The final day of deer hunting with my grandpa before his death was largely unsuccessful.
Not unsuccessful because of a lack of deer-sightings or unsuccessful because of an off-target arrow that took flight. Because to me success is not merely harvesting an animal. Success is being able to fool your quarry. To sneak into their woods, their home, their turf and to fool their eyes, ears and nose into believing that you’re just another piece of normality.
My last hunt with the man who passed his hunting heritage to my father and I was unsuccessful because I didn’t listen to him. My beekeeping Grandpa put me into what I would ironically call his “honey hole.” And he gave me very loud, very specific instructions when he and my dad dropped me off. (Much like my father and my father’s father, I have little to no awareness of the volume of my voice. Just ask my wife.)
“Go into the woods until you hit an ‘ol fence layin’ ‘cross the ground. Cross that fence and go about fifty yards up the side of that mountain. To yer right is a big ‘ol rock. Sit on it and don’t move until the deer come down the hill in front of ya on yer right. They’ll give you a perfect qwarterin’ away shot before they head out to the field to feed at dark.”
The mean, old grump’s plan was simple enough and easy to follow. But I ignored it. Well, not all of it. I did go into the woods and I did cross the fence and I did walk about 50 yards into the woods. But it was the sitting-on-the-rock part that I ignored. I HATE sitting on the ground and I HATE even more sitting on the ground on top of a chilly rock in the middle of winter. Because no matter how many icy hours you endure sitting on a rock in the middle of winter, it never seems to warms up.
So, what did I do? I moved just a few yards to the left of the big, uncomfortable rock that my Grandpa told me to sit on and perched myself in front of an oak tree. Okay, it was more than just a few yards. It was more like fifteen or twenty. Most would say that it was my young, naive pride that caused me to ignore my elder’s instructions. They would be mostly correct. The truth is I was carrying a brand new lock on seat that I was just dying to try out. Like I said, I HATE sitting on the ground.
So, after twenty minutes or so of fidgeting with this brand new, fandangled lock on seat and surely scaring off every woodland creature for at least a county or so, I settled into my lock on seat for a night of doing things my way.
Now, I should say that my Grandpa’s hunting style was very old fashioned and VERY solidified, at least in my mind. In all my years of hunting with him, he never scouted. Not once. His philosophy was that he had hunted that property since God made it and by golly he had these deer figured out by now! His schemes were tried and true. So, had he known that I had ignored his instruction and set up in my own little sweet spot, he probably would have marched up into the woods and let me have it – curse words, chewing tobacco, spit and all. Heck, I’m pretty sure that he would have left me and my noisy, unnecessary lock on seat at home were I not the only hunting grandchild of his that wasn’t locked up at the time. (My only hunting cousin was in the hokey for leaving the scene of an accident, driving under the influence, fleeing from a police officer, kicking a puppy and numerous other immoral acts that I dare not mention.)
I sat on my brand new lock on seat for about 10 minutes before I decided that it was the worst thing that had ever happened to a man’s hind quarters. (I have since rid myself of it by means of a yard sale and a two-dollar wielding old man who probably hates sitting on the ground just as much as I do.) But I endured. I endured to prove to myself and my ritualistic old grandpa that although he thought my new lock on seat was a waste of metal and cushioning, change can sometimes be good.
And a fantastic change occurred after I had endured an hour or so on the lock on stand from Helena. I began to hear the pitter patter of little hooves behind me up on the side of the hill. And the great thing was that they were coming right at me. I slowly placed my hands at the ready on my bow and waited for the deer to close the 40 yards or so between it and I. But as an eternity of footsteps progressed closer and closer to me, I began to realize that something that initially brought me great excitement was now quickly causing worry to overcome my mind like hunger on an all-day rut hunt. The fact was that the deer was coming right for me. No really, RIGHT FOR ME. As I sat there, as still as stone, I shot a glance as far left and as far behind me as my eyeballs alone would allow. It was this glance that made me realize that in the midst of my lock-on-seat-excitement I neglected to notice the VERY prominent deer trail that sat a mere 3 or 4 yards to my right.
