RALPH BARTHOLDT: Thanksgiving, best day to be in the woods

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Back then, we were regularly accompanied by guns and not much else.

At 14, we were gone all day in places like “old man Gossen’s woods,” or “between Branson’s and town.”

We had no cellphone connection with our parents, who bought us a box of shells and ushered us outside with encouraging words such as, “Supper’s at four.”

They seemed relieved to have the place to themselves, so they could gossip without earshot, watch daytime television and bake casseroles.

On one of those excursions over the hill behind the house and through a patch of Forest Service pine planted as a conservation project probably in the 1960s, and under a fence and through the cornfield by the creek, I was confronted by a relative of the landowner, home for Thanksgiving I guessed. He asked why I was carrying a scoped .32 Special on what appeared to be a pheasant hunt.

I wasn’t hunting pheasants, I confided. I was looking for whitetails, unescorted with a freshly minted Hunter Safety certificate, more than a mile from home.

Aren’t you supposed to be with a grownup? The man who appeared 60, but was probably 35, asked.

Dad is driving deer my way, I fibbed.

I call it a fib now because years have taught me what a lie really is.

On that mostly solitary hunt I saw a forked-horn buck, but was afraid to shoot because the noise would likely draw the attention of the person who confronted me on this 800-acre patch where, until then, I had nary encountered a soul.

I was unsure, when the rubber met the road, if what I was doing was legal.

It pays to pay more than cursory attention to the rule book.

That was my first Thanksgiving hunt. Others were better.

My friend Boggsy professed each year that Thanksgiving was the best time to be in the woods, and he was mostly right.

It was a Thanksgiving morning that Boggsy and I went out for grouse and each shot our limit.

Overnight we had been converted from mediocre gunners to Tom Knapp, blasting flyers from behind the back, blindfolded and upside down. The ruffs tumbled from snowberry bushes, launched themselves from perches in pines and aspens and fluttered up from creek bottoms before we casually knocked them down.

Our hands got cold. We hadn’t prepared for the bounty by bringing a game bag, so we used our belts to sling the birds and carry them home.

It was never like that again.

Just that one Thanksgiving.

At 15, my pal Honer shot the swamp buck during Thanksgiving break. He had been imagining it since fall, when he first spied the old, gray-faced deer with the long whiskers and 17-point antlers while scouting the tamarack bog behind his grandparents’ farm.

When the swamp was frozen, he slipped off his boots in the dark and slid into the swamp on two sets of woolen socks. He perched himself in the crook of an oak and, wrapped in a down Army surplus sleeping bag from Korea, he went to sleep.

The buck woke him at daybreak, he said, and he killed it right there with a .30-40 Krag.

His elation in sliding the deer home on the ice didn’t abate at the Thanksgiving table, and not even by Christmas. When the head mount came back he put it over his bed, and probably has it still somewhere nearby, maybe hanging above the mantle, or the kids room where he has told the story at bedtime for years.

It wasn’t that long ago — well, maybe it was — that I slithered from bed on a Thanksgiving morning, dressed, had coffee, and crunched across a long stretch of creek bottoms, swales and fencerows to a canyon, where at barely light, I watched two fidgety does trot from a brush field with a buck in tow.

At several hundred yards, measuring the gusts that tumbled from a high field, I employed the Kentucky windage learned as a boy, and the adage, “hold it over the back,” before touching off one round from a .257 Roberts.

The buck leapt and crashed into the canyon like he was on fire.

I pulled him up and dragged him home, spoiling my appetite for turkey with butterflied backstrap fried tender as a hummingbird’s wing.

You won’t catch a kid afield without a cellphone anymore. And talk of a youngster alone with a gun makes most people’s knees jerk.

You don’t have to be a kid to make a memory, anyhow.

Thanksgiving memories make themselves, and it’s the best day of the year to be in the woods.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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