I guess it would be wrong to say that I moved to the outskirts when I moved to Shickshinny, Pa., about five years after I graduated from college. A place with one traffic light is the outskirts, so I moved to the outskirts of the outskirts, and that's where I learned about hunting.
I was a kid from suburbia, the west end of Pottsville. I thought hunting was that one day a year in November. People I knew hunted for jobs or apartments, not animals.
It was my neighbors, a family of dairy farmers, who gave me my first taste of deer meat. When they made the "welcome to the neighborhood, want some deer meat?" offer, though, I expected steaks or hamburger wrapped in packages, not the entire carcass they so generously dropped off one evening.
A Hunting Education
The kids were slack-jawed with surprise when I told them I'd never butchered an animal. I covered my kitchen floor with newspapers and we laid the deer on my kitchen table, and they helped me.
It wasn't that I'd been a stranger to the woods. Back in the 1960s and 70s, our neighborhood was up against the woods of Sharp Mountain, which seemed enormous then. All the neighborhood kids explored the dirt roads and trails, remnants of the former ski area, through the carefree summers.
After the butchering lesson, I started thinking about hunting deer as a way to enlarge my enjoyment of the outdoors. I took the hunter safety course, and bought a bow and arrows at a yard sale.
I became an arrow-flinging addict. I'd be cooking supper, and while waiting for water to boil, use the time to shoot a few arrows at the targets in the backyard. I set up a course along the woods, which included shooting from the treestand I'd built in a giant oak tree.
On opening day of archery, just after climbing the steps to the oak tree stand, I dropped my flashlight. It stayed on when it hit the ground, and I fought the urge to make shadow puppets against my tree. I climbed back down for it, but thought that by now, every animal in the woods knew I was there, and would stay away.
But I was wrong. Soon, as it grew light, crashing noises exploded from trees all around me. Turkeys were flying down from their roosts. They were nervous, probably spooked by the flashlight incident, and not long after landing some of them started to fly back up into the trees.
A Big-Headed Snake
One flew into my tree, landing on a branch on the opposite side of the trunk from me. Slowly, I leaned and peered around the tree trunk, and there was the turkey, like some kind of big-headed snake, doing the same thing. We scared the wits out of each other.
Not long after that a doe and button buck approached, and the doe bent her head to drink from the small spring. As she did that, the button buck sniffed her tail, poking at her with his muzzle.
She whipped around, mouth dripping, and he hopped away. She bent to drink again, and he sniffed again. This time, she whirled and pummeled him with her front hooves, before they left.
It took me a few minutes to realize that I'd just blown at least 20 clear shots on either one of them. But, I'd never had a chance to observe deer like that, and I'd forgotten about shooting.
I didn't get a deer that year. I emptied my quiver at a spike, missing three times, and also missed a huge buck, shooting an arrow through its antlers, probably because I couldn't stop looking at them.
But I didn't care. Starting with opening day, the animals of the woods had shown themselves, almost like introductions. I realized then, and still believe it now, that 98 percent of hunting is just enjoying time in the woods.
So if you've ever thought you'd like to try hunting, make this the year. I measure my years now by hunting seasons, and by the lifetimes of a succession of dogs. And when I think about hunting, I always have a huge regret. I just wish I had started sooner.