The Death of a Hunter

It snowed last night here in southern Ohio. Not much of a snow really, but the quarter inch of freezing rain on top of the snow was enough to keep me in the house. My wife of forty years and I sat by the wood stove this morning having our coffee and talking about things that long married couples talk about. I had planned on hunting sheds this morning but the weather took care of that. The newspaper did not arrive this morning due to the ice and I doubt we receive a delivery. And as I am prone to do when conditions are like this, I retire to my office and I begin to write.

I thought I would tell you about my father. More to the point, I thought I would tell you about the way he died. He went to his final reward on Thanksgiving Day in 1996. That he passed away at age 78 is normal, it is around the average age that men in the United States live. It is the way that he died that is the story.

I have mentioned before that I grew up on a cattle ranch in Texas. It was not a large spread by Texas standards, just over 2000 acres. The ranch is located just south of Brady, Texas in an area called the Edwards Plateau. The Edwards Plateau is rich with whitetails. Our ranch was also home to a large population of Rio Grande turkeys. It has fantastic quail hunting and every winter we see vast numbers of migrating ducks as well that frequent our tanks. Tanks to you people in the North are what ranchers call ponds. It was a place that beckoned a boy to grab a single shot H&R twenty gauge or the old Winchester twenty-two and head out of the house at every opportunity. That I did this was not considered abnormal, it was considered completely normal by my parents. I, like my older brothers before me, followed this path as much to see and commune with all the wild animals as to be invisible when my father was looking for any of his sons to do the many chores associated with the cattle business. I was driving a tractor by the age of nine and driving pickup trucks to town to gather up supplies by age fourteen. No one batted an eye at seeing a fourteen year old driving a pick up truck down the main street of Brady, Texas during the fifties and sixties. It was a simpler time, and in many respects, a better time.

My mother is a rancher’s daughter as were most of the women that lived on the surrounding ranches. At the conclusion of world war two, the population exploded with newborns on all the ranches around Brady just like it did across the country. My brothers and I were part of that explosion. My mother loved her life on that ranch. But she insisted that every child of hers receive an education beyond high school and that education would take place at some far away school in the north. She insisted that we experience life beyond the confines of a Texas cattle ranch. If we came back to the ranch after college, that was fine. But we were all sent north of the Mason Dixon line despite the fact that Texas boasted some of the finest universities in the country. She wanted a better life for her children. She wanted them to find a better life then that of a cattle rancher. Now that is not to say that living on a cattle ranch is not a good life. But it is a hard life complete with work seven days a week without the slightest hint of any annual vacation. As it turned out, my mother was very wise. None of the children ever returned to live and work on the ranch.

Of course we all returned for visits. Christmas and Thanksgiving were the big reunions. And of course every visit to the ranch included the spouses of the children complete with new and ever increasing grandchildren. For the boys, the visits always included hunting. It had become a ritual. And this is the way it went for many years.

I would return to the ranch once a year. I also was married and had two children of my own. We would rotate Christmas and Thanksgiving between Cincinnati with my wife’s family and the ranch with my family no matter where we lived. The Thanksgiving celebration for the year 1996 was to take place in Cincinnati and we would head to the ranch for Christmas. I always loved Christmas at the ranch. The weather was always nice and warm and the whitetails were just starting to enter the rut.

As dad got older he slowed down with physical activity as is the norm. He was a strapping specimen of a man standing 6’ 4” in height and weighed in around 235 lbs in his prime. To say he was an imposing figure when you neglected to do your chores or brought home a report card that was less then acceptable was an understatement. He could put the fear of god in you with just a look. He didn’t need to say anything. I have seen him reduce tough and seasoned ranch hands to quivering jelly with just a look. But underneath that gruff exterior was a puppy. He was like a big overgrown Labrador puppy in love with life and happy to see everyone. Of course we didn’t realize this until we were well on our way to adulthood. That fact was amongst the many things we didn’t realize until we left the ranch. Things became so much clearer when we looked at our youth from afar and from the cold climates where all the children now lived. The pull of that life and the ranch itself was a calling that none of the children could ever resist and the reunions were events that were the highlights of our year. We counted the months and days until our returns much like children count the days until a birthday or Christmas morning.

