I remember my first real deer hunt, the year I turned 16 and was allowed by state law and local custom to finally carry a rifle and kill a deer, as somehow entirely adolescent, unlike any deer hunt I’d been on before. In my memory, the hunt begins and ends with my girlfriend. We’d met that Friday morning as we did every school day, at her locker after second period, where she wished me luck and gave me the kind of quick dutiful kiss a suburban housewife might send a husband off to work with, and I ran from the rest of the school day with my two friends (who were also embarking on their first hunt) across the ROTC parade ground to the jeep I’d left in the parking lot. We drove south from Ogden through Salt Lake City and Provo and then through a series of increasingly smaller towns huddled against the Wasatch Mountains where they’d been placed by Brigham Young a century before, turned eastward at Nephi, a small town named in honor of a heroic character in “The Book of Mormon,” followed ever-narrower dirt roads high into the mountains and found a campsite.
We woke early on opening day, and late that morning I shot a deer. I remember nearly all the details of the actual shooting, but after that it’s hazy. I know I gutted the deer—a young buck—and with some difficulty hauled it over my shoulder up a long steep hill to the jeep, and drove us all back to Ogden, but I can recall little of the long afternoon that followed the killing. What I remember most clearly involves driving to my girlfriend’s house, helping her on with her coat against the cold of the open jeep, and driving her to my house where she admired the deer I’d killed, head hanging down from a rafter in the garage, still slightly warm to the touch and dripping an occasional drop of blood.
That’s how I remember the beginning, middle and end of that first deer hunt. I remember my girlfriend, the details that surrounded my shooting the deer and I can picture with remarkable clarity the rifle I’d killed it with. I’d borrowed the rifle—an ancient British Enfield .303, still slippery with preservative and heavy with military sights and other attachments designed for the trenches of France and the outposts of the British Empire—from my grandfather, but other than this distant patriarchal presence, and the fact that I’d borrowed my father’s jeep, elders were strangely absent from my first real hunt, an important rite of passage for Mormon boys normally presided over by older men—fathers and grandfathers, uncles and family friends—who would provide the stories, make the jokes and supervise the the ritual of smearing the boy’s face with the blood of his first kill. I’d been a spectator on a half-dozen hunts like this, accompanying my father, my older brother and other hunters, learning the ways one stalked and then skinned his kill, looking forward to the time I’d be inducted into this society of hunters according to the old rules.
Although I’d missed my chance that year to experience the more formal rites of initiation, there were two hunts yet to come, two more opportunities to insinuate myself into the tradition: The next year’s hunt, this time with my father, my older brother and several family friends, when I’d shot my second and final deer, a doe, with a sporterized Springfield 30.06 I’d bought from a friend who’d just learned his girlfriend was pregnant; and the third hunt, when we’d finally gotten it right according to the conventions of deer hunting in Utah. That year, three generations of Hales men—my grandfather, my father and me—joined in stalking deer in the mountains of northern Utah. From a distance, this hunt might have looked traditional, even tribal, the passing on of cultural lore and wisdom. In a way, it was.
The grandfather who joined us on that third hunt was the grandfather I’d borrowed the Enfield from, my father’s father, a professor of physics at Brigham Young University. He’d purchased the rifle at least 20 years earlier for reasons no one in the family could remember. My grandpa Hales had never fired the Enfìeld, never even unwrapped the heavy brown paper it had been sealed in when it had been retired shortly after its service in the original war to end all wars. This grandfather was not an Army surplus kind of man. Unlike my other grandfather, my mother’s father who had fought in two wars, my grandpa Hales had never worn a military uniform, let alone carried a weapon in war. As far as I know he had never even been on a deer hunt until we’d made it multigenerational on that last hunt, three deer seasons after I’d shot that first deer with my teen-age friends, a year after shooting my second and last, the year I’d decided to give up hunting for good.
So of three generations of Hales men who went deer hunting that third year, only one of us—my father—actually carried a gun. In this inversion of tradition, it was the family patriarch, my grandfather, who was experiencing his first deer hunt. I was the youngest, yet had decided to stop hunting, and was instead walking some kind of late-1960s line between embracing nonviolence and participating in a cultural event I continued to value deeply; and my father was hunting for reasons that remain mysterious to me. Of that hunt, I remember that my father succeeded in shooting a deer, and I remember that during the long night before opening day, my grandfather twice had to leave the warmth of the pickup camper to relieve himself. The second time, noticing that I was awake, he leaned over to me and said, with only a glimmer of smile visible in the dark: “It’s awful being old.”
Two years earlier, that late autumn of my 16th year, my first deer hunt, I found myself camped then not with my grandfather or father or any other elder prepared to preside over my initiation into manhood (during his first hunt, my older brother had not only gotten the blood treatment on his forehead and cheeks; he had been forced by an older hunter to take a few bites of the liver of his still twitching deer), but with two friends from my neighborhood who were also hunting deer for the first time, and were also without their fathers. I was hunting with a borrowed rifle, my grandfather’s Enfield, because I’d somehow arrived at the week of my first deer hunt without a deer rifle of my own. I’d spent a year attempting to track down exactly the right one, reading “The Shooter’s Bible” and visiting every gun and pawn shop in Ogden, enjoying the process so much that I never found my way to an actual purchase. My father, who had recently completed an even longer process of building a sporting rifle out of a surplus Swedish Mauser, remembered that an unwrapped British Enfìeld had been stored in his father’s garage. I drove the 100 miles to Provo, had dinner with Grandpa and his second wife—my grandfather had been dissuaded from following my grandmother too soon to their plot in the Provo cemetery by this short pleasant woman who kept bringing plates of food to our table—and after dinner he found the rifle in the garage, wrapped like a corpse, aromatic with the competing smells of oil and decay.
I drove back to Ogden, unwrapped the Enfield, and fought discouragement as I held the heavy, slippery thing in my hands and rubbed off as much of the grease as I could, wiping it down with paper towels and rags soaked in the solvents and oils I used to clean my .22. I managed to bring a little luster to the dark metal parts that eventually revealed themselves, but the stock had been soaking up grease for half a century and it remained a little oily in my hands, still giving off smells of petroleum, gunpowder and I imagined the soggy trenches of wartime France. I was still intensely aware of that complex odor even as I squeezed off the round that tore into the hide and bone of my first kill.
It was a strange shot. I’d been walking slowly and as quietly as I could manage across a steep hillside toward a promising spot near the head of a ravine when I’d caught in the corner of my eye the quiet unmistakable flash of mule deer, below and almost behind me. I stopped, peered down through the steep aspen-shaded grove, and watched with an unforeseen degree of patience and focus as seven mule deer walked slowly but purposefully below me, their gray-brown backs moving single file through the tall grass and sagebrush where the hillside flattened a little on its way to becoming a meadow. It felt a little like an ambush. The deer had no sense that I was there, waiting above them concealed like a sniper in brush and quaking aspen; they were doing the kind of milling around that deer are driven to during deer season, when they’ve been understandably spooked by the sudden appearance of half the male population of the cities and towns of Utah, men who on Friday afternoon pitched tents and parked trailers alongside usually empty dirt roads, bedding down in the deer’s territory for reasons I imagined deer wondering about. If the deer were puzzled by all this traffic on Friday, they were completely overwhelmed by the activity that commenced at sunrise Saturday, opening day, kept on the move by what I imagined to be the sounds of war, random echoes of gunfire near and distant.
