I’m no hunter. I wish I were mainly so I could jump in to the myriad conversations I find myself near—you know the ones where guys are firing off jargon about bucks and turkeys and treestands like, well, a well-supplied rifle. When those conversations begin, I smile, I nod, I pretend, I try, try, try to understand and be interested. But I miss the target every time—my heart isn’t in it.
I went hunting once. My step-dad had just entered our lives, and he wanted to teach some manly things, so that first winter we woke before the roosters, got all bundled up, and marched off with the provisions my mother had packed for us, off into the wilderness to kill the boy inside and return as a man.
My step-dad’s friend “Butch” was our guide that day. He had the features of a man who lived in the woods—bushy gray beard, raspy voice, and, like the guys from above, a hundred jargon-laden, grisly hunting stories. He told these tales as we bounded along in his truck, driving out through a field, through nowhere and to nowhere.
He showed me the stand I would be occupying. It was actually just a few planks of wood twelve feet up in a tree. I hadn’t been expecting the Ritz-Carlton per se, but this was just a small platform—not a single amenity! I think I had envisioned something like the island treehouse in Swiss Family Robinson. I thought there would be a few different rooms, maybe a hammock, a fireman’s pole or rope swing. But there wasn’t any of that. I climbed up wobbly rungs nailed into the tree, rifle strapped to my back.
Once at the platform, I called down and asked what I was supposed to do now and received a partial answer from Butch: “Wait. Watch. Then shoot.” Then he and my step-dad lumbered off to their tree stands. I wondered if they had saved the fancy accommodations for themselves.
I waited and watched, ready to shoot, but nothing happened. I gave it a full three or four minutes too. Then, with no other diversion, I began working through my mother’s provisions. Fruit snacks, sunflower seeds, a bagel, and a thermos full of hot chocolate. I finished it all in five minutes. So there I was, ten minutes in with nothing to do, nothing to eat, and about five hours ahead of me.
I tried to sleep then, careful to place the rifle in a way that I wouldn’t accidentally shoot myself, but it was futile. The tree stand had a slight lean, and I feared rolling right over the edge, and no good would come from that unless a deer happened to wander underneath me to break my fall. I imagined what a hero I would be if I explained to Butch that I had felled a big ole buck without so much as firing a shot, but I knew it was farfetched at best, and stupid at worst.
In the end, I climbed down from the stand, found a nearby ditch, and lay down in it. I covered myself up with leaves, so no coyotes would find me and nibble at my frigid limbs. And there in that ditch, I dreamed of hunting glory.
I am no hunter, then or now. But in thinking back on the lackluster hunting prowess I showed that day, I do recall that I at least had the look of a hunter. Were I to stride into to some lodge or the Hardees in town where many of the old men would meet for biscuits and gravy, they would take me for one of their own. I wore the all the camouflage gear—things my stepfather had given me—that they did, and I walked with the same stiffness that a morning out in the cold brings on.
In that camouflage, I could hide.
I could hide that I had never killed a living thing. I could hide that I had spent the morning snoozing in the ditch, afraid of hypothetical coyotes. I could hide from who I was, and even become someone I was not.
I’ve never done that with hunting. I’ll openly admit I’m no killer and I am far more likely to shoot off my mouth than any kind of gun.
But I’ve done it in other ways. I’ve done it every day. I’ve wrapped myself in the persona I think the world demands from me, playing the role of hero, of fool.
When Heath Ledger died, I recall media reporting that a partial cause of his rapid emotional and physical decline was that he had gotten trapped in the role he had recently played. He painted the Joker’s trademark look upon his face, but the darkness of the character had invaded his heart.
What roles am I playing and how are they affecting my own heart? My well-being? My honest pursuit at being the me I was intended to be—playing the role I was cosmically cast for? What camo do I daily don, hoping that parts of me will be unseen and creating facades in their place?
I lack the killer instinct to fell a deer. I know that. But to allow the lies that lope within me to live is to kill the me I’m made to be; it is death to the truth. Nowhere leading to nowhere.