November 1967. Huddled in the cramped, ‘way back’ cargo area of our station wagon, I was with my Grandpa Bill, Uncle Tom, my dad, Ned, and two older men I did not know yet. It was a typical, cold New York fall. Indian summer days changing to arctic nights. The back of the car was so cold that my glasses fogged with each breath. A family friend owned a hunting cabin in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. I had never hunted or camped before. All the men had their hunting beards growing. I had yet to shave. I am thirteen years old. I barely have pubes.
Our gear was stuffed akimbo into our 1960 Ford, Country Squire. It had fake wood trim on a black and cream background. Plenty of rust. The other car was a Chevy Impala. Sky Blue. Fast looking. I was stuffed between camp gear and padded rifle bags. All my gear piled on my lap.
In the afternoon, we stopped for beer, ice, and lunch at Harm’s Inn on Route 56 in Sevey’s Corners. Mister Harm Berry was a grizzled old white man, skinny, balding on top, with big ears, a small chin, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, who sang songs and told stories about the Adirondack Mountains.
My grandfather knew him. They chatted as I sat on a tall, hard stool with my elbows on the etched and scarred Chicago Railed bar. I kept quiet nursing a nickel bottle of Royal Crown Soda while nibbling at a one-dollar meat sandwich. When he served my sandwich, Mister Berry called me “Youngblood” as he rubbed my crew-cut hair.
“Are ye a killuh son? Goenna get a deers?”
Blushing, I looked at my dad. He was smiling. I became engrossed listening to Mister Berry’s tales of lumberjacking, North Country snowstorms, and spring floods. He was the first person I ever heard live speaking with an accent. The big room was decorated with deer and moose heads, antlers, and a stuffed beaver. All overlooked by an evil-looking giant, stuffed mountain lion.
As soon as we got to the camp, I had to shit. My dad handed me a spade shovel, telling me, “Go behind that maple, the roots’r deeper. Dig a hole two feet deep and don’t lose the dirt. Pile it up a few feet from the tree. We’ll use that hole for our toilet. There’s a real outhouse shitter a buncha camps away but why walk? Here, grab that toilet paper and leave it over there…off the ground, on a branch or somethin’.”
The ground was frozen, hard as a rock. Gratefully, that frost only went an inch or two down. Lower, was soft gravel and sand. I had spent the summer with my dad, digging a new septic tank system at our house. By with my dad, I meant with my dad watching me. Shoveling was easy for me. I was feeling urgent about shitting, so I shoveled fast.
Having accomplished all of that in fifteen minutes, I called my dad over to show him my work. “That’s good. Why did you square the corners? Asses are round. Hey, after wiping yerself, wash yer hands with sand…from over there.” He pointed to the pile I had excavated. “Don’t use soap. The deers can smell soap from far away. Cover your crap with soil there. Ya don’t wanna be the guy that fucks the mission. We’ll fill in the hole when we leave.”
I could not help myself. “By we, you mean me, right?”
He took off his Elmer Fudd hunting cap to scratch his curly hair. Hair longer than mine that matched his two week old hunter’s beard, this was the late sixties after all.
He surveyed the camp. Done, he proclaimed, “Yup, it’s you. This is gonna be a lot of fun. Keep yer ears on and eyes open.” He rubbed my matching Elmer Fudd cap and hooked an arm solidly around my shoulder, walking me back to the tent.
Later, we were sitting around the rock-ringed campfire; on short birch log stumps, the kind with white mushrooms growing out of the sides and ends. Mister Charlie called it a “Bombfiah.” Uncle Tom showed me how to scrape the white caps and bark scraps with the sharp hatchet edge to use them for kindling.
“They’ll flare up orange if ye throw ‘em in the fire.”
He told me to whack the hatchet into a log to protect the edge from rusting overnight. Mister Wixted pulled out two rolls of tape, bright orange. The tape was not sticky, it is flexible vinyl. He explained to me that we will use the tape as we patrol the woods, tearing pieces and tying them to trees. He tossed one roll to me to examine.
“It’ll be yer job, boy,” he stated.
In the light of the waning moon, with the right side getting darker in successive nights, I examined the tape and said, “It’s stretchy and a little hard to tear.”
“Yeah,” the man said, “So it won’t come off the tree easy.”
The older guys were drinking beer, eating pretzel sticks, and smoking cigars and cigarettes. They threw the butts into the fire as they recounted past hunting and fishing trips. The tone is serious. Apparently, a six pointer could provide a lot of meat for a family and could last through the winter.
“Wait…we kill the deer and…eat it? I didn’t know that. I thought we only shot them.”
My dad smirked at me as the men guffawed. I was too embarrassed to ask them what ‘six pointer’ meant.
Our shelter was a thick canvas tent set on a fifteen-foot square, pine-planked platform. Two feet off the ground, accessible by one step. The step was a fat log split in half with the flat side up. Rocks held it in place, though it wobbled when someone stepped on it. The canvas draped over the platform edges, making sure the floor stayed dry.
