As a former hippie and a life-long pacifist, I vowed never to kill any living thing. But years after I married into a South Texas ranching family, I gave in to my father-in-law, who taught me to fire a rifle—and appreciate nature in a new way.
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When my father-in-law handed me the rifle that first time, I nearly dropped it, caught off guard by its heft. This was not entirely surprising, since I had never shot a gun in my life. Growing up in the suburbs outside New York City, having a heart murmur that kept me out of the Vietnam War, and spending my post-college years at a commune in the Northern California woods where hunting was banned and animal spirits were worshiped—all these kept me a gun virgin well into midlife.”Just try to hit the drum first,” Radcliffe told me, pointing at a blue oil barrel he’d set out across a field at his South Texas ranch.
I raised the bolt-action .270 and looked for the drum in the sights. “Back your eye away from the scope,” Radcliffe advised with a chuckle. “Otherwise you’ll get a shiner when the gun recoils, and people will think I’ve been beating you. That’s called ‘getting scoped.'”
We made an odd couple, my father-in-law and I: He, a true Texan, rancher, oilman, expert hunter, Harvard law grad, World War II vet; I, a Yankee, writer, ex-hippie, pacifist, ecology freak. Still fit and trim then at eighty, as he is today at ninety, with gray eyes and a rancher’s thin-lipped smile, he was dressed in his typical off-work wear: a tan hunting shirt, khaki slacks, and a beat-up round-brimmed fishing hat. I had on my trademark and most un-hunterly black T-shirt and blue jeans. “By the way, you need to get yourself some hunting clothes,” he told me with apparent disdain. “The deer are going to see you coming a mile away.”
For the first several years of my marriage to his daughter, I’d sniffed at Radcliffe’s overtures to introduce me to the pleasures of deer hunting. “Maybe with a video camera,” I told him once, and he rolled his eyes at my sixties-influenced opinions. In fact, one year I did go out stalking with his VHS camera, an early-eighties model the size of a Gatling gun, and took some terribly indistinct footage of what seemed to be either a big buck or Big Foot. Then, out of the blue, I gave in. Was it pure curiosity? A desire to please? In truth, I had begun to feel guilty for not taking Radcliffe up on his offer. For here was a man with so much knowledge of the outdoors, the earth, of life itself to pass on. It wasn’t his fault that two of his daughters had brought home Yankee writers instead of, more appropriately, flinty-eyed real Texans, the kind who own camouflage Suburbans and learned to shoot before they could crawl.
It had taken me a while to figure out how important deer hunting was in this family, in this whole part of the state, for that matter. Before Tracy and I were married, she’d informed me that Christmas would often be spent with her family in Laredo. No problema, I figured. Eat those sugary crispy buñuelos for breakfast, shop across the river in lieu of enduring mall madness, carol in Spanish. Feliz Navidad. Not being a hunter herself—she’d shot a buck when she was ten years old but was so disheartened by the experience that she never tried again—Tracy neglected to mention the deer thing. Christmas in South Texas, it turns out, is more about whitetails than reindeer. Deer hunting is a big deal all over Texas—last season some 420,000 whitetails were killed in the state—but in the brush country “buck fever” is truly a sickness. My wife’s mother, normally a paragon of social graces, will abandon any family gathering to pursue the eighteen-pointer she’s been tracking. All over Laredo people leave work early to head for their deer leases and blinds. The first question at Christmas parties isn’t, “What’d Santa bring you?” It’s, “Huntin’ much?” Or, more typically, “Seen anything?”
One year there was word of considerable poaching on various ranches in the area, so state game wardens helped set up a sting operation. A faux trophy buck with a monstrous set of antlers was created, set in a field on private property, partly concealed in brush, then attached to a system of ropes and pulleys so that it could be moved or pulled down if it was shot at. Sure enough, on the second day, a young fellow stopped his truck, slipped through the fence, and fired. Down went the buck. As the man ran headlong toward his prey, he was apprehended by a game warden. “Okay, okay, you got me,” he said breathlessly, “but just let me see my deer.”
I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to hold the crosshairs steady, but they kept flopping around uncontrollably. Then Radcliffe demonstrated how to use the gun strap as a brace. Much better. The blue target was relatively calm in the scope. “Squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull,” Radcliffe said.
I squeezed. Nothing happened. Perhaps I was taking the squeeze thing too literally, I thought. I squeezed again and sneaked in the slightest suggestion of pull. Something big happened. Lulled by the thousand harmless TV gunfights I’d watched, I was shocked by the power, the kick, the crack of the real thing. Guns stop time. Guns change the world. One moment there is silence, the next there is a break in the space-time continuum, a hole in the universe. Or at least, I hoped, in one blue 55-gallon barrel.
