By Aaron James
Thanksgiving Day was always fun for me growing up. Unlike most of my friends, though, my Thanksgiving always consisted of spending the morning deer hunting with my dad, and his dad, my Poppa (not pictured above). We would hunt until about 11 am, then head back to grandma and Poppa’s house where a festive meal would await. The Thanksgiving meal would be a time of reflection, sometimes about the morning hunt, but more times than not, just a celebration of life . . .
Poppa held a special place in my heart, as did the Grandfathers of most 7 year old boys. He was a man’s man. Ten feet tall and bullet proof to me, both then and now. Superman could not carry water for my Poppa. He was, in every sense of the word, my hero. In his vegetable garden, at the barn, in church, but especially the deer camp, I had been his shadow since before I can recall. And Thanksgiving Day, 1993, was no exception, and soon it would prove to be the Thanksgiving of all Thanksgivings.
Back in those days, the southern tradition of hunting with dogs was still the most popular way to hunt. I had just turned 7, and it was my first year to carry MY OWN gun. My weapon of choice was the single barrel Winchester Model 37 .410 shotgun that my dad had used when he was a lad, now passed to me. I could not have been more proud if it had been a gold plated AK-47. It was MINE……And I had the honor and privilege of carrying it to the deer stand, slung over my shoulder like an infantryman that I had envisioned myself to be since I was old enough to tote my Daisy BB gun, that incidentally my Poppa had gotten for me, 3 Christmases prior.
As I struggled to keep up with my Poppa’s long strides, I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, as the excitement of my first REAL hunt was unfolding. I had always been with Poppa on his stand. My dad had, for most of my remembrance, been the designated dog handler, and my little legs would scarcely keep up with dad and the deer dogs as they pushed the deer from the thickets. But no matter, I would rather have been with Poppa anyway. No reflection on dad, but Poppa…..He understood me. We were a team, and a good one at that.
We got to our designated spot, and Poppa watched me load my weapon. The 2 ¾” slug I slipped into the breech looked like a 10 gauge shell to my little hands, and as I locked the barrel closed, Poppa said confidentially, “Today’s the day”. I nodded hastily in agreement, as his confidence in me caused me to be even more excited. “Listen!” he said as I finished my nod, “I hear your daddy turning the dogs loose.”
I strained to hear over the slight breeze that was wafting through the big pines, but I could hear a faint barking in the distance, and it caused my heart to skip a beat. I had heard the deer dogs strike many times before, but today was different. I was ACTUALLY a participant. I had my OWN gun. For the first time in my life, I was a HUNTER.
The dogs seemed to head toward us, but when they came within a distance that I could readily hear them, they turned and went the other way. I was disappointed, and Poppa, sensing my dismay, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “The doe took the dogs the other way, we need to be watching closely for a buck slipping out.”
Those words were scarcely out of his mouth when loping through the brush that unmistakable white flash of a deer appeared about 35 yards down the trail from where we stood. Poppa and I must have seen it at the exact same time, because as he whispered to me “DEER”, I had already brought my mammoth weapon up to my shoulder. The deer stepped into the logging road, and Poppa said “HORNS, shoot him”. I aimed……and squeezed. I never felt the recoil, but I did see the deer go down in a heap.
“I got him, I got him!” I exclaimed, and toward him I dashed.
“Hang on” Poppa yelled. I stopped in my tracks, but the giddiness didn’t wane.
“Come on” I pleaded.
“Let’s reload your gun in case he gets up,” Poppa explained.
A good idea, to be sure, but I had other things on my mind. I wanted to see him. I wanted to be closer to my prey. “You load my gun for me Poppa, I’m too nervous” I confessed. And so he did.
We got my gun retooled, and walked up to the spot where the buck had fallen. And there he laid, the biggest mossy horned behemoth I had ever seen. Later we would discover that the deer was, in fact, a basket rack six point, but for this moment in time, I had put down the muy grande.
My dad came out of the woods about the same time we got to the deer. I excitedly shared the events of the past three minutes with him, and then he and Poppa grabbed ole mossy back by the horns and began the 100 yard trek back to the truck. We reached the truck, loaded up the prize, and headed back to the camp house.
Upon arriving, several other hunters headed out to meet the vehicle in hopes that the shot they had heard yielded some fresh venison. As we slowed to a stop, the men walking toward us began to point at our truck. I hadn’t a clue what the deal was, but just about the time we stopped, a commotion was heard from the bed of the truck. Poppa looked back, just in time to see my DEAD dear, jump over the side of the pick-up. In a flash, he bailed out of the passenger seat, and as the deer struggled to get up a head of steam, Poppa headed after him…like a shot from a cannon. I leaped from the truck and hit the woods right behind, not knowing what to do, but my Poppa was chasing my deer, so I figured I needed to as well.
The animal, obviously mortally wounded, was no match for the speed of the 63 year old veteran of the Korean War, and about 40 yards into the race, Poppa dove and made an open field tackle, dragging the deer to the ground. In one fell swoop, he reached into his overall’s pocket and out came his lock-blade Uncle Henry. He flicked it open with the speed and precision of a switch-blade and plunged it into the neck of the buck, and it drew its last breath.
The moment was surreal. My Grandfather had just, quite literally, killed a deer, MY deer, with a knife. Not knowing what to say, I asked “Are you okay? Why did you chase him? Why not just shoot him again?”
He looked at me, and with a wry smile said, “Nobody but YOU was going to get credit for shooting this deer.” And with that, he stood up, wiped the blood from the blade, and told my dad, “Alright, I got him to here, you get him back in the truck.”
Fast forward to Thanksgiving lunch that day. Obviously the conversation was dominated by the events of the morning. No one at lunch believed the story about the happenings of the morning. Heck, I was only seven years old, and I believed anything, but it was even hard for me to wrap my mind around the scenario that had unfolded before my very eyes. Had I not been a witness to it, there’s no way I would have believed it either. But there were, indeed, about a dozen witnesses to the feat. And from that day to this one, the story has become the stuff of legend at our deer camp.
Traditions change throughout time. Dog hunts went the way of the horse and buggy in our family. Even Thanksgiving morning hunts fell by the wayside as we grew up and as Poppa slowed down. But every year at our Thanksgiving feast, the story is recounted of the day I shot my first deer….And the day Superman ran him down and finished him off for me.
I am thrilled to tell you that my Poppa turned 83 this year, and just last week, we were able to sit down for lunch and recount Thanksgiving Day, 1993. I’m pretty sure my 18-month-old daughter didn’t believe it though. But she already does know that Poppa is our hero.