The Hunter and the Hunted
For many men hunting is a passion, a right, a way of life. For their young sons, the long-awaited first invitation to accompany Dad and his friends into the winter woods is more cherished than a bar mitzvah or a confirmation. Bagging your first buck is as important a gauge of emerging masculinity as losing your virginity. In fact, one sometimes follows the other. I remember at age thirteen listening wide-eyed to two seventeen-year-old neighbors describing their first visit to Kitty’s the local whorehouse. It happened on the way home from a hunting trip during which both boys had kidded their first deer.
Just before reaching the outskirts of town the proud fathers announced that they had a surprise—the trip would be topped off by a visit to Kitty’s.
“Quite a double header,” they laughed.
When the car turned into the Kitty’s driveway, the roof draped with its twin cargos of carrion crusted in frozen blood, silken-dressed hussies introduced the young heroes to another kind of kill.
When I was a little boy I waited for the first day of hunting season more expectantly than Christmas. I loved to watch my Dad get out his boots, sharpen the blade of his hunting knife and polish his gun until it shone and glistened. When the big day arrived I’d lie in bed, afraid to sleep for fear I’d miss the loud ring of the alarm clock at 2 a.m. We’d get up together, quietly, so as not to wake up Mom, shivering in the cold. I’d watch Dad pull on his long underwear and socks and clip on the broad, red suspenders that he only wore on this occasion. I loved the smell of the hot coffee in the cold kitchen as I begged him to let me go along.
“Maybe next year,” he always said, and then he was gone. As I stood at the door I’d hear the crunch of the tires on the gravel driveway and stand there until the taillights faded into the distance.
“Yeah, maybe next year,” I sighed.
I hated the time when he was away. I passed the lonely hours by playing hunter with my friends.
“I’ll bet you my bucks got more points than yours.” “Oh no it doesn’t. Mine’s got eight points.”
“Your Dad’s coming home today, Paul. I’d pick up the excitement in Mom’s voice. We’d wait together in the kitchen, listening for the honking horn that indicated that he’d bagged one. We’d focus our eyes on the hood of the care. How big was it? The big buck covered the roof and hood of the car, its elegant head positioned about the front window like a rare hood ornament.
I’d rush out the door yelling, “Dad, Dad, how many points does it have? How much does it weigh?”
It wasn’t long before the neighbors began to gather, the men helping Dad string up the buck on the big walnut tree in the yard. Then they stripped and cleaned the animal, their breath visible in the eerie light projected by the spotlight Dad hung on the garage.
When I was eight and watched Dad strip a deer for the first time, I threw up on the spot.
“Sissy,” he called me, his words stinging my ears as I ran into the house, vowing never to let that happen again. I was relieved when the roof of the car was bare the following year.
At ten I forced myself to help with the cleaning. On my eleventh birthday I got a rifle.
When I begged to go the next two years, he gently put me off. “You’re still too young, Paul, but don’t worry, your time will come soon.”
He said yes the week after I had my first wet dream. I was almost fourteen. I woke him up a whole hour early, not having slept all night. “Coffee?” he asked in the kitchen. Another first. Then we walked out the back door into a man’s world. The night was bitter cold, completely still and pitch black. Our breath almost froze as we exhaled. So many stars sparkled that I stood and gasped.
I felt his smile in the darkness, then his hand on my shoulder. “There’s Orion’s Belt,” he said with uncharacteristic tenderness, “and there’s the Milky Way.” I wanted that moment to last forever.
He urged the motor to be quiet so that we could glide out of the driveway without waking Mom. I learned later that she was watching her son pass into manhood from the dark of her room, not daring to intrude into this most sacred male rite.
We drove through the empty streets to Ben’s house. He was Dad’s hunting buddy and best friend. Ben greeted me with a firm handshake and a big bear hug. “Paul, I’m glad your old man finally let you come along. It’s about time.” The drive to the cabin was a long one, through empty streets and highways. I sat up in the backseat, sopping up every word emanating from in front.
“Paul,” my father intoned solemnly from the bible of this secret society, “never hunt by yourself. Be sure one of us knows where you are at all times.” “And never point your gun at anything unless you’re absolutely sure what it is,” chimed in the Deacon in the passenger seat. I heard the sermon every year from the time I was old enough to walk. But I loved hearing it again, particularly because it meant something this time.
