Every year in November my family looks forward to the Thanksgiving holiday with great anticipation. There are a couple of reasons for this anticipation. The first is the opportunity for our family to gather together and spend time with each other and give thanks to the Good Lord for all He has blessed us with throughout the previous year. Our family is scattered from Maine to South Carolina and the holidays are usually the only time of year we have the opportunity to be together. Secondly there is a tradition that the outdoorsmen in my family have looked forward to for many years: the opening of the rifle season for deer hunting. This may sound silly to most people but where I’m from; it is practically a holiday in itself.
Growing up in Western North Carolina as a boy brought many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in God’s beautiful creation. In those days, video games and satellite television were not even heard of at our house. Even if they had been available, my parents could not have afforded them. Many of my uncles and cousins were heavily involved in fishing and hunting. Not only was this a great pastime, but it put some mighty fine eating on the table for the family. When I was in grade school, my older brother Mike would share with me that he would be going squirrel hunting the next day, so somehow I always managed to miss the school bus that next day (Don’t tell Mama!). Daddy drove our only vehicle to work and Mama had no way to get me to school, so me and my brother would set out on those cold and crisp fall mornings in search of oak trees and gray squirrels. My grandmother would clean what she called “a mess of squirrels” and make us squirrel gravy and biscuits for lunch. As a young boy, I thought it was the best eating ever.
As the years passed and we got older we moved on to hunting big game such as deer. The older men in our family passed down the “know how” of hunting to us younger ones. Many times, I would see a big buck hanging from a skinning pole or tree limb and day dream of the time I would harvest my first deer. Eventually, that time would come and go and the tradition of hunting deer every year became my own tradition. Though harvesting a deer to me is quite enjoyable, it’s all the things that go along with hunting that I look so forward to each year. Unless one has spent the time in the woods when the sun is rising and the morning is “coming alive”, one can never understand the feeling of awe and inspiration that is felt. I sometimes wonder as I observe the wildlife around me or the beauty of the view from atop a mountain how people can say they don’t believe there is a God who created it. The quietness of God’s creation gives a time for prayer and contemplation and sometimes while reading my Bible, God has spoken to me through His Word something that my heart needed. There is also the enjoyment of sharing the successes of a fellow hunter or hearing the story of the big one that got away before offering a shot. Seeing the smiles, hearing the stories, and simply enjoying the camaraderie that goes along with the season can really make some great memories.
Over the last couple of years, I have endeavored to pass along this tradition to my sons. I want them to understand that there is more to do than just play computer games or watch a 24-hour cartoon channel. God has given us His creation to enjoy and use for our benefit. It’s important to try to take advantage of every opportunity I have to spend time with them. Hunting and fishing gives many opportunities to let them be boys by exploring, running, climbing trees, seeing wildlife, etc. Often there is not much hunting or fishing involved but at least we are together. They are taught to respect God’s creation and to give Him thanks for the time He allows us to spend together enjoying it.
November of 2009, brought a day that neither me nor my boys will ever forget. The weeks prior to Thanksgiving I had promised the boys I would take them hunting. As many kids do when looking forward to a special date, almost every day they would ask, “Daddy, how many days until we go deer hunting?” I would count the days on the calendar and that would satisfy them until the next day and the question would come again.
Thanksgiving Day finally arrived and we rolled out of bed around 4:30 a.m. When I woke the boys, I asked them, “Do you want to go deer hunting?” Their reply was a loud, “Yea!” They jumped from there beds, staggering from sleepiness. They put on layer after layer of clothing that their Mama had laid out the night before and walked like robots to the truck. The morning was crisp and clear with stars shining brightly in the sky. A heavy frost was laying on the ground that looked as if a light snow had fallen during the night. We drove in the cold morning air the 20 minutes to our hunting destination while I listened to the boys talk excitedly of the potential that the morning hunt may bring. As we exited the truck and our boots hit the frozen, crunchy ground, steam rose from our mouths as we breathed in and exhaled the cold pre-dawn air. We offered a prayer to God to watch over us with safety and bless us with a successful hunt. I told the boys to be as quietly as possible, but with every step we made there was a loud frosty crunch. We made our way to the hilltop above our ground blind and walked down the other side. The blind was covered with the white frost which made the zipper on the side tough to unzip. We entered the blind and settled our gear on the ground and waited for daylight to break. The boys laid down on the ground wrapped in all the layers of clothes and fell asleep. I could hear them softly breathing, fast asleep, in the quiet morning. I partially unzipped the sides of the blind as daylight began to break. Gabriel woke up and decided to have some breakfast. I poured some milk from a thermos into a bowl of Fruit Loops for him to enjoy. Reuben remained asleep on the ground at my feet, snoring quietly. Gabriel and I whispered back and forth for a while as we occasionally gazed out of the blind to look for deer.
Suddenly we heard the faint sound of something walking on the frosty ground. Closer and closer it came. To the left of the blind the buck appeared, walking as if he was purposely heading to a certain destination. I whispered for Gabriel to be as quiet as possible, for the buck was only about 20 yards away. Gabriel whispered, “I see him, Daddy, I see him!” Slowly I raised my rifle, careful not to make any noise. My heart began to race and my breathing became labored as if I had just run in a race. (You hunters will understand that!). I could hear Gabriel breathing heavily as he looked over my shoulder at the buck. The buck was now quartering away at about 40 yards as he traveled along the trail. I flipped off the safety on the rifle, held my breath, steadied my aim, and squeezed the trigger. The buck flinched and started to run. He expired within sight as we watched him go down. I turned to Gabriel to see a smile spread across his face. “We got him, Daddy!” he shouted with excitement. Reuben quickly jumped to his feet. Still rubbing sleep from his eyes, he proclaimed, “Daddy, I didn’t even get to hold my ears!” I hugged the boys as they jumped up and down with excitement.
We exited the blind and made our way to the downed animal. The boys stood and looked with awe and amazement at the beautiful animal. They rubbed their hands across his coat and lifted his head with the huge antlers. “He’s a 9 pointer”, they exclaimed as they counted his points together. I knelt down in front of the boys, gathered them in my arms and we thanked God for allowing us to be together and keeping us safe. Oh, yea, for the 9 pointer too. The boys looked on as I field dressed the deer and then we took some pictures and loaded him in the truck bed. As we began the drive home to share our success with our family, Gabriel said, “Daddy, this is the best Thanksgiving ever”. Reuben spoke in agreement, “Yea, the best ever”. As I looked in the rear-view mirror at their little cheeks red from the morning cold, I whispered under my breath, “Yea, the best ever.” It wasn’t because of a successful hunt, but because God had given me life and was allowing me to share it with my two sons. Now that is a Thanksgiving to remember!