Was it real, a dream, or a bad bologna sandwich?
One hunting tale I’ve shared only a handful of times but have thought about on hundreds of occasions occurred in the fall of 1963 in southern New York. This is the way I remember it. The buck still walks through my dreams now and again.
I’m no longer certain after 40-plus years that my return to that overcast November day continues to accurately reflect what really happened.
Or if it happened at all.
It remains surreal, as if I’d been a spectator, not a participant.
The place was a farm in southern New York, not far from the Pennsylvania border, which I saw for the first time that steel-gray morning as the sky reluctantly yielded to a hazy dawn. My host had placed me on the edge of an old apple orchard with a harvested cornfield to my left and a sapling-choked woodlot to my immediate right.
My 12-gauge Ithaca double-barrel shotgun, loaded with “punkin balls,” would need to suffice. My meager schoolteacher’s pay didn’t allow for a deer gun — new or used — in my budget back then. But each time I wandered downtown, I’d pause at the window of the Goodyear store and eye the shiny new Ithaca Deerslayer so enticingly displayed in the window. Instead, I had to make do with the shotgun Uncle Russell gave me upon my graduation from high school.
Before leaving me alone in the darkness, my host, Dan, advised: “Hang in there even if you don’t see anything.” He knew hunters on the adjacent farm would start driving the near woods about 10 a.m.
By 9, I’d watched three does trace the edge of the woods and was briefly entertained by a lone ’possum, probably heading home after a night of feasting on fallen persimmons and fresh roadkill.
A half-hour later, my churning stomach reminded me that I had sandwiches — three as a matter of fact —stuffed into my game pouch. Drawing one (bologna and American cheese, as I somehow recall) from the wrapper, I took a bite, then casually glanced back to the place I’d seen the does an hour earlier.
That moment remains deeply etched in my mind. No other aging memory is as vivid. The scene is always the same, as if I’m witness to a drama, looking on from somewhere else in the abandoned orchard.
I see me, sandwich in hand and dressed in a dark-red Woolrich coat and hat, and the buck, a fat-necked 10-pointer with eyes of coal, little more than 25 yards away. Neither of us moves. We lock eyes for a half-minute, probably longer.
In time, the buck turns. Seemingly unconcerned my presence, he takes a half-dozen slow steps, pauses for a final look and leaps over the barbed-wire fence separating the cornfield from the orchard. With a shake of his tail he disappears, and I am once more alone. Why I made no attempt to lift the old shotgun lying across my lap, or otherwise react to the buck’s presence, I shall never know.
The events of that long-ago morning are as puzzling now as they were then. Had I dozed off for a moment and only dreamed that the magnificent buck — 10 points with bronzed beams arching well beyond each ear and a notable rust-colored forehead — was real?
Or was it a classic case of buck fever, so intense that I became paralyzed at the appearance of the handsome stag? Under different circumstances it might have been my first-ever buck. But it was not to be.
The bologna sandwich, perhaps, adds a necessary touch of comic relief. Minutes after the giant buck disappeared and with my thoughts in disarray, I lifted my clenched hand to nibble at my sandwich. It wasn’t until then that I realized I’d squeezed it to the size of a walnut.
It took time, but rational thought began its slow return. I spent the next 30 minutes searching for tracks, but all I found was a cedar tree rubbed raw, accounting, perhaps, for the buck’s russet forehead, and belly hair clinging to the barbs.
The drivers began shouting precisely at 10a.m., pushing several does across the cornfield, as Dan promised. He showed up a bit later.
“See anything?” Dan asked.
I paused, searching for a way to explain what had occurred, but could only mutter “Yeah, a few does, but that was it.”
Why I couldn’t bring myself to tell Dan or anyone else what happened until several months later remains a source of inner searching to this day.
Since then, the red gods have been kind. My wanderings in the deer woods near and far have brought trophies for my wall and more than one man’s share of whitetail memories.
But none remain as ingrained, intense or puzzling as the silent, immortal ghost that’s destined to forever walk in my dreams.
This article was published in the November 2006 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.