I have a soft, tan leather briefcase in my closet. It sits quietly in a
corner until September 10th each year, when I wake up earlier than
everyone, and take it out into the woods behind my house. I take it to the same
spot, and sit on the same bench.The
fall air is snap crisp and still, filling my nose with the familiar earthy musk
of dew-damp oak leaves. It’s pre-dawn quiet, and opening the noisy metal zipper
brings a feeding gray squirrel to a curious dead stop.I gently lift the lid, smiling and almost
crying at the same time. I can really feel him out here with me, and for a
moment the world is almost normal.
Lydick was the firstborn son of Ed and Leda of Massapequa, New York. Ed
survived the Battle
of the Bulge, only to succumb to a heart attack on American soil, leaving
‘post-depression Leda’ to hunker down again and seek employment. 13-year-old
Michael took off into the solace of the woods. He worked long enough to earn
money to buy his first shotgun and rifle. After that, he found a friend with a
car to take him past the farms of Long Island
to the waiting pheasants, woodchucks.
Growing up, my
dad would tell me hunting stories. I had no idea how far 400 yards was, or what
tenderloin was…but I desperately wanted to learn. I became jealous of the rowdy
friends that took him and his itchy wool pants away every November to deer
curiosity, Dad took me to the very same camps in the springtime, walking
through the woods, and getting excited over each animal track we saw.A group of startled does sealed the deal for
me, surrounding us with their snort-wheezes and scrambling snow-white rumps.
No, 400 yards was too far away. The adrenaline was up close, and I wanted in.
So, at age 16, I
told Dad the only fair way to hunt…was with a bow. He scowled and quietly
protested - but hunting was hunting, and we went down to the local archery
pro-shop with Visa in hand. 100 holes in the fence later (mostly mine) and we
were on our way to the Montauk woods – suited up in surplus Army Camo.I jumped in the ’71 green Blazer with visions
of suicidal 12 pointers, standing broadside, just waiting for me to arrive.
As we pulled
into the park, we saw cars in each of the designated hunter spots, their
occupants long since slipped into the darkness of the brush. I worried that all
the slips were taken, and was relieved when the last one appeared around the
corner, without a car.
We parked and I
met dad back at the tailgate, watching him meticulously trade field points for
“Don’t take the
cap off until you’re ready to shoot”, he chided. “Your mother would kill me if
I brought you home strapped to the grill”.
We both laughed,
but I understood that I could get hurt if I wasn’t careful. Here I was, 16
years old. No car or driver’s permit. But the State of New York said I could walk through a public
park with a compound bow and razor tipped arrow.I felt sorry for the kids with cars.
“I’ll meet you
at the car at lunchtime”, he said. “I’ll be up along that ridge. I suggest you
post up around that small lake over there. Keep your eyes open for game trails,
and don’t forget to move slowly”.
It wasn’t long
before I was down at the pond, standing 10 yards off of what looked like a deer
superhighway from the number of tracks in the moist earth. I leaned back
against a big oak, and let things settle down.
I began to
notice things I’d never seen before, like the way the wind was blowing, or the
difference in the sound a squirrel makes and a bird makes when in the leaves.
Every one of my senses was firing, and I felt tapped into something much
larger, older, and more powerful than myself. I knew why Dad left every
November. It was worth the little squabbles with Mom, and the promises of home
improvements when he returned.
That wasn’t a
squirrel. Or a bird. More like an Ostrich…eating a squirrel.
“CRUNCH…CRUNCH….CRUNCH”.My heart started slapping around in my chest
like lotto balls in a mixing box. My hands started shaking, and I fumbled to
get my bow ready.It sounded like a
Brahma Bull was coming straight at me, and I felt woefully under-armed and
And then I saw her.
She didn’t look
like the does on Marty Stouffer’s TV show. This lady was a big steamy whitetail
COW. 400 pounds, easy. It came toward me, broadside…I drew at 5 yards…and then
she STOPPED with every single vital organ covered by a 24 inch wide
oak tree. Seriously.
And there we
stood at full draw. Her big black golf ball eyes locked in on me like cruise
missle laser radars. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t move. I started praying to
Bubba, the Patron Saint of busted hunters.
“Move. Just a
few inches. PLEASE just MOVE!”. Nothing in the hunter safety course came close
to covering this.
And there she
stood. Like a 200 pound furry statue, locked in a deadly game of chicken. Every
muscle in my body was filling up with lactic acid, like a big gulp cup at a
Slurpee machine. I twitched and trembled - and the arrow begged to be let loose
into something brown and furry.
“Move or so help
me I’ll drop this arrow and beat you with the bow”.
