Hunting, especially deer-hunting, was one of the things the men in his family always did, but just about the time he was given his first rifle the Depression swept away his father's job. There was no time or money in that hardscrabble era for sporting trips afield.
College, Korea, career, marriage and family filled the years, but every fall the disappointment of the boy echoed in the man: another season, another year, slipping away.
Although, living in Washington, he had been no more than a short drive from prime deer country in both Maryland and Virginia, he never knew quite how to begin. He had no weapon and only a vague idea of the seasons and laws, how and where to hunt deer or what to do with one he should kill it.
But he was rising 50 and had no more seasons to spare, so he borrowed a rifle and found a place to hunt and someone to go out with him the first few days.
They scouted the land, a vast block of cornfields bordered by second-growth woods near Herndon, a couple of weeks before opening day. There was so much deer sign the problem was not finding a place to take a stand but choosing among a dozen equally promising ones. They set up camp in an abandoned farmhouse the night before opening day because, the friend said, driving through the city is a bad way to begin a day of hunting, and anyway we ought to look over the ground again.
He had never seen a better place to hunt deer, the friend said as they slid into their sleeping bags, with any luck we ought to have something for the freezer tomorrow night. The friend had been saying other things for serveral weeks before, which had registered only vaguely.
Lectures about how you can't dress too warmly or sit still enough or look and listen hard enough. About how a man is a great, noisy, clumsy, stinking intruder in the woods who must nevertheless try to fade into the background, silent and unmoving as a stone. Sit still enough long enough, he said, and after the noise and scent of his passage have faded, the pattern of wildlife the man has disturbed will reknit itself; the very last of the animals to reappear will be the deer.
Deer-hunting is not like any other kind of hunting, the friend said: there is no bait, there are no decoys, there is no dog whose energy and senses substitute for your own. you cannot impose yourself on the world of the deer; luck aside, you must learn to live in their world before you can kill in it.
They were in their tree stands well before first light on opening day, and after some hours the newcomer saw a doe. But it was a foul day, damp, windy and cold, and she was one of the few deer abroad. During the middle of the day the two men ranged over the property, looking for fresh sign and stalking likely patches of woods in hopes of turning out deer that were lying up.
From late afternoon until sundown, back in their tree stands, they paid the price for being too lazy to walk half a mile for their raincoats. What began as rain became sleet; half frozen, they half-slid and half-fell to the ground when it was time to quit. The new comer had seen what he thought was a young buck, but couldn't be sure when he looked through the rain-spattered scope.
He was so thoroughly wet and chilled he had to go home to warm up and dry out. Before he got back, late the next morning, the friend saw and missed two bucks. That afternoon they ranged the farm again, and then huddled miserably on stands while a cold front screamed through. The deer had better sense, and didn't come out.
Look, the friend said that night, we are hunting very badly. I'm worrying about you, which may be why I shot so badly this morning. I don't know what you're thinking about, but it isn't deer-hunting. Between us we've chased off just about every deer on this farm.
What do you mean?
You're not concentrating. On deer stand you act like a Marine on sentry duty, swiveling your head and pivoting on your heels, I've been watching you for two days, and you're never in the same position twice. When we've gone stalking, you've just been walking in the woods, plowing along, not really looking at anything, ranging ahead of me on the upwind side as though you'd never heard a word I said about the point of what we've been trying to do.
You're right. What I've been trying to do is just not mess you up.
Forget about me, I'm just paying my dues. You're doing a lot better than I did the first time out, and the man who taught me was a lot better teacher. All this walking over the ground has been mainly to fill the time anyway, because neither of us is going to sneak up on anything as alert as a deer. All you have to do is remember the three rules of deer-hunting: one, sit still; two, sit still; three sit still.
Is that all?
Not really, but it's the place to begin. Sit still. Look and listen. Print the landscape on your brain, so that any change will register. Try not to think so much as to feel. After a while, a long while, you begin to pick up the rhythm of what's going on. Or you'll get bored and take up something else.
The next day, the last of that first hunt, was deerless but brought its own rewards. Sitting truly still he saw a whole sunrise, every moment of it from first light to full, for the first time since he could remember. And soon after, a red fox, perhaps the only ground-dweller as wary as a deer, came trotting past him upon its morning rounds, never suspecting he was there.
That afternoon, stalking with newfound discipline, he watched and walked up to within five feet of a goundhog without alarming it. And went home knowing that some day he would be a deer-hunter.