I will call them the Amazing Ones, two uncles who because of age and infirmity some would write off as waiting to have their mortal tickets stamped in order to get somewhere better, a place where lungs work, arthritis and rheumatism are unknown, eyesight is 20-20, hearing is acute and legs and hips have miles to go before the warranty runs out.
One can barely walk. He was always the giant of our family, a big and tough man who worked a career as a prison guard. Today, even after surgeries, his hips are crumbling. Every step is painful. On good days, he supports himself with a cane. On the bad days, he stays indoors, where even sitting in a recliner is excruciating.
The other uncle suffers from respiratory ailments and keeps bottles of oxygen handy. He has recently acquired a portable breathing apparatus that allows him to go outdoors and drive short distances.
I am sure some of our kinfolks and friends are resolved to seeing these two old men soon in fancy coffins, arrayed in their Sunday suits. But they aren’t ready for appointments with the undertaker – not as long as they can stagger and wheeze into the deer-hunting woods and come out with meat for the table.
With determination, patience and help from some incredulous nephews, they have constructed a handicapped-accessible shooting house on Tar Kiln Hill, the legendary hunting ground of our family. They can drive directly to the roofed blind, help one another negotiate the mud and briars and spend an hour or two on temperate evenings watching deer trails on the side of the mountain.
These octogenarians – one crippled and the other gasping – can’t remember when they saw their first whitetail deer. But it wasn’t until the 1980s with any regularity. Before deer became ubiquitous in Southern Appalachia, they hunted quail with my father, rabbits, squirrel and waterfowl.
I have often speculated that in their lifetimes the amount of wild game and fish the trio of brothers accounted for probably would have filled several railroad cars. At one time, they hunted and fished to feed their new families. Later, it was for the pleasure and fellowship. But they were experts at this avocation. When the woods and fields, hills and hollows filled with deer, they turned to this new, larger and tastier prey. Mainly, they were meat hunters, filling freezers with venison, making jerky and ensuring that the neighbors shared in this new bounty from nature.
The Amazing Ones – and now I include my father – were very good at deer hunting. And we lived in a state where the population of whitetails was out of control. Therefore, hunters were encouraged to do their part in herd management. Give three-part Cherokee and all-redneck nimrods the go-ahead to kill and plenty of ammunition, and you have guaranteed success in building a quality deer herd.
Oh, they’ve harvested wall-hangers. One of my uncles has an old aluminum fishing boat filled with antlers. “Hate to throw ‘em away, but you can’t eat horns,” he says. They will never understand why the pursuit of trophies has become an addiction for many of today’s deer hunters.
“Deer ain’t nothing but high-powered goats,” lectures the other uncle, “an’ I’ve always thought goat meat was tasty eatin’.”
So it was that on a recent evening a small buck gave up its life in a cycle that began when the oldest brother could hold a gun to his shoulder. Two old and infirm men limped to the kill, stooped to run their hands of the warm, smooth hide and murmured about other hunts when the trio of Amazing Ones were still together.
Instead of calling nephews to help drag the deer – maybe the last of their lifetimes — they repeated the ritual of field dressing and hauling the carcass. Two ornery coots who wouldn’t ask for help tottered, strained and had to stop and rest several times as twilight gave way to night.
But they got the job done. Somehow, they loaded the deer into the trunk of a rusty 1975 Cadillac, not worried about bloodstains, hair or mud. They drove the car out of the woods, slipping and sliding in the red clay, with the weakened springs and shocks protesting at every pothole.
The Amazing Ones then staged what has become known as the Old Farts’ Deer Parade, exhibiting their kill at every gathering place of like-minded and aged hunters on their way home. At gas stations, country stores, the volunteer fire department and church activity center, they stopped to display the buck and bask in the adoration of folks who were shocked that such geezers with obvious health problems would even venture into their front yards, let alone the deep woods or a mountainside thicket.
Not a trophy, the buck was proof that as long as a hunter’s heart beats and he can remember the feel of a well-oiled rifle in his hands, he possesses something that most of the modern human race has forgotten or never experienced in the first place. My brother and I hope to join the ranks of the Amazing Ones someday. I think we will be welcomed.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.