In My Day: Cold Feet and Hot Coffee

It’s just before Thanksgiving and with any luck, we’ll get enough snow to help the deer hunters track their prey, but not so much that it makes walking in the woods difficult. I’m not a deer hunter, which isn’t a significant distinction in much of the country, but is one of two possible states of being when you’re from the upper Midwest. I was a deer hunter at one time, however.

Deer hunting was phenomenally popular with my friends when I was growing up. Even those who mocked the standard greeting of “Got your deer?” felt the pressure of getting their deer before the season ended, staying in the fields until dusk or getting up at ungodly hours to increase their chances of placing their tag on a deer and driving it around to show off. I’m not sure how they would have felt to have tried but failed to fill that tag. I couldn’t imagine feeling failure over that, and that led me to lose interest in the yearly ritual.

What drove me to pin a compass to my jacket and stuff rifle shells in my pocket — we didn’t wear blaze orange or camouflage when I hunted — was spending time with my Dad, who clearly loved going out in the woods and, I could tell, wanted his son to shoot a deer and be proud of it. Before I was old enough to carry a rifle, Dad would hunt with his buddies, who would all return in the early afternoon to smoke and review the morning strategy. My dad would usually go to work at that time, going on his fuel delivery route, which must have been exhausting. Then, if there was time when he returned, they’d head off for a quick drive before sunset.

Whenever the guys pulled in the yard, it was customary for my mom to step out onto the porch and say, with some degree of sarcasm, “Clean your deer for ya?” From the porch, you could see whether there was a carcass in the back of the pickup, so you could adjust your sarcasm accordingly. After I went through the required gun-safety course, my Dad would take me out and put me “on stand,” giving me every chance possible to shoot a deer. I’d stand there in the cold and pray to God that I wouldn’t have to.

I’d killed rabbits and partridge, and didn’t have a problem with killing, per se. But I was a bad shot, and what I usually shot was no longer fit for eating, which is the only reason I could think of for hunting. I didn’t want to shoot a deer and have to endure the gutting in the field, cutting open the stomach from the windpipe all the way back to (oh God) the genitals, pulling out the entrails and getting blood all over my hands. I would’ve rather be at home, memorizing the batting averages on the back of my gum-stained baseball cards. Besides, I preferred hamburgers and frozen pizza to the often stringy and gamy venison.

But Dad kept at it with me, shaking me by the shoulder at 4 in the morning, with a whispered call of “Daylight in the swamps!” We’d eat oatmeal, brew some coffee, and head out in the cold, the edges of the sky just turning pink and orange. We’d drive down some gravel road and park, and he’d position me on some hillside, my back at the trees, with a long view of a field where the deer were likely to cross. He would double back and walk through the woods, trying to startle a few deer into running out into the open, where I and my fuzzy eyesight and shivering aim would shoot them just behind the shoulderblade from 500 yards away.

Walking through the woods sounded like fun. Being on stand was cold and nervewracking. Every noise, every crackle of leaves sounded like a 24-pointer charging through the still silence. I feared shooting at another person. It happened in northern Wisconsin every year, it seemed, often with fatal results. It was usually blamed on “buck fever.” I was going to make sure that what was cracking through the brush had four legs and wasn’t smoking a pipe. Eventually, my dad would emerge from the woods, and we’d discuss the tracks nearby or a thick group of trees where he thought for sure a few deer had bedded down. We’d walk back out to the road, and I would secretly wish that he would give up for the morning and head home.

We would unwrap our olive-loaf sandwiches and crack open the thermos of coffee. We’d pour out a swallow at a time and share the red thermos capful. I’ve never had better coffee than that — brewed hours before and mellowed and cooled a bit before we drank it. We continued discussing strategy, the weather, whatever had led us to fail in bringing down a trophy buck on that particular cold morning. At some point, he’d say, “Well, let’s try that other field.” I’d go along, because it was my dad, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.

Here’s a photo I have of him as a young man, standing in the snow in front of a 1940s-era car with a deer hanging over the big shiny front grill. Dad’s has a look on his face that says, “This son of a bitch? Yeah, I shot him.” I knew this was the feeling he wanted me to experience, but I doubted I would. If I’d shot a deer, I might have shown off my kill to friends, but would be haunted by the glassy eyes and the lolling tongue on the head hanging off the truck.

Once we’d tried a new field or another approach, we would drive home, still discussing the conditions of the hunt. My dad would then begin his workday, way behind schedule, often not finishing until after dark. By the end of hunting season, we both had lost our drive, and I could sleep in on those frosty mornings, and he could get caught up on work.

Years later, we were reliving those cold mornings, and I had to confess to him that I never enjoyed getting up and going out into the cold, and that I dreaded the thought of shooting a deer with all the bloody dismembering that would follow. I told him the only reason I did it was because he loved it so much. He wasn’t surprised as much as confused — it wasn’t his idea to be dragged out into the woods early every morning. In fact, it was always hard to get his work done during hunting season because he had to take me. He was doing it only for me. We both agreed, looking back, that we’d rather have stayed in our warm beds, eaten a leisurely breakfast, and done something else with our day.

That lack of communication is typical between fathers and sons, but I hope that the motivation behind those early morning awakenings are familiar to everyone. Sometimes you have to get up and do something, not necessarily because you want to, but because looking back, you’ll be glad you did.

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