I surprised myself with my calm. I flipped off the safety and watched over the long barrel, waiting for a glimpse of antlers, waiting for the clearest shot through the buckbrush and the white aspen trunks, finally taking serious aim at the last deer in the line, one I was pretty sure was a buck. I lined up the sights and deliberately aimed low, somehow able to remember what I’d heard over the years about the need to set your sights just below the kill spot when shooting downhill.
I also managed to remember what I’d learned only a few hours earlier that morning when I’d sighted in the rifle against a target I’d drawn on a cardboard box and set up against a hillside close to where I’d parked my father’s jeep. Examining the pattern of holes in the cardboard, I’d learned that the sights were off a little: The barrel sent the bullet to a place just left of the spot indicated by the sight. The tweaked sights were fresh in my memory because I’d committed the almost unpardonable sin of heading into the woods on opening day without having sighted in my rifle. I’d picked up the Enfield from Grandpa only the weekend before, and although I’d spent one evening cleaning it, taking it apart and running live rounds through the chamber to make sure it fed properly and wouldn’t jam in the heat of battle, and then, with the ammunition safely back in its box, I had dry fired it over and over again, taking aim against imaginary targets in my bedroom, trying to get a feel for the bolt action, the resistance of the trigger, the view over the elaborate military sights, the weight and balance and the fit of the heel plate against my shoulder. But I’d never actually fired it until opening day.
The week had been busy; there was school, and my after-school job sweeping out classrooms at the elementary school down the street from my house, and of course there was my girlfriend, with whom I’d spent every evening after dinner. Each night I’d drive to her house with my textbooks and homework and we’d concentrate earnestly together for an hour or so, touching shoulders over our work, getting closer and closer until we were doing the kind of touching that took us to the couch downstairs in the family room, where we’d frustrate each other for a few hours in our struggle to stop short of what our religion told us was of ultimate and eternal importance. Although we’d been dating for more than six months, we’d finally admitted that we were in love with each other, and we’d begun moving in a direction that was new for both of us, touching each other in places and in ways that until that fall we’d only wondered about, our hands moving above and then under clothing, finally releasing buttons, sliding zippers, our kisses following the slope of our necks to shoulders and throats and the bare skin under our shirts, our hands inching farther and farther below our loosened belts. We were discovering how our bodies worked, moving against each other in ways that worried us afterward and prompted no little discussion about guilt and control and just where we were in that dark murky area this side of the one specific act that we knew was wrong.
This was new to both of us. I was 16 and she was a year younger, both of us kept relatively innocent until now less by our youth than by the proscriptions of our religion and the comfort and conventionality of our middle-class homes, and so we were discovering something new it seemed each time we moved to the couch in her family room. We were coming to understand something about physical and moral release at the same time we were learning control, exploring the boundaries between negotiation and surrender, keeping somehow a cool center of calm in the heated storm of urge and skin, discovering an ability to be ultimately responsible that I still wonder about and sometimes regret.
I probably should have postponed work a few hours and driven directly from school to the familiar abandoned gravel pit above Ogden Valley, a place distant and rural enough for us to shoot high-caliber rifles safely, equipped with a crude table made of old fence-posts and a row of railroad ties stacked a hundred yards away against an eroded dirt backstop. Weeks earlier, in the last warm days of an Indian summer, I’d helped my friends sight in their rifles, nestling their beautiful civilian guns into sandbags, treating their rifles with the calm and precision necessary to evaluate the accuracy of the sights, to experience as if under laboratory conditions the kick, to examine as if from a distance the science involved in firing live rounds of large caliber ammunition.
I knew that in preparing for a deer hunt—especially your first carrying a firearm, when you don’t really know how you’ll react when the sudden view of the deer and the surge of adrenaline hit you at the same time—it was important to experience the actual firing of the specific rifle you’ll carry into the woods, to feel the way the physics actually play out in practice, the action of the bullets trajectory and the reaction of the butt against your shoulder, the explosion taking place less than an inch from your cheek pressed against the smooth wood of the stock, the sharp crack of the bullet, the smell of powder and fire, the practical application of the theoretical equation of shooting a gun. But a late afternoon in the mountains meant a night sweeping out classrooms, and I didn’t want to give up even one evening with my girlfriend, this week of all weeks—it was that simple.
So I was fortunate to encounter the deer later in the morning of opening day, after I’d discovered how badly off the sights were. My friends and I had tried to do the right thing—deer hunting wisdom proclaimed that most deer were shot during the first hour of dawn on opening day of the season, and even though none of us could remember anybody we knew actually bagging a deer before 8 a.m., we were determined to be at the stands we’d located the day before, when we’d hiked around after setting up camp, locating likely spots alongside deer trails, near saddles and ravines that (the theory went) would funnel deer into walking a slow parade across our sights.
Even though we were on our own, we had no trouble remembering what older hunters had intoned on earlier hunts and in conversations around family dinner tables. I think we had mixed feelings about being out there alone, enjoying as any teen-agers would the luxury of not being watched by grown-ups, yet missing the many benefits age and experience brought to something as logistically complicated as a deer hunt. We were responsible kids, and our parents trusted us to not shoot each other, but we were still only 16 years old and were a little flaky on details. For example, none of us had brought a watch, and so we slept nervously, not knowing whether the darkness outside the tent indicated midnight or 5 a.m. We erred on the side of caution, not wanting to make this first mistake on the first deer hunt of our lives, and therefore endured an excruciatingly cold slow sequence of hours, hours that seemed even longer for our not being able to actually count them.
We shivered in the dark, looked forward to the emergence of the sun with a longing that bordered on pagan, squinted into the long gray half-light trying desperately to see those deer that we were sure would arrive eager to lay down their lives for our emerging manhood, but no deer came. After a couple of fruitless solitary hours, we rejoined each other at the jeep according to plan, discussed our failure and considered our options. We decided to drive up the road a ways, higher up along the ridgeline, following a second piece of deer hunting theory we’d learned from our fathers: Unless there’s snow to keep them down, nervous deer head uphill. Now in no real hurry—we were sure we’d missed our best chance—we warmed ourselves in the morning sun, sitting on the tailgate of my father’s jeep and eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches our mothers had made for us, then decided to shoot a few rounds in order to remind ourselves of why we were there and, in my case, to see if my rifle’s sights lined up.
Handling the Enfield was a military experience: There’s no other way to say it. Wiping off the cosmoline had brought to light a configuration determined by wartime necessity, not mere sport. The Enfield’s barrel and receiver were enclosed in a reddish-brown stock, scratched and dented by hard use and then softened by its 50-year oil bath, and most of the many attachments and accessories had only military function for explanation: swivels and gray metal loops for attaching the shoulder strap, the heavy steel wings that protected the front sight and served to reinforce the bayonet mount beneath. Even the stock itself—running from butt to front sight—was intended to provide a good grip as its original owner, I imagined, against all common sense heaved himself out of a trench and into the line of fire.