And still she
stood. Steam rising off her back straight up into the breeze-less air.I’d never been this close to a deer. It was
strange to notice how powerful they were, and see the cut muscle lines of their
shoulders and legs. They were born to run and jump, yet there she stood -
planted into the ground like an off shore oil platform.
I finally caved
into the burning, and lowered the bow in front of me. On cue, she bolted,
running just fast enough to escape another draw of my bow – but slow enough to
let me know it was completely on her terms.
I spent the rest
of the morning silently stalking that brush, so thick that at one point the light
from the lighthouse was my only landmark. I crawled through the complicated
labyrinth of waist high deer tunnels, networked through the dense thorn bushes
and scrub brush to the main road. These deer were freakishly smart and
organized…a mammal mafia, and I started thinking twice about how fair hunting
with a rifle would actually have been that morning.
Back at the
truck, dad was comfortably seated, eating powdered donuts and drinking coffee
from his favorite 30 year old plaid-plastic Thermos. I plunked down next to
him, every muscle in my body exhausted.
But it was
finally my turn to tell the hunting story.I’d heard his a hundred times over, and learned the intricacies of the
telling. Like when to stop for dramatic pause…and how to hold my hands ‘just
so’ to emphasize the enormity of a rack. I was choppy, and my exaggerations
were a little unbelievable, but I told it well enough to get a full measure of
Dad’s sympathy…who played along and squinted painfully when I told him about
“I think we
should definitely leave earlier next time and get a better spot”, I said as I
stared out the window at the passing woods…scanning for antlers (a habit I have
to this day). I caught Dad laughing to himself – and I didn’t care. It was all
starting to make sense now, and I wanted more of what I’d experienced that day.
But 16 year old
boys have their own does to chase, and I soon found I had a lot in common with
the rut-crazy bucks I’d left behind. Dad however had the ‘bow-bug’ big time,
and went back to Montauk fresh with the memories of 14 point mammoths.
He came back
that afternoon smiling like a kid, with a huge doe. We stood at the tailgate
together and just stared wide-eyed. I noticed the perfectly placed shot, and
Dad commented on how cleanly the arrow had passed through the ribs. He was
visibly impressed with his new weapon, and the damage it quietly caused.
together more after that. It became the one thing we could do together without
fighting or bickering with each other. I always had fun, even without ever
harvesting an animal. But I could sense that Dad was disappointed for me and
wanted me to harvest an animal.After
they moved to the Catskills, Dad especially scouted for weeks to set me up on
the hottest trails and bump up my odds for a good shot – with no success.
One year, my mom
called me up to tell me that he’d shot a doe on the trail I’d hunted earlier in
the season. Dad hadn’t mentioned it to me. She said quietly,
“He didn’t want
you to be disappointed or feel bad about not getting your own...he knew how bad
you felt about not getting a shot. Don’t tell him that I told you, ok?”. I
promised I wouldn’t.
Dad’s own heart
started to fail, and he was frustrated how it slowed him down. But once a year
we still hunted together, enjoying the familiar time and talks together even
Having seen no deer one
morning, we quietly drove back down a hill to the main road, when Dad pressed
down hard into the brake.
quickly. Take your bow and get out of the truck”, he whispered. “There’s a doe
80 yards out feeding up toward us. Get in position, and I’ll shut off the
I ran around and
down into the gully (…60 yards) that separated me from the oncoming doe (…20
yards).I got ready, and checked the
wind (…10 yards).As she came up, I drew
back and released – using a 20 yard pin (Ugh! ). But the arrow hit spine, and she
dropped where she stood.
Dad got out, and
slowly made his way down to the deer and me. He hugged me harder than he did at
my wedding, unable to wipe the smile from his face. He laughed and
congratulated me again and again, urging me to help him quickly field dress the
Mom later shared
that he told just about anyone who would listen how proud he was. It took 5
years, but he saw his son harvest his first deer…10 yards away.
funeral, I walked through his room and kept the things I remembered him most
by, in this old leather briefcase. I take it out the same way, and remember
him, on each anniversary of his passing.
Most of what’s
in there is camouflaged…like his favorite shirt…his hat…his mechanical
rangefinder… his license holder. I slowly take them out, one by one, and I
fight through time to remember him wearing them and using them with me.
I get here early
in the morning each September tenth, and sit quietly without distraction, half
hoping I’ll see him coming down the trail to me, dragging a 10 pointer out from
the mist with that big silly 13 year old smile lighting up his face.
Mostly though, I
choke up, and miss him. And you know…I was thinking - only one of my hunts
actually ended with a deer. But we were together, up to our rear ends in
Rothco-Camo, full of Dinty Moore stew, with a bow in our hands and a world full
of trails to follow.
That kind of
happy comes around just once in life. And I really do miss my hunting buddy.