Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Beer Hunter

I grew up in Texas, and in Texas, most everyone owns a gun.

Don't ask me why. Rite of passage? Manhood thing? Self defense? Seems kind of weird for a state that prides itself on its friendliness (and it IS friendly -- total strangers will wave and smile as you pass 'em on the street, and if you don't wave and smile back, they'll think you're a Yankee).

...but we own guns. Maybe there's some kind of horrible fear that at some point Santa Anna will come back and try to fly a 747 into the Alamo or something. Anyway, we own guns, lots of them.

Some of us hunt with them. The Texas hill country is lousy with deer -- we shot all the predators decades ago, and now there's not much except coyotes to bother the deer. The number one deer predator in Texas is the automobile, which isn't a very effective method of wildlife control, since hitting a deer generally totals the automobile. If you're ever out this way, and you see hard-used pickups with these big welded-steel frame thingies bolted to the front grille, that's why -- it keeps the deer from destroying the radiator when you hit the sumbitch in the middle of the night on Ranch Road 12, doing 45 miles an hour.

Anyway, I grew up in a small town in the Rio Grande valley, only about a half hour from the Mexican border. The town's autumn economy was dependent on hunters. There must be about a thousand little independent ranchers in the Rio Grande valley, and as any rancher can tell you, there is NO money in cattle, so they all generally made up the difference by selling deer leases to Yankees. A deer lease is basically a passport to your property; it gives the lessee the right to come and go as he pleases for a month or so, in order to hunt deer on your property. Note that this is NOT a hunting license; it simply states that "I will not shoot you for a wetback or a trespasser, at least not until December, if you give me $1000."

And oh, my, the hunters came in droves. During my teen years, I quickly learned that there were certain secluded places that it was not safe to go drinking or parking with your best girl unless the car was painted hunter orange. After sitting in a cold, cramped deer blind for two or three days, some of those office commandos will start blazing away at ANY damn thing the minute they see movement.

Being locals, of course, we knew all the best places to hunt, and we didn't bother with deer leases. My sister dated a guy, at one point, who always brought venison over to give to Mom when he came to see her. My sister wasn't really that wild about the guy, but she kept seeing him for quite some time, because Mom kept telling her to keep him happy so he'd keep bringing venison... poor slob must have been killing at least three deer a month, hoping my sister would go out with him.

Anyway, at one point, it became clear that if I was to be a man in the eyes of my peers, it was time to lock and load and go forth and kill something.

This was how I found out I'm not much of a hunter.

Whatever it is that makes a man into a hunter, a killing machine, a deadly predator that can lie in wait for hours until its prey cautiously enters the trap... well, I just don't have it. I'm impatient. I got bored. I didn't WANNA wait for hours and hours until the damn deer got hungry and wandered up to the feeder. I wanted to go after the damn deer whether he was hungry or NOT!

...and this is how I learned what hunters do to amuse themselves while waiting for the deer to show up. They drink. They suck down immense quantities of beer, always from the twist-cap bottles; cans make too much noise opening, and you might scare off the deer. After five or six of these, waiting for hours on end doesn't seem anywhere near so onerous; the time flies right by, and aside from having to pee about every ten minutes, it really helps turn a dull, chilly deer blind into a fun place to be.

The problem with this way of working it is this: by the time the deer show up, you might be in no shape to shoot them. In fact, if it takes long enough for that deer to arrive, you might be seeing two or three where there's only one, and believe me, this plays hell with your aim.

Fortunately, by the time you're seeing entire herds of deer, sometimes in vivid colors, you don't give a damn whether you actually hit one or not. You just poke the gun out and start blasting away, and if you hit him, well, peachy, and if not, well, damn, I have to take a leak again...

That first year, my friends and I didn't get any deer, but we sure had a fine time. Incidentally, there's no shame or loss of manhood attached to not getting a deer. Lots of hunters go home empty-handed, happens all the time. The important thing is to be seen TRYING, and I'd fulfilled that in spades. I was a man now...

