By Tony Hooker
“You hunt deer?” she asked incredulously. “Why?”
I smiled as I pondered the question, which is one I’ve been asked dozens of times by my colleagues, both male and female, in tones ranging from genuinely curious to openly scornful, during my 30 years in higher education. You see, there aren’t a lot of rednecks running around inside the Ivy-covered walls, and for the most part I keep that side of myself on the down low.
The truth is there are myriad reasons why, but I settled for my standard answer when it comes to folks in academe…that time in the woods is an elixir that recharges my soul’s batteries.
I could have appealed to her academic side and told her that fees collected from the sale of licenses and permits has fueled conservation efforts that have led to tremendous growth in the population of deer, both in Illinois and nationwide.
I could have told her how, sitting in the predawn darkness, alone with my thoughts, I’ve been able to work my way through some dark, seemingly unnavigable places in my mind and in my life.
I could have told her how I take a sort of perverse pride in being the only guy in the woods when the wind is howling, the temperature is dropping, and the rain and snow are blowing horizontally.
I could have told her how, when I was younger and times were tough on occasion, the venison in our freezer meant the only difference between having meat for dinner or not.
I could have told her about the jolt of adrenaline that races up my spine when I see movement in the woods, be it wind blown leaves, the twitching tail of a squirrel, or every once in a while, the movement of an actual deer.
I could have told her of the sense of accomplishment I feel when, on those all too rare occasions, I am able to outsmart one of these magnificent creatures and fill my tags. In 2017-18, the latest year where I could find stats, hunters in Illinois had a success rate of just 26 percent. Almost three quarters of the tags sold went unfilled.
I could have told her how I am able to turn 100 percent of my focus onto a spot where I thought I saw movement, something I’m unable to at any other place and time, really, with my mind always racing 100 mph.
I could have told her about the camaraderie of deer camp, where the same stories from past years are retold and augmented by new ones that are written with each passing season. Where I have a sense of belonging, of fellowship that is unlike any I’ve known since my Navy days.
Or, I could have told her how deer hunting almost certainly saved my dad’s life.
The year was 1972, and Donnie B. was at the top of his game. To eight-year-old me, he was larger than life, a source of unthinkable strength and an indomitable will. In September of that year, our world changed markedly when, while installing sewer lines in Tuscola, he was buried by the collapse of the ditch in which he was working. Only through instinct did he react by leaping up as the walls of the trench collapsed, burying him up to his armpits, still alive, barely. Without going into medical details, he was severely injured and spent the better part of the next year in the hospital.
Some of my memories are a little fuzzy, I was only nine after all, but I remember in November of 1973 he was still in rough shape, weighing only about 115 pounds, but it didn’t stop his buddies, including Billy and Gene Williams and other members of deer camp, from coming and practically kidnapping him from our house where he was rehabbing. I am so grateful for those men, because after his experience in the woods, he came home and that gleam of stubborn determination, that had been missing, was back in his eye. What went on down in Johnson County that November I can’t say (what happens in deer camp, stays in deer camp) but all I know is that after he came home, he began to eat, to gain strength and to go back to being the ornery, tough dude that he is to this day.
Why do I hunt? Because being in the woods recharges my soul’s batteries, for sure, but also because it’s been an integral part of my Novembers for 45 years. For better or worse, it will always be a part of my family and who I am.