I noticed that I handled my rifle differently from the way my friends handled their civilian Winchesters and Remingtons. The Enfield’s configuration invited a more casual grasp and less concern about protecting the ornamentation that set off my friend’s rifles, the beautiful but vulnerable checkering on their elegantly finished stocks, the polished blue steel of the barrel gleaming beyond the forestock, the gold bead of the fragile front sight—or, on one friend’s rifle, the expensive optical complexity of the scope. My rifle had been thrown into trucks, dragged down rutted roads, perhaps—I imagined— dropped to the ground by a man whose flesh was that instant torn by a bullet sent by someone else’s rifle, a piece of equipment similarly designed by the enemy to survive treatment at once careless and intimate, without real value until that moment of ultimate use.
Of course, most of my understanding of this rifle’s story was pure imagination, the details served up by the endless stream of World War II movies that by the late ‘50s and early ‘60s showed up with monotonous regularity on morning and afternoon television, films in which platoons of young men of carefully varied ethnicity and social class— rural and urban, several with no education, some with money, most with wives and girlfriends of either the faithful or unfaithful variety— all carried their weapons in the same way, with regard for their utility and necessity but with a complete disregard for cosmetics. Of course they slept with them, but they were neither substitutes for women nor icons of manliness. In these movies, the bonding was with the other men in the squad, a collection of contentious individuals who in the first half of the movie became beloved comrades, a single unit created by Hollywood only to be whittled away relentlessly through the movie’s second half by the skill of passionless enemy snipers, anonymous machine gunners or by mortar rounds hurled from enemy emplacements that could only be taken out by artillery or by fighter-bombers that never came when they were most needed.
The rifles they carried were appliances, the tools of their trade, and I remember that these men paid attention to them only between battles, cleaning them finally when they had the leisure to talk about everything more important: the recent dead, the particular hellhole they’d be sent next, the wives and girlfriends who waited for their return.
I’m certain that the moment of my political awakening came when I finally recognized the difference between the war movies of my youth and the evening news of my teen-age years, the televised real-time narrative of the Vietnam War. Those earlier movies taught me how wars should be fought: athletic and wholesome American boys charging with their dependable Springfield rifles in the direction of robotic German machine-gunners or maniacal Asians, unkempt but handsome kids throwing grenades like hookshots.We learned from these movies how to cradle our rifles in the crooks of our arms as we moved on our knees and elbows like spiders toward the machine-gun nests of our warplay, moves we eventually played out with live ammunition in the foothills above our houses as we moved uphill toward piles of rocks we’d imagined to be dangerous foreign soldiers; rocks, trees and beer cans we’d take out with our .22s when we were old enough to be allowed to shoot real bullets but not old enough to fully understand just how dangerous those bullets really were.
So I’d begun learning about war from afternoon movies and from mornings carrying my .22 rifle into the foothills above Ogden, shooting birds and snakes, and at cans and bottles we’d make believe were enemy soldiers foolishly exposing themselves above their fortifications. Later, about the time I stopped playing war with my friends, I was required to play war in public school, learning military strategy and weaponry in a classroom, my texts actual U.S. Army manuals. In 1967 I entered the 10th grade, the first year of high school and the only year I was destined to spend in the uniform of my country. ROTC was required of all sophomore boys instead of physical education, for reasons that must have had to do with the buildup in Vietnam—it had been an elective the year before, enlisting only those volunteers we termed “RO puds” and considered pathetic, needing a uniform to compensate for low IQs or bad skin. But all the males in the sophomore class were drafted that year, and on the first day—after we were issued uniforms and brass to be worn, freshly pressed and polished, each Wednesday—we were given our own personal weapons, to be disassembled and cleaned regularly, to be marched with weekly and to be bonded with throughout. We were given five minutes to memorize the rifle’s serial number, and punished throughout the year with push-ups if we couldn’t pronounce that sacred number on command.
These were serious weapons: Mis, straight from World War II and the Korean War, displaced from service by the slightly more evolved Ml4 and, eventually, by the dinky little Ml6, a weapon smaller than some of the pellet guns I’d owned, a rifle that seemed to have more in common with my Ruger .22 than my grandfather’s Enfield. My personal Ml—serial number 5369464—was heavy, seemingly bigger than I was, credible beyond question. To present the rifle for inspection—to pull the bolt back, offer up the open chamber to a theatrically serious officer (usually an llth-grader pathetic enough to re-enlist) and after an inspection that never failed to disclose some grime somewhere, to snap the bolt closed once again, quickly withdrawing your thumb from the narrow chamber at just the right moment to avoid suffering the embarrassing broken fingernail and blood blister we called “Ml thumb”—was like opening a bank vault, examining the silver glow of your wealth, then slamming the thick door shut.You felt all that heavy metal sliding on invisible beads of grease, closing with groundshaking abruptness, machined steel turning and locking into secure place, keeping safe what was most important in life.
We were never actually allowed to fire our Mis, only to pull the trigger in a dry fire after we’d cocked the rifle for cleaning and inspection, the light quick snap we invariably called a dry hump when officers weren’t around. The parody of maleness that was the ROTC depended a lot on sexual innuendo, at least as much as the world of the boys’ locker room we had expected to spend our sophomore year snapping towels in. We were required to chant suggestive lyrics as we learned to march in formation—”I know a girl in Tijuana; she knows how but she don’t wanna”—and the cadet unfortunate enough to refer to his Ml as a “gun” paid for his error by standing before the assembled troops, and whatever civilian students were walking across the parade ground on their way to smoking cigarettes in the parking lot, and shouting at the top of his lungs: “This is my weapon!” he’d scream, holding out his Ml; “This is my gun!” he’d yell, pointing dramatically to his groin; “This is for shooting! … this is for fun!”
We understood that all this was stupid and juvenile, aware in only the most superficial and joking ways of the complexity of the connection we were exploring between all that weaponry and the clumsy embraces with girls in the back seats of cars driven by friends old enough to have drivers licenses, gropings of hands and tongues after school and church dances that however frustrating we complained they were, still felt pretty good. We thought dry humping was a kind of sex, not yet understanding what it really was, the fully clothed bumping up against that spot where sexual urges met cultural imperatives, the awkward pressing of nerve endings hard against the proscriptions and guilt that were the legacy of growing up Mormon and American.
These were the experiences that prepared me for shooting a deer with my grandfather’s Enfield: war movies, pellet guns, my Ruger .22, the Ml placed in my care by Ogden High School and the United States of America, a gun I could field strip, blindfolded, in 15 seconds, and flip from vertical rest to shoulder rest to present arms with a precision I both mocked and felt an unaccountable joy in performing. Although I hadn’t developed an equal degree of familiarity with my grandfather’s Enfield, I recognized the smell of military grease and gunpowder and felt even the connection with death and war.