Radcliffe looked through his binoculars. “Dead center!” he cried. “Now try for one of the cans.”
Feeling incomparably pleased with myself and inexplicably confident, I aimed the gun at one of the three beer cans Radcliffe had set on top of the barrel but found I couldn’t hold steady on such a small target. Patiently, my father-in-law showed me how to shoot from a seated position, a kind of violent lotus pose, with the arm supporting the barrel resting on one knee. As if by magic, the crosshairs were tranquilized. This time, though, I succumbed too much to the temptation to pull the trigger and missed badly.
“Way high,” Radcliffe reported. “Just squeeze it.”
When the crosshairs settled again, I breathed once and fired. The can flew off the barrel as if blown by a mysterious wind. A clean kill. We drove straight to the convenience store, where I bought my hunting license.
School, however, was not yet out. “Shooting at a still target from close range isn’t that hard,” Radcliffe told me. “But there’s a lot more to hunting. You need to learn gun safety, how to find deer, and how to pick the right one to shoot.”
That night I watched a couple of videos. One, called Fighting Whitetails, was a bit of soft-core hunting porn featuring some amazing racks—of antlers, that is. The other one taught how to estimate a deer’s age, no mean feat given that there’s no cocktail-party conversation to go on, and you can’t check their teeth until it’s too late. The idea, of course, is to shoot older deer, ones that are going to die within a year or so anyway. The greatest crime would be to wipe out some Gen-X dude with splendid horns on the verge of developing into a truly wondrous beast and thus prevent him from spreading his excellent genes throughout the local populace. The video gave me a feel for judging age, how to look for a certain thickness in the neck, an overall burliness, a heaviness of horn.
Radcliffe offered to drive me around in his truck, but I declined, supremely sophomoric in my purist stance. No truck-hunting for me, and no using the glorified shooting gallery of a corn feeder either. (Even deer blinds struck me as cheating, although I have come to appreciate them in subsequent years and have been known to head out on a misty morning with the New York Times and a mug of coffee for a few hours of soul soothing disguised as hunting.) If I was going to be a hunter, I would be a real one: a quiet, reverent stalker. I would get my deer the old-fashioned way. I would earn it.
Then Tracy announced that she wanted to come along. This surprised me, since she’d said her hunting career had ended with the trauma of her tenth year. Back then, her mother had gone to get Radcliffe to clean the deer Tracy had shot, leaving her alone. When they returned, they found their daughter overcome by the magnitude of her deed. She composed an animal-rights haiku titled “The Shot” and swore off hunting forever.
“It will be something we can do together,” she said. An imaginary Greek chorus of “real men” groaned in the background. “Besides,” she added with a coy smile, “I know some tricks for finding deer.” We would set out the next morning, with Radcliffe’s blessing.
There are two kinds of winter days in the brush country: Gulf-breeze sweet and cold-front nasty, with not much in between. This happened to be one of the former: a gentle zephyr whispering like the vermouth in a dry martini, a sense of almost amniotic warmth, as a friend once described, “the ambient temperature of the human nap.”
The place we chose for our first hunt was a hollow beneath a long ridge that runs toward Mines Road, a once-deserted stretch of highway that now carries heavy truck traffic between the new Colombia bridge and the interstate. This was a decade ago, before NAFTA transformed Laredo into an eighteen-wheeling boomtown, so it was quiet. Only the occasional sound of a hunter’s truck broke the silence.
Still stubbornly attired in T-shirt and jeans, I quickly became comfortable with the feel of the rifle on my shoulder, appreciating its weight and solidity. As we wandered in the dreamy morning light through the landscape of velvet and thorn—prickly pear, mesquite, retama, and huisache—I marveled at the peculiar beauty of the countryside. When I first came here from California, the brush country seemed awfully barren and bleak, but over time I’ve learned to see the subtle charms of a place where nearly every plant has a sticker or thorn, a protective mechanism of some kind. The soft, warm air in midwinter can have a hallucinatory quality. Once, my wife and I fell asleep watching birds by a ranch stock tank on a day just like this and were startled awake by a family of javelinas snuffling at our boots.