I wish I could say that the wind was blowing directly across my chest and that the deer leisurely strolled right past me and offered the “qwarterin’” away shot that my Grandpa had talked about. But the truth was the wind was kind of non-existent at that moment in time. So, my scent, much like smoke when left alone, was kind of just bulging out and up around me. I wish that I could say that I was decked out in Scent Lok or Scent Blocker and that the deer sniffed my right armpit and still strolled right on by. But hey, I was a newlywed fresh out of college, which means that I wasn’t exactly a high roller. I wish I could say that the particular deer in question was born without a sense of smell. That away I could put an end to his years of suffering a few moments later. But just when the footsteps sounded as if the next one would fall directly on top of my back, I heard that familiar noise deer make when they’ve called your bluff, “PHWOOOH, PHWOOOH,” which every experienced hunter translates to mean, “I know you’re there, you moron!”
I turned my head to watch the deer’s white, pointy tail bounce through the woods back up the hill and out of my life forever. I sat there dejected for another ten or fifteen minutes before I heard the familiar pitter patter of hooves again, following down that familiar path, right up to my familiar tree. This time I turned my head away from the trail, to the left, in hopes that if it couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see it that maybe it wouldn’t smell me. (See no evil, smell no evil right?) As I sat, waiting on the deer to close the distance to my tree I realized that I was staring directly at a big rock twenty yards or so away that I should have been sitting on. And in that moment, as the deer began yelling at me yet again and again, “I know you’re there, you moron! I know you’re there, you moron!” My grandpa might as well have appeared magically on top of the rock and said, “You should have sat here, you moron! You should have thrown that lock on in the fireplace, you moron!”
Four or five months after that hunt, my dad began to notice that when my grandpa walked across the yard after he pulled up to his house that he stumbled around a bit. Over time the stumbling got worse and worse until one day he stumbled and lost his glasses. Where he had lost them he didn’t know because his memory was fading as well. The breaking point was when grandpa was squirrel hunting that next Fall on that same piece of property, he fell down pretty hard and had to hobble out of the woods in the dark without his flashlight or his hunter’s orange vest while using his rifle as a crutch. Good thing he had hunted that property since God created it.
A few doctor’s visits later and we learned that he had a spiderous, cancerous brain tumor that was causing a lot of swelling and pressure in his head, hence the loss of balance and memory. After an all-day surgery and some chemo, the cancer seemed to subside. But only 3 or 4 months after his final dose of chemo, I began to notice that he was asking me if I had seen the surgical scar on his head three or four times per visit. Others began to notice the familiar memory loss again. And a little while later the loss of balance returned. The cancer was back.
The stubborn, old codger decided that he would not have surgery or do chemo again and that he would live out the rest of his days as best he could, as happy as he could. He was bed ridden within a month or so and required constant care and attention shortly after that.
The hardest part about his final weeks for me was the diapers. And I have a master’s degree in diapers thanks to my two little girls. But there was something about seeing such a strong man, such an able man, refined to sucking water from a straw and eating blended mush twenty-four-seven and then in turn wetting and soiling himself time and time again. It was as if every time I removed his diaper and changed him I wiped away another little piece of his dignity and pride.
The last hours I spent with him were typical for he and I because they revolved around the one thing that united us all my life – the woods. I went to care for him one Saturday to give my dad and his sisters a break. We watched a few deer videos. Then he napped while I shot my bow in his front yard. Then we watched a few more deer videos. The entire day he said not one word. But as I took out our last deer video, only ten minutes or so before my dad showed up to relieve me, he looked at me with his usual grin of orneriness and said, “You wanna go huntin’?” I smiled and said, “Grandpa, we can’t go huntin’. It’s July.” And I thought to myself that even if I did break the law to give my dying, bedridden Grandpa his last hunt, that we would become the hunted as we were eaten alive by mosquitoes.
Those were the last words I ever heard him say. Over the next few days, his breathing became labored to the point where he was taking one breath about every 45 seconds or so. Grandpa passed as peacefully as one can when they’re gasping for a single breath each minute. And as sure as the sun, the typical funeral-time turmoil reared its ugly head as my family fought over funeral arrangements and the handling of his simple estate. If he were a fly on the wall for a few weeks following his death, I’m sure he would have had some fly-size chewing tobacco to spit at a few of my family members as he gave ‘em what for.
Grandpa was a simple man. He had thousands and thousands in his bank account when he passed but yet chose to drive a nearly antique pick-up truck that he bought used and lived in a handed down house that was so old the electrical wiring was run outside of the stud walls. His life revolved around two simple loves – his love for his family and his love for the outdoors.
And on the last chance for me to ever soak up some of his love for the outdoors and some of his whitetail wisdom concerning a patch of property that my Father and I still hunt, he told me to sit on the stinkin’ rock. And I didn’t listen.