Friday, August 1, 2014

Ode To Bear: A Hunting Memory


This is a story I wrote back in the mid-80’s. I never published it or did anything with it. I have always planned to write a memoir of my life, and this story was definitely to become part of that book. I remained friends with my old love, Bear, to this day. I am also good friends with his wife.
Bear died last week, after just turning sixty-one, from complications caused from multiple radiation treatments for cancer. I visited him in the hospital in Boston a couple months ago while he was receiving treatments, and drove him home to Maine the first weekend of his stay. “You saved my life,” he said. He said that to me a few times in our relationship.
Knowing him definitely added color to my life, and I will always treasure our friendship.


            The thought of killing "Bambi" always repulsed me, as it does many people. But I participated in a macho ritual for four Novembers in the early to mid-1980's that changed my attitude.
            I dated Bear from North Haven, Maine. He felt like my "primal soul mate". We lived together in Natick, Massachusetts for a short time, but mostly entertained a long-distance relationship for several years.
            During that time, part of my worthiness testing, in addition to eating a freshly dug clam right out of the shell, was to act as a "bush whacker" in a deer hunt. The first year I agreed to participate, I knew the experience would become a chapter in my book someday.
            I took a Friday in November off from work, and hit the road early to make what would become a very familiar four and a half hour drive to Rockland, Maine. I had to arrive on time to catch the noon ferry to North Haven, because the “boat” waits for no one. On arrival, I'd find someone I knew to drive me to track Bear down.
            That night was typically spent hanging out drinking at "Babe's" trailer; planning the following day’s events. Babe was Georgiana Fleishman. She was a good friend, who was also the loneliest, and largest woman, I have ever met. She was crippled by her girth, but she could cook like the finest chef, and actually made a living doing just that for years on the island.
            After a good night's sleep in the unheated second floor of Bear’s mother's "lived in" Cape-style house on the water, we emerged dressed warmly and ready for the day’s adventure. Luckily, my winter jacket was already maroon-colored, so I didn't need a fluorescent orange vest. But my beige knit hat had to go. Bear said I'd be mistaken for a white tail deer. I was awarded my first fluorescent orange baseball cap, and off we drove in the pickup truck to the Grange to meet the other hunters for an "opening day" breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. There was plenty of coffee at the 5:00 a.m. sojourn; lucky for me.
            Everybody knew the rules, but they were discussed for my benefit nonetheless: bucks are ok (other years it was "does only"), make lots of noise, don't walk in the line of fire, and don’t leave a wounded deer alive, i.e., track it until you kill it. That was my first realization of their respect for life. November's hunting was, as it was in days gone by, the time to fill the winter food stores. Besides deer hunting, duck, rabbit and scallops were common in every Maniac’s freezer. Although the men (I only met one woman hunter in the four years I participated) found hunting stimulating and fun, their rules about respecting the lives they were taking were adhered to without question. The man, who didn't follow the rules, was ostracized vehemently by the rest of the Island men. Lack of respect for wildlife was not tolerated.
            We set out; Bear, his four brothers and I, in a couple of pickup trucks to a predefined spot they said should be a "sure thing". Bear was usually one of the leaders of the expedition and I was given my instructions. The lineup of guns was arranged and we set out on foot to find our buck. Before we set out, though, everyone had to pee. Luckily, I brought along what I call my “pee funnel”. This is a very handy, plastic device I bought by postal mail through Sierra Club magazine. A woman friend introduced it to me, and I have since introduced it to every active woman I know. It is a “must have” for every woman who loves being outdoors.
            I stood in line with the men, zipped down my fly and instead of whipping it out to pee, I slipped it in. I realized this was the moment where I could satisfy the only thing about men that I envied: the ability to write my name in the snow while I peed. I did it and freaked out every man standing with me. It was hilarious! This is only one act that earned me the nickname: “Crazy Kathy”. I felt the thrill of victory.
            Once we set out, the men walked in a straight line, out of sight of the others, and I was told to take the shore road. Bear taught me how to identify deer tracks and I was anxious to pass my test and live up to the task. I felt like I was participating in some very important event, and didn't want to let him down.