I’d imagined my Ml at Iwo Jima, at Chosin Reservoir, and I pieced together a similar story behind the Enfield. I imagined a man relieved to have survived the trenches serving out the remainder of his enlistment in a British armory greasing and wrapping the rifle carelessly, consigning it to a crate to be warehoused in anticipation of the next war, in which I believed it did not serve. It was for some reason important for me to believe that my grandfather’s rifle had avoided service in World War II, the war of my father and uncles. I imagined that the British had sealed the rifle right after my grandfather’s war, barely cool from all the shots I’d imagined it had fired, sometimes unaimed over the trench walls toward the place they believed the enemy to be, sometimes aimed with cool precision at a man’s profile less than a hundred yards across a muddy and barbed-wired no-man’s-land.
This image of a man crumpling to the ground took hold of me at the exact instant I pulled the trigger, firing the Enfield for the first time against the target I’d traced on a cardboard box, weighed down with rocks and set about a hundred yards from the jeep that morning in early November, my first deer hunt. My grip on the stock felt for a moment like someone else’s, and my hands seemed to understand easily the fussy complexity of the military rear sight, a ramp that flipped up to adjust for long distance, with knurled knobs you turned to compensate for what the ROTC manuals referred to as “windage.”
I somehow knew, along with I’m sure the man who had shot this particular rifle before me, that this elaborate aiming device was the result of pure theory, the invention of officers in the planning and procurement part of the army, men who had the luxury to believe that war consisted of shooting someone several hundred yards away under conditions that allowed you to pick an individual enemy soldier from among the rocks or trees, to estimate just how close to a mile he was away from you, to read the scale inscribed on the ramp, to twist the necessary knobs to a precise point, to know just how much wind moved the air between you and the individual you’d targeted. I understood as I sighted my grandfather’s Enfield that you either shot in the general direction of the enemy with a kind of defensive haste that rendered all that precision meaningless, or you peered over the open sights that revealed themselves when the ramp was folded out of the way, seeing not just an outline in enemy colors, but a person, close enough and careless enough to have revealed to you the intimate details of his face and upper body.
In other words, if the man was close enough for it to be personal and particular, close enough for you to actually see the individual human being you’d sighted, he’d be close enough for you to use the quick and dirty logic of the open sights. So after fooling around with what my friends and I referred to as the mortar sights, designed to lob rounds over the top of Mount Nebo to take out the enemy 15 miles away in the small Mormon community of Nephi, I took aim over the open sights, lined up the foresight with the V of the sight near my eye. After a chilling second of imagining a human being fall into line with the rifle—an immediate and certain understanding that this very rifle had ended a human life—I squeezed off a shot that rocked me backwards a little and planted a buzzing alarm deep in my ear.
By sighting on the plate-sized circle I’d drawn on the box and shooting a magazine full of shells, I was able to discover that at 100 yards the immovable sights were inclined to the right of where the bullets were sent. I knew this from the reasonably tight pattern of bullet holes to the left and just outside the target, and through an understanding that I could honestly blame the sights because I was a good shot. I’d been shooting cans, birds, snakes and even printed targets for years with pellet guns and .22s. I’d taken my girlfriend into the foothills to shoot my .22 a few weeks after we’d begun dating—believe it or not, a rather routine feature of teen-age courtship in Utah. I’d tried to impress her with my ability to knock over a row of cans quickly and efficiently with my semiautomatic Ruger, and I’d loved the fact that she hadn’t flinched as she fired off a few rounds herself. I was good enough on the ROTC firing range—also with .22s—to be awarded the only medal I’d managed to earn during my sophomore year in the Army. I had the theory down, and had practiced the bracing, breathing and squeezing motions until they were second nature, actions I no longer had to think about. I’d been killing skillfully, if mostly vicariously, for years.
So when that moment came a few hours after firing at the cardboard target, I pretty much knew where to aim, and I was able to squeeze off the shot almost exactly where I wanted it. I lined up the broad battered V of the rear sight with the blunt stub of metal at the muzzle and placed this intersection where I’d imagined the heart to be, looking down on the back of the unsuspecting deer, correcting for the variables of motion and elevation and sighting error and squeezed the trigger. The deer fell in its tracks, thrashing a little but going nowhere, the shot entering the rib cage just to the right of the spine, tearing a jagged hole in the side of the heart that emptied a gallon of thick red blood into the deer’s lungs and belly, drowning him from inside.
Earlier that morning, at that moment when I’d decided that this particular Enfield had taken a human life, these words took shape in my head: This gun has been fired in anger. The words came directly from my other grandfather, my mother’s father, my grandfather Danvers, a man who had fought in two of his country’s wars and who employed those exact words whenever he expressed his contempt for fellow veterans who were stupid enough to confuse the military and the civilian through membership in the American Legion. This grandfather believed that no man who had actually seen blood spilled in battle would do anything other than try to forget his war experiences the moment armistice was signed; therefore, the veterans who joined the VFW and the American Legion must not have, as he put it over and over again, “heard a gun fired in anger.” One of the several ironies of my first deer hunt is that my rifle had been provided by my grandfather Hales, the grandfather who neither hunted nor had fought in war. My grandfather Danvers, who had undoubtedly killed actual human beings and had himself been wounded in battle, didn’t hunt either, and wouldn’t allow any firearms—rifles, bb guns or even cap pistols—around his house, on his property or even in the houses of kids his children played with. He hated guns. He thought they had one use: killing people. He didn’t necessarily object to killing people, assuming it had to be done—a staunch Cold Warrior, he believed, for example, that Castro’s Communist minions needed to be driven out by force of arms—but killing for sport just didn’t add up.
He made this sound pretty simple, but his life revealed to everyone around him that it was much more complicated, that the truth be told, killing in war didn’t finally add up for him, either. Like Enfields and Mis, Grandpa had done his duty in two wars. At 17, he’d lied about his age to fight in the Spanish-American War, leaving his girlfriend—my 15-year-old grandmother—in the small farm town of Plains City, Utah, writing letters that followed him to a part of the world neither of them had, until then, known existed; and 20 years later he’d left this same woman and their four children on a miserable farm in northern California in order to fight in World War I, where he’d been knocked unconscious by an exploding artillery shell, wounded just badly enough to have spent a day immobilized in an ambulance feeling the blood drip onto his chest from the man dying in the stretcher above him.
Awake, my grandfather explained to me that war was a case of doing what needed to be done, then getting on with your life. Asleep, distinctions like that disappeared, and his peacetime nights often erupted into nightmares of war. The details of these dreams and their effect on my grandparents’ lives seldom made it directly to the ears of their grandchildren, but we overheard enough to gather that it was his first war—the year he’d spent in the service of taking the Philippines away from the Spanish empire in order to assemble from its pieces a more enlightened American empire—that provided the specific landscape of his night horrors. We learned that the fighting there had been hand to hand in a dark wet jungle, that he’d seen throats cut, comrades mutilated, that he’d not known whom to trust, which was friend or foe. The specific colors and textures of my grandfathers nightmares were filled in for me through the 1960s with sparse details overheard from whispered conversations between my grandmother, my mother and my aunts, details fleshed out with stories and images I’d absorbed from movies of the war in the Pacific. My grandfather’s story was ultimately brought into focus for me through the televised film footage and Life magazine photo spreads that brought home the war in Vietnam, until finally in my mind it was a Southeast Asian jungle the boy who would become my grandfather fought his way through, and I finally saw in my imagination shadowy men in the black pajamas of the Vietcong—citizens of that very country we had come to save—who dropped from trees to silently slit the throat of the boy who in boot camp had become my grandfather s best friend.
