|By Michael Lydick
I have a soft, tan leather briefcase in my closet. It sits quietly in a corner until September 10th each year, when I wake up earlier than everyone, and take it out into the woods behind my house. I take it to the same spot, and sit on the same bench. The fall air is snap crisp and still, filling my nose with the familiar earthy musk of dew-damp oak leaves. It’s pre-dawn quiet, and opening the noisy metal zipper brings a feeding gray squirrel to a curious dead stop. I gently lift the lid, smiling and almost crying at the same time. I can really feel him out here with me, and for a moment the world is almost normal.
Michael Edward Lydick was the firstborn son of Ed and Leda of Massapequa, New York. Ed survived the Battle of the Bulge, only to succumb to a heart attack on American soil, leaving ‘post-depression Leda’ to hunker down again and seek employment. 13-year-old Michael took off into the solace of the woods. He worked long enough to earn money to buy his first shotgun and rifle. After that, he found a friend with a car to take him past the farms of Long Island to the waiting pheasants, woodchucks.
Growing up, my dad would tell me hunting stories. I had no idea how far 400 yards was, or what tenderloin was…but I desperately wanted to learn. I became jealous of the rowdy friends that took him and his itchy wool pants away every November to deer camp.
Sensing my curiosity, Dad took me to the very same camps in the springtime, walking through the woods, and getting excited over each animal track we saw. A group of startled does sealed the deal for me, surrounding us with their snort-wheezes and scrambling snow-white rumps. No, 400 yards was too far away. The adrenaline was up close, and I wanted in.
So, at age 16, I told Dad the only fair way to hunt…was with a bow. He scowled and quietly protested – but hunting was hunting, and we went down to the local archery pro-shop with Visa in hand. 100 holes in the fence later (mostly mine) and we were on our way to the Montauk woods – suited up in surplus Army Camo. I jumped in the ’71 green Blazer with visions of suicidal 12 pointers, standing broadside, just waiting for me to arrive.
As we pulled into the park, we saw cars in each of the designated hunter spots, their occupants long since slipped into the darkness of the brush. I worried that all the slips were taken, and was relieved when the last one appeared around the corner, without a car.
We parked and I met dad back at the tailgate, watching him meticulously trade field points for fresh broadheads.
“Don’t take the cap off until you’re ready to shoot”, he chided. “Your mother would kill me if I brought you home strapped to the grill”.
We both laughed, but I understood that I could get hurt if I wasn’t careful. Here I was, 16 years old. No car or driver’s permit. But the State of New York said I could walk through a public park with a compound bow and razor tipped arrow. I felt sorry for the kids with cars.
“I’ll meet you at the car at lunchtime”, he said. “I’ll be up along that ridge. I suggest you post up around that small lake over there. Keep your eyes open for game trails, and don’t forget to move slowly”.
It wasn’t long before I was down at the pond, standing 10 yards off of what looked like a deer superhighway from the number of tracks in the moist earth. I leaned back against a big oak, and let things settle down.
I began to notice things I’d never seen before, like the way the wind was blowing, or the difference in the sound a squirrel makes and a bird makes when in the leaves. Every one of my senses was firing, and I felt tapped into something much larger, older, and more powerful than myself. I knew why Dad left every November. It was worth the little squabbles with Mom, and the promises of home improvements when he returned.
That wasn’t a squirrel. Or a bird. More like an Ostrich…eating a squirrel.
“CRUNCH…CRUNCH….CRUNCH”. My heart started slapping around in my chest like lotto balls in a mixing box. My hands started shaking, and I fumbled to get my bow ready. It sounded like a Brahma Bull was coming straight at me, and I felt woefully under-armed and alarmingly unprepared.
And then I saw her.
She didn’t look like the does on Marty Stouffer’s TV show. This lady was a big steamy whitetail COW. 400 pounds, easy. It came toward me, broadside…I drew at 5 yards…and then she STOPPED with every single vital organ covered by a 24 inch wide oak tree. Seriously.
And there we stood at full draw. Her big black golf ball eyes locked in on me like cruise missle laser radars. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t move. I started praying to Bubba, the Patron Saint of busted hunters.
“Move. Just a few inches. PLEASE just MOVE!”. Nothing in the hunter safety course came close to covering this.
And there she stood. Like a 200 pound furry statue, locked in a deadly game of chicken. Every muscle in my body was filling up with lactic acid, like a big gulp cup at a Slurpee machine. I twitched and trembled – and the arrow begged to be let loose into something brown and furry.
“Move or so help me I’ll drop this arrow and beat you with the bow”.
