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First Time's a Charm
A deer hunter's first kill lasts forever.
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I was seventeen years old, and there he stood. He looked at me, as if to say, "Well?" All I could do was stare... I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open at the time...

When I was just a very young boy, I learned about guns and hunting. I must have been about nine years old when Dad took some time out of his "serious" hunting so he could take me hunting for the first time. I tripped along behind him without a gun that year, and I don't really remember much about the trip, except for the old moonshine still we found.

There wasn't much to it, just some rusty old barrel hoops, a badly rusted hoe head, a beat-up old axe head, and some bricks. But I still remember it, and that axe, which got a new handle a good twenty years ago, now lives in the back of my truck. First times can really mean a lot.

My first-ever kill was an armadillo. Don't snicker; armadillos can be mighty good eating, though they're a real pain to clean. That's another moment I cherish and will always remember... just like my first squirrel, taken later that day with that same old .410 Lefever double-barreled shotgun. Somehow, though, my first deer kill stands out just a little more vividly in my mind.

I started deer hunting when I was thirteen years old. My first day of deer hunting stands out, too: I found a survival knife in the woods, and our friend Art shot a nice eight-point whitetail buck that morning. Naturally, young teenagers don't crave sitting still, and I went several years before I learned to wait, and started seeing deer. My first legal, shootable buck happened to me when I was a senior in high school.

I was seventeen years old, and there he stood. He had walked up behind me as I sat in my climbing tree stand. I twisted around to take a gander at what was making the racket, and there he was... only about twenty yards away in the scrub. He looked at me, as if to say, "Well?" All I could do was stare. I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open at the time. He then dismissed me as a threat, turned, and walked away.

As Robert Ruark said in The Old Man and the Boy, "I had a gun with me and the gun was loaded. I suppose it would have fired if the thought had occurred to me to pull the trigger. The thought never occurred."

After he was gone, of course, I remembered why I was there... to kill a buck deer. My fervent and oft-repeated prayers for his return went unanswered, though, and so it fell to me to tell the guys, all older and all "blooded," of my misfortune. They all understood, but that didn't help the sick feeling in my guts... much.

The next year, I was back in the same place on opening day. Someone else got a buck not far from where we were hunting - I can still see it, steaming in the early-morning fog - but we saw no deer.

A new course was in order. Dad and I relocated that afternoon, on Art's advice, to a place closer to camp. Dad set up, and I took the faithful old Chevy on through the clearcut until I found what I considered a likely spot. When I got my climbing stand into the woods (the same stand Art had given me when I was thirteen) I had a heckuva time with it.

The nuts and bolts had rusted, since I hadn't used it in almost a year. I had to break out the pliers and screwdriver, and I wound up making a lot of noise before I got settled, up in a shortleaf pine tree. I thought to myself, kind of frustrated, "It's going to be a while before things settle down and I might see something."

Along about that time, I heard something behind me. I twisted around to take a look, and it was a deer! Not just any deer, but a young buck - a legal buck! I turned back around when he had his head down to feed, twisted my body the other way so I could shoot, and fired. To fall back on Ruark once more, "The gun said boom! but I didn't hear it. The gun kicked but I didn't feel it." The little Ruger 44 magnum carbine had done its job well.

I got that buck back to the truck on pure adrenaline, after taking some time to admire him and to wonder at the blessing I had received. I bounced up to Dad's spot, jumped out of the truck as he came out of his stand, and bear-hugged him so hard that he still swears I broke a couple of his ribs. Art showed up soon after. We shared a look that spoke volumes, and as I shook his hand, I said "Thanks." We both knew what it meant; it involved a lot of years and an understanding we had. Richard wasn't there that weekend, but he deserves some credit here, too.

There's something about men that will treat a boy as an equal that sets them apart. In many ways, the years leading up to my first deer were my first real lesson in manhood. It's not about killing deer or anything like that... it goes much, much deeper. My first real close friends were grown men, who taught me how to be one myself. I just hope I turn out to be half the man those men taught me to be, in their own unselfish way.

Yep. That tired old saying about third times is just plain wrong. It's the first time that's the charm.

-Russ Chastain

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