...and since we'd paid for those deer licenses, it seemed reasonable to go back out and try to get a deer again as soon as possible, and we did. We dressed warmly, stocked the truck with lots more beer and ammunition and camping gear, and went back out into the chaparral, hunting for deer.

Three days later, none of us had shot a deer yet. Weeble had shot the same mesquite tree, three different times, and was ready to go and get a saw and cut it down because he was convinced that it was imitating a deer, just to tease him. Lightnin' had seen a real deer, and had shot at it and missed; a shame it was standing in front of the truck's front tire. Loopy had shot at the same deer, and had taken out the truck's rear window. Candy had refused the beer, preferring the fifth of Jack Daniels, and by the time it was empty, he was shooting upwards, at the deer that were parachuting out of the pink and purple airplanes.

Me? At one point, after considerable refreshment, I forgot what it was we were out there to hunt, and I was afraid to ask if it was dove, quail, or deer season because I was afraid my friends would laugh at me. Ducks? Bears? Were there any bears in Texas? I didn't know, and I didn't dare ask, so I locked the safety on and had another beer.

When we sobered up, of course, we realized that we'd been kind of silly. It also occurred to us that blazing away with deer rifles while blind drunk had been frankly kind of dangerous. The following weekend, we went out hunting again, but this time, we had a safety measure -- we wouldn't load our guns. We'd keep the ammo handy on the table, and not load until we actually SAW the deer, and we'd all check each other, so as to not shoot the truck or a tree or something.

This didn't work, of course. Three hours after setting up camp, we were all feeling remarkably buzzed, Loopy saw a deer, and made the high sign, and we all frantically began grabbing shells and trying to load our rifles --

-- and the multiple SHA-SHAK! sound of multiple gunbolts being drawn startled the deer so badly, he jumped three feet in the air, and hit the ground running. By the time we blearily swiveled around, locked and loaded, that deer was miles away.

We spent a long time after that trying to think of a way to make deer hunting safer and more effective. In time, we hit on the solution -- just leave the ammo at home.

Loopy and Weeble didn't like the idea at first -- they still cherished hopes of getting a rack of antlers to stick on the hoods of their pickups -- but, in time, they came around. After all, ammunition was considerably heavy -- wouldn't the effort of hauling be better spent if we were hauling beer? And the expense! Ammo wasn't cheap, whereas you could get quite a few beers for the price of a box of shells.

It made sense.

The next time we went out, naturally, we saw deer all over the place. Hordes of deer, whole herds. We practically had to kick them aside to get to our campsite, and this was before we even started drinking. We were dismayed at first, of course -- lord, each of us could have got his OWN DEER ... but, after setting up camp and breaking open the first twelve-pack, our spirits quickly rallied.

The deer, of course, found this fascinating, and came right up to the camp to see what we were doing. Naturally. Murphy's law in action, I suppose. It drove Loopy quite crazy, and he finally swore he was going to get a deer, ammo or no ammo, and, waving his gun like a club, charged the herd. They scattered, of course, and Loopy ran into the night, waving his gun over his head and screaming like a maniac.

It took us all night and much of the next day to find him. We might have found him sooner, but we had to keep going back to camp to get fresh beers, and of course, stopping to pee about every hundred steps. When we finally did find him, he was dirty, scratched, cold and sober, and quite unhappy with it all. We were able to fix the last two, of course, and that quickly cured the second and third items, and by that time, who cared about being dirty?

By the weekend's end, we all agreed we'd had a fine time, and that we should try it again, but this time, without Loopy getting lost ...and for several weekends after that, we were seen dutifully loading the truck and packing our guns, in preparation for hunting. I don't think anyone ever noticed that we never actually brought anything home.

...and we had a splendid time, all the more so because we didn't have to worry about being quiet, or watching for deer, or accidentally shooting each other. I really began to understand the appeal of hunting trips by then, and at season's end, we actually felt kind of bad about not being able to go hunting any more. Still, there was always next year.

