A story about hunting for my dad's birthday
Leaves rustling towards our right broke the 10 minute silence. I looked to my dad with wide eyes and raised eyebrows beneath a camouflage cap. The loaded crossbow leaned against the popup blind in front of me. I thought about how I would reach for it as soon as a deer appeared, envisioning my left hand grabbing the barrel and my right quickly nudging it into my shoulder.
“Damn squirrel again,” my dad whispered. I now saw the small brown animal hopping through the leaves. Another moment of excitement faded while the crossbow patiently waited and our ears remained alert until the woods grew dark.
“Well, I guess that’s it for tonight,” my dad whispered as we looked down at the time. 5:00pm, the cut-off for evening hunts. Bare tree branches along the path gave way as we made our way out of the woods and up a small hill where we were met by a brilliant sunset over the cornfields.
As someone who boasts that the best sunsets are the ones I see from my LA office building over the Pacific Ocean, the colors humbled me. A reminder that beauty is everywhere, even in the village of Oakdale, Illinois. Population: 221 – and that probably includes the farm animals.
“We can come out again on Christmas,” I said, climbing into the truck. There was a hopeful calm knowing we had a week together which would surely afford plenty of opportunities to get a deer – maybe two. However, the calm was also countered by an urgency to kill something, caused by the hunting mishaps of last year.
December 2018 Hunts
My dad has hunted and killed a lot of animals.
- 75 Turkeys
- 12 Elk
- 125 Whitetail deer
- 2 Moose
- 4 Antelope
- 4 Axis deer
- 2 Aoudad sheep
- 2 Mule deer
- Hundreds of ducks and geese
- Also some coyotes, rabbits… and those damn squirrels
Each time, the gun or bow is fully locked and loaded, ready for whatever critter might come his way. However, this type of preparation apparently goes out the window during the hurried excitement of taking your daughter hunting with you for the first time.
We thought we had it all down:
- A monster buck would come along
- I would shoot it
- We would quickly grab it out of the field and load it in the truck
- My dad would drop me off for sushi with my friends while he took it home
- We eat deer sausage for days
However, for two nights in a row, we only made it to Step #1.
Night #1: A sizable buck made his way across the field. Despite him moving, I was pretty sure I had a clear shot as I slowly traced his path with the crossbow. Adrenaline surged as I aimed and pulled back the trigger. And nothing happened... we forgot to put an arrow in the bow. The deer ran away.
Night #2: Just as the sunlight started to fade, a deer came walking into my line of vision within yards of our blind. I felt like I was in a Buckmaster video game for kids on level 1. After the previous night’s mishap, God had granted a miracle. I raised the crossbow for a sure shot, pulled the trigger and… click. Despite there being an arrow, we hadn’t fully re-cocked the bow after the misfire. The deer ran away. And I heard more swear words out of my dad than in rush-hour traffic.
Needless to say, 2019 was expected to be our redemption year.
December 2019 Hunts
“Your grandma always said, ‘Sugar helps hangovers,’” my dad said as he dropped a chocolate Long John into the sandwich bag I feebly held out at 5:15 a.m. in St. Libory’s one gas station. Only five hours before, we were consuming wine together after my annual high school friend reunion. Despite my rough condition though, I was determined to keep my promise, especially since it was our last chance to hunt.
Warm winter days were a blessing for an LA girl who wanted to wear her camouflage crop top in the deer blind, but they weren’t ideal for deer hunting. Apparently when it’s warm weather, the deer don’t need to eat as much which means they stay put. Because of that, we saw very little deer all three times we had gone out so far. However, on a chilly early morning, we hoped the deer needed breakfast as much I as I needed that donut.
“Wake me if you see a deer,” I told my dad as I sank into the folding chair and nuzzled into the oversized neon orange hunting sweatshirt. Fortunately, it was now shotgun season so I was confident that even with slightly slower reaction times, I could quickly wake up, grab the gun and shoot my first deer. However, the deer never came.
That’s Why It’s Called Hunting; Not Killing
“I just want to be happy,” my dad said as we drove through cornfields on our second afternoon together. “I don’t need a big house or lots of things. Just somewhere I can enjoy my last years.”
The drive to Oakdale from our house is 45 minutes each way which meant 6 hours of catching up, as well as 10 hours of whispering back and forth in the deer blind. After a year of not seeing my dad, it was the quality time we needed. But it also included the types of conversations I typically avoid.
“You’re a really good friend, Dad,” I said to him after he described the care he provided for a dying friend over the past year during regular hospital visits. In LA I’m able to hide from most aging and illness, but back in my small town in Illinois, I am reminded it is a reality of life. We talked about people who had recently been sick and memories of people who had passed away.
However, a lot of the time was spent discussing happier things, including dissecting all the reasons why it seemed to be our family’s best Christmas yet. We laughed about old memories. We talked about how he first learned about business from his uncles, about the difference between the sound of squirrels and the sound of deer and also about the future of hunting.
“It’s a shame,” my dad said during one of the drives home. “As us old fart hunters die out, there aren’t as many young hunters, which means eventually they’ll just use trained shooters to manage the deer population.”
The idea of that future makes me sad. Even if I haven’t successfully shot any deer yet, in my past 7 experiences with my dad, I’ve learned a little bit about what hunting actually is for people.
Hunting is telling stories on the 45-minute drive in the truck. Hunting is noticing the wind direction or a single degree drop in temperature. Hunting is observing nature, becoming familiar with its sounds and even the smallest changes in the sights. Hunting is sitting silently together and that being enough. Hunting is the anticipation, adrenaline and hope. Hunting is sunsets and sunrises and so much more.
“Welp, Ootz,” my dad said as we climbed out of the woods to see the sun come up over the cornfields with now-cold coffee and the uneaten Long John. “That’s why it’s called hunting; not killing.”