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Last Updated: Feb 5, 2010 - 5:39:39 PM
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By Anthony Navarroli, Jr
Nov 7, 2005 - 12:35:00 AM

Making Pa Proud

By: Anthony T. Navarroli, Jr.

At around eight years old “far too precocious for my years,” was a phrase that I repeatedly heard and continued to hear through my steady march into adolescence.  I was fascinated by the stories and the hanging whitetail carcasses in the garage of our typical upstate New York middle class neighborhood during hunting season.  No one ever qualified it with, “deer season,” everyone knew what you meant.

I vividly remember that once my late September birthday rolled by my father, grandfather and uncle would head into the woods with their Bear Grizzlies and participate in this ancient game of chess.  I remember their mantra, “When you’re old enough, you’ll be out there with us,” which was just about as heart wrenching to an eight year old as being broken up with by your girlfriend on prom night.  I also recall praying at night to miraculously wake up sixteen years old; old enough to drive, old enough to stay up late, and most importantly, old enough to hunt.

Sixteen was the age that my parents decided I would be able to do most of the things that they really didn’t want me to do.  Although I would be old enough to legally hunt much earlier, a freak and misfortunate April Fool’s Day prank had left a second cousin shot dead with a slug thirty years earlier at the hand of a friend.  To this day, that tragedy still burns when any firearm is seen or mentioned within earshot of my mother.  Sixteen was the age when I could start to prove to my mother that I was responsible enough to bowhunt under the watchful supervision of my father and grandfather.  She knew little about bows or the physics involved in trajectory and kinetic energy, but she knew that bows were about as safe as it gets when it came to deer hunting.

Still, I was eight years away and being eight years too young was as distant as eighty years when you told everyone your age in years, months and days.  Nonetheless, every year I would enthusiastically help dig out the blaze orange and hear my grandfather recite, “It was better to be seen by all and come home rather than not come home at all.”  I must have heard that a thousand times and got a sour look when I finished his favorite phrase.  Still, I liked egging the man on and broke the tension when I asked to see the newest broadheads he just purchased.

They really were “cutting edge” back then along with the new fancy aluminum shafts my dad talked everyone into buying.  Seeing those menacing broadheads sent chills down my spine when my uncle would tell me how they were “so sharp, they’ll cut right through you and you’d never know ‘til you bled to death.”  Four feet was my self imposed safe distance from those objects of destruction and I have to admit to still fearing those blades whenever I nock an arrow.

Perhaps most amusing to me was watching the threesome in the garage with their bows bracing them to set the strings.  Their faces, flushed with strain and anger as I laughed and taunted them as being weaklings and needing the mystic strengthening powers of a can of spinach.  Once, during a spell of teasing my father whilst he was multi-tasking by cursing at his bow and me simultaneously, his hold slipped and a limb kicked back splitting his lip and sent a tooth through his cheek.  It taught me a few lessons that day.  One, I learned respect of the power that was stored in those limbs.  Two, the proper preparation with equipment could eliminate trip complicating distractions or injuries.  Three, I gained near religious appreciation for being gifted with the saving grace of being much faster than the old man’s grasp as he attempted to shake my neck.

However, my favorite memory was when grandpa made a detour from our usual route home after Sunday services and we stopped at the outskirts of town, not far from home but away from all residential areas.  Today we call it a land fill, but back then it was just a sparsely wooded place with some discarded furniture and no one around to get in the way.  Ironically, my exact age escapes me, but the moment remains as fresh in my mind.  We got out of the car and I saw four hay bales stacked in rows of two and some paper plates that were being held down by a rusty Buick rim and a few long gutter nails.

Grandpa’s eyes would light up like the September sun reflecting off Lake Ontario when he would recount taking me out to shoot the bow.  I’ll never forget standing in knee high dew covered grass wearing my church clothes, patiently watching grandpa set up the paper plates on the bales and listening to his canned safety speech co-authored by my father, and syndicated to anyone they hunted with for my listening pleasure.  I remember thinking how time was standing still as he went through seeing in front and behind your target, never shooting uphill, proper technique, blah, blah, blah…

Finally, I caught the words, “…never know ‘till you bled to death,” and realized my opportunity to take another step closer to manhood was moments away.  The poundage of the bow also escapes my memory, but I do remember thinking that my grandpa must’ve been part superhero.  He helped me into a sound shooting position and assisted in pulling the string.  I took care in lining up my target and when I was sure of my mark I released the string.

