Dawn hadn’t broken yet. I woke to the sound of my father stoking the woodstove with chunks of oak and ash needed to get the fire hot, hot enough to boil water for coffee. Hunting boots and wet wool shirts hung from a drying rack behind the stove. The smell of wet leather and wool clung to the air. My father was seated at the kitchen table, his deer rifle in pieces in front of him. He picked up each piece with care, as if it were a china cup and slowly polished it with an oiled piece of flannel. He laid each piece back on the table in a precise order that was a mystery to me. “Go get your brother up. He needs to get his gear together.”
I ran up the stairs to the attic bedroom. Donnie was tangled in his blankets snoring to the dreams that boys dream. “Get up now Donnie. Dad’s already getting ready.” I whispered. My brother was the oldest of my five brothers. He sat up startled. “What time is it?” He asked in that drowsy voice of the newly awakened. “Three thirty and Dad’s getting ready. You better hurry or he’s going to leave you here. Grampa will be here at four.”
I went back to the kitchen to make breakfast for my dad and Donnie. My father stood in front of the stove in his long underwear. He was pulling on his forest green wool pants and plaid shirt. Both had been mended over and over again by my mother. They hadn’t been washed for a while, just hung on the rack to dry out after a day’s hunt. My father had explained that animals can smell you if your clothes are too clean. My brother stumbled into the kitchen. His hunting clothes, a cleaner replica of my father’s, were a little big. My father said he’d grow into them and it would give him room to move. The sound of a truck engine cut through the predawn mist and stopped in the door yard. The stomping of feet on the doormat and slamming of the door signaled the arrival of my grandfather.
“You ready yet Donnie?” My grandfather looked at my brother as he helped himself to a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. My brother nodded his head. “Where’s your gun? Did you sleep with it?” He said with a laugh. My brother had got the deer rifle for Christmas. He went to the gun cabinet and returned with his most prized possession. “You clean it?” Gramp said with a grin. He knew that my brother had spent hours cleaning the gun. He had watched his father and gramp clean theirs and had learned all the steps needed to make sure his gun was ready for this day, the first day of deer hunting season. The only difference between my brother’s gun and my dad and gramp’s were the little hash marks on the butt end of the gun. The marks symbolized deer, One for every kill. Theirs were lined up like soldiers showing other hunters that they were good at hunting and had taken their share of deer.
“O.K. it’s time to get going. Grab your gear.” My father said as he put on his camouflaged coat. The coat had pockets for bullets, rope, and a knife. These were necessities. He grabbed his red hunting hat and vest. Deer are color blind and can’t see the red, but other hunters could. My grandfather and brother followed suit. The door slammed as they left the house. The dawn light was hitting the horizon as they drove away.
The three men rode in silence. They had spent the last year hunting every weekend and holiday. Even though they had been hunting rabbit or birds, they always looked for deer sign, showing my brother the crushed ferns where deer had slept and the marks on the trees that young bucks had made scraping the velvet off their new horns. They followed deer trails and examined the deer scat. Tracks were commented on. “Big buck, or just a doe with fawns” were an experienced hunter’s statement. Everything they learned during the year was going to come together today.
My father stopped at a first growth oak tree. “Stay here Donnie. We’re going to go into the swamp and drive the deer up. Keep your eyes open. No horns, no shoot. Don’t get excited and shoot at anything that moves.” His father and gramp moved off into the early morning mist. Donnie wasn’t scared and leaned on the tree. He listened to the dripping of the dew falling from the fall leaves and watched the deer run become lighter. An hour had gone by. He heard a sound in a clearing just beyond the oak tree. He crept up slowly, readying his gun. He could hear shots fired to his left. Through the woods at the edge of the clearing a deer jumped. It stopped in the middle of the clearing as if to get its bearings. The horns were small, and Donnie shot. He hit the deer in the head. It was a nice clean shot. All his practice had paid off. His heart beat a hundred miles an hour.
Donnie touched the deer. He had watched his father do this countless times. His father and gramp had returned and helped him pull the deer out of the woods. It wasn’t a large deer. The spike horns had just started to branch and it weighed maybe 150 pounds. “Good shot son. Good kill.” His father had said as they loaded the deer into the truck. They drove to the weight station set up at the firehouse. People were already there drinking coffee and watching the weigh ins. Donnie and dad pulled the deer off the truck and hung it on the scale. “168 pounds. Good size deer Donnie. First one?” The game warden said. “Yup it is.” Donnie and his father lowered the deer and put it into the truck. Men and boys were asking Donnie questions and congratulating him on his first deer kill. The trip home was a retelling of the kill. His father and gramp were silent as they listened to his moment by moment account. They understood the excitement of the first deer kill.
At the house the deer was unloaded and hung in the barn. They got a washtub to hold the meat and a saw to cut through the bone and horns. The horns would be hung on the wall of the barn next to his father’s and gramp’s trophies. After butchering what was left would be buried in the manure pile. Mom would cook the meat, canning some of it and freezing the rest. Donnie would take his knife and put a hash mark on the butt of his gun, the sign of a hunter. When he went to school in the morning his friends would want to know everything, hoping some of the magic of getting a deer on the first day out would rub off on them. In the years that followed there would be many deer hunts for my brother Donnie and my four other brothers. Nothing was as monumental as the first deer kill.