The image of a deer, still alive in the moment before I broke the shot, is only seared into my memory from two occasions. One of those events being the first deer I ever killed. Until the day that I pass, I will never forget that old eight point, the way he stood perfectly broadside, right out in a clearing on a little sloped hill. In the moment before he died, he looked as calm and sure of himself as any buck I’ve ever seen before or since. I don’t remember the sight picture disappearing as the recoil of the shot took over, and I don’t remember the punch in the shoulder I must have taken. That was 2003, the boy sitting right behind me was Will, and the gun was a Ruger M77 MK1 chambered in 7mm Remington Magnum . . .
In 2003 I was not of legal age to have purchased a firearm. And even if I had been old enough, scraping together the money to acquire (and feed) a walnut stocked bolt action chambered for a magnum cartridge topped with a decent piece of glass was way beyond my purview. A year younger than me, Will was in the same boat. The rifle belonged to his father, Dale, who passed away this week after a hard-fought battle with cancer.
That rifle is representative of a lot of the rifles in cabinets in my home town. Built before plastic furniture and rough machining became the norm, the Ruger actually looked like a nice rifle, even after being handled by two teenagers. A working man could afford to buy one and be proud of it when he pulled it out of the case at the deer camp. It’s the type of rifle that I worry American buyers no longer value, so American manufacturers will no longer produce.
As has been the case for many excursions beyond that first one more than a decade ago, Will has been my loyal guide in the wilderness, teaching me the finer points of game management, species identification, shot placement, and wildlife behavior. I owe my love of the outdoors and hunting to Will. He and I often joked that, save for one exclusion, he’s been by my side the first time I’ve ever killed any kind of animal for the first time.
Like most of the men in the small town where I grew up, Will learned his craft from his father. Along the way in life, I’ve met certain men in life that exist as an anachronism, Dale being prime among them. Save for the various hunting shows on television he’d watch and an appreciation for air conditioning that’s shared by all Texans, I don’t know if he had much use for the modern world. He was certainly comfortable in it, but I think he most likely would have thrived in a bygone era where hunting was more than a weekend pastime.
Even at the tender age at which I started hunting, I recognized in Dale a superior ability for mastering the wilderness. Where I would struggle to stay still for more than a few minutes, Dale could sit quietly without moving a muscle, often watching deer through a spotting scope until the light faded completely from view. I would complain that I hadn’t seen any deer for a week, but Dale would always report back on deer I had missed completely. Part of this I’m sure has to do with his passion for bow hunting, a discipline that rewards stealth, keen eyes, and patience.
Where Dale was quiet and contemplative, his wife was bright, cheery, and social. Every year, she would invite dozens of their closest friends and family over to their house two weekends prior to Thanksgiving for a large feast. As rifle season opens in Texas on the first weekend in November, this always ensured that a get-together didn’t conflict with opening weekend, and that enough of the guests had spent some time in the blind working on their tall hunting tales. As a young and thoughtless child, I appreciated their Thanksgiving for nothing more than the food it provided, and the time it allowed for me to see my friend. Dale would always preside over the event, towering over most of the guests.
As I grew older, that annual event provided me with a necessary lifeline to the community I’d left behind in favor of a liberal arts education and the money that a job in the “big city” affords. Each year, I’d load up on turkey and mashed potatoes, and use the opportunity to see what the locals had been up to for a year while I was gone. As my first date with my wife was at the beginning of October, much debate took place on whether we were “ready” to bring her to the annual Thanksgiving event. I did, and never regretted it once.
Each year since I brought her the first time, as we’d put their house in the rear view mirror, bellies full of pie, my wife would comment on how Dale seemed to have been born in the wrong century. Along with my parents, we would all nod and agree that if the end of the world as we knew it came, Dale would be the first person we would welcome to the ranch compound.
After I left home, the ranch got a lot less usage allowing the native deer population to recover from the predation of my late teens. In the following years, my mother would call or email with reports on the wildlife at the ranch, driven mostly by Dale. He would only take one deer at most each year, usually with his bow, and he always called first to make sure it was still OK if he came out. He made a point to never take any of the “big deer” though our family wouldn’t have cared one way or the other if he had.
I wrote a piece this time last year about heirloom firearms and the importance they hold for those to whom they’re handed down. After publishing it and seeing some of the comments, I called Will to ask if his father still owned that Ruger in 7mm Mag. Naturally, the answer was yes. I told Will that if his dad ever wanted to get rid of it, that I’d be first in line to buy it at whatever price he was asking. Will laughed and politely told me to pound sand. He’d also taken many deer with that rifle, and it held a very special place in his heart. More so now.
With Dale’s passing this week, the world lost a great man who cared very deeply for his family and friends. He was a craftsman of the highest order whose hands helped build not only the blinds I use for hunting, but the school that prepared me for a life spent indoors. He was a skilled hunter, evidenced by the meat in his freezer and the mounts that adorned the walls of his home.
More than that, he was a committed father who passed along his love for the outdoors to his son, a son who helped pass that love along to a friend. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have a brother of my own growing up, so Will is the closest approximation I’ll ever have. As such, I feel a loss and sadness at Dale’s passing that I haven’t felt at the loss of the parents of other friends. To his credit, Dale raised a son who could pass for a younger version of himself, and passed on as much of his knowledge as I think he could impart. I hope to take Will, that Ruger, and the memory of Dale hunting this fall.