“You remember Joe Nemitz’s father, don’t you?” Dad said in a stern voice. “He was killed by some f*&kin’ idiot who wasn’t careful.” I’d heard the word before, but never coming out of my Dad’s mouth. Over the next several days, I heard it more times than I could count from all the men. But I didn’t use it myself in front of Dad for many years to come, permission granted or not.
As we got closer to the cabin the lonely road was illuminated by first one set of headlights and then another and another until we were part of a procession that was too slow for my father’s taste.
“Every damn hunter in the county must be out here this morning. Make so much noise they’ll scare all the fuckin’ deer away before we get a shot.”
When we got there the cabin was already full of familiar faces acting in unfamiliar ways. They all greeted me with a big cheer. There was Uncle Bill. “It’s good to have you here, Paul.”
And Uncle Freddy. “Bet you’ve got, I mean you’ll get, a bigger one than your Dad.” Loud laughter all around while I tried not to notice.
John, our family doctor, was at the stove expertly breaking eggs over the skillet with one hand while he scrambled them with the other. My Uncle Joe, usually very quiet, was singing as he swept out the place.
The crackling fire oozed a pine odor that mingled with the potent smells of dampness, coffee and bacon. As the days went on the odor of strong, male sweat began to dominate, occasionally flavored by bursts of flatus; for farting – loudly – was another acceptable, even expected, behavior in this different place.
That first year I went through the motions of hunting, stumbling through the woods after my father. I got to hunt on my own when I was sixteen and felt proud enough to fart in front of the other men.
The next year I shot my first buck, a clean shot through the heart. It was a real beauty. Dad and I dragged the carcass out of the woods, both of us beaming. I tied it on the car, enjoying the slaps on the back from the other men.
“Paul, you’ll remember this long after you’ve forgotten your first piece of ass.” I said nothing since I had nothing to forget. I proudly drove home, taking a round-about-way through town, avoiding Kitty’s (my Dad never offered) but driving by the Spot, the local high school hangout.
My first true love, Mom, was waiting, beside herself with excitement. I strung up the deer and skinned it, later distributing the venison to the neighbors. We had the head stuffed and eventually hung it in the den next to Dad’s first kill.
I returned every year during college, often at the expense of my grades and social life. Being a college man made me the object of admiration and envy. “Hey, Pal, can we still fart in front of you?”, they would tease. Or, “the big college man’s home. Did they teach you how to shoot straight at that high-fallutin school?”
I missed for the first time during law school but returned every year thereafter until I moved to the West Coast. Each year, as fall approached, my wife, Barbara, prepared herself for my “hunting depression.”
When my sons were old enough we settled on a game of another sort, indigenous to our new area. Together we learned to scuba dive and to spear fish. Soon we graduated to deep sea fishing off the west coast of Mexico. Our trips to Cabo San Lucas (which excluded Barbara, of course) came close to recreating the feelings at the cabin. Marlin were certainly more worthy adversaries than deer.
No buck ever rose out of the water, stood there spitting in my eve, then back-pedaled so fast that my line broke like some flimsy rubber band. In that moment that he stood there, walking on the water, I communicated with that fish. Somehow we knew each other. For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed of my need to kill living things.
My illustrious career as a hunter came to an end a few years ago during a vacation Barbara and I took with some friends to Puerto Vallerta. While out snorkeling one day, (alone, dumb!) I turned in the water to find myself confronted by a huge manta ray. I was petrified, irrationally certain that my life was over. Oh, how the tables had been turned by this magnificent lord and master of the deep. To save myself, I offered him a deal.
“If you let me go,” I begged, “I’ll never hunt or fish again.” He stared at me for an interminable moment, his huge mouth almost close enough for me to touch, as he decided what to do with me. Then with a wry smile and a note of condescension, he glided away, his rough body brushing my fragile, extended arm.
I fought my way to the beach and lay there exhausted—and transformed by one of those moments in life when truth emerges. You live in a biological continuity with other living things. Some of them, like marlin and manta rays, and man, are stunning beyond belief, incredibly beautiful, filled with the essence of life. Life is fragile and precious – protect it, nurture it, and you may enhance your own.
“Paul,” my lovely wife brought me back to reality as she crossed the sand. “How was the snorkeling?”
“It was OK, honey, nothing special. Hold me for a minute, will you?”