Opening Day

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Today is the opening day of deer season.

My father was not a hunter, so when I was growing up I didn’t realize what a big deal this is.  I went to a rural high school, and my friends often went hunting (even some girls!), and in neighboring Pennsylvania and a few border school districts, they even got the day off.  In my house there were no guns and no hunting tradition – at least until my brother hunted a few times when he was a teenager. But still, no rituals and none of the anticipation and excitement were felt there.

My husband has hunted all of his life, so to him this is THE biggest day of the year.  I believe that it is even bigger than Christmas!

The magazines start to appear around the house sometime mid-August. Pictures of large buck deer with huge “racks” of antlers glare out from the covers at me from the coffee table or the kitchen table where the mail collects – even from the top of the dryer in the bathroom (favored for reading because of the solitude?).

Loud blasts can be heard weeks –even months- ahead of the event, while our neighbors sight in their guns. (Although I cannot for the life of me understand why one needs to shoot repetitively for hours on end in the middle of the afternoon, weekend after weekend. To me it sounds as if they are in my back yard, it is so LOUD.  This not only disturbs my peace, but it makes my dogs crazy!).

Orange hats and vests are scavenged from the closets and cupboards and are found lying about the place. Full sets of camouflaged gear are hung from odd places – much like the random dog related items mentioned in my previous post. I often turn a corner and gasp as I see what appears to be a stranger lurking outside of my window, only to discover that his clothes are “airing out”.  (You know that deer can tell the difference between the scent of your closet and the great outdoors – thus the necessity of this practice).

And then it is almost time for it to begin.  We will be invited somewhere and have to decline.  A 7pm dinner is out of the question – what if he gets a deer at 5:15? He will have to field dress it, drag it out of the woods and take it to the processer…that could take several hours. Thanksgiving dinner is planned late in the afternoon so that the hunters have time in the woods before we eat.  He watches the weather forecast, wishing for snow (much to MY dismay) because a fresh coat of the white stuff will be good for tracking.

The night before is a ritual of laying things out and making sure it is all there: gun, camo clothing of varying thickness depending on the weather, hunter’s orange hat and vest, gloves, flashlight, rope and a snack for his pocket.  Last minute phone calls are exchanged with his cousins, or his father or his best friend about where and what time to meet.  An early bedtime and up at 4am, ready to go.

When we first bought the house up here on the hill opening day was always a big deal for the family.  Uncle and cousins would come down from Buffalo and they would all go into the woods together. They would arrive before dawn, clogging our driveway with cars and trucks. They would come stomping into the darkened kitchen to have a cup of coffee while the girls were still asleep upstairs, me dressed in my most attractive sweatpants and sweatshirt, with crusties in my eyes and pillow head. (My husbands family and friends have definitely seen me at my best!)

I would make a huge pot of chili and they would trail in at mid-day, laughing and bragging about the ones that they missed – comparing stories and planning the rest of the afternoon hunt. When they were very little our girls would hang back, watching timidly from the other room as the quiet of the day was broken by their loud camaraderie. Usually at least one of the hunters would get back to the house early with his catch and the others would follow along a bit later congratulating him on his successful first day before they would load it up and take it off to be processed. When they were older our children would snort disgustedly at the whole thing (how could they be so barbaric as to kill a cute little deer??), but they would always enjoy the venison that was used for their meals.  They often told me how much they disliked the ground beef that was cooked at their friends’ homes.

Over the past several years, the tradition has changed. The cousins now have their own sons to hunt with and tend to stay closer to their own homes, or they have moved far away and can’t be here for hunting season.  My husband’s uncle and father got older and lost their taste for the hunt.  For a few years the two of them would take their thermoses of coffee and sit under tree together, silent guns across their laps, reminiscing about past hunts and childhood memories.  As they aged into their eighties they sometimes didn’t even go out on opening day and have finally stopped hunting all together.

Jim still goes out, on his own or with a friend; hunting is a part of him, like his grey eyes, his clever sense of humor or his moustache.  Unfortunately, without a son to share it with, his old family tradition of the first day of the hunt has died.

This year will also be difficult because his Dad is not well. Ray is in a nursing home now, and because of his stroke and CHF he cannot communicate like he did before.  His speech has been all but silenced by the sickness and his ever present sparkle is fading.  Jim left the house today with a heavy heart, knowing that he won’t be able to share his experiences with his Dad like he used to.  He will tell Ray about it, I am sure, but the storytelling of the day will lack the same magic of other years.

There is one thing, however, that I know for sure.  The spirit of the hunt will always be there for my husband.  Whenever he enters the woods, I know that he will have his Dad with him in his heart.  It will always be special, because Ray instilled that sense of excitement and wonder in him when he was a small boy and shared it with him throughout his life. Jim’s favorite holiday will always be Opening Day.

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