The sound of the string and the hiss of the arrow in flight left me in awe.  I could feel the rush of blood through my face and I eagerly looked at the paper plate gutter nailed to the hay bale.  I looked around the paper plate. I checked for fletching on any of the bales. Finally, bitter reality set in.  We never found the arrow but I had imagined it hitting a record buck and leaving an undeniable blood trail that stretched only a few yards with my trophy down ready for me to claim.  My grandfather told me years later that he thought I’d sprained my face from the ear to ear smile that was plastered to it.

There was a bit of a pang of guilt and sadness too during this event.  I had always wanted my father to be there when I took my first shot.  In the thrill of the moment I had forgotten he wasn’t here.  Immediately, I remembered he was working a double at the abrasives factory.  Since we needed the money, there was no way he’d be able to refuse the overtime.  Even at a young age, I understood the importance and necessity of having enough money.  Still, it tugged at my heartstrings and continues to do so to this day.

All of those memories rushed back eight years later as the hiss of the arrow departing my string sizzled toward a grizzled, old seven pointer with a battle scarred rack.  Being only twelve yards away I waited until his head was behind a tree when I drew and took the shot from my makeshift ground blind.  The deer wasn’t a trophy by any measurement standards, but it was a deer of a lifetime.  I watched him gingerly trot seemingly unfazed downhill into a small ravine and strained to hear for a dull thud indicating he had hit the powdered snowy ground.  I held my breath for several seconds listening for any indication and without any forthcoming sounds, sat and questioned whether I’d actually hit him with a kill shot or just grazed him.

Immediately, I checked the watch that my grandfather had given me to take on my first hunt.  I told him I didn’t need it but he assured me of two things: I would get a deer and the time waiting that passed from the shot to trailing would seem to take forever and a day.  I sat in the increasingly bitter cold blind, trying to occupy my mind with thoughts of being a professional hunter and which muscle car I would buy once I started saving my summer job money.  I was deciding between a ‘68 GTO and ‘69 Roadrunner when I noticed the silver dollar sized snow flakes falling around me and that the visibility started to dramatically decrease.

I watched the minutes pass and swore time was standing still as each minute seemed to take the better part of an hour.  Patiently, I sat humming songs quietly to myself trying to accelerate time and getting more nervous as each flake fell over the two barely visible blood spots I could see from my blind.  After forty eight minutes and sixteen seconds (I forced myself to do math by multiplying my age and adding an extra sixteen seconds in honor of my recent birthday) I decided to start tracking rather than risk losing the blood trail.  I gathered my gear and started walking to where my bloodied arrow stood partially impaled in the rocky snow covered soil. The shaft was kinked but the broadhead was intact.  That broadhead looked even more frightening and demonic with the blood and a few pieces of hair stuck to it.  Carefully I covered the tip with my homemade, thirty five millimeter plastic film container, completely bent the dysfunctional arrow and stowed it in my nap sack.  I drew a deep breath and started in the direction my potential trophy had taken.

That old buck had walked right into a thick patch of brush that was nearly impossible to see across, let alone walk through, so I crawled on my hands and knees between some wild rose bushes and began tracking.  Judging from the distance of his tracks, he had casually made his way through his sanctuary all the while leaving what was now a decent, albeit partially snow covered blood trail. I was slightly reassured every yard or so, when I found more of the red stained snow. I continued crawling through the thickets until it opened into a dense patch of pines where I could see much farther despite the darkness from the snow clouds and the dense canopy of pine boughs.  I walked hunched over finding more blood on the leaf litter that hadn’t been touched by the falling snow.  Sweating profusely, I removed my old knit blaze hat that had been a companion in the woods for close to six years and cut threads from it to use the yarn as a trail marker. I went down the ravine toward a tiny creek where I found him laying down, head away from me looking like he was resting.  I waited several minutes and seeing no movement, I carefully crept closer to him.

It turns out that I hit him through one lung and nicked enough of his heart to initiate irreversible hemorrhaging that allowed him to travel about ninety yards.  He expired head uphill as if propped for a photo shoot.  I smiled and whispered to my prize, “Those broadheads were so sharp, they cut right through you and you never knew until you bled to death.”

I looked down at the bow that had been my grandfather’s and looked up into the snow flake congested sky and felt a warm tear run down my cheek.  I thought of him and how he must have been watching over me with amusement and pride for learning his lessons so well.  Having lost him a mere five months before I was sure his spirit accompanied me into the woods that day, and so my determination to make him proud became a realization.  Being much older now and with children of my own, I’m teaching them those same lessons and ethics he taught me through bowhunting.


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