Hunting deer on Thanksgiving morning was a ritual. There was never a Thanksgiving morning that deer were not hunted on that ranch. Never! Why not doing so would be paramount to saying there was no Christmas to be celebrated just a short month later. Watching the sunrises on Thanksgiving morning are some of the most vivid and cherished memories I own. We all had “our” hunting spots or blinds. Dad would always be at his tank or “pond” blind. It was a blind on the top of a little man made hill overlooking the largest tank on the ranch. It was a wooden structure complete with sliding glass windows and carpet on the floor to help eliminate the noise. There were many blinds like this on the ranch. We would build them when there would be lumber left over from some other construction job taking place on the ranch. And every summer we would head into Brady and attend the school district auction of surplus and used up school equipment to bid and purchase old office swivel desk chairs to place in those blinds.

For the past two decades prior to 1996 dad spent his Thanksgiving morning in that blind overlooking the tank. He would have his binoculars with him and watch as the ducks, cranes and herons landed on the water at the first hint of light. He loved to watch all the animals come to the tank to drink. Flocks of Rio’s would come to the tank to drink. Birds of every description came to quench their thirst. And of course, the whitetails would come as well. On that Thanksgiving morning of 1996 a huge ten point whitetail buck visited the tank to drink. He did not leave that tank that morning as the roar of dad’s two seventy put him down in his tracks.

We had implemented a rule for dad some four years prior to the morning he shot that big ten point. He had experienced a minor heart attack in 1992 although he would always claim it was just bad indigestion and the “fool doctors” didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. The new rule was put in place so he didn’t have another case of that “indigestion.” He was not allowed to gut the deer or drag the deer or lift them onto the truck. If he was alone he was to return to the house and take a tractor with a front loader back to retrieve the animal and summon help to hang and process the deer. And he followed that rule that morning.

He waited until he knew the rest of his boys and family would be back at the house preparing the Thanksgiving post hunt breakfast before he left the blind. According to my brother’s description, he came into the house and sat down at his customary chair at the head of the big farm table and waited for mom to place his mug of coffee in front of him. Once the coffee and food were in front of him and all the siblings and wives and grandchildren were seated he began his story. He told them of his morning and what he had seen. This was normal conversation for this ritual. We all took turns telling of our Thanksgiving morning hunt. And of course as his position in the family dictated, my father would always tell his first. He told his family how he had just killed the largest buck he had ever killed in his entire life. Not only was it the largest buck he had ever killed, it was by far the largest buck ever killed on that ranch period! Now this was no small statement as there had been some tremendous bucks taken on our ranch. The boys were all slack jawed as they knew their father was not one to stretch the truth or exaggerate. If he proclaimed that this was the largest buck ever taken on the ranch, then it was etched in stone. It was the gospel truth! They said you could see the excitement in his eyes as he told of the events that lead up to the shot. He was bursting with this excitement when it happened. He clutched his chest in mid sentence. He lurched backward and then immediately forward and hit his head on the table.

It took forty-five minutes for the ambulance to reach the ranch. The boys kept dad alive via CPR and he was still alive when he reached the hospital. But he was alive in body only. There was no brain activity. The heart was so damaged it could not provide the blood and oxygen needed to sustain life. And my mother never consulted her children and told the doctor to stop all artificial aids to prolong his life. She didn’t want her children to be burdened with that decision. She was a strong rancher’s wife and she did what she knew he wanted. She let him go.

I will never forget that call I received that morning celebrating thanksgiving at my wife’s family in Cincinnati. It was my mom that made the call. She didn’t want my siblings telling me. She thought it should come from her. She told me what happened. There were no tears. She was still a rancher’s wife.

We buried dad on that little hill overlooking the tank. We took the blind down. No one would ever hunt this location again. After the ceremony we sat around that big farm table in the ranch house talking of dad and his life. We were all comforted knowing that he went out of this world on his terms. There would be no long drawn out illnesses. There would be no nursing homes. We all figured he had accomplished all he wanted. It was as if he only had one thing left to do, and that of course was that huge buck.

Mom is eighty-eight now and still lives in that house. She still drives a pickup truck into Brady and to visit friends at the surrounding ranches and to church on Sunday. We children worry about her living there by herself but she will not hear of coming to live with any of us. And if the truth be known, she just might outlive us all. After all, she is still a rancher’s wife.