The brush country is well known as one of the best deer-hunting areas in the country. The bucks are big—they make Hill Country deer look like a Shetland subspecies—and plentiful. We soon spotted several does, then a couple of bucks, a six-pointer and an eight-pointer, but they were young. It was easy to tell, from their light horns and air of casual naiveté. After an hour or so of walking, we stopped on the crest of a small hill, with a good view of the hollow and the surrounding countryside. Tracy chose that moment to reveal her secret weapon: two pairs of deer antlers, gray and weathered with age.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to pretend to be a deer,” I said.
“No, silly,” she replied. “I’m going to rattle you up a buck.”
During the rut, or mating season, Tracy informed me, male deer, hyped up on hormones and musk, are attracted to the sound of deer horns clashing. They assume that the ruckus indicates two other males fighting over the affections of some particularly nubile female. Best of all, the most prized examples of masculinity are those likely to be drawn to the bar fight.
“That is ridiculous,” I said. “I’m not that gullible.”
“Just shut up and watch,” she said. “My father taught me how to do this when I was little.”
So my wife set to whacking these deer horns together, first one hard clash that rang out over the hills like a rifle’s report, then all manner of clacking and rubbing, a percussive mating song. I maintained my skepticism; the whole idea of rattling horns seemed patently absurd. At the same time, I was lulled by the sweetness of the day, the scent of crushed sage in the air, and drifted into a reverie.
I was seated under a couple of small mesquites in my gun-bracing lotus position, looking south, the low morning sun on my face, thinking about nothing much at all, when I snapped to attention for no apparent reason. All I can remember is that I had a sense, inexplicable by rational means, that something was about to happen. Nearby, an old jeep trail ran down the hill we were on and up over another slope. From behind that second hill a set of horns appeared. A big buck with a wide rack, clearly a mature deer, heavy in the chest, was running full tilt toward the rattling sound, until he reached the top of the hill and stopped dead in his tracks, about 75 yards away. I peered at him through my binoculars: He appeared huge, elephantine. My heart began pounding. My hands started shaking. I felt sick from the gravity of the moment.
Slipping the gun’s safety off, I hesitated for a few seconds, wondering if I really had it in me to attempt to end this animal’s life. There wasn’t time to think, though; a deer of that size and maturity would not stick around for long. What ended my internal debate was desire: I wanted those horns. More than anything else about the experience, this craving for antlers remains unexplainable to me. It came from deep within, a part of my nature that lay undiscovered for more than four decades. As the crosshairs fixed on the animal’s broad chest, I squeezed.
Now I know what it means when someone says, “He went down like he was shot.” The buck fell, no, flew backward with tremendous force. His hooves were the last things I saw before his body disappeared behind the hill. “Oh!” my wife cried out, which told me that she hadn’t really believed I would pull the trigger, and certainly not hit something if I did. We ran up the hill together, and even though I felt sure the deer would be there, I had heard enough stories about deer getting up from being shot and running off into the brush that the sight of his large body came as a shock. He was just there, fallen between a couple of cacti.
He was not quite as big as he’d seemed but still a fully mature deer, six and a half or older (because deer are born in the spring, they’re always half a year past their birthday during hunting season). Nor were his horns as ample as I’d thought: Most of the tines were rather short, although the rack was indeed wide, with eleven points, the smallest just long enough to hold my wedding ring, a good field test for official status.
He was dead yet still in the process of dying, his eyes turning opaque, going from lambent brown to cataract blue as I stared at him. I reached down and felt his warmth and his bristly fur. A series of strange thoughts ran through my head. I was elated, surprised at myself, and yet chastened somehow by the irrevocability of it all. I recalled the 1978 Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter, in which Robert De Niro’s character expounded on the connection between hunting and manhood and war. This was not my rite of passage to manhood; that happened long ago and through other, more complicated contests. But I did feel somehow as if, for better or worse, I’d at last become a Texan.
“Did my father show you how to clean a deer?” Tracy asked. Her voice was oddly high-pitched. She was excited too, or upset. I couldn’t tell which.
“No,” I said, “thank God.”
“Well, we have to. We’re going to eat this deer. He’s not going to waste. Should I?”
She drew out a hunting knife three times the size of the puny Swiss Army blade I carried and, with a cool efficiency, slit the deer up the middle, from his testicles to his chest, where the bullet hole was. Although Tracy grew up on this ranch, she’d left it long ago for Yankee art schools and had always seemed to me far more bohemian than border girl. From that moment on, though, my estimation of her nature and the way her South Texas background still lives within her was forever changed.
Afterward, we shared a moment of silence, giving thanks to the Great Spirit for the chain of plenitude that brings life to the world. I went to get the jeep, we loaded our deer onto it, and headed back to the house. I could hardly wait to see the look in Radcliffe’s eyes.