Deer in the Headlights

The excitement was more like an electric charge banging off the walls and less like an alarm clock at three in the morning.

“Let’s go, sleepyhead. Those deer won’t wait forever.”

Richie rolled over and kicked the covers. Today, he would go hunting with his dad for the first time in his life. Neither knew it would also be the last. His dad grew up with New York’s gangs and fought as an infantry man in two wars. He’d also never eaten venison, but these thoughts are in retrospect. All those years ago, Richie only knew one thing. Hunting would be an man’s outing with his Dad.

The camp had a particular smell, like rough clothes and rifles, bacon and scorched eggs. Coleman lamps hissed in the predawn, and fires poured forth with heat and embers.

“Make sure your bolt is open,” one of the men said to Richie.

The boy looked around and didn’t know what he was talking about. Then, it dawned on him. He’d slung his BB gun over a shoulder, trying to fit in.

“It’s a BB rifle, sir” he said to the retreating back. The man laughed and elbowed his companion. Richie put the gun back in the family station wagon.

“All right. Everyone gather ‘round. We’re laying out the firing fan and the areas of responsibility.”
The map was hung up for everyone to see. Richie sat in the front next to his Dad. “Here and here, Team 1.” He looked around. “Bill and Sugar Ray, right? Team 2? You’re here. That’s Peter, Mike, and Bandy?” He got some huh-ha from the group. Richie already knew they were Team 14.

The range master pointed to a fire break symbol on the apex of a hill. “Team 14, that’s the Lieutenant and….”
“Richard,” said his father. “My son.” He looked over and caught the boy’s eye. “And, a dollar says we draw first blood.”

Several gave hoots and hollers. Men clapped Richie on the shoulder. One mussed his hair. He flushed easy and was thankful the dawn was still an hour away.

When everyone had their assignments, the Range Master, a master sergeant that worked in the Battalion HQ, gave the safety briefing. All the fooling around stopped, and the groups listened to each word. Richie said in a whispered voice to his Dad, “I thought you outranked him. He’s giving orders to everyone.”

“He’s in charge, son. Nobody wants to be on the Top Kick’s nasty list.” Later in life, he learned a different name for the list.

The southern California military base was arid, with few trees but many low scrub bushes and gully’s. Richie and his Dad set up in their assigned firebreak stand watching to the east. A deer could visit from the west, but that was a no-fire zone for Team 14.

As the sun rose higher, Richie grew more impatient. “When are we going to see one?”

“Could be in a minute or in an hour.” He rolled his wrist over to look at the black faced Hamilton. “Could be tomorrow,” he said with a smile.

“Tomorrow!”

By noon, the occasional shot made it obvious Richie’s Dad lost the bet several times over. His Dad asked, “Still with me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good…” His Dad’s voice trailed away.

Richie looked up.

“There, “ his Dad said in a voice that was calm and unflustered.

Richie rolled over. “Where? Where?” He felt a large, familiar hand on his shoulder. “Take the glasses. Look left of the saddle. I think it’s a buck coming up the rise.”

Richie took the binoculars and scanned up and down, left and right, up and down. “Slowly,” his Dad said. “Take your time. We need to see if he’s got a rack. Remember that we can’t shoot a doe or a single point.”

Richie slowed down and saw the deer. He was big, majestic, with a large rack unusual for the small white tails of the southern California hills.

“What do you say, Richie? I’ve got him in my scope. Once he’s on the firebreak, he goes free.”

The boy looked and watched as the deer climbed unaware, but suspicious. He was brown with a crest of black along the neck and back. Shoulder muscles rippled as he alerted and looked around.

“Make the call son. Buck or doe?”

The deer relaxed and walked another step. Two more feet and he’d be on the firebreak and then over into Team 13’s area.

“Remember the deal, Richie. You make the call.”

But he already knew. The big buck hesitated, gazed where the Pacific Ocean lay in the haze miles away, and stepped one hoof onto the firebreak. Richie’s Dad un-shouldered the big rifle as they both watched the deer vanish into the next gully.

“Hey, no problem, Richie. Sometimes there’s just nothing around to hunt. We’ll do better next year.”

They transferred some time later, before deer season came again. Richie’s Dad never took him hunting after that, and in fact, never hunted himself. He might have gone some day, but he died only a few years later.

Many, many years after the incident, he reflected about the scope on his Dad’s rifle. Richie wasn’t needed to identify the deer. His Dad knew all the time the animal was legal to shoot, but it was Richie’s call.

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