, the tree stand was probably about 25 feet from the ground. In my mind, it seemed like it was 50 or 100 feet from the ground. I was already nervous. I was not then, nor am I now, a big fan of heights, but I did not want to let my grandfather down so I prepared myself to climb. My grandfather, sensing the sunrise, decided to return to the car as not to scare away the deer.
I sucked up my courage and began climbing. I got up exactly two steps before my belt buckle snagged on one of the pegs and snapped like a twig. Half of the buckle exploded to the right and the other half to the left into the leaves. My pants fell to half-mast because they were probably a size or two larger than what I needed. I froze, underwear in the breeze, trying to suck my belly in enough to tie my belt back togetherâ€¦. Which was not going to happen. I climbed back down and had a mental dialogue. Light bulb! I took off my orange vest and stripped the plastic edging off of one side and laced it through my belt loops and tie it together to hold my pants up. The edging was a little flexible so it was not great, but I would hold my pants.
Now it was time to climb again. It was beginning to lighten up in the woods so I carefully scrambled up the pegs, which seemed like it took forever. Finally I made it to the top and settled myself into the stand. I pulled my gun up using the adjacent rope and chambered a round. My first deer rifle was lever action Marlin 30-30 with a 3-10×45 scope. The hammer had an extension on the side so you could lower it or cock easier with the scope on the rifle. I my gloves made it a little awkward so I had to take them off to lower the hammer.
I was now ready for the deer, but the morning passed without a deer sighting. The experience as a whole was growing more cold and frustrating by the minute. Hope-drained, I gathered myself to begin my descent. I removed the rounds from my rifle and lowered it down. I think that climbing back down the tree was far worse than climbing up and took twice as long.
Finally on the ground, I looked up at that deer stand and shook my head in discontent. I slid two rounds back into my rifle and chambered the round. I had to take my glove off again to lower the hammer. I wanted to be ready if I saw a deer on the walk back to the car. About halfway through, I made my biggest mistake. I heard some rustling in the brush a ways off (which was probably a squirrel) and decided that I wasnâ€™t â€œreadyâ€ enough. I cocked the hammer back on the rifle and continued walking.
At this point in the day, I was so frustrated and upset that I just wanted to sit in the warm car and sip coffee with my grandfather. I topped the next hill, fumbling with my rifle and trying to keep my pants up at the same time. About 25 yards from the car, my grandfather noticed me and hopped out of the car to meet me. I was so delighted to see him. He asked what had happened, as I probably looked a mess, holding my pants ups, vest torn, wearing a look of extreme discomfort. Before answering, I decided to lower the hammer on the gun. I pointed the gun at the ground, pulled the hammer back slightly to take control, squeezed the trigger, and began slowly moving the hammer forward. In my frustration, I forgotten to take my gloves off. My gloved thumb slipped and the hammer quickly fell and struck the primer. The bullet fired, dirt and leaves exploded upward, and there was now a 3 inch hole in the dirt about 4 inches from the toe of my boot.
I froze, my grandfather froze, we both looked at the hole in a brief moment of confusion. All I remember at that point was the welling of emotions as tears filled my eyes. My grandfather recognized my emotion and quickly grabbed me in a deep comforting hug. As I look back on that day, now a father myself, I see how great a father he was. He did not scold me or yell at me for making my mistake. He knew that I understood my Â mistake. The most important thing was that we were both uninjured and he held up his responsibility to just hug me out of love. After the hug, he took the rifle, patted me on the back, and suggested breakfast. We never spoke of that morning ever again.
Had my grandfather acted differently that day I feel like I never would have stepped into the woods again. I would have shelved my passion for the outdoors. He did what was right. He loved and understood in a moment when so many others could have yelled and scolded. So many lessons came from that day. Remember to be safe and take proper precautions, but also remember to love, forgive, understand, and show compassion to those who are new to the outdoors. Everyone will make mistakesâ€¦ you just have to be there to help them when they do. Happy Fatherâ€™s Day!