My grandfather’s experience taught me something about war that was far too complex to unravel. I didn’t learn to hate war or even fear it—this was the early ‘60s, the height of the Cold War, the beginning of what looked to be the uncomplicated liberation of South Vietnam from the claws of communism—but I did learn to fear my grandfather. Some of my earliest memories involved my taking pains to not make any loud noises around him, especially while he was asleep. I eventually learned that my grandfather and grandmother slept in separate bedrooms because several times, finding himself in his dreams trying to survive in the jungle of his teen-age war, my grandfather finally awoke to observe as if from a distance his large hands frozen tight around his wife’s throat, understanding just in time that he’d not known the difference between the enemy of his youth and his wife, the woman he’d loved—with a passion we understood was rare—for more than 60 years, since the last decade of the last century, when they’d been teen-agers together in a small Mormon farm town.
Senility eventually drove him completely into his past at the same time it brought him calm days and finally dependably comforting dreams; about the time I was old enough to begin wondering about what all this meant, my grandfather began emerging from his long naps wearing his olive-green WWI military tunic, which still fit him remarkably well, the high collar buttoned crisply around the loose folds of his neck. He sat with the dignity of military erectness, taking no notice of the life that went on around him in his living room, the nieces, nephews, grandchildren and neighborhood children that moved in and out of my grandmother’s care. When he talked about politics, it was often about a world that didn’t appreciate America’s essential goodness, and the Filipinos, the Cubans and the Vietnamese became exactly the same person, a friend that insisted on behaving as an enemy. Occasionally I’d stop by my grandparents’ house on my way back from hiking or playing war in the foothills, and I always remembered to hide my .22 in the garage behind the house, understanding at least this much: that my grandfather Danvers hated guns of any kind, and would allow none in his house.
So my grandfather Danvers, who at great cost to his later mental health had killed his fellow human beings, owned no weapons and would have punished any child of his who brought one home. My grandfather Hales had spent World War I as a graduate student (like my grandfather Danvers, he’d left his young family to provide for themselves for the duration, but he’d deployed himself to the University of Chicago), and World War II as a civilian researcher studying rain-forest meteorology in Panama for the edification of the Army Air Corps. This grandfather owned an Enfield, still greased and mummified for peacetime, in his garage, waiting apparently for me, his grandson, to borrow in order to discover what it felt like to shoot something the size of a human being. Later, when I was agonizing over the philosophical and practical consequences of deciding that I would not allow myself to be drafted and sent to fight a war I believed was immoral, Grandpa Hales was the one person in his by then huge family to offer support. We talked about it from time to time, but I remember in particular one afternoon when I’d driven the two hours from Ogden to Provo to spend a few hours in his den, almost exactly two years after I’d driven there for the specific purpose of borrowing the Enfield.
This conversation was particularly difficult for both of us because by then my resistance to war had become part of a larger revolution in my life that also involved my leaving the Mormon Church, the first and only of his many children and grandchildren to do so. But we’d focused our conversation that day on the morality of killing, the futility of war as a way to resolve political conflict. He’d learned something important from the bitter disappointment of Wo rid War Is aftermath, the failure of the League of Nations, the rise of fascism from the wasteland of military victory—a lesson the children of the next generation, my parents’ generation, had not been old enough to grasp—and he was appalled by the waste and carnage, the profound inhumanity, of what he understood war to be.
My other grandfather, a man who’d experienced—even contributed—to the carnage, hated it deep in his brain, but defended it as a necessary evil he’d sign up for again. My grandpa Hales thought that perhaps a good person had reason to avoid killing his fellow man in war, even with the blessing of his church and country. He said he’d have to admit that while he’d been fortunate to avoid participation in the world wars his life encompassed, and although he believed that World War II had been that rarest of occurrences, a just war; nevertheless, he believed that a moral person might choose to leave the country or even go to prison rather than obey a law he found immoral. He mentioned the regret many of his physicist colleagues felt in facing the consequences of work that, however well-intended and theoretically elegant, had led the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. He noted that many of the most faithful and fearless Mormon men of the last century had served time in the Utah Territorial Prison, choosing to violate federal law rather than renounce God’s law and betray the sanctity of their marriages to plural wives. He remembered that his own polygamist father—my great-grandfather—had fled for a time to Arizona Territory rather than choose between going to prison or obeying the law, an act that would have betrayed both his conscience and his family. My Grandpa Hales said he’d learned this much: A man should listen carefully to what his conscience told him. Life was sacred, he said, and unjustified violence against a human being was close to the ultimate sin, second only to denying the truth of the Holy Ghost.
This conversation took place only two years after I’d borrowed the Enfield, killed the deer, cut its throat and sliced open its belly, drenching myself in the warm blood puddled in the chest cavity and with my hands and knife emptying it of everything not antler, hide and meat, and then carried the lightened carcass across my shoulder to the jeep I’d borrowed from my father. Two years later, a few weeks after that afternoon I’d spent talking to my Grandpa Hales about war and conscience, I decided that I’d try not hunting at all. I’d already given up the more casual killing of birds and rabbits, and I’m not sure why the decision to stop hunting deer took so long. Today, as I consider the difficulty of this decision, I begin to understand just how deeply rooted deer hunting was in who I had grown up to be. I didn’t believe then, and still don’t, that hunting was inherently immoral, or that shooting a deer was in the same category as dropping napalm on a Vietnamese village. But I came to the conclusion that it would help me develop a keener and more sincere pacifist self, and I knew that I had the support of my grandfather Hales.
Whether I had the support of my grandfather Danvers was a question made no less relevant by the fact that he’d been dead for four years. He had known in a place near the core of his being just what war can do even to those fortunate enough to survive its horrors, and although his war experiences had finally driven his wife from their bed, I was pretty sure that he’d have had even less sympathy for my decision regarding Vietnam than for those slackers down at the American Legion hall, veterans whose continued celebration of their war years proved simply that they must not have seen death or killed for their country, nor even heard a gun fired in anger. It had all happened pretty fast, a period spanning three deer hunts, a little more than two years. While it is true that an entire generation came to political consciousness during the Vietnam War, those of us born in the middle years of the baby boom found ourselves scrambling up an increasingly precipitous learning curve. I was a high school junior when the first details were revealed concerning the My Lai massacre; my graduation from Ogden High took place a few months after the Cambodian invasion and the shooting of American students at Kent State. My urgent teen-age reading of Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi (I learned that the specific rifles Gandhi had stood unarmed against had been British Enfields), my attendance at demonstrations and teach-ins at the University of Utah, my helping to organize a not particularly well-attended protest at my high school during the second Moratorium—these experiences led me in all kinds of directions, toward the consideration of all the usual questions. I learned that Vietnam was a bad war, but were all wars? I understood that killing Vietnamese people in the name of their liberation was wrong, but was all killing? As I moved in the direction of pacifism, as I underwent draft counseling and considered the options of Canada, federal prison or conscientious objection, I considered the various ways one comes to understand that it is wrong to kill.
