Donald Devereaux Jarrett | Mossy Oak ProStaff
The drift of smoke from a chimney somewhere distant instantly grabbed my attention and caused my mind to rewind to years a long time ago. It reminded me of my boyhood as I walked this very logging road I was now on, but I was a kid then, likely still shy of my teens and I had already spent nearly a half decade in the deer woods by that point. I glanced to my right and, in perfect timing with the thoughts I was having, I could still make out the faint remnants of the old trail that cut off to three different stand locations we hunted from back in the infancy of my hunting days.
My daddy would drop me off at the path to the first stand, then further down the trail, my oldest brother would unload and then, finally, a bit further than the last sounds I could hear of the old Willy's Jeep, he would park and walk the last few hundred yards to his stand.
The stand I hunted was nearly identical to my brother's - a small platform built of thick plywood that was braced and nailed between three sweet gums, eight to ten inches in diameter. There was no seat, thus the name deer “stand," I suppose. It was here on any given hunt that I would "train" for the hunts ahead. Hours turned into torture at times and I sometimes found myself longing for the sound of the old Willy's to come and rescue me. Deer were few in those days in our neck of the woods and cutting a track was considered a measure of success. Many hours were spent in those stands waiting on a single glimpse of a deer.
Daddy had showed me his stand deep down in the hardwood hollow at one point, and I recall thinking then that it was a stand of limitless potential. "No wonder he can stay in the woods so long," I thought. It was constructed on the side of a monstrous White Oak and I believe it had at least four seats built above the platform, which almost completely encircled the tree. "I'll build one like that for myself one day," I thought.
Soon I neared the hilltop, as we called it and still do to this day. The road continues onward here, straight ahead, or you can take another cutoff to the right. That is where my mama's stand was. She hunted with us occasionally and it was understood, when she went with us, that stand was off limits. There, in that old stand, was where she missed a sizable buck late one evening where the light of the rising full moon was brighter than the late daylight that remained. The old stand has long since disappeared along with the tree that once held it. All that is left of that spot now is the dirt the tree grew from.
I continued straight and began to find memories scattered all along the afternoon walk. The property had not always belonged to our family, but we had hunted it for as long as I could remember. As early as I could recall, my daddy had deer hunted the property. It was owned by "The Paper Company" is all I ever knew, and it was in a time when hunting was still considered a "God-Given Right." There were no leases or clubs around that come to mind; you just went hunting. I remember deer hunting in those days and never seeing another soul the entire season.
Several hundred yards later, I came to a place in the road where the chimney smoke I had been smelling came full circle. I thought of a hunt in my middle teenage years, walking in this exact spot, heading back to the house in the light that only darkness in the evening woods can bring. I could still feel the chill as I had felt it on that evening, and I can remember looking forward to the instant warmth that greeted me upon entering the house that was my home. Combined with the smell of anything Mama had on the stove was what I believed to be the best thing in existence this side of heaven. I continued.
Shortly, I came across the mouth of an old firebreak, traced several times since my childhood, where my daddy had taken me on, what I believe, was the first deer hunt I'd ever been on where I sat unsupervised. I was about ten at the time, I believe, and I recall clutching my trusty Daisy BB rifle as we walked toward the stand I would be in that evening. The BB gun looked almost identical to the old Winchester 30-30 Daddy had hunted with for so many years. I remember him watching me as I scurried up the tree to the old platform and, once I settled in, he turned to head to another stand. Searching for comfort, some sense of assuredness, I asked, "what do I do if a deer comes, Daddy?”
“Shoot him and run him over there to me,” he said with a grin. "I'll see you at dark," he said as he turned away. As he walked back up the firebreak toward his stand, I watched as his form got smaller and smaller, and soon he disappeared. I could no longer hear him either. I wasn't sure how far he was going, but for a minute, I thought it was too far. I soon realized though, that if Daddy wasn't worried about me sitting there by myself, then I had nothing to worry about either. So I relaxed and began to watch the woods, pretending that I would soon kill the biggest buck anyone in these parts had ever seen.
I remember the uneasiness that accompanied that evening when darkness closed in on me. I trusted my daddy though, and I knew he would be back. I never doubted it. I heard him before I saw him flicker his flashlight toward me, just so I would know he was coming. When he got to the base of the tree, he stood, almost directly underneath me as I climbed down. Security at its finest.
A half a mile later, I walked behind the old mule barn and then crossed the creek down in the bottom. He had built a stand for my mama here. It was a double-decker, both sections enclosed and covered. She would hunt the bottom section early in the season when the leaves were thick on the trees and move to the top when the leaves turned loose. I don't recall the exact number of deer she, and he on occasion, took from that stand. It still stands; she hunts it at 88 years of life.
As I made my way up the hill out of the bottom, I came across the old place on the hillside where Daddy grew watermelons. It was here, when I was about six, that we had a close encounter with a big Timber Rattler that he eventually dispatched with a hoe.
