#008 Oh, Deer

Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day

The sun is up, the sky is blue

It’s beautiful and so are you

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

John Lennon & Paul McCartney

I lied. I promised you this would be the last post about Romney. As I go down my own personal rabbit hole, taking a few of you with me, I discover more. As a writer, to be true to mine own self, I must do what I must do. 

To quote that great American, Winston Churchill, “it will be long, it will be hard, it will be bloody.” I’m not talking about World War II. I’m talking today’s post. Coincidentally, I worked briefly for a band called World War III, but please stay to the end anyway. See, I slipped something in here about my music career. We’ll get to World War III in a couple decades from now. Figuratively, not literally.

My 10th year was eventful. After this post, I’m pretty sure one more and we can exit, stage left, Romney. A lot happened that year that with my certain strain of hindsight I now see as important.

Obviously, I celebrated my birthday, and as a right of passage I received from my dad the following gift:

A Western Auto break-action 20 gauge shotgun! I had to earn that manly firearm. I took and passed the WV Dept. of Natural Resources Hunter Safety Course. A couple of my Boy Scout buddies were there in the evenings, after school, with me. The little DNR building is still there. I spotted it the last time I passed through Romney just over a year ago. 

That fall, when squirrel season began, I really felt like a young man, walking through the woods carrying that gun, fully aware that I would only point it at something I was willing to destroy. As an exercise, Dad had me load a shell of small shot, perfect for squirrel, at a little sapling about as big around as my forearm was at that age. Kaboom!!! The baby tree was torn up badly, as was some of my hearing. No one wore protection back then. When our ears came back, Dad said now imagine as hard as that tree was, what damage would have been done to something as soft as a human? The impression, to last a lifetime, was made. 

Next, Dad took a six by six inch piece of wood about an inch thick that he’d been carrying and placed it by a tree. We walked about 10 yards away and Dad handed me a shell with a deer slug in it instead of shot. I took aim and pulled the bang switch again. The force from the slug damn near drove me backwards. There was a hole about the size of a nickel in the piece of wood! I’m not sure who was happier, Dad or me. The kid with one good eye, who couldn’t hit a baseball, the slowest one on the basketball court, the last one picked for kickball, could shoot straight!

We walked towards home, quietly listening for chirps in the trees, careful to not step on any sticks lest they snap and bely our presence. I’d reloaded with the squirrel shot. Towards the end of the journey, about 10 minutes from home, I thought I heard something, high in a tree. I looked up and something grey was moving, though not much, hard to see. Maybe it was the wind, but the chirp could be heard again. I was certain I could see it. I looked at Dad, seeking permission though at this point, as a certified WV Safe Hunter, none was needed. I took aim, squeezed yet again and damaged my hearing one more time. 

(I’ve been told by a doctor my tinnitus is probably from being around gunfire as a youth, and most likely not from loud music. Yes, and… is probably the truth.)

We waited for gravity and the Grim Reaper of Aerial Rodents to perform as expected, and nothing happened. I was disappointed to say the least. My first round fired in the battle of man versus wildlife was in vain!

Now keep in mind, my father could shoot. He could group pistol shots together at 10 yards in the space of a half dollar. He could take down three quail boom boom boom on one flush of a covey. I’d previously asked my dad how come he was such a good shot. His reply was ammo was expensive, especially growing up in Southeastern Kentucky on the banks of the Redbird River a couple decades previous. 

We waited silently for what seemed like an eternity. I was feeling worse by the moment. Dad didn’t seem to care. We turned to head towards home. As we walked away, our back now turned to the tree, we heard a thump. We returned to the tree and there lay the deceased squirrel. The Howard family tradition of Great White Hunters was being passed on. I picked up my prey and marveled at it’s gray fur tinged with black and red. It was hard to see where the shot had hit the beast. There was no blood.

On the way home, we stopped by a little shack-like cabin, or was it a cabin-like shack? Dad knew the old man that lived there. I suspected some of the man’s income came from information about who was making ‘shine in the vicinity. Perhaps the old man himself had a still and it was better to give up a few neighbors than himself. We’ll never know, but that day, my first kill was given to the old man who undoubtedly had it for his dinner. The lessons of giving and not wasting, were not wasted on me. Besides, Dad didn’t have to clean it, Mom didn’t have to cook it, so much work for so little reward. 

That November, at Romney Elementary, the principal declared in the morning announcements over the speaker in each classroom that the first day of deer season would be Deer Day, and anyone going deer hunting would be granted an excused absence. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell Dad, who, of course, said we’d go. 

That November morning of opening day of deer season was cold and clear. We left before Oh Dark Thirty. I had my hand warmers lit. I was bundled and booted appropriately, but I was still cold AF. Dad left me on a little tree-covered knoll beside the river with a view through a thin copse of trees in between. He went about a hundred yards upstream to wait himself. The sun was yet to rise above the horizon, but dawn was breaking. Mild advection fog rose from the river obscuring my view. Through frozen nostrils I could smell the cold, deciduous humus of my adopted home state of West Virginia, of my Appalachian heritage.

And then I heard the subtle crunch crunch of hooves on frosty leaves. Or did I? Maybe it was a hunter, perhaps not wearing the new, yet-to-be-popular, orange vest as I wore. Through the fog, I could see a shape. Was it a deer, an errant cow, or, hopefully not, a human? I wanted to bag a buck so bad I could feel it all the way down to my frozen toes. Damn, I couldn’t see the target. I withheld fire. And waited.

The sun rose, the fog thickened a bit, then dissipated as I froze. I listened for another deer and heard nothing, saw nothing. Shit. About a half hour later I heard my Dad’s unmistakeable whistle, loud and clear, from the right and a minute later he came into view and joined me. He asked if I’d heard the deer. I told him how I’d heard something but couldn’t ID the target. He affirmed that I’d made the right decision. Better to be prudent than commit manslaughter at such a tender young age. 

As it turned out, I was the only kid to participate in Deer Day. I felt special. I felt sorry for the other kids whose inattentive, deadbeat or panty-waisted fathers didn’t take them hunting. But then came the ultimate pisser.

The following May, when certificates for perfect attendance were handed out at the end of the school year, I expected one, and my name was not called. What the H? I HAD PERFECT ATTENDANCE. I raised my hand and asked “Where’s mine?” I was informed by my teacher that I had one absence. DEER DAY! MOTHER BLEEPING DEER DAY!

I went to the principal to appeal. He told me an absence was an absence, even an excused absence. I’m sure the seeds of a lifetime of self-righteous anger and indignation were well-planted by that day, but let me tell you, they sprouted with a vengeance. I had been set up by that bastard principal. Set up to fail! I stayed pissed for quite a while. Still, in this moment, I’m seething with anger, wishing I could remember his name so I could look him up on Find-A-Grave and take a leak on his headstone the next time I’m in West Virginia.

I know I still have some forgiving to do. There are a few graves I’d like to piss on. Hopefully they or their relatives did not choose cremation. 😉

In the meantime, ✌🏽❤️🖌

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