Perhaps because I’d been a good boy all my life—religious, generally trying to do the right thing, consistently struggling to understand what was true and what wasn’t—I wanted my answer to these questions to come to me in a way that was sufficiently weighty, a kind of revelation that would be deep and spiritual, if not precisely religious. I wanted this to be something more than a merely political decision. I didn’t want to become a pacifist in the way one might become an auto mechanic or a Rotarian; I wanted to discover that I already was one, that I simply hadn’t yet discovered this fact about the real me. I wanted to peel back the layers of 1950s anti-communist indoctrination, Republican parenting and the particularly intense dialect of patriotism spoken by Mormons (mostly, I came to believe, in order to atone for all those early years of defiance against federal laws banning polygamy) to reveal myself to be a genuinely pacific person. I longed for a pureness of heart that came from deep within, an understanding of the sacredness of life that transcended reason and theory, a soul whose electric circuits were charged with a positive attraction to living things and a negative repulsion to killing, a spirit that understood spontaneously and profoundly the ultimate connectedness of all life.
This is who I wanted to be, but the boy who killed his first deer was who I actually was, and I’ve spent my life stuck with him. Before that first deer, I’d killed fish, birds, snakes and even squirrels and rabbits, but the deer I’d shot looked at me with eyes the size and depth of a humans, and I couldn’t lie to myself about what I’d thought as I’d straddled the breathing, bleeding, paralyzed deer, pulled his head back by the 6 inches of antler and pulled my knife through his throat in a half-circle motion I’d seemingly known all my life. It was easy. I was calm, driven neither by bloodlust nor sadness nor regret, recognizing keenly what we had in common but not being distracted by it. The deer I’d shot—a young buck—weighed as much as the boy I’d been only a few years before, and there was no way to deny the consciousness that slowly left his eyes as they lost focus and glazed with death.
I’d heard stories about this moment, and I understood to what extent my culture examined this experience with an eye toward determining the dimensions of the boy’s character. I’d met a boy in ROTC who told me as we spent fourth period practicing the disassembly and cleaning of our Mis that he’d killed his first deer the weekend before, with his .22,in the mountains above Ogden, completely out of season, without a license and for no reason other than he and his friends had been there with their rifles, and there it was. He described to me a frantic aftermath, an almost hysterical excitement that led them to kill the wounded deer with their knives (they’d unloaded their three .22s into the thick hide of the deer, bringing the deer down but not mortally wounding it) and then to mutilate it, cutting the animal into ragged pieces and leaving the carcass for whatever scavengers remained in mountains so near to a city. He actually giggled as he explained to me what they’d done. It was clear that something primal had kicked in, something disgusting and irresponsible, yet credible in a way I could neither dismiss nor understand. I was uncomfortable with the passion that had taken charge, transforming poaching—the simple breaking of a law—into something genuinely out of control. I’d also heard a lot of stories about what we called “buck fever”: hunters overcome by a kind of excitement in the moment they’d encountered their first deer that caused them to forget everything they’d ever learned about aiming and shooting. I knew a man my father’s age who no matter how many deer he’d eventually bring home or whatever else he would accomplish in life would always be the teen-age boy who had emptied his rifle into the ground a yard away from his boots, thinking he was shooting at a deer standing only 20 feet away but actually achieving—his friends joked—a pretty good pattern in the mud at his feet, even if it was a long way from the killing spot he thought he was aiming at. According to this pathetic story, the deer was so stunned by the boy’s ineptitude that it waited calmly in place while the man attempted to reload, dropping cartridges in the mud, trying to force bullets backwards into the magazine and flipping the safety on so that even when he’d succeeded in reloading and then chambering a round and finally lining up the deer, his sights and sufficient calm, he found the trigger unresponsive, somehow disconnected from what needed to be done, a mystery never under the spell of buck fever to be solved.
Finally, the story went, another hunter from his group arrived at the scene and calmly shot the animal, putting both the deer and his friend out of their misery. A person who had encountered this kind of insanity was both the source of much communal humor and an object lesson in character, and not necessarily bad character. Mormon doctrines of blood atonement and state-sanctioned executions by firing squad aside, the culture I was raised in did not like to think of itself as bloodthirsty, and I believe that while none of us looked forward to discovering that we weren’t effective killers of deer, some of us felt a sort of unaccountable respect toward those for whom killing did not come easily.
There is another story, much rarer in Utah than either stories of ritual mutilation (this is the same culture, after all, that believes hanging a coyote carcass across one’s fence provides a level of protection against further predation) or buck fever, the person who learns with his first kill that he isn’t a killer, and never kills again. One of the most important adults in my life was a man who owned a small farm in Ogden Valley, not far from the abandoned gravel pit where we’d practice shooting our rifles, a man who worked a regular job in Ogden so he could support a small herd of horses and live in a beautiful place in the mountains. He was a good Mormon and a political conservative, and he accepted equally and without judgment the sensual pleasures along with the necessary barbarities of farm life, the horsebreakings and castrations and sometimes unavoidable spurrings and whippings of animals he loved. Of all the Mormon men I knew, he was the most conversant with what was both wild and beautiful in nature, and he was one of the few men I knew who didn’t hunt. We spent hours talking about all kinds of weighty subjects as we hauled hay and afterwards rode horses in the foothills above his farm, and given the times, questions concerning the morality of killing came up over and over again. When I’d press him on apparent inconsistencies in his views regarding hunting, he’d talk around the topic, never exactly explaining why he didn’t hunt.
For one thing, hunting was woven so completely into the fabric of Mormon life in Utah that to criticize deer hunting was close to questioning the legitimacy of the Prophet. Mormon men went hunting. It was almost that simple, even though it was well known that deer hunting provided perhaps the only opportunity, as well as the only implicit permission, for more than a few Mormon men to break the Word ofWisdom, to pass a pint bottle around the campfire and to inhale cigarette smoke, either from your own smuggled cigarette or the Mormon elders next to you.This man could see some dangerous questions rising in me, could see the way they were outlining a core of resistance against the values and assumptions with which I’d been raised, towards a stretching that would lead to a complete and tragic break with Mormonism, and he took pains to avoid criticizing the faith and the culture in which he wanted me to find a place. It was this tendency in me—an inclination he spotted long before anybody else did—that wouldn’t allow him to quite approve of my chasing one of his several daughters, an intermittent romantic interest that neither of us finally pursued past a school dance and a little necking in the hay truck.
So this man intended no criticism—either explicit or implicit— of hunting or of hunters. He didn’t much like guns, he said, giving none of the usual reasons involving safety or even the inevitable bullet holes that riddled his rural mailbox. One day when I pushed him for an explanation, he said finally that hunting just wasn’t him. He had tried it when he was young, he said, and had left it there, in his youth, along with cars he’d traded in and clothes that hadn’t quite fit.
