Everyone has a memory of when they first experienced what death was. It is rarely a good time worth re-living. Often times it will leave scars that must be accommodated and dealt with later in life, and sometimes they never go away. The Low Road is something we all must walk someday, and the closer we come to understanding what death is, the less fear and anxiety we will feel. Death is part of a cycle, and is not truly “an end.”
At the age of forty-two I still remember my first realization of what death is… its taste, its smell, the feel of its skeletal hands on my soul. I was just turning fourteen, and I was feeling like I was on my way to becoming a man. We all do at that age, pushing our boundaries, testing our environment, beginning to shape who we will be as a person. My father took me downtown to the Woolworth store to buy my first hunting rifle. Hunting was always a big part of my family’s male persona. I can remember the myriad times as a child when I yearned for the day when I could join my father, grandfather, and their friends on the yearly hunt. They always seemed to look forward to it, talking about past hunts and the prospects for success in the upcoming one. I think they thought of it as a way of getting away from the stresses of everyday life, and I wanted to be part of that. As we neared the sporting goods section, I could barely contain my excitement. I stood next to my father trying to copy the way his critical eye looked over the rifles hanging in their racks behind the counter. He pointed at one and said “Let me see that Winchester.” Before I knew it, he was placing a lever action .30.30 into my hands and was asking me if it felt comfortable and if I liked it. I remember I had a big grin on my face and my cheeks were warm and flushed as I shook my head up and down saying in a low voice, “yes, yes, this is perfect.”
My next memory was sitting on a tree stump in the middle of the forest with the wind blowing ice-cold rain into my face. The snow in the higher elevations would be pushing the herds lower. The cold water was beading and running down the shiny black barrel of my new rifle onto my numb fingers. I had been sitting there for most of the day, patiently awaiting the deer that my father promised me would walk across the dirt logging road that I was watching. My mind wandered. I was thinking about how warm home was going to be, how good dinner was going to taste, and trying to decide what television show I was going to watch… I almost missed the movement of something out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t dare move a muscle on the off chance that it wasn’t just another bird. I waited… Silent as wraiths a group of moving figures began walking into my line of sight. I instantly forgot the cold and misery of the rain. Time seemed to stop. I began scanning the small group of deer, only my eyes moving; looking for the buck I knew had to be there. I was in luck. Out of about nine does and fawns there was a forked horn male. My heart felt like it had dropped into my stomach as they stopped a mere 10 yards from me in the middle of the narrow dirt road. They were so close I could see the eyelashes on one of the does. They were looking around themselves nervously, snorting. They must have caught a whiff of my scent, or perhaps sensed there was a predator close by. I felt a large sense of relief as they began to slowly cross the road without running into the forest. The buck was less than 10 feet from me when I raised my rifle. Instantly they all took off in all directions, but my focus and attention was placed squarely on the buck. Everything else was a blur. It was just me and him. Nothing else existed in that moment in time. He started climbing the steep bank, trying desperately to make his way into the safety of the trees, red dirt flying into the air, cut out of the bank with his sharp hooves. My rifle was up to about hip level and pointed at him, but I realized I would not have time to bring it up to my shoulder. I jerked the trigger, knowing I was supposed to squeeze it. The sound concussion from the discharge was deafening and the acrid sulfur smell of gunpowder assaulted my nostrils. I watched the rear legs of the buck drop from beneath it and it began rolling down the bank, kicking in all directions. Before I could fully realize what I was doing I had ejected the spent casing, reloaded, fired, ejected a spent casing, and fired again… all from the hip. The deer was lying still. Silence enveloped the forest. The last wisps of gun smoke was blowing away into the trees. The coppery smell of blood permeated the area.
I never thought I would feel the way I did at that moment. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Nausea hit me in small waves. I thought that I would feel good about this, feel strong, feel like a boy should feel when he had taken a deer in the hunt and passed the threshold into manhood. All I felt though was sorrow. I had taken away something that could never be returned. I sat back down on the stump and leaned my rifle against a tree.
At the age of fourteen I think I first began to realize that children are totally oblivious to what death is. After I pulled that trigger and ended the life of that deer I half expected in some part of my mind for it to get up and say “nice shot” and run off into the trees…just like our childhood games of cops and robbers, or soldier versus soldier. Until that moment I did not realize there are no “do-overs” in real life. I did not understand that in war soldiers get shot with real bullets and they do not get up to play again. I did not realize that to be part of a hunt is not just a social endeavor… it is the potential to become death incarnate. At the age of fourteen reality hit me in the face like a bucket of cold mountain water. I had discovered what death is.
As my father walked up the trail toward my hunting stand he saw me sitting on the stump. He glanced to the base of the bank and saw the crumpled body of the deer. I saw a glimmer of understanding in his eyes. He sat down next me and did not say a word for what seemed like an eternity. I was glad he did not say anything, but was equally glad that he was there with me.