The International Travelall bounced and pitched its way over the rutted gravel road. Two boys sat dejected in the rear seat, staring at the back of their father. They had been anticipating this deer season for as long as they could remember. They spent countless nights listening to the stories their father told of deer camp, countless days shooting air rifles, slowly graduating to .22's, then finally practicing with their own deer rifles. Their father had coached them in the fine art of marksmanship, taught them safety and the basics of hunter ethics.
After all this preparation, they were finally inducted into the hallowed halls of "deer camp."
But after a week of hunting there were no bucks to be found. All of the sign was old. No one had seen a "shooter." So it was with great disappointment that they drove the gravel road back to the tarmac highway and civilization, where a locked gun cabinet and another year of stories and anticipation awaited them.
Suddenly, the silence and disappointment were broken with a violent forward surge of the Travelall and loud grating of the tires as their father stood on the brakes, sliding to a stop. Looking to their left, across the unbroken stubble field, that appeared to stretch to the horizon, was a buck and a doe feeding in the late afternoon light.
The father spoke quietly to his eldest son, "Mike, get out, sneak across the fence and shoot that buck."
The moment he had been waiting for, his whole 13 years, melted into one instant as he uncased his Winchester Model 70. He stuck his hand in his wool pant's pocket and felt the mass of 30-06 shells residing therein. Like most 13 year olds, he had packed enough shells to lastout a small third world revolution. He quietly cracked the door open and stealthily crossed the fence into their leased field.
Fishing a single shell from his pocket and thumbing it into the magazine, he slowly slid the bolt closed. Shouldering the rifle, he tried to settle the bobbing sights on the chest of the buck. Taking up the slack in the trigger, the rifle broke the afternoon silence with a deafening "Boooom." The buck stopped feeding and looked up. He was not hit and to make matters worse, Mike hadn't even seen the bullet kick up dirt.
The buck was still staring at him, unmoving, as he franticly dug another shell from his pocket. After cycling the bolt and inserting the shell, he threw the rifle up to his shoulder.
"Boooom." The rifle rocked his young body again.
But like the first shot, no hair or dirt flew. Instead of waiting around for a third volley, the buck took off at a trot for the far fence line. By the time he chambered another round, the buck was 250 yards away and approaching the edge of the property.
"Boooom" the rifle barked again. In one fluid motion the buck jumped over the fence, unwounded and trotted into the next field. Mike practically tore a hole into his pants pocket trying to get out another shell, when he heard his fathers voice emanating from the truck, like Moses must have heard the voice of the Lord.
"Get back in the truck, Mike."
Not looking at his father, he slunk through the fence and into the back seat of the Travelall. His brother had his head hung low in humility, shame and anticipation of what was to follow. His father sat unmoving in the front seat, not starting the car or turning around to address his son, both hands clenching the wheel.
Like a statue he sat, just staring through the mud - flecked windshield. Mike thought to himself. "Would you just do something; anything? Don't just sit there, start the car already." The silence was deafening. It was a fate worse then missing the buck.
With a long exultation of breath and a curtness in his voice indicative of deliberating over his choice of words, his father stammered, "Mike...were, were... you... even aiming at the deer?"
Before Mike could respond, his dad let out another sigh, "Well, they say... if you don't want to be disappointed you shouldn't have children."
Throwing his hands up in the air, he continued, "I don't know what we are going to do Mike, I guess we are just going to have to start over from the beginning. Start shooting BB guns again, then work up to a .22, maybe by next year you will be ready for a deer."
With that he fired up the truck and drove the rest of the way home in silence.
When I first heard this story, I laughed and said, "He was kidding right?" Mike's face lost 35 years and resumed the look of a scared kid in the back seat of a 1963 International Travelall, "Not at all - he was deadly serious." Was his only response.
At this juncture in the story, you may be wondering what is the point? To be honest, I don't really know. In part, it is just a humorous story that many people can relate to. But on a different level its an observation of our society.
When I think back on this story, I think about what many children are missing today. A father figure for sure, but more importantly a father figure they look up to, respect and want to please. How the father goes about encouraging this drive is obviously up to him, but in Mike's case, it was his father's repremand and displeasure that drove him to become a better hunter and also a better person. All too often this is missing in today's society.
Mike has since shot a deer. In fact, now in his late 40's he has shot many deer, as well as Cape buffalo, sheep, brown bear, moose, caribou, black bear and countless other big game animals, but every fall, he still returns to those Wisconsin woods and fields to hunt deer with his father. Hoping against all odds, that maybe with his fathers old age and weakening eye sight, Mike may just have the opportunity to say, once in 35 years of hunting, "Dad... were you even aiming at the deer?" So far, it hasn't happened.
This story has been told and retold in many hunting camps, and it always produces a chuckle from the listeners.
But the real proof that this story had become a classic came the other day while I was sitting in a duck blind, 1,000 miles from Wisconsin and 35 years after the story began.
A flock of ducks circled the dekes, wings cupped, commited to landing.
I drew down on a single greenhead hovering off to the side of the main bunch. After three quick shots, that only left the wonderful smell of shotshell powder in the air, and some plastic wads floating on the water, I watched the drake turn and sail off into the sunset. Before I could make an excuse, my hunting partner said, "Mike...were...you even aiming at the duck," and started to laugh.
Even when the original players are absent, this story will continue.