            The day was bright, the air clear and clean, and the sky was cobalt blue with only wisps of clouds dotting it. Being twelve miles out in the Atlantic, there was no traffic or airplane noise of any kind. It was the first time I heard absolute quite. It was also breathtakingly beautiful. The smell of salt filled my nostrils as I walked; eyes glued to the ground searching for tracks. I hummed and sang and thrashed bushes as I sauntered along. Shouts would ring out periodically just to let the other hunters know each others' positions, so the line could stay relatively straight and nobody would be walking too far ahead of the others. We were on a point, so if there were deer ahead, they had nowhere to go. Our line of approach blocked off their only escape, except to dive off the point and swim for it.
            After a time, I thought I saw tracks. I couldn't believe it. I started following them and they veered off to the left. The water was on my right. I kept my eyes on them, following them with peaked interest, when I heard a rustle ahead. I looked up and saw, hidden in a clump of small trees and high bushes, the biggest buck I ever saw. At first I couldn't see him. I remembered how Bear's brothers told me a deer could be standing in a clump of trees with no shrubbery protecting it and you couldn't see it. I didn't believe them. The trees they used for an example were spaced far apart enough, so I didn't logically see how anything could hide there. I was wrong.
            When I saw that buck standing before me, looking down at me (it had to be ten to twelve feet tall with a huge rack), I just stared at it in disbelieve. We stayed like that for a few seconds, and then I blew my whistle as loud as I could. I carried the rape whistle I got in assertiveness training class at work, because I didn't think I'd be able to yell loud enough if I saw anything. The adrenaline started to pump, and I kept blowing my whistle like crazy. That buck bolted out of his cover and started to run across the line of fire. I didn't even think about the consequences when I followed it at a full run blowing my whistle so nobody would shoot me. When Bear's brothers caught up with me I told them what happened. They told me to go back to the shore road, so the deer couldn't double back and they'd surround it. I obediently went back and ran along the road until I got to the end of the point and could see around the bend. I just stopped and waited. I didn't want to get in the way, possibly shot by mistake, or see what was about to happen. My heart was pumping like I never thought was possible.
            I waited for what seemed like forever, when I saw Bear come into view and wave me to come over. I ran over and came upon a scene I will never forget as long as I live. It reminded me of an event that happened in my bedroom in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when my three cats and four other neighborhood cats caught a horny toad and brought it through the broken front room screen into my bedroom. The poor frightened toad was backed up against my bed and the cats surrounded it in a semi-circle, just looking and waiting to pounce. The toad hissed violently at the cats. I was sound asleep having a dream about the radiators back home hissing loudly, only to wake up and realize the noise wasn't a dream. When I turned on the light and beheld the scene, I picked up the toad by its tail and carried it outside for safety. Then I kicked the cats out of the house and went back to bed.
            When I arrived on this scene, the buck stood majestically at the end of the point, with its back to the water; facing its predators. The hunters surrounded it in a semi-circle; guns held in position, and just looked at it for a minute. I watched as the buck, appearing so regal and serene, turned its head and looked into the eye of each hunter in turn. Then with total disbelief on my part, it bowed its head and waited for death to come swiftly.
It did. The shots rang out in unison, and the buck dropped with a thud. I stood there with my mouth open in shock at what I had just witnessed. But, interestingly enough, I didn't cry like I thought I would. In fact, I didn't feel any remorse at all!
            What did come over me was total exhilaration. I certainly never expected to feel that! We all ran over instantly to inspect the kill. It was magnificent. The rack was a 10-pointer or more. I heard that's how they tell the age of a deer. It was old. Bear also noticed it had a wound on its hind leg. It wasn't a fresh wound, but was partially healed over. They all surmised this must be the buck that a guy on the island they knew shot and didn't track down. They wouldn't let him hear the end of this one. Everyone felt like they did this deer a favor, and they were really excited by the size of the kill. He was huge, easily 175 lbs. I’m not sure of this, but it was really big.
            They immediately turned it up to expose the underbelly.  Brother Paul first cut off its genitalia and threw it aside. It would be left for scavengers to gnaw on after we all left the scene for good. I, of course, saw the prime opportunity to "bring these boys to their knees", so to speak. I was always looking for ways to "get" them, because they were always teasing and kidding me. I was on their turf, after all, and a mainlander from Massachusetts, and a woman! I was inferior. The joke they always told was, "Why aren't there any hemorrhoids in Maine? Because all the assholes are in Massachusetts!"  This always brought huge belly laughs at my expense.
