Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Opening day has varied meanings in different regions. To baseball fans it is the first pitch. To fly fisherman it is a morning on the stream.To Keystone state deer hunters it is the Monday after Thanksgiving when deer are hunted with rifles.For me, for many years, it is a trip to Deer Camp in Pike County and a cabin on a ridge above the Delaware river in Pennsylvania's northeast hardwood deer country.The experience and the memories begin during the drive. Beeches,Oaks and Hemlocks are framed black against the failing sun as you turn off Route 209.
When you drive off the paved road, there is the weathered grey wood sign "Camp Reform" bearing a carved outline of a high-powered rifle shell. The trucks and jeeps are parked in the wet leaves around the cabin and a dull yellow light pierces the Pocono darkness from the front window. Mounting the porch you see the jugs of spring water and the stacked cases of beer. The door always sticks so you give it a hard yank and you are met with the smell of cigar,woolen clothes,gun oil and the earnest greetings of the boys...your brethren,your hunting buddies. These are guys you went to college and law school with, as well as local old timers who grew up in and around Stroudsburg.In this cabin there is no pretense or posturing; just hunters gathered for a yearly pursuit of bucks and camaraderie unique to a hunting cabin.
At the table is Chick, 80 years old and still hunting. He wears the same black and red checked hunting cap, which is probably from a pre-war Woolrich catalogue and faded fatigue green khakis. He is fond of cranking up the wood stove and putting a galvanized pail of water on top.This arrangement gets the cabin sweltering like a botanist's hot-house...even though some years it is 60 degrees and raining outside. If you screw up and miss a shot, Chick will call you a Dutchman. He remembers guys who used to trap with your Grandfather. You covet his old deer rifle and feel privileged to talk to a sage old hunter of his wisdom and years. He says little but when he does speak we listen and it is either deer hunting wisdom or some damn funny story from a hunt 40 years back.
Benzley is at the table, a face and carriage like John Wayne and a Lucky Strike perched in his mouth. He is the Captain and you pay deference to his experience and woodsman's knowledge. He was a Marshall and a Sheriff and even in hunting clothes and a wrinkled orange cap has a distinct aura of law enforcment authority. He makes you feel welcome and will put you on a good deer stand the next morning because you are Jon's buddy from Lehigh. Benzley fries the eggs and scrapple in the morning and makes coffee that could erode a slab of Appalachian rock. He drops you off at a carefully selected deer stand in his old Chevy truck and leaves you in the cold dark morning with a wish for good luck and usually a remark about not missing.Benzley picks you up when the sun drops over the ridge and by that time of the late afternoon your cold toes and hands welcome the light glow of his headlights coming up the logginrg road.. He tells you where to watch for does and following bucks near a certain tree or stand of Rhododendron because he knows. Most of what you know about deer hunting comes from listening to Benzley and from hunting with him.
Roy stands up from the big table in the middle of the cabin and slaps your back. He asks how the goose hunting has been and wants to show you his new rifle...all the while hurling loving insults at Larry. Roy can drop a deer at 85 yards that is at a full run and put the lead projectile right in the "engine room" behind the front shoulder. Roy's wife has sent up 3 pans of lasagna for dinner. The sauce is from a jar and she uses too much ricotta...but it is filling and you eat 3 plates full out of respect. Roy can help you zero in your scope and knows the best loads for your .35 Remington for different stands where your shots are at varied distance and maybe thru thick brush.
Larry is the much loved and dumpy jester of the crew.His face is more Norman Rockwell hobo than anything else. He is in his early 70's and makes gag-inducing dandelion wine...but excellent syrup from a Maple sugarbush on his land.Larry's homemade scrapple is the best you'll ever get....made with buckwheat instead of cornmeal from a pig he kills every November. Larry has a bone saw in his garage and will butcher your deer for you.... a skill he learned in the woods but refined working at the A&P. He also dabbles in making "shine" and when you sit down, he hands you a "Veryfine" juice bottle of corn liquor that surprisingly has some color and age to it and hits the throat with less burn than you anticipate.The whiskey adds to the warmth of friendship you feel in the room. Larry is a guileless rural gentleman who asks questions about events in Philly and how the Eagles will make out. He is sure to remind you that Roy is a candy-ass and old Chick will out-hunt all of us and that John is getting uppity since being elected mayor and then Common Pleas Judge. Larry can shoot an acorn off an Oak at 100 yards and has great Navy stories. Larry used to be a bit wary because he figured you have money...but years of hunting together filed down that edge.
Jon is there at the table cleaning his .45 side arm. He carries this Colt revolver to his stand and swears one day he will drop a buck with it. A Lehigh and Law school classmate with a disarming smile,a wealth of charm and country wit and a surgical intellect and intelligence that he keeps well hidden at Camp...but unleashes on the County Bench in his role as Judge. He pitched for Lehigh,excelled in Law school and is engaged with passing to his sons the etiquette and ritual of Camp. Jon asks about the pheasant hunting, your wife and kids and makes his yearly excuse about missing the Lehigh v. Lafayette game. He spits his Skoal wad in a styrofoam cup and gets you up to date about his kids, his wife, County politics and where the deer are moving. Jon is the Co-Captain of the Camp and has killed his share of deer and knows these woods like a bookie knows the line on the Eagles/Cowboys game. Much of the ground we hunt on was taken from his grandfather by the Federal Government via eminent domain when they built the dam on the Delaware and created the Delaware Water-Gap National park. This affront still stings him and he is no fan of the Park Service or their intrusions. He knows I am from the Main Line but gives me a pass because I know what a "farmer's rain" is and because some of my people came to his County in the 1700's and because my Grandfather grew up in a house down the street from his and hunted and trapped these woods and rivers in the '20s, and because I know my way around a deer camp,and around these woods and around a duck blind and have a good bird dog of my own. You know Jon is one of the best guys you will ever know and you mentally kick yourself in the ass for not seeing him more often.
Bammer is another Lehigh crony who happens to live in New Jersey now and apologizes for it frequently. A broad shouldered ex-football player,he gives you a bear-hug and belts a shot of moonshine with you and makes sure you always have a fresh cold beer from the porch. Bammer makes the evening meal a sporting competition and can consume massive amounts of whatever is plated before him. He can drag a deer 2 miles through Pike County woods like a John Deere tractor and will always show up to help you gut and skin whatever deer you may shoot. He also expects and demands that I bring at least 2 of my Mom's Shoo-Fly pies. These are the wet-bottom variety that eclipse the cake-like junk fed to the tourists by the Amish down in Lancaster. These pies are from her great-grandmother's recipe and my Mom hits the ball over the fence every time she makes them. The pies are the first thing Bammer asks about after releasing the bear hug.Only after the pies have been produced from the truck does he ask about how things have been going since you last hunted together.
After dinner the Sunday night football game is flickering on a piece-of-shit 19 inch TV wedged in the corner. Smoke from the stove mixes with cigarettes and cigars and the stories and raunchy jokes pierce the humidity of Chick's water bucket heater contraption. Talk soon turns to where we will hunt the next morning and where the big bucks might be. A few hands of cards are played but the heat and the whiskey make you drowsy and you hit a bunk earlier than normal because you are getting up at 0-dark thirty. As you drift off and ignore the snoring and the creaking racks...you have a child's Christmas eve-like hope that you will clip the big buck the next morning. You inventory your hunting gear in your mind and the comfort and familiarity of deer camp is your last thought before sleep.