By the time I’d reached 18, I came to understand that hunting wasn’t necessarily me either, but not in the way I really wanted it to not be me. Occasionally I’d tell myself that hunting was part of a script handed me at birth that I was still performing, almost without my cooperation or assent, a series of events that included certain rites of passage: baptism by immersion at 8, the priesthood at 12, an after-school job at 14 and a deer tag at 16. My father hunted, but for reasons that still aren’t clear to me. He’d worked years rebuilding the Swedish Mauser into a beautiful sporting rifle, and he enjoyed driving the jeep on mountain roads, but no one looked less at home beside a deer carcass than my surgeon father, whose weekday cuttings into human flesh took place in the inner ear, a fastidious and almost bloodless exercise accomplished under a microscope. When he said over the years that he wasn’t disappointed when he’d sometimes failed to bring home a deer, I actually believed him. But he hunted, as did my brother, who embraced hunting as enthusiastically as my father did awkwardly, almost to the exclusion of everything else. We came to depend on his yearly deer hunting success in the hills behind Mount Nebo (he was famous in our neighborhood for consistently bagging his deer with only one shot from his Model Seventy Winchester, and the buck he brought home always carried a significant rack of antlers), and his commitment to hunting would be only temporarily interrupted by his mission call, which placed him in Brazil hunting converts to the Mormon Church during the year I’d killed my first deer. I’m not sure any decision a child makes in the context of a culture that mixes family, religion and landscape so completely can be an actual decision. I was a Mormon boy, turning 16, therefore I hunted.
But it was a little more complicated than that. I genuinely liked shooting things. I liked guns; I liked their smell, their heft, the functional beauty of their machinery, a simplicity of operation that contrasted so completely with the complicated uncertainty of my adolescence: a contained, directed explosion, an immediate and unambiguous translation of will into effect. I loved the hunt itself: I looked forward each year to building a camp out of canvas tents and Coleman lanterns, talking and joking quietly around the campfire, riding in open jeeps along rutted dirt roads, a vaguely military experience that involved holding your rifle’s muzzle pointed carefully upward as you bounced through the crisp mountain air, breathing the exhaust that mingled with the smell of dust and dead leaves. I’d enjoyed hiking with my father and brother through the quaking aspen and sagebrush of late fall, locating stands alongside game trails, tracking deer in the snow that some years blanketed the ground. And I loved how merely the anticipation of hunting made me feel: I’d spent that Thursday evening with my girlfriend, the night before I’d gone hunting with my friends, and there was a kind of glow I imagined over both of us, a feeling that the whole question of age that had dogged me through my life, my never being old enough for whatever I wanted most to do, would achieve some kind of resolution by the time I’d return Saturday night, in time, we hoped, for the dance our church held for its teen-agers every other weekend. We both understood that I’d come back to her different somehow. I think we both hoped that what was so confusing for us night after night might be made a little more clear.
So the why is difficult to figure out. What I do know is exactly how I felt when I’d realized that I’d managed to kill a deer. I’d been a little surprised by my cool, proud of my skill and happy to realize that the deer was down for the count, that I wouldn’t have to chase this animal all over the flanks of Mt. Nebo, and when I scrambled to the side of the dying buck—having even had the presence of mind to unchamber the cartridge I’d a few seconds earlier had the presence of mind to chamber after my one shot, in those short moments before it became clear that I’d followed in my brother’s footsteps, that one shot would be enough—it was mostly a case of doing what I’d learned needed to be done: Slice the throat to make death certain and to drain blood from the carcass; cut off the musk glands imbedded in the hair and flesh in the fold of the rear legs; begin the cutting open of belly and chest to empty the body of what spoils the meat.
As I completed these necessary operations and began making room in my mind to consider what all this meant, I felt something completely unexpected. Years later I would wish that this unexpected thought would be regret, that I would find out that hunting wasn’t me in the deepest sense possible, that killing a deer was too close for comfort, too inconsistent with my emerging understanding of the oneness of all life. In later years I would imagine other reactions, the responses that would have come to a person better than myself: tears, sadness, thoughts of sin, plans for redemption. I would even come to wish that I’d felt some kind of terrifying lust, a loss of control, a glimpse of the dark and sordid underbelly of human life that could serve as a kind of morality tale, a revelation that would guide me in a more enlightened direction, a narrative that recognized another kind of sin, a knowledge of an evil within me, the necessary control of which might provide a direction for my life. Even an exaggerated and unseemly pride would have been something better to feel than what actually came over me, anything deeper, more profound than the feeling that presented itself: relief.
Relief. The closer I came to finishing the chores that accompany the killing of deer, the more the feeling of relief washed over me. I’d done it. I’d killed my deer; now I could relax and enjoy myself. I wouldn’t have to make excuses, wouldn’t have to explain exactly why I hadn’t been able to do the very thing a 16-year-old Mormon boy needed most to do. I’d be able to say that I’d killed a deer, yes it was a buck, it was an appropriate distance—a hundred yards was just far enough away to require skill; we all knew that luck starts to become a factor beyond that distance, no matter how much talent is required to get the shot in the ballpark. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized just how thoroughly my mind had been turning over these explanations, how much space had been taken up by the sense of expectation, of consequence, of the need to explain myself.
I instantly understood a couple of things: I knew that next year, I’d shoot the first deer, doe or buck, I managed to lower my sights on, because it was the having done it I was after, not what specifically I’d bring home, and that’s exactly what I did. The next year—the fall of my senior year, the year I began to consider from a more distant perspective what deer hunting meant in the grand scheme of things, how it related to militarism, imperialism, the original sin that is violence in America—I shot a doe, the first deer I saw, the last living thing besides trout and horseflies I would ever kill.
I would have my own rifle by then, another weapon from World War I, a bolt-action Springfield 30.06. I’d buy this beautifully sport-erized rifle from a friend, a boy I’d grown up with who just a few months after my first deer hunt had gotten the news that his girlfriend was pregnant and that he would be getting married right away. He needed the money, of course, and he told me his hunting days were over. The swords-into-plowshares absurdity of this equation has dawned slowly upon me over the years. I didn’t point out that we both knew he would certainly go deer hunting the next year, either with a borrowed rifle or a less expensive one; that, in fact, the importance of providing for one’s family by bringing home venison was a permutation of deer hunting ideology in Mormon culture that came with marriage, fatherhood and responsibility. But at the time it seemed very simple: I gave him a $150 for a rifle we both somehow believed was a luxury under the circumstances he couldn’t afford, something he wouldn’t be needing for a while. What we didn’t quite understand was the part selling the rifle played in the rushed rite of passage that was a forced teen-age marriage.
