In the predawn darkness the hunters descended on Accokeek yesterday, huddling in twos and threes to shoot the breeze beneath the carryout's neon glow. With bright orange caps atop their heads and long hunting knives strapped to their waists, they chewed egg sandwiches and guzzled cups of coffee and talked poker, football and shotguns.
But mainly at the B and J Drive-In, a whitewashed one-story brick carryout on Rte. 210 near the Prince George's County and Charles County line, the men talked deer. Very seriously.
"I been waitin' all year for this," said Lloyd Clark, a retired D.C. school bus driver. "Been huntin' for forty years. Get a deer darn near every year. Gonna shoot him, cut him up, put him in the freezer and eat him. Lasts the whole year."
Maryland's week-long deer hunting season (shotguns only) opened yesterday. All over the state, from the hills of Dorchester County to the farmlands of Charles, scenes like the one at the B and J Drive-In were played out over and over.
In campers and station wagons the hunters arrived, many in military fatigues and thick army boots, to talk strategy and trade tales of hunting glory and woe. Bold talk of the bucks that were shot last year, interspersed with stories of the lucky animals who scampered away.
It was yet another rite of autumn.
The Maryland Wildlife Administration estimates that more than 90,000 hunters will take to the state's woods and mountains this week to wait in the cold for untold hours for a clear shot at their quarry.
Last year the hunters were fortunate. They set a record of 13,072 kills for the week. It was, in fact, the third year in a row the hunters had set a kill record. This year officials, citing last year's mild winter and recent deer counts, expect the hunters to set another one.
But before the hunters begin, before they climb trees or hide behind stumps and bushes, many gather at highway stops such as the B and J to rap, eat and savor a few last moments of warmth.
Across the street from a filling station, a few doors up from the town barber shop, the B and J squats like a brick tugboat at Rtes. 210 and 373. At 5 a.m. the cafe, which has been dishing out everything from onion rings and crab cakes to Red Man chaw and Pay Day candy bars to truck drivers and hunters for more than 30 years, is the only place open in town.
"It's a kind of custom. We open an hour early in deer season to cater to the hunters," said part-owner Greg Colton. "Some of them have been coming for years and years. It's tradition."
Atop a grid of wooden planks behind the grill separating his feet from the grease-laden floor, the white-haired cook, Oscar Stallard, and the Williams brothers behind the counter, David and Bennie, stayed busy all morning rustling up ham and eggs and quart-sized Styrofoam jugs of coffee. Printed signs were everywhere advertising "Early Bird Specials" and "BIG 12-inch pizzas." The carryout resounded with shouted orders such as "bacon and egg san, hold the cheese" and background murmurs about shotguns and deer.
"It's good hunting here, I'm telling you," said Jim Rickman, 36, a Mack Truck mechanic from Anne Arundel County. "My grandfather's got some land around here. Come here every year. I went to a state park once and it was damn near like Vietnam. Bullets flying everywhere. I'll take these parts any time."
Many of the hunters were from upper Prince George's County and the District of Columbia, and most of them were en route to the happier hunting grounds of Charles County, a half-mile away. Only 89 deer were killed in Prince George's County last year, while hunters in less-urbanized Charles were killing 806.
Accokeek native Gary Kramer, 31, a civilian employe at Andrews Air Force Base planner, was talking about his 12-gauge pump shotgun and the strategy he planned to follow yesterday and, if necessary, throughout the week.
"Best thing about hunting is it gives you a chance to let your hair down and be alone," he said, waiting for an order of coffee, a dozen shotgun shells strapped to his belt. "My uncle's got some land nearby and I've staked out a tree there. I've got a portable tree climber I can raise to any height. I'll probably sit 35 feet up and just wait.
"Last year I got one at 85 yards," he said, his eyes alert with anticipation. "One shot."
Nearby, 23-year-old Bob Jerew, a Hyattsville auto mechanic, was leaning against a wall discussing the wind and cold. "Probably gonna be a long day," he said, sighing. "They say there's supposed to be plenty of deer down here . . . Strategy? I'm just gonna get out in the woods before sun-up and wait all day."
Another man, a cigar stuck in his mouth, chimed in, "And pray you don't freeze to death." A third man next to Jerew said he, too, was hunting -- "But with a camera. I just like to shoot pictures of the deer."
By 6:30 a.m. most of the hunters were gone, already hidden away in distant acres of scrub brush and woods across the county line. Business at the carryout slowed to a trickle, mainly truck drivers on their way to the city and several construction workers who spoke sadly of having to work on Saturday.
The only indication that the B and J had been a gathering spot for dozens of hunters earlier was a sign on a wall just inside the door, advertising a local butcher shop.
"You Kill It," the sign said. "We'll Cut and Wrap It."