By E.C. Chapman
In loving memory of Elting Chapman and all hunting dads.
My story begins many years ago when I was a boy of 9 or 10. Opening day of deer season in New York was always on a Monday, and my dad always let me stay home from school for that special occasion.
Just up the road from our home was The Farm. It wasn’t very big, but it was special to me. In the summer, Dad and I had a ball sneaking up on the woodchucks that seemed to live everywhere on the place. Dad was the best long-range shooter I have ever known. He said he liked to give the chucks a sporting chance, but when it came to deer hunting, his luck wasn’t very good.
Back then, the deer weren’t as plentiful as they are now. It was on that farm that Dad shot his one and only white-tailed buck — a fat little 4-pointer. I was there at his side, and I’ll never forget my first lesson in field-dressing an animal bigger than a rabbit. Dad never shot another deer after that. We hunted hard, but it was not to be.
Fast forward to my 16th birthday. At last, I could hunt big game! We hunted The Farm and a few other places, but Dad’s coat pocket always held a little bad luck.
I was 18 when I got my first deer. It was a sleek 4-pointer taken on a snowy Thanksgiving afternoon. Dad had hunted with us that morning, but his health was not so good, so he decided to stay home that afternoon. Words can’t express the proud feelings that coursed through me as I called to tell him that I would soon be there with my first deer — a buck. He was very proud and excited for me.
Dad didn’t hunt much after that, and I now realize that he must have felt that his task with me was done — his hours of teaching and patience had been successful.
Over the summer, we still got to The Farm when we could. I was a busy young man by then with a full-time construction job, a wife and a new place to live. Dad passed away on June 4, 1982. He was 52 years old. In his honor, I drove his pickup full of flowers at the front of the procession so everyone could follow me to The Farm — that one sacred place where Dad’s time and wisdom changed my life forever.
Although I couldn’t let myself hunt there for many years after his passing, I drove home that way every night so I could feel closer to him. The smell of the fresh-cut hay and sight of deer in the fields now and then helped ease the pain. Four or five years later, my mother decided she needed a smaller place and gave me the opportunity I had dreamed of. She sold me the house I grew up in — the house by The Farm. In time, I was ready to hunt there again.
I talked to the family who owned it, two brothers and a sister. They where happy I was back and lived close by. They were getting on in years and needed someone to look in on them now and then, although they didn’t think so.
My wife and I became active members in our local fire-and-rescue squad and were there for the siblings’ ambulance calls and for the sad days, too. The last surviving brother kept the place up well, and it never changed from the beautiful farm it had always been.
I hunted there every fall, and it seemed like Dad’s bad luck bug had taken up residence in my coat pocket. It was only when I hunted The Farm, though. I hunted other places and tagged many respectable deer.
I hunted other places for a few years, but the farm was always close by where I could see it every day. We all knew the day would come when it would be sold. The whole neighborhood was worried; we didn’t want to lose the place to “progress.” We all held our breath until we found out that a well-respected local doctor was retiring and had bought The Farm to move his dairy herd there.
Fast forward again to 2006. I was 46 then, still living in the same house, with the same wonderful wife, a son soon to be 12 and a little girl who had just turned 8. Life, as they say, was good.
The old farm was still pretty much the same, except for one thing: The deer population had grown threefold. I knew it was time to speak to the doctor and get permission to hunt there again. My son had been with me in the deer woods since he was 3, and it would be perfect if he could take his first deer on that sacred ground. And I couldn’t think of a better place to take the kids turkey hunting in the spring.
Two fellows who worked on the farm hunted there as well. Out of respect, I spoke with them before I talked to the landowner. They told me I was welcome there. One had fond memories of my dad, and the other was a brother firefighter from a nearby village.
One warm fall afternoon, I met with the doctor to talk about hunting privileges. I presented him with a few nice matted pictures that my wife had taken of the barns and explained that I was a safe, ethical hunter and would conduct myself in a professional manner at all times. He already knew me as an assistant fire chief from my vehicle in the neighborhood. I went on to tell him that I was a corrections officer for the local sheriff’s department, too.
I went one step further and asked if my hunting partner for the last 18 years could hunt as well. He is a brother corrections officer and my best friend, and he usually provides the muscle to get my deer out of the woods. He gave us both permission, and I will always be grateful. I was home at last.
About a week or so later, I hung a stand in my favorite little swamp down by the orchard. My partner, Dave, took a liking to the big field on the other side of the road.
I had never hunted from a treestand on The Farm, and the view was breathtaking. I could see all over, and a flood of memories washed over me as I sat there. The happy times, places we used to sit, things we used to talk about.
My dad had been gone almost 25 years, but as I looked across the field to my right, there was the big tree we used to sit under. It had fallen down but was still there. I decided it would make a good ground blind for hunting with the kids.
If there’s such a thing as spiritual healing, that was it. Dave and I bowhunted there a few days before the gun season opened. Mornings were slow, but we saw lots of deer in the evenings.
We didn’t hunt the gun opener so the two other hunters could have the property to themselves. But the next afternoon found us in our stands before 1:30. I had small bucks and does around me from the first minute in the tree.
Late in the day, as the sun dipped low, a warm feeling washed over me. It felt as if my dad were there. I started to recall many things I’d long forgotten. There was the forbidden apple tree where we used to steal a snack now and then. It was on the other side of the fence, and that landowner was not friendly. Some things don’t change.
There was the stone wall where we used to sit in the shade and enjoy those apples. I can clearly remember some of the conversations we had. I suddenly found myself talking to Dad and said, “Dad, if your spirit is here with me, how about sending a nice buck my way?”
I sat there enjoying the moment when I realized that it was just about time to pack up for the day. There was legal shooting light left, but not much.
Just as silently as smoke, a buck appeared where just a second earlier there was nothing but field.
I didn’t see antlers yet, but I knew it was a buck. I put the scope on him and counted a very nice 6-point rack on a healthy farm-fed deer. Under other circumstances and that early in the season, I would have let that buck pass. But I knew in my heart that this deer was special and was sent there for me. I thanked my dad and pushed off the safety.
When the smoke cleared, the buck was down in the field, almost on the spot where I was sitting 20 years ago when I dropped the 4-pointer. After the shaking and the tears subsided, I gathered up my gear, climbed down and went to the buck. As soon as I put my hands on it, the flood of tears began again. It took awhile before I could call Dave to tell him I needed a hand.
As I sat there, I couldn’t help feeling the buck was Dad’s way of letting me know he was still with me. I had come full circle, but there was one little piece missing: a young boy doing schoolwork at home about a quarter-mile away.
He had planned to hunt with me that afternoon, but decided he had too much homework. It would have been his first hunt on that wonderful place, but Dad must have known I had unfinished business.
Thanks, Dad, for everything. I can only hope that my children have their own cherished memories of this special farm and can continue to enjoy it long after I am gone.
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This article was published in Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.