My intention this week was to write a column on the ethics of hunting, more specifically an articulation of why, in this modern supermarket age, I continue to hunt and defend the rights of others to do the same.
That column will have to wait. My daughter and I returned yesterday from a stressful trip to Anchorage, and when I sat down this morning to write, I discovered I didn’t have a serious bone left in my body. And with Hank’s column warning me that deer season on the road system is coming to a close … well, I thought I would tell a hunting story.
As it turns out, my favorite story about hunting is also a story about language, so I have the joy of writing about two of my favorite subjects at once.
In western Colorado where I grew up, my family had a reputation for a lot of things: hard work, determined hunting, hot-heading fighting, cutthroat card playing and a host of other things typical of rural, clannish Irish-American families. Most of all, we had a reputation for being prolific, and by that I do not mean that we wrote a lot of books.
Since my mother had so many mouths to feed, successful hunting was of critical importance. From the very first day of deer season to the very last day of elk season, the men in the family took to the hills and did their level best to bring home the bacon.
My uncles, being as prolific as my father, were under similar pressure to stock their freezers, so hunting camp was a big, extended-family affair. The day before the season began, the men pitched camp in an area above Woody Creek known as Lenado, and this camp stayed put until the day after hunting season ended. “Camp” included two large Army tents, three picnic tables, 15-odd coolers, a wood-burning stove, a refrigerator and a generator. It was, to say the least, an impressive sight.
Throughout the weeks, my father, brothers, uncles and cousins drifted in and out of camp, staying as long as needs dictated or jobs allowed. It was understood that the boys would go to camp, too, and common for my brothers to take at least one week out of school for the annual ritual. Thankfully, the school district winked at such practices, taking a rather generous view of what constituted a young man’s education.
The year my younger brother George attended kindergarten proceeded as any other year had — at least as far as hunting camp was concerned. The men packed their tents, tarps, sleeping bags, rifles, water jugs, tea kettles, playing cards and all manner of other things into trucks and headed off. George waved at us through the pickup’s rear window, his happy face topped off with a bright orange hat and a blue-ribbon grin.
Now, it’s important to understand that when George was young, he was just about the cutest little thing God ever created. But he had his share of trouble at school, usually as a consequence of listening problems.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to listen, it was just that often he didn’t hear things right. This was apparent to me the first time I stopped in the hallway and overheard him saying his bedtime prayers out loud. “Our Father,” he said, off to a good start, “Hollywood be Thy name.” Uh-oh.
For George to be able to take a week out of school and get a little break from phonics was, for him, just what the doctor ordered.
My mother, however, felt a little trepidation the day George returned to school after his big week of hunting-induced truancy. Would he be able to catch up? Would he feel farther behind than ever? My mother secretly feared the report she would get from George’s teacher. When the dismissal bell range, and the teacher quietly asked my mother to stay a few moments for a private conference, my mother’s heart sank down to her shoes.
“Well, NOW I know …,” the teacher began after all the children, including my brother, were safely out of earshot. Her tone was playful, but … The dread on my mother’s face matched the delight on the teacher’s. My mother waited, still as a statue, for the rest.
“Now I know,” the teacher repeated, “why there are so many children in the Strong family.”
“Beg your pardon?” my mother said, not knowing what to say or do under the circumstances. What could this be about?
“During show-and-share time this morning,” the teacher explained with a grin, “George told the class that he was sorry he was absent all week; but the whole family was at humping camp!
“I didn’t know,” the teacher said, laughing so hard her eyes watered, “that Colorado had a season for that, too!”