When I reached the top of the hill, I came across an old log that I had winched from the roadbed just a year ago. He was with me that day and I listened as he talked about the deer hunts he had on that hill back in the day.
I sat down on the old log for a minute and fully understood why I love this place, the woods, and hunting in general the way I do today. It has always puzzled me though, as to why he never hunted turkeys but twice in his entire life. I began to think of those two hunts we shared in the springs of those years, and I can see clearly, in retrospect, how our roles were changing. Those hunts will always remain dear to my heart. They happened some 30 years ago but I remember them like yesterday.
I could hear him a few yards behind me, following my lead as we eased down the old forestry road toward the creek bottom. There was a lone piece of pole timber that remained of the old bridge that had long ago collapsed into the creek some 15 feet below. There were no other places to cross the creek without travelling several hundred yards in either direction, so I had grown accustomed to the shortcut the log provided.
Things were different this morning, though, as I was taking my father turkey hunting for the first time. He was in his mid-50s by then, me in my mid-20s. He was in as good of shape as I was, but I was a little uneasy about the crossing. "What if he falls?" I thought. It was dark and I wondered if the morning dew might make the pole slick. I kept going, and when we reached the edge of the high creek crossing, I paused. "Be careful now," I said. "Let's go," he answered. I could see that old familiar grin, even in the light that only the pre-dawn darkness can bring. So, we crossed to the other side.
There were no issues and 20 minutes later, we were set up on the high part of a side hill, above the river below. I had located the birds two days before on the bend and trusted they would still be there that morning. Daylight eventually crept in and with it the whippoorwills serenade became increasingly scattered up and down the river bottom. Soon, almost in unison, they stopped. The anticipation was high with all that was in me to have a gobbler show himself that morning. I wanted Daddy to hear him, to see him. I had only been a victim of the sickness that is turkey hunting for a couple of years, but he had heard me talk about it, constantly, ever since I became consumed by it. I wanted him to see why.
After the barred owls volleyed their calls up and down the river bottom a couple of times, the gobbler I had hoped would be there announced his presence to the morning. I was relieved. He was almost directly in front of us in the bend of the river. He had plenty of hens too, and when we watched him step off his limb and fluttered straight down into the river bottom, it was over. The hens, one extremely mouthy one in particular, covered him like a blanket. He gave us the invitation to follow every time I called, but it was pointless.
We hunted for the next few hours and eventually returned to the crossing, then to the truck. I wasn't sure how much enjoyment my daddy got out of the hunt until we reached the truck and listened to him tell me how exciting it had been. "I just wish I could hear better," he said. His service in an artillery division of the United States Army had caused him to lose a portion of his hearing. It would deteriorate as the years passed.
We would go hunting again the next spring in the mountains of north Georgia. I was amazed at how he traced the steep terrain with no problem at all, but the hearing issue caused that turkey hunt to be his last. We never hunted turkeys together again.
I didn't realize it at the time, but we had made two of the best turkey hunting memories I will ever have on those two hunts all those years ago. The years went by and I have thought of those two turkey hunts with him often, wishing we could have done it more.
The memories began to sting a bit, so I gathered myself as I ran my hand along the bark of the old log before getting up and heading on back to the house.
Eventually, Daddy could no longer hunt at all. He kept close tabs on my younger brother and me though. He still loved to hear our stories about our hunts. He and Mama wanted us to bring every deer or turkey we were able to put in the back of our truck by the house for them to see. I remember how he would run his hands over the antlers of the bucks we killed and how he tugged at the beards and felt the spurs of every bird we managed to fool.
Just this past spring, I brought a turkey by to show him and Mama. They carried on over it like they always did and Mama wanted to take pictures every time. For some reason that day, I felt the urge, the need to have my mama take a picture of Daddy and me on the front porch steps of my old home place with that turkey. We had no picture together with a turkey to that point, and I thought it was past time to get one. It suddenly didn't matter that he wasn't along on the hunt with me that morning when I had killed him. It didn't matter that he wasn't a turkey hunter. I knew if he could have done it more with me, he would have. I knew that he, long ago, understood how much it meant for me to chase these birds all over the country. It no longer mattered that he might not understand why.
A couple of months later, Daddy leaned over in his chair as I sat in the one next to him. He grabbed my arm and pulled me close to him so I that could hear him, and because he knew how much turkey hunting meant to me, he asked me a question I'll never forget. "You want to go kill a turkey?" he asked. "You know I do," I answered. "I'm always ready to do that. Why, you want to go with me?" I asked. "Yeah," he said. It would be the last memory we would ever make together.
He is responsible for my love of the outdoors. He instilled it in me at a very early age. He lit the fire that still burns today. He taught me how to hunt, how to respect it and how to appreciate it. Even though he only turkey hunted twice his entire life, he is why I am able to do it. He is why I love it so much that I have traveled, countless times, outside my "comfort zone" to hunt them. He is why I keep finding memories everywhere I go.