Anyway, I gave him the money, he mournfully handed over the rifle and the next evening my girlfriend and I brought the gift of an electric frying pan to the wedding reception, a collection of Mormon friends and relatives who gathered upbeat but disapproving in the local church social hall, arranging themselves around my Sunday-suited friend and his new wife attired in the nonwhite of her pale yellow prom dress, the experience leaving me with my own rifle, military yet refitted in the civilian wardrobe of a beautifully abbreviated and checkered walnut stock, freshly chromed bolt and blued barrel, and sights that adjusted only to what might be expected during the hunting of deer. My friend’s misfortune—for that was what we all understood it to be—also left my girlfriend and me with a more practical perspective from which to consider the boundaries of skin and touch we’d been exploring during the months before and after my first deer hunt, a new level of gravity lightened only by our joke about what might result from our escalating activities in her parents’ “family room.”
I was the only one of the three of us to see a deer, let alone shoot one, that day, and diplomacy required that I keep my discovery—that we hunted only so that we could be finished with hunting for the year—to myself. We hauled the deer home in the jeep, hoisted it from the rafters in my garage and after I’d dropped off my less fortunate friends, I drove as naturally and unconsciously as a salmon heading upstream to my girlfriend’s house, to tell her my good news and to retrieve her so I could show her the deer I’d killed. It was late afternoon, close to sunset, and we had a date for a couple of hours later, the church dance I was afraid I’d miss if things got complicated in the mountains, but part of the deer hunting experience seemed necessarily to involve driving to her house in the jeep, knocking at her door still wearing my blood-encrusted sweatshirt and still smelling of gunpowder, viscera and the musk glands I’d so conscientiously sliced from the deer I’d just killed.
I’m a little embarrassed today, of course, to speak of the excitement I’d felt standing bloodstained on my girlfriend’s front porch, ringing the doorbell, explaining with appropriate modesty to her approving father (who was not only a hunter himself, but had let me know in clear if indirect words that he knew pretty well what homework we’d been accomplishing downstairs on the family room couch) how I’d gotten lucky: a buck, one shot, close to a hundred yards, an old Enfield almost too long, too heavy and too greasy to aim with any authority at all.
Her hair was still damp from the shower she’d taken after an afternoon of playing church basketball with the girls in her ward. Nevertheless, I helped her on with her coat, and would have opened the door to the jeep if there’d been one, so gallant I felt, and as we drove through the cold November evening to my house I explained everything except the relief I’d felt: one shot, my calmness and control and efficiency, my first deer.
I remember the words I used, but only in retrospect do I finally hear what they actually communicated, even if I find it impossible to understand how it all seemed to add up to something so innocent, so happy. I was telling her that I was a killer, a good one. I’d killed skillfully, coolly, clinically and I’d encountered no difficulty in slicing this animal’s throat, piercing with my knife the tough hide of the belly, not even repelled by the cascade of bright hot blood that flowed over my thighs, the voiding of the deer’s urine and excrement, the necessary cutting away of testicles and penis. I didn’t tell her the other discovery, the relief, the understanding that I had done it, and was off the hook for a year, that whether or not I’d wanted to kill the deer, I was genuinely happy to have done it. I also didn’t tell her that there was still a lot I didn’t understand about what I’d done, something at the eye of the storm of feelings I had right then driving us to my house, more complex even than those unexpected feelings of relief, something that would explain why it was so important for me to show her the animal I’d killed, why I was so happy.
Because the scene in the garage carried me beyond relief into something I still don’t quite understand. I liked showing the deer to her for reasons that are pretty ripe and murky, and she seemed to like seeing it. She really did. I thought so then, and I still think so, even though I should know better than to have imagined then or now that I understand anything about what she thought or felt, a fact I was reminded of recently in a graduate seminar I was teaching in the literature of nature and wilderness. We’d finished reading some essays by women articulating a feminine view of the relationship between humans and the natural world, and to restore some kind of context, to take the class a little further from the theoretical world of the essays we’d read, I briefly described the scene in my garage. I recalled the pride I’d felt, and I explained what had seemed to me at the time her obvious admiration for my accomplishment.
Even though I was careful to employ a mocking and ironic tone in relating this story, the women in the class rolled their eyes. They laughed out loud. One student took a stab at locating my experience in the anthropological context we’d discussed earlier in the semester, the need for females to secure mates that could be depended on to bring home game, an impulse that may well have survived the development of agriculture, the ascendency of the women’s movement and the invention of pizza delivery, but that student was pretty much shouted down, and several women explained to me what should have been obvious to me even then: of course she seemed happy, impressed, elated. It was her job. A 15-year-old girl, in Utah, in 1968? Give me a break. She was even less in touch with her feelings than you were, if that was possible. She was standing by her man, forcing her true reactions underground in order to pursue one of the few options open to her. You were her boyfriend, they told me, laughing, as if that explained it all.
Of course these women were right. They had the advantage of having grown up female, and several women who were my age had been in exactly this girl’s place at that precise moment in history. These women spoke with the insight and credibility that resulted from intervening years of increasing self-awareness, a broader sense of history and context, as well as in some cases decades of bad marriage, single parenthood and the reading of feminist theory. On the other hand, I still can’t help but think that it’s more complicated than that, that my girlfriend’s motivations and reactions were at least as complex and ultimately unknowable as mine.
Whatever its meaning, the scene is something I just can’t get past: I’m 16, she’s 15. I’d had my drivers license for about four months. We’d been falling in love with each other for a little longer than that, talking as much as we could in that restrictive and self-conscious culture about the way we felt about each other, expanding the range of our touching, finding in the smells and textures of each others’ bodies something overwhelming, something both frightening and liberating. We’d made a kind of love in the back of my parents’ station wagon, on the couch in her family room, during a hike to a waterfall in the mountains above our neighborhood; we’d been publicly affectionate during the slow dances at a number of school and church dances and at least one prom. We were pretty well matched: We were good kids, both guilt-ridden, sometimes equally awkward and embarrassed and ironic about the lengths we’d go to stay clothed and virginal, sometimes both of us giving in, just loving the smells, loving the hard and soft places on each other’s bodies, sometimes coming very close to losing ourselves.
And here we are: She’s happy that I didn’t panic or screw up. She’s somehow proud of my ability to put emotions aside and find the heart through all those aspen leaves, through moving muscles and skin, to be distracted neither by adrenaline nor tenderness. She puts her arm around my bloodstained sweatshirt and pulls me close alongside her, all the time admiring the carcass hanging in my garage, strung up by a rope tied around a stick of wood sharpened on each end to pierce the skin between the bones of the deer’s rear legs, spreading the legs apart to more efficiently cool the meat, blood somehow still dripping from its nose and expanding a dark pool on the garage floor, eyes still open wide and glazed over. She touches the stifled attempt at a full rack of antlers, laughingly says “a buck” in a way that is both mocking and affectionate, telling me that she knows that it is important to me and maybe to her too. She holds the Enfield for a moment, a rifle still smelling of death in Europe a half century before and the smoke of more killing that afternoon, before putting it down as something too heavy, too serious, for the mood we’re in. We remember our date an hour away, silently anticipate the public touching in the church’s social hall, and later, in the back of my parents’ car, the anguish of physical permission and denial, of losing and then regaining control. After propping the Enfield in the corner of the garage and turning out the light, I drive her back to her house, kiss her chastely on the lips at her front door and return home to shower, to wash the blood from my hands, my hair, the back of my neck.