By Sallie Schneider Sauber
From a very early age, my brother and I learned respect for guns — and Dad. I’ll never forget the time I pointed a dart gun at my father and chanted, “I’m gonna shoot you, bang bang bang.” Snatching it from my hand, he roared at me never to point a gun at anybody, not even a toy gun. I never forgot.
Sometimes brother and I would tag along during duck, dove or pheasant hunts. I was content walking along the rows of corn stubble sporting Dad’s way-too-big button-down camo shirt and searching for the occasional ear of field corn left behind by the combine, or just sitting still in the weeds near the ditch, my heart racing in nervous anticipation of the shotgun blast, that, at any given moment, would bring down the sound of nature’s hush along with the mallard overhead. We never carried guns, but what a great time we had going hunting.
I must have been 8 the first time dad took me deer hunting. Still no gun and yet the rush of being 20 feet off the ground and the thought of a seeing a deer without it seeing us was enough to keep me in that stand all day long! Sitting for hours in a deer stand is really just a meditation, a way of becoming one with your surroundings. You learn the rhythms of things. The way the weeds move in the wind when you’re looking at them from 200 yards away is different than the way an antler looks when a buck turns its head.
Two-hundred yards out, the color is the same but the rhythm is different. You learn to hear differently, or, perhaps not at all. If you hear a deer crashing through the brush, then it’s not a deer. Dad always told me that, but it took me at least 10 years to accept that squirrels and birds sound much bigger than life when everything else around is so quiet.
I learned the art of being completely still for hours at a time in sub-zero weather — nose dripping down my face, and toes so cold I couldn’t feel them. Some sort of right of passage I guess, or maybe I did it out of respect for the deer. If an animal was going to die at my hand, the least I could do was suck it up and suffer the cold for a day. Dad never promised it would be easy, and being a girl, I felt like I had to prove myself that much more.
When I was 12, I shot a beautiful 8-point buck. Actually, Dad and I shot at the same time, but he always gives me the credit. It hangs on the wall in my living room. Other less impressive deer taken over the years have been, as we say, “for the meat.”
Deer hunting as a teen was rough. It just about killed me to have to forego hairspray and makeup (dad assured me the deer would smell me from 10 miles away), although I’m not sure who I thought I was going to see out in the back 40 of rural Ohio. And don’t let the hunting clothes fool you, the pictures were taken post shower and makeup. So there I was, a girl with a gun and a fair amount of vanity. At least I was able to stay focused on my intentions once I settled into the stand.
As time passed, hunting with Dad became second fiddle to friends, boys and late night parties. Then I lost my mom in 1994. I stopped hunting altogether because she died while I was out hunting.
Never once during my struggle did Dad try to persuade me to hunt. He was quiet and patient and continued to share his love of the sport with his granddaughter, Savannah. I know he missed the hunts we shared, even when we came away with nothing. I used to think it disappointed him when I missed a shot, but I realize now it never really mattered. That was his way of staying connected to me. Our worlds are separate and the outdoors is where we meet in the middle, our common ground.
Years passed, and on a warm day in late September, Dad asked if I wanted to bowhunt for a couple of hours. “Dad, I’ve never even held a crossbow, and I haven’t hunted in eight years.” He coaxed me into taking a few practice shots in the yard before we went. Once I was comfortable with the bow, we took off around 3:00 in the afternoon.
The scenery was awesome. It was a pleasant 60 or so degrees, and the sun was behind us as we sat in the stand watching a monster buck 500 yards distant. All we could see through the binoculars was a huge white rack shining in the sun and bobbing in and out of the brush. With the experience came an understanding of what Dad must have felt as he watched his 1999 trophy buck make its way closer and closer.
There was no persuading this majestic creature. We hoped he’d come toward us, but we weren’t counting on it. As the sun faded, fog began to settle and we eventually lost sight of the massive rack across the field.
Dad climbed down from the stand and walked toward the horizon.
I said a prayer as I sat watching the big fireball in the sky float behind the trees. The air was still and the backdrop was breathtaking. I felt God’s presence as I pondered my place and I said, “You know I’m struggling with whether or not this is right. I need you to give me an answer.”
About 50 yards away, a doe stood out and began walking toward me. I had plenty of time to set up the shot and make it clean. Pop went the bolt, and the deer disappeared into the thick.
The scene was heaven on earth. The sun was sinking fast, and fog was now on the ground. The moon was just over the treeline, and one bright star dotted it like an “I”. A calm came over me like never before since my mother’s passing. I knew God was speaking to me in this place.
Dad went down to look for a sign as I guided him to where I thought the deer stood. Nothing. He looked for nearly 15 minutes and found not one white hair or speck of red. The temperature was plunging, and it was nearly dark. We drove back to the house for a quick bite.
Ten-year-old Savannah was back at the house waiting for us. She wanted to help find the deer.
We drove into the field where I shot and began looking around when Savannah called out, “I found a trail!” Dad and I rushed over to where Savannah stood and found the deer with the bolt right next to it. I made peace with myself that night.
My son is too young to carry a gun, but ready to tag along with his grandpa. I don’t know if hunting will be their common ground, but I do know this: If they come home with nothing to show for the hunt, the memories will still mean more than any trophy buck hanging on the wall.
The author lives in Athens, Ohio, with her two sons, and writes and produces commercials for Classic Hits 970 WATH and Power 105.5 FM. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.