At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century a number of rugged men, from Europe and North America, sold their talents to the highest bidder as hunting guides in the “dark continent” of Africa. Safaris were arranged for the wealthy and the “Great White Hunters” would lead these safaris with the goal in mind of bagging a species of “big game”; rhinoceros, elephants, lions, tigers and bears, oh my! The price tag for one of these excursions was prohibitive to most and therefore only the elite could afford the cost. Theodore Roosevelt famously went on one of these adventures and his exploits started a trend among the aristocracy. If you hadn’t been on a safari, then you hadn’t arrived. The men who led these safaris and big game hunts had to deliver the goods or they would be out of business; working on a ranch out west hunting antelope.
It’s been many years since I’ve gone hunting, but this is the time of year that brings back the memories of when I did. Hearing talk at the gas station or grocery store of the latest deer hunting or pheasant hunting experience piques my interest and brings me back to the day when hunting was a time of family bonding and togetherness. Great White Hunters we weren’t, but we made up for a lack of hunting expertise with enthusiasm and passion.
In early November, the men of the family; dads, uncles, cousins and brothers would all travel to Cabool, Missouri, in the heart of Texas County, known traditionally as the top county for deer harvest, year in and year out. That wasn’t the main reason we ended up there however. Cabool was also the home of Grandma Nina, the host for all of these gatherings. Grandma lived in a small, four room house which amazingly had room enough for nine, large, burly, Bay men (most grew beards prior to the season in order to add to the rugged outdoorsman persona we were trying to achieve). There were Uncle’s Vernon, Wallin and Floyd, as well as Cousins David, Vernon and Don. Rounding out the crew were Dad, Tim and myself (future brother-in-law Mark would later make it ten). At six feet two inches and one hundred and eighty pounds, I was one of the smaller members of the family.
We usually showed up a day prior to the season officially starting so that we could scout out the terrain we would hunt the next day. The land we hunted was in Douglas County and belonged to a distant cousin of the family. Rolling Ozark hills with heavy woods and undergrowth were great for the deer, but made it more difficult for the hunt. Because of the terrain, the weapon of choice was the 30-30 rifle; Winchester or Remington take your pick. The only one of us with a different gun was Uncle Floyd, who preferred the 30-06 (pronounced thirty-aught-six), and his was equipped with a scope (funny thing: Uncle Floyd was the one hunter who always seemed to get a deer each year. Hmmm.) Walking through the woods, we would look for “sign”; tracks, droppings and beds as well as deer rubs and scrapes, indicating bucks were in the area. As mentioned earlier, we weren’t exactly great hunters, and what knowledge we had was passed down from the older men. I had simplified the entire hunting strategy with this general summation: the deer woke up in the evening, headed out to pasture for the night and then at dawn, they went back to their beds and slept for the day. All you had to do was sit at the edge of the woods and wait for a deer to stroll past. Unfortunately for me, because of my limited research of the elusive whitetail deer and its habits, my results usually spoke for themselves.
The night before day one of hunting, we gathered for a feast. Grandma made sure that nine hungry men would be fed like kings. Ham, mashed potatoes (a ten pound bag of spuds was usually a good start), green beans, homemade biscuits and apple butter all hit the spot and we only had to save room for apple or pumpkin pie. That evening we would sit around and talk of the hunt to be and tell stories of hunts past, smiling and laughing at the memories. Four o’clock in the morning would come early, so we were in bed by nine. Even with doubling up in beds, sleeping on the couch, and making pallets on the floor, there wasn’t enough room at Grandma’s for all of us, and some would head next door to Uncle Vernon’s for the night. I ended up in the same bed with Uncle Wallin and my sleep was scarce; partially due to the excitement of what awaited me the next morning and partially because Uncle Wallin snored so loudly that the paint on the wall curled up and peeled off.
