NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published December 21, 2012
"The Deer Hunter"
It was still dark when I felt the not-so-gentle prodding of my father, followed by "Time to get up and get going !!" The alarm clock by my bed said 5:00 AM. As the warm dream faded and reality set in, I remembered a conversation the previous evening about the "first day of deer season". With a groan I threw off the covers to a cold bedroom and jumped into the clothes I had left out the night before. Underwear…. Long, thick, warm sox, followed by long-johns and thermal overshirt. Finally I donned a flannel shirt and worked hard to get all that clothing stuffed into my jeans. I could barely lean far enough down to the floor to don my laced-up hunting boots. Waddling into the kitchen like the little kid in "The Christmas Story", I sat down at the table and yawned. Dad came in seconds later, fully dressed and carrying several rifles. He stopped to fill a thermos up with fresh hot coffee and motioned for me to follow him outside.
He placed the two .30/.30's in the rifle rack behind the seat in the 1963 Ford Bronco, placed our hunting jackets between us in the seat with the thermos on top, and we took off for the deer woods. The temperature must have been near freezing outside. It was still to dark to see much but everything had a blue tinge to it in the glare of the yellowish headlights. We drove about five miles in the direction of Salem, and dad turned off at Hand Cove Road. We drove for another five minutes and when we came up on a big bend in the dirt road, there were five or six pickups parked to the side of the road. Dad pulled in behind the last truck and we got out. Gathered around one of the beds of a pick up were eight or nine "locals", talking and drinking coffee. We strolled up to a mass greeting. I knew most of the men. Three were ferry workers for the Highway Department, a couple were local farmers, and a few others I did not recognize. I seemed to be the only youth in the group. Dad poured a cup of coffee in the tin top and offered it to me but I declined. I had already learned on previous deer hunting trips that all coffee does for me at 6AM is cause my colon to go into overdrive. There's nothing quite as much fun as squatting over a mossy-covered frozen fallen log, doing your business while praying another hunter does not walk up on you.
Dad downed the coffee in one gulp, reached into his shirt for a Picayune cigarette, and lit it all in one motion from his ever-present Zippo. On the package it said "extra mild" but I knew better! Those smokes had more tar and nicotine than any two Camels. Second-hand smoke could cause a coughing fit! Dad puffed away while discussing how the group would arrange themselves in the valley on the other side of the road. It was well known by these experienced hunters that a deer trail ran right across this bend and down into a valley below. Each man gave loose direction where his stand would be, and in ten minutes the group had assembled all their gear, and were making their way down into the woods. I followed Dad and we made our way down the slope. The sun was just coming up and there was a thick fog on the ground. Each step produced a crackle as the grass beneath my boots was frozen. We walked downhill for a while until we came up to the very edge of a clearing about 50 yards ahead of us. He pointed to two trees that had grown together and instructed me to sit very still and be patient, and then took off to my right. I sat down with my back to the tree, checked to make sure I had a round in the chamber, lay the rifle across my lap, and waited.
…….And waited, and waited. I will remind the reader here that it is very hard for an 18-year-old boy to be patient. Especially in the dead of winter with near-freezing temperatures. I had a hand-warmer in my hunting jacket pocket. It ran on lighter fluid and would keep producing heat until it ran out of fuel. I had started it up at the truck and every once in a while when walking I'd pull a hand out of a glove and jam it into the pocket containing the warmer until the feeling returned to my fingers. My feet were okay while walking, but once I sat down on the cold, hard ground the inactivity began to work on my toes. I was sitting there, trying to figure out how to get my toes warm with the heater but (smartly) I decided pulling off my boots would not be a good idea.
90 minutes passed. I had lost all feeling to my butt and my toes were aching. I tried very hard to remain still but after a while I developed a method by which I would remain very quiet, listening and looking off into the frozen woods. When I detected nothing I would pound my feet on the ground for 30 seconds, and then once again adopt my imitation of a frozen sitting statue. The sun finally came up but it was a pretty cloudy day and down in the thick woods all it did was illuminate things a bit better. The temperature did not rise. I heard a noise off to my left and hurriedly put both gloves on and held my rifle at the ready. I sat very still for about five minutes but never heard another sound. I took off my right glove and jammed it into my pocket, only to discover the fluid had run out in the heater and it was cold! Panic set in as I imagined my body being discovered, frozen to the tree with icicles hanging over my mouth and eyes… still clutching my rifle…..
After another ten minutes I didn't care much about the deer hunt any more. My mind was totally absorbed with the idea of finding a source of heat. I felt totally alone, although I knew that, somewhere out there, was a group of men sitting patiently, waiting for their prey to arrive. I peered ahead to the edge of the clearing, and something caught my eye. I stood up, barely keeping my balance as I had no feeling in my back or my butt, and spotted a downed Walnut tree to my left and ahead. The tree had a huge root ball at the bottom, and as it fell it left a scoop deep into the ground. I cautiously worked my way over to the tree. The hole in the ground at the end of the root ball was about 4 feet deep. I dropped down into it and sat into the frozen ground. At least there weren't any rocks. There were leaves and sticks all around me. In a moment of inspiration (and insanity) my frozen brain envisioned a warm fire down in the pit. I gathered up twigs and sticks and with my own trusty Zippo (everyone carried one back then) I set fire to a handful of leaves. One at a time I carefully placed small twigs on the leaves. As the flames grew I added a few more larger sticks. In five minutes I had a wonderful cozy fire going. The heat was delicious, and taunted my face and exposed hands. I was sitting there with my hands right up to the small blaze, wondering if I could get away with taking off my boots, when Dad walked up.
I will never forget the incredulous look on his face. All he could utter was "What the hell are you doing?"…… Before I could answer he replied with "I flushed a buck just up the hill and was sending him your way. He probably came within ten yards of you but that fire was like a red flag to him!" Suddenly I was flushed with the heat of embarrassment. I didn't know what to say. He gazed at me for a moment, shook his head, and said "Put that fire out, and put it out GOOD, and come on up here". I did as I was told and followed him back up the hillside to the road. As we arrive at the vehicles, all the other hunters were there, belly up to a pick up bed and hitting on either coffee or Jim Beam. Dad handed me his rifle and jacket and told me to go put it all in the truck, while he continued on to the group. By the time I did as I was told and returned to the group there was a lot of snickering going on. For a few moments no one would look directly at me, so I knew the cat was out of the bag. I turned around to go back to our truck, but someone called out "Hey Bob, wait just a minute"……
As I turned around they were advancing on me. I didn't know what to expect, but I caught a glimpse of dad smiling so I figured they weren't going to beat me up or kill me. I saw a flash of steel and then recognized Dad's K-Bar hunting knife. Someone behind me pulled out my flannel shirt from my pants and held it out while Dad cut off my shirt tail. Everyone had a good laugh and I had been initiated for missing my deer. Embarrassed, I laughed with them and we hung out at the truck bed for another ten minutes or so while I endured endless jokes about "the hunter with cold feet". On the way home dad didn't say much but occasionally I caught him grinning as he recounted the sight of me sitting in the root hole building a fire in his mind.
Dad didn't take me deer hunting too many more times after that. I guess he figured out that I wasn't as hardy as he was, and had inherited more from mom that he originally figured. We did enjoy many years of bird, rabbit, and squirrel hunting after that incident though. I guess he had figured out that I am better at walking and stalking than I was sitting and freezing.