Friday, October 23, 2009

Golden Oldie #3

Since I'm going to be away from my computer and blogging for a while, I'll put some relevant seasonal essays up. In Utah, the deer hunting season begins at dawn tomorrow, so I'm…

Goin’ Huntin’
By Pam Williams
September 1995

My only experience with hunting has been by observation and association. Back home in Oregon, some of my dad’s friends convinced him to go with them one chilly fall, assuring him they knew where to find the best game. They went to somebody’s mountain cabin the night before so they could get an early start, and they were back at the house before noon the next day because Dad – a former Military Policeman – shot his first deer right through the heart. I remember that he retrieved the bullet, now a crumpled blob of metal, showed it to all us kids, and then paced restlessly through the house grinning to himself for hours, reliving the moment.
Having venison on the menu for a brief time was an opportunity for Mother to tell us how she arrived, nine years old, with her family in the back woods of Southern Oregon in 1930, where her father intended to live off the land and wait out the Great Depression. Due to setbacks on the trip from Southern California, they arrived with literally two cents in their pockets. Grandpa took a rifle and found a deer to shoot. After gutting it and hauling the carcass back for Grandma to salt down, he went out behind their cabin and vomited repeatedly.
My dad kept his mangled bullet trophy in a drawer of my mother’s jewelry box, but a deer head mounted on the wall in the den was somehow so self-congratulatory, not like Dad at all. Though a skilled marksman, he never went hunting again. After hitting his target the first time so perfectly, what would be the point?
During our first autumn in Richfield, 1976, I remember the horrendous traffic jam downtown on the day before the hunt began. It was in our pre-traffic light days, and the party atmosphere at the intersection of Main and Center was unlike anything I had experienced before. It took ten full minutes to get across Main Street. I went straight home, made a cup of hot cocoa and worked jigsaw puzzles until the traffic cleared a week later.
At that point we began to wonder if we really belonged here. My husband Roger, the only middle school faculty member without hunter orange clothing, reported the phenomenon there. On the day before hunting season began, everybody came attired for the occasion, including the women. Many had driven their loaded campers to school so they wouldn’t waste a moment when the last bell rang. And there was Roger in his three-piece suit.
In fact, some have asked why we moved here if we didn’t hunt or fish. Answer: owning guns or fishing poles has never been a requirement to teach English. Thoroughly devout hunters speak of the experience in hushed tones and are quick to sermonize about herd control and the Bambi syndrome, while others say it’s family reunion time, and declare their love of the outdoors as the chief motivation for going hunting. I have taken the high road in these conversations, not mentioning the cost per pound, the macho factor, the very real potential for truly nasty weather in October, the danger, or the rubber ball qualities of badly cooked venison. We tried to look interested, nodding and smiling when friends reported their hunting adventures, but the stifled yawns gave us away.
Part of our skepticism about watching people go out in the hills armed to the teeth was that the frenzy transforms apparently normal human beings, and during that week in late October, the hills come alive with a mob mentality and itchy trigger fingers. My brother-in-law told of a friend, dressed in hunter orange, riding a Tote Gote (forerunner of the four-wheeler) down Provo Canyon dodging bullets. In addition, guys who don’t usually drink often take cases of beer on the hunt, claiming that the alcohol would keep them warm out there in the wilderness. As firm believers in the value of thermal underwear, but that ammo and alcohol are not a good mix, the logic of that rationale escaped us.
For some families, the hunt is a test of the marriage vows. Some women really enjoy stalking the prey right along with their spouses, uncles, dads and cousins, while others, the true saints, simply turn up the corners of their mouths in August when their husbands start talking about buying a new rifle. Some men may be oblivious to the fact that it takes a week to plan, shop, and load the camper. If the hunt is successful, it’s usually the women who have to figure out what to do with all that meat, although some actually like making venison salami, an acquired taste if there ever was one. Wildlife trophies are anything but subtle, and women willing to coexist with a rack of antlers on the family room wall should be considered the best trophy of all.
From that first autumn, seeing the near-fanaticism with which people prepared for the hunting season – it was bigger and more important than Christmas – we began to refer to what the school calendar euphemistically called “fall vacation” as the local religious holiday. We have been glad over the years to meet people who will, once we have declared ourselves as non-hunters, admit that they don’t see the sense in it either.
Indeed, that hunting season traffic jam in 1976 was an epiphany. It was the day I realized that living in a small town was going to be neither simple nor easy because I deeply need the trappings of civilization which are not as obvious or readily available here. That explained why for the first several months we lived here, I cried myself to sleep most nights. To satisfy my need, I imagined a classy alternative event, a non-hunter’s ball. We arrive in limousines. Searchlights in the sky show partygoers the way, and television reporters breathless with excitement cover the event. After a seven-course meal (the menu never includes duck, pheasant, elk or venison), elegantly dressed people progress to dancing – a live orchestra, waltzes, fox trots, big band music, maybe even a schottische. Halfway through the evening, everyone adjourns to an adjoining theater where a delightfully comic production aids our digestion by making us laugh. Then we return to the hall and dance till midnight. In my mind, I attend this event every year during hunting season, and I’m always safe, warm and happy.
Maybe seeing that hunting season fanaticism is why I have spent the ensuing years trying to create civilization in my external environment and nurture it in my own inner landscape. We all have ambitious quests and goals we pursue in life, noble causes we give ourselves to, and unquestionably there are trophies to be earned and claimed at landmark moments along the way. However, these accomplishments are often intangible memories, and to hunt and acquire them we need neither a weapon nor a license.