...and the following year, we quickly began assembling plans for the first big hunting trip of the year, day one, as soon as the season started. We began making a list of everything we'd need. Ammo went on the list, and was quickly scratched off, and the cost added to the beer budget. Everything went fine, until we got to Deer Licenses for five people.

...and the discussion began. Did we really need hunting licenses? Well, were we hunting, or not? Well, technically, yes -- we were trooping out of town in our camo jammies with guns on the rack, weren't we? Still, we didn't have any ammo, and none of us was really planning on shooting anything...

In the end, it was the money issue that decided it for us. We scratched Licenses off the list, and added the money to the beer budget.

A day later, sozzled and gleeful, we had cause to regret that... when the nice game warden showed up (out of nowhere. I don't know how they do it, but they show up in the middle of nowhere, OUT of nowhere, and wanna see your hunting license. And they ALL know how to do this trick, too. Even to people who aren't drunk. No one knows how they do it.)

Um, what? License? You mean a hunting license? Um, well, we're not really hunting, Mr. Game Warden, sir. Well, yes, we have guns, but they aren't really loaded...

(Not as loaded as we are! Shuddup, Candy...)

No, really, sir, they aren't loaded. We don't even have any ammo, really, sir. No, really, sir, would we be handling loaded firearms if we were this bombed? That would be stupid, now, wouldn't it?

(NOT stupid! Shut UP, Candy...)

Well, no sir, I can't say I have any idea what kind of things you see in the course of your job, sir, but the fact is, we, um, well, we just came out here to toss back some cold ones and barbecue some weenies, really, sir. No, really. The guns are just so our folks will think we're out hunting. Really!

(Really huntin! Really! Shut the f*ck UP, Candy...)

The game warden looked at us for a long time. Truth to tell, he probably HAD seen more than a few guys who were actually hunting while far drunker than any of us were at that moment (well, maybe not Candy, but...). He looked at us very hard. Even Candy shut up. We glanced at each other and it crossed my mind -- what was the actual legal definition of hunting? WERE we guilty of something? Well, actually, yes -- underage drinking -- but could a game warden arrest you for that? Wasn't his jurisdiction kind of limited, or something?

He stared at us for a long time... and then relaxed. I could see the thoughts forming behind his eyes. "Ghod damn," he thought, "anyone this smashed can NOT be serious."

"Tell you what, boys," he said. "I have no warrant to search you or your vehicle... but if you specifically give me permission to look for ammo... and if you empty your pockets... and if I don't FIND any ammo... I might decide you're telling the truth."

We all looked at each other. "There's no ammo in the truck," said Loopy. We all emptied our pockets. Several church keys and a condom, but no cartridges. The warden patted our pockets, and then poked around in the truck..

"Well, it looks like you boys are clean... sort of," the warden said. "Do your folks know you're out here, drunk off your butts?"

"Um," I said. "Well... they know we're out here."

"Uh-huh," he said. "Well, it's plain you don't mean to do any huntin'... so it looks like you're outside my jurisdiction. I'm going to make a point of keeping an eye on that main road, though ... and you want to be stone cold sober when you drive back into town, understand?"

We all bobbed our heads energetically. Truth was, we expected to be out in the brush for at least another day. He nodded, said his goodbyes, and went off to try and catch some real poachers.

We all sat down hard, caught our breath... and decided another beer was in order. "That was no damn fun," said Weeble.

"Yeah. Imagine, needing to get a license just to drink," said Lightnin'.

"Well, we are underage, technically," I said, opening a bottle.

"Mm-hm," agreed Loopy. "Good thing we could prove we weren't huntin'."

"Is he gone yet?" burbled Candy.

"We should make sure this doesn't happen again," said Lightnin', taking a deep swallow.

"Mm-hm," said Loopy again, twisting a cap off. "Next time, we need to make sure all our ducks are in a row. Make sure everything's nice and legal and verifiable."




"So it's unanimous. Next time, we leave the guns at home..."

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