            While Paul cut open the belly from asshole to neck, and scooped the guts out on the ground, I walked over to the penis and testicle package laying on the ground nearby, picked it up, and said, "Paul, would you clean this out for me, please? I want to make it into a change purse for my friend, Judy." Every man there instantly crouched, grabbed their crotch, and groaned. I heard this very loud, "You fuckin' asshole!" from every guy there, and I got a great laugh out if it at their expense! Men can be so easy sometimes.
            After the deer had been cleaned, they tied a rope around the rack and dragged it back to the truck. It is essential to clean a deer out immediately, so the meat won't spoil. We drove back to the Grange to weigh it in and register the kill. The town kept statistics on all kills to record the deer population on the Island. This is where a hose is also used to flush out the deer carcass with clean water, and clean blood off the bed of the pickup. This was a very proud moment for the men. The weight of a deer seems to directly correspond to the size of a hunter’s penis to determine how much of a man or a skilled hunter he really is. Of course, this is just my biased opinion, but I think an astute observation, really.
            Next, we drove to a friend’s barn where other men gathered to hang the deer carcasses from the rafters to bleed clean. Taking a swig of Jack Daniels out of the bottle was also expected to celebrate a great day. The head and legs are cut off, and meat hooks are clamped on with a rope tied to the end to hoist the carcass to the rafters. While the carcass hangs there, the hide is stripped off, trying to keep it in one piece. While this is being done, another group was designated the chore of cutting out the rack from the head for a keepsake. I volunteered for this job.
            I held the head down on the barn floor, as Bear took a chainsaw, and cut the rack out, exposing the deer's brain. There was no blood. In that moment, I felt like I did when my friend, Judy, and I at fourteen years old fished a catfish out of the Charles River. We took it back to my parents’ barn, and cut it open to see what was inside. We found baby catfish! It was all very interesting. In fact, I'm shocked; I never became a biologist or some kind of scientist! Bear got to keep the rack as a souvenir, and I asked for a hoof.
            Brother Paul cut the hoof off the leg for me and filled in around the bone as much as possible with salt to preserve it. It made a fine souvenir, as did the story of my adventure. It was, in fact, proof I really did this! My family and friends were totally disgusted, but I felt proud somehow. I kept the hoof outside on my porch until the warm weather came, and then I trashed it before it started to smell.
            We all shared stories of the day as we continued to pass the bottle of Jack around. I took swigs like the next man. I must have been a man in my last lifetime, just as I suspected, because I WAS one of the men that day! I liked it. Soon, we made plans to gather at the home of one of Bear's friends to cook up the heart, liver and kidneys while they were still fresh, along with the same organs from other kills that day. This was a very important part of the ritual I discovered. Like the Indians did after a good kill, it was the custom of these men to take a bite out of the raw organ (the heart especially), while it is still warm to consummate themselves with the life they took. I saw this as both disgusting and very spiritual. So, I tried it. The heart was gelatinous and as gross as I thought it would be. I was barely able to swallow it, but I did. I didn't want to fail yet another test, like I did with the raw clam I spit out because I heard it screaming in my head with every chew. I insisted on eating the other organs after they had been cooked, and as long as I tried the raw heart, nobody gave me a hard time about this.
            Bacon fat seems to be the best grease to cook organs with. Brother Paul also brought home fresh killed duck one morning, and cooked the breasts with bacon fat. It was delicious with eggs for breakfast. Bear and I lay in bed, barely awake, heard a gunshot, and Bear said, "Great! Duck breast for breakfast!" I just looked at him, and waited to see what he meant. Paul cooked the breasts and eggs, and they were tasty, tender and delicious. I tried not to look at the splayed-open duck carcasses lying on the deck table while I ate though.
            I have to admit that some male rituals are worth witnessing and experiencing. Deer hunting in the wilds of Maine was definitely one of them for me. I will never forget it. Bear's mother and I took turns that weekend taking pictures of each other in the orange hat, with a rifle in hand, standing in front of three hanging deer outside. That photo is destined to be a classic.
            The following three years I participated in deer hunting were not as exciting for me as this event, I must admit. But the thing I remember most vividly about it was how peaceful I felt bushwhacking in the woods. I was alone (at least I felt alone in between shouts to declare your position), and I felt so at one with nature. I do still have one souvenir from my hunting days: A perfect little bird's nest. I forget what kind of bird's nest it was, though, perhaps from a bluebird. I sit a fake bird inside it and place the nest lovingly on my Christmas tree every year.