And still she stood. Steam rising off her back straight up into the breeze-less air. I’d never been this close to a deer. It was strange to notice how powerful they were, and see the cut muscle lines of their shoulders and legs. They were born to run and jump, yet there she stood – planted into the ground like an off shore oil platform.
I finally caved into the burning, and lowered the bow in front of me. On cue, she bolted, running just fast enough to escape another draw of my bow – but slow enough to let me know it was completely on her terms.
I spent the rest of the morning silently stalking that brush, so thick that at one point the light from the lighthouse was my only landmark. I crawled through the complicated labyrinth of waist high deer tunnels, networked through the dense thorn bushes and scrub brush to the main road. These deer were freakishly smart and organized…a mammal mafia, and I started thinking twice about how fair hunting with a rifle would actually have been that morning.
Back at the truck, dad was comfortably seated, eating powdered donuts and drinking coffee from his favorite 30 year old plaid-plastic Thermos. I plunked down next to him, every muscle in my body exhausted.
But it was finally my turn to tell the hunting story. I’d heard his a hundred times over, and learned the intricacies of the telling. Like when to stop for dramatic pause…and how to hold my hands ‘just so’ to emphasize the enormity of a rack. I was choppy, and my exaggerations were a little unbelievable, but I told it well enough to get a full measure of Dad’s sympathy…who played along and squinted painfully when I told him about the doe.
“I think we should definitely leave earlier next time and get a better spot”, I said as I stared out the window at the passing woods…scanning for antlers (a habit I have to this day). I caught Dad laughing to himself – and I didn’t care. It was all starting to make sense now, and I wanted more of what I’d experienced that day.
But 16 year old boys have their own does to chase, and I soon found I had a lot in common with the rut-crazy bucks I’d left behind. Dad however had the ‘bow-bug’ big time, and went back to Montauk fresh with the memories of 14 point mammoths.
He came back that afternoon smiling like a kid, with a huge doe. We stood at the tailgate together and just stared wide-eyed. I noticed the perfectly placed shot, and Dad commented on how cleanly the arrow had passed through the ribs. He was visibly impressed with his new weapon, and the damage it quietly caused.
We hunted together more after that. It became the one thing we could do together without fighting or bickering with each other. I always had fun, even without ever harvesting an animal. But I could sense that Dad was disappointed for me and wanted me to harvest an animal. After they moved to the Catskills, Dad especially scouted for weeks to set me up on the hottest trails and bump up my odds for a good shot – with no success.
One year, my mom called me up to tell me that he’d shot a doe on the trail I’d hunted earlier in the season. Dad hadn’t mentioned it to me. She said quietly,
“He didn’t want you to be disappointed or feel bad about not getting your own…he knew how bad you felt about not getting a shot. Don’t tell him that I told you, ok?”. I promised I wouldn’t.
Dad’s own heart started to fail, and he was frustrated how it slowed him down. But once a year we still hunted together, enjoying the familiar time and talks together even more.
Having seen no deer one morning, we quietly drove back down a hill to the main road, when Dad pressed down hard into the brake.
“Don’t move quickly. Take your bow and get out of the truck”, he whispered. “There’s a doe 80 yards out feeding up toward us. Get in position, and I’ll shut off the truck”.
I ran around and down into the gully (…60 yards) that separated me from the oncoming doe (…20 yards). I got ready, and checked the wind (…10 yards). As she came up, I drew back and released – using a 20 yard pin (Ugh! ). But the arrow hit spine, and she dropped where she stood.
Dad got out, and slowly made his way down to the deer and me. He hugged me harder than he did at my wedding, unable to wipe the smile from his face. He laughed and congratulated me again and again, urging me to help him quickly field dress the doe.
Mom later shared that he told just about anyone who would listen how proud he was. It took 5 years, but he saw his son harvest his first deer…10 yards away.
After his funeral, I walked through his room and kept the things I remembered him most by, in this old leather briefcase. I take it out the same way, and remember him, on each anniversary of his passing.
Most of what’s in there is camouflaged…like his favorite shirt…his hat…his mechanical rangefinder… his license holder. I slowly take them out, one by one, and I fight through time to remember him wearing them and using them with me.
I get here early in the morning each September tenth, and sit quietly without distraction, half hoping I’ll see him coming down the trail to me, dragging a 10 pointer out from the mist with that big silly 13 year old smile lighting up his face.
Mostly though, I choke up, and miss him. And you know…I was thinking – only one of my hunts actually ended with a deer. But we were together, up to our rear ends in Rothco-Camo, full of Dinty Moore stew, with a bow in our hands and a world full of trails to follow.
That kind of happy comes around just once in life. And I really do miss my hunting buddy.