It's 35 degrees, and I am shivering. The temperature is not really that cold, but I am chilled probably because of how I am dressed. My cheap cotton long johns, which got soaked climbing the slope to get here, are now going to freeze me. The rubber pac boots I'm wearing are not only low quality but torn, and I already have a couple toes that are numb. The light snow on the ground, actually a good tracking snow, just seems to make it colder.
I am on a deer stand in southern West Virginia, and I turned 18 years old about a week ago.
I look down and admire the rifle I am holding for about the 10th time. It's a beautiful Winchester Model 70, pre-1964 era, chambered in .30/06 caliber. The stock is a Monte Carlo style, and the wood is fancy. I shiver and study the deep bluing. The fact that it has open sights and no scope bothers me not at all. Cradling this gun at this stage in my life, I figure I am very well armed.
I don't remember seeing any deer, but I can remember the day, the rifle and enduring the cold on that brush-choked ridge.
I don't think much about birthdays these days — at least my own, that is. I enjoy the special days of others, such as family and friends, but my own day of turning another year older doesn't seem so special. Does it have something to do with wanting to hold back the years? I don't know.
Years before the deer stand episode, I stand on the edge of a muddy river almost hip deep in the water. The temperature is about the same, as this is on or about Nov. 15, my birthday. I am, if anything, even more poorly outfitted. I have hip boots on, but I am sure they were cheaply made and at least one of them is leaking. The water seems much colder than the air temp in the 30s, but I think they told us in science class that is not possible.
I have got myself in a position where the water depth is about to come over the top of my cheap boots. The mud on the bottom of the river is squishing downward, which of course makes the water come up higher to the critical point at the top of my boots. I'm going to be wet and a lot colder before I get to the house.
On this particular gray winter day, I am checking muskrat traps and envisioning myself as a wilderness trapper in Alaska or Canada. Reading magazine articles in Fur-Fish-Game and the stories of authors such as Russel Anabel, I am sure, stoked these fires and kept me out in the cold. At some point in my junior high school years, I was set on living the lonely life of a trapper in some snow-covered territory. Time and life and reality took care of all that, I guess.
Moving the wayback machine to a forward setting in years, I am once again in a lonely place, and it is if anything even colder. I think to myself what a way to spend your birthday for maybe the 10th time. It is about 1 in the morning, and it is one of those clear nights when the temperature takes a nosedive. I am on a barren hillside behind some brush in a position to watch a deer that was killed several hours ago, illegally by the way.
Why, you might ask, am I here once again, shivering, watching a dead deer? Well, a few years prior to this birthday, I took the oath and became a conservation officer for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. I was at the time the youngest, and probably the most gung ho (overly enthusiastic and energetic), as well as the only single officer in my district. Any form of an unwanted and unpopular task that came up, such as doing a stakeout on a deer killed out of season, went to you-know-who.
"Just send that single boy; he is young, and what does he have to do anyway?" I'm sure that was said more than twice.
In truth, I don't think I grumbled too much about those tasks. I was enthusiastic about my job as a game warden, and I probably thought I was living the dream. Youth is a wondrous thing; why does it have to fade?
Well, there have been a lot of birthdays since all these little adventures. I look back on them fondly, and I am sorry I painted a dismal picture of what I thought of birthdays earlier. I hope to have a lot more.
Whoever shot that deer I was watching on a cold November night more than 40 years ago never did come back to get it; that just happened sometimes. I am, however, going to look into what is the latest in thermal long johns and cold weather gear.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at email@example.com.