Tradition Dies Hard

Chuck Bedgood

© Copyright 2001 by Chuck Bedgood

Here it is deer season again. The trees have lost all their leaves. The bow hunters are about to grudgingly give up their favorite stands of wood to the firearm hunters. The deer are in full rut, and every sportsman with so much as a single day of vacation coming, has got the opening day circled on his calendar. The scene is so time-worn and steeped in tradition, it is observed with almost religious loyalty.

For over 20 years, I have taken part in the ceremonies with eager anticipation. Counting the days, reading all the magazines dedicated to the upcoming endeavor, and dreaming of the buck of a lifetime that I was sure to finally find in my scope at sunrise.

More than anything else, I looked forward to the men in my family gathering at our camp in northern Michigan, as we have done each year for more than two decades.

The men in my family consisted of my grandfather, my dad, my uncle, a cousin, my brother, and myself. Three live in Michigan, two in Mississippi, and I live in Virginia, so we rarely saw each other except for those few glorious days each November.

Over the years, I have watched our camp change from tents to campers and Winnebagos; from Coleman lanterns to generators and 60 watt bulbs, and from young fathers and even younger sons, to a combined total of 316 years on earth. Despite all the changes, however, several things have remained the same. For instance, the location. My dad found it one day while hunting in the early 1960's. It was relatively secluded and showed an abundance of deer sign, so he pitched a tent, and continued to pitch one in the same spot for the next 30 plus years.

We instituted some of our own traditions over the years that we faithfully observed ourselves. For instance, the campfires, built each year on the weathered ashes of the previous year's fire. The nightly penny-ante poker game, which to this day I continue to play knowing I don't stand a chance against the elders. The no alcohol rule, which as a young man I didn't agree with, but am thankful that it was enforced. And of course the stands.

Each of us, long ago, had staked our claim to a piece of the forest, and proudly proclaimed it as "my stand". Through the years, they never changed. Opening day would find each of us in "our stand", waiting for the big one. It was handy. If I needed to talk to dad, and he wasn't at camp, I knew I could find him at his stand, hot coffee in his hand, surveying the countryside around him. But the one constant I could always count on, the one true thing that made the trip worth while, was grandpa.

Each year he would kiss grandma good-bye in Mississippi, where he retired to in 1972, and make the 15 hour drive to Michigan, where he was greeted with no less than a hero's welcome by the whole family, and after unpacking the various quilts, jellies and ceramics that grandma had spent the year making for everyone, he would drive up to the camp.

For me, deer season would officially begin upon his arrival, because in the realms of my mind, grandpa was deer season. His arrival signified the start of a week of fun and laughter that I would carry with me for a lifetime. And, when I paid attention, I would learn more in that week from him, than I learned all year in a classroom.

I'm sure there are people in the world who are more wise than grandpa, but I haven't met one yet. He seemed to have a knack for tempering any of life's lessons with just the right amount of humor, that even a "bloomin teen-ager", as he called me with his nose wrinkled up, was eager to listen to. As I grew out of my teen-age years and thought I knew it all, I was constantly amazed at how little I knew, and how much I could learn, during that one amazing week each year.

Grandpa had been stricken with polio when he was real young, and as a result, he had been left with a distinctive way of walking that made him instantly recognizable as he approached my stand. Even if I couldn't see him coming, I could tell by the way he rustled the leaves that he would be joining me. Oftentimes, I would listen for that sound harder than I would listen for deer. Like I said, grandpa was deer season.

Deer were never as abundant as the sign indicated around our camp, and many a year ended with nothing more to show for our efforts than a fond memory, but that was always enough.

Over the years though, everyone in our camp had been able to fill their tags a few times with one notable exception. For the first 15 years, I had never seen a buck. Oh, I saw them hanging in other camps, or worse yet, hanging in our camp, where I was forced to look at it every day and be constantly reminded by the successful hunter that I had yet to produce one, but I had never seen one alive and walking by my stand. I began to doubt their existence.

Doe's on the other hand, I had to push out of the way in order to get a seat. And, although I applied for a doe permit every year, would you care to guess how often I got one? I believe I hold the record in Michigan for the most consecutive years without a doe permit. Needless to say, I was forced to endure much good natured ribbing from the others for my lack of success. The only one who would not allow himself to get caught up in the obvious humiliation I felt, was grandpa. He would instead, tell me to be patient. That good things come to those who wait. And he would spend countless days over the years, walking large circles around my stand, often neglecting his own chances at success, in the hopes of driving a deer to me.

Then, one year, the strangest thing happened. When grandpa arrived at camp, I noticed that he had grown old. I don't know when or how it happened, I just know that his walks away from the camper became less frequent, and less far-reaching. His days were spent more in the warmth and relative comfort of the camper, and less in trying to kick up deer.

I began to get more determined to get a deer. Suppose, I thought, after all his efforts to help me, grandpa never saw me get a deer? Would he feel he had let me down? That was a question I didn't want to spend my whole life contemplating. So, I began to take a different approach to deer hunting. I bought a set of rattling antlers and a buck grunt tube, and began to hunt in thickets, and swamp edges, and over rubs and scrapes, and all the methods I had read about for years, but had never done since it would have meant leaving "my stand"

By 1992, grandpa never left the camper anymore. He was, after all, well into his 80's by that time, and the polio he had beaten as a child was now showing in each painful step he took.

Opening day of '92, was a rainy, sloppy mess, and when I tumbled out of the camper, I noticed there were no lights on at my uncles camper, so taking a chance, I went to his stand to hunt the first morning. I saw two deer, right after first light, but couldn't see what sex they were. At about 7:00, a beautiful 4 point suddenly materialized about 30 yards from me. Having never seen a real live buck before, it took a second to sink in, that this was one I could actually shoot at.

The deer only went about 20 yards before dropping. Fifteen years of frustration and humiliation melted away as I stared at that magnificent creature that had eluded me for so long.

Back at camp, I had the deer hung, and was drinking a cup of coffee before grandpa joined me. The deer, which we later found out dressed out at 190 pounds, was a beautiful sight hanging in that tree, but I guess after all this time he couldn't help himself as he looked at it and said, "What's that squirrel hanging in the tree for?" We both laughed, and I told him about the whole experience. He then got his camera and shot almost the whole roll of film on the deer, and finally, his job was done. All the men in his family had gotten their deer under his tutelage in one form or another.

Grandpa made his pilgrimage back to Michigan the next two years, mainly at the selfish insistence of the rest of us, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it. Then, last year, he didn't come at all. Dad stayed in Mississippi to be with him, my uncle decided to try deer hunting in Texas, and my brother and cousin couldn't get off work.

I went to the camp alone, and saw that extensive logging had been done over the summer. Nothing looked the same. It was almost as if they knew grandpa wouldn't be back, so there was no sense in keeping the place pure any longer. I spent opening day walking from one stand to the other, trying to recapture those warm feeling I had known for more than 20 years, but the search was in vain.

Needless to say,. I didn't hear any deer that day, but I wasn't really listening for them. I was listening for the sound of that distinctive walk.

Like I said, grandpa was deer season.

Chuck Bedgood is a truck driver who has spent his whole life in the futile (thus far) pursuit of the elusive publishing contract. He has written 6 full length novels, 12 short stories, 2 biographies, and numerous reviews for the local newspaper. The rest of his time is spent chasing after his pet dingo, Dee Oh Gee, (get it?), trying hard to find more time for writing without ignoring his wife, Susan, whom he met on the Internet 4 years ago, and battling the repressive South Carolina heat. Hope you enjoy the tribute to my grandpa.

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