Florence County, 1986

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking these antlers hanging so handsomely on the wall of my Seattle home are from a deer I shot in Seattle. Maybe you’re thinking I shot him in the fashionable Capitol Hill neighborhood, tracking him among the hipster boutiques and artisanal farm-to-table James Beard Award-winning restaurants. Or maybe you think I set up a stand in Ballard and waited for this buck to creep out from behind a group of Scandinavian “fishermen” in their $375 Filson flannel shirts.

But you’re wrong. The antlers hanging on my living room wall in Seattle are from a deer I shot in the most unlikely of places: Florence County, Wisconsin.

The year was 1986. I was 13. Uncle Tom’s stand was a good hunting spot (if such a thing even existed on land where we rarely saw deer). I don’t remember how the decision was made for me to hunt with Tom, but I can take an educated guess. See, the year before I had hunted with my Grandpa. Grandpa, who at the time was 66 going on 166, was somewhat less than ideal as a deer hunting mentor.* The previous year he let me freeze half to death sitting on a plastic bucket on top of a ridge while he went back to camp for a bowl of soup. (This was before I owned warm clothes. Or body fat.) The few bits of hunting wisdom he shared were dubious. One was, “Where there are does, there are bucks.” That line has an appealing Confucian ring to it, but I’ve never found it useful.

*As a sex mentor, on the other hand, he was unparalleled. Just ask Charlie and Tyson.

So Tom was generous enough to let me tag along with him on the afternoon of opening day, 1986. Deer hunting lesson #1 with Tom is this: a deer hunter does not sit.

So I stood. I remember it being sunny and fairly pleasant. I remember having a great view of a valley that looked like it was tailor made for frolicking deer. I don’t know how long we had been there when my deer appeared, but I remember crashing, galloping sounds coming from behind my right shoulder. Everything after that goes into slow motion. I raised my gun and found the deer in the crosshairs as he continued his trot. For a second he was broadside straight off my right flank. Then he was headed away from me, the geometry no longer favoring the shooter. I followed the deer with my gun. I must have followed him for longer than Tom would have, because I remember Tom’s voice saying almost in disbelief: SHOOT!

I shot. The deer dropped immediately, breaking one of his legs in a puzzling show of solidarity with Joe Theisman. Tom and I approached the downed deer. As I recall, the deer wasn’t as dead as he could have been, so Tom, holding his rifle straight out with one arm, placed its muzzle against the deer’s neck and pulled the trigger. Now the deer was sufficiently dead. In the ensuing 32 years, I’ve never stopped thinking that shooting a rifle with one arm is the most badass thing ever.

I had a great deal of adrenaline surging through me. In trying to slit my tag to mark the time and date of the kill, I nearly removed one of my fingers instead. I don’t remember gutting the deer, but I’m guessing Tom did the bulk of the work.

The next thing I remember, in fact, is being at the base of the driveway up to the shack. (Did we drag that deer all the way back to shack?) My dad was standing at the top of the driveway yelling down, asking who had shot the deer. Tom and I both tried to explain that it was I who shot the deer, but my dad either didn’t believe it or didn’t feel like acknowledging it.

Uncle Rick told me that day that when he was 12 and had killed his first buck, he poured himself a shot of whiskey. I did not pour myself a shot of whiskey, though I wish I had.

Hemingway said he could write better about a place when he wasn’t in it. He’d sit in Paris cafes and write stories about trout fishing in Michigan. I get it. I like to sit here in this monstrosity of a city and think about Florence County, 1986. I’m glad these antlers have survived as long as they have; they keep me connected to a time and a place that couldn’t feel further away.

But If I’d known then that I’d still be hanging these things on my wall when I was middle-aged, I might have waited for a bigger buck to run by.


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