For a few short years, I was a hunter. For 25 years I learned to be a gatherer, and for the last 20 years I have been a prolific but not efficient, grabber of food. This column deals with the hunter segment of my life.
My father loved to hunt; deer season in western Pennsylvania was as close to an extended vacation as he had. Our dairy farm was set in rolling hills, part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Woodlots were scattered on the property and white tail deer were numerous. Dad and the neighbors considered the deer to be theirs since they ate clover from the hay fields and corn from the less-than-abundant crops we needed. (Those were the days when hybrid corn was in its earlier stages of development; yields weren't big enough to share with critters.)
My first gun was a .22–I could kill a rabbit if it were sitting, and I bagged a few squirrels with it. I think Dad hoped I'd become as enamored of the chase and kill as he was, so he had me tag along with him from the time I was eight. When we were after rabbits, squirrels and the occasional ringneck, more commonly known as pheasant, he had a .12 gauge single barrel shotgun with which he was pretty efficient.
When it was deer season time, though, he had a .30-.30 lever action rifle with a scope. When I turned 12, he allowed me to use the shotgun and slugs to hunt deer. (Rifles were and still are legal in Pennsylvania, I suppose because the hills will stop any bullets that miss the target. Believe me, it's easier to shoot a deer with a rifle than with a shotgun because of the distance involved.)
Toting the shotgun, I was invariably part of the drive team–the four or five hunters who would spread out to walk through a patch of woods to drive the deer out to waiting hunters. That practice too was legal in Pennsylvania; I know it isn't in all states. When I was 14, Dad took me to a gun store in Kittanning so I could pick out my own deer rifle as a combination birthday/Christmas present. I think it was a Krag; I don't remember the caliber, and it didn't have a scope.
I used the .30-.30 often in the summer to shoot groundhogs; they were a nemesis to farmers on small tractors. If one happened to drop a tire on the lower side of the tractor into a burrow as he was driving on a hillside, the tractor would tip over, and we didn't have roll bars. That resulted in death for more than one person in our community. Besides, shooting woodchucks was target practice/recreation for us hillbillies.
We never ate the groundhogs, though we had one neighbor who did. If we had time, we'd gather up the carcass and take it to him, uncleaned. A bachelor, Jim said groundhog stew was tasty, but I never accepted his invitation to dine with him. Game animals we'd dress in the field and then butcher at home. Deer especially were a nice supplement to our diets; I still remember how good a 50-50 mix of ground venison and ground beef tasted.
Indiana County is closer to Pittsburgh than it is to the bigger mountains in Potter County, bordering the New York state line. When I was a young 'un, there were no wild turkeys or bears in Indiana County. One fall, after the morning milking was done, Dad and I headed north just to say we were turkey hunting. We spent more time in our rattle-trap vehicle than we did walking in the woods–we had to be back for the evening milking. Though Dad never talked sentimentally, it was father-son time together away from the farm. In retrospect, we both needed and enjoyed that. Within the last 30 years or so, the game commission has stocked turkey and bear in Indiana County. My brother sees both on his property occasionally.
I was knowledgeable enough of our poverty that I appreciated the meals nature would provide in the fall, even though one had to be aware of buckshot as he ate. Neither of us enjoyed fishing, but a pheasant for Thanksgiving dinner meant one of our old hens would be available for a later date.
Usually, especially after I entered high school, both of us would bag a deer. The season would begin the first week of December; only bucks could be taken the first two weeks, and then doe season would follow for three more days. Pennsylvania deer aren't as big as Illinois white tails (I think deer here eat better), but two of them plus a beef plus a hog or two meant no one in our family would be hungry.
My first deer was a button buck (more tender than the bigger antlered, older deer). Dad most often bagged his deer on the first or second day of the season, so I used his rifle until I killed my deer. The first was the last of four deer running below the hill upon which I was sitting, and Dad was mad because my first shot hit it in the back quarters, ruining some of the meat.
When I killed my last deer, Dad was on his death-bed in the bedroom he and mom shared. He had lung cancer which spread to his brain, and he was in and out of consciousness. I took his rifle and hunted a creek bottom near Rayne Church Road. The six-point was standing, looking directly at me, when I shot him. I field-dressed him by the road, hauled him onto the bed of dad's truck, and hung him to bleed out from a tree branch in the yard where Dad could see it. The next afternoon one of his good farmer friends, Chester, helped me butcher it and wrap it for the freezer. I'd like to think that Dad knew there was another set of antlers for the wagon shed wall, but he was past responding.
That was in early December, 1965; Dad died on Dec. 17, Mom sold the farm in March 1966, and Judy and I married in August of that same year. We came west that month.
I haven't hunted since. I still have the .30-.30, but I haven't shot it since I killed that last deer. I suppose there are several reasons. Deer were very scarce in this area when we came. I remember going to the check-in point for the county to collect names of successful hunters to print them in the Journal because it was news. Now so many hunters are successful that it's no longer unusual.
Too, Judy wasn't interested in cooking game. It was my job to clean anything Dad and I killed for the table when we hunted, but I had no idea of how to prepare or cook it. That was mom's speciality, though I doubt that's how she thought of it. It was another of the "woman's work" chores the young ladies of Judy's era weren't willing to accept, and I knew that well soon after we married.
I didn't have much time on my hands either. From the time we arrived in Carlinville, I had a part-time job of one kind or another so we could eat. For a semester both of us were in college, and the $600 I'd saved for living expenses didn't last too long. She insisted we have window coverings for our apartment, though I wasn't sure of the need; after all, we lived on the second floor. I lost that and similar arguments, and the pile of money (perhaps anthill would be more descriptive) dwindled quickly. Because I saw my role as provider, I delivered pickup loads of coal for Curry's Ice and Coal before landing a job pumping gas at a Shell station. I provided, Judy cooked (spaghetti was a cheap favorite), and we lived in wedded bliss.
Besides, I discovered I didn't miss hunting. I hadn't developed the passion for it that Dad and his friends had, though I wouldn't have known that had I stayed in his culture. December mornings in the woods were miserably cold; gutting an animal could become a nasty business if one weren't careful. Dad would be ashamed, but I turned into a softie who enjoyed his creature comforts.
I still like hunters and enjoy their stories; some of my favorite literature are hunting stories by William Faulkner or Jesse Stuart. When Bill Dagon and a hunting companion of his brought beagles and hunted rabbits on the small farm Judy and I owned north of the 'Burg, I never felt tempted to join them.
The first dog we owned together was a beagle we adopted when we first lived near the grain elevator in Coffeen; it was such a noisy yapper I never made that mistake again.
For the April Ramblings I intend to write about my gathering days; they too began in Pennsylvania.