Some of my favorite memories as a kid in Jackson were the hunting expeditions with my dad. Hunting was a way of life for many folks. Pull up to any gas station at 11am on a Saturday morning in October and you’d find a truck with camouflaged men and deer in the bed.
My dad loved the outdoors. He grew up in Valdosta, Georgia where he spent his weekends fishing, duck hunting and deer hunting. He passed that love to us. I had two older brothers and they had been hunting with dad for several years and had killed their first deer. By the time I was 7, he wanted to take me, which I had eagerly awaited. While hunting never became quite the passion for me as it was for him, I did enjoy that time.
He was serious about gun safety. He ensured I took my gun safety course and he pressed me at every step. “Will, treat a gun like it’s loaded every time you hold it even if it’s not.” “Always keep the barrel pointed to the ground.” He owned lots of guns. He was a prison warden and although he wore a suit and tie to work, I came to learn there was always a gun and his badge within his reach. He joined a local deer hunting club off of Brownlee Road. I remember the first time he took me. “Will, this is Mr. Billy.” Billy organized the club and was generally known as one of the premier hunters in Jackson as evidenced by the deer heads hanging in his house and rabbit stews he would host in the winter. He was good man who talked with a toothpick in his mouth. “You come on out with the guys tomorrow and we’ll get you a deer.”
We hunted on Saturdays. Sundays were dedicated to church. I went to bed early that Friday night. I felt a light tap on my shoulder, then the flickering of lights. It was 4:30 in the morning and already I could smell bacon and hear grease popping. We had an entire closet dedicated to camouflage and boots. I geared up, ate my breakfast and headed to the truck. My dad had the loudest truck in Jackson, which seemed like a bad idea if you were trying to sneak up on on deer. It was an old yellow Ford truck with no muffler or heat, but it had it had big tires for muddy roads which came in handy in the red slick clay of middle Georgia. It had a gun rack in the back window with a Bugs Bunny sticker, which seemed odd but gave it a little character. As an aside, prisoners on work detail one afternoon near our house hot-wired the truck and sped off in an attempted escape. They ran over our bushes on the way out of town. But with a truck that yellow, loud and slow, they were caught 10 miles down the road. Apparently one of the prisoners lamented, “You would think the warden would own a better truck.”
We pulled into into the hunting club and parked our truck near the others. It was a heavily wooded area. My dad inspected the map of the deer stands. It was stapled to a wooden sign with hard plastic covering the map and a red pencil hanging down for the hunters to mark where they were hunting that morning.
We grabbed our guns. I hunted with a 30/30. My dad had taken me the week before for target practice. He taught me how to put it on safety, which was no easy task. You had to pull the firing hammer half-way back until it clicked. But perhaps the scariest part for me was learning how to take a fully cocked firing hammer and bring it to safety. Because it was a lever action gun, every time you loaded ammo you put it into a firing position. I learned to apply pressure on the hammer with my thumb and squeeze the trigger and slowly bring the hammer to a fully disengaged position. But a slip of the thumb would mean an accidental firing. It terrified me.
As we sat on the tailgate, my dad brought me over a brown bottle. I said, “Dad, what is that?” “We’re going to put some of this on your boots.” It was an awful smell. It was fox urine that was meant to hide the human scent. We headed for our deer stand in the cold morning, our boots stomping the hard dirt and the deer sure to mistake me for a fox.
I climbed the nails hammered into the side of the tree and my dad followed me up. We pulled our rifles us with a rope with barrels pointing downward. We sat in the cold. My dad pulled out a tall green thermos and I could hear the slight squeak as he turned it. He poured a cup of coffee with a little steam rising that you could see now as the orange sun slid through the trees. He sipped it and offered me a cup. It might as well have been a beer the moment felt so important.
We sat in the cold. My dad read a magazine while my head was on a swivel. I was sure every squirrel rustling below was a 10 point buck. Suddenly, I heard the faint sound of barking dogs. My dad looked up from his magazine. He gave me a nod to say it was nothing. I put the gun back down. The barking grew louder. This time dad put the magazine down. In the distance, I could see it. It was a big deer with big antlers. “Will, get your gun ready.” The dogs were still out of sight, but it was obvious they were on the trail of this deer. “When he stops, I want you to shoot him.” I whispered, “No, I’ll miss. You shoot him.” “Get your gun ready.” I put my eye to the rifle’s scope and could see the brown and white fur. But it never stopped. It kept a good pace. “Will, just take a shot.” My heart was pounding. I cocked my rifle, felt the cold brass of the trigger and had him in sight. “You shoot him daddy. I’ll miss.” My dad pulled up his rifle, but it was too late.
All we could see was a white tail flying in the air, sprinting in glided motion to the horizon. A few minutes later the dogs appeared under our stand. “Well, that’s ok Will.”
On the way home, we stopped for gas at the local Gulf station. Daddy went inside to get us a Coke while I pumped gas. A couple of hunters walked over to our truck and looked in the bed. “Well, it’s still early in the season.”
I hunted many more times with my dad. I never killed a deer. As I got older, I exchanged the camouflage for sports uniforms. I’m not a hunter today. I’m not sure I was one back then. Most hunters will tell you that just being in the woods, away from the noise and into the morning dew is enough. Perhaps that’s true. But for me, it was riding in that loud truck with my dad and brothers, early morning yawns and laughter that I remember most.