Sometime around four a.m. the next morning, the sound of Grandma in the kitchen preparing the morning meal along with the smell of coffee brewing, would awaken me. As she did the previous evening for supper, she did for breakfast. Fried eggs, bacon, leftover ham from last night’s meal, homemade biscuits and gravy and a percolator of coffee made for a “stick to the ribs” meal that seemed to help keep us warm on a cold morning. After breakfast we made the final additions to our hunting clothes, (layer upon layer so thick it was hard to bend over) to ward off the chill of the morning. Piling into the pickup trucks parked out front, we made the thirty minute trek south to begin the hunt. It was still dark.
Upon arrival at the designated meeting place and after parking the trucks, we stood around while loading our guns and talked of strategy and agreed to a meeting time later that morning to regroup and plan the afternoon. Then we headed off to our hiding place of choice. It was still dark. The favorite place was down an old logging road, through a pine forest and into a valley that was the home of North Fork River. Each of us got comfortable in our positions and waited for the sun to come up, dozing off from time to time. Uncle Wallin was the only one to climb a tree and as the sun came up he was easy to spot; his final article of clothing being bright orange, insulated coveralls. He looked like an orange polar bear. The view in the valley was breathtaking; a mist was on the water and the sun sparkled and gleamed off the frost on the ground. The cold air was evident with each breath taken. It was now a waiting game.
Other than the sounds of rifle shot echoing from over the next hill, there was a hushed silence throughout the valley. All of a sudden we heard a loud crack, followed by a recognizable thud and then a low moan. We all knew what had happened; Uncle Wallin had fallen out of his perch when one of the limbs gave way, not being strong enough to support his two hundred and thirty plus pounds. We weren’t sure if he was okay or not, but didn’t want to disturb the hunt, so we sat and waited. It was still mostly dark and it was difficult to see if he was moving at the base of the tree. Finally, Dad yelled out to see if he was okay. He answered in the affirmative and we all relaxed once again. Sitting in one spot, not moving a muscle caused the toes and fingers to become extremely cold. After a couple of hours of waiting, without spotting a single deer, we all began getting up and moved to the abandoned farm-house half way up the hill.
As we stood around in the warm morning sun, the men smoking cigarettes, we discussed our next moves. Would we try a deer-drive through the thick undergrowth or find other places to stake out? Suddenly, Dad grabbed his rifle and aimed off to a spot directly to the east. “It’s a big buck, over there about fifty yards away, walking up that draw” He said in hushed tones. We all grabbed our guns and took aim as we saw the buck, who was oblivious to all of us; instead he was focused on the tail of a doe, walking up the draw about five yards in front of him. They say that love is blind, and in this case, so is the instinctual reaction of a buck to a doe in heat. Standing shoulder to shoulder, looking much like a firing squad, we all took aim and began firing. When all of the smoke had cleared, the buck was gone, having run up the hill and into the woods. We went to the spot where the buck had been and looked for traces of blood, hoping that we had hit him, but found nothing. We couldn’t believe it, but all agreed; we were terrible shots!
As this particular day of hunting ended, with all of us being empty-handed, we headed back to town with the consolation of another of Grandma’s wonderful meals awaiting us and the thought of different luck tomorrow. As we sat around poking fun at Uncle Wallin for falling out of his tree stand and at each other for being such wonderful shots, Aunt Wayneth came over from next door. She joined the conversation and said, “I just want all of you Great White Hunters to know, I’ve killed more deer than most of you sitting here.” She then turned, walked out the front door and went back home. During a previous deer season, when she and Uncle Vernon lived on a farm, she was gazing out the kitchen window at dusk, noticed some deer in the field a few yards from the house, calmly went to the back bedroom and grabbed a rifle, loaded it, stepped out onto the front porch, took aim and dropped a nice sized buck. Somehow it didn’t seem fair. She had killed a deer and didn’t even have to get up before the break of dawn, didn’t suffer frost bite on her fingers and toes, didn’t have to tromp up and down the hills and dales, or fight through the thick briars and brambles of the woods; she didn’t even have to grow a beard. And she didn’t have to share a bed with Uncle Wallin.