A thick cedar, center pole about fifteen feet high supported the peak of the tent. Wood pegs were drilled at an angle into the pole for hanging shirts, jackets, and an oil light. Most, but not all of the bark was missing from the pole.
Mister Charlie, using a hunting knife with a deer antler handle, scraped a few slices of bark off the center pole. He used the dry scraps to make a fire in the small wood stove in the tent. We were quite cold.
Metal tubes held the tent sides and were tied with thick strings to the canvas interior. The inside was lit by candles. A fuel light with a fuel stove sat on a rickety card table. No chairs, simple log ends for comfort. There was mustiness in the tent that I had never smelled before. I liked it.
We brought plastic jugs of water along with an aluminum-sided cooler full of iced cans of Schaefer beer and bottled Coca Cola. A can opener was attached to a two foot long leather cord, the other end tied to the cooler handle. Under the ice, the meat and cheese we had brought for lunch had been crushed by the beverages. A loaf of white bread sat almost frozen on the card table.
There were three, metal-legged bunk bed cots lined near the cast iron wood stove. A black metal stove pipe extended, angling through the tarp wall. There was a wide, rusting piece of sheet metal riveted to the tent side to keep the pipe from catching the canvas on fire.
The tent door consisted of a canvas flap that had zippered mosquito netting strung across the opening. It was November. Too cold for mosquitoes, or any bugs for that matter. My dad explained to me what a mosquito net did. Living in the suburbs, we had mosquitoes. He explained to me how here in the woods, the “Skeeters and black flies are thick, relentless and there ain’t no keepin’ ‘em away.”
After pondering that, I spoke as the heat of the campfire warmed my face. “How soon will we go hunting tomorrow morning?”
Grandpa replied, “Ye can’t go hunting ‘til ya’ve crooked a deer. Or what we call forest hams.”
“Or woods steaks,” Mister Charlie said in a raspy voice.
Huh? What’s that? I took off my glasses and mindlessly cleaned them with the bottom of my T-shirt that I had taken out from under my red plaid wool jacket. All of the men wore glasses. I could see the fire’s reflection in all of them.
Uncle Tom butted in, wagging his three-fingered left hand, having lost the other two in a Tannerite accident many years ago. “Yeah you have to crook a deer before you can shoot one. That’s the manly way to hunt.”
Grandpa cut in, “Ye need to go out tonight. Ye have to find a deer and make yer way to the back side of it. Sneak up on it really quiet like. Get right up to its ass. When yer there, lift the tail up with yer left hand and jam yer right index finger up its ass. Then crook your finger.” He demonstrated turning his index finger at a right angle at the middle knuckle like he was shooting a pistol, “So it can’t run away.” He paused to let that sink in and then continued.
“After a few seconds let the deer go. Come back here and let us smell yer finger so we know ye did it or not. Then yer a man and ye can shoot a deer with a rifle. And don’t stick your finger up yer own ass. A deer ass smells different. We’ll know.”
I felt stunned. I never heard of that before. Each man had a serious face, and were looking at me intently.
Hmmm, I thought to myself, Ok, I can do that.
Soon enough, we began assembling for bed, but not me. I was wearing wool, red and black plaid, Elmer Fudd jacket with matching hat and wool pants hung off tight suspenders. This is an official hunters suit. Mine measured a size or two large so that I could grow into it. The pants were too long. The bottoms bunched on my leather hiking boots. Under the jacket were three thermal shirts. I slid on insulated leather gloves. Sadly the extra length of the coat arms put up a fight. I took a flashlight and a roll of orange tape. Discreetly, I eased my way out of the tent walking, calling out to no one in particular.
“Gonna take a crap and go crook a deer. Be back in the morning with a stinky finger for y’all.”
My dad, along with all of the guys, laughed and he said, “Good luck with that one, boy.” He did not take me seriously. Mister Wixted chimed in. “Tha’ boy sheets a lot.”
I spent the entire partially moonlit night walking around the woods, referencing the moon for directions. Watching landscape items; rocks, trees, ravines, hill tops and so on. I got sidetracked a few times but kept finding my way back to landmarks by using the orange tape around trees. I never even saw a deer.
Eventually, the darkness broke. The light came. I headed to camp, dejected, feeling like a failure. I was hungry, thirsty and disappointed. Breathing hard fogged my glasses. I could barely see half of the time. On the other hand, I spent the entire night outside. Did not get lost. Did not get scared. Felt a purpose that would be impossible to understand at that age.
On my way back to camp, I crossed a narrow creek. My feet were drenched, causing a couple of heel blisters. My feet, face, and hands were freezing. Everything else was surprisingly warm.
Wool keeps me warm. Who knew? There must be better outdoor foot and hand gear than this. Or I am a wimp. Don’t know that yet.
Downstream, I noticed a dog plodding along the manky, slime topped creek side. No, wait, that’s a coyote. It had haggard, matted back fur and pointy ears. It dug with its front paws along the side of the slow-moving creek that looked mostly covered with ice. It popped its head toward me, stared, flared its nose holes, looked around, and eased its way backward, up a slope. Its ears rotated like a curious horse’s. It kept its eyes on me the entire time. I realized that walking down a stream carries my scent ahead of me due to the movement of the water in that direction. Occasionally, the coyote’s eyes glowed. So cool.
Wondering what it was digging for, I went to the spot, a hole maybe a foot in diameter, ramped where its paws were scraping. Water was pooling at the bottom of the foot-deep hole. Clear water. It dawned on me that the coyote would not drink the half-frozen slime water but if it dug a hole along the creek side, underground water would fill the hole. And that water did in fact look pretty clear and clean. I scooped a bit out, gave it a sniff, nothing, and drank it. Tasted good. I named this a coyote well and made sure to remember this tiny detail as it may come in handy someday.
I returned to the camp as the sun was beginning to break. My dad and Grandpa were cooking bacon and coffee in the fire pit. They looked at me. I was disheveled, damp, and tired.
“Where the hell have ye been all night? We were worried about ya. We were jus’ about ta go git the forest ranger,” Grandpa chirped with a wry smile.
“Trying to crook a deer. Couldn’t find one,” I said.
My dad and Grandpa practically fell over laughing, calling out to the others to come and see the heroic hunter.
After a few minutes of laughing and ball-busting mockery, they let me in on the joke. Uncle Tom said derisively, “No one can sneak up on a deer and stick their finger in its ass and catch it that way. You dumb ass!”
Grandpa chipped in his two cents. “Do ye got any idea what to do if ye get lost?
Knowing a good answer, I did not ignore him. I kicked at the ground, fluffing icy snow.
“Well, I know that at the bottom any hill there is water. Might gotta look for it. Once I do, follow that water. It’ll lead to more water, eventually to a river. By then I’ll be seein’ houses and buildings.”
Uncle Tom looked stumped, saying nothing. He licked his lips as he smirked at me.
“Plus, I used that colored tape you told me about,” I said, as I held up the leftover roll and all of the pieces I took off the trees on my way back. Actually, that ended up being the easiest part of the night.
The men were too focused on laughing at me to realize how clever I had been.
Fuckers. Though I did not know what that word meant. My dad always called the Yankees that name when he grew mad at them for losing baseball games.
At least I could recognize my own gullibility, so I partially enjoyed the deer crooking joke. Grandpa, who I always thought was John Wayne when I was a little kid, sensed my embarrassment. He called me over.
“Let it go, that’s what men do, bust chops all the time. Don’t mean shit. Wait’ll ye join the Army. By the way I wanted ye to have this.”
As he opened a White Owl cigar package and tossed the red plastic tab on the ground, he handed me a teak box, about four inches square and thick. Box jointed corners. A small brass latch, green with age from verdigris, held the top on an equally greened, piano hinged lid. I slid the latch and opened the box. A glass sphere, like a watch but not a watch, nestled into a red felt liner. The white metal back plate under the glass read “Dirigo Compass Company.”
“Wow,” I peeped, looking at Grandpa. “Thank you so much.”
He grinned. I might have even seen a tear in the corner of an eye. “I’ve had that fer a long time. It’s yers now. Pass it on to yer son. Yer dad always had his Army compass.” The cigar in his mouth was not lit yet. It bounced up and down between his chapped lips as he talked.
I probed deeper into the box, finding a small folded sheet of tan paper between the globe and the box side. When I pulled it out and unfolded it I saw that the paper was so old that the fold lines were mostly torn. I became careful not to ruin the paper.
Grandpa grew serious. “It’s got a copper bowl anna real glass lens.” He pointed. “Look how polished that glass is. There are adjustin’ pivots in case ye go far away. Use them ‘cause there’s no gimbal in this. It’s got a magnetite lodestone and has always been reliable. Don’t frick it up…please.”
He lit the cigar with a stick match in his thick, carrot-like fingers, letting the thick smoke engulf both of our heads. I held my breath but secretly liked the smell.
None of us shot or even saw a deer on that trip. The borrowed rifle I was using was never fired.
“Pa, can I at least shoot the rifle, you know, so I can know what it feels like?”
“Sure son, blast ‘em all, at that target board, there.”
I missed the plywood on thirty yard shots. The first shot rocked me back. I lost control of the rifle. I’m so lame. By the last shot, I had the stock nestled into my shoulder, my arms in the correct positions and my trigger finger pulling smoothly.
“Now go fill that shit hole and clean up ‘round it. We gotta get the hell outta Dodge.” I am not even mad. I know that I am becoming a man. “Sure pa.”
Crooking a deer became a challenge to me. They said I could not do it? Someday I will. For now, the compass and the excitement of shooting a rifle and my night stalking in the cold woods became my trophy.
Shows Leary, from Grafton, NY. Retired from the construction world. has been writing a music/military memoir that will be published soon. He enjoys everything outdoors such as mountain biking, logging, snowshoeing, and sitting in the quiet of the woods. You might see Poppa Shows playing bass at many local open mics or performing with a band.