Then the Lesson

Andrew Batchelor


Potter County, Pennsylvania, November 1992. I was adjusting my seat when the gun went off. I could have lied and said I accidentally turned off the safety. I could have lied and said my clothes caught the trigger. But the fault was mine.

Dad nudged me awake in our two-person camper. I looked out the window and saw nothing but black. I climbed out of my bunk and was hit in the face with the smell of propane, apple cinnamon oatmeal, and the sweet, musty scent of resident mice. Dad handed me a steaming cup of Quaker instant. “Oatmeal sticks to the ribs. Eat all of it or you’ll be hungry before sun-up.” Dad ate his in three swallows and chased it with the tar he brewed from Folgers instant coffee. The steel camping cup rattled as he thumped it down like a shot glass.

We emerged outdoors to biting cold and a canopy of stars. The crunch of our boots seemed offensive to the still quiet. We clicked on our flashlights and loaded a few rounds in our rifles’ magazines. “Chamber one. You don’t want to spook them by loading,” Dad said. We each chambered a final round so we could shoot without cocking our weapons. I checked my rifle’s orange safety switch and saw Dad doing the same.

We followed our flashlights’ narrow tunnel of light into the darkness. As we made the mile hike to our hunting blinds, the first hints of dawn made the snow an iridescent blue. We turned off our flashlights. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” Dad’s silhouette whispered. “Watch both sides of the valley. They’ll be moving now.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound confident. I wondered how I would see anything more than three feet in front of me, but I kept my eyes and ears open, just in case.

We were in position before the sun pulled itself over the ridge. Dad said, “Take a seat and get comfortable. You get the first shot. I’ll check in with you in a bit.” We sat silently in our blinds, Dad about 50 yards north of me. The trails we had scouted days before were busy. I grew excited as the first few deer passed. The leaves and twigs from my blind scraped my rifle’s barrel as I tracked them through my scope’s crosshairs. I thought, “This is easy.” But I could see all the deer were doe. Dad didn’t drive us five hours to Pennsylvania’s northernmost points for doe. We could shoot doe in the state game lands by our house. We were hunting buck. Potter County buck. Big boys. With trophy antlers.

Sitting alone with a rifle in freezing temperatures on the side of a mountain was not as glamorous as I thought it would be. I flexed my frozen hands and toes to keep blood flowing. My face was both fire and ice. Besides the cold, the biggest challenge was boredom. I occupied myself by watching the birds as they chatted with one another and flitted from perch to perch. I watched the squirrels using trees as highways. Sometimes they squabbled, always ending in a high-speed chase through the branches. In my head, I repeated some of the cardinal rules from my hunter’s safety course. “Point your weapon in a safe direction at all times. Identify the target. Use the safety switch. Don’t touch the trigger unless you are ready to shoot.” I tried recalling the lyrics to my favorite songs. I tried to memorize the serial number on my rifle. Despite my best efforts, I felt my head nodding with sleep.

But, for a teenage boy who wanted to prove his manhood to his dad, his friends, and himself, cold and boredom were trivial concerns. At home, if you killed a Potter County buck, gutted it, skinned it, and handed out deer jerky to your friends, you were more of man than you were before the trip.

As the noon sun inched by, Dad walked towards me from his blind. “Ready to eat?” he whispered. “Yes,” I said. “Starving.”

Dad took out two mashed sandwiches. “PB and honey. Honey to wake you up, peanut butter to keep you going.” I took two bites and it was gone. Dad then took out his thermos, unscrewed the cap, and poured in pure liquid joy. “Here,” he said, “this will help with the cold.” I sipped the scalding hot cocoa, welcoming the burn all the way down my throat to my stomach where the heat seemed to disappear.

“Why haven’t we seen any buck yet, Dad?”

“I don’t know. We’re in a heavily trafficked spot, but bucks around here are smart. They are constantly hunted and they have a sixth sense. Maybe we should try the tree stands. You ready?” Bored and not wanting to sit in the same spot for another five or six hours, I nodded. We packed up and moved to our second best spot about a half mile east of our blinds. We moved methodically, always on the lookout for more deer. Always careful where we stepped to minimize noise. We saw at least a dozen more doe, but no buck.

We had anchored our six-foot stands—square metal platforms with small ladders bolted underneath—in the tree line abutting a clover field. The clover field was a subway map of deer tracks coming from all directions. A perfect “kill zone” with clover and bushes serving as the food bait.

“Okay, you go up first, and I’ll hand you your rifle. Take out all the rounds before you go up,” Dad said. I took out each round, checked the action, and handed my rifle to Dad. Leaning my pack against the tree, I made the awkward climb to the top. I had a clear view of the field and trails leading to it. The sun penetrated to the forest floor, with only a handful of snow patches surviving. Dad’s stand sat just 30 yards away. He handed me my rifle.

He looked up, squinting in the sun. “Okay, we’ll both watch the field. But you scan west and north. I’ll look east and south. You get the first shot if we see anything.”

“Sounds good,” I nodded. I loaded my magazine and chambered a round as Dad started towards his stand. The sun felt warm, but the breeze was biting this far up. Tree limbs creaked and diehard brown leaves swung like rotted Christmas ornaments. Questioning the wisdom of leaving my comfortable ground blind, I gripped my rifle and the side of the stand to adjust my sitting position.

A rifle shot pierced the day, the report pinballing off the surrounding mountains. I felt an unmistakable kick in my hand. I had no thoughts. Just shock. I looked down. Smoke wisps rose from my rifle’s barrel and disappeared into the breeze. The fleeting scent of gunpowder brushed my senses. My ears were ringing in and out. In and out. With my heartbeat. The barrel pointed somewhere in the nearby tree line.

I looked at Dad, about 10 yards away and still on the ground. His back was to me. He was hunched at the waist. His shoulders were slowly lowering from his ears, a reaction to the unexpected shot. His head was turned looking up at me.

Dad stood to his full height. “Did you get him?” he asked. I sat stunned, afraid to move. Afraid to hold my rifle. I looked at him and then the barrel of my .357.

“Andy?” he asked louder.

My brain switched back on. I spoke quickly. “No…Therewasnodeer…Itjustwentoff…Idon’tknowhow.”

In his camouflage and orange hunting vest, Dad turned his body back to face me. His eyes burrowed into me. His hands were at his sides, one holding his 30-ought-six Springfield. The wide leather sling bowed towards the ground. He stepped in my direction. Then stopped. He looked down at the ground a beat or two, then nodded, as if agreeing to something with himself. His gaze returned to me. “Okay, chamber another round. I’ll be in my stand.”

I watched him turn and walk away. I watched until he reached his tree, unloaded his rifle, slung it over his shoulder, and climbed into his stand. When he was sitting, I did as he told me. I chambered a round. I checked the safety. Then I checked it again. And then I checked it again.

I sat in the tree with nothing but my thoughts for the next few hours, emotions and questions overflowing my mind. “Why didn’t I check the safety? How could I let Dad down? What would have happened if I shot myself or Dad? How would we contact anyone? Why did I put my finger on the trigger? Who could have reached us? How could I have been so stupid? What if I do it again?”

Eventually, I started making excuses for myself. I practiced them in my mind. “My clothes must have switched off the safety when I shifted…I must have bumped the trigger when I shifted…The tree stand is too small to maneuver.” But, I knew my dad. He would see through all of it. I didn’t check the safety. I put my finger on the trigger before I was ready to shoot.

I sat rigid, still afraid to move as I ran through the lessons Dad taught me about responsibility in this environment. “Out here, if you don’t think ahead, you’re in a world of hurt. There’s only us.” And his favorite: “In school, you get the lesson first and then the test. In life, you get the test first and then the lesson.”

As the shadows lengthened, my thoughts focused on Dad’s reaction. He didn’t lecture me, correct me, or ask what happened. He didn’t remind me to check the safety. He showed faith in me. Confidence, despite my mistake. Warranted or not, for a 13-year-old boy, that mattered. I was baffled. I was grateful.

While my mind churned, I watched closely for buck. As much as anything, I knew Dad wanted us to get one together.

When the sun winked out over the western most ridge, I climbed down my stand. Dad waited for me at the bottom. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking at the leaves on the ground.

“It’s okay, son.” He rubbed my head through my knit cap. “Grab your pack. Let’s get back before we lose the light.”


Andrew Batchelor is an economist and serves in a partnership development role in the field of international development. In his spare time, Andrew moonlights as a riot officer between his two children, constructs towers of books waiting to be read, and falls often in beer league ice hockey. His writing has been published in Quibble Lit and Half and One. Andrew lives in Potomac, Maryland